Our Sarajevo Moment

Archduke-Ferdinand--Sarajevo
Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914)

This year we spent a few days in Belgium and France visiting various World War I sites, including The Somme and Passchendaele. That war, in which millions of soldiers and civilians were slaughtered, was triggered by a relatively minor incident: the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in the town of Sarajevo in the modern day Bosnia/Herzegovina. For years the great powers of Europe had been building their military capability, both on land and at sea. But it took this apparently random event to trigger the “War to End All Wars”.

As we look at our world now, we seem to be in a similar situation. However, the danger is not of war per se, but of a tipping point that will trigger a cascade of crises to do with the fact that that we are depleting the world’s finite resources, particularly crude oil. As I write these words a major oil field/refinery in Saudi Arabia is burning as a consequence of an apparently minor event: an attack by just ten drones. Could this be the first domino to fall? No one knows, of course. Probably we will muddle through, just as we have muddled through previous potential crises. But, sooner or later, I suspect that an event such as this week’s attack could indeed be a tipping point, a “Pearl Harbor moment”.

Saudi Arabia oil facilities fire drone attack

Proper 18: Monasticism

Cistercian Nun

Every week, as time permits, I look at the lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (September 8th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Monasticism

Benedict by Hermann Nigg (1849-1928)
Benedict. Hermann Nigg (1849-1928)

This is a tough passage. Are we really to hate our family members? Most of us would say, “No”. Yet there is one group of people who have given up their worldly life, including their families: those who live the monastic or “religious” life.

As the western Roman Empire declined we have seen how men such as Augustine provided a spiritual and theological foundation for the church. Another movement that became very important in the waning days of the Empire was monasticism. The name usually associated with this movement is Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE). The first Benedictine monastery was established at Monte Cassino in Italy in the year 529 CE., southeast of Rome

Although he did not found an order, as such, he did set up a system for the monastic life that was widely adopted. The monks live in community under the direction of their Abbot. But they also pursue their own personal, spiritual vocations. Benedict wrote the famous “rule” that still directs life in Benedictine monasteries. The rule is strict, but not harsh. Although deeply spiritual, the order was practical and sensible.

The Benedictine ideals are condensed into three principles: poverty, chastity and obedience. Their way of life is demanding, but not harsh; it is built around a spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness. It is also built around the discipline contained in the words ora et labora: pray and work.

It was these communities that did much to hold the civilization of the old western empire together for the next 500 years or so. They provided cultural continuity following the decline of the western Empire. In particular, they copied religious and secular texts, thus preventing the knowledge in these texts from disappearing.

Although very few people are called to the monastic vocation, Benedict’s guidance is useful for Christians living now in our world — a world that is slowly, but irreversibly slipping into material decline. We are not going to jump from our SUVs to a Cistercian monastery all at once, point that is made by Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option.  Dreher recognizes that the church is no longer at the center of western civilization. Indeed, he refers to the modern church as a, “chaplaincy to a consumer culture”. The book’s sub-title is ‘A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation’. He uses the Benedictine way of life as guidance for all Christians, including those who are not formally part of a monastic community.  (As the Age of Limits starts to bite I anticipate a revival of the monastic movement within the Christian church.)

One of the fundamental challenges faced by Christians when confronted with climate change and all the other issues that we talk about is whether to respond by modifying one’s personal life, or whether to work top-down, i.e., with political systems at national and international levels.  In practice, most of us will do some of each. We will also gravitate to the area that best fits our talents and personalities. The monastic idea provides a good example. The monks lived a strict lifestyle, but they were also part of the larger world.

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am trying to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

  1. Understand and tell the truth.
  2. Accept and adapt.
  3. Live within the biosphere both material and spiritually.

I have highlighted the third point to do with living within the biosphere. By living simply, those in the monastic community give us an example of how to live well without dominating the world around us.


Article: Climate Change and the Gospel

There is not a lot of literature to do with the theology of climate change, and even less to do with other Age of Limits issues such as resource depletion. However, the article Climate Change and the Gospel written by David Atkinson provides some interesting thoughts and guidance on these lines.

The following quotation will probably resonate with busy church parishioners.

I suspect that underneath some of the lack of urgency among Christians, is a belief that environmental concern, or ‘creation care’ if you prefer, is not really a Christian priority. It is not central to the gospel of Jesus Christ, though it is a worthy thing to do if you have time. So we may have an ‘Environment Sunday’ once a year to ‘do our bit’. Or maybe an extra hour on the already overloaded theological college curriculum to discuss climate change. Perhaps we may try to get the idea of solar panels on our church roof past the Diocesan Advisory Committee, the Victorian Society, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the local brigadier who lives next to the church. But, please, with endless diocesan initiatives  for mission, with assemblies to take in the church school, with a couple of funerals a week, with trying to keep alive our Partnership Link with an overseas diocese, with constant pressure to up our diocesan quota, and with dwindling numbers in the congregation, please do not ask us to do any more!

