Saturday, April 18, 2009

Global Warming vs. Hellfire

I don't really believe in "global warming," actually. The whole apocalyptic ice-caps-melting-which-will-cause-the-end-of-the-world thing. Mostly, this is due to the science curriculum I had in high school which convincingly enough at the time argued that the environmental changes being touted as proof didn't actually exceed normal fluctuations over the history of Earth. I haven't really looked into the science of it since then, who knows, things may have changed. I'm only mildly unpersuaded. I haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth yet, after all.

But here's why it doesn't really matter to me, and why, in fact, I'm actually pretty happy that the danger of global warming is becoming a matter of pressing international attention. Whether or not humanity is specifically destined for a Day After Tomorrow-like climate meltdown, or more of a Wall-E fate of Earth's natural resources being used up and spit out 'til there's nothing left to take, I am convinced that humanity's treatment of our planet over the past few generations is both unsustainable and morally wrong, and that we all need to change our behavior.

What global warming crusaders have done is created a crisis. They have alarmed the public by presenting a graphic, tangible doomsday toward which we appear to be careening at full speed. Without that, all my or anyone else's moral exhortations and vague doomy warnings could do little to get the majority of lazy, selfish humanity, to take notice, get off their butt, and begin to treat the earth the way we should have from the beginning. I've concluded that to be persuaded to do anything, humans in general need a message that is simple, urgent, and personally relevant. I can almost imagine a collection of activists and scientists gathered in some back room saying "if they need an apocalypse, we'll give 'em an apocalypse!" Hey, if we can judge by 2008/2009's rise in environmental concern in media, movies, business, politics, and the small but significant changes everyday Americans are starting to make, it seems to be working. I am almost disgusted at my pragmatism on this.

This attitude has been developing in my head for about a year now, but today, I was startled by the sudden illumination of an unexpected link to an issue that is much closer to me. That is, the subject of Christian evangelism. I am compelled to explore this connection, to "write through" the implications of this, here on this blog. How far do the similarities run? What makes the issues different?

Like many of my generation, I've had no sympathy and little respect for the so-called "hellfire and brimstone" preachers. I'm speaking of anyone who tries to convert people to Christianity out of the fear of Hell. People are driven to serve what they see as a God of punishment and hate because the alternative is far worse. At worst, this leads to an utterly false impression of God and at best, a wholly inadequate understanding of the reason we exist and why God created the universe in the first place. There is certainly no peace and happiness in such servitude.

You could call mine a theology of love. I don't trust myself to lay it out comprehensively (I'm no theologian), but I'll try to explain quickly, so you can see why I get so frustrated with the fire and brimstone types. It starts with why God made Everything. It's very simple. He was lonely. He created Man, and our astoundingly beautiful habitat, so that He could enjoy us and we could enjoy Him. God and Man - friends and lovers. As the Presbyterian Catechism so aptly puts it:

"What is the chief end of Man?"
"To glorify God and enjoy Him forever."

Why did God make Adam first, instead of making male and female right from the start? So he could set him there, with access to every good and beautiful thing he could conceive of, and say, "It is not good for Man to be alone" and then create the solution. It's a picture of God's own heart's desire: a companion, a counterpart, a wife.

Fast forward a few millennia. We Christians have to remember this original intention as we get entangled in the whole sin/salvation drama. Getting freed from the bondage of sin and death, from the threat of Hell if you will, is not the end of the story. People aren't saved just so they can walk around saying "yay, I'm saved, I'm not going to Hell." That's the beginning, the doorway into God's beautiful intention for us. Jesus didn't just die to cleanse us of our sins, he died to become "a life giving Spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:45) - allowing God and Man to be intimately joined in a way that was not before possible. Our end is better than righteousness - it is divine and holy bliss inseparably united with the one true God!

