Opinion

How climate change challenged, then strengthened my faith (COMMENTARY)

Rosina Pohlmann, photo courtesy of Ryan Snow

WASHINGTON (RNS) Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the ’90s, I was something of a weirdo for believing in God. The majority of my peers rejected religion as a stubborn strain of insanity, but I — the product of an evangelically raised father and a long line of Christianish mystics on my mother’s side — never wavered in my faith. I didn’t accept the typical Sunday school conception of God as a humanlike, vaguely male, invisible conferrer of love or judgment.

But I knew God existed, because when I went to bed anxious or upset, I asked for peace and received it. I knew God existed because I had heard the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and there felt divine compassion for all human pain. Perhaps more powerful than anything, I had seen God in nature.

A helicopter flies over the Hudson River with One World Trade Center and Lower Manhattan in the background, on a hazy day in New York City, on December 6, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Rickey Rogers *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POHLMANN-OPED, originally transmitted on March 11, 2016.

A helicopter flies over the Hudson River with One World Trade Center and Lower Manhattan in the background, on a hazy day in New York City, on Dec. 6, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Rickey Rogers
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POHLMANN-OPED, originally transmitted on March 11, 2016.

Even though I lived in a city of concrete and steel, an intense love for nature permeated my heart and my imagination. I wrote poem after poem on the beauty of the stars and the snow; I can remember sitting in my school courtyard as a light, gray drizzle fell around me, finding a way to describe it in sublime terms.

I was in love with the seasons: those first crisp September days, a clear, satisfying cold at Thanksgiving, snowy winters. The way spring would burst open from the earth around Easter, unfolding with increasing brightness into May and June, and then the hot, lush summer months. These seasonal rhythms were reliable even when other things were not. They were an assurance that God — full of beauty, peace and catharsis — was here with us.


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But I also had a nagging feeling that everything was not all right. There were disturbing reports: The rain forest was burning, the rivers were polluted, the planet was warming. Then, my freshman year of college I saw the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and my tenuous sense of security was devastated — humans were actually changing the climate, and the Earth as I knew and loved it was already slipping away.

The facts were in the science, and the signs were in the world around me. I started to notice that my cherished seasons were unraveling. That crisp fall air was mostly muggy and warm. Winter was becoming warmer and foggier. The summers were hotter. Yet no one seemed to care. It seemed like large segments of the population were more than happy to believe the lies that it wasn’t happening. Worst of all, my assurance that God was with me — with us — had been shattered. How could God allow this to happen?

I graduated from college in 2010, a year and a half into the recession, and moved back to New York City. I went to church, worried about my love life, went out for drinks — but I couldn’t truly live like everything was OK. The specter of climate change stalked my spirit. During the day I gave my best self to a very nice toy company, but at night I was consumed by nightmares in which I looked into the future and saw nothing but scorched earth. I couldn’t imagine someday bringing a child into this. I couldn’t imagine seeing God again through my grief.

But I didn’t stop looking. Eventually, in the midst of my nightmares, I realized that I was being spoken to. There was an urgent voice cutting through the fear: You need to do something about this. You can’t give the best fruits of your day to a very nice company. You have to give them to fighting climate change. So I did. I quit my job. I went to my pastor and talked about how I could begin a climate ministry at our church, because the voice had been specific: It told me to fight climate change with my faith.


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That summer, with the help of my pastors and community, I arranged a “Green Sunday,” and preached from Luke 12:13-21. In the Scripture, Jesus rebukes a man for asking him how to divide his inheritance with his brother, saying, “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” He tells the parable of a rich fool who thinks he is well in his soul because of his great wealth, when in reality, true life only comes through being “rich toward God.” I spoke about the abundance of creation now imperiled by greed, but still realizable if we choose to share it with all God has created and loves. I paused several times to cry: Years of grief over the tragedy and injustice of climate change were pouring out of me.

