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Tap Dancing at the Cataclysm

10/15/2012 12:46 pm ET | Updated Dec 15, 2012

So there are two ants on a hill, see, and both feel the ground tremble and boom. They notice a gargantuan creature -- a sky-high behemoth -- walking toward them. One ant says to the other ant: "Human: better run." The other replies: "No worries. Humans would never hurt us because I've constructed a psychological/sociological grid -- a theoretical model, if you will -- of a human being. And, in my model, humans are always merciful saps who'd never think of overturning a single grain of sand on our hill. I've even been to conferences -- and we conferees voted, and it was a landslide: Everyone beside the fanatical hold-outs agreed that humans would never, ever ..." Splat!

Hold that thought.

I usually call doom on prophets of gloom and doom because they slobber over catastrophe like mutts chomping Purina. They want gloom. They're disillusioned when God grants mercy and the planes land and the ships dock and the forecasted plague becomes a mere rash. So far be it from me to predict bedlam. It's not my style. I'm forever hopeful, a lemonade-out-of-lemons kind of guy, always grinning at my half-full glass.

But a question nags: What if we really are blowing party horns at the Apocalypse? What if all those dire warnings of climate change are valid? World-wide cataclysm can happen. Honest. No fooling. Think of 14th-century Europe: The Black Death killed off about 40 percent of the population (give or take a few). And don't forget the 20th century with its world wars and depressions and gulags and death camps and forced starvations and holocausts and genocides. And there are this century's earthquakes, tsunamis and oil spills. Apocalypse occurs, but we contemporary Americans can't wrap our fingers around it. We think our "normal life" is, in fact, "the norm": Plagues, famines and natural disasters are rare exceptions. They violate our image of gracious Mother Nature, who courteously warns the weather forecasters whenever we need a sweater.

I remember hiking on blackened snow on Mount Rainier during a cross-country bicycle trip in June of 1980, a month after Mount Saint Helens detonated. A pretty woman called from higher up: "You can see Mount Saint Helens from here!" and I was with her, in a flash -- to see the volcano, of course. There it was: Amiable Mother Nature morphed into Lizzie Borden with an ax. The pretty woman described last year's college research project in which she saw how the time was ripe for cataclysm, but she couldn't fathom her own conclusions. She handed in her own paper of dire warnings, thinking: "Nah." We were both staring at the "no" to her "nah:" A blown mountain threatening to blow again. I suddenly realized my bicycle provided little shelter from pyroclastic flows. I dashed out of the Pacific Northwest and never saw the pretty woman again (haul out the violins).

I think of her and I think of climate-change deniers shouting "nah!" despite the evidence, draping themselves in the American flag in the process. At least she admitted she was rationalizing. This gets really confusing when we throw God into the mix and suggest, just for kicks, that the biblical portrait of the Almighty is true. That means God has shown tremendous mercy because we're not greasy spots yet. It means God is huge. It means God knows everything knowable. It means God possesses that politically incorrect characteristic, the one spawning plagues of blood, frogs, gnats, flies, farm animal deaths, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the first born -- and the desert floor yawning and swallowing people -- and Sodom and Gomorrah.

God gets mad.

We'd prefer He didn't, but our preferences for a patient-at-all-costs deity merely illuminate our desires. I'm sure ants would choose sanguine humans who love ruined gardens, but we kick over their hills and spray extinction on entire civilizations. Such is the price of juicy tomatoes.

The more constructive question is not whether the Lord gets outraged, but why. Suddenly, I'm not comfortable. God's first commandment to humanity was to "rule" over his creation. Human beings were God's designated managers, or stewards. "Rule" did not mean "dominate" or "abuse," but to nurture: witness the language in Genesis 2:15, which says God placed individuals in the Garden to "work it and take care of (or guard) it." In other words, God did not give us the go-ahead to destroy the Amazon Rain Forest, pollute the sky, punch holes in the ocean floor to support an unsustainable transportation system, and pump enough CO2 into the atmosphere to melt the polar ice caps. We're violating God's first command. We're like ants, ruining the Creator's garden.

Tremble and boom.

This is heavy stuff from a glass half-full guy, but there may be someone in the room with a cocked gun aimed at the glass -- and he's got all the lemons packed in a bag. No lemonade this time. I've come to agree with Carlene Byron: Recent incidents would have propelled previous generations onto their knees, but we're like that second ant, standing on a brittle syllogism: "A) I believe in God: B) I want God to be nice, kindly and never angry; C) Therefore, God is always nice and kindly and never angry." Such reasoning breaks on the anvil of common sense, historic theology and the routines of "normal life," which involve cataclysm.

To put it bluntly: Why wouldn't God be furious at creatures who flagrantly defy His first command? We've even manufactured the triggers for our own apocalypse...

So many reasons for divine wrath; so many lit matches for the conflagration -- all in a nation blind to cataclysm's normalcy.

I hope others don't wish me doom as I ponder the gloom and ask: Is our civilization stumbling like a Hell-bent drunk toward the real normal life?