Can Theology Make a Difference?

Throughout the posts at this site we have circled the idea that we need a new theology — a theology that is appropriate for our time and for the future we face. Implicit in this way of thought is that the Christian community, working as a body, can help change society. A recent post Living with Integrity by Chris Martenson of Peak Prosperity made me think about this assumption. He says,

My ultimate diagnosis of what’s going on in the United States culture and a lot of Europe culture — probably in other cultures, but I can’t speak to them as well – it’s 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 thousand of acres in a single go. Maybe we shouldn’t spray herbicides across million 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.

In other words, our response to climate change and other Age of Limits issues requires not just specific actions, it needs also to have a strong moral component.

The responders to this post fell into three groups.

The first group suggest that the concept of integrity is relative. So, for example, people of one religion may feel that it is morally right to kill people of another faith. In doing so they believe, they are acting with integrity. This point of view is, I believe, effectively challenged in the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. He argues that right and wrong actions are consistent across all cultures and faiths — that there is a universal moral law. Any differences are differences of detail. For example, it is always right to help people who are in trouble; it is always wrong to steal. (For further discussion as to the nature of Truth, see our post The Christian New Deal: Part I .)

The second response implies that individuals can make a difference. They do by removing their focus from the acquisition of material goods. One person referenced Matthew 6: 19-24, starting with the familiar words,

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.

In other words

There are no pockets in shrouds.

Implicit in this way of thinking is that, if enough Christians take the appropriate actions, then the world can change. An examination of the rise of Christianity during what we now call the Dark Ages suggests that this argument has at least some merit.

The third group takes the cynical attitude that we are merely animals, and like all other living creatures, we will consume our resources until they are gone — and then we die out.

We are going to eat through our resources until there isn’t enough to sustain us, and then we’ll adapt or die off…just like every other organism. Just like every other organism. JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER ORGANISM. There is no other option. Humans have never changed voluntarily, it’s always been the result of necessary adaptation to a changing environment.

An individual can change to a degree but the larger collective is not an intelligent entity. Its a mob. It’s like a fungus or a bacteria, it can’t be reasoned out of it’s nature. That’s why I always say that there are no collective solutions, only individual ones. What can YOU do to prepare for the inevitable? That’s it. You’re not going to change the tide of human nature.

In response to these responses Martenson writes,

We know that individuals can change via insight or pain.  Both are effective routes, with pain, by far, being the road taken most often.

Can ‘the mob’ change at all?  Do we have any evidence of a hierarchical society willingly giving up creature comforts for a long-term gain?

I am familiar with the idea that some indigenous cultures would consider 7 generations, but I don’t know how that really was put into practice.  However, even if that happened, that would be within a tribal arrangement where culture would be more amenable to rapid change being of a much smaller more manageable size and all.

Otherwise, has it ever happened that a big old fat pyramid of humanity has decided to downsize their power, resources and influence to make a better future for people as yet unborn?

I’m unaware of any examples, but that’s not really helpful because my knowledge of ancient cultures is so dreadfully incomplete.  So ready to gather any examples people may have.

Said differently, each individual is the sum of their belief systems and those are addressable and can be modified.  A ‘mob’ or larger culture has memes, narratives and cultural beliefs that float around and are not located anywhere in particular, and heavily reinforced by self-censoring agents and entities that are invested in keeping those myths alive.

So, that’s a long way of saying I simply cannot imagine the larger narratives changing in time to ward off what we all see coming.

It’s never pretty when an organism eats through the lucky food supply it stumbled across.  Overshoot and collapse are the natural laws in place.  What evidence do we have that humanity, as a hierarchical structure can rise above the biological laws that have been shaped and have evolved over hundreds of millions of years?

Again, I don’t have any such evidence at my fingertips.  I do, however, have tons of data showing that humans are simply organisms.  We eat, we breed, and our marketing almost exclusively targets sexual desire and reproductive fitness.

I only raise all of this because to correctly address any problem or predicament you first have to understand it at the root level.  Any analysis or proposal that seeks to overlook our biology is not a robust design worthy of much inquiry or debate.

Where mind-body-spirit have to all be activated for a healthy human to transform effectively, I think any proposals for re-shaping culture have to include biology-beliefs-resources as the root level drivers of destiny.