Rosina Pohlmann, photo courtesy of Ryan Snow

Rosina Pohlmann. Photo courtesy of Ryan Snow

But as I spoke, I felt an overwhelming presence of compassion and love within me, not unlike what I had heard in Beethoven’s 7th and seen in nature as a child — I knew that the Holy Spirit was there with me. After the service, a longtime congregant approached me and said, “The crying was very effective, but you know you can only do that once or twice.” Point taken!

In the Gospel of Matthew an angel tells the pregnant, terrified Mary that through her, Emmanuel — which means “God is with us” — is coming to Earth. When I was younger, God’s presence in nature was affirmation of this. When it dawned on me that creation itself was actually being destroyed, my faith faltered.

Now, I realize that God is revealed to us not only through creation, but even more so through the suffering we feel on account of our love for it. I feel the Holy Spirit within me when I advocate for climate justice, and 10 times more strongly when I see the millions of others doing the same. I see Christ in the faces of those putting themselves on the line to preserve this planet for our children, and I know that God has not abandoned us, but is very much with us.

(Rosina Pohlmann, 27, is a Master of Divinity student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington and works with the grass-roots movement Fossil Free UMC to divest the United Methodist Church’s investment portfolio of fossil fuels.) 

This is the first in a series of occasional essays on how young Americans experience religion and spirituality. Unsolicited submissions are welcome: [email protected]


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About the author

Rosina Pohlmann

16 Comments

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  • Christians need to adopt a broader view of the world. Man is not “destroying God’s creation”. If anything, man may only be making the planet less hospitable to the many species who have evolved to survive in its current state. Climate change has always been happening, and always will as long as this planet exists, whether man is part of it or not. Our presence here represents an infinitesimal slice of earth’s life cycle.

    If or when the current set of species can no longer survive, others will evolve to replace them. The earth will heal, organisms will evolve to feed on all the plastic and other waste we left behind, and the new species will have an entirely different consciousness, ideally without the ridiculous ideas of an invisible man in the sky who makes and controls everything. Don’t worry, the earth will be fine–it’s “been there, done that” countless times before. Man, however, will not be fine ultimately, and there’s no fairy tale in the world that will fix…

  • Climate will do what climate will do. Meanwhile, policy needs to be based on hard facts.

    There are some crucial, verifiable fats – with citations – about human-generated carbon dioxide and its effect on global warming people need to know at

    hseneker.blogspot.com

    The discussion is too long to post here but is a quick and easy read. I recommend following the links in the citations; some of them are very educational.

  • “God is revealed to us not only through creation, but even more so through the suffering we feel on account of our love for it.” YES! And the church must acknowledge and help people process the very real grief we experience in the face of climate change and environmental degradation. (Even denial is a grief response.) What a powerful witness!

  • Preach!

    As DougSlug points out above, humans aren’t hurting the planet so much as they are making it less and less habitable for themselves and the other life that has evolved to survive here and now. But that misses the point: Humans, by are actions, are causing suffering to other humans, and that is wrong and unnecessary. We have the technology, and will develop much more, that will enable us to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. And we will! It’s only a question of how long it takes us to realize that this is right and necessary, and how many more lives – future and present – will be damaged by the effects of climate change because we postponed the inevitable.

    Humankind will look back on the 20th Century as defined by our rapid development due to the availability of cheap energy, and on the first decades of the 21st Century as defined by our callous disregard for the well-being of future generations in favor of our own short-term economic gain (or more accurately…

  • …the short-term economic gain of a small sliver of humanity). We knew! And yet we had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, by people like this author and others like her who recognized the grave injustice and unnecessary suffering caused by our burning of fossil fuels. There is absolutely no doubt about our role in causing global warming – none – the scientific consensus is overwhelming (save a few misguided souls who are being bribed by the fossil fuel industry.)

    And again, we have the technology (it will only improve) and frankly the economic necessity to build an alternative energy economy in the country, before China and etc. corner the market and we lose out on millions of jobs. It’s a no brainer in both moral and economic terms. Cheers, Rosina, for helping others see the moral necessity of climate action!

