Back in 1937, George Orwell claimed this about the divisions within British society:
The real secret of class distinctions in the West can be summed up in four frightful words: The lower classes smell (~Road to Wigan Pier).
The statement sounds offensive and reductionistic. Perhaps it is.
Yet Orwell’s goal was actually to challenge his fellow highbrow socialists on whether their ideas about dismantling the class structure were actually strong enough to work in the field—where people live, and sniff.
In the words of James K. A. Smith (citing Wigan Pier):
Orwell’s point is that the root of class distinctions in England is not intellectual but olfactory. The habits and rhythms of the system are not so much cerebral as visceral; they are rooted in a bodily orientation to the world that eludes theoretical articulation, which is why theoretical tirades also fail to displace it. … “For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling.”
In other words, you cannot solve a gut-level problem with a philosophy.
The visceral trumps the voluntary; fundamental dispositions are more caught than taught; and the “nose” (now speaking metaphorically) is mightier than the brain.
Now the kicker:
Almost every other kind of discrimination could be countered theoretically, with the weapons of facts, ideas, and information, “But physical repulsion cannot.”
What does this have to do with us?
In America, we seem to have entered a cultural-political climate in which both sides are “physically repulsed” by one another. Sickened, even.
And sometimes for good reason.
Yet if this is so, then one should strongly question our ability to bridge the gap with education, rational discourse, or (gasp) blog posts. Orwell’s point is this: revulsion trumps reason every time—try as we might to overcome it.
In short, our “ideas” are not nearly as important for the way we engage the world as we would like to think.
As Smith argues, we are not primarily “thinking things” as Descartes posited. Nor even “believing things” as much of Christian culture claims. Even demons believe (Jms. 2.19).
For Smith, both of these mistaken anthropologies place too much emphasis upon the cognitive realm (“ideas”), whereas the Bible focuses more upon reforming the heart, the gut, or even “the bowels.” (Even the biblical references to renewal of the “mind” are not given in a Cartesian sense.)
We are primarily loving-desiring beings.
And as such, much of our behavior is the product of pre-cognitive, affective, gut-level, and visceral reactions.
“The lower classes smell.”
But how does one disciple the olfactory senses?
How do “the bowels” get redeemed?
See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (here). For a less academic version of Smith’s argument, see You are what you love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (here).
Like me, Wax admits to having once been a bit of a “political junkie.” But as he puts it, “Election 2016 changed that.”
It wasn’t because, this time around, I was unable to enthusiastically support either candidate. It was a growing concern with the toxic atmosphere of the cable news channels and the worrisome trends they reveal about our society.
He then gives three reasons why the rise of niche-market news channels–tailor made to heighten our existing biases–have had cancerous effects.
Here they are:
The Disappearing Aim of Journalism
While absolutely no one is unbiased, the claim here is that today’s cable news outlets (whether Fox News, CNN, or MSBC) aren’t even trying.
The aim is no longer truth or journalism; it’s ratings via sensationalized pandering to a specific demographic. For proof, one need only recall the admission of a CNN producer that the Russia scandal was “great for ratings.”
The Disappearing Desire for Truth
Worse yet, many viewers do not seem to care. We tune in for validation, not objectivity, and the media on both sides plays the music to our band.
The Rise of News as Show
Wax’s third claim is that the line between news and entertainment has all but vanished. What we have now are “shows,” or rather: “food fight journalism,” dished out by the likes of Hannity, Maddow, and (formerly) O’Reilly.
On this point, Wax gives a telling example from the life of Roger Ailes, Fox News founder and longtime Harvey Weinstein impersonator:
Ailes knew what types he wanted on that show: the “bombshell blonde,” the middle-of-the-road guy, the renegade, the brunette, and the token liberal (white or black) to round out the panel. When casting the show, he made it clear to the panelists that they were replaceable precisely because they were typecast.
In the end, such typecast replicability also led, by all accounts, to a newsroom that made Ron Burgundy’s look like a paragon of gender equality and female respect. The non-disclosure agreements were stacked like papal indulgences.
