Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Wildfires, Ethics, and the Biblical

CA wildfires

CA wildfires

David DeCosse

AP Photo/Noah Berger

David DeCosse is the director of Campus Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

The word “biblical” has gotten a bad name of late in American public discourse. Big swaths of American Christianity often use the word as an all-points authority bulletin from God commanding things like the inequality of the sexes or opposition to evolution. In these instances, “biblical” usually signals a fundamentalist reading of the Bible that claims to know with clarity God’s ways on earth – do this, don’t do that, God’s judgment on all of you, the Bible says so, and so forth. 

But the recent wildfires in California point toward the need to recover a better use of the word, not only for the sake of religious integrity but also for the sake of the needed ethical response to the devastating fires.

In short, the Camp Fire – now the most destructive in the modern history of California in terms of lives lost – was positively biblical. By that I mean that its devastation can only adequately be understood in terms of great biblical themes like creation, righteousness, awe, humility, dependence, community, and love.

Thinking about the biblical in this way moves us into a world of vast destruction and anguished mystery. It’s not so easy to read the deeper signs. And we have to be careful. The indistinctness of this way of thinking can’t be used as an excuse. Not knowing for sure what the divine is up to doesn’t mean we get to fall back on the catch-all explanation that the fires are an “act of God.”

That way of putting things masks the human role in these catastrophes. Instead, the fires have clear human causes: climate change, over-stuffed forests, housing construction in fire-prone areas (often driven by the high cost of housing elsewhere), and unstable, overhead power lines.

But no summation of these causes can fully explain the horror of hundred-foot high walls of flame churning through mobile-home park retirement communities. The enormity of the loss – dozens dead already in the Camp Fire – is too great. The pitiless rage of the fire leaves a horrified, humbled silence. Scientific explanation gets us somewhere. Shocked awe and a reeling search for words of comfort fills out the picture.

And, even knowing these causes, the problem is why these causes matter so little to us that we let these fires keep going on.

We care about the lives lost in the Camp Fire. But we have to find the motive to care enough to address the root causes of these fires. And here I think a biblical approach properly considered – and the example of Job from the Bible in particular – can help. Job was a righteous man who lost everything. His friends kept explaining to him why he deserved such divine punishment (though God made clear he didn’t). Job also complained to God – until God set things straight.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” God asks Job in the climactic point of the book. God’s impossible, beautiful questions in part silence Job’s hubris, in part signal the divine love that brought creation into being, and in part point to the inscrutable, ongoing divine power at work in the world.

By listening to such questions, Job’s vision widens to see anew his own responsibility in the context of his dependence on a creative power and mysterious governance of the world.

I think we would do well, with Job, to re-connect the ethical to the biblical, or to the religious, or to the mythical—to place our care for each other and the earth in those vast regions of dependence and wonder, loss and love, humility and hope grounded in the end by a power of creative goodness. Only those categories contain the depth of values at stake in these ongoing disasters. And until we see more deeply into those depths, I don’t think we can muster a sufficient ethical response.  

We like to think we are rugged individuals, staking out our space somewhere in the hills; connected to technology but not so much to each other; dependent on money but not on the earth. But that’s the wrong starting point. Instead, Job’s vision points the way toward the radical dependence that could move us to care.

Nov 19, 2018

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