I wish everyone health and happiness in the year ahead of us. The year 2019 was a time of change, and I expect that 2020 will be no different.
A Theology for Our Times
This year I plan on a series of posts built around the theme of a ‘A Theology for our Times’. We live, as they say, in “interesting times”. At such times we need an intellectual framework that helps us understand and respond to what is going on. For people of faith this means that we need a theology that is relevant to a world of climate change, resource depletion, over-population, pollution and so on.
I approach this topic as an engineer who also has a background in systems engineering and the management of large projects. This experience can, I trust, be of value to professional theologians, seminarians and ordained clergy as they try to figure out a suitable theology for an Age of Limits.
A few years ago, our parish was looking for a priest. We set up a search committee — a process with which I am sure many of you are familiar. Members of the congregation were asked to tell the committee what they would like to see in the successful candidate. The normal attributes of good Bible knowledge, working well with children, preaching a powerful sermon, and so on were put forward. I suggested that the successful candidate should also have a good grasp of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. People laughed, and said that such a condition would mean that we would never find a priest. They were correct, of course. But I was not joking. An understanding of thermodynamics and other technical topics helps us grasp the root cause of many of our problems and should be part of a theology for our times.
In order to assist in the process of developing a suitable theology I suggest that the following three points be considered.
- Understand and tell the truth,
- Accept and adapt, and
- Live within the biosphere.
I will unpack these points in future posts — and I very much welcome feedback. But before doing so it is important to examine why a new theology may be needed. After all, isn’t God’s truth as revealed in the Bible sufficient for all times and all places? I would say that the answer has to be, “Yes and No”. The fundamentals do not change, but their application will change under different circumstances.
In this context, three names come to mind. They are: Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther and John Wesley. We will look at how these men responded to the world of their times, also in future posts. They shared the same fundamental beliefs, but they each developed a way of understanding their world that addressed the situation in which they and other people of faith found themselves.
Even when interpreting the Bible, we need to see issues in context. For example, in Genesis 9, following the flood, 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, 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.
Well, we pretty much aced that one, and look where it has brought us: an over-populated, polluted, depleted world.
Maybe the following verses from Ecclesiastes 1 are more appropriate to our times.
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
Final Thoughts on 2019
Time magazine’s Person of the Year was Greta Thunberg (GT) — and rightly so. Quite suddenly she started a meme that swept the world. Those who choose to deny that the climate is changing, and that those changes are caused by human beings, are now very much on the defensive.
But it is important to understand the mood of GT and her followers. To put in plainly, they are angry.
Credit: Ugo Bardi
One of the more puzzling aspects of the meme was the response that she received in the Halls of Power. Repeatedly she was applauded and praised by those who had failed to make the changes that she wanted them to make. Why?
Consider the well-known words from Matthew 8.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Here is what Thunberg says,
I speak on behalf of future generations. I know many of you don’t want to listen to us – you say we are just children. But we’re only repeating the message of the united climate science.
Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future. Is that really too much to ask?
In the year 2030 I will be 26 years old. My little sister Beata will be 23. Just like many of your own children or grandchildren. That is a great age, we have been told. When you have all of your life ahead of you. But I am not so sure it will be that great for us. Now we probably don’t even have a future any more.
You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late. And yet we are the lucky ones. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences. But their voices are not heard.
Did you hear what I just said? Is my English OK? Is the microphone on? Because I’m beginning to wonder.
People always tell me and the other millions of school strikers that we should be proud of ourselves for what we have accomplished. But the only thing that we need to look at is the emission curve. And I’m sorry, but it’s still rising. That curve is the only thing we should look at.
You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before.
If we were to use old-fashioned religious language, it as if she is telling us that we have sinned.
Nor is she offering much in the way of forgiveness.
If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.
Incidentally, here is what the emissions curve that she talks about looks like.
She is right. All the well-meaning rhetoric has achieved nothing.
Let’s compare her words with the following message from the Episcopal Church (USA) from the year 2019. It is structured in the form of three goals.
Create and sustain a network of Episcopalians dedicated to the care and protection of the whole Creation, especially by providing grants and cultivating circles for Story Sharing among practitioners in local and regional ministries.
Stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable victims of the impact of climate change – particularly women, poor people, and people of color – as part of seeking the liberation and flourishing of all God’s people.
Set climate mitigation benchmarks as individuals and as a church, in order to live more simply, humbly, and gently on the Earth.
The difference in tone between the messages of Thunberg and of the Episcopal Church is unmistakable. The church’s message is one of accommodation and reason; hers is one of condemnation.
Maybe one reason that GT’s message is so powerful is that, even though English is not her first language, she speaks powerfully and to the point. It puts one in mind of that earlier meme, the one created by Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in the year 1963. He also spoke about children and the world in which they were growing up.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
As church leaders wrestle with the impact of climate change and other Age of Limits issues, they will need to understand how the intellectual and emotional environments are also changing.