WAIT A MINUTE
But wait a minute… is all this an exageration?
Despite such strong indictments, Wax doesn’t want to go too far.
As he notes, moments of real journalism do sneak through on the cable channels. And in moments of crisis, like the recent hurricanes, we are thankful to be “inspired by the stories of individual families, of daring rescues, and the ongoing relief efforts.”
Cable news is not all bad; not all options are equally biased; and simply tuning out to world events does not seem like a great alternative.
Perhaps one possibility then is to step away from cable–millennials like myself have long since done this (what are channels?)–and get our news from a variety of other sources.
The best of these may even involve (wait for it…) reading. While this would hardly free us from the grip of bias, the choice to read our news from more reputable sources would eliminate the endless food fights (read: panel discussions), engineered by Ailes and others. It would also prevent the binge-newsing that fuels an obsessive and over-politicized paranoia.
[Our] public conversation is over-politicised and under-moralised … we analyse every single movement in the polls, but the big subjects about relationships and mercy and how to be a friend – these are the big subjects of life and we don’t talk about them enough. Or we have our moral arguments through political means, which is a nasty way to do it because then you make politics into a culture war.
A PROBLEM ON BOTH SIDES
As Wax makes clear, the problem exists on both the Right and Left.
In this, we have yet another example of how both extremes within our current culture wars are locked in a symbiotic existence that is simultaneously a carnal embrace.
They need each other; they are producing offspring (“As even your own poets claim”); and they ought to be in each other’s Christmas cards.
In the end, the greatest danger is what such WWE-inspired journalism does to us.
It changes us in subtle ways. And it leaves us drawn (perhaps subconsciously) toward leaders with these qualities.
We form our media; then our media form us.
Before we know it, one might even feel “strangely warmed” toward a figure whose philosophical and rhetorical inspirations seem like an odd amalgam of Gordon Gecko and Ric Flair. Hypothetically.
After reading Wax, my own takeaway was not a legalistic command along the lines of “Thou shalt not cable news.”
In all honesty, my own tradition has sometimes erred in this direction. My grandparents tell an old story of unloading the family moving van at a new church parsonage, only to be asked brusquely by a church elder:
“Do you own a television?”
“No,” replied my grandfather.
“Good; we throw those in the river!”
Neither Wax nor I are advocating this.
Even so, perhaps evangelicals would do well to recognize that “sex and cussing” are not the only forms of television viewing that can malform us when it comes to holiness.
That was the seemingly innocuous question that I asked my new acquaintance as we sat around the chips and salsa at our local Chili’s.
Like most parents, he answered with a number. Then he said the part that I had not expected:
“We had two miscarriages. And we always count those.”
While I responded with empathy, I recall thinking that most of us (myself included) do not publically number our children to include the little lives that never made it to delivery.
And on many levels, that is understandable.
We all deal with grief differently. And it would be wrong to force one way of processing a failed pregnancy on others.
About a year and a half ago Brianna and I walked through our own experience of miscarriage. And while it was sad for me, at the time, I was primarily concerned for her well-being.
After hearing a noise in our house, I came into our bedroom to find Brianna unconsciousness from blood loss. I panicked. Then I phoned my mom to watch our kids; I carried Brianna’s (now) semi-conscious body to the car, did my best to place her inside, and then drove us to the hospital.
Thankfully, she was soon okay.
But the baby had been deceased for several days.
Later, as some readers can relate, there was the awkward reality of having already told some folks that we were pregnant, and now having to explain. Partly because of this, Brianna chose to share publically that she had lost a pregnancy. And soon after, she was overwhelmed by the many friends and family who then confided their own stories–some far more traumatic than our own.
It happens often. But that doesn’t make it nothing.
In Christian circles, one hears much about the need to be “Pro-Life,” and rightly so.
While the issue of abortion is polarizing, my own view leans on both Scripture and science to conclude that an unborn child is indeed a sacred human life, however small.
