Life Interrupted: Public Theology for a Planet in Peril

  by Laurie Zoloth

from Currents Fall 2014

The monsoon rains come every summer and only rarely, in the past, would the rains overwhelm the villages. “But now the terrible floods come every year,” says the Kashmiri farmer. Look at the picture of the dry lakebed, result of the worse drought ever. “It’s the hottest year on record,” says the California rancher. “We are fighting the fires like it is a war.” Three thousand miles away, a Brooklyn carpenter laments: “Here’s the line that marks the flooded zone.”

The signs are everywhere. The world is changing. It is happening now.

A changing climate, deepening poverty, and the conflict that attends the quiet disaster—all happening now. The UN committee on climate change (IPCC) reminds us in its latest report that the changes threaten the food supply and particularly endanger the poor who live at the margins of the sea and the desert.

What does this mean for the religious scholars of the Graduate Theological Union in beautiful Berkeley? I believe it means we must live a life interrupted, interrupted by the urgent reality of a world in desperate need—in need of not only technical solutions, but also conversations about what ideas, traditions, and language can help transform how we think and live.

When I came to the GTU as a doctoral student more than two decades ago, I found others who understood the power of religion and its place in our public discourse. Like my colleagues, I studied the texts and traditions of my own faith tradition, Judaism, because I sought language to speak about the poverty, the loss, and the needs of the world. I thought finding new language was the way to begin, for the language of public discourse had become impoverished without the rich possibilities of theology arguments. Worse yet, the talk in the public square, with all its logic and expediency, had failed to provide a reason for moral agency, for simple altruism, or even much attention to the neighbor in need.

Of course, none of this is news to any member of the GTU community—then or now. For years, the GTU’s scholarship has been distinctive in its steady commitment to the project I will call “public theology.” Like so many other GTU graduates, I have sought to maintain that emphasis in my own scholarship. 

When I was elected president of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) last November, I thought a great deal about how to make public theology the center of our work. I felt initial disciplinary duties to my own field of bioethics, wanting to bring the intensity and passion of our discipline and all our tumultuous questions to the fore. But so often, our questions are about singular dramas—one individual in a hospital bed, one disease in a particular lab, a particular cell, a particular viral vector.

However, increasingly, when I have spent time with scientists or public health physicians, the talk has turned to something far larger: the way a slowly but dramatically changing climate has begun to alter everything. By this, they meant the way the pH of the sea was set, and how the currents beneath it ran; how the forest cover on the Sierras would fail; how the poles would warm, and the villages on the permafrost would shatter; how the insects could spread, and the arable land disappear. Scientists who studied malaria spoke of the changing range of the hosts. Scientists who studied coral reefs spoke of their destruction. Physicians described how the loss of land would lead to famine, and how drought drove migration into overcrowded cities. Synthetic biologists turned their attention to new fuel sources and drought-resistant cassava plants. Pediatricians at the medical school spoke of how more poverty, more hunger, and more crowding was giving rise to new epidemics and the return of old terrors like measles and whooping cough—and worse, the new opportunistic diseases that came from the expanding tropics, like Dengue fever or Chikungunya.

My science colleagues would ask: What are you doing? But within the humanities, there seemed to be no particular urgency about climate change. In religious bioethics, I found little concern expressed about the topic. In bioethics, we have acted as if the most important threat to children is that they might be plotted as “designer babies,” or that what threatens our freedom is hidden fMRIs, both technologies that remain impossible.

But it is clear that the future is indeed deeply in peril. The physical world is fragile and in significant danger. This is not merely a “social construct,” as we say in the humanities, nor a science-fiction fantasy, but an actual fact, as they say in the sciences, a proven theory. I now argue that climate change, and the way that it threatens the lives of the most vulnerable, must be a critical focus of scholarship, thought, speech, and action in our field. Thus, the selection of climate change as the theme for the 2014 AAR Annual Meeting. If we could change our lexis, we would change our praxis.

Consider this thesis: Scholars in religious studies and theology have duties to the world. Why?

First, while the capacity to live in our society is a privilege that is contingent on responsibilities carried by all persons, I believe we scholars hold more profound obligations. Many of us live in worlds that are relatively protected, socially and physically. Our campuses, even if they are community colleges in the inner cities, are still protected by special police, still lighted and paved, lined with trees, possessing libraries with open access to millions of texts, with safe and healthy foods, watered lawns, and tidy places to put our used Volvos and new Prius cars. It is a world beyond imagining for the vast majority of the world’s poor.

