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Love, Fear, and Anger

February 21, 2024

In this month of Valentine’s Day and the start of the 40-day Christian season of Lent, I think of the love I have for my spouse and for humanity. Love of humanity may seem surprising coming from an ecologist leading a sustainability center, given that some strands of environmentalism seem downright misanthropic. From my view as an ecologist, however, humans are part of nature. This year’s Ash Wednesday, celebrated on the same day as Valentine’s Day, was a potent Christian reminder of the humility that comes with seeing humans as part of nature. To kick off the period of Lenten penitence, many of my fellow Christians and I had a cross of ashes smudged on our foreheads with these words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Can there be a more poignant reminder of the cycle of life, including humans?

Each of us has our own, often unspoken, understanding of our place in the world and what it implies for our work. I can speak only from my Christian faith tradition, in which love of humanity has always been inextricably bound to love of nature. Indeed, much of my own research work at the science-policy interface has been built on the conviction that there is mutual dependence – as well as beauty – in the relationship between people and nature.

I believe all humans are created in the image of God, are loved by God, and that I am commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Nevertheless, I often find it difficult – even in theory – to love and seek to understand others who express views that strike at the heart of my convictions. This is especially true of my belief that humans have a moral responsibility to mitigate climate change and correct systemic societal injustices. Instead of love, I am too often likely to respond in fear, which can easily slide into anger or even vilification, which renders mutual understanding and cooperation impossible. Sound familiar?

More than ever, it seems, the collective impact of behavior like mine is fear, anger, and vilification at a societal scale. It is not news that we are deeply polarized. One dimension of polarization that rarely finds the headlines these days, but simmers beneath the more obvious fault lines, is between science and religious faith.

“There’s a fine line between fear and anger,” writes sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund in her 2020 book, “Why Science and Faith Need Each Other.” I’m familiar with the fear and anger at the conflict zone between creationism and evolutionary scientism from my own experience in churches and in teaching general biology at a Roman Catholic university for a decade.

Creationism, intelligent design, and evolution no longer get the headlines they did in the 1980s and ’90s, when there were multiple court cases over what should be taught in public schools. Nevertheless, fear that evolution undermines a basic tenet of Christianity too often prompts angry denunciations of science from Christians. Likewise, fear that academic freedom and science itself are under assault prompts vilification of Christianity from scientists. The most vocal antagonists – who recognize little, if any, validity in the epistemology of their opponents – shy away from seeking to understand the sources of fear, and whether there actually is a conflict.

Fear leading to anger is also an impediment to progress on many aspects of societal responses to climate change and the persistent societal injustices around race and economic welfare, often exacerbated by climate change. The legacy of the fights over creationism contributed to the rise of the Christian right, which, as documented by journalist Tim Alberta in his 2023 book, “The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory,” has, in the pursuit of power, made “others” of people with different ways of thinking. Likewise, the identity politics of the left, even within Christianity – with its emphasis on differences among people and a focus on gaining power – also drives division. A focus on intellectual rigor and argument without anger, including diagnosing climate change and social injustice, has too often been lost. A focus on love of neighbor has too often been replaced by vilification and pursuit of power.

Regardless of our faith tradition, those of us who strive to create intellectual communities capable of both diagnosis and treatment for climate change and related ills must do so with as much love, humility, openness, and objectivity as we as individuals and the peer review process can muster. This is essential if we are to ameliorate the fact that, according to one of Ecklund’s surveys, 25% of evangelical Christians place “hardly any” confidence in colleges and universities.

Repairing rifts and creating common ground is hard, but not perhaps as hard as the dividers would have us believe. In Ecklund’s survey, 86% of U.S. adults do not see science and religion in conflict. Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, Evangelical Environmental Network, and A Rocha attest to this even among evangelical Christians. Stereotypes of polarization often do not, in fact, match reality.

Christianity and other religions offer great opportunity for finding common ground for healing people and the Earth. Within Christianity, the Roman Catholic tradition does not suffer from the same tension between faith and reason as the Protestant tradition. Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” provides a theologically and scientifically informed clarion call for correcting injustice and healing the planet. There are many rich religious traditions to build on, including the concept of stewardship embraced by many Christians and Muslims (khalifah), and the Jewish concepts of shalom (peace) and tikkun olam (healing, world repair).

So during this Valentine’s month and the 40 days of Lent, I will aim to cultivate skills to reduce fear and anger, and increase love, listening, and understanding. Such commitments may sound naïve, but they are the essential foundational skills for pragmatic approaches to problem-solving. If we look beyond stereotypes and work together across whatever boundaries we may have built in the past, we can bring healing in the future.

Learn more about David M. Lodge

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