Can Theology Make a Difference?

Throughout the posts at this site we have circled the idea that we need a new theology — a theology that is appropriate for our time and for the future we face. Implicit in this way of thought is that the Christian community, working as a body, can help change society. A recent post Living with Integrity by Chris Martenson of Peak Prosperity made me think about this assumption. He says,

My ultimate diagnosis of what’s going on in the United States culture and a lot of Europe culture — probably in other cultures, but I can’t speak to them as well – it’s that they lack integrity. Now, integrity isn’t simply “Oh, I don’t lie”. Integrity means that your actions are for the greater good. Sometimes there are acts of integrity which actually are not optimal for you; they’re optimal for the larger society around you.

Integrity is thinking out seven generations. Integrity is saying that beauty matters in our life, and that when we take out a species, we’re taking away something extraordinarily beautiful.

Maybe we shouldn’t just spray fungicides across thousand of acres in a single go. Maybe we shouldn’t spray herbicides across million of acres in a single go. We don’t know what these herbicides are doing and fungicides and pesticides beyond the immediate use we’re putting them to. They have all these ripple effects that go on and on and on. And we don’t know what those are.

So integrity would include a sense of humility. Full integrity is saying “I don’t know”. We should be saying more of that. And integrity would include listening more carefully and deeply. Integrity would mean that we are operating in a way that is right for the other species around us, including humans. That we strive to do things that are right and good.

That part of ourselves that’s calling for our hearts to be involved in the world and to believe in something that’s larger and more profound than ourselves is really an essential concept. And everything about our current culture is cheap, demeaning, unfair. It’s not building towards the directions that I think any of us can really believe in, and we know that we have to go in a new direction.

In other words, our response to climate change and other Age of Limits issues requires not just specific actions, it needs also to have a strong moral component.

The responders to this post fell into three groups.

The first group suggest that the concept of integrity is relative. So, for example, people of one religion may feel that it is morally right to kill people of another faith. In doing so they believe, they are acting with integrity. This point of view is, I believe, effectively challenged in the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. He argues that right and wrong actions are consistent across all cultures and faiths — that there is a universal moral law. Any differences are differences of detail. For example, it is always right to help people who are in trouble; it is always wrong to steal. (For further discussion as to the nature of Truth, see our post The Christian New Deal: Part I .)

The second response implies that individuals can make a difference. They do by removing their focus from the acquisition of material goods. One person referenced Matthew 6: 19-24, starting with the familiar words,

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.

In other words

There are no pockets in shrouds.

Implicit in this way of thinking is that, if enough Christians take the appropriate actions, then the world can change. An examination of the rise of Christianity during what we now call the Dark Ages suggests that this argument has at least some merit.

The third group takes the cynical attitude that we are merely animals, and like all other living creatures, we will consume our resources until they are gone — and then we die out.

We are going to eat through our resources until there isn’t enough to sustain us, and then we’ll adapt or die off…just like every other organism. Just like every other organism. JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER ORGANISM. There is no other option. Humans have never changed voluntarily, it’s always been the result of necessary adaptation to a changing environment.

An individual can change to a degree but the larger collective is not an intelligent entity. Its a mob. It’s like a fungus or a bacteria, it can’t be reasoned out of it’s nature. That’s why I always say that there are no collective solutions, only individual ones. What can YOU do to prepare for the inevitable? That’s it. You’re not going to change the tide of human nature.

In response to these responses Martenson writes,

We know that individuals can change via insight or pain.  Both are effective routes, with pain, by far, being the road taken most often.

Can ‘the mob’ change at all?  Do we have any evidence of a hierarchical society willingly giving up creature comforts for a long-term gain?

I am familiar with the idea that some indigenous cultures would consider 7 generations, but I don’t know how that really was put into practice.  However, even if that happened, that would be within a tribal arrangement where culture would be more amenable to rapid change being of a much smaller more manageable size and all.

Otherwise, has it ever happened that a big old fat pyramid of humanity has decided to downsize their power, resources and influence to make a better future for people as yet unborn?

I’m unaware of any examples, but that’s not really helpful because my knowledge of ancient cultures is so dreadfully incomplete.  So ready to gather any examples people may have.

Said differently, each individual is the sum of their belief systems and those are addressable and can be modified.  A ‘mob’ or larger culture has memes, narratives and cultural beliefs that float around and are not located anywhere in particular, and heavily reinforced by self-censoring agents and entities that are invested in keeping those myths alive.

