“All your waves and billows have gone over me.” (Ps. 42:7) The Psalmist was referring to a spiritual state of abandonment, using terms reflecting a sense of helplessness in the face of events beyond human control.
The floods that struck England and Wales last weekend, for the second time in as many weeks, were a similarly traumatic experience for those who lived through them.
The fragility of the structures on which we rely to sustain us in our highly developed, complex Western world is thrown into sharp relief by an unexpected burst of rain.
A study in the influential journal Nature indicates this heavier rainfall is being caused by man-made climate change, and that we can expect to see more of it. And aside from the misery caused to many individuals, the floods show how our increasing technological sophistication has led to increasing vulnerability. Natural events have a disproportionate effect on ever-larger numbers of people.
In our country, this results in the closing of the M5 motorway, affecting thousands of people, rather than hundreds, because so many more of us have cars. We can cope with that. Even those who have had their homes destroyed are still part of a society which guarantees a minimal standard of care for them.
But elsewhere in the world increasing pressure on scarce resources of land or water means that drought which would have starved hundreds now starves thousands; a tsunami which would have killed thousands now kills tens of thousands.
The response of earlier generations to such events would have been to turn, in fear or in hope, to God. Nowadays it is to turn to the technology whose abuse is causing them, with the hope that the science which preserves life will win the race against the science which is destroying it.
In that way, the optimists argue, we can have it all: energy and transport which is cheap but clean. We don’t need to change our lifestyles; the boffins will deliver, and soon everyone will be able to live as well as we do, and in fact we will live rather better.
They may be right. We should hope so, because the notion of a whole society denying itself its accustomed comforts for reasons of altruism is moonshine. We want to drive, we want to fly, we want air conditioning and even, for goodness’ sake, patio heaters–and we won’t give them up unless we have to.
There may well be a consensus among our political leaders that climate change should be slowed down if possible and that in any event its effects should be mitigated. But the party that wins a green election will be the one that promises us that we can do that without changing our behavior too much.
A Christian response to this global community fragility will have different facets. We will want to question the assumption that an increase in consumption–of power, goods and services–is inevitable, and to bear witness to our values by being moderate in our own ways.
We will be very clear about our society’s responsibility to its vulnerable members. For instance, these recent events have thrown up a sharp distinction between people who are well insured against flood damage, and those–because they have barely or not enough for their needs–for whom insurance was a luxury they couldn’t afford.
We will stress the connectedness of human society; our actions impinge on each other in ways we don’t always foresee, sometimes because we haven’t wanted to. Above all, we will as Christians want to bring an eternal perspective to bear on all experience.
It is foolish to describe last weekend’s events as an Act of God in the same way that we might say Noah’s flood was. But God still acts, if we have eyes to see and wisdom to discern.