How to Keep Faith in an Ecological Apocalypse

The old biblical story is no longer working. We need a new one that can provide the same morality, meaning, healing, and guidance

A baroque painting of St. John looking up at a fiery red sky while writing in the Book of Revelation.
Wikimedia Commons

One morning, I woke up from a dream that left my mouth cottony with guilt. In my dream, my young son kept wandering out of his bedroom, red eyed and tousled, to complain that he couldn’t sleep. My partner, Mona, and I, trying to enjoy a few moments of peace after another long day locked in a small house with two energetic children, kept telling him to go back to bed.

“Of course you can’t fall asleep,” I snapped, still in my dream. “You keep getting up.”

“But I’m scared of my blanket.”

How could his blanket scare him? He’d been sleeping under it since he was three. “There’s nothing scary about your blanket. Just go to sleep. I don’t want you to come out here again.”

“Come see,” he insisted.

Angrily, I got up and propelled him back to his bedroom. When I entered his room, I saw what he meant. His blanket was covered with tiny houses. A metropolis had sprung up on the fabric, like mushrooms on a damp forest floor. Each window burned with a weird interior light. I snatched the haunted blanket off the bed and carried it out of the room. Under the frank glare of the light bulb in the hallway, the blanket was ordinary again, covered, as always, with cartoon rabbits. I threw it into the guest room and found my son another blanket for the night. I woke up from the dream feeling sweaty, confused, and contrite.

Dreams leave behind an emotional residue that can colour a day or a week. This one left me coated in self-reproach. I knew I needed more patience. But when I examined my feelings, I realized I was upset, not so much because I’d responded harshly to my worried son but because, in my dream, I’d had no explanation to offer him for the strange phenomenon we had witnessed. Despite everything I knew about the nature of reality, his irrational fears had proven valid. I was faced with the fact that I did not know the way forward. I had no coherent story that explained the world. Having set aside the narrative that sheltered me as a child, I had none to give my children. I had no story that would guide them through the nightmares that I feared would attend their lives. My young daughter had begun to play imaginative games that opened with some variation of “My parents both died. Can I live with you?” I didn’t know what to do.

We need a new story, wrote the late Catholic priest and eco-theologian Thomas Berry. The old story, the biblical one about the creation of the world and the place of humans within it, had sustained us for a long time. It had taught us the meaning of suffering, explained the origins of evil, provided us with purpose, and showed us how to live. In the old story, the primordial human fault was being steadily repaired as human history moved toward its ultimate fulfillment. But the old story was no longer working, Berry said. The old story did not have room for scientific understandings of the 14-billion-year history of our galaxy or the emergence of human consciousness—the moment the universe became aware of itself. A purely secular scientific understanding of the world wasn’t adequate either. It couldn’t provide us with sufficient meaning or the social discipline necessary to lead spiritually fulfilled lives. We needed a story that was both scientific and spiritual, Berry said, a story that could provide morality, meaning, healing, and guidance in an age of ecological crisis. A story with liturgies to celebrate the formation of our solar system and the miracle of photosynthesis and rituals to lament the species we were driving to extinction, each one a unique expression of divine presence. A story that could teach humans about the evolution of life and the mystery of existence and our place as part of an interdependent whole. We would either learn our proper place on earth or we would destroy it.

I grew up in the bosom of Christianity. When I was three, my parents, evangelical Mennonites from southern Manitoba, travelled across the world to Burkina Faso, where they settled in a tiny village of Muslims whom they hoped to convert to Christianity. They brought with them the Bible and Where There Is No Doctor, books full of apocalyptic scenes, grotesque maladies, and DIY remedies for body and soul.

My earliest intimations of the apocalypse came from reading an article, possibly in National Geographic, about the inexorable advance of the Sahara Desert. I remember lying in bed worrying, imagining a future without water. Although the village where we lived was lush and green in rainy season, dry season brought a haze of fine white desert dust that settled in every crevice of clothing and skin and turned the setting sun into a blood-red ball. I knew from reading the Bible that the world would one day be destroyed and God would sit on his throne and sort the sheep from the goats. The sheep, a small minority, would go with God into eternal bliss, while everyone else, including the boys with whom I hunted lizards and played soccer, would be tossed into a lake of fire.

My friend Mamadou, like everyone else in the village, grew the food his family lived on. He tried to teach me to cultivate with his wide-bladed hoe. My furrows meandered, my hands blistered, and my delicate white skin burned in the sun. I taught him to play Uno, riffle-shuffling the deck with a dexterity that made him shake his head. I prayed for Mamadou nightly.