Even so, the consistent application of my “Pro-Life” stance involves much more than just abortion. It is a virtue that spans from womb to tomb, and sweeps up everything from welfare to warfare within its complicated wake.
I aim to be consistently Pro-Life.
Yet this too raises questions as to how I “count” our miscarriage.
WORDSWORTH OVER CHIPS AND SALSA
In a slightly different vein, something like my Chili’s conversation also happens in a classic poem by William Wordsworth (“We Are Seven”; pub. 1798).
Its verses recount an exchange between a traveler and a simple peasant girl.
The traveler asks:
“Sisters and brothers, little Maid, / How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said, / And wondering looked at me.
“And where are they? I pray you tell.” / She answered, “Seven are we; / And two of us at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea.
“Two of us in the church-yard lie, / My sister and my brother; / And, in the church-yard cottage, I / Dwell near them with my mother.”
Yet this statement brings confusion to the traveler: “I thought that you said seven.”
“You say that two at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea, / Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell, / Sweet Maid, how this may be.”
The misunderstanding, of course, involves the girl’s counting of her two dead siblings (“who in the church-yard lie”) as present members of her family.
Unfortunately, the mathematical modern adult doesn’t get it:
“You run about, my little Maid, / Your limbs they are alive; / If two are in the church-yard laid, / Then ye are only five.”
WE ARE SEVEN
As I read the poem recently (outside, on a nice morning, as is legally required of Wordsworth), it struck me that perhaps the number “seven” reflects our family too.
For if I were to begin consciously “counting” the child that we lost to miscarriage, then we would indeed be Seven. –(1) Brianna, (2) Josh, (3) Lucy, (4) Penny, (5) Ewan, (6) Baby unnamed, (7) Teddy.
And while I have no plans to begin saying this whenever someone asks about my children, perhaps it is a more consistent conclusion for those of us who consider ourselves “Pro-Life.”
After all, the weight of Wordsworth’s poem lies in the child’s stubborn insistence that death does not erase a child from the family roll.
To live at all is to be woven forever into the fabric of “present personhood.” We are eternal.
For to use Donne’s metaphor, “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.” And while death is powerful and grievous, it cannot tear out words and pages from this book. It can only translate them–if they be written in Christ’s blood–“into a better language.”
The trouble, however—as my two-year-old reminds me daily—is that children learn new “languages” far easier than grown-ups.
Thus even our ostensibly “Christian” thinking about miscarriage can often leave us thinking as only slightly more cordial versions of Wordsworth’s adult traveler, in need of child-like wisdom:
“How many are you, then,” said I, / “If they two are in heaven?” / Quick was the little Maid’s reply, / “O Master! we are seven.”
“But they are dead; those two are dead! / Their spirits are in heaven!” / ’Twas throwing words away; for still / The little Maid would have her will, / And said, “Nay, we are seven!”
In the Latino communities of the American southwest, there is a saying:
The only thing smarter than a coyote is God.
And while we car-driving, blog-writing humans may take issue with this claim, just ask yourself this question:
How many coyotes have you seen holding fidget spinners?
I sat rapt recently as I listened to the nature historian Dan Flores talk about his recent book: Coyote America.
It is essentially a biography of America’s most adaptive underdog.
And it is also a strange topic for a blog on faith and culture.
So we should probably address that weirdness.
A DEFICIT OF AWE
You may not know it, but coyotes are not exactly “click-generators” in the world of social media. They do not wear bikinis; they have no thoughts on Donald Trump; and (unlike cats) they do not appear on Youtube playing the piano. (I checked.)
So why write about them?
Two words: unexpected awe.
While there are many problems in the modern world, among the least acknowledged may be our loss of wonder. Despite all our technological marvels, most of us are far too rarely dazzled.
So while we are awash with entertainment, we have a deficit of awe.
And from this evil Amazon.com cannot deliver us.
This state of disenchantment presents a problem for the church, because a capacity for wonder may be a prerequisite for what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis—our sense of the divine.
INTO THE WILD
In the Bible, such awe comes often out-of-doors–though not exclusively.
