The crisis of creation

According to the Torah, the role of humanity in relation to the physical earth is to be the steward for the Lord’s creation. This task requires both a radical and a conservative approach to human survival. Radical in the sense that in order to survive, humans must alter the earth’s biosphere in such a way as to have invented agriculture and civilization, yet conservative enough not to unhinge the same biosphere through limitless alterations. Stewardship holds within itself a Divine constriction which enables change, yet restricts human action to a kind of “creation maintenance” to uphold the balance and order of the Creator’s original and resilient blueprint. This stewardship of creation represents a partnership between the Creator and those being created in the Creator’s image (us) to protect the rest of creation. Only humans have been created in the Creator’s image.

Within Judaism, humans are conceived (unlike the rest of creation) as both physical and spiritual beings, simultaneously. We are spiritual in the sense that, not only can we conceive of a non-physical first power, but we also have the free will to follow (or not) the moral laws established by that first power. The choice is ours and ours alone. Morality and free will are the Divine qualities which separate humans from the rest of physical creation. But like Yom Kippur, fasting and prayer can only last so long.

After twenty-four long hours, the human body begins to cry out for nourishment. If anything, Judaism is a spiritual system for the material earth. The very act of the breaking of the fast at the end of the highest of Holy Days accentuates dramatically the unity of the spiritual and the physical, the Creator with the self-aware creation (humanity). It is an embrace of moral responsibility with the Divine through the instrument of physical denial (the fast). In other words, if we love and honor the Creator, we must hold sacred our responsibility to the creation, which is in part ourselves. We must love and respect ourselves and our fellow creatures.

Yet this sacred trust, to be stewards to all of creation, has become disrespected and, for the most part, discarded by a secular world devoid of rationality and without a moral or religious compass. This secular world is not necessarily the scientific world, but rather the political and economic masters of that scientific world. This secular world has premised upon the erroneous assumption that the growth of human artifacts can become a permanent condition of the world’s physical systems, and that any limits to this growth imply a breakdown of human society. Not only is this premise false, it is certainly unscientific. In fact, science knows that the opposite of this falsehood is indeed the truth, i.e.: Continuous growth is an impossibility, and the attempt to achieve such an outcome will certainly fail. In the process of this vain attempt to re-create the world in a image of ourselves (a material cornucopia without limit), we will instead bring about the breakdown of human society (the Tower of Babel). This most likely will happen through the failure of humanity’s unique life-sustaining physical artifact–its agriculture.

In Judaism, through the writings of Maimonides, a multitude of rabbis had already made their peace with science and rationality ages ago. Now, more than ever, the advances in our own understanding of both the earth and the universe (geophysics and physics) have dramatically placed the separation of the Jewish religion and science in the distinct category of an anachronism. Although many scientists still cannot accept the notion of a non-physical first cause (many can), the narrative of the last hundred years of science places Judaism and the modern scientific description on a path of mutuality. Whether it be the indeterminacy of a quantum physics which strangely and counter-intuitively links physical reality with free will, or Einstein’s elasticity of time which corresponds to a human understanding of eons as days, making the Bible and cosmology physically parallel, Judaism and science appear in sync. Whether it be the “Big Bang” theory, giving the universe a beginning, or the unique equivalency of energy (“Let there be light”) with matter (cooled energy), Judaism and science now correspond. Perhaps it’s the scientific search for a unity to the four main physical forces and the belief in a universal order itself. Maybe it’s the realization that the earth is a unique whole, relying on the strength and resiliency of its parts, but determined by their interactions. At this unparalleled moment, science and Judaism have uniquely discovered each others’ narratives.

But scientists don’t make moral judgments. They base their theories on observations. They can’t say that human secular society is sinful, because sin is not a category that science can define. But science does understand the consequences of limitlessness. For instance, if you raise the level of carbon dioxide into the earth’s dynamic systems, eventually the oceans will warm and acidify. If you do this without limit, sea life will die and terrestrial weather patterns will be severely altered. The consequences to global food production will become horrific. The exact modeling of the system-wide temperature gradients might be inaccurate, but the acidification of the oceans is an exact measurement. Science knows the outcome. Ask a New England fisherman if there have been any changes to the North Atlantic’s seafood industry, and be prepared for a “Twilight Zone” description of the tropics gone north toward Canada.

The economic secular press and the organs of mass communication are wedded to the paradigm of growth. All across the planet, the political upheavals of recent years have been inspired by poor people seeking the lifestyles of the wealthier nations of the world. This internet-driven phenomenon has a momentum of its own, as large corporations seek constant access to new markets in order to survive in an irrational system where lack of expansion equates with death. Societies everywhere demand economic growth as a cure-all for unemployment and poverty.

Poor people know the real meaning of death and seek any kind of economic justice, as the press world-wide touts this expansion as physically natural. But science knows differently. It would take at least three mother earths for the world to achieve the level of GDP of the wealthier nations. Science knows that this is physically impossible. Similarly, science knows that the continued attempt to achieve such economic results can only result in an environmental catastrophe. At this moment in human history, the Lord’s creation and the current human economic system have become divorced from each other and appear to be on a collision course.

Science and religion must collaborate if the world is to be changed. Fundamentalist reading of sacred texts assumes that humans can understand the unfiltered words of the creator on an equal footing. Human understanding is first and foremost human and certainly capable of misunderstanding. But the Divine is beyond understanding by mere mortals. Therefore, the words of the Divine must be symbols upon symbols, meant for each generation within the context of their own trials and tribulations. This is Maimonides 101. Therefore, constant interpretation and greater rational refinement is a necessity for an updated theological understanding. Reason is certainly not separate from religion, because reason is the very stuff which defines our ability to survive (our physical reality) and reason inspires us to cooperate (our moral reality). For morality and cooperation are essential for human society to exist. But science doesn’t recognize morality; only religion does. However, if religion is not modern, how can it pretend to possess a social relevancy? Judaism and Islam claim such a theological social relevancy. They do not allow Caesar a social function outside the moral imperative.

The modern unification of science and religion is the only rational way forward. If unlimited economic growth causes mass extinction of multitudes of creatures within time-frames unprecedented in biological history, if the oceans are changing in ways that are indiscernible to human historical cognition, if our ability to grow food is threatened, if the earth is heating to unconscionable levels, then we humans must alter our behavior. Otherwise, our behavior will alter our planet’s capacity to function for us. This is both a rational and moral judgment. Human survival has always depended on human society. Individualism without cooperation becomes anarchy. Anarchy was the world before Noah.

Economics is a human system and must meet human needs. If the system fails, human society fails. Throughout history, countless examples of such failure exist. They were limited, however, to specific times and specific places. Now the situation has changed. Like with nuclear weapons and war, our current predicament is global. But this global world is materialist in nature and lacks a spiritual core and sensitivity.

The secular authorities which run the world no longer perceive its essence through the sacred generational vision of a stewardship within a Divine-human partnership. Economics has lost the sacred trust of human goodwill and moral obligation. Globalism has become a system for material expansion alone. Social relations have ceased to be arenas of moral choice, and are now merely instruments of market-to-market transfers. The rationality of the whole (including the future generations) has been displaced by the unit costs of commercialized particulars. Profits are now accepted as more important than people, in an empty universe devoid of sacred consequences.

We are now at the crossroad of history. Morality has become science, and science morality. Rationality and religion must re-define economics as a sub-system of ecology. Natural resilience and robustness must trump money and greed. We think we hold the future of creation in our hands, but in reality we only hold our own future in our hands. We must either re-discover the spiritual truths of our Torah, or spiral out of control in a nightmare of material self-indulgence. Judaism must lead the way. It’s now or never.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).