The New Normal (10): A Theological Paradigm Shift

Environmental communication

This post is the tenth in a series to do with the ‘New Normal’ — thoughts to do with the world that may come out of the wrenching changes that we have seen in the first half of 2020.

For years, decades actually, environmental activists have been preaching the message that we need to radically cut back on our use of fossil fuels. This message has been widely ignored and has had little impact. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen quite smoothly, as we see in the chart below.

CO2 concentration 1960-2020

But suddenly, in a just a few short months, we have witnessed:

  • The collapse of international tourism and its associated airplane flights;
  • The demise of the cruise line industry;
  • The end of the shale oil industry;
  • A drastic reduction in the amount of commuting;
  • An enormous cut back in airline travel; and
  • An equally drastic reduction in the restaurant business.

These are just the sort of actions for which we have been looking for all these years. And it all took place in just a few weeks.

To summarize: a virus that is 100,000 times smaller than a human hair or the period/full stop at the end of this sentence has done far more to mitigate climate change than any number of exhortations and sermons.

This improvement has come at a terrible human cost. In addition to the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of lives lost, millions of people in the United States alone are newly unemployed, face eviction from their homes, and are having trouble feeding their families.

The environmental community needs to think through how this sudden and dramatic shift occurred. What were environmentalists doing wrong for all those years? Clearly, the manner in which environmentalists communicate needs to fundamentally change. A paradigm shift is needed.

Here are three initial observations.

  1.  Fear seems to be a stronger motivator than the desire to “do the right thing”.
  2. There is a wrenching human cost when we transform the way in which we live and work. So many environmental messages contain within themselves an unstated assumption that we can move to a zero carbon lifestyle without reducing our standard of living. This assumption needs to be challenged.
  3. We are not going back to the ‘Old Normal’. Too much has happened too quickly for that to happen. And maybe we don’t want to go back to the ‘Old Normal’. So what does the ‘New Normal’ look like?

One of the themes of this blog and associated publications is that we need a theology that addresses the issues of our times. One person who worked on a new theology for his times was Augustine of Hippo, whose book City of God was written in response to the sack of Rome in 410 CE. A thousand years later, Martin Luther developed a theological response to the corruption and indolence of the medieval catholic church. Three hundred years after that, John Wesley and his colleagues developed responded to the social tribulations associated with the industrial revolution.

A challenge for today’s church is to work out a theology that addresses the predicaments to do with the Age of Limits. It is likely that the lessons we are learning from the pandemic will help us in that process.

Gin Lane and Social Media

John Wesley (1703-1791 )

A regrettable feature of today’s world is that we are increasingly polarized. It’s not usually a matter of ideology — it’s just that we do not listen to one another. Communication is breaking down. One reason for this polarization is that we all tend to reside in our social media bubbles and echo chambers. We hear only opinions that we want to hear. Maybe life would improve were we to abstain from social media.

The situation is analogous to what happened in the late 18th century as the industrial revolution developed. Working conditions for many people were utterly miserable. Therefore, they took solace in alcohol, often to excess. The well-known Hogarth cartoon is of Beer Street and Gin Lane, published in the year 1751. The sketch on the right shows destitution of all kinds due to the over-consumption of gin.

In response to this social crisis many religious leaders advocated for temperance — no drinking of alcohol at all. Many Christian denominations continue to ban the consumption of alcoholic drinks. Maybe we need something similar now with regard to social media. It’s a new addition to our culture — we got along fine without it as little as ten years ago. We don’t need it, and it is causing much harm.

However, closer examination of the temperance movement shows that many of its advocates were not in favor of total abstinence. The left-hand panel of the Hogarth cartoon shows that people who drink beer, as opposed to gin, have prosperous and successful lives. We can see the same ambivalence in the works of John Wesley (1703-1791). In the paper Methodist Origins: John Wesley and Alcohol, Ivan Burnett says,

Wesley’s position is not that simple. It is far more complex than later Methodists actually thought. His position appears even contradictory. On the one hand he drank beverage alcohol; on the other he stood for a form of legal prohibition. While sometimes condemning the use of wine, he also held it to be “one of the noblest cordials in nature.” He called spirituous liquors “liquid fire” and those that sold them “poisoners general”; yet he himself said that there was a place even for these stronger liquors. He even wrote a book in which he went so far as to recommend their use. Wesley’s position on beverage alcohol, then, was anything but simplistic . . .

It is probably fair to say that the early prohibitionists were not so much against the consumption of alcohol, as they were against drunkenness, with the consequences that we see in the Gin Lane sketch. Maybe we can apply this lesson to our own lives. Social media has some benefits — not least of which enabling churches to conduct virtual services during the course of this pandemic. But we need to be moderate in our consumption, we need to avoid drunkenness.

