Might Divine Intervention Be the Answer to Climate Change?
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Author, Constance Scharff, PhD, who writes poetry and fiction under her Hebrew name, Ahuva Batya, has released her debut novel, The Path to God’s Promise. In the book, the author suggests that using religion to deny climate change is a fool’s errand and that if God is brought into the equation, we’d recognize that God’s will is for us to take care of ourselves and the world around us in ways that are generous, based in reciprocity, and sustainable.
Lisa Courtnadge, the interviewer, is an honors psychology student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She has an interest in how mental health is impacted by a variety of forces, including climate change.
Constance is an internationally recognized mental health researcher who works at the intersection of addiction and trauma. She is the founder of the Institute for Complementary and Indigenous Mental Health Research and recipient of the Sol Feinstone Humanitarian Award for her work to destigmatize mental health and addiction concerns globally and to encourage access to quality care for those in need. Dr. Scharff’s scholarly interests have turned to the impact of climate change on mental health.
Lisa: Why did you write a novel instead of a nonfiction book on climate change?
Constance: There’s a wave of anti-intellectualism across the planet right now. Scientists and scholars are villainized or disregarded when they present information about the likely impacts of climate change.
Recognizing this, I thought back to my studies of the prophets, and started to ask myself how God might address this issue if it was a subject in the Hebrew Bible. I believe God would warn about climate change and urge us to change our behaviors before the consequences of our actions become an extinction-level event for us and many of the species/environments we have been tasked with stewarding.
Lisa: Why use prophecy to share this story?
Constance: Prophecy has, in my opinion, been warped in its interpretation over time, especially as retold and translated in Christian storytelling. Prophecy is not fortunetelling, but rather an early warning system in which a parental figure deity realizes that we can’t see the consequences of our actions and points out the looming consequences to us. Prophecy is the parental equivalent of telling a child, “Don’t put your hand on the hot stove,” or “Keep the door locked when I’m not in the house.”
My hope is that by putting climate warnings in this format, those who have previously been unwilling to listen to the science, might give it a different kind of attention.
Lisa: Why is your climate change story set in a Jewish context?
Constance: Number 1: Write what you know.
Number 2: Personally, I enjoy ethnically Jewish stories that aren’t about the Holocaust. I want to add to that body of literature.
One of the last things Elinor Simentov wants is to be a prophet of God, but God has other plans.
A Jewish woman of no particular renown, Elinor is told by God to give a warning to all who will listen. Will she serve as a prophet, sacrificing her goals for herself, self-image, and reputation in order to do something that may be completely useless?
God’s message is simple. Humankind must radically change course or face extinction. To give warning, God uses prophecy to urge humans to change. Transported through past, present, and horrific potential futures, Elinor is asked to share her visionary experiences and conversations with God to urge us to take action.
As we are barraged month after month by once-in-a-lifetime storms, record-setting heat waves, shifting polar vortexes, horrendous floods, and decades long droughts, it’s hard to continue to ignore the signs and omens. The Path to God’s Promise combines dire warnings about climate change with the transformative power of prophetic experience. It asks whether or not it is too late for us to save ourselves and challenges us to live vastly different lives.
Lisa: Which qualities of Elinor make her a good messenger?
Constance: Elinor has two qualities which make her stand out to God as a messenger.
The first is that Elinor has a humble self-assuredness that is rare in most people. She is being asked, in her view, to put herself in the world in a way that others in her community may view her as either mentally ill or a con artist. In order to do what is requested, she has to be able to stand in her truth and experience and say, “Yes, God speaks to me and no, I don’t care how you judge me for that.” She ultimately becomes willing to do this because the message is so important. While she’s no doormat, she decides that the needs of her community and the living world are more important than her discomfort or the potential ridicule she may receive.
The second quality Elinor possesses is that she’s not the least bit power-hungry. My observation is that when most people get a little bit of power–in the workplace or community–they often use that power to their own benefit. In the first few pages, when Elinor talks about horse racing, she addresses that she cannot and will not use her gifts to her personal advantage. What’s interesting to me is that she doesn’t even try. She does the horse racing experiment, loses, and moves on. Even later in the book, when offered any number of personal delights, she declines. Elinor’s complete satisfaction with living what may be viewed as a simple life means that she will not try to use the position she gains from being a prophet to her personal advantage.
How did Elinor’s past traumas / struggles / challenges equip her with the tools / wisdom to inspire social change?