 I believe that Christian people ought to be leading players in debates and in taking action about climate change. Because what ultimately matters is not scientific knowledge, or technology, or a change to our economic system – vitally important though all those are. What matters is how we see ourselves in God’s world, how we humans relate to the rest of God’s creation. It is about what makes for human flourishing and the wellbeing of all God’s creation, on which our life depends. This is about morality, and spirituality.

David Atkinson refers to the theological concept of the ‘Cosmic Covenant’ (Atkinson, 2015). It is a triangle consisting of God, humanity and the Earth. He says that is implicit in the first chapter of the Bible, when, after the emergence of all other creatures, humanity is created in ‘the image of God’.


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Proper 17: The Place of Honor

Christian humility

Every week, as time permits, I look at the lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (September 1st2019, Year C) is from Luke 14:1, 7-14.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Through a Glass Darkly

In this gospel reading we are told to be humble and not to choose the place of honor.

One aspect of the need to be humble is to understand that no one can predict the future accurately. We must understand that any forecast we make should be made tentatively and with an understanding that we could easily be proved wrong. But although we need to be cautious when we talk about what the future holds that does not mean that we cannot see an outline as to where we are going.

I keep coming back to the words of the Apostle Paul.

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.

1 Corinthians 13, 12

Even Paul, with his magnificent intellectual and spiritual gifts did not have a clear picture of the future. But this does not mean that he was blind — he could see and outline of what the future holds.

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am trying to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

  1. Understand and tell the truth.
  2. Accept and adapt.
  3. Live within the biosphere both material and spiritually.

I have highlighted the first of these three points, Understand and tell the truth. The nature of truth in our highly complex and rapidly changing society is difficult to discern. But that does not mean that we cannot see an outline; we need the courage to understand what is happening, otherwise we will not be able to work out the best response.

Book Progress

Books in the Library of Congress

I am working on a book with the working title A New City of God. Parts of the book are quite detailed, and some are technical. Therefore, in order to keep the book manageable in size, I have created a serious of Supplements. These will be available as .pdf files, and can be downloaded at no cost.

In the meantime, the first of these supplements is entitled The Green New Deal. In it I take a look at the proposal made by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues earlier this year from a Christian point of view. I conclude that its aspirations are great but that it does not pass the red face test with respect to engineering and project management realities. Nor does it call upon anyone to make any type of sacrifice — something that will be necessary in coming years.

The Sadness of Six Degrees

Book: Six Degrees

One of the most useful books on climate change is Six Degrees by Mark Lynas. The book has six core chapters — one for every 1°C increase in planetary temperatures over the pre-industrial baseline. Unlike many other books in this genre it is quite specific as to what the world will look like in coming years.

The author does not, however, provide dates as to when each degree of temperature rise will take place.  One reason for his hesitation to provide dates is that, when he when he wrote the book, he did not know how human society would respond to the predictions made by scientists such as himself. The book was published in the year 2007 — at that time there was a rather naïve assumption among many people that we, as a society, would react rationally and energetically to the warming of the earth.

The reality, of course, is that there has been no effective response, thus giving the book an air of sadness.

The final chapter is entitled ‘Choosing Our Future’. In it Lynas projects global temperature increases over the pre-industrial baseline, the level of CO2 that would create that increase, and the action that needs to be taken to avoid the increase. Here are some of the figures he uses.

  • One Degree. 350 ppm. Avoidance probably not possible.
  • Two Degrees. 400 ppm. Peak Global Emissions by 2015.
  • Three Degrees. 450 ppm. Peak Global Emissions by 2030.

Here are the actual concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.

CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Three conclusions can be drawn from this graph.

  1. The increase in CO2 is remarkably steady. In spite of all the conferences, resolutions and statements of good intent, the rate of increase of our emissions has not slowed down. (Indeed, it appears as if the rate of increase of the rate of increase is also positive.) In the year 2020 we will be at 420 ppm. If the trend continues unabated, we reach 450 ppm somewhere around the year 2040.
  2. Assuming that Lynas’ projections of temperature increase are correct, then 420 ppm means that we cannot avoid a 2.5°C increase. At 450 ppm global temperatures are about 3°C above the pre-industrial baseline.
  3. The target dates set by Lynas ten years ago seem now to be just wishful thinking.

I have used the following sketch already, and doubtless will use it again. Our responsibility is to create a sense of realistic hope.

Fatalism – Realistic Hope - Hopium

Realistically the earth is going to much warmer than it is now within the lifetime of many people reading this blog. But we should not be fatalistic — a 3°C world is very different from the one that we live in now, but it is livable. At the same time we need to avoid hopium — a vague, unjustified belief that “something will come up” or “they will think of something”.

Creating a Butterfly Garden

Creating a butterfly garden

One of my church colleagues publishes a blog called “Holy Comforter Creation Care”. In it she talks about the importance and value of native plants in our gardens. The latest post is Creating a Butterfly Garden.


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