Saturday, January 12, 2008

Does American weather affect our theology?

Writer Camille Paglia recently suggested that the extremes of American weather may be part of the cause of the apocalypticism that bedevils American culture. She specifically contrasted American weather with the relatively placid weather on the European landmass.

I think Paglia may be on to something. The continental US is a place of violent weather extremes. Europeans have no comparable phenomenon to our hurricanes, which regularly wreak havoc. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was one of those once-a-century storms, as was the unnamed storm that hit Galveston in 1900, killing some 6,000 people. Likewise, some 99% of all tornadoes occur in the continental US, not to mention the extremes of cold and heat that occur almost every day of the year on our land. "Lesser" weather issues -- such as the extreme drought now gripping the southeastern US, or the firestorms that regularly hit southern California -- are with us so regularly that we tend not to think about them. Anyone who has never lived through a tornado storm -- I've been through 2, and I live in North Carolina, which isn't even a heavy area for tornadoes -- probably cannot understand the sudden ferocity with which such storms hit. (I wonder how folks in other parts of the world see the film The Wizard of Oz, centering as it does around a catastrophic storm, a type of storm found almost nowhere else). Not to mention the end-of-time feel that a monster storm like Katrina can generate in millions of people living in its path.

Apocalypticism in theology is my concern, but an apocalyptic strain runs through American culture in general. Think, for example, about how Americans tend to resolve conflict by violence. We began in a revolution, we needed a war to end chattel slavery -- unlike every other western hemispheric country with a history of slavery -- and we tend to be far more violent as a people than most countries.

Our apocalyptic, end of time theological trends shape a lot of how Americans think. A large number of Americans -- perhaps a majority -- expect a literal, physical, cataclysmic battle between Christ and Satan within our lifetimes, and I suspect that that expectation shapes how these Christians view not only theology but politics.

We like to imagine that our theology is purely a product of thinking and reflection. It's not. A lot of factors play into what we "hear" theologically, and what we throw away. Factors such as weather, climate, history, geography, and our family dynamics can conspire to affect how we talk about God. Knowing that those factors are there -- and trying to understand how they affect us -- are important to right thinking about theology.

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