It presents itself in burning bushes; in stars that mark descendants; and in a grappling angel by a brook.
In such wild places, our sense of wonder is refreshed.
And this brings us back to the coyote.
While Flores’ book starts in prehistoric times, its most interesting parts reveal how the coyote flourished while other species were decimated by the settling of the American West–a period that brought perhaps the swiftest destruction of wildlife in world history.
Yet despite an all-out war on coyotes starting around 1915, the only noticeable result has been that they continue to spread like wildfire.
While first inhabiting only a portion of North America, the animals now stretch from beyond the arctic circle down into South America. And what’s more, they now inhabit every major city in the United States.
The reason for their flourishing has something to do with what the apostle Paul identified as “power perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12.9).
Because coyotes adapted as the smaller, frailer cousin of the wolf, they could not rely on brute force to stay alive. Instead, they had to lean into their wits and learn to leverage weakness.
Case in point: their use of howls and hormones.
According to Flores, when the female coyote howls (or yips) each night, one purpose is to take the roll of the respective mates within her group.
If a male does not respond—say, because he was trapped or shot or mauled—it triggers a chemical reaction within the alpha female that does two things, both of which are awe-inducing:
First, it sends her prematurely into heat; and second, it causes the ensuing litter to be larger than normal.
You might want to read that again. The mere absence of an answering “yip” both triggers heat and makes the litter larger than they would be otherwise.
Most likely, this adaptation emerged from a history of weakness and inferiority in the face of larger predators. Yet somehow, this tendency to get killed-off by bigger animals coincided with a freakish adaptation that gave coyotes an advantage.
Example number two:
While wolves tend to stay almost perpetually in tight-knit groups, coyotes are what Flores calls a “fragile pack” animal. This means that when they face pressure from their enemies, they tend to splinter into smaller groups and then cast about in search of new territory.
Because grey wolves group more rigidly, the killing of a single wolf often leads to the killing of the entire pack—sometimes aided by the use of the original hide as a way to lure others to an ambush. For such reasons, wolves were almost eliminated from the American West, while coyotes spread rapidly in all directions.
“They tried to scatter us,” you can almost hear them howling, “They didn’t realize we were seeds” (cf. D. Christianopoulos).
Okay, okay… so coyotes have some crazy adaptations that have led to flourishing – but what do we do with this?
The tendency, for preachers like myself, would be a move to application: something like, The Coyote Principle (Now available for $12.99!).
After all, the book of Proverbs tells us to “Consider the ant” in order to be wise. And if Solomon were relocated to the Sierra Madres, perhaps the text would read “Consider the coyote.”
To be sure, there are lessons to be gained from such creaturely longevity.
Weakness does not have to be a weakness. And:
Scattering can be a form of conquest.
Yet the too-quick drive to application can be a fault of teachers like myself. And in some cases it borders on a sacrilege–what Kierkegaard called “pillaging the holy.”
Because while we may benefit from life-lessons, sometimes we have a deeper need to marvel merely at the wonders made by the Creator.
I sometimes look into the endless heavens, the cosmos of which we can’t find the edge, and ask God what it means. Did You really do all this to dazzle us?
In sum: application is no substitute for awe.
THAT SUCH THINGS SHOULD BE
A related point is made beautifully in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
In one scene, two ragged “okie” boys slide into a roadside gas station as their family migrates west in search of food and better fortunes. In patched overalls and dirt-streaked faces, the children halt suddenly before the candy case. There they stared
not with craving or with hope or even with desire but just with a kind of wonder that such things should be.
Perhaps this tells us something of how Christians ought to look at nature, at coyotes, at oceans, at eclipses, and even at our fellow man—not with craving or with quests for application, but with naked wonder that such things should be.
The central image is of an upturned bullhorn that been strangely “botanized.” The bell is now a base for flowers; and beauty grows in place of screaching words.
The idea reminds me of Isaiah 2.
In this famous passage, we are promised that, one day, warring nations will beat their “swords” into eternal “plowshares,” and their “spears into pruning hooks” (2.4).