So, how should the Christian church respond? Should it aim to control the highest levels of society as it did as the western Roman Empire collapsed? Or should individual Christians accept that we cannot change our trajectory and that therefore we should concentrate on adapting for a very difficult future by focusing on ourselves, our families and people in our immediate community?

Uninhabitable Earth Discussion Group

For those of you living in the Richmond, Virginia area we are starting a book group to discuss some of the themes of this site. At the our first meeting we will discuss the recently published book, The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells.

Date: May 2nd 2019
Time: 0900
Location: Institute for Contemporary Art, 601 W. Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220

 

Through a glass, darkly

Predicting the Future

At a recent church service the minister giving the sermon said that every preacher has his or her favorite verse from the Bible that they come back to time and time again. I believe that he is correct. In the context of this blog the passage that I keep going back to is from 1 Corinthians 13,12.

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.

(Scholars tell us that the word “glass” — implying a window that we look through — may be a misleading translation. In biblical times they did not have glass mirrors with a metal backing, as we do. Their mirrors were made of copper. The metal surface was generally uneven, so the mirror rarely provided an exact image.)

The point of the passage is that the apostle Paul is telling us that, in spite of his immense spiritual insights, even he cannot forecast the future in detail. But he can see an outline as to what might happen. He is not totally blind.

Take a look at the image at the head of this post. We are looking through a fogged-up window. At first all that we see is a blur. But take a closer look. There are some railings (or maybe a window frame), and 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. We see through a glass darkly. So it is with our view of the future in an Age of Limits. We cannot predict what will happen in detail, and when we make predictions they often turn out to be wrong. But we have a general sense as where we may be heading.

Another problem to do with predicting the future is selecting the time frame. When talking about the future we first have to determine what we mean by “the future”? Is it tomorrow, a week from now, five years away or a generation out? The further away it is, the less accurate our predictions will be. We can say with confidence that tomorrow will be much like today, and that the world five years from now will not be too different from what we see now (assuming no major calamity such as war). But, beyond that, the future looks increasingly hazy. In fact, the only statement that we can make with confidence is that all predictions that we make will turn out to be wrong. After all, who would have predicted as little as ten years ago the impact that social media and mobile phones have already had on the lives of billions of people?

Climate change is particularly difficult to forecast because it is not an event, it is a process. It started in the 1960s, gained traction in the 1970s and has gained traction ever since. This means that, by definition, we cannot prevent climate change from occurring  — we are too late for that. The best we can do is slow its pace and/or mitigate the consequences. Failing that, we are forced into an adaptation mode.

IPCC Report

IPCC Report Global Warming

The recently published report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1) does, however, give us a handle as to what will happen, and when it will happen. This report was prepared for the United Nations and, as such, is authoritative. The scientific findings in the main report are summarized in a 34-page “Summary for Policy Makers,” which was approved by all representatives from 195 nations, including the U.S.

The report is technical, lengthy and not always an easy read, but here are some of its key findings.

Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. (high confidence)

Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these emissions alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence)

These two quotations note that emissions that have taken place in the past will continue to have a major impact. However, if we could stop all emissions now we would not reach a critical stage.

Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). 

This paragraph, and others like it, have been criticized for being too hopeful. They do not spell out the magnitude of the changes that are required, and the enormous impact that such changes would have. The “rapid and far-reaching transitions” that the report alludes to mean that we, as a society, would have to stop using fossil fuels within the next decade or so. Realistically, this is not going to happen. Even if the will to take such action were present, the economic impact on people’s lives would be devastating.

The Impact

Reports such as the one just cited make for rather dry reading. In order to understand where climate changes are taking us it is useful to read articles by writers such as Wallace-Wells (2) and Bendell (3). They provide rather scary insights as to what the future may look like.

Through the Glass, Darkly

To summarize:

  • Actions that we have taken so far will increase global temperatures by 1.5°C. This is baked into the pie. The impact of a 1.5 °C increase is very serious, but does not drive us over a tipping point (that phrase is not included in the report but it probably should be).
  • In order to keep temperature increases to 1.5°C we would have to cut fossil-fuel use by half in less than 15 years and eliminate it almost entirely in 30 years. This means no home, business, or industry heated by gas or oil; no vehicles powered by diesel or gasoline; all coal and gas power plants shuttered; the petrochemical industry converted wholesale to green chemistry; and heavy industry like steel and aluminum production either using carbon-free energy sources or employing technology to capture CO2 emissions and permanently store it.
  • Cutting the use of fossil fuels in such a drastic manner would, of course, lead to a massive economic recession, and suffering for billions of people. Hence no nation is taking such drastic actions, or even coming close.
  • If we do not take drastic action then, by the year 2050 it will be too late to change course.