So, that’s a long way of saying I simply cannot imagine the larger narratives changing in time to ward off what we all see coming.

It’s never pretty when an organism eats through the lucky food supply it stumbled across.  Overshoot and collapse are the natural laws in place.  What evidence do we have that humanity, as a hierarchical structure can rise above the biological laws that have been shaped and have evolved over hundreds of millions of years?

Again, I don’t have any such evidence at my fingertips.  I do, however, have tons of data showing that humans are simply organisms.  We eat, we breed, and our marketing almost exclusively targets sexual desire and reproductive fitness.

I only raise all of this because to correctly address any problem or predicament you first have to understand it at the root level.  Any analysis or proposal that seeks to overlook our biology is not a robust design worthy of much inquiry or debate.

Where mind-body-spirit have to all be activated for a healthy human to transform effectively, I think any proposals for re-shaping culture have to include biology-beliefs-resources as the root level drivers of destiny.

So, how should the Christian church respond? Should it aim to control the highest levels of society as it did as the western Roman Empire collapsed? Or should individual Christians accept that we cannot change our trajectory and that therefore we should concentrate on adapting for a very difficult future by focusing on ourselves, our families and people in our immediate community?

Uninhabitable Earth Discussion Group

For those of you living in the Richmond, Virginia area we are starting a book group to discuss some of the themes of this site. At the our first meeting we will discuss the recently published book, The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells.

Date: May 2nd 2019
Time: 0900
Location: Institute for Contemporary Art, 601 W. Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220


Through a glass, darkly

Predicting the Future

At a recent church service the minister giving the sermon said that every preacher has his or her favorite verse from the Bible that they come back to time and time again. I believe that he is correct. In the context of this blog the passage that I keep going back to is from 1 Corinthians 13,12.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

(Scholars tell us that the word “glass” — implying a window that we look through — may be a misleading translation. In biblical times they did not have glass mirrors with a metal backing, as we do. Their mirrors were made of copper. The metal surface was generally uneven, so the mirror rarely provided an exact image.)

The point of the passage is that the apostle Paul is telling us that, in spite of his immense spiritual insights, even he cannot forecast the future in detail. But he can see an outline as to what might happen. He is not totally blind.

Take a look at the image at the head of this post. We are looking through a fogged-up window. At first all that we see is a blur. But take a closer look. There are some railings (or maybe a window frame), and a river and hills in the distance. We cannot see the details but we can see an outline — and the harder we look the more we see. We see through a glass darkly. So it is with our view of the future in an Age of Limits. We cannot predict what will happen in detail, and when we make predictions they often turn out to be wrong. But we have a general sense as where we may be heading.

Another problem to do with predicting the future is selecting the time frame. When talking about the future we first have to determine what we mean by “the future”? Is it tomorrow, a week from now, five years away or a generation out? The further away it is, the less accurate our predictions will be. We can say with confidence that tomorrow will be much like today, and that the world five years from now will not be too different from what we see now (assuming no major calamity such as war). But, beyond that, the future looks increasingly hazy. In fact, the only statement that we can make with confidence is that all predictions that we make will turn out to be wrong. After all, who would have predicted as little as ten years ago the impact that social media and mobile phones have already had on the lives of billions of people?

Climate change is particularly difficult to forecast because it is not an event, it is a process. It started in the 1960s, gained traction in the 1970s and has gained traction ever since. This means that, by definition, we cannot prevent climate change from occurring  — we are too late for that. The best we can do is slow its pace and/or mitigate the consequences. Failing that, we are forced into an adaptation mode.

IPCC Report

IPCC Report Global Warming

The recently published report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1) does, however, give us a handle as to what will happen, and when it will happen. This report was prepared for the United Nations and, as such, is authoritative. The scientific findings in the main report are summarized in a 34-page “Summary for Policy Makers,” which was approved by all representatives from 195 nations, including the U.S.

The report is technical, lengthy and not always an easy read, but here are some of its key findings.

Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. (high confidence)

Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these emissions alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence)

These two quotations note that emissions that have taken place in the past will continue to have a major impact. However, if we could stop all emissions now we would not reach a critical stage.

Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). 

