Is Everything in God’s Image?
I HAVE TO BEGIN with a confession. Theologizing about the environment in 2016 does feel more than a bit like the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. It is but small comfort to me that I am not a novice at this effort, suddenly discovering that we religious folk had better have something to say about the most urgent global issue of our times. I have been thinking and writing about these issues over three or four decades, and pride myself to think that I might have had a milligram or two’s weight of influence on the level of concern about them in our Jewish community. But we, like the rest of humanity, have been preoccupied with issues that seemed more pressing or immediate, allowing awareness of the impending environmental disaster to be pushed to the outer edges of our consciousness. Even those of us who know how serious and urgent the matter is sometimes find it simply too big and daunting a challenge to face. Better to concentrate on smaller and more solvable issues, like Middle East peace or the future of American democracy.
Ashamnu, bagadnu. “We are guilty, we have betrayed” the truth we know all too well, and that responsible scientists confirm regularly. By sometime in the next century, partly due to the gross irresponsibility of our generations, major human population centers along our seacoasts will be devastated by rising oceans. The extinction of species familiar to us from throughout human history will increase at a rapid pace. Societies will be ravaged by wars over the basic resources of survival, including food and water.
We stand now at a crossroad of prevention and adjustment. We are too late to avoid catastrophe altogether, but large-scale changes in human attitude and behavior can do something to postpone and mitigate its impact. Meanwhile, there is much we need to do in order to prepare our descendants for the changes that will come upon us. We must help them to find within our legacy of civilization the moral strength to cope with life in an era of far less comfort and complacency than anything we denizens of the first world ever would have imagined to be our children’s lot.
Both of these tasks have everything to do with religion, a far greater force in human affairs than anyone would have dreamed would be the case half a century ago. At the core of our problem stand the mythic structures that underlie the way we understand our existence on this planet. What does it mean to be a human being, living for this instant of evolutionary time, passing on our genes (cultural as well as biological), and then fading into memory? What is our role on this planet, this surprisingly verdant splinter of rock spinning its way through space for so much longer than we have existed on its surface? Clearly we have evolved from species that came before us; we bear memory of that evolution within our DNA. Of course we are a part of the natural world and subject to its ways. But does human awareness of the broad sweep of planetary history, increased tremendously in the course of recent centuries, make us somehow different than all other creatures? Is there a human responsibility that comes out of a sense of human uniqueness, or only a license for rampant destruction? Does awareness, including awareness of our own destructive powers, lead us to, even demand of us, a sense of responsible stewardship over the natural order? Or is stewardship itself an outdated concept, betokening a kind of biospheric colonialism that belongs to another age? Where, then, do we stand?
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Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 1: 58-61