The following passage is taken from Chapter 7 of the book Faith in a Changing Climate.
When I started writing this book a friend at church who is very aware of the issues described here asked, “Where is God in all this?” Basically, his question was a version of the perennial, “How can an all-powerful God of mercy allow people to suffer?” In the context of this book the question would be, “How can a good and all-powerful God have created humans to be so clever, yet also to be so stupid and short-sighted?” We are entering a time when society as a whole will be asking questions such as these. Which means that the church needs to have a response if it is to provide leadership. The starting point for such an effort is to develop an intellectual and spiritual framework — in effect, a theology for out times.
In this chapter I provide some thoughts as to what form such a theology may take. In the next chapter — The Church’s Response — we consider some of the practical actions that the church can take in order to provide badly needed leadership.
Theology has, of course, a specifically religious meaning. But many of the people who write about Age of Limits issues recognize that, even though they themselves may not hold religious beliefs, there is, nevertheless a spiritual and moral component to their work. For example, one of the leading writers to do with Age of Limits issues is Chris Martenson. In his post Living with Integrity he says,
My ultimate diagnosis of what’s going on in the United States culture and . . . probably in other cultures . . . is 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 thousands of acres in a single go. Maybe we shouldn’t spray herbicides across millions 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.
Last week I attended a nation-wide webinar entitled the ‘Digital Gathering’ organized by the ‘Invite Welcome Connect‘ team. 1,800 people signed up, and around 1,000 attended. The attendees were Episcopalians from the United States and Canada. My estimate is that about half of the attendees were ordained clergy.
The theme of the webinar was to “present best -practices for a welcoming church in our new paradigm”— the new paradigm being the virtual church that has been forced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The webinar was built around three panel discussions, each of which had three speakers. Most of the speakers were clergy leading churches, both large and small. The discussions were interesting and useful. But there was a certain wistfulness in them. It seemed as if, by and large, the message was one of,
How do we cope with the present situation until we can get back to normal?
In this context, “normal” would be traditional church services, held in traditional buildings, in which people can mingle with one another as they used to.
But maybe this is the wrong the message, the wrong goal.
Here is the ‘Old Normal’.
The chart shows membership in the Episcopalian church in recent years. The trend line is remarkably steady, with very little scatter. If extrapolated, it suggests that the church will have no members at all by the year 2045, just 25 years from now. In fact, the line will have an asymptote or hockey-stick shape toward the end. But the message is clear: the ‘Old Normal’ is not working, therefore we need to look for a ‘New Normal’. We also need to understand that the pandemic has not created this situation — the decline is a long-term trend.
The pandemic has, in fact, opened up new possibilities.
The following quotation from Fr. Rock Higgins is taken from the June 16, 2020 weekly newsletter of St. James the Less church in Ashland, Virginia.
Both our Sunday and Wednesday Morning Prayers average attendance is TRIPLE those who come when we were doing church in our space face-to-face. What is God doing? We will have to wait and see. Something big is happening. Our Noonday Prayer service was non-existent before this and now averages 67 people a day! I was telling a friend, “I now have a ministry that I did not know I had!” Thanks be to God!
Things have changed so fast and so quickly that no one understands what is going on. But it does seem as if the pandemic has pointed us to what could be an exciting and creative ‘New Normal’. Therefore, instead of hankering after the world that has left us, and that is not returning any time soon (if at all), maybe we should welcome the changes that have been forced upon us; maybe we should welcome the virtual church and the opportunities that it opens up.
This week we release the next ten pages of Faith in a Changing Climate for preliminary review. (For information as to how this process is being organized please refer to last week’s post, Faith in a Changing Climate — 1.)
Pages 1 to 10 incorporate all of Chapter 1 and the first two pages of Chapter 2.
Chapter 1 — Dress Rehearsal
Although this is the first chapter, it was the last chapter to be written. In it we consider how the current pandemic may change the way we and respond to longer term ‘Age of Limits’ issues such as climate change, resource depletion, excess debt and population overshoot.
Maybe the most important lesson that the recent events have taught us is the need to be very cautious when we make predictions. Who would have thought just three months ago that more than 30 million Americans would be suddenly unemployed? Who would have thought that we would all be wearing masks wherever we go?
A Bible verse that I keep coming back to is from 1 Corinthians 13.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I am known.
In spite of his magnificent intellectual and spiritual gifts, the Apostle Paul is telling us that he cannot forecast the future in detail. This does not mean that we cannot see an outline of where we are headed. But we do need to be very cautious about making forecasts. In the words of the proverb,
If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.
