I revered my maternal grandfather. He was one of the kindest, wisest people I’ve ever met. One spring day when I was about seven or eight, we were driving through central Florida and passed a field full of oil pumpjacks bobbing up and down. I asked Grandpa what they were and he told me about oil and how it was used to make the gasoline that fueled the car we were riding in. “What happens when we pump all the oil out?” I asked. “That will never happen,” he said. “There’s an endless supply down there. God put it there for us to use.”
As I said, I revered my grandfather, but I wasn’t satisfied with his answer. I pressed further, explaining that since the earth was a sphere, it could only hold so much oil, so it would eventually run out. A devout man, he replied, “I’m sure Christ will return before then.”
Even at that young age, I felt that I lived in a different world than my beloved grandfather. He never left North America, and I don’t think he was ever west of the Mississippi. For him, the world was vast beyond all imagination. But to me, it was smaller, a spherical ball, imaged in the globe I had on my dresser in my bedroom. Preachers told my grandfather that the Bible should be read literally, and that when Christ would return, the “elements would be consumed with fervent heat” and the universe would be destroyed by fire. He believed them, and so he lived in a world of relatively short time spans, stretching about 7,000 years from creation to destruction (or from Genesis to Revelation).
Even as a boy, largely because of my boyhood interest in dinosaurs and other fossils, I understood the universe to be millions of years old (I probably hadn’t encountered the word billions yet), and it didn’t make sense to me that God would destroy something so vast and magnificent just because God was still mad at Adam and Eve for eating an apple.
In the religious vision of so many of my grandfather’s generation — and of people still alive today, just as our bodies were little more than containers for our soul, the earth itself was of little value, except as a container for things like oil that we humans needed for a while, and for which we should be grateful.
In this view of the universe, in order to be faithful to God, one must be suspicious of science. But I loved science from boyhood, and if God made the world, I couldn’t see what was so wrong with studying it and taking it seriously.
Although I disagreed with him on this one matter, I admired him in a thousand other ways. He could fix anything, build anything, and tell great jokes. He was friendly to everyone and believed in being no one’s enemy. He loved people of other races and saw them as equals long before that was the norm for white working class people.
And by not requiring me to agree with him about everything, he gave me a gift: from a young age he helped me get comfortable with being able to love and admire someone even if I saw things differently.
I considered Grandpa’s views on science to be quaint, and although outdated, they were innocent, understandable for a man born in 1893. But as I grew older, I began to see how his beliefs easily played into a larger view of the world that was anything but innocent. The same distrust of science that led him to doubt evolution leads people today to doubt pandemics, discredit LGBTQ orientation, doubt “mainstream media,” and believe any number of bizarre conspiracy theories that support authoritarian and racist movements.
As dangerous as these matters are, one other denial stands out as an existential threat: climate change. If people deny a pandemic because it threatens to inconvenience them for a year or two, how will they grapple with climate change, which will require a radical re-engineering of our economy and, ultimately, our civilization?
What we believe and what we doubt are not simply intellectual matters. As I’ve explored elsewhere, we are all vulnerable to biases. Biases force us to acknowledge that we aren’t as rational and logical as we think we are. In a recent ebook, I identified thirteen distinct types of bias, and to overcome our bias against complexity, I tried to make them more memorable by naming them with alliteration: confirmation, complexity, community, contact, competence, comfort/convenience, conspiracy, complementarity, confidence, consciousness, conservative/liberal, catastrophe, and cash biases constantly tempt us to choose familiar, simple, socially acceptable, comforting, and profitable lies over truths that disturb us, unsettle us, or otherwise cost us something.
Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, our biases wire us against facing it squarely. So our poor track record as humans in choosing what to doubt and what to believe suddenly becomes, not simply a matter of opinion, but rather, a matter of survival.
For those of us who live and labor at the intersection of science, thirst for truth, and reason on the one hand and faith, spirituality, and theology on the other, this moment adds urgency to our work. In an unprecedented way, we need to help people discern what to doubt and what to believe so we can face climate change — along with our growing list of other looming threats, some economic, some political, some social.
