Professor Talks Intersection of Climate Change, Faith

laurie zoloth

Laurie Zoloth, a professor of religious studies and of bioethics and medical humanities at Northwestern University, began her lecture Tuesday night by discussing the implications of climate change.

“[Climate change] is the single most important moral issue of our age,” Zoloth said.

Despite its importance, she explained that people devote very little time, if any, to overarching concerns such as climate change.

Zoloth provided her insight on the theological response to climate change as part of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life held its 16th annual Prophetic Voices lecture.

Her lecture, “An Ethics for the Coming Storm: A Theological Reflection on Climate Change,” focused on the moral implications of climate change and how prophecy acts as a common factor that intertwines science and theology.

Though it is often uncomfortable, Zoloth stressed the importance of interruption—allowing the far-reaching problems to become reality instead of fleeing from the unsolved and focusing on trivialities.

“A theology of interruption demands that we attend to the interruption in a different way, which is of course to say, to act as if the interruption were the real, and the other stuff of our lives the distraction,” Zoloth said.


“The time is right now.”

Laurie Zoloth, professor of bioethics at Northwestern University


Zoloth considers this idea closely tied to the Jewish shabbat, to cease as on the day of the sabbath. She explained that it is a moral obligation of humans to cease, to allow interruption, and to integrate that interruption into their reality.

“We are living in the last place,” Zoloth said. “There is no other world for us.”

It is for this reason that interruption is so important, she said. While it is easy to push off the demands of environmental conservation when the consequences are not immediately perceptible, Zoloth believes it is vital now, more than ever, that people call upon themselves to prevent the repercussions of climate change from worsening.

“We shouldn’t say that it can be turned around, because it can’t be turned around, but it can be slowed,” Zoloth said. “To make the future possible, we must stop.”

According to Zoloth, science and theology—two realms that are often considered to be at odds—are united in their importance to the goals of environmental conservation.

“It’s the duty of prophecy—to imagine and warn—that animates both science and theology,” Zoloth said.

Scientists began giving warnings about climate change in 1957 and have become increasingly persistent in recent years. Still, according to Zoloth, these warnings are too often unheeded.

“For scholars of religion, we hear this as prophecy,” Zoloth said. “A storm is coming … and it’s been coming for years.”

Zoloth discussed the prevalence of the prophecy of floods in religious texts. She referenced the story of Noah’s ark in the Bible and in the Qur’an. Floods are also mentioned in many other philosophical and theological texts, including those of Plato and of the Incas. In these texts, prophecy encourages the people to interrupt their desires and consumptions in favor of the order of the natural world.

These texts suggest that there is hope for the future, that if people act now, they could salvage the future. The obvious necessity in this hope lies in action, however, Zoloth said.

“There is no doing nothing,” Zoloth said. “Doing nothing is doing something.”

Zoloth said many people justify doing nothing about climate change by thinking that they can simply put it off for a later date.

People tend to have trouble coming to terms with their own mortality—with imagining a life after themselves. For this reason, problems of climate change, which will primarily affect future generations, are put on the back burner.

“We think we have, if not forever, we have ‘later’ to solve this problem,” she said. “As if the good, American life will always be stable.”

She said people also often disregard environmental action because they view their individual contributions to be insignificant.

“Do not think for a minute that we are powerless,” she said. “The time is right now.”