Another important lesson is that we are not in control of the natural world; we part of that world. It is this idea that leads to the third of my theological thoughts,
3. Live within the biosphere.
There has been little to laugh about in the last three months, but I have derived some enjoyment in watching politicians try to negotiate with the laws of biology.
In Genesis 9 God says to Noah and his sons,
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 . . .
Well, we certainly aced that one. Now we need to adopt a much more modest lifestyle.
Another lesson that the pandemic has taught us is the importance of community — a topic that is part of the book’s final chapter, The Church’s Response.
The second chapter of Faith in a Changing Climate starts with an ‘Author’s Apology’, based on the Introduction to John Bunyan’s enormously influential book, Pilgrim’s Progress. The chapter includes a few words to do with my personal background. It also introduces the concept of an Age of Limits.
In last week’s post — The New Normal (6) — Standards — we mentioned that we have added a new chapter to the draft of the book Faith in a Changing Climate. The chapter title is ‘Dress Rehearsal’. We look at some of the lessons we can learn from the current COVID-19 pandemic, and how those lessons can be applied to the bigger picture of climate change and resource depletion.
The pandemic is still in its early stages; none of us know what its long-term consequences are going to be — so much depends on whether we can find a vaccine and/or an effective treatment. Applying lessons from the pandemic is very much a work in progress. There is, however, one immediate lesson, and that is the need for humility when making forecasts. This is a subject that we have already touched on in the post The Future Is A Muddle, but it is worth looking at it again. To state the obvious, our world has been totally transformed in just three months. Yet no one saw this coming — it has been a total surprise and shock.
One of my favorite Bible readings is from 1 Corinthians in which the Apostle Paul says,
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.
The picture at the top of this post shows a fogged-up window. At first all that we see is a blur. But, on closer inspection, we see that there are railings, 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. So it is with our view of the future in an Age of Limits. We cannot predict what will happen in detail, and specific predictions are often (usually) wrong. But we have a general sense as where we may be heading. (Modern translations of the Bible suggest that the word ‘mirror’ would be a better choice than ‘glass’. In Paul’s day most mirrors distorted the reflection. But the conclusion is the same. We can see an outline, but the details are blurred.)
Our failure to have predicted this disease can create a cynical attitude toward all forecasting. As Scott Adams once said,
Methods for predicting the future: 1) read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards, or crystal balls . . . collectively known as “nutty methods;” 2) put well-researched facts into sophisticated computer . . . commonly referred to as “a complete waste of time.”
But forecasting the impact of an issue such as climate change is not a “complete waste of time”. We know that it is happening right now, and we have a general sense of what is in store for us. We just need to be very careful about being too detailed or precise in our predictions.
We are writing a series of posts to do with the ‘New Normal’. They discuss what the world of industrial safety may look like once the current pandemic abates and business and church activities resume. Previous posts in this series are:
The Episcopal diocese of Virginia has published guidelines for a phased reopening of our churches. There are four phases — we are currently in Phase One. Phases Two and Three call for the use of face masks whenever people meet with others on church property. This is a sensible requirement since preliminary data suggest that masks are the most effective type of protection. One source (unfortunately I do not have the reference) suggests that masks reduce the risk of infection by 80%, all the other factors such as physical distancing are just 20%.
Due to the unavailability of commercially-made masks many people are wearing home-made cloth masks. These are good for protecting other people, and they set the right tone — people who wear masks are sending a message that they care. However, there is no control over the design or effectiveness of these masks. So, while they do provide protection and should always be used, their effectiveness is quite variable.
It has been suggested that the masks we use should meet an industrial standard such as ASTM Level 2, as shown in the following chart.
By the time that we are ready to move into Phase Two it is probable that the production of industrial-quality masks will be up to speed and that a requirement to meet standards will be more realistic than it is now. Of course, there will be those who cannot afford to purchase an ASTM-qualified mask, and there will be those who come to church but forget to bring their mask. Therefore, assuming that funds are available, each church should have a supply on hand to take care of these people.
ASTM International is providing no-cost public access to important ASTM standards used in the production and testing of personal protective equipment – including face masks, medical gowns, gloves, and hand sanitizers – to support manufacturers, test labs, health care professionals, and the general public as they respond to the global COVID-19 public health emergency.