Furthermore, we often teach women and men who will wield public and corporate power over the lives and worlds of millions. Our place, our location, our relative status as members, in this sense, of Pharaoh’s court, implies a duty, for we are as Joseph, the interpreters and analysts of the dreams of the past and the projects of the future, complicit in the organization of economies, the order of statecraft and institutions. Or, to offer another textual example, we are as Daniel, finding ourselves in the court to interpret and enact the dreams of the powerful. And in this role, we teach texts of strong and persistent justice, biblical texts that must be spoken even in exile.

We have obligations that arise from the brokenness of the world, a contingent, fragile and unfinished project that, on its own, at the moment of rupture, interrupts the constancy of our being and pulls us to attention. The other side, in the moral sense, of the world’s brokenness is the fact that we have the ability to repair—and this “can” implies “ought.”

There are other reasons: What I do and how I live are moral acts—every single gesture. While the gestures seem innocent, they are cumulative and set in motion a chain of actions that is part of the systemic order of the world. And the production, exchange and consumption of the goods and services are shaped so that the vast majority of wealth is controlled by a few, at the expense of the lives and the health of the poor majority.

We are the sort of creatures, as any Kantian will note, that are possessed of a “plight” and this plight is that we cannot not act. There is no “doing nothing,” for the doing of nothing is a something, a moral act, one in which you support the existing constructs of carbon use and the policies of the energy companies, and it looks for all the world like you are then acting as if you have a duty to them, one that you enact every time you get into the car. As scholars of scripture who know this and who are deeply aware of the special regard scripture has for the poor, we have a duty to speak to this regard.

Our abundance as Westerners creates special duties, for climate change is related closely with the way that each one of us live every day. In our abundance and our ease, we are, in that sense, the perpetrators. We are, as Emmanuel Levinas noted, all “dwellers in the Cities of Refuge,” biblical cities set aside for people who have committed manslaughter, not intending the death of another, but being careless or morally blind.

Finally, we have a duty that emerges from the blunt fact that in scriptural texts we think important, the point is made over and over again: Your moral activities can affect the rain, the harvest, and the health of everything you love. The link between moral choices and material outcomes is made continually, and it is received and studied toward normative action. The texts suggest the interruption of desire, of consumption, and of acquisition. They link that interruption to the order of the natural world, of harvest time and planting.

What can I do to interrupt your life? To pull you over and make you attend to this crisis? Consider this scene: Lunch with friendly fellow scholars, who happily eat all around me, and all agree that climate change is coming, that it will be terrible, and that is it foolish to deny this. Yet no one is ready to change their lives, to give up meat on their plate, or to abandon the car for a bike, to change habits of air travel to conferences that we zip in and out of on jet planes. Around us the world changes, but it can seem so far away from this lunch, this choice.

There is nothing I can say here that anyone who reads the daily news does not already know, except this: We must be interrupted; we must stop. To make the future possible, we need to stop what we are doing, what we are making, what we are consuming, what we think we need, what makes us comfortable. We need to interrupt our work—even our good work—to attend to the urgency of this question. For it is, as yet, only a question, one that needs a coherent answer, an answer we have not yet seen. Is our society unable to stop careening toward the deep trouble of the coming storm because we have not fully attended?

I do not know what thoughtful answers might spring from religious scholars devoting their full and serious research attention to the problem of climate change. This year, fully one third of the sessions at the AAR Annual Meeting will address the crisis with a variety of methods, texts, and interrogations. This is a good beginning, but there must be far more. We must work harder. We must do all we can. To live an interrupted life, to live a life of moral attention, is the first duty of the scholar.


Dr. Laurie Zoloth (PhD, 1993) is the 2014 president of the American Academy of Religion, and director of the Brady Program in Ethics and Civic Life at Northwestern University, where she has taught since 2003. Zoloth earned both her master’s in Jewish studies and her doctorate in social ethics from the Graduate Theological Union, and was named the GTU alum of the year in 2005. From 1995 to 2003 she was Professor of Ethics and Director of the Program in Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University. In 2001, she was the President of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. She has been a member of the NASA National Advisory Council, the nation's highest civilian advisory board for NASA for which she received the NASA Public Service Medal, the NASA Planetary Protection Advisory Committee, and the Executive Committee of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. She also chairs the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Bioethics Advisory Board.