This paragraph, and others like it, have been criticized for being too hopeful. They do not spell out the magnitude of the changes that are required, and the enormous impact that such changes would have. The “rapid and far-reaching transitions” that the report alludes to mean that we, as a society, would have to stop using fossil fuels within the next decade or so. Realistically, this is not going to happen. Even if the will to take such action were present, the economic impact on people’s lives would be devastating.

The Impact

Reports such as the one just cited make for rather dry reading. In order to understand where climate changes are taking us it is useful to read articles by writers such as Wallace-Wells (2) and Bendell (3). They provide rather scary insights as to what the future may look like.

Through the Glass, Darkly

To summarize:

  • Actions that we have taken so far will increase global temperatures by 1.5°C. This is baked into the pie. The impact of a 1.5 °C increase is very serious, but does not drive us over a tipping point (that phrase is not included in the report but it probably should be).
  • In order to keep temperature increases to 1.5°C we would have to cut fossil-fuel use by half in less than 15 years and eliminate it almost entirely in 30 years. This means no home, business, or industry heated by gas or oil; no vehicles powered by diesel or gasoline; all coal and gas power plants shuttered; the petrochemical industry converted wholesale to green chemistry; and heavy industry like steel and aluminum production either using carbon-free energy sources or employing technology to capture CO2 emissions and permanently store it.
  • Cutting the use of fossil fuels in such a drastic manner would, of course, lead to a massive economic recession, and suffering for billions of people. Hence no nation is taking such drastic actions, or even coming close.
  • If we do not take drastic action then, by the year 2050 it will be too late to change course.

Let’s return to the Corinthians quotation that started this post. When we look through our fogged-up window we see that climate change is going to have massive impact on society one way or another. Either we, as a society that includes all the countries of the world, take drastic actions that will radically reduce our standard of living and that will disproportionately affect those at the bottom of the economic scale. Or we do nothing and then face the consequences of environmental destruction, which in turn could well lead to economic collapse. The outline is becoming clearer and clearer. And it is not a pretty sight.


(1) Global Warming of 1.5°C. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. January 2019.(2) Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth. New York Magazine July 2017.
(3) Bendell, Jem. Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. July 2018.

The Christian New Deal — Part II

This is the second post in the series ‘The Christian New Deal’.

This is the second post in the series, ‘A Christian New Deal’. (Part I, here, is based on the Pilate’s simple, yet unnerving question, “What is truth?”)

Book Release

Dante Forest DarkEach week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We now conclude Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey. The chapter provided an overview of how I learned about issues such as climate change and peak oil (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark).

The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

Respect for Nature

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the early sections, we read that God gave humanity control over nature. For example, Genesis 9 starts with the following words,

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.

The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.”
Given the resource, environmental and climate change crises that we, as Noah’s descendants now face, that commandment seems to be out of place. At the very least, if we are to have control over “every creature”, then we need to exert that control responsibly — something we have signally failed to do.

In the New Testament we see a different picture. Jesus frequently talks about the natural world, and seems to be respectful of it. The quotation that I have selected for this post is taken from Matthew 18. Jesus puts himself forward as a “good shepherd”. In the analogy, the sheep represents a person that has strayed. But Jesus uses a natural scene as the basis of his message.

If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
The shepherd is exerting control, but in a responsible manner.

Need for Systems Theology

There are many books, web pages and blogs which discuss topics such as climate change and resource depletion, and that also provide suggested responses. (Some of the faith-based sites are some of which are listed at our Resources and References page.)

A limitation of many of these programs and analyses and is that they consider topics such as climate change and resource depletion in isolation, rather than as part of larger, complex systems. For example, consider the following line of argument,

  • New sources of oil are  costly to develop (the easier sources have already been depleted).
  • Hence the price of oil will go up.
  • Hence people will use less oil.
  • Hence fewer greenhouse gases will be generated and the global warming impact will be lessened.

But maybe it is not so simple. If less oil is available then more coal will be used as a substitute, so the global warming impact will be increased. It’s tricky.

The point is that simple solutions to our problems are often simplistic, they fail to take into consideration all the relevant factors. Indeed, we often find that our actions result in the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ and/or Jevons Paradox.

In a religious context the importance of systems theory means that we need to develop a theology — a ‘religious systems theory’ — that helps us understand what is going on, and how we should act in the new and rather scary world that we are entering.