The book Faith in a Changing Climate: A New City of God is proceeding quite well. The chapter titles are shown below. The full Table of Contents (.pdf file) can be downloaded here. You can see that we have added a new chapter: ‘Chapter 1 — Dress Rehearsal’. In it we consider how the current pandemic may provide lessons to do with long-term issues such as climate change, resource depletion and population overshoot. (Some of the thoughts in this chapter come from the ‘New Normal’ series at this blog.)
“. . . 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?”
As we think about a theology for an Age of Limits I suggest that one of the bases should be, “Understand and tell the truth”. The key word in that phrase is “understand”. Christians know that they must never lie. They also know that they must always speak and act with integrity.
Let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay
Telling the truth can go even further. In his book De Mendacio (On Lying), written around the year 395 CE, Augustine of Hippo says that it is wrong even to tell a white lie.
However, in our extraordinarily complex society it is often very difficult and challenging to determine exactly what is truth. Consider, for example, the effect of the current pandemic on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Environmentalists are encouraged that, in spite of the all the problems and tragedies that it has caused, the consequent reduction in economic activity has at least led to an improvement in air and water quality, and also in GHG emissions.
However, it turns out that the climate change benefits of the wrenching changes we are enduring have not been all that great. Greenhouse gas emissions are down by only 5% this year. How can that be? How can the enormous cutbacks and losses that we have endured led to such a small decrease in emissions?
To find an answer, let’s look at which sectors of the economy use fossil fuels. In round numbers they are:
Utilities — 45%
Industry — 25%
Transport — 20%
Residential — 5%
Other (including agriculture) — 5%
The picture below shows grounded jets at Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The transportation industry has gone through wrenching cutbacks. Indeed, the tourist industry has pretty well collapsed. But, as the highlighted number shows, that industry accounts for only 20% of GHG emissions, which is why the fall in overall emissions is less than most people would have expected.
A 5% cutback reduction in GHG emissions is good, but the cost has been enormous. Not only have tens of thousands of people died in the United States alone, there have been drastic reductions in the number of elective medical procedures, the consequences of which are not yet known. And more than 30 million people have lost their jobs in just two months. Environmentalists like to use the word “sustainable”. Well, what we have gone through in the last two months is unsustainable.
Yet the United Nations tells us that, if we are to stabilize the earth’s temperature, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% per year, every year for the next twenty years. The reductions that we have seen this year have been insufficient to meet the U.N. goals in spite of the enormous human and economic cost. Yet, if we are to achieve the U.N. targets, we need to repeat what has happened this year every year for the next twenty years. That does not mean that we stabilize at current levels of economic activity and unemployment — it means that we repeat what we did this year every year for the next twenty years.
I started this post by posing Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” I suggest that, if the church is to provide the leadership that is so badly needed then people in the faith community need to understand complexities of the type just described. This will be difficult. Most church leaders have a liberal arts background, and have had little training in science, technology or mathematics. Hence, they do not gravitate to the type of analysis just provided. In particular, they rely on qualitative statements and goals. For example, the Episcopal church has published a mission statement to do with climate change. It reads in part,
Our General Convention policy calls on lawmakers to significantly reduce carbon emissions within this century
What is the meaning of the word “significant” in the above statement? We need to apply a number to that word. If the number we select is an annual reduction of 7.6% in GHG emissions per annum, then the mission statement needs to address the drastic economic and human changes that are implied. This is not to say that we should not strive to meet that goal, but it does mean that we understand the quantitative nature of truth.
We have been writing a series of posts to do with the ‘New Normal’. No one knows how the current pandemic is going to play out. However, we can safely assume that it will permanently change the world, the ‘Old Normal’ will not return. The situation also provides an opportunity for the church, and for people of faith, to provide badly needed leadership.
However, this week let’s take a break from that discouraging topic. We are working on a book The New City of God: Faith in a Changing Climate. Each chapter starts with a modern parable. Here is the parable that starts Chapter 5 — ‘Predicaments and Responses’. It is “The Parable of the Green Car”.
An environmentalist was invited by the managers of an automobile company to inspect their new factory. The manufacturing process was a green as could be — all the electrical power was supplied by wind turbines and solar panels (with some backup load-leveling from the local nuclear power plant). All water used in the manufacturing process was treated such that the discharge fed into a pond in which goldfish swam. The people working in the factory were provided with free meals, all of which were vegan.
The cars produced at the factory were all electrically powered — even the trucks and forklifts used in and around the factory were electric. The factory managers were keen to point out that no gasoline, diesel, natural gas or any other fossil fuels were used at any stage of the manufacturing process. (Although some oil products had to be used to keep the machinery lubricated, and all of the polymers used to manufacture many of the vehicles’ components came from petrochemicals.)
