How will organized religion respond if climate change creates worldwide mayhem?
This question came up as the result of commentary Sunday on recent natural disasters–mudslides, tornadoes, and floods. Alan Lightman, a physicist who teaches humanities at MIT, posted a warning in The New York Times: “Mother Earth doesn’t care about you at all. So save yourselves.”
He described nature as a free agent, a mindless free agent, and our connection with it as totally one-sided. “There is no reciprocity,” he said. “There is no mind on the other side of the wall.” And though we may take steps to mitigate global warming, he added, we are not to imagine ourselves protecting Mother Earth. She will survive and doesn’t care one whit whether we do or not.
Not once did Lightman mention God, and those who are religious may have protested inwardly. Isn’t it through our relationship with God, through prayer, rituals, offerings, and proper conduct that we may negotiate protection from mindless nature?
Well, I certainly don’t know, but it will be interesting to see how the leaders of organized religion prepare followers to deal with mayhem. If Lightman is correct, then no religion is likely to create a safety zone, and that discovery could be spiritually devastating. However, it has happened before.
We assume that civilization has always been warlike; however, on the island of Crete in the Aegean, there may have been a very different reality about four thousand thousand years ago. I am thinking of the Minoan civilization. The name came from Minos, the king of Crete as described in Greek myth. However, the Crete I am referring to existed long before the Greek myth was created, and it seems to have been a peaceful, advanced, matriarchal society.
I learned about it in a book titled In Search of the Lost Feminine by Santa Fe author Craig Barnes. His purpose was to try to understand what had caused the disappearance of ancient cultures that seem to have been dominated by feminine values.
The Minoan civilization on Crete was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century. Archaeological studies are ongoing, and important new artifacts have been excavated in just the last few decades. Barnes marvels at the beauty of the pottery decorated with birds, flowers, dolphins, serpents, and monkeys.
There are frescoes depicting bull-dancing, which both men and women did, and festivals celebrating harvest and nature at which women officiated. There may have been male gods, but images of female deities vastly outnumber them. There is no art depicting battles, and the women seem to have enjoyed extraordinary freedom in their elaborate gowns that bared bosoms.
Barnes assumes that their spirituality was nature-based and may have included ecstatic, sexual rituals. The art suggests a happy people, and excavations reveal dwellings that indicate social as well as sexual equality. Then something terrible happened.
The Minoan civilization flourished until about 1500 BC when an enormous volcano erupted on the nearby island of Santorini. It is difficult to pinpoint the size of the volcano, but it is estimated at between four and nine times the size of Krakatoa, and it sent a powerful tidal wave across the sea that engulfed Crete.
Assuming that the spirituality of the Cretans was based on a close and reverential connection with nature, the devastation probably also destroyed their cosmology. Barnes believes that the explosion led to a crisis of faith, “to an inability . . . to explain the vicious, brutal, and unearned destruction that rose up out of the earth itself.”
Invading Mycenaeans soon took advantage of the vulnerability, establishing a warlike patriarchy and the flawed god Zeus, who forced himself on the remaining goddesses. Women were confined and forced to cover themselves, and images of war became a favorite of art.
So in this case, Mother Earth devastated a very advanced culture, and although it was probably inevitable that the Indo-Europeans with their swords and horses would conquer the region, this development was certainly accelerated by the eruption of the volcano on Santorini. It seems to prove Lightman’s point that there is no reciprocity in our own imagined connection with nature.
Therefore, assuming that we may be in for more devastation from climate change, how will spiritual leaders prepare and comfort us? Will they take refuge in scapegoats? How about blaming free-wheeling women, a rival religion, or a country rife with greed and corruption? It will be interesting to see, and new myths will undoubtedly be created to explain whatever happens.
Lightman (maybe his name is symbolic) doesn’t address this, however. He is a scientist, and his final words are consummately practical: “Our concern should be about protecting ourselves–because we have only ourselves to protect us.” On the other hand, perhaps it is not that simple. After all, one could say that there are many among us with God-given talents in science and engineering, and they are undoubtedly eager to help.