Earlier this week an intense storm moved through California. My community experienced historic levels of intense rainfall, much as it had five years ago; roads were closed, creeks overflowed, and thousands of people had to evacuate. As I followed the news reports, I couldn’t help but notice a pattern in the language used to describe it. Here are some examples (italics added):
- “Southern California faces another day of punishing rains…” (LA Times)[i]
- “…the latest in a series of atmospheric rivers to pound the state…” (LA Times)[ii]
- “The string of storms pummeling California has proved catastrophic…” (NYTimes)[iii]
- “In Los Angeles, four people escaped after a sinkhole swallowed two cars on Monday night…” (NPR)[iv]
- “We need to be nicer with Mother Nature, because Mother Nature is not happy with us…” (Ellen de Generes’ tweet cited in NPR Online.)[v]
What does this language suggest? Does rain “punish” people like an angry parent? Does a storm “pound” an entire state as if it’s in a rage? A boxer “pummels” an opponent to subdue, demoralize and defeat him – was that why this atmospheric river came our way? Whales “swallow” people in the Pinocchio and Jonah stories — but does asphalt do that? And does “Mother Nature” send an intense torrent of muddy water down a hillside to show us that she is “not happy”?
Of course, the rational answer to these questions is “no.” The language expresses in dramatic terms what severe weather can feel like when we experience it – it’s our human imagination at work. Weather events are not personal acts of cosmic vengeance but are explainable by the laws of physics.
And yet I understand why such language feels appropriate.
I vividly remember in January of 2018 when, for the first time, three of us were allowed to pass through police barricades and evacuated neighborhoods to view the impact of the debris flow on our 26-acre retreat center in Montecito just days before. The mud was deep, viscous, and dangerous — it would pull your rubber knee boots off your leg if you stepped in the wrong spot. Boulders, mud, crunched lumber and twisted oak trees were everywhere. Some of our large buildings had completely disappeared. It was stunning, hard to fathom, and an unforgettable reminder of how fragile life is. Somewhere deep in my primal instincts, it felt personal – like a mighty, conscious force was displaying its power to make a point.
After returning home, I began thinking about stories our ancestors told to make sense of such destruction. Noah’s ark came to mind. I reread it.
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.[vi]
Sounds like the reason the flood happened is that the divine force felt a need to “punish,” “pound,” and “pummel” the corrupt and violent human race, letting the seas “swallow” them all up –because the Holy One was not exactly “happy with us.”
I thought about that. I understood it made sense generations long ago in a prescientific world, but it doesn’t seem plausible to me today. Indeed, the more we learned about debris flows, it became clear that these are routine geological occurrences that have been going on for thousands of years, long before people were living here. Besides, I don’t believe in a punishing God. The storm was not a moral or spiritual event but a phenomenon explainable through the natural sciences.
But I kept pondering the issue. I wondered: “Was human behavior a contributing cause to the severity of this event due to our complicity in global warming?” We can’t blame a Creator or Mother Nature or physics for climate change – that’s on us, on our ignorance, willfulness, stubbornness, and greed. The dramatic intensity of the storm was not an expression of divine judgment but, to some degree, a natural consequence of our past actions. So, if there is a moral lesson carried in the increasing intensity of severe weather events and fires, it’s not about divine intent or a weather system with emotional issues – it’s our selfish behavior coming back to haunt us. We need to be humbled. And we need to take responsibility for our mistakes.
Several weeks later, I was able to return to the property and walk it again. Bulldozers, backhoes, trucks, and work crews were clearing the wreckage of the buildings and trees. The magnitude of what had happened was still astounding. But in many places, green shoots were coming up from the ground. Life was regenerating. Let’s hope the lessons being offered us are not forgotten.
Art work: Noah and the Dove, 13th century, Monreale Cathedral, Sicily
[iii] NY Times. Online, Jan 10, 2023
[iv] NPR Online, January 10, 2023
[v] Degeneres Tweet, NPR Online, January 10, 2023
[vi] Genesis 6: 11-13