High above Yosemite Valley, I've just descended to a set of rappel anchors - two bolts set in the rock, solid and secure but looking very small amid the shimmering granite extending above me, below me, to the left and to the right.
I get ready to lean back on the anchors and pull the rope to set up the next rappel. Before doing so, though, it's always good practice to eyeball the system one last time, to make sure that the set-up is correct.
Time contracts. Bile rises. Then a long, slow exhale.
I had not been clipped in to the anchor. Lean back confidently, like so many times before, and I would go a thousand feet to the talus below.
The moment passes. I correct the error, pull the rope, continue the descent. And I breathe a prayer. Thank you, Lord, for keeping me safe this time. Thank you for restraining the consequences of my own foolishness. Thank you for the family who I will see again. Thank you for the richness of the life that I can experience because you preserved me through this moment. Thank you.
What kept me safe? Was it the automatic routine of the safety check? Or was it the providence of God? He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. (Psalm 91) I answer "Yes" to both questions. One explanation does not disallow the other one. We may not understand how it works, but God's loving care and the network of secondary causes are enmeshed together, so that we may experience both - even intensely! - through one and the same heart-stopping moment.
What is disallowed, though, is to use the second explanation to overrule the first: to behave recklessly because I think God has made me disasterproof in advance. You'll remember that the Devil tempts Jesus using the same verse I already quoted from Psalm 91:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down".
Jesus responds: "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test". (Matthew 4:5-6)
I'm thinking of this story in response to a note I received from a fellow-Christian whom I greatly respect. Talking about climate change, and how he has tried to understand the scientific questions, my friend goes on to ask whether God would not have created an earth system that had a "greater ability to adapt to human brokenness" than climate science seems currently to imply.
In other words, would God really allow us to screw up so badly? Would he really allow the positive feedbacks to take over? Would he really allow the law of gravity to carry John's body and all his hopes and loves and dreams, inevitably, thirty-two feet per second per second, all the way to the deck?
There's no arrogance in my friend's question. He isn't looking for a divinely mandated freedom to exploit. He knows that we humans are broken and greedy and destructive, and that God in Christ acts to redeem us and make us new. He simply wonders whether we can draw on that divine action for an assurance that our race won't irreparably damage this beautiful place that God has given us - and all future generations - to inhabit.
I don't think we can.
Yes, climate science is a lot more complicated and uncertain than the law of gravity. But as far as anyone can tell, we are on that ledge right now, and getting ready to lean back. It's time to check the anchor system.
If we see the danger and avoid it, that will be time for a shout of God-directed celebration that will be a billion times louder than my little thanksgiving on the Yosemite cliff. But that future thanksgiving is not a balance that we can raise a loan against today, a guarantee of protection, an assurance that things won't get as bad as all that.
You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.
Picture of the author, South Face Route, North Dome, Yosemite. Courtesy of Karl Bralich.