To slow, stop, and reverse climate change, we will have to doubt many orthodoxies. Religious orthodoxies like the ones my beloved grandfather believed create one set of obstacles. Economic orthodoxies are often even more deeply rooted than religious ones: an economist friend once said to me, “You think religious people can be fundamentalists; wait until you deal with economists!” Certain political orthodoxies will also need to be doubted.
Just as our current civilization runs on fossil fuels, our religious, economic, and political lives are fueled by ancient energies. And some of those energies are dirty. They toxify our lives as individuals, communities, and a species; they lead us to harm ourselves and one another — along with the earth; they put a blindfold over our eyes to keep us from seeing truths that must be faced.
Let me mention just four deep-seated religious beliefs that, I believe, need to be examined, doubted, and replaced at this juncture. To avoid reinforcing them inadvertently, I’ll phrase them as questions:
- Is ultimate reality changeless? This belief is drawn more from certain streams of Greek philosophy than the Bible, but it was baked into most Christian theology in the early centuries, and then reinforced more recently by Sir Isaac Newton. (Things would be at rest, many assumed, if some outside mover hadn’t put them into motion.) Assumptions like these put God at odds with every single observation we make in the universe. The universe is in constant motion, from the subatomic to the cosmic level. At all levels we observe constant change. But many of us were taught that God is unchanging, and, in fact, is against change, since, for a perfect being, change implies decay from perfection. Now in some sense, there is truth to this belief. For example, if God is good, loving, and faithful, we can trust that goodness, love, and fidelity not to deteriorate. But if the idea of God’s unchangeableness (or immutability) leads us to believe that God is inherently conservative and therefore against innovation and always prefers things to be done the good old way, for us to make the changes we so desperately need, we will have to work against God. Who wants to do that, especially if you hold the following three beliefs as well?
- Is God in control? Again, if all we mean by this statement is that God will not be defeated in the end, no harm and no foul. But many Christians today are closet Calvinists and don’t even know it; they believe that God dominates the universe and makes every single thing happen, that God sits outside and over the universe like a chess player, deciding which pieces to move and when. This widely and deeply held doctrine can seem comforting until one’s life falls apart and God seems to be a cosmic torturer. And it can lead people to dangerous apathy: “God is in control” becomes a cliche to cover an ugly truth: “I don’t take any responsibility for the mess we’re in,” or worse, “So what if we destroy the earth? Isn’t that God’s will — for it to burn up, so we can go to heaven?”
- Is the point of this life the next life? Again, there can be great value in believing that death is not the end, but when this life is treated like a disposable candy wrapper, and the only candy that matters is human souls, then belief in the afterlife easily excuses exploitation and carelessness about this earth. To put it bluntly, since God is going to destroy the world in the end, we might as well return it empty. Drill, baby, drill! Wouldn’t it be wiser to believe that the point of believing in an afterlife is to motivate us to live wisely and well in this life?
- Does the church know what to do? Sadly, many of our church leaders were formed in the same world my grandfather was. As lovely and wonderful as these old men (as they almost always are) might be, many of them simply can’t see what the rest of us see. Not only that, but many of their top donors don’t want them to see the trouble we’re in, because “cash bias” blinds them to anything that might interfere with their bottom line. Many of our church leaders are painted into a corner by their own theology and by economic realities created by what Dorothy Day called “the dirty rotten system” — of letting donors make the rules.
With these four beliefs so widely and deeply held — and we could mention many more — I understand why many people want to be done with religion for good. But what these people don’t seem to understand is that the problem isn’t simply a religious problem. It’s a human problem. Versions of these beliefs and biases exist in economic and political systems too, not to mention in education, medicine, and other disciplines. If we can address the religious roots of these problems, and if we can help a critical mass of people to embrace a new vision of God, the universe, and faith, religion can be one of the most important areas of struggle and growth that will bring benefit to everyone, religious and nonreligious alike.
How can we get from here to there? Rather than focusing solely on changing specific beliefs (as important as that work is), I believe we can help people change their very understanding of what faith, spirituality, and theology are about. Rather than getting people to a destination of right beliefs handed down by authority figures, we can help people understand faith as a process of human growth and development that helps us survive and thrive, re-examining our beliefs when reality requires so that we can remain faithful to truth.