And while that seems a long way off with regard to weaponry, it seems even longer with regard to words.
The book tackles the thorny question of how Christians should speak into a world that is marked increasingly by incivility. (Do I really need to argue this!?)
On social media especially, Deborah Tannen claims that we now inhabit an “Argument culture” that goads us to approach others in a combative frame of mind.
What’s more, Christians (like others) have often stoked these fires through the unfortunate reality of “online dis-inhibition”—the phenomenon that leaves us unrestrained by face-to-face conventions.
(I know, it happened to me once. Okay, twice.)
So what do we do?
While I can’t speak (yet) for the whole of the book, the most helpful facet thus far involves the authors’ three-fold breakdown Christian communication:
The prophetic voice is often used as justification when we decide to “Tee off” on a particular issue. The justification is found in Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, who sometimes use strong language to call forth repentance from God’s people (“You brood of vipers!”). Such language has its place.
But according to Winsome Persuasion, the “prophetic voice” is almost entirely ineffective when used on those who do not share our foundational presuppositions. It can rally the base, but to outsiders we merely sound like “bullies with bullhorns.”
In such cases: “Inflammatory rhetoric [breeds] inflammatory responses”—and the cycle continues.
This does not mean, of course, that prophetic speech is useless; but it does call for discernment regarding when it helps, and when it actually makes things worse.
If the danger of “cowardly silence” sits on one side, then the danger of “clanging gongs” sits on the other.
Second, the pastoral voice “appeals to the shared needs and suffering” of others, and it “offers healing … to those in need.” In such ways, it is crucial in showing others that they are loved.
Yet while pastoral communication lays a relational foundation for transformation, it does not have the power to change minds on specific issues.
It comforts but it rarely converts.
This brings us to the title.
According to the authors, the persuasive voice “appeals to the common good and general revelation” while also seeking to “change viewpoints or practices within the culture.”
It is the practice of a “counterpublic”–a minority culture that nonetheless desires to influence dominant perspectives in order to bring about positive change.
And to do this, civility is key.
In this way, persuasive speech refuses to live in denial about the fact that the culture no longer shares “my” Christian presuppositions. We’re not in Mayberry. Thus what is needed is not simply more volume but rather an appeal to conscience and more broadly shared values.
In this way, winsome persuasion does not cede the public square; but it moves to “botanize the bullhorn” so that it produces more than thorns and thistles.
The trouble (at least for me) is that such persuasion is difficult; it sometimes results in the communicator fielding fire from both sides; and it’s not as fun as ranting.
Likewise, for some of us (including me), winsome persuasion may require a fundamental change in posture.
Flashback: From a young age, it was quite clear that I would never be good at fighting with my fists. My junior high football roster listed me—quite accurately—at a whopping 87 lbs. Even so, it was clear that I had a knack for removing the “blade” from verbal plowshares to serve more sword-like purposes. I was quick with comebacks, snark, and sarcasm. And while that has its uses, it can also cause some problems.
Along such lines, a central claim of Muehlhoff and Langer is that today’s Christians have often chosen “prophetic” language in contexts that would be better served by “persuasive” speech.
“Clearly we have spoken up; the problem seems to be that we have spoken poorly.”
As Vaclav Havel wrote:
There is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly.
And one might even mount a biblical case for this conclusion.
THE BIBLICAL CASE
In Scripture, the juxtaposition of prophetic and persuasive rhetoric is modeled in a variety of contexts.
Note, for instance, the difference in how Christ speaks to the (ostensibly) Jewish Herod Antipas (“that fox!”) and the way he speaks to Pontius Pilate.
Or note the difference between the way Paul speaks to the pagans of Mars Hill (Acts 17) and the way he speaks to the Judaizers of Galatians (“Hey guys, why stop with circumcision…!? [5.12; my translation]).
There are exceptions, of course, but not as many as one might guess. (Let’s be honest, do we really want to make Elijah’s interaction with the Baal-boys our normative exemplar? It ends with mass execution.)
