Acting as a Person of Hope - A Conversation with Dr. Dan Weber (Part 2)
Updated: Jan 29, 2021
As a person of faith, Dr. Dan Weber used to describe himself as an optimist. Now, however, he prefers the word “hope.” Remembering the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Weber said that “there's a difference between being an optimist and someone who has hope. (An optimist just knows) things are going to get better. A person who has hope doesn't have that amount of certitude that things will get better. A person who has hope says, ‘I will work to make things better. By my action, things can get better. There is no guarantee of that outcome, but I have a responsibility to act,’”
“I’m less of the optimist,” Weber said, “than I am someone who has hope because I believe in action.”
Wildflowers at Point Beach State Forest, Wisconsin (photo by Dan Robinson)
Last week, I wrote about Dr. Weber’s experience as a research scientist and how he sees science and faith complementing each other. When it comes to how we carry out our ‘responsibility to act,’ he has a similar view on the complementarity of study and action.
He told a story about a discussion the rabbis had concerning which was more important, study or action. “Should I be the academic who simply sits in the study, or should I be the activist?” he recounted. “And there were debates on both sides of this argument. And eventually, the consensus built around that study is more important, because it leads to action, that the ultimate is to do, but you have to know what you're doing. You have to study the issue. You have to understand what are the foundational problems that need to be dealt with, and what are the options for possibly resolving that problem. And we certainly could use some of that kind of attitude in how we deal with the environment. We need to understand (that's the science part), and then we need the religion part, the moral values, which will then encourage us to do the action.”
For Weber, the Jewish scriptures, particularly the first two creation stories in the book of Genesis, ground that understanding of the world and what needs to be done.
In the first creation story, Weber said, “Creation itself is not chaotic. There's an order to it, and that order is really important.” Water was present before anything else was created, which means two things. First, Weber said, it means that “it was good,” which is a phrase repeated again and again in this story. “That means that original creation of this pure
resource is inherently good. That is the state, which is good. Any deviation from that one would say, well, that's not so good, because that's not what God created. ‘I didn't create a polluted water. I created a water which was clean.’”
Second, that order of creation means that water is necessary for life. “As scientists we know this," Weber said. "When we're looking for life on other planets and other worlds, the question is, 'Is there water there?' That's always the question that astrophysicists will ask about when they find one of these exoplanets. Can we discover water? And if there's no water, we will assume that there can't be life. That may or may not be an appropriate assumption, but that's the assumption we as humans have, because that's our experience.”
In the second creation story, according to Weber, God gives the first humans a direct commandment “to guard and to protect the land. That's our obligation. Western civilization has kind of transformed that into saying ‘dominion.’ That's not what the Hebrew word says. It says to protect and to guard, and yes, to work it, but to do so with a sense of respect. So this, too, becomes a foundational aspect of what we have for this environmental ethic.”
This responsibility to “guard and protect” branches out to some interesting places, according to Weber. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy in the Jewish scriptures, if you’re waging war and laying siege to a city, you can’t leave the people without a way to escape or an exit route. You also can’t destroy the fruit trees.
Over the centuries, Weber said, “the Rabbis have transformed this from just being a commandment as to what you do not do during war into something much larger, about what you cannot do in terms of destroying. So that if I, for example, if I have an article of clothing, I can't just throw it away, because it still has use. That would be destroying something. As long as it has some value, I need to reuse it, repurpose it, recycle it, do something.”
This responsibility to act and care for the environment crosses religious traditions. Weber's experience on the board of Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light (WIPL) showed him the power of this shared sense of responsibility. WIPL works to help “people of all faiths and faith communities take concrete steps in response to climate change.”
“One of the things that has truly impressed me is that, here we have people coming from all different kinds of religious backgrounds. We walk different paths. We have different rituals. We look at the world very differently sometimes,” he said. “And yet, when it comes to this issue, we're coming from very different directions. But we all end up in the same place. And how we get there is very different. We have different assumptions as to how does the world works. And what do we mean by what's divine? What do we mean by what's ritually important? But when it comes to morality, and when it comes to, ‘How do you apply that morality to life and to the environment?’ we all end up in the same place.”
“That was absolutely mind blowing,” Weber recounted. “Intellectually, I knew that would happen and could happen. But to see it in action, and to play it out and be a part of it was absolutely a phenomenal experience. And that's why I am hopeful, because you see people coming from different places in life, and they're acting on a belief that the world is inherently good, and we need to return it to that by doing things that are much more sustainable. And that is a real important take-home message for me, personally, and I think for all of us.”
Here's part one of the conversation with Dr. Dan Weber, where he talks about the complementarity of science and faith and his own connections to Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River.