  • DougSlug, see my comment below; you are right, but you miss the point. Yes the planet itself will be fine. But it is actual human suffering that we are trying to avoid, and that is a moral imperative for all of us, Christian or not.

    Peace

    P.S. You seem to criticize the author’s view of God (“invisible man in the sky…”) but take another, look: she explicitly says that’s not the vision of God she believes in and is motivated by. Seems like a pretty progressive, enlightened (excuse the pun) vision of Christianity and of action based on faith.

  • LOVED reading this! You are so right on! Nature is God, and humans are messing with the divine spirit! Love to hear you preach some day!

  • My ancestors were Norse. They established settlements in Greenland when it was a much warmer climate there and in Europe. Mankind at that time had no significant amount of industrial activity which would have caused this.Now Greenland is freezing cold and you can’t live there like my ancestors did. Maybe the Earth’s normal climate change was a factor in my people becoming Christians!

  • DemoMan, I agree with almost every point you made. The one I disagree with is “There is absolutely no doubt about our role in causing global warming…”. Before you assume I am a classic “doubter”, please consider that I own not one, but two Prius, and I am an engineer quite interested (and knowledgeable) in alternate energy technologies.

    The reason I disagree with this point stems from my engineering background. I don’t believe it is possible to draw that conclusion based on such an infinitesimally small set of data. We have only been monitoring global temperature for around 165 years or so. When one looks at ice core data, it can be easily seen that relatively small fluctuations in temperature similar to what we have measured in that time show up as noise and cyclical behavior spanning thousands (in some cases, many thousands) of years.

    I was merely trying to make the point in my earlier post that we may not have as much control as some would like us to believe.

  • Ms Pohlman’s entire life–if she lives to a 100–will be but a grain of sand on the proverbial beach of time and existence of this planet. This planet has both “warmed” and “cooled” in cycles before and will continue to do so. She has taken in hook, line, and sinker, the belief of “climate change” and its presumptions of human caused global warming and exigent actions deemed necessary right now–this minute–to avert climate catastrophe. She does not seem to be open to the possibility that maybe it’s the sun and its gravitational pull, energy, radiation, etc. that determines this planet’s climate and there is not a damn thing we on earth can do about it. She was a child when Hurricane Katrina hit and all the “climate changers” said there would be more storms, and more violent storms. It has now been almost 12 years since the last hurricane came ashore in the U.S. It’s 60 below zero at points on the South Pole during its current winter, it snowed in both Auckland, NZ, and the Colorado Rockies within the last two weeks. Should we be good stewards of the earth and the resources God has given us? Absolutely, but this current hysteria of “climate change” is secular and humanistic in its origins. We flatter ourselves as human beings if we think we think its just “us” affecting the planet.

  • Typical modern Methodism. It’s about about social issues. I suggest the lady read the Gospels.

  • In the past few years many have written of how “climate change” has become an ideological pseudo-religion to many people. Exhibit A has now been provided.

  • Well, this makes sense. If your brain operates solely on a basis of trusting demonstrably insane sadistic monsters, you’re going to fall into all sorts of cults. Gaia, Christ, Scientology, Urantia Book, doesn’t much matter.

  • Check back in a few more years! Since this writing, there have been disastrous hurricanes in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. It is no longer considered speculation (or a figment of Al Gore’s imagination) that the burning of fossil fuels over the course of a century has affected the climate; indeed, every reputable scientist in the world agrees! Yes, the climate has changed before and during man’s brief tenure and, presumably it will after we leave. That said, it might behoove us to not hasten our exit from this Earthly Plane of existence!

    It’s like this: you live at the bottom of a once-active volcano. Then it starts to rumble and belch out puffs of smoke. Do you stay there, arguing whether to blame God Nature or Man, or do you get the hell off the volcano???!!!

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