Seared and Bleared, Smudged and Smelly

October 16, 2018

It was what turned out to be my last literature class after 45 years of teaching literature. We had read nature poems by Mary Oliver, Richard Wilbur, William Wordsworth, and Gerard Manly Hopkins; and on this last day of the semester, we were reading Hopkins’ sonnet “God’s Grandeur” with its powerful description of the depredation humans have wrought upon Earth:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

These words reveal as bleak and dismal a description of the natural world as one can imagine. Later in the poem, this view is tempered by Hopkins’ conclusion that because of the presence of the Holy Ghost, “Nature is never spent” (9). But I wanted to focus first on Hopkin’s description of the damage humans have done to the creation, so I asked the students what this quatrain suggested to them.

They noticed that he blames business (trade) for some of the abuse; that human work or labor can smudge the land; that the repeated “have trod” and the description of “bare” soil tells us that in certain places growth is no longer possible; that human activity tends to stink up an area; and that humans are out of touch with nature.

We began to talk of the human activities that damage the earth today: poor farming practices, clear-cut logging, mountain top mining, multiple kinds of water pollution. Then I mentioned the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels that produces carbon dioxide which is the primary cause of global warming/climate change. Suddenly the room grew quiet. Knowing that climate change was a somewhat controversial topic, I asked how many of them believed it was occurring and was partially caused by human activity. Of the thirty-three sitting there, two raised their hands.

I asked the rest of them why they did not believe that human activity was causing climate change. Most of them tried to disappear into their desks. Obviously, they did not know much about it but had, at the very least, heard the idea of global warming ridiculed on sub-zero January days. They did not want to answer. But one hand slowly went up.

One of my best students said he had been taught in his Christian high school that Christians did not believe human-caused global warming was occurring. He could not remember exactly why but he remembered that his preacher had also spoken against it.

This idea was something new to me. Another student said something similar, and other heads nodded. Apparently, some people thought of climate change as a liberal plot of some kind. I had been beating the drum for climate change awareness for many years in my writing and literature courses, and there had always been a significant number of students who did not agree with me. But no one until now had told me that to join the effort to reduce CO2 emissions was not Christian. When I pressed them, I sensed a broader fear, a sort of mistrust of science. Naturally, college presents students with new (and thought-provoking) ideas; and at Dordt, these ideas claim the Calvinist tradition as part of its heritage. John Calvin can become downright ecstatic about the marvels of scientific study. Here is just one quote from Calvin on science:

In disquisitions concerning the motions of the stars, in fixing their situations, measuring their distances, and distinguishing their peculiar properties, there is need of skill, exactness, and industry, and the providence of God being more clearly revealed by these discoveries, the mind ought to rise to a sublime elevation for the contemplation of his glory1

Can the providence of God be more clearly revealed by scientific study of climate? I think it can. But according to the Pew Research Center, only 25 percent of white evangelicals accept the scientific evidence that human-caused climate change is occurring.2 Other researchers say the number may be 40 percent. However, most evangelicals oppose the very idea of climate change and are trying to inoculate their children so that they do not catch the “climate concern” disease.

My purpose in this essay is not to show that the biosphere is getting warmer and that we should all join in the efforts to slow this warming down—although I believe that both of those statements are true. Rather, I will attempt to give a partial explanation for the fact that many Christians are climate change deniers.

I will begin with a story about a son and his mother. Dr. Larry Louters teaches chemistry at Calvin College. In 2013 Louters, along with 20 other Calvin faculty members and 200 evangelical college professors, sent a letter to Congress asking senators and representatives to take action on climate change.

During an interview with the Calvin College Campus News, Louters was asked why he and his colleagues sent the letter. He noted that people have contrasting ideas about climate change, saying “people don’t judge the science very effectively, not just Christians, but all folks have this schizophrenic view of science.” He stated that a “single opinion can bear as much weight as quantified data that has been reproduced.”

Then he told a sweet little anecdote: He shared that in talking with his mother about climate change, she would end all arguments by saying, “Well, Rush Limbaugh says climate change is a hoax.” One can imagine him exclaiming in frustration, “Mom I’m your son and I’m a scientist! Why do you choose to believe Rush Limbaugh?”

But that raises a more basic question: Why are these opinion-makers, who are often uninformed about science, able to exert such influence among Christians? Some of them garner trust almost automatically because they are cable TV commentators or conservative radio gurus. Some have earned trust because they are pastors. But other factors are at play as well.

One of these factors is known as dominion theology, and I will discuss this topic in greater detail in my next essay.

About the Author

  1. as quoted by Robinson in “Reformation,” The Givenness of Things, 23.  

  2. Bailey, Sarah Pulliam. “Why So Many White Evangelicals in Trump’s Base Are Deeply Skeptical of Climate Change.” The Washington Post, June 2, 2017.  

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  1. Dave,
    I think what you have said is true. To even say “global warming” is a political statement by many when I mean it as a way to call attention to how we are living in disregard for God’s beautiful creation. It is not a political statement but a call to live in accord with God’s word.

    1. I agree with you, Pam. We are called by scripture to care for creation. It’s part of the human job description given n Genesis 2.

  2. My husband is a scientist and he happens to agree with Rush Limbaugh. He used to teach about global warming to his college students based on what he learned from his own college experience and then colleagues in the scientific community. Then he looked at the data himself. What a difference that made. His conclusion… climate does change… and sure we have an impact, but there are so many other factors involved. For example, if you look at past periods of times the earth has warmed, it is always followed by what? An ice age. Someday people may be upset that in our time we didn’t try to save all the heat we could prior to plunging into the next ice age. Also, have a mathematician look at the rate of ice melt and have them figure out what is wrong with the calculations and data that is reported on that topic. I was blinded at first, but once I saw the issue it was as plain as day. The data is highly exaggerated by the misleading way they do their calculations. There are other examples of data shared that is not complete, biased, and even fraudulent. While we want to certainly take care of the earth God has blessed us with, check the facts yourself before jumping on the band wagon. Spending all that we do in this area is not wise and could be much better used on other initiatives

    1. Well, Wendy, I think something like 2 or 3 % of weather scientists are also doubtful about human activity causing climate change. But then it is the nature of scientists to be always testing. But the worldwide the consensus is that human activity is contributing to the warming and it is causing the oceans to rise. (You won’t find a mayor of an eastern seaboard city who doubts that climate change and ice/snow melt is causing the ocean level to rise.)

      And do you really think the thousands of scientists from all over the world are doing their calculations wrong?? Give me a break. Remember that NASA, the agency that has sent humans into orbit and brought them back home like they were parking their car in a garage is at the forefront of U. S. research.

      You tell me to check the facts. Well, I am not a scientist but I know scientists–including one who now works at NASA–and these scientists have been checking the facts for decades.

    2. Band wagon = more data from research shows a pattern confirming hypothesis.

      BTW global warming does increase the likelihood of an ice age, please read more :

      P.S. Dordt had an excellent environmental science class when i graduated in ’96 – went to Au Sable in the summer as well – excellent addition to my Mech Egr degree. Perhaps Dordt should require it (as well as Theology 101) for their CORE program? What does it mean to be a good Steward? Excellent article Dave!