In the new covenant, Peter calls for the church to make its case to the pagan world “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3.15).
Because while prophetic speech has its place in certain circumstances, I appreciate the call to consider more winsome ways—and to beat some bullhorns into plowshares.
Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University; Richard Langer is professor of biblical of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology
“In a way, I’m glad they carried tiki torches and wore well-pressed polo shirts.”
That was one of my (admittedly strange) thoughts while grieving the vile scene from Charlottesville this weekend.
The citronella made the barbarity feel suburban–and that matters.
The stereotype for white supremacy (as set forth by Jerry Springer) usually involves a two-toothed yokel in bib overalls, catfish bait beneath the fingernails, and married to a cousin.
Not to white supremacy, but to the many decent folks who wear bib overalls.
That picture of racism is dangerous because it’s easy to dismiss as distant and defunct.
“I don’t know anyone like that.”
But the young millennials marching in Charlottesville looked (well…) a lot like me:
unacquainted with cousinly matrimony.
That’s important too.
Because as long as I view white nationalism as just a backwoods problem, I will never note the subtle ways it grows untended in my own backyard.
Now a word on that.
A DANGEROUS QUESTION
Shortly after Saturday’s bloodshed, a pastor-friend of mine posed this question to me.
How long could a polo-shirt wearing, tiki-torch bearing white nationalist attend your evangelical church before hearing something from the pulpit that would contradict his worldview?
What would be your response?
I’m thankful to be part of a tribe that has tried to change the answer to such questions (see here). Yet we have some work to do.
SOME HONEST HISTORY
For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the latest history of American evangelicalism (The Evangelicals) penned by Pulitzer Prize winner, Francis Fitzgerald.
It has been a painful but important read.
A stark reminder has been the extent to which many evangelical leaders found themselves on the wrong side of civil rights.
And by that, I do not just mean “the wrong side of history” (see here), but more importantly: “the wrong side of God.”
White nationalism. And a desire not to run afoul of their “constituency.”
To take a famous example: Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority (and Liberty University) preached and published passionately for segregation; he called racial integration “the work of the devil”; and he denounced civil rights legislation with the claim that “it should be considered ‘civil wrongs’.”
He eventually disavowed these viewpoints. Yet his mature ministry was still marked by staunch support for the white supremacist government of South Africa, which he visited, while denouncing Bishop Desmond Tutu as “a phony.”
Billy Graham was (normally) light-years ahead of Falwell on this subject.
Yet even he struggled to stand up to his constituency. While MLK languished in a Birmingham jail in 1963, Graham chided his “good personal friend” with the claim that he needed to “put the brakes on a bit” in the quest for justice. Likewise, Graham often insinuated at the time that whites and blacks were equally culpable, even in instances when violence against nonviolent black marchers was at its height. (If you have ears to hear, then hear.)
The reason for bringing up this history is not to look down our collective nose at those who were, like all of us, people of their time.
The motive actually is just the opposite.
Evangelicals must be honest about our past so as not to repeat it.
Because the real danger of white nationalism (or hatred of any kind) is not the Jerry Springer stereotype.
It is the subtle form that will kill us, without ever climbing behind the wheel of a Dodge Charger.
A few years ago I met Jim as he audited my university New Testament class.
For the unfamiliar, auditing means attending my lectures simply for the fun of it, rather than for college credit. (Needless to say, some of my traditional students find this very odd.)
Nevertheless, Jim and I became friends. And I then learned that he is a PhD scientist, specializing in Climate Change, and having taught for years in the Geosciences at Texas A&M.
Jim is a scholar.
Yet he is also an evangelical Christian, living in the Bible-belt — which brings us to the opening line about his almost “mythical” status. As he admits, evangelical climate scientists (with actual PhDs in the field) are somewhat rare.
EVANGELICALS AND CLIMATE SCIENCE
Manmade global warming, while accepted as an empirical fact in many places, is often controversial in the Bible-belt (though not for theological reasons).
And like everything else, it is highly politicized.
