The Bad News in the Bad News

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The Bad News in the Bad News

 

by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

 

Hurricane Florence is devastating America’s east coast while super-typhoon Mangkhut lays waste to the northern Philippines.

Religious believers wonder where God is in all of this, while skeptics scoff that such calamities clearly prove the foolishness of belief in an all-good, all-powerful Being.

There’s plenty of foolish belief to go around, however. Believing that human beings can be rallied to work together to solve major problems, such as those thrown up by Florence and Mangkhut, for example.

Many people fervently believe that we need to convince the world of the reality of severe and increasing climate change. Once convinced of that inconvenient truth, the world then needs to be convinced to take one or more of several drastic steps in order to slow and even reverse it.

Massive cutbacks in the use of fossil fuels—which would almost certainly stop the economic development of most of the world’s population. Massive investment in renewable energy sources, which would hamper every other economy as well. Massive changes in the production, use, and disposal of pretty much everything, from water to garbage. And massive technologies to alter the very weather, with unforeseeable risks built in (it is the weather we would be altering, after all).

Are we surprised at the lack of buy-in to such unfathomably costly schemes?

Some people focus on smaller-scale, but still gigantic, human initiatives. If we look back a year to Hurricane Maria, how has the Caribbean fared since then?

Let’s focus on the most privileged of Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, a protectorate of the richest country on earth, the United States. And we find that America’s Chief Executive denies the extent of the catastrophe while the island remains mired in damage, depression, and despair. Remember: that’s the best-case scenario, being an actual part of the United States, and yet Puerto Rico is still a disaster zone.

Meanwhile, today on America’s Atlantic coast, multi-million dollar homes right down to trailers and shacks are being blown away or flooded by Florence. Yes, Florence is an unusual storm for this time of year, this far north. But it’s hardly unprecedented. So do we prudently decide together that no one will live in the path of such storms in homes that cannot bear their fury? We do not.

None of this should surprise us. Human nature, like the nature of all other species we study, focuses on self-interest. We care about ourselves and about those close to us—spatially or genetically. We care about today and maybe tomorrow, but we have real trouble with deferred gratification and even more resistance to paying a large price now for a bad tomorrow that will probably come, but maybe not in our lifetimes or those of the people we care about.

This self-centredness makes, one has to admit, complete sense. Why, honestly, should we care about people we don’t know—whether far away or far in the future? Why should we care about the rest of the planet? It, to be blunt, doesn’t seem to care about us.

Richard Dawkins can’t think of a good reason why we should. Nor could Friedrich Nietzsche. Nor can most major world religions and all the little tribal ones, which do not command anything like an ethic of global compassion.

No, worldwide commitment to colossal cooperative change would require a fundamental reorientation: a conversion, if you will, to a radically different viewpoint. It would require fervent belief in ideas such as the following:

  • That there is a God, much like the one in the Bible, who oversees things and is guiding them to a good end (despite drastic evidence to the contrary, such as Florence and Mangkhut). We therefore can trust this God and work toward good goals, undeterred by today’s setbacks.
  • That this God calls all human beings to work together as a global family for each other’s good, for the planet’s good, and for the good of all who will follow. We therefore have a compelling motive for genuine altruism.
  • That this God will reward everyone who participates in this global mission, and especially those who sacrifice for the sake of others—far beyond anything we deserve, and forever. We now have an even more compelling motive for genuine altruism—and complete cooperation.

Believing such things would, or should, change everything. Now there would be sufficient reason to make the hard choices, to give up today’s comforts for the sake of others across the world or deep into the future. Now we could finally all work together to do what needs doing.

Christianity has, of course, a terribly chequered history of motivating good works. Dreadful things have been done in the name of this religion. But the record also shows that no other religion or philosophy has motivated so many people over so many years to do so much for so many others across the globe. There seems to be something to it that would make the crucial difference in motivating us to do what we otherwise seem incapable of doing: the Necessary Hard Thing.

So what’s the truly foolish belief? That the Christian God exists and calls us to loving service of the world with the promise of blessing in the world to come?

Or thinking that the world will somehow come together in massive and costly cooperation to fix all the problems that face us—when we can’t even agree on, say, whether to fix Puerto Rico?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).