By the standards of middle-class Canadians, my family was poor: our toilet was an outhouse, and we pulled our drinking water from a well. But next to our neighbours in the village, we were millionaires. Children pressed their noses against the screen door of our porch and marvelled at the wonders our house contained. Solar panels on our roof powered electric lights, fans, radios, and my dad’s Toshiba laptop with its mysterious green screen and blinking cursor. We had rooms full of books. We owned the only vehicle in the village, a Peugeot pickup truck, which frequently served as the village ambulance. Mamadou and my other friends constantly asked me for things—Band-Aids, flashlight batteries, pens. I longed to bridge the social and economic abyss between us, but the constant requests nettled me. I could never be sure if they were my friends because they liked me or because they wanted what I had. My awareness of this class divide was sharpened by an unspoken competition among the other missionaries to see who could live most like the locals. If we wanted our neighbours to listen to the good news, the missionary logic went, we would have to live like them. One family built a cluster of one-room mud-brick houses that put our sprawling cinder-block house with its peaked tin roof and colonial porch to shame.

Of course, try as we might to live in true solidarity with our neighbours, it was an impossible bar. Even the most righteously poor among the missionaries still sent their children to boarding school and made emergency trips to a sterile hospital run by American Baptists and flew across the ocean to visit family.

On furlough in Canada, my siblings and I marvelled at cold bricks of cheddar cheese and orderly rivers of cars and electric toasters, carpeted basements. The homes of the generous church people we visited were crammed with things that surely no one in human history had ever needed before: electric shavers, microwave ovens, furry toilet seat covers.

Witnessing these disparities taught me that the world was fundamentally unjust and nothing I could do would alter this fact. And layered on top of my worldly privileges was another unworldly one. After a life of comfort, I would go to heaven; after a life of poverty, my friends would go to hell. I never doubted the inevitability of the apocalypse nor God’s willingness to unleash it. But even as a child, I sensed its gross injustice.

That apocalypse never arrived, although American authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins capitalized on the evangelical fear of it with their sixteen-volume Left Behind series, based on the theological premise that Christ will return one day soon to snatch away the faithful few, leaving the unsaved masses to suffer famine, pestilence, and war. The series sold 80 million copies and was made into a film starring Nicolas Cage. I didn’t read the books, but the feathery voice of Christian rocker Larry Norman crooning “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” still rings in my ears.

I hung on to some version of this eschatology until a contrarian professor at the Bible college I attended in my early twenties pointed out that, in Jesus’s story in the Gospel of Matthew foretelling the end of the age—the story Norman’s song and the entire Left Behind series are ostensibly premised on—the unrighteous are taken and the righteous ones are left behind.

Almost two decades later, I sat in a café, nervously stirring a bowl of lukewarm soup, mustering up the courage to tell my mother I no longer believed in God. I believed in something: a presence or a cosmic current of love or the earth itself. But I could tell there wasn’t enough overlap between her vocabulary and mine—I was rejecting everything she had dedicated her life to.

“I don’t believe in God,” I said. “But I still love god.”

She stared at me through tears and prodded at her dessert with her fork. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

I knew it didn’t. I tried to describe my notion of a spiritual realm intermeshed with the physical one. “I think love is more important than belief, anyway,” I said, trailing off. I was sure it all sounded like garbled fluff to her. The café was closing. We stood up and put on our coats.

“What would it take,” I asked, “for you to recognize that my spiritual search is as genuine and sincere as yours?” She scrunched her forehead and failed to summon an answer.

For me, the apocalypse became real in the summer of 2019. That summer, I read two alarming books—Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction and David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth—and learned more than a few terrifying facts. The last of the world’s forests, which helped regulate rainfall, sheltered species, and influenced ocean currents, were being weakened by a heating atmosphere and were swiftly falling to chainsaws and fire and hungry invasive insects. One million species of animals and plants were threatened with extinction. Carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere had reached a level not seen since before human civilizations evolved.

That summer, the Amazon burned and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro told the Indigenous peoples fighting for the forest’s life to go to hell. A tantrum-prone reality TV show host, unfortunately sitting at the helm of the most powerful country on earth, forged ahead with his plans to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. That summer, twelve municipalities in my home province of Manitoba declared states of agricultural disaster due to drought, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a climate emergency one day and approved a massive fossil-fuel pipeline expansion the next.

The summer of drought gave way to an autumn of deluge. The city of Winnipeg opened its floodway, something that had never before occurred in the fall. A freak storm dumped enough wet snow on the city to tear the limbs from 30,000 trees. Greta Thunberg brought her rebuke to North America by boat from Sweden. As people around the world flooded public squares to urge their governments to answer the climate crisis with the emergency measures it required, 12,000 people massed on the lawns of Winnipeg’s legislative buildings. I was among them, wearing a reflective vest and trying to keep the crowds from boiling over from the designated route. My heart was full of hope.

Finally, the people were rising, and nobody could ignore us. The experience was short lived. Our premier did not make an appearance, and soon thereafter, he cut funding to environmental groups and sued the federal government over its carbon tax. A friend’s five-year-old daughter asked her father if the earth would still be alive when she died, and I cried real tears for my children. As I tried to explain to them what was happening, a hollow helplessness formed behind my breastbone. I wondered once again, as I had many times before, if I should turn back to my childhood faith. Now would be a good time for an interventionist God.