Let’s return to the Corinthians quotation that started this post. When we look through our fogged-up window we see that climate change is going to have massive impact on society one way or another. Either we, as a society that includes all the countries of the world, take drastic actions that will radically reduce our standard of living and that will disproportionately affect those at the bottom of the economic scale. Or we do nothing and then face the consequences of environmental destruction, which in turn could well lead to economic collapse. The outline is becoming clearer and clearer. And it is not a pretty sight.

Citations

(1) Global Warming of 1.5°C. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. January 2019.(2) Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth. New York Magazine July 2017.
(3) Bendell, Jem. Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. July 2018.

We scientists don’t know how to do that

I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.

Gus Speth Canadian Club of Rome
Gus Speth

Information and analysis to do with climate and resource issues comes mostly from the scientific community. Scientists are rational, so they tend to go where the data takes them. For a generation or more they have believed that a simple presentation of the facts is all that is needed. When presented with these facts governments, companies, churches and individuals will, it is assumed, take the necessary action.

But that has not happened . Most people continue to live their lives as normal; they have done little or nothing to address climate change issues. Indeed, many people continue to deny the very validity of the scientists’ claims.

Even when they do take action, people and organizations will generally attempt to have their environmental cake and eat it. With few exceptions, people are not willing to voluntarily reduce their standard of living in order to achieve a higher goal. And no politician will run on the platform of, “Elect me and I will reduce your standard of living”. Such a program is a sure way of becoming an ex-politician. Politicians simply cater to our demands.

Which brings us to the quotation at the top of this post. (It is from the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome.) The problems (actually predicaments) that we face are the consequences of human action. Simply stating that we have a problem achieves nothing unless it leads to a change in behavior — the “cultural and spiritual transformation” described in the quotation.

Achieving such a transformation may seem like a hopeless task. But isn’t it what the church has been trying to achieve for the last two thousand years? (And not just the Christian church — many other faiths have similar goals.) All that has changed is that the goals have changed.

If this is the case then the church needs to be a leader in persuading people to make serious cuts in their standard of living. It is not enough to have environmental committees that promote activities such as recycling, the creation of community gardens, advocating for changes in government policy and installing solar panels on the roof of the church. These are all worthy activities, but they tend to occur in intellectual isolation. We need a theology for our times — a theology that faces up to the harsh dilemmas that confront us.

George Mobus, author of Question Everything blog
George Mobus

The limitations of the rational/scientific approach were further reinforced by a recent post from George Mobus, a retired professor from the University of Washington Tacoma.  He says,

I honestly did not expect to be a witness to the end of civilization when I started blogging those many years ago. Though I thought I could clearly see where the trends (energy, climate, social) were heading and tried to lay out the arguments for why we needed to change our ways, I thought that the really bad outcomes would post-date my life. I grieved for my children, of course. But never really thought I would be witness to the end game itself.

Now I’m not so sure. In fact I think that recent developments in climate science, energy science, and political science make it clear that we have entered the end game already.

. . .

We will not be able to save civilization as we know it by any kind of technological magic. The rate of onset of climate change (notice the weather anomalies of late?) and the catastrophic collapse of fossil fuel energies (fracked wells are falling in production as we speak) not to mention the collapse of fisheries, soil depletions, and the insane left-vs-right political strife all mark the clear signatures of collapse, but this time on a global scale. 

. . .

I’m calling the game over. I just cannot see a solution that has humanity going on in any kind of lifestyle that we have grown accustomed to in the 21st century.

. . .

My advice is head for the hills.

. . .

And, good luck.

Mobus has, for many years, represented the rational, scientific way of thought. In this post he seems to have given up hope that human society, at least in its present form, is going to “make it”. The only hope that he offers is to suggest that humanity may develop sufficient wisdom in coming years to, in effect, start again. And we do this through an understanding of systems science.

Basically I argue that we evolved to pass a threshold of cognitive capacity that makes us humans unique animals. It isn’t intelligence, but the capacity to develop wisdom over a lifetime. Except that the average human being is just above that threshold, so their capacity is yet weak.

