Proper 27: Complexity

Complexity of Age of Limits issues

Appointed Gospel

The gospel reading from this week’s lectionary is taken from Luke 19:27-38.

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

In his ministry, Jesus tackled many moral and theological issues that seem not to have much relevance to the Age of Limits issues that we discuss in this blog. The above passage from Luke seems to be one of those topics. Jesus does, however, discuss a complex and tricky situation — to whom is the widow married after her death? And complexity is certainly something that we struggle with here.

Aha! Moment #1: Predicaments, Not Problems

Homer Simpson and the Law of Thermodynamics
Homer Simpson with daughter Lisa’s Perpetual Motion Machine. “In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”

We generally learn about difficult, complex and rather scary future scenarios by reading lengthy reports or by watching well-researched documentaries. Information from these sources is invaluable in helping us understanding what is taking place. But, we often gain a sudden understanding or insight from an Aha! Moment when suddenly we “get it”. Suddenly something “just clicks”.

I have had four of these Aha! Moments. They were,

  1. A realization that we face predicaments, not problems.
  2. An understanding of what Augustine of Hippo was up to when he wrote his book City of God (and how it applies to our situation).
  3. An understanding that just having new sources of energy is not enough, we will also need new sources of light bulbs.
  4. When I saw a picture of the East Freeway between Houston and Beaumont, Texas during Tropical Storm Harvey.

The first ‘Aha! Moment’ came when I read a post by John Michael Greer in which he said that, “There is no brighter future”. In that post he pointed out that we do not face problems, we face predicaments. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.

Climate change is mostly a predicament, not a problem. We have reduced the pH of the oceans (made them more acidic) as a result of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that we have generated and that has then dissolved in the seas. Even if we cut CO2 emissions to zero the oceans will remain acidic for millennia. Similarly with the greenhouse gas effect. Some of those gases, such as methane (CH4), will disappear within decades. However, other gas, particularly CO2, will remain in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

Depleted resources are another predicament. Once we have used the crude oil in the earth’s crust it is gone. It will take millions of years for new reserves to be created. The same argument applies to fresh water; once an aquifer is emptied or a high mountain glacier has melted, that source of fresh water is gone for ever, at least on a human time scale.

Even the manner in which we use phrases such as “renewable energy” reflect a lack of understanding as to the distinction between problems and predicaments. The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be saved nor created — it merely exists. Moreover, phrases such as “renewable energy” do not make thermodynamic sense. The second law tells us that whenever we transform energy from one form to another — say by burning coal to generate steam — then the entropy of the overall system will increase. Even when we “save” energy we will increase entropy and so exacerbate the predicament in which we find ourselves. The manner in which we are using energy is creating a predicament.

No “Happy Chapter”

An awareness of the intractability of our problems/predicaments can be seen in the works of authors such as William Patton’s book Overshoot, published in the year 1982. These early books usually ended with a “happy chapter”, a chapter with solutions and responses to help us to avert catastrophe. The catch is that those solutions require a total restructuring of society, and a level of political will that simply does not exist, and that probably never will exist. Therefore, given that there is little evidence that humanity ever will make those changes, later publications from these same authors tend to skip the final “happy chapter”.

Accept and Adapt

It is this understanding of the distinction between problems and predicaments that provides the foundation for my second theological point: Accept and Adapt. We need to accept that our actions to this point have changed the world irreversibly. We cannot go back to the “good old days”; we cannot swim in the same river twice. We have to accept that we live in a new and (at times) rather scary world. This means that we need to adapt to the conditions that are in our collective future.



Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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