Secular Prophets

Michael Metzger

When we ignore prophets in the faith community, do secular prophets fill the gap?

There’s a great body of literature on “secular prophets”—perceptive people who presciently see the way things are headed. Winston Churchill fits this category. He warned of the rising menace of Nazism while most of the faith community slept.

Elizabeth Kolbert also fits the definition of a secular prophet, at least in my opinion. Her 2014 Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Sixth Extinction, examines how we’ve devastated the natural world. Kolbert’s a prophet, a secular one at that. In a recent interview, she was asked, “Are you religious?” No, she replied.

I feel Kolbert’s new book is also prophetic. Under a White Sky examines whether we can remedy global warming with ingenious technological fixes—or make things worse. So far, the prospects don’t look particularly good, which explains the book’s title.

It comes from a proposed solution for global warming: filling the atmosphere with a million tons of sulphur dioxide. This will reflect the heat of the sun back into space. But the benefits will be temporary, so annual applications are necessary. This will likely alter the spectrum of light so profoundly that the blue heavens will fade, leaving us all living under a white sky.

Sound attractive? No, but Kolbert rightly notes that most of our proposed solutions to solving the climate crisis come from a very small circle of tech people trying to solve the very problems created by tech people trying to solve problems. That’s another way of saying we’re trapped in a hall of mirrors, which is how Iain McGilchrist characterizes a society that biases the left hemisphere of the brain. He calls the right hemisphere “prophetic” for it sees the bigger picture, as does Kolbert.

For instance, she warns how we opt for solutions that don’t require changing our habits. We instead just change our technologies, as river managers in Arkansas did in the 1960s in response to Rachel Carson’s warnings about pesticides. Instead of curbing their use, they imported Asian carp to eat nitrogen-overloaded algae. Disaster followed.

The carp escaped from the treatment ponds, devastating the Mississippi river system. Each ensuing year, solutions became more and more outlandish (and expensive). Physical barriers, electrification, poisoning, bubble-and-noise deterrents, bounty fishing and, finally, an $18 billion scheme drawn up by the United States Engineering Corps.

Yet even a secular prophet doesn’t see it all. Kolbert looks mainly to secular authorities, like sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, who frames the crux of the climate crisis this way: “We have paleolithic brains, medieval institutions and space-age technologies.”

Uh, not quite. Prophets in the faith community would reframe Wilson. We have a brain that yields a mind, which forms our conscience, that shapes our moral imagination. Properly ordered, these capacities give us the ability to change our habits… not just our technologies.

This view of human nature gave rise to medieval institutions. The assumption was sustaining habits requires supporting institutions. These institutions gave rise to technologies benefiting all, which is why technology was originally considered a branch of moral philosophy.

But that was long ago and far away, when the western church operated inside the arenas that gave rise to technologies. Today, it’s an outsider in the tech world.

But God so loves the world that he might choose to have secular prophets fill the gap, even if they don’t get it right on every point. I’m not sure Kolbert’s entirely correct, but she is prophetic when she writes, “The United States pays little heed to its pre-industrial history.”

Prophets in the faith community agree. One puts it this way: “We are not a culture that never understood what a human being was in his nature… Rather we are a culture that, having once known these things, has decided against living them or understanding them.”[1]

Amen. We’re products of the Enlightenment culture. We assume we’re thinking beings. We can think our way out of global crises without having to alter our cherished habits. Prophets in the faith community would remind us that, made in God’s image, we’re response-able—we have a moral responsibility for people as well as the planet. This calls for changing some of our technologies. But it also calls for changing some of our consumerist habits.

Kolbert doesn’t see this happening at present. We’re more inclined to change our technologies, hoping our western habits are not impacted. “That is a really dangerous combination.” She’s right, but I pray for the day when prophets in the faith community are saying what Kolbert is saying… but are taken seriously in not only the church but in the wider world as well.


[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Random House, 1963), 9.


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