After the tour, the senior manager proudly asked the environmentalist what he thought, and whether he was impressed. The environmentalist replied, “You make cars”.
We are entering a ‘New Normal’. This is an opportunity for the church to provide leadership, including cutting back on optional activities such as leisure flying.
This BBC report to do with the Virgin Atlantic airline raises the question as to whether or not we should bail out large industries with public funds. But specifically with regard to the airlines, is it appropriate to rescue them given the fact that they are a major contributor toward global warming?
A theme of this series is that we are entering a ‘New Normal’ as a result of the current pandemic. The world has changed irreversibly — there is no going back to the ‘Old Normal’. The situation provides the church with an opportunity to provide much-needed leadership. One aspect of such leadership could be to do with reducing our profligate lifestyle. We know that we are on a non-sustainable trajectory — we are entering an Age of Limits. Resource depletion, climate change, biosphere destruction, population overshoot — the litany is tedious and familiar. (The sketch shows some of the elements of the Age of Limits.)
The airline industry provides a good example of how we might use the current situation to change our trajectory.
Introduced in 1958, the Boeing 707 ushered in the jet age. Air travel was no longer a prerogative of the rich. Families and businesspeople could now routinely travel to distant locations at a reasonable cost. But we have also learned in the intervening years that air traffic is a major contributor toward environmental problems, particularly climate change and noise pollution. We have also learned during this pandemic that we actually don’t need mass air travel — any more than we needed it prior to the introduction of the Boeing 707. Business people have learned that they can conduct much of their work remotely, and families have learned that overseas vacations are something that are nice to have, but far from essential.
What will happen to air travel once the pandemic is brought under control? Will we return to the old ways? We know that airplanes are a major contributor toward climate change — can we take this opportunity to permanently cut back on air travel, and return the industry to where it was before the Boeing 707 and other airplanes created the situation we had immediately prior to the pandemic? We don’t know the future course of the pandemic. But we do know that it would be an enormous shame, even tragedy, if we cannot use this opportunity to live a reduced lifestyle, including less use of air travel.
For people of faith, living a reduced lifestyle should not be a challenge. Indeed, we are still in the Easter season — a time of the ultimate sacrifice. We know that we, as a society, need to cut back pollution and that we need to get to grips with climate change. Maybe we should voluntarily limit our use of air travel to what it was before 1958 — something that is a privilege, not something that we take for granted.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
This is the fourth post in a series to do with the ‘New Normal’ that has been thrust upon us by the pandemic. The posts consider how people of faith and churches are being affected by the changes that are taking place, and also the opportunities for church leadership that these changes provide. An assumption behind all these posts is that there will indeed be a ‘New Normal’ — the ‘Old Normal’ is not returning. We cannot suddenly lay off more than 22 million people in just a few weeks in the United States alone and expect our economies simply to snap back to where they were. Moreover, we have to keep in mind that the pandemic is still in its early stages. Some communities may believe that they have peaked, but there is every reason to believe that second and third waves of the disease could follow. (Some of the economic issues to do with the pandemic are discussed in a parallel series of posts entitled ‘The New PSM Normal’, where the letters PSM stand for Process Safety Management. The first post in that series is The New PSM Normal — Deflation.)
The distress, anxiety and economic devastation created by this pandemic provides an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. As we will discuss in future posts, science and technology seem to have met their nemesis – a new type of leadership and way of living is called for. But it is also interesting to see how the pandemic has affected the church in just a few short weeks, and to think about what the church of the future may look like. Therefore, in this post I would like to consider the sudden and unanticipated rise in the ‘Virtual Church’.
I am a member of a medium-sized Episcopal church. In response to the pandemic our church, like so many others, has totally reorganized its worship services and the manner in which it conducts its internal meetings. Services are transmitted using Facebook Live; meetings are held using Zoom or equivalent software. Our bishop, Susan Goff, has been ahead of the curve from the beginning as described in the post The New Normal (3) — Thrift, Frugality and Fasting. Now the diocese has now instructed us not to use our church premises at all. So, video services (such as this one) are now transmitted from the priest’s home. Participation from the music director and lay readers has been through the use of pre-recorded videos or audio clips that are spliced into the order of worship. (The videos are recorded and edited by the priest’s wife, so there are no physical distancing issues to worry about.)
Virtual church services are not new, of course, but the pandemic has suddenly made them a near-universal fixture. So here’s where we (and so many other churches) stand.
Our Sunday morning service is transmitted live from the priest’s study. It recorded so that people can view it later.
