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A New City of God — Chapters 1 and 2 for Review

City-of-God-1-300
The City of God

A draft of Chapter 2 of the book A New City of God: Faith in a Changing Climate is available for review. Its title is The City of Man. You are invited to download it and give us your comments.

We have also released a new and improved version of Chapter 1 — The Author’s Apology, as well as an  updated Table of Contents.

Here are the links.

  • The current Table of Contents for the whole book is available as a .pdf file here.
  • Chapter 1 is available as a .pdf file here.
  • A 21 minute video overview of Chapter 1 is available here.
  • Chapter 2 is available as a .pdf file here.
  • Please provide your comments on Chapter 1 using the Contact form at our Sutton Technical Books site.

Thanks for your feedback.

No Epiphany

Australian wildfires December 2019
This is not news

Like many churches around the world, our church has just celebrated Epiphany — the time when the magi or wise men visited the baby Jesus.

The word epiphany has been defined in the following ways,

  • An appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being;
  • A sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; or
  • An illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.

In the Biblical context the magi suddenly realize who it is that they have been directed to visit.  That is their epiphany.

Bartolomé_Esteban_Murillo_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi
Adoration of the Magi. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

The theme of this site is to provide thoughts as to how we might develop a new theology — a theology that is appropriate for the world that we are entering. The three theological points presented for discussion are,

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

I have highlighted the first of these because it is the one I would like to consider in this post. Specifically, I would like to consider whether or not we, as a society, will have an epiphany regarding climate change. Will there be a moment when people suddenly “get it”, a time when “it clicks” that something is going on, that the world is changing? And, were such an epiphany to occur, would it be followed by decisive action?

Let’s think about these questions in context of this week’s news: the appalling wildfires that are consuming so much of Australia. Have the people of Australia had an epiphany where they, as a nation, understand the threat that climate change poses? Furthermore, has the Australian government recognized the error of its ways such that it is now doing everything that it can to slow down the rate at which the climate is changing? For example, has it stopped the export of Australian coal to other countries? The answers to the above three questions are “No”, “No” and “No”. The fires have not led to a nation-wide “illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure”? They may have led some Australians to consider a new way of thinking. But there has been no nation-wide change.

Why not? Why has there not been an Australian epiphany? Two possible reasons come to mind.

The first reason is to do with “normalization of the news”. The wild fires in Australia (or California or the Arctic or anywhere else, for that matter) are, by definition, only news when they are new, when they capture people’s attention as being something out of the ordinary. As soon as they become routine or long drawn out affairs they are, by definition, no longer news. Hence, they no longer grab our attention. Once the fire season is behind them, people switch their attention to other matters of more topical concern.

The second reason that the Australian fires are not an epiphany is that the Australian government understands that, were they to restrict coal mining, then many individual Australians would lose well-paid jobs. Even those who understand the magnitude and seriousness of climate change will, for the most part, continue with the same way of life. After all, they have children to raise, mortgages to pay and a retirement to save for. Epiphany or not, most people will not be prepared to make radical personal sacrifice in order to “save the world”. Or, to put it another way, they have not repented, as discussed in a recent post in this series.

So, with regard to the first of the three theological points — Understand and tell the truth — we can conclude that there will be no nation-wide epiphany. There will be not be a time when the world as a whole “wakes up” and “gets it”.

If this conclusion is correct then it is, to say the least, a discouraging conclusion. Maybe this is where people of faith and the church overall can provide leadership. Secular politicians cannot ask people to voluntarily reduce their standard of living. If they do, they soon become ex-politicians. But faith is not about material prosperity — so the leaders of the church can talk about a society in which people make voluntary cut backs in their standard of living for the greater good of all. People of faith can help bring about an epiphany, for at least some members of the population.


Postscript

The day after I published this post Reuters published an article Australia’s leaders unmoved on climate action after devastating bushfires.

While the fires are still burning the ‘Emissions Reduction Minister’ said,

In most countries it isn’t ­acceptable to pursue emission­ reduction policies that add substantially to the cost of living, ­destroy jobs, reduce incomes and impede growth.

This is a remarkably candid statement — he is not fudging around with “green growth’.

Repentance

Christmas candles
Credit: Pixabay

The post, Repent – Another World is Possible at the Resilience site caught my attention, and seems to fit in with my own Happy New Year discussion.

The author of the post, Vicki Robin, talks about old-fashioned concepts such as sin and repentance (although she does avoid the word salvation). She finds herself drawn to old-fashioned religious imagery; she tries to fit this imagery into a secular framework.
Here are some quotations from her work.