Elinor, while Jewish, is also an American. One aspect of the dominant American culture is that Americans often believe that we have the ability to force the outcomes we want, without really believing there will be negative consequences, and if there are negative outcomes, they will magically be fixed. It can be both a very powerful and short-sighted perspective.
Elinor’s life-experience proves to her beyond doubt that this worldview isn’t true. Actions have consequences, many of them dire. Elinor has been dehumanized, commodified, and abused. She relates to others through this pain.
One lesson Elinor learned young is that living one’s best life isn’t always about personal happiness. She uses her experience to mitigate the pain others have to feel. She knows what it’s like to be disregarded and abused and doesn’t want that experience for others–human and non-human–or in a broader sense, the planet. She knows that by taking action, she can be a catalyst to do her part to make others’ lives less painful than hers. And if she fails, she goes down fighting for others along with herself.
Elinor is very involved with her community. How did her relationships with her community members impact her viewpoint on climate change?
It’s interesting to me that readers view Elinor in this way, because to her, this is her life. She wouldn’t see herself as “very involved” with her community. She lives in connection to those around her–both people and the natural world–mostly because that’s who she is. She is a person who values connection.
There’s a movement in Judaism that sees the path to connection as earth-based. If you look at holy days like Sukkot or Tu b’Shevat, there are obvious connections to the environment. Historically, Jews pray for rain and dew, celebrate harvests, honor the arrival of the new moon each month, and underscore the importance of living in ways that are connected to one another and the world around us. Some of why these traditions exist has gotten lost in Diaspora and modern society, but it is still there.
Elinor emphasizes these earth-based traditions and social action in her life. For example, she doesn’t start growing pumpkins because God suggests it, she does it because she sees it as a powerful way to be of service to those around her, and keep her fingers in the earth that feeds her physically and spiritually. If you want to show your love and support for others, why not bake and offer pies for their Thanksgiving celebrations? That’s the kind of service and connection Elinor makes part of her life.
How did the visions that God shared with Elinor affect her faith and values?
The visions God shared with Elinor fundamentally shook her belief in humans and their place in the world. She wanted to believe that God would intervene and save both humanity and the other species we’re taking out with us, from a desperate and entirely preventable demise.
What the visions taught Elinor is that God is not “good.” I think we often imagine that God is a kind, benevolent being who looks out for the best among us. But we know from historical observation that isn’t the case. “Bad things happen to good people.” The story of Job, which I don’t particularly care for for a number of reasons, illustrates the same point. God doesn’t give good people parking spaces and relegate evil folks to the back of the parking lot.
The tenet Elinor had to come to understand is that we are all responsible for our choices and our actions. No divine actor is going to intervene to save us from ourselves. God might give us a heads up–through people and events–to say, “Hey, this path you’re taking isn’t going to end well for you,”--but no more than that.
I think it was difficult for Elinor to accept this because of her history of being abused. She desperately wanted God to save her from her father. When He did not, she was resentful and felt like there must be something wrong with her. Many religions teach that God protects and “saves” the good from bad outcomes. Thus, it is a common feeling for abused children whom God doesn’t “rescue” to believe that there’s something in them that made them unworthy of protection.
This was perhaps the most important lesson for Elinor to learn, and part of why she had to grow before she could deliver God’s message. Once she accepted that God isn’t going to intervene to save us, she found in herself the power to take actions she would not have previously considered. She began using her creative power to build the resistance to climate change and build wide-spread community action.
Do you think Elinor is a relatable character? What might an average reader have in common with Elinor?
When I first began writing the book, I didn’t like Elinor very much. She whined and complained too much for my taste. She starts out with a bit of a selfish mentality. She didn’t want to help God out because it would make her look “crazy” in her community’s eyes; she didn’t want to risk the standing that she had.
But that may be what makes Elinor relatable. She’s average. She’s not the smartest or prettiest or most successful person in the room. Other than the fact that God speaks to her–which has little to do with her, and everything to do with God’s preferences and needs–there’s nothing about her that stands out. She works, is involved with her community and family, volunteers, and has a couple of cats…. She has history and scars. She is no different than 99% of the readers who might pick up the book. Yet she finds in herself great power to create change.
That’s why I grew to love her. If “average” people can make a difference in the world around them, cumulatively we can make monumental changes.