The Green New Deal

A phrase that has gained considerable attention in recent weeks is ‘The Green New Deal’. This is a political program that proposes radical action to address climate change issues, while simultaneously boosting the economy. We have published various posts that discuss this proposal, including the Green New Deal and the Leadership of AOC and Greta Thunberg. My conclusions are that we need a Green New Deal, or something like it, if we are to have any chance of navigating the coming crises, but the Green New Deal as written will not work. It fails to meet realistic engineering or project management criteria. What we need is a Christian New Deal.

The Great Chain of Being

Great Chain of BeingIn medieval times, the concept of the “Great Chain of Being” held was used to explain the world, and our place in it.

The Chain consisted of a hierarchy. At the top is God, who is perfect. Below Him are angels. Below them is life on earth; at the top are human beings, below them are animals, then come plants. Below living beings are inanimate objects, with fire — which seems lifelike — being higher than rocks. Each of these links could be divided. For example, at the human step, kings are above aristocrats who in turn are above peasants. Humans can aim to be more spiritual, more like God, and so move up the chain. On the other hand, if they act less spiritually they move down the chain.

Then along came Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

Evolution and Progress

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Darwin is often credited with having created the concept of evolution. He certainly advanced our understanding as to how and why species change and develop. But other people had had similar ideas before him. Indeed, farmers of livestock had known for centuries that they could selectively breed desirable characteristics in their animals — thus creating a form of forced evolution. What Darwin did do is explain why natural evolution occurred (he was never able to explain how it happened, the principles of genetics were developed long after his death).

The term “survival of the fittest” is often used in discussions to do with Darwin’s insights. Yet this is not a term that Darwin coined, he used the words “descent with modification”. An even more appropriate phrase would be “Survival of the Adaptable”. This distinction is not a mere quibble — it will be a factor as we consider the world in an Age of Limits. If the term “survival of the fittest” is to be used, then it should refer not just to fitness to survive in the current ecological and environmental conditions, but to fitness to survive when conditions change.

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection.

In the words of Tim Radford states, of the Guardian newspaper,

He [Darwin] did not suggest that evolution was a form of progress. For him, an amoeba in a puddle of water was just as suited to its environment as a duck on a lake or a preacher in a pulpit.

Darwin created controversy among some Christians because he challenged their belief that the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible was also a geological text book. But he had two other insights that were more profound and much more challenging.

First he grasped the meaning of the words, “a long time”. Human memories go back no more than a hundred years or so; historical records are good for just a few thousand years at best. But Darwin understood that, when talking about millions of years, whole species can be created or can go extinct. He did not fall into what Frank Landis in his book Hot Earth Dreams calls the ‘Trap of Big Numbers’.

His second insight was that there is no such thing as a Great Chain of Being. We do not evolve toward (or away from) anything. Organisms merely adapt to their environment or else they go extinct. No one life form is better or “higher” than any other. The idea of “progress”, as illustrated in the following sketch, is misleading.

Evolutionary “Progress”There is no missing link between ourselves and our “lower” or “more primitive” ancestors such as apes. Each species adapts to the environment in which it lives. If the environment changes, say due to climate change, then existing life forms need to adapt to the new conditions. If they fail to do so, then new species will evolve. Human beings are not the end point of evolution.

The Church’s Response

It is generally taken for granted that the church’s response to Darwin’s work in the mid-19th century was one of condemnation and resistance. Actually, the religious response was mixed. Many devout Christians were quite happy to accept that God created the world and that natural selection was one aspect of that world. Many clerics resisted the idea that the world is much older than the few thousand years calculated from the Hebrew Bible. But others were willing to adapt to the new concepts.

Biology was not the only scientific area that was developing rapidly in Darwin’s time. Geology was also emerging and providing a new view of the world. There was debate as to whether the timeline in the Hebrew Bible was correct, or whether the Earth was actually millions of years old. Many of the people who denied the concept of natural selection were, nevertheless, willing to accept that the Earth was very old. These were the ‘Old Creationists’. Those who followed the biblical timeline were ‘Young Creationists’.

Darwin himself was an Anglican, with leanings toward Unitarianism. He remained loyal to the church throughout his life, although his faith became increasingly lukewarm. His personality was mild and accommodating, so he did not throw down the gauntlet and directly challenge the religious hierarchy.


Evolution and natural selection are impersonal. Living organisms have no choice about what happens to them. But human beings are, in this respect, different and unique — we have a consciousness and we can make free will decisions as to our future, both as individuals and as a society. In principle, we can choose how to evolve. It is this freedom of choice that gives us the Biblical dominion over nature.


