Every week, as time permits, I look at the lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits. Normally, I work with the Appointed Gospel. This week’s gospel reading from Luke 15 is to do with the shepherd finding the lost sheep, and the woman finding the silver coin that she had lost. It’s a powerful and important passage, but the lectionary passage from Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, however, is particularly relevant to our current situation.
At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse– a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
“For my people are foolish,
they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
but do not know how to do good.”
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
Because of this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
I have not relented nor will I turn back.
In my book I compare those of us who “preach” about Age of Limits issues as being modern-day prophets. This idea seems to be presumptuous, but it may be catching on. For example, the Rev. Susan Hendershot of Interfaith Power and Light has this to say.
I’m reminded of the Hebrew prophets who chose to live in the often-painful reality of their time and place, calling to account those who would oppress the poor because of their greed. They didn’t bury their grief, but instead expressed it openly and vocally to everyone who would listen—and many who wouldn’t.
But the prophets didn’t stop there. They expressed a hopeful vision for the future, like the one in Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
BUT, in order to reach this future, according to the prophets, we need to change. We need to come back into right relationship with the sacred, with one another, and with the earth.
We are at such a point now. We can no longer live as if humans are the center, but we must recover our sense of the interconnectedness of all things on the planet. It’s not only our physical existence that is at stake, but our spiritual existence as well.
Here is more from Jeremiah.
Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned sacrifices in it to gods that neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah ever knew.
In spite of its rather melodramatic tone, the above Bible verse does seem to fit our current situation quite well. The “disaster” that Jeremiah talks about in our context is the decline of our fossil-fuel based society. The “foreign gods” are the symbols of material progress that we often worship; the word “burned” certainly applies to the fossil fuel resources that we have gobbled up so cavalierly.
The prophets attributed the tribulations of the Hebrew people to that fact that they had abandoned the true faith and that they were worshiping false gods. They maintained that the only way of averting catastrophe was for the people to forsake those gods. We in our time may not worship false gods in quite the same way. But we do “worship” the idea of material progress. It is what we believe in, and we anticipate material rewards as a result of that belief. Just as the prophets of old said that people needed to return to the God of their heritage, so we need to recognize that material progress for most of us is coming to an end — we need to look for a future that is more spiritual, and a way of life that is more in harmony with the natural world.
In spite of their insights and warnings, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible were largely ignored. So it is in our time; the number of people willing to face up to the nature of our current predicaments is small, and the number who are taking action in their personal lives is smaller still.
Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet, nor did he believe that he had the skills to be one. But we are told that the Lord touched his lips, and told him to go out and prophesy. To do this he had to not be afraid, he had to stand up and speak and he had to go where he was sent.
Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth”.
Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in.
Two articles caught my attention this week. The common theme is, “If only we had taken action 40 years ago, we wouldn’t be in this mess now. As it is, here we are — we have to live with the consequences of our inactions.” Readers of the posts at this blog know that I am working on three theological phrases, the second of which is,
Accept and adapt
These two articles fit that way of thought.
Limits to Growth Update
The first is article is actually a slide presentation from Dennis Meadows — one of the authors of the seminal “Limits to Growth” report published in the year 1972. The slides were used for a presentation in Ulm, Germany in May 2019.
Here is what his team forecast 47 years ago.
- All our scenarios showed growth ending in the period 2010-2050.
- The most common behavior pattern was overshoot and decline, not gradual slowing within a limit.
- Technology advance did delay the end of growth by a few years, but not eliminate it, and it did not avoid the decline.
- Social and economic changes were required to attain the most attractive futures.
- Today’s “problems” are not actually problems; they are symptoms. The real problem is physical growth in material and energy flows pressing against the limits of a finite planet.
Let’s take a look at each of those bullet points.
- Our economy does continue to grow, but the main beneficiaries seem to be those who are already well-to-do. For most people this forecast seems about right.
- We have not observed significant overshoot or decline yet, at least with regards to physical resources such as crude oil.
- Technology advances do not seem to be having much of an impact. For example, German’s alternative energy program has run into serious difficulties, and the Chinese, who had been a leader in the development of alternative energy technologies, are reducing their commitments to such programs. (Their annual investment has fallen from $70 billion in 2016 to under $30 billion in 2019.)
- There have been no social or economic changes with respect to national or international leadership. (Which is why I say that the current situation provides an opportunity for the Christian church to fill the leadership gap.)
- We are indeed pressing against the limits of a finite planet.
The presentation then examines some specific topics such as population growth and government response.
Overall, I would say that Meadows and his colleagues did a good job of predicting back in the year 1972 what was going to happen two generations later. If you listen to a recent video of Meadows he comes over as being downbeat — if only we had listened to what he had to say all those years ago!
The second article was What If We Stopped Pretending?, written by Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker magazine. The subtitle of the article is The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it. The article boils down to a recognition that climate change is happening; we cannot go back to the world that we used to know; and there is not a whole lot that we can do about a continued increase in temperatures.
The article’s money quotations are,
Even at this late date, expressions of unrealistic hope continue to abound. Hardly a day seems to pass without my reading that it’s time to “roll up our sleeves” and “save the planet”; that the problem of climate change can be “solved” if we summon the collective will. Although this message was probably still true in 1988, when the science became fully clear, we’ve emitted as much atmospheric carbon in the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of industrialization. The facts have changed, but somehow the message stays the same.
. . . a false hope of salvation can be actively harmful. If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever. One result, weirdly, is a kind of complacency: by voting for green candidates, riding a bicycle to work, avoiding air travel, you might feel that you’ve done everything you can for the only thing worth doing. Whereas, if you accept the reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole lot more you should be doing.