Our regular Wednesday morning service continues in the same manner.
Each day, except for Sunday, we have a shot noon-time prayer service, also transmitted live.
As we started this effort I anticipated that “attendance” at these services would go down; worship depends interaction between people, community singing and on the physical eucharist. I expected that, if people could not meet other people and physically participate in the service, then they would drift away. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. Attendance at our virtual church services is much higher than it was when people had to physically show up. An informal review on the internet suggests that our experience is not unusual, many other churches have seen an increase in participation.
I am both encouraged and somewhat surprised at these results. One of the reasons for my surprise is that many of our regular attendees are toward the older end of the age spectrum and so, I would have thought, are not so adept at using video technology. This point of view may be incorrect. Many of these older members have children and grandchildren scattered around the country so they have been using video services to meet with their families for years.
Doubtless many people will be conducting formal studies that examine how the church has changed in the last few weeks. Here are a few initial thoughts.
No Going Back
I started this post by saying that we will not return to the ‘Old Normal’. What the ‘New Normal’ will look like is anyone’s guess, but virtual worship in one form or another is an integral part of our future.
In recent weeks, many organizations have found that working from home is viable for much of what they do. Those organizations whose policies required people to show up at the office are going to be under considerable pressure to reconsider those policies. The same applies to church services and meetings. Until now, virtual church services have, in general, been something of an add-on to the physical service. That will no longer be the case — indeed the opposite may happen. The church building will become more like a studio than a traditional church.
Quality vs. Quantity
Although we can count the number of people who are participating in our virtual services, it is much more difficult to assess the quality of that participation. When someone is sitting in the pews they may not be paying much attention, indeed they may be day-dreaming, but at least we know that they are present. When they attend a virtual service we do not know what else they may be doing. Is he or she also answering emails, playing a video game or browsing the news channels? We don’t know.
The person leading the service can also see which parts of the service are the most popular and meaningful by keeping an eye on the people who are coming and going at different times.
As the church community has shrunk many churches face a chronic challenge: how to finance the maintenance of large buildings that are too big for today’s smaller congregations. Virtual services may provide an answer. Churches will be able to maintain their service and mission to the community without needing those buildings. The church can move into a small office, and conduct its business from there.
Convenience and Practicality
A virtual church can attract those who cannot attend a physical church. They include the disabled, the house-bound, those traveling on business (not such a large group these days), shift workers, caregivers and those without transportation.
The pandemic is causing many people to think about more fundamental values. Such people may be reluctant to enter a traditional church building — indeed, for many of them such an environment brings back bad memories. But they may be willing to join a virtual service, especially if they feel that they are not just being preached at.
Age of Limits
The posts at this blog are to do with the long-term effects of what we refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ — resource depletion, climate change and population overshoot. The current pandemic has reminded us that we are not in control of the natural world; indeed, “Nature Bats Last”. Yet many aspects of our ‘Old Normal’ have not changed in recent weeks. For example, we still have the electricity we need to power our virtual devices and the raw materials such as lithium that are needed to manufacture those devices are in supply. If the time comes when resources such as these are not provided then our virtual church will have to shut down, and we will have to revert to physical meetings.
Just before the virus hit we toured Israel. Part of the visit was to drive around the Sea of Galilee. This was the area where Jesus conducted much of his ministry. We also visited Qumran and saw the desert areas that are part of the Bible story. As I looked at the hills from which Jesus would have preached the Sermon on the Mount and at the desert areas where he fasted I wondered what he and the other religious leaders of biblical times would have thought about how we are worshiping now. It’s a long way from there to the modern virtual church. Are we doing the right thing?
Spring is Sprung
We are trying to practice what we preach. We have cut some asparagus this spring. Here a picture of our first fruits of 2020; two radishes. The lettuce, cabbage, peas, potatoes, leek, onions, blueberries and (in the greenhouse) bush beans and tomatoes are looking great. Just don’t tell the critters in our neighborhood.
If you are making masks, we found the plan provided in the New York Times (and other newspapers) to be useful. We used old pillow cases for the fabric. Medical-quality masks have a metal strip at the top. The NYT design does not, but we found that a pipe cleaner inserted does the job well. (If you don’t smoke a pipe but do have children you may find that they used pipe cleaners in some of their projects.)
Rumor has it that there was a Virginia law that prohibited anyone from wearing a mask when entering a bank, and that they have had to change the law. It turns out that the rumor is not true; nevertheless it is still a good idea not to be masked like this before going into a bank.