Welcome to our blog, Theology in an Age of Limits. My name is Ian Sutton — my brief biography is provided here.
The core messages of this site are,
- We have entered an ‘Age of Limits’. Those limits include resources, environmental capacity, over-population and financial debt. Infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible.
- The issues that we face are not problems, they are predicaments. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not. We need to take what actions we can to slow down the pace at which change it occurring. But, ultimately, we can only accept and adapt to the new circumstances.
- This rather scary future provides an opportunity for the Christian church to provide leadership.
- But this means that a new theology is needed — a theology for our times.
At this blog, and in the book A New City of God, I discuss what this new theology might look like. The word “discuss” is important. None of us know all the answers, so I invite you to tell us what you think through the comments feature of this blog.
Age of Limits
What do I mean by the term ‘Age of Limits’? We hear more and more about how the climate is warming with potentially catastrophic effects. But this is just one of the limits that we face. Others include:
We are using up the earth’s resources, and once they are gone, they are gone. These resources include not just oil and other fossil fuels, but materials that we do not normally think about such as the lithium that is used to make electronic devices. Even resources such as fish in the sea or trees in the forests are being consumed so fast that, in practical terms, they are not really renewable.
In addition to what we hear about climate change we are running into other environmental limits. For example, the plastics that we dump in the sea are killing marine life, and ocean acidification is destroying coral reefs.
In biblical times the world’s population was below 1 billion. Now we are at 7.5 billion and rising. These numbers place enormous pressure on our resources and environment. Those who are well off wish to maintain their comfortable lifestyles; those further down the economic scale wish to have a first-world lifestyle. Neither is going to happen — there are too many of us. We would need at least three earths to provide the necessary resources.
In order to pay for our lifestyles we — nations, companies and individuals — borrow more and more money. At some point the bills will come due. And those bills will have to be paid with physical resources that are severely depleted.
As already stated, these limits are not problems — they are predicaments. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not. (I have highlighted these words because they are so fundamental to what I write here.) When faced with a predicament we can respond and adapt, but we cannot make it go away. As Herbert Stein said,
If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.
What makes the situation particularly difficult to understand is the fact that all these parameters, along with many others, interact with one another in complex ways.
The chart is taken from the Club of Rome’s report Limits to Growth, published in the year 1972, and updated since (the red line is mine — it corresponds to the year 2020). It shows how their model predicts the future of many factors, including food production, industrial production population growth and decline, resources, and pollution.
Are charts such as this accurate? Yes and No. In detail no — but the broad outline does provide pointers as to where we are going. When Paul said that, “we see through a glass darkly”, he was telling us that even he could not foretell the future in any kind of detail, but he could see an outline of the future.
As time permits, I intend to publish two posts each week at this site.
The first post will be an extract from the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. The extracts will be in .pdf format, and can be downloaded from out web site at no cost. Please visit our book page for information to do with the latest releases.
I also plan on writing a shorter version of the book to be published as a paperback.
The second weekly post — once more, assuming that there is enough time — will be to do with current events, and how the Christian community can respond to those events. Information to do with the latest posts is provided in the ‘Recent Posts’ column at the right of this page.
Book: A New City of God
In the early 5th century CE, St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, wrote his book City of God. He lived at a time when the superpower of his time — the Roman Empire — was slowly, but inexorably declining. Indeed, one of the defining moments of his life was the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in the year 410. Rome — the eternal city — had not been sacked for hundreds of years, but now it had been successfully invaded.
He and the other church fathers responded to catastrophic events such as these by developing a theology for their times — a theology that would provide structure and organization during the coming Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages. His response had three key elements,
- Always tell the truth — period, full stop
He said that a Christian’s duty is always speak honestly and with candor, no matter what the consequences. This message comes from another of his books, De Mendacio (On Lying).
- Live the live you preach
It is not enough just to write books (or blog posts) — a Christian must live the life that he or she advocates. This message comes from yet another of his books, Confessions.
- Develop a theology that fits the times
He recognized that all cities of men fail, only the City of God is permanent. So what is the constitution of that city? What is its foundational theology?
The Author’s Apology for His Little Book
Chapter 1 — For the Christian in a Hurry: The 300-Year Party
Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey
Chapter 3 — Through a Glass Darkly
Chapter 4 — World Views
Chapter 5 — Physical Realities
Chapter 6 — The Age of Limits
Chapter 7 — Pilate’s Question
Chapter 8 — An Educated Citizen
Chapter 9 — Responses
Chapter 10 — The Church’s Response
Chapter 11 — Theology
A Christian Perspective
Let me put forward some suggestions as to what a new theology may look like in an Age of Limits.
Telling the Truth
I have already talked about Augustine’s emphasis on speaking the truth. The issues that we face are complex and difficult to understand. But that is no excuse for not trying to understand them. (And let’s not exaggerate — the issues are not all that difficult to grasp for someone who is willing to make the effort.)
At his trial, Jesus says,
. . . the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.
To which Pilate replies,
What is truth?
Harmony with Nature
Genesis 1:28 says,
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Well, we certainly aced that one. Now we need a theology that stresses the need to live in harmony with the earth, not to “rule over” it.
The following two passages from John’s gospel may provide better guidance for the future.
When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.”
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
The following words from Ecclesiastes 1 were written in a context of “Everything is Meaningless”. But maybe they can, in fact, form a foundation for a new theology — one in which we are transitioning from a theology of linear progress to one of living within a cycle or rhythm.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
And from Ecclesiastes 3,
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens
Good Friday/Easter Sunday
Christians recognize the existence of Good Friday; bad things happen, sometimes very bad things. After all, the faith’s symbol is the cross. There is no promise of material comfort — just the opposite, “Take up your cross and follow me”. At the same time, there is something called Easter Sunday. There is hope, but the nature of that hope is more spiritual than material.
Nelson Mandela was a stoic; some scholars suggest that the apostle Paul was also influenced by the stoic philosophy. It is likely that this way of thinking will develop an increased following in the coming years within the Christian faith. It’s meaning can be summarized in Epictetus’ phrase,
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known serenity prayer is profoundly stoic.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The post The Stoic Christian provides some more thoughts on this topic.
The Anglican/Episcopal church is built around the concept of a parish. If you live within walking distance of the local church, then you are a part of its parish, whether you know it or not. In future years, as the world becomes smaller, we will all have to rely on local resources and local support. The church parish can be the center of our communities.
If you would like to see a summary of the work that we are doing here, please check out our YouTube video: A New City of God.
Resources and References
If you would like to know more about the topics that we discuss here, or if you would like to know of faith groups in your area, please check out our Resources page.