  • Haven’t we graduated from the angry Father God of the Israelites?
  • Proscribed rituals in the Talmud would today be diagnosed as OCD and medicated.
  • We are post-modern . . . we are not sinful.
  • How pitiful were the COP25’s flaccid results.
  • Repent is a biblical term for a biblical time, and this is a biblical time.
  • We have sinned against nature.
  • This is the time to repent. To fall on our knees before the enormity of our folly. To face the golden calf we worshiped.
  • I forgot I was part of the community of life.
  • I will never stop thinking — maybe won’t even after I die.

The purpose of this blog, and of the book/video that I am writing, is to help us all figure out a theology appropriate for an Age of Limits. Robin reminds us that creating theology is not merely an intellectual exercise. It includes old-time concepts such as sin, repentance and salvation.

Repentance starts with the recognition that you have thought and acted wrongly in the past and wish to think rightly in the future. But repentance also contains within itself the concepts of sin and salvation. It is a deeply personal issue. The term “Godly Sorrow” comes to mind.

We are at the start of a new year — a time for making predictions. I predict that we will see more articles and posts such as Robin’s. People will be looking for personal meaning in a degraded world; they will come to acknowledge their own role in creating that degraded world and they will be struggling with what it means to repent.

Happy New Year

episcopal-church-2

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.

  1. Understand and tell the truth,
  2. Accept and adapt, and
  3. 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.

Greta Thunberg release hell

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.”

Greta Thunberg Time magazine cover 2019

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.

co2 carbon dioxide concentration 1960-2015

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.

Goal #1
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.

Goal #2
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.

Goal #3
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.

Rhetoric

Martin Luther King I have a dream speech

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.

Pastoral Letter: 2020 – ‘OK Boomer’

Symbol of Trinity Church
We have started a series of fictional pastoral letters, set in the future, from the priests at Trinity Church, an Episcopal church located somewhere in the United States. This first letter is dated for the year 2020.

It is available in .pdf format here.

**********************

Pastoral Letter: 2020 – ‘OK Boomer’

Symbol of Trinity Church

My Sisters and Brothers of Trinity Church:

This year marks my 15th year serving you as rector of Trinity church. We have had some wonderful times together — worshiping, praying and serving our community. But it has also been a difficult fifteen years; our beloved church, and the Episcopal church overall, faces profound long-term challenges.

One of our parishioners prepared the following chart from data available at the church’s national web site. It shows nationwide membership in the Episcopal church in the United States.

Membership Episcopal church

You can see that in the year 2005 — about the time I was called as your rector — the national church had about 820,000 members. Now we are down to 550,000 — a drop of 35% in just 15 years. If this trend continues then we will have no members at all in the year 2045. I know that organizational changes (maybe mergers with other churches) will change that trajectory somewhat. But we have to recognize that the Episcopal church is fading into insignificance.

Here at Trinity we have seen a similar pattern. Our attendance at Sunday worship has drifted downhill, the average age of our parishioners is rising, and our finances are stretched. We are spending an ever-increasing amount of our budget just keeping the building and property maintained instead of serving others in our community. And whatever needs to be done, it seems as if it is always the same volunteers who show up. They are getting tired and discouraged.

Change is needed — both here at Trinity and in the church at large. Therefore, I have decided to hang up my vestments and move into semi-retirement. The time has come for a fresh vision, fresh leadership for Trinity.

Who is the right person to lead our parish in these difficult times? That decision is, of course, up to you — the parishioners and vestry of Trinity. But, as I depart, maybe I could offer a few thoughts.

Let’s start by understanding that our difficulties do not arise from internal disagreements to do with issues such as same-sex marriage. Such topics may matter to us, but they are not the reason for our decline. The real reason that we are in decline is that the world around us is changing, but we are not changing with it.

So how is the world changing? What are the issues that really matter? What do we say when Pilate asked of our Lord, “What is truth?”

I suggest that the issue that has moved to front-and-center in just the last few years is climate change. It matters because it affects everyone, everywhere, all the time. No exceptions. Throughout 2020 bad news to do with the climate kept piling up. What brought that news home to us here at Trinity were the unprecedented floods that covered our farmlands for the second year in a row. These floods were followed, as we are all aware, by three months of drought. We learned — as if we did not already know — that climate change is no longer just about melting icebergs, stranded polar bears and forest fires on the other side of the world. It is something that is affecting members of our parish here and now. Two of our parishioners who own farms had to sell up — and this year’s weekly Farmers Market was the worst that we have ever seen.

So far, our response to this crisis has been to treat it as yet another item to be added to our church’s “To-Do” list. Climate change is not seen as an existential issue at the core of other problems. Our environmental committee has done great work in encouraging the use of biodegradable products, and in researching the possibility of solar panels on the roof of the rectory. But I think that we all know that the issues we face require a more fundamental response.

