The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth,
and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.
And the Lord was sorry for having made humankind on the earth,
and it grieved God's heart.
So the Lord said, "I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created -
people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air,
for I am sorry that I have made them."
But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.
As the COP26 United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow kicked off on Sunday, participants were warned that "the lights are flashing red on the climate change dashboard." A recent UN report stated that our planet is on a global warming path that could be catastrophic. It is swiftly moving toward a global warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, rather than the 1.5 degrees that has been deemed an essential target to stave off the worst consequences of climate change. Instead of global carbon emissions being reduced by 45% by 2030 as needed, current trends indicate they will increase by 16%. We are seeing the effects with intensifying hurricanes, flooding, wild fires, droughts, and heat waves.
As I learn of all that we are losing to the climate crisis and what is projected to lie ahead, the ancient biblical story of Noah and the flood haunts me. Although there are many children's books that tell it and nurseries are decorated with Noah's ark and its cute animals, I find this narrative deeply disturbing. Yes, Noah's family and two of each kind of creature were saved, but all the rest of humanity and creaturely life were lost. So much death and destruction. So much lost. The parallels with what we are facing seem unnerving.
But would God really let us destroy the delicate balance of nature such that we cause our whole earth to be uninhabitable for humanity and most other earth creatures? Would God really let us destroy ourselves so that all the fine achievements of culture and civilization are lost? With so many species already extinct, and the intensity of destructive disasters already happening throughout the world, is there reason to think otherwise? This story of God's deep regret at creating humanity and seeming willingness that all living creatures be wiped out is not reassuring on an initial reading.
Young people are being greatly affected by the climate crisis. In a recent study of 16 - 25 year olds in 10 countries, nearly 60% said they were very or extremely worried about climate change, 77% said they considered the future to be frightening, and 56% agreed that humanity was doomed. A 2021 Pew Research report found that 76% of Gen Z respondents said that climate change was one of their biggest societal concerns, and 37% said it was their number one concern. Many are choosing careers that address sustainability issues, feeling like, to quote one, "there's no point in pursuing a career - or life for that matter - in any other area."
With Noah's flood haunting my thoughts, I decided one day to look at it more closely. Genesis, of course, is a book that offers stories of beginnings, theological narratives of why things are as they are. God's wondrous creative power in forming the earth and its abundance of life is celebrated in the poetic narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. God is clearly delighted with what has been created, declaring it all very good. Earth was wildly beautiful and balanced, a home for all earth creatures. And into this paradise garden, God placed humanity to care for it.
But quickly the desire to live beyond the limits set for them led to their fall into sin, and soon violence between brothers entered the world. By Genesis 6, humanity's wickedness had so filled the earth with violence and corruption that God regretted creating human beings. "And the Lord was sorry for having made humankind on the earth, and it grieved God's heart" (Gen. 6:6). God was deeply anguished and disturbed by what humanity had done.
Does not then this story convey to us that the violent destruction of the wondrous balance of created life and the suffering of the earth and all its creatures causes God great grief and suffering? We grieve for what is being lost, and God grieves too.
Although seemingly willing to give it all up, God then noticed Noah. Noah was the one man who was in right relationship with God, who was attentive to God's messages, and whose heart was inclined to heed them. The story tells us that God warned him of what was coming and told him to build an ark, put inside his family and each kind of animal and bird, and Noah obeyed. And thus, this remnant was saved from the flood that covered the known earth, and when it was over they again multiplied and filled it.
According to this narrative, Noah's attentiveness to God's warning of what was to come and his determination to do what seemed impossible but needed to be done was the means by which humanity and other earth creatures were saved. Through the climate scientists of our day, we are receiving ample warnings and instructions about what we must do. But will we listen to them and nature's groaning as messages from God? And will we respond as Noah did, embracing the overwhelming task of transitioning our energy use, economy, and how we live to build a new way of life that brings renewal and is sustainable into the distant future?
The character of God in this narrative is portrayed in God's grief over the consequences of humanity's violence, in God's eagerness to avoid the total destruction of creation, and in God's reaching out for willing human partnership as a means of saving a remnant of earth's creatures.
I've been thinking about what this means for me and for us as people of faith. At this point, much more is needed than individual actions, such as getting solar panels, or driving an electric vehicle, as important as these are. Massive societal changes are needed. Dr. Robert Davies, Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at Utah State University, has said that the problem is not a technological one. We have the technology we need. Rather, what is needed is a massive cultural shift that produces the political will to transform our society so that we no longer use fossil fuels with their carbon emissions, but rather live in a more modest and sustainable way.*
If the greatest need for addressing this crisis and thereby mitigate unimaginable suffering is a cultural shift, should not pastors and religious leaders be an essential part of that? Should not they and their congregations be at the forefront of this social movement to care for the earth? I keep thinking about those worried young people whose number one issue is the climate crisis. If Christian communities became actively engaged in addressing this existential climate threat, would they again be viewed as relevant?
Not all of these young people have the capabilities to become climate scientists or energy engineers. Could we as a seminary be part of the solution by providing young people wanting to make a difference in the climate crisis with education that equips them to provide the spiritual and religious leadership that is needed? As a seminary, we do talk about environmental justice in our curriculum threads, but I wonder if we should be doing more to prepare our students for such leadership. What might our alumni need from us in order to quickly be a part of the mass mobilization that is required? The next 5-10 years are crucial.
I invite us to consider and to wonder what else we should be doing together, but to do so aware of divine assistance, for in the words of Old Testament professor Terence Fretheim, this story portrays "a God who wills to save... and who promises to stand by creation."** To that I say, thanks be to God!
"This is like the days of Noah to me:
Just as I swore that the waters of Noah
would never again go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you
and will not rebuke you.
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you."
Isaiah 54:9-10 (NRSV)
November 1, 2021
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Dianne C. Shumaker Chair for Peace and Justice
* Webinar: “Stewardship of the Earth in a Time of Crisis” (Sept. 14, 2021).
**New Interpreter's Bible Commentary on Genesis, p. 395.