Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

We must save ourselves from the abyss

Thermonuclear weapon test "Castle Bravo" (March 1, 1954) | U.S. Department of Energy

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe here to receive Sightings in your inbox on Mondays and Thursdays.

“LOOKING INTO THE ABYSS” is virtually (typographically) shouted from the cover of the current The American Scholar. It’s a teaser: the “abyss” could refer to Washington or the United States or global terrorism or… It could evoke Robert Frost’s feared choice between the world’s ending in abysses of Fire or Ice. That world, and our human race, could indeed end in an abyss that is either “wet” or “dry,” depending on how this generation and those who follow deal with climate change. But the cover story here is “Our Nuclear Future” by Jeffrey Lewis. Nothing about it pertains explicitly to Sightings’s defined topic: religion as it bears upon, or is affected by, public affairs. Yet the end of Lewis’s article—quoted at the bottom of this column—introduces the topic of changing ourselves, which is central to the mission of most faiths.

The essay is subheaded “We may think the bomb is back, but it never really went away”—an ominous line which the author fleshes out with history and data. His hook: “This summer, for the first time, there will be a negotiation under the United Nations on the convention banning the production, possession, and use of nuclear weapons.” But Russia, the U.S., and some other nations may boycott the talks. The U.S., Lewis noted as of the time of his writing, “is committed to replacing its entire triad of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers at a cost that may exceed a trillion dollars over 30 years” Oh. In North Korea and elsewhere, the choice to explode nuclear weapons rests in the hands of a single individual. The abyss awaits?

Many religious leaders, groups, institutions, and forces-for-good observe all this, and often speak out, but can usually produce only barely noticed whispers of criticism. Lewis warns that, meanwhile, we are confronted by weapons that offer us the ability to destroy ourselves, a shared hazard for which our social mechanisms for managing large-scale violence are dangerously ill suited. Technology advances weaponry, and “is certain to disrupt nuclear deterrence. The only question is whether that means the end of nuclear weapons or the end of us.” The U.S., if threatened, would have only two to four minutes to determine whether our leaders are facing a false alarm or the End of All Alarms. Oops? Lewis reminds his readers of a National Security Agency instrument that once discovered suspicious electronic emissions coming from a sensitive facility; the culprit turned out to be a soda machine, communicating to its vendor over the internet that it needed to be restocked. Such is the way of “the internet of things.”

All of the earlier reckonings pale in comparison, writes Lewis, “to the uncertainty generated by the emerging possibility of disarming cyberattacks that could take down command-and-control nodes.” He rules out the possibility that deterrence associated with technology will solve the problem. What else? I will close simply by quoting Lewis’s last paragraph, hoping that many will look up and read the full article leading up to it. Here, though, is where I think the role of religion and spirituality comes in, as he speaks of our need to change ourselves. Thus I quote:

The solution requires, above all, understanding that our fundamental problems are political—and that we are running out of time to change our institutions and our behavior. We can choose to adapt to new technology and devise other arrangements for our security, or we can simply wait, passively accepting our fate like so many societies throughout history that hoped they would survive the rapid technology changes around them—but did not. Technological solutions are a dangerous fantasy, a convenient excuse for our lack of will to take steps in line with the dangers we face. In the end, advances in technology won’t save us; only advances in ourselves can do that [emphasis mine].

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • The UN will be ignored as usual. The US is not going to abandon nuclear weapons. That genie will never be put back into the bottle. I believe South Africa was the only nation to give them up (to Israel according to rumors). Beating their swords into plowshares is a utopian pipe dream. Unfortunately. We, the great Christian Nation, have the distinction of being the only country that has rained nuclear hell on our fellow humans (civilians, no less).

  • The final quoted passage begs the question: What makes the quoted author feel that we will be any different than past peoples? What happy evidence can offer that it will be so.

  • Bingo.
    “Understanding that our fundamental problems are political”
    “we are running out of time to change our institutions and our behavior”
    Ya think.
    It is a problem with the human spirit. The human spirit creates politics and institutions. Our behavior is what we do, what we do is we create things. It is a spiritual problem. Outside of a outside agent changing the human spirit we can presume conclusions based on the state we find ourselves in. It’s like defining a disease, without intervention a known outcome will result. It’s not a religious problem in my opinion, religion is part of the problem because there is a spiritual problem within religious institutions. We live in a world that is the sum of the individuals participating. Our religions are the sum of the people who make them up. Non religion institutions are the sum of the individuals who make them up. Institutions are not going to change our behaviors. What changes the human spirit? With all due respect to an atheist I don’t think it is mankind. Especially if what you say about man inventing God is true. If that’s wrong what makes us think our next invention will be right? Will better technology change our spirit?

    Sorry about that Edward. Started out with just bingo, duh, and ya think. The rest just sorta fell out.

  • No problem. But in following your comments over the past few weeks, I’m not quite sure where you fit on the spectrum of faith. No disrespect intended.

  • No disrespect taken.
    Faith spectrum-Evangelical, life long Southern Baptist born, raised, and grazing in the Bible Belt. I take my personal faith very seriously, I don’t take myself as serious as my faith when dealing with people outside my faith.
    Living out my life I’m pretty conservative because it works out well for me. My view point when looking at a issue for the first time is from a conservative perspective. For what ever reason I seem to be wired that way. I don’t assume perspectives to be solutions, I see them more as strands in a rope creating a solution. The best conservative advice I can give is, don’t change unless you’re pretty sure you can do it a better way. The best progressive advice I can hear is, I’m pretty sure I know a better way.
    I can’t tell you anything bad about my, faith, only good. I can tell you good and bad about my Southern Baptist denomination. I can tell you good and bad about evangelicals as a whole. But my, faith is not about those titles. That is the message I would want readers to know on these boards. Faith is not a title or a group, a deep faith can be as much about what you don’t add to a group or a title.

  • Thank you for a complete and straightforward reply. I’m pretty conservative and evangelical in my viewpoint, though I don’t identify with a particular denomination. However, I strive, not always successfully, to be as congenial and objective as I can with others..