God explained that everyone’s choices to do bad/evil things were choices they made for themselves and He could not interfere with their free will. Could you share any of your other thoughts on free will and human agency, specifically in the modern age?
If one believes in the idea that “God has a plan,” which is a form of destiny or predetermination, then free will goes out the window. So God intends for war and abuse and famine, etc., but humans still believe that God is “good?” That doesn’t make sense to me.
Let’s pull back and start from a wider view.
Everything in the universe is made up of the same stuff: atoms, protons, electrons, etc. There is some truth to the notion that we are all stardust.
…we are simply manifestations of the divine? In the Lurianic Kabbalah tradition, everything is essentially a manifestation of God. We are here so that divinity can experience itself in a different way, in an embodied form. The divine light is scattered throughout the universe. We’re here to gather it up, or repair the world. Now, that’s an oversimplification of the story, but gives it a brief overview.
This means that we get to choose what we do. We can gather up light–help others, be the healthiest we can be, etc.–or or we can be seduced and play in the darkness.
The repercussions of this are manifold. First, God is neutral. Harm another or not, whatever is “divine” in the universe allows the action. Second, this means that we have great power to act or not, and these actions have consequences. Third, whatever we do in the world, we still have an experience, but we’d feel better about ourselves and the world around us if we acted in ways that promote connection. In this book, God has a preferred outcome, which is that is what will give the world its best chance of survival, but God will let us play out our lives as we choose.
In the contemporary day, I suggest that we should redefine ourselves from consumers to community members who have obligations and responsibilities to those around us. Maybe it’s time to consider not taking more than we need and instead work on bringing light–literally finding and freeing the divine light around us–and support to everything and everyone in our sphere of influence. After all, it’s a choice to live in ways that are wasteful, to take more than our share, and choose lifestyles that damn others to unimaginable conditions or undermine their opportunities to live at all.
Why was Elinor so reluctant to share God’s message?
The rabbis have said that the age of prophecy is over. I don’t know that God got that message, but Jewish communities don’t recognize people as prophets. I accept that, because I don’t think there’s a place for the position of prophet in modern society.
That said, I do believe there are people who see and hear information that is divinely inspired. Elinor is one of those people. She ultimately does what God asks because she does so not as a prophet, but as a writer of fiction. She doesn’t want to be viewed as a crackpot nor does she want to be a religious leader. When God convinces her that she can share His message in a way that allows her to maintain her reasonably anonymous place in the world, she agrees.
What lessons can we learn from the novel that can aid us in our approach to climate change?
If God did speak to us directly, I truly believe one message would be, “Climate change is real and if you want to live, you have to radically transform the ways in which you live and relate to the world.” I want to inspire people who are waiting on the sidelines for divine intervention to recognize the error in their thinking and act.
I also think it’s important for those in the wealthiest nations to recognize that we will all have to radically change the ways in which we see, live, and move in the world in order to have any chance of mitigating the negative impacts of climate change. We have to see ourselves as a link in a chain, not as end-of-the-line consumers devouring everything we can.
We can’t all have all the toys. The only path forward for genuine mitigation of climate change impacts is a radical reimagining of how we live and connect to one another. I’ve been reading a lot of Native American works recently. Ideas like, “take only what you need,” or “harvest no more than half,” or “make decisions based on the 7th Generation Principle”–all make a lot of sense. The West cannot continue late-stage capitalist activities and expect to live, but implementing different kinds of frameworks will take a seismic shift in how we act and what our priorities are.
Does the life of an unknown other have value, enough so that I will radically alter my lifestyle so they can live? If enough of us answer yes, we have a chance.
A reckoning is coming sooner than we think. That’s the book’s message. Fundamentally change the culture in which you live or our children–not some imagined future–our children will face the results of our obstinance. In this case, the sins of the parent will be visited upon the child.
Can you speak about how communities can come together to create initiatives that combat climate change on a small/meso-level?
We are not going to recycle our way out of this situation. We are in a global crisis in large part because we overconsume and do not recognize or value the humanity of people we do not know, let alone valuing non-humans as anything other than resources.
Our systems are built on a foundation of colonialism and slavery, racism, dehumanizing worldviews, and greed. Different economic and social systems have to be implemented in addition to using different forms of energy. I imagine many of these ideas and worldviews are old and hopefully have not been lost to assimilation and genocide.
I also believe that those with power will do everything they can to maintain their power, no matter the consequences. Change may come by force. Whether forceful or peaceful, I fear the level of transformation our species needs to survive may come too late.