Even so, the command to be good stewards of our earth is a mandate for all Christians. And the need to listen to actual experts on such subjects (rather than unqualified bloggers like myself!) seems wise.
So whether you “believe” in manmade climate change or not, I hope you’ll enjoy the interview I did with Jim.
In it, he attempts to explain:
How warming happens;
Why he can be quite certain it is both real and human-caused; and
How his treatment of the topic differs from some others as it comes from a Christian concern for the “least of these,” and an acknowledgement of the imago Dei.
You can access the conversation, in two formats.
First, there is an audio conversation shown below, and secondly (further down) there is an email response from Jim in which he responds to some questions on Christians and climate change.
EMAIL Q&A WITH JIM NORWINE
Q: How do we know that man made global warming is real?
Oh boy. How to answer that in a few sentences….?
First, we know nothing with absolute certainty other than our selves, and even that could be a projection by some external whatever. (The latter is the ancient philosophy of solipsism, “I am the only reality,” which is impossible to refute…but which most of us choose to ignore in order to get on with “our”—we hope–lives.)
Seems obvious when you think about it but in fact even very educated folks often seem to think we are eating into the corpus of ignorance and soon will have digested the whole enchilada. Nothing could be further from the truth. Knowledge is by its nature finite. Ignorance is infinite.
Think of the former as standing on a new and still-rising volcanic mountain on an island in the middle of the sea. Every day you are higher and higher, see (know) more and more. So easy to think, what a smart boy am I! And true up to a point. But: every day the horizon recedes further and further. This is the point of the folk, and scholar’s, wisdom, “the more I know the greater my ignorance.”
So I suppose one could say there is one kind of “certain” knowledge, that of apprehending the limits inherent in being embodied createds.
Second, as to knowing in a scientific sense, there are levels. One may know in the sense of a law, like that of gravity. Near-“certain” because of so many repeated demonstrations and observations. (Still never really certain because a law, like that of gravity, is not the reality, just the best description one has at the moment. And in fact the law of gravity has been overturned: Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein and so on.)
The next level of knowledge in science is that of theory. You might think of a successful theory as a sort of baby or not-quite-yet law. High confidence again due to verification by testing and testing and still more testing. The theory of evolution is a good example. When folks hear the phrase they often confuse theory with hypothesis. The latter is the educated guess with which one begins the practice of the scientific method. Hypothesis is merely square one on the Monopoly board of science; theory is at the very opposite end of the practice, one half-step short of law.
Anthropogenic warming is in, or at least close to, the latter category, in terms of the broad relation between CO2 levels (and those of other greenhouse gases) and planetary temperature. Our studies of Earth’s climate history provide robust evidence of CO2 level as one of the 4 principal causes of climate change over many thousands, even millions, of years, along with the astronomical cycle (3 cycles in Earth’s orbital geometry), volcanic activity, and solar output.
To wit, warm epochs in the past were periods of high CO2 and vice versa. It is true that important details remain open to question, such as the rate of future warming. Our mathematical models are impressive but again they are only simulations of the vastly more complex real deal so always open to improvement.
Backing up a bit, I should have mentioned that speculation about the thermal effect of emissions from fossil fuels dates to the late 1900s. This “educated guess” was based on a by-then clear understanding that Earth is only inhabitable because of the greenhouse effect.
Quickie short course: the sun is so hot it emits extremely short-wave radiation, energy which zips through our atmosphere like the proverbial knife through butter. However, the Earth is much, much cooler, so that it re-radiates the energy outward in the form of long-wave length “heat” that CO2, methane, ozone and other gases are able to trap in the lower atmosphere with great efficiency. (This “extra” leaks out to space at night so over time Earth usually remains in heat balance.) Consider Mars and Venus by comparison. Both have mostly CO2 atmospheres, but Mars has such a thin atmosphere it lacks the “blanket” needed to trap the outgoing energy near the surface and hence is cold, while Venus has a thick atmosphere with a super9efficient greenhouse effect, hence mean temps of 800-900F.