Although the situation that we face is discouraging, there is hope. Let’s take a look at the image that closed out 2019: Time magazine’s Person of the Year — that remarkable young lady Greta Thunberg. She and many other young people like her bring just the qualities that our church needs: youth, energy, truth-telling, leadership and a sense of mission.

Greta Thunberg Time magazine cover 2019

Yet, when it comes to climate change, our national and international political leaders are not, in fact, leaders. And they never will be leaders because any honest response to the climate crisis means that we will have to reduce our material standard of living. Talk like that soon makes a politician an ex-politician. But Christians can talk this way because they know that Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday.

So, let’s connect the dots here.

  • Trinity Church and the national church badly need young people to provide fresh leadership and vision.
  • Young people are reacting with passion, even anger, when they look at the world that they are inheriting from us older folk (where the word “older” means anyone over 20 years of age). Their slogan in 2019 was, “OK Boomer”. This year it seems to be, “Faster than Expected”.
  • We can provide with them with a faith structure for their passion and work. The Christian church has done it before, it can do it again.
  • Let’s invite them in and so provide our church with a wonderful opportunity for leadership.

But the above requires a new way of thinking, a new interpretation of scripture. For too many years we have followed the words given to Noah following the flood (Genesis 9).

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “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. We have indeed been fruitful. In Biblical times the population of the earth was probably around 0.5 billion. Now we are at 7.5 billion and rising. And the beasts, birds and fish certainly live in dread of us. We need a new interpretation of scripture, not one based on our domination of nature, but on living within nature’s rhythms. Let’s try Ecclesiastes 3.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance . . .

 . . . As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.

I’m not so sure about the phrase, “Everything is meaningless”. But a theology that stresses living within the biosphere, not dominating is what we need.

So, my fellow parishioners, you can see why I have decided to move on. We need a leader who provides realistic hope. He or she will not offer “hopium” — the trap of, “They will think of something”. But the new leader must also provide a means for channeling the energy and anger of our young people so that we do not become fatalistic. He or she will provide our beloved Trinity church with a vision of Realistic Hope.

Realistic Hope

In closing, I ask us to keep in mind the words from Philippians 4:6,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

In Christ, your friend and pastor,

Thomas +


P.S. Just after writing this letter I heard from the Bishop that our national church is setting up a Council with other denominations to come up with responses to the climate chaos crisis. These responses must be faith-based and workable. I have been asked to serve on that Council, and — maybe this was a mistake — I agreed. So it’s likely that you will be hearing from me again!

Third Sunday of Advent: Missionaries

Bunyan pilgrim City of Destruction

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary reading is taken from Matthew 11:2-11.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

This passage touches on two themes. The first is that we have a duty to support those who are suffering or who are in need. That duty never goes away. The second is that being a prophet is not much fun — at least not in the short term. These two thoughts bring us to a news item and some thoughts as to why we bother talking about these issues.

Missionaries

The following headline from the Guardian newspaper of December 6th 2019.

Greta Thunberg says school strikes have achieved nothing.

The article goes on to say that, “ . . . in the four years since the [Paris] agreement was signed, greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 4% and the talks this year are not expected to produce new commitments”.

So here we have a young lady with a truly outstanding gift for communication and public relations saying that her work has achieved nothing.

If she feels this way, what about regular folks (some of whom may be reading these words) who are trying to make a difference? Why not spend our time working only with our families and local community preparing for the seemingly inevitable consequences of what is bearing down on us? What’s the point of going to protests, writing blogs and organizing meetings?

In climate change circles there is much discussion concerning ‘Deniers’ and ‘Delayers’ — those people who do not accept that the climate is changing, or, if it is, that humans are not the cause of that change. What gets far less discussion are the factors that motivate and drive the ‘Missionaries’ — those who spend time, effort and money trying to persuade others that the world is changing, and that we need to take action.

Why do the Climate Change Missionaries do what they do? What’s in it for them? Certainly not money — and probably not fame or reputation. In fact, they are probably more likely to be blamed as things start to go awry: “Shoot the messenger”. As conditions deteriorate, those who preached about these topics will not be thanked; they will be blamed, “You knew about this, you should have told us about this earlier, it’s your fault”.

Returning to Thunberg, she is consistently outspoken about the lack of leadership from elected and business officials. In my view these people will continue to fail to lead because any serious response to the climate crisis requires people to make sacrifices. But any politician who asks for sacrifice soon becomes an ex-politician. And the fundamental goal of any business is to encourage people to consume more, not to cut back.

This leadership vacuum provides an opportunity for the church. In principle, church members and leaders are willing to sacrifice (something about Good Friday). Whether the church will actually step up to the plate remains to be seen. But filling this leadership vacuum is the mission opportunity that the church can offer to both its members and to the community.