Like so many in various parts of the country, we’ve been battered recently by gale-force winds and deluged by torrential rain. Unlike many, we’ve been fortunate to get through pretty much unscathed on our farm, although of course much of our planting is delayed. Recently we even saw a rainbow – a beautiful, rare gift. Between it and all this rain, I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of Noah.
It’s a familiar Bible story: aggrieved at human lawlessness, God sent a flood to destroy all life on the Earth, except Noah, his family, and the animals he crammed into his floating zoo. When the flood waters finally receded and Noah struck dry land once again, God made a covenant with him, marked by a rainbow, vowing never to pull such a stunt again.
The story of this covenant has long served as a firm foothold for my faith in the face of potentially catastrophic planetary disasters, whether climate change, nuclear winter, or the rogue asteroid strike or calamitous volcano eruption. Surely, I’ve told myself, the underlying existential truth of the Noah story (whether or not there ever was such a historical figure or even such a flood) is the faith-fired conviction that God will not allow us to destroy ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we’re not called to good stewardship, of course, but just that God will somehow intervene before we drive our species (and so many others) off the cliff of existence.
These days, however, I’m a little less certain of this. I do believe, with Teilhard de Chardin and others, that God is drawing the entire Creation toward some wonderful fulfillment, and so in the long term and the big picture, nothing is wasted in God’s economy of salvation. What is less clear to me, however, is whether I can assume, in an unimaginably vast, unimaginably old, constantly evolving universe, that human life on the little blue-green planet has a divinely-underwritten lifetime guarantee. I affirm that our species has extraordinarily unique value (and responsibility) as creatures made in God’s image, but with human freedom being what it is, what’s to say that God won’t have to start over with Humanity 2.0 or 3.0 or 10238, either on this planet or elsewhere?
Obviously, I can’t know what’s in store for us or our planet, nor do I have much leverage to influence events on anything but the smallest of scales. What I can do, however, is exactly what Noah did: build an ark.
Building an ark doesn’t mean finding some way to make me and my family impervious to whatever difficulties might unfold in the future. That is the impossible fantasy of doomsdayers with bomb shelters full of horded food and guns. I’m not interested in mere self-preservation; I’m not aiming to ensure that everything is honkey-dory for me and mine while turning my back on the foolish bridesmaids who brought no oil for their lamps and are condemned to their own dark, depraved future.
I’m very interested in the preservation of the lives of all individual human beings, as well as the vast cultural, technical, and spiritual knowledge our species has amassed over millennia. The latter is already under threat as globalization bulldozes the uniqueness of particular peoples into a homogeneous heap. Many of us and much of our cultural accomplishments could go lost if environmental catastrophe (or simply the end of cheap energy and materials) knocks us several steps down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Enter the ark. The best examples I know of ark-building come from the Benedictines, a religious order founded in the early 6th century, amid the collapse of theWestern Roman Empire. Amid the cultural chaos that followed in the Dark Ages, Benedictines labored away in their arks, a.k.a. monastic communities, patiently rebuildingEurope’s shattered agriculture, copying and passing on its manuscripts, and preserving the best of Western culture for its revival centuries hence. Unlike Noah’sArk, monasteries were not sealed up against the outside world; indeed, they served in those difficult times as engines of education, economy, civic life, and of course, religion.
If business as usual turns into business as very unusual, humanity will need a whole fleet of arks. We will need them not only to preserve people and their collective cultural knowledge (along with other non-human members of the biosphere); we’ll need them to carry the torch for what is even more essential: loving-kindness, gentleness, and generosity. These qualities are true fruits of the Spirit, so essential for meaningful existence (or any existence!) and yet so easy to abandon in times of trial.
My family’s ark is neither a boat nor a gated fortress, but a small farm. It is a place where we try to cultivate the essential arts of family and community life; the knowledge and skills involved in growing food and householding; the practices of prayer and worship; the joys of music and laughter and great meals – what I hope is a path of sanity in a wider culture whose sanity I often question.
Even as we craft this ark of resilience and self-reliance, I know how fragile the whole enterprise is. I know how absolutely necessary it is to lash our ark to the next to the next, and even so, how easily the whole thing could founder. And even as we build our ark, I hope and pray that the very process of building it will make it superfluous, and that Humanity 1.0 finds a way not only to survive, but thrive. May the waters not rise; may the rainbow shine and the covenant hold; may all flesh see it together.