Q: How do you, as a Christian (and, I think, as a fairly conservative guy) think about this issue differently than some of your colleagues in climate science.
Another toughie to answer briefly.
First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.)
But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”
Another reason for conservative dubiety is they intuit, correctly, that they have been lied to by advocates. I.e., “leaving fossil fuels behind won’t be that hard.” Complete and profoundly disingenuous nonsense. (Sort of like “you can keep your doctor, it won’t cost more, etc.” with health care.) Elites think that ordinary folks are so stupid and selfish that they can’t be told the truth about sacrifice.
Fossil fuels were the most transformation discovery in human history since fire itself. The challenge of moving away from their use even done gradually will be immense, something on the order of the Great Depression, WWII, and Europe’s Black Death plagues.
Another common theme from advocates: “we are all in this together.” Yeah, right. Folks see Al Gore and Bill Gates in their vast estates gobbling up energy, and elites with few if any kids living in huge homes, taking jetliner flights to climate conferences–each of which has a greater environmental footprint that a redneck family for a year—all smug in their confidence that by a. recycling and driving hybrids—behaviors that don’t inconvenience them one iota–, and b. preaching to nobodies about how awful they are to drive gas guzzlers, they are sorting with the angels.
And of course they also almost universally support policies like “cap and trade,” which will double or treble energy cost. Again, no big problem, merely some modest tweaking of lifestyle (fewer trips to Cabo, etc.)…but try to imagine the impact of a summertime monthly electricity bill of $800 or $1,000 for someone of modest means living in an older home or trailer.
All the above have unfortunately contributed to many traditional losing sight of our No. 2 marching order: the well-being of the least of these. Opting out of the conversation is consequential, because by participating they could hugely influence new policies and regs, which are surely coming one way or the other. For instance, to lobby for James Hansen’s “fee and dividend” plan, which would raise energy costs enough to cut back emissions but would all be rebated to individuals/families at year’s end. (Progs mostly hate fee and dividend because all the taxes in cap and trade go to the state. As in California now, and Australia earlier, neither of which effectively cut CO2.)
Q: What would you say to those who think manmade climate change is basically a ploy driven by some other political or ideological agenda?
Guess I sort of answered this above: “First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.) But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”
But Let me know if you want further clarification.
To recognize that there is a problem with climate change is one thing… but what can the global community actually do about it at this point?
I should have already stressed this point: we can do nothing about the warming from the emissions already done. And frankly not much in terms of actually “fixing” the problem anytime soon. We are going to have to adapt to a warmer world. The key question is how much warmer. The toughest aspect of doing that is that those who sacrifice now will not live to experience any of the benefits.
James Hansen leads the so-called 350 movement, That is, to get CO2 back to 350 ppm from the current 410 or so. (~275 at the start of the Industrial Rev.) Very unlikely methinks, at least without massive economic disruption, with most disastrous impacts on the world’s nobodies. I believe that a doable objective (doable, anything but easy) is to get the level stabilized at or below 450 and then by ~2100 with luck, hard work and sacrificeback down to around where it is currently. That means something like a 5F rise by century’s end. A big challenge, but nothing like the 10F or more which could well present an existential threat if we if we don’t begin to flatten the rate of increase.
Returning to your question, if we could go back in time 20 years I would say that candor would have made a big difference. A forthright message of the need for shared sacrifice like ML King Jr.’s Christian-morality based movement. Recall his own personal example of sacrifice writing from the jailhouse, etc. Maybe too late for that now. In a self-referential age like the one we now inhabit, post-modernity, evidence along no longer persuades many unless it bolsters what they already believed. (And new studies make it clear that is as true of liberals as conservatives.)
Maybe if a Francis Collins led a movement of traditional evangelicals….? Perhaps somehow combined with Ron Dreher’s “Benedict Option”…in which we do retreat in some manner to spiritual “sanctuaries”—living as we do in an alien and ever more hostile post-theistic world—but reach out from them to that world, kind of ala Jeremiah’s concern for the pagans.