As we try to figure out the nature of ‘The Christian New Deal’ the ideas and thoughts provided in this post suggest that our new way of thinking will (or should) feature the following.

  • Humility
    We humans need to understand that we are not the apex of civilization, we are not the end point of creation, we are not top of the Great Chain of Being (there is no chain, so it has neither top nor bottom).
  • Ruling the Earth
    We do rule the earth. But we have not done so in a responsible manner — we have taken little interest in the fate of other species and of the environment.
  • Living With Nature
    We need to try to live in harmony with nature. This means abandoning the idea of material progress as being the purpose of our lives.

We scientists don’t know how to do that

I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.

Gus Speth Canadian Club of Rome
Gus Speth

Information and analysis to do with climate and resource issues comes mostly from the scientific community. Scientists are rational, so they tend to go where the data takes them. For a generation or more they have believed that a simple presentation of the facts is all that is needed. When presented with these facts governments, companies, churches and individuals will, it is assumed, take the necessary action.

But that has not happened . Most people continue to live their lives as normal; they have done little or nothing to address climate change issues. Indeed, many people continue to deny the very validity of the scientists’ claims.

Even when they do take action, people and organizations will generally attempt to have their environmental cake and eat it. With few exceptions, people are not willing to voluntarily reduce their standard of living in order to achieve a higher goal. And no politician will run on the platform of, “Elect me and I will reduce your standard of living”. Such a program is a sure way of becoming an ex-politician. Politicians simply cater to our demands.

Which brings us to the quotation at the top of this post. (It is from the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome.) The problems (actually predicaments) that we face are the consequences of human action. Simply stating that we have a problem achieves nothing unless it leads to a change in behavior — the “cultural and spiritual transformation” described in the quotation.

Achieving such a transformation may seem like a hopeless task. But isn’t it what the church has been trying to achieve for the last two thousand years? (And not just the Christian church — many other faiths have similar goals.) All that has changed is that the goals have changed.

If this is the case then the church needs to be a leader in persuading people to make serious cuts in their standard of living. It is not enough to have environmental committees that promote activities such as recycling, the creation of community gardens, advocating for changes in government policy and installing solar panels on the roof of the church. These are all worthy activities, but they tend to occur in intellectual isolation. We need a theology for our times — a theology that faces up to the harsh dilemmas that confront us.

George Mobus, author of Question Everything blog
George Mobus

The limitations of the rational/scientific approach were further reinforced by a recent post from George Mobus, a retired professor from the University of Washington Tacoma.  He says,

I honestly did not expect to be a witness to the end of civilization when I started blogging those many years ago. Though I thought I could clearly see where the trends (energy, climate, social) were heading and tried to lay out the arguments for why we needed to change our ways, I thought that the really bad outcomes would post-date my life. I grieved for my children, of course. But never really thought I would be witness to the end game itself.

Now I’m not so sure. In fact I think that recent developments in climate science, energy science, and political science make it clear that we have entered the end game already.

. . .

We will not be able to save civilization as we know it by any kind of technological magic. The rate of onset of climate change (notice the weather anomalies of late?) and the catastrophic collapse of fossil fuel energies (fracked wells are falling in production as we speak) not to mention the collapse of fisheries, soil depletions, and the insane left-vs-right political strife all mark the clear signatures of collapse, but this time on a global scale. 

. . .

I’m calling the game over. I just cannot see a solution that has humanity going on in any kind of lifestyle that we have grown accustomed to in the 21st century.

. . .

My advice is head for the hills.

. . .

And, good luck.

Mobus has, for many years, represented the rational, scientific way of thought. In this post he seems to have given up hope that human society, at least in its present form, is going to “make it”. The only hope that he offers is to suggest that humanity may develop sufficient wisdom in coming years to, in effect, start again. And we do this through an understanding of systems science.

Basically I argue that we evolved to pass a threshold of cognitive capacity that makes us humans unique animals. It isn’t intelligence, but the capacity to develop wisdom over a lifetime. Except that the average human being is just above that threshold, so their capacity is yet weak.

What I sincerely hope is that some of the survivors will attempt to preserve knowledge, key knowledge (as in systems science) with which to restart the social process

And what is theology but Christian “systems theory”?