The Parable of the Blind Golfers

Parable of the prodigal son
The Prodigal Son

Parables and Scripture

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.

Mark 4:11

Each chapter of the book Faith in an Age of Limits starts with a quotation from scripture that is pertinent to the topic of that chapter. Additional Biblical quotations are provided throughout the text. In general, the New International Version (NIV) is used. But, on occasion, the King James translation is chosen because its language is so magnificent.

Each chapter also starts with a parable or short story — a narrative, usually containing an unexpected twist in the story line, that aims to provide an insight into a spiritual or moral truth. As with the parables of the New Testament, no explanation or interpretation is offered. Indeed, multiple interpretations are possible. For example, is the parable of the Prodigal Son to do with the young man who wastes his inheritance, the resentment of the older son who obeys the rules and who feels slighted, or the naivety of the father? You, dear reader, have to figure it out. There is no right or wrong answer. Through his use of parables Jesus was telling us to think.

Chapter 2 starts with the Parable of the Blind Golfers — one that is particularly appropriate for those of us with a technical or engineering background.

The Parable of the Blind Golfers

Parable of the blind golfers

A priest, a doctor and an engineer are playing a round of golf. All is going well until they catch up with a group ahead of them who are playing badly and slowly. They ask the greens-keeper why this group is so slow. He replied, “They are firefighter heroes. They all lost their eyesight while rescuing children from burning buildings — they are totally blind. In recognition of their service we allow them to play here for free.”

The priest says, “What heroes. I will offer prayers of gratitude for their sacrifice and I will pray for their recovery.”

The doctor adds, “There have been big advances in eye surgery recently. I will contact some ophthalmologists that I know; they may be able to offer medical help.”

Then they all look at the engineer who says, “Why don’t they play at night?”

The New Normal (9) — Hubris and Nemesis

Nemesis following the hubris of science and technology
Nemesis, Rethel (1837)


As time and bandwidth permit, we publish two blog posts each week. The first blog — this one — discusses issues to do with the Age of Limits, and how the faith community can respond. Last week we looked at the relevance of the Gaia Hypothesis to established faith. The second blog, which is generally a YouTube video, focuses on some of the practical responses that we can make at an individual and local community level. In my case, that response is mostly to do with gardening. This week’s blog is a video at the following YouTube address:


Front cover for book Faith in a Changing Climate: A New City of God

The book Faith in a Changing Climate is coming along well. If you are interested in having a review copy, please let us know. The current Table of Contents is available here.

The New Normal

It goes without saying that we live in interesting times. The pandemic has changed everything, and it is not finished with us yet. Some of the blog posts are to do with ‘The New Normal’ — what the world may look like after the pandemic dies down, and what lessons we may have learned to do with the manner in which we manage longer term issues such as climate change. The following is a list of the posts so far in this series.

This week’s post is the ninth in this series.

Hubris and Nemesis

About 500 years ago Galileo Galilei pointed his newly invented telescope to the night sky. He declared that the moon and the planets are made of the same material as the Earth — there is no celestial heaven or music of the spheres. Since that time there has been rivalry between religion and science as to which can best explain the physical world in which we live.

Science has generally “won” this competition — and, in the form of technology, it has greatly improved the human condition. Religion has been confined to the role of “mere” spirituality and an advisor of souls. However, science and technology have led us into the predicaments discussed at this blog.

Science is suffering from hubris: excessive pride and self-confidence. But nemesis or retribution always follows hubris. And that is where we are now. Albert Einstein is famous for saying that, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” So it is with science and technology. They cannot solve the issues discussed in this book.

A new approach is needed — one in which people who have what Aristotle called an “educational acquaintance” with both science and the liberal arts can chart a path forward. This is the opportunity for the church to provide leadership. But, before it can do so, church leaders will need to have an “educational acquaintance” with the laws and principles of science. One example of such a person is Pope Francis, as we can see in the encyclical Laudato Si’. He is not a climate scientist. But that’s just the point; he is able to understand the bigger picture to do with the causes and consequences of climate change.

The section of the book Faith in a Changing Climate that is to do with Hubris and Nemesis closes with the following words.

. . . the last three hundred years have been a time like no other in the history of humanity. It’s as if a person has been living within her current modest income and then is suddenly given a large inheritance. She spends the inheritance and has a wonderful time. But when the money is gone she has, once more, to live on her modest income, but has much greater expenses to take care of. She should, of course, have invested the inheritance such that she could live of the additional income generated without depleting her capital. But she didn’t.

This is the position in which we find ourselves now. Our inheritance was the stored energy contained in fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. We should have invested in learning how to create renewable energy sources. But we didn’t. We should have invested in technologies that prevent us from destroying the planet’s environment. But we didn’t.

Francis I — A Renaissance Man
Francis I