In late October, I dropped off my children with their grandparents and left on a five-day canoe trip, out of reach of Twitter and the onrush of daily news. I went with my uncle, the one who’d given me The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and my cousin, a massage therapist with a degree in environmental science, who, like me, seemed to carry the burden of our imperilled planet as a physical weight on her shoulders. We paddled a coiling seventy-kilometre stretch of the Manigotagan River between granite humps and reedy wetlands, through forests of jack pine and black spruce and trembling aspen and paper birch. Daytime temperatures hovered a few degrees above freezing, but the sloping autumn sun warmed our shoulders and ignited halos among the last golden leaves on the white-trunked aspens along the shore. The river was swollen and rambunctious after the rainy fall. If anyone tipped, we knew we’d have to stop and build a fire to get warm, so we portaged all but the gentlest rapids. On our first night, we pitched camp on a shoulder of pink-streaked granite, tie-dyed with milky white rings of lichen. We sat around the fire as dusk drifted into darkness. My cousin and I talked about ecological breakdown.

“We’re more likely to see an economic collapse than an environmental one,” my uncle said dismissively.

My cousin and I exchanged glances. “It’ll be the same thing, when it comes,” she said.

My uncle leaned back in his camp chair. “Okay. Sure. Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute—”

“I don’t even see what’s the point of doing that,” my cousin interrupted. She started to cry. “I really don’t have any interest in making this into an intellectual exercise. I just want to have a future. We’re way past the point of solving the climate crisis. Now we’re just trying to survive. We’re fighting with everything we’ve got.” My uncle poked at the fire. I stared into the embers and tried to think of something hopeful to say.

The next few days were crisp and lovely. We knew we were tempting fate by canoeing so late in the season, but the river gods smiled, granting us the only few consecutive days of sunlight in that long and dreary fall. We passed otters and beavers and golden-eye ducks and grey jays and leopard frogs and a pair of young moose up to their shoulders in cattails. Around every bend, we startled squadrons of honking swans off the water. We caught and ate a giant pickerel, sautéed with onions and dates.

One evening, my cousin and I stayed up late, sitting around the fire after my uncle had gone to bed. She told me about a man she’d dated briefly who styled himself a backcountry camping aficionado while overlooking her expertise. On their first camping trip together, she’d tried not to laugh as he inflated a blimp-size air mattress. She’d spent the night rolling off his mattress and clambering back on while he snored, oblivious. Eventually, she had concluded that the comforts that came with a boyfriend simply weren’t worth the effort it took to educate him about feminism and consent. I listened and nodded and thought, somewhat sheepishly, about the years Mona had spent educating me about feminism. When we’d first met fifteen years ago, I still believed God had ordained me, as a man, to lead my household. I wondered where our culture would be now if a religion that worshipped a dominating male deity hadn’t so successfully crushed pagan visions of a divine mother. Was it too late to go back?

The good weather held until the last night of our trip. As we pitched our tents on a rock ridge overlooking a chute of narrowing whitewater, the wind picked up and the air darkened with cold. Slivers of sleet pricked the backs of my hands as I lit our camp stove. In the west, the sun smeared orange on the heavy bellies of gathering clouds. The river below us looked like a channel of fire between walls of rock. We’d had a good run, but the weather had finally caught up with us.

In the morning, snow was coming down in wet clumps. We broke camp and stuffed our gear into our canoes while gnawing half-frozen granola bars washed down with cinnamon whisky. I was soloing my canoe, and it was a long, difficult day of slippery portages, numb fingers, and bitter headwinds. I spent most of it kneeling on sopping mittens and fighting to keep my prow cutting into the wind. By late afternoon, the damp had seeped through my rain gear and my fingers felt like limp spaghetti. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep a grip on my paddle. My uncle and cousin were up ahead, out of sight. I had no idea how far we were from the end or how many more hours of paddling strength I had left to fight the wind.

And then, without warning, the wind dropped away and I found myself alone in a solemn dance of snowflakes descending onto the river’s silver pane. The rough trunks of balsam poplars congregated close along the shore. I could feel them watching me, breathing. I’d experienced this before when alone in a forest, a sense that the trees were conscious, observing me from across the species divide.

They were utterly beautiful and strangely aloof. They acknowledged me, but they did not care about me in a personal way. If I died here in the forest, they would take me in; I would become part of them. Like God, like an all-encompassing life force, but without the personal regard or judging vigilance. I was alone but not alone. My spirit and the spirits of the trees were tangled together.

It came to me that it wasn’t only the ecosystems of the planet that were facing an epochal shift but our relationship with them. Humans were beginning to reckon with the realization that we had the potential to wipe out not only our own species but many others as well. I was nearly forty. In my lifetime, we’d destroyed more than half the wildlife populations on earth. But we had the potential to inhabit this world differently. In that moment on the river, alone with the trees, I knew the crisis we were facing was not just a technological or economic or political problem—it was also a spiritual one. I needed to go in search of another story, a story equal to our moment.

Excerpted from The Temple at the End of the Universe: A Search for Spirituality in the Anthropocene by Josiah Neufeld. Copyright © Josiah Neufeld 2023. Published by House of Anansi Press.

Josiah Neufeld
Josiah Neufeld writes for Broadview, the Globe and Mail, and Hazlitt.