What can you do today? Disengage from capitalism whenever you can. Plant gardens and share your produce. Buy locally produced items from small farmers and artisans. Repurpose items. Walk or ride a bicycle wherever you can. Do you have opportunities to generate power through solar panels or wind? Can you use drip irrigation for your crops? Do you know how to sew or make cloth or preserve food? Can you move out of a densely populated area and live in or near a village or rural community? (Revitalization of rural areas and small towns is a vital survival strategy.) You don’t have to know how to do it all, but someone in your circle needs to, so that your community can be self-sustaining.
Create communities that are self-supporting and self-nourishing. Recognize that all beings have value. Any time you eat a steak or a salad or make a table from wood, you are taking a life to sustain yourself. Honor that. Give back to the environments that sustain you.
Most importantly, become an activist. Whether you care about water or trees or clean air or seeds, FIGHT for a community that is based on respect and care.
Our system will strip this planet of every “resource” long before we have the scientific means to replace those “resources” or leave the planet a wasteland to find a new one.
Elinor warns us that we are either part of the solution or part of the problem. Being part of the solution means a radical transformation in how we live, to be humbler, more respectful, more connected, and more compassionate with one another. Those are the values that will carry us through this crisis, if we are to survive.
Can you recommend another religious-themed book that discusses climate change?
I don’t know that I have an idea on another cli-fi book that has a religious theme. I wrote The Path to God’s Promise because there was a void in the market. Where I live, in the Pacific Northwest, it’s often certain Christian groups that are climate deniers, suggesting that if the climate is changing, it’s God’s will and God will fix it if God wants. To me, this is a misunderstanding of what prophecy is. Prophecy, in the Jewish tradition, is always a warning to change course. Not only did I write a Jewish-themed book because I am Jewish, but to go back to the prophetic roots from which Christians borrow and examine the issue of climate change from that vantage point.
Constance “Ahuva Batya” Scharff, PhD is an internationally recognized speaker and author on the topics of addiction and trauma recovery, the psychological impacts of climate change, and women’s mental health. She is the founder of the Institute for Complementary and Indigenous Mental Health Research. Her writing centers around using complementary health and contemplative practices to improve mental health treatment outcomes and wellbeing. She is a passionate advocate for decolonizing mental healthcare and incorporating indigenous practices and ontologies into healthcare services, as well as radical social transformation to lessen the impacts of climate change. Dr. Scharff is a recent recipient of St. Lawrence University's Sol Feinstone Humanitarian Award, honoring her service to and advocacy for those suffering from mental illness, trauma, and addiction. She regularly travels the world speaking, teaching, and advocating for compassionate health practices that destigmatize mental health problems and sociocultural adjustments to improve human existence and experience. An award-winning, bestselling nonfiction author, Dr. Scharff’s debut novel, The Path to God’s Promise, is released in autumn 2023.
In her contemporary novel Land Marks, coming in April 2023, MaryAnn Lesert shows a character deciding to take action, rather than watch:
The night before, talk in camp had turned to NorA’s Great Lakes tunnel. A ludicrous and as yet unverified NorA scheme to replace the aging pipeline under the straits with a 99-year tunnel that would take ten years to build, a tunnel dug deep into the sands of the straits, a tunnel that would hold two pipes to carry the sticky tar sands bitumen and the chemicals needed to make it flow.
The same lubricants and dispersants used in fracking, the same chemicals that had caused the formation of Koosh-ball-like clumps of organics and synthetics that the locals along Tallmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River had fished out of the water and stored in canning jars, showing anyone who would listen. The cleanup was not working.
The same administration that we just learned had poisoned Flint’s water was making secret 99-year deals with NorA for a project that would split the Great Lakes in two. Here and now, the idea of a Super Frac seemed as threatening and as ludicrous as any. Tomorrow, it would be a tunnel. Not because any of it made sense. No. Because they could.
We could never let our guard down. We might win, place by place, but beaten, their plans will fester. They will drill into the bedrock for whatever mineral or gas or liquid they want. They will burrow into the big lakes, disrupt the ancient glacial basin forever, all with some flimsy conduit or a concrete barrier between violence and water. Why? Because they can.
To feel a part of land and water and sky, to love rocks and rivers and the life that knows them, brought so much joy and so much grief.
“Levi? I’m so tired of watching.”