Over the years, I’ve been studying a number of theorists of human development, both religious and secular, and I’ve found this simple four-stage synthesis to be helpful.
We begin in Simplicity. We believe what authority figures tell us. We divide the world into binaries: us/them, good/evil, familiar/strange, right/wrong, safe/dangerous. Many people spend their whole lives in this stage, and, in fact, their religious leaders often imply that to leave this stage would be a sin.
Yet many of us move beyond Simplicity with its dualism and authoritarian tendencies. We enter into Complexity where we want to think for ourselves and learn all we can. We trade our dualistic authority figures for pragmatic coaches who help us master information and learn the skills we need to survive and thrive. Again, many of us stay here for the rest of our lives.
Some, because of (as my colleague and friend Richard Rohr says) “great pain or great love” (along with a great education and cross-cultural travel), move out of Complexity into Perplexity. They become suspicious of all belief systems rooted in Simplicity and all success schemes rooted in Complexity. They are driven by a desire for honesty, authenticity, and justice to unmask everything fraudulent and unjust. Many stay here for the rest of their lives, often sinking in cynicism and disillusionment, thinking that they have reached the end of what’s possible.
More and more people eventually become cynical about their cynicism, skeptical of their skepticism, and disillusioned with their disillusionment. They discover a new territory beyond Perplexity that I call Harmony. Having mastered the skills and faced the limitations of dualism, pragmatism, and relativism, they are increasingly animated by holism, a desire to see things whole, interrelated and integrated.
If we are to avoid being completely defeated by climate change, we will have to imagine retooling or replacing many of our industries. Fossil fuel companies digging coal and drilling for oil and natural gas will have to shrink to insolvency or else reinvent themselves as energy companies, using the profits they have amassed through dirty energy to become leaders in battery technology and solar, wind, wave, and geothermal energy production. The transportation industry will have to go through major shifts, involving (it now appears) electric vehicles, self-driving and shared vehicles, and mass transportation rather than individually-owned vehicles with internal combustion engines. The housing industry will also have to make major adjustments, increasing efficiency and sequestering carbon in our built environments. To facilitate all these changes before it’s too late, we will need corresponding changes in politics, banking, and education.
To achieve these far-reaching and radical changes toward an ecological civilization, we will need a radical change of values, and that’s where religion must wake up — fast — and become a first-responder to our international emergency. Of course, just as we can expect Sinopec, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and Exxon to deny, drag their feet, and cling to their obscenely profitable status quo, we can expect large sectors of institutional religion to refuse to face the facts and abdicate leadership into the fourth-stage perspective we need.
That’s why organizations like the Center for Christogenesis are so important. An “emerging wholeness of God, world, and humanity through the transformative power of love” is not simply a new idea we can fit into our old, small frameworks of Simplicity, Complexity, or even Perplexity. It is a whole new way of seeing that challenges the old, small assumptions shared by both our religious institutions and our scientific age at large.
My grandfather was wrong that day as we drove across Florida and saw the pumpjacks bowing and rising like birds pecking seed. The supply of oil was not endless. And I was wrong to think that the problem was that oil would run out. The truth was, the abundance of fossil fuels would destroy us long before their scarcity would inconvenience us. Burning fossil fuels would pump carbon into the atmosphere, which would raise temperatures, which would destabilize the global climate, which would raise sea levels, which together would create millions of climate refugees, agricultural upheaval, and economic and political disruption and failure, leading to unprecedented violence and war, including the catastrophic deployment of weapons of mass destruction.
If more and more of us can enter, embrace, and embody this new framework that I call Harmony and that Sr. Ilia Delio, Ewert Cousins, and others have called a second axial age, if more and more of us can see this “emerging wholeness,” and learn to trust the transformative power of love, then we can indeed “make religion the most exciting energy of the 21st century.” We can phase out dirty fossil fuels — both physical and spiritual — and embrace the most powerful, clean, and transformative power of all, the creative power of love. To reach that deeper, wider, more transformative faith, we will have to doubt some of our cherished certainties. What we lose will be nothing compared to what we gain.