I'm not a preacher. My personal philosophy of evangelism boils down to "walking the walk." I've never "presented the gospel" to anyone, not in the way the evangelists talk about. Maybe I have been too quiet. I don't know. Most of what I've grown up hearing about is those who say too much and do too little. However, it would be stupid of me to claim to know what's the best way to share the gospel in every case. I really can't even cross out the fire and brimstone method. After all, look what Paul said:

"But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice." Philippians 1:18

And the guys he was talking about didn't even have good intentions. Maybe even as bad as those who turn Christianity into some sort of pyramid scheme: "be converted so you can convert others!"

Anyway, I didn't really start blogging to lay out my thoughts on global warming or on evangelism. This is the tricky part. What was that link between them that just flashed at me like a minnow in a creek?

I guess it's like this. Global warming alarmists have presented humanity's sustainable living predicament in terms of a "change or eminent punishment is certain" proposition. Fire and brimstone preachers reduce salvation to an "accept God or hellfire is your certain end" proposition. You can throw the Christian "apocalypticists" (?) in there too. (You know, "Repent for Doomsday will arrive in September, 2012!") They all have that simplicity, urgency, and personal relevance that I've already admitted is a surefire way to get people to act. That was the initial similarity that startled me.

I've been so harsh on the brimstoners for neglecting the bigger picture, and yet sort of complacently condone the people who spread what I deem a falsehood because it has resulted in positive action. Does that mean I believe the end justify the means, even if there's untruth involved? Does that mean I should rejoice when the gospel is spread even mixed with deceit or gimmicks to make it more attractive or compelling? Think of everything that could stem out of that. "Follow God and He will bless you with MONEEEY!" "Become a Christian today, and you'll receive this shiny new toaster!" How appalling! (And yet I can't get Paul's words out of my mind...)

On the other hand, the realization gave me a little more insight into, not sympathy with but perhaps understanding of, those religious leaders and movements who focus on the dark things (Right now I'm reminded of all those graphic Renaissance frescoes I saw in Europe, of tortured souls in Hell). They wanted to break through to complacent congregations. Maybe describing the rewards of life and eternity with God didn't/wouldn't have had much effect. It's frustratingly true that people, when presented with a marvelously good thing, often say "oh that's nice" and get back on with their lives. In this light, especially if you measure your success by the number of butts in pews, I can begin to see how you might be tempted to try scaring them into Heaven by showing them Hell.

Only God can judge.

Here's a key difference though. As far as good environmental stewardship goes, that's a behavioral change. We measure success in terms of action and its consequences. Get the oil companies to change their disposal policy, resulting in less toxic spills. Get people to cut down on packaging and paper use, resulting in smaller landfills. So perhaps one motivation is just as good as another. I don't really care whether Joe turns his lights off when he leaves the room because he fears his children will see the apocalypse, he believes it's his responsibility as a steward of the Earth, or he just wants to save a few bucks on his electric bill. The light got turned off, right?

Christianity isn't behavioral like that. God doesn't want our actions, He wants our hearts. Of course true love manifests itself in action, but God has no use for a bunch of servants who do what He asks but don't feel anything for Him but fear. He already created servants in the angels, He's looking for something much more in us. Companion, remember? Counterpart.

One more thing about love. It goes hand-in-hand with truth. If you love somebody because of all these endearing characteristics, and then you find out that all those things were lies, did you really love that person? You only thought you did. You may be able to love them once you know the truth, but I don't believe real and perfect love can exist except in the face of the truth. (It follows: God is the only person who can love us really and fully, because He is the only person who can know us completely.) In turn, I don't think God could be happy with people loving Him with false notions of who He is. He doesn't want "Christians" at the expense of compromising or hiding His identity. It must sadden Him to see people following Him in ignorance and for the wrong reasons - I'm sure He'd rather they could see and love His true Self.

As far as global warming goes, if I were convinced it were a lie it might be different. I'm not really sure, and I believe the scientists and activists believe what they're saying at any rate. Good. No moral dilemma there.

I wonder if my attitude about these things will change. It likely will; at the very least be tweaked. It will be sort of fun to go back and read this and disagree with myself, and then tell my old self how I learned better.

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