BONUS BLOG POST: Climate Change, Science and Progressive Christian Snobbery
- June 13th, 2019
Do you know the hardest thing about preaching –or, to be more precise, the hardest thing about writing a sermon?
Discipline. The discipline to recognize that something you REALLY want to say does not, in fact, belong in the sermon.
But do you know the best thing about having a blog? It gives me a place to share some sermon fragments from the cutting room floor.
This weekend I will preach at all three of Plymouth’s worship services (Saturday Night at 5:30, Sunday at 9 and 11) to kick off our new series: Rooted in Creation. I will be preaching on Genesis 1 and the idea of humans having “dominion” over the earth.
The sermon is written and I feel pretty good about it. But I have been pondering something that did not quite make it into the sermon.
Indulge me in a little autobiography for a moment: I came to Plymouth Church at the end of August 2005 to serve as an Associate Minister. And for the first five months, I did not really feel like I was connecting with my new congregation. A lot of people did not my name; many of the ones who did know my name thought I was too loud. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a minute or two to listen to one of my favorite stories).
In early 2006, I got involved in something called The Clergy Letter Project. Initially, it was an effort to recruit clergy of many different faiths to sign a letter asserting the compatibility of science and religion. I was happy to sign it. But then they started promoting something called Evolution Sunday. As it so happened, Sunday February 12 2006 was Charles Darwin’s 197th birthday. Why not take the opportunity to preach on the compatibility of science and religion?
So I did. And it felt like, for the first time, I really broke through to the congregation.
In hindsight, I can see why it worked. I am passionate about the topic. The compatibility of faith and science—more specifically, of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Christian faith—is the issue that first set me in conflict with the fundamentalist church that raised me. And in college I had the privilege of serving as a teaching assistant for a Templeton course on Science and Theology. (We read books like this).
So, I preached about it. And I dealt a lot with so-called “Intelligent Design,” which was much in the news in those days. (You may remember the Dover School Board case). I also led some adult education forums after both of the Sunday services.
And it was a big hit! People at Plymouth really cherish the idea that progressive Christian faith means making an effort to integrate our religious beliefs with other forms of truth. On our website, in a section intended for first-time visitors, I explain some of what we mean by “progressive theology.” And my explanation includes this bullet point:
“We don’t check our brains at the door. God speaks to us in many ways–not only in Scripture and Christian tradition, but also through science, history and human reason. All truth is God’s truth, and so we embrace the truth wherever we can find it.”
WE are the people who pay attention to history and to science. And we are very proud of that fact. (Just ask us!)
At least for some of us, our reverence for science seems to stop at the issue of global climate change.
Remember: the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the earth is warming and we are responsible. (Don’t take my word for it; ask NASA). But for some reason, this is the point at which a lot of mainline Protestants suddenly stop listening to science.
Consider the Pew Research Center’s findings on Religion and Views on Climate Change.
Now, of course, I do not have comparable research for Plymouth. But for people like Plymouth (that’s “white mainline Protestants” in the Pew survey), the results seem pretty clear. African-American Protestants, and all kinds of Protestants and non-religious people are more persuaded by the science than, well, we are. (Also: weekly worship attendance correlates with lower support for the scientific consensus).
This does seem congruent with my (admittedly anecdotal) experience that a non-trivial number of Plymouth people are climate change skeptics.
So I wonder: are we the people who take science seriously or aren’t we?
Actually, I don’t so much wonder as I worry. I worry that Plymouth’s warm response to my pro-science preaching was less about science and more about snobbery.
Because, of course, my story of growing up in fundamentalism and eventually leaving it for a tradition that values science and history allows—maybe even invites?—my congregation to feel superior to the fundamentalists who raised me. WE are the sophisticated ones; THEY are rednecks and rubes. God knows I have been guilty of telling my story in a tone of ridicule and God knows I have won a lot of accolades for doing so.
So, to my fellow progressive Christians, let me say this: global climate change calls our very identity into question. Are we really pro-science? Or are we only pro-science when it offers us opportunities to flatter ourselves at the expense of our fundamentalist neighbors?
Is progressive Christianity an intellectually coherent identity or just an exercise in bigotry?
We can protest all we want, but our actions will surely speak louder than our words. I think our response to the science on global warming will be our most honest answer to that question.