What I sincerely hope is that some of the survivors will attempt to preserve knowledge, key knowledge (as in systems science) with which to restart the social process

And what is theology but Christian “systems theory”?

The Christian New Deal: Part I

This blog is the first in a series to do with the nature of a ‘Christian New Deal’. It discusses the nature of truth in the context of the Age of Limits. It starts with Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” The conclusion is that the truth of the predicaments that we face is complex and hard to understand. Nevertheless it is our responsibility to do the work needed to understand that truth.

The picture at the top of this post is of Pilate questioning Jesus. In John 18 we read,

 . . . Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, 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.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

Book Release

Dante Forest DarkEach week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. One of the writers who has greatly influenced my thinking on Age of Limits issues is John Michael Greer. His work is described in the fourth part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark).  The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

A Theology for Our Times

The ultimate aim of the posts in this series is to help develop a theology that addresses the issues that we discuss — issues that are collectively the ‘Age of Limits’. Every so often, we will publish a post that provides some thoughts as to what that ideology might look like. Given that the Green New Deal has attracted so much attention, let us call it the Christian New Deal.

This post is the first in that series.

A Committee Meeting

I recently attended a meeting of a church environmental group. It works with individual churches and the larger community on a wide range of programs such as,

  • Eliminating the use of plastic bottles that are thrown in the trash;
  • Management of storm water run-off to minimize the loss of top soil;
  • The development of community gardens; and
  • Writing mission statements and resolutions to do with church policy.

At the conclusion of the meeting we had a round-table discussion at which people were invited to talk about what was on their mind. One person introduced the topic of the recent youth movement (see The Thunberg Meme), another talked about the impact of the Green New Deal. This led to an immediate change in the tone of the meeting. It became apparent that everyone understood that, regardless of actions such as ours, climate change — with all its scary consequences — is happening. And these consequences are not just on the other side of the world. The climate in our own locality has changed (there will be more rain than has been normal).

Programs such as the Green New Deal can be properly challenged on the grounds that they are not realistic, either in terms of engineering or project management. But a more fundamental difficulty with such programs is that they assume that we can have our environmental cake and eat it. If we take the proposed actions then we can have both a remediated environment and maintain our current standard of living. It would be wonderful if this assumption were true, but, alas, such is not the case.

Truth

One of the themes of the posts at this blog is that Christians must always tell the truth, even if the truth is difficult to understand. For example, in Of Wind Turbines and Anaesthetics we note that not only does it provide us with fuels such as gasoline and diesel, it is also the source of the petrochemicals that create the products that are so fundamental to our way of living. We cannot stop using crude oil without facing wrenching changes to the way in which we live — and people at the lower end of the economic scale will probably be impacted the most.

A much harder truth to accept is that our climate is taking us into a hot-house world that humans have never seen before. An increasing number of people are spelling out the details of this future. Examples are the book Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells and the paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy by Jem Bendell. The story that they tell is not pretty.

Back to the committee meeting that started this post. Is it enough for Christian groups such as this to focus on actions such as those described? Or should these groups spend at least part of their time and energy on describing our future — no holds barred?

A Theological Response

We have already talked about Augustine of Hippo and his book The City of God. But there is another work of his that it is useful to consider, and that is De Mendacio (On Lying). Augustine insists that Christians must tell the truth at all times — not even white lies are permissible. Therefore, I suggest that the first step in the development of a new theology is to be totally rigorous about telling the truth about the dilemmas that we face. Such a truth has three parts.

  1. Understanding the nature of truth is difficult. The issues that we discuss are complex and have many feedback loops. This means that, if we are to understand the truth then we need to do our homework.
  2. Telling the truth may cause alarm in others, and may (will) make us less popular. Carriers of bad news are not popular.
  3. The people who will be most affected by all these changes will be those toward the bottom of the economic scale.

I conclude that understanding and telling the truth is the first part of a Christian New Deal.

The Leadership of AOC and Greta Thunberg

One of the themes of this site is that there is an opportunity for the Christian church to provide leadership in the rather scary future that awaits us. But first we have to focus on Age of Limits issues, and stop placing gender debates up front and center — see the post Rearranging the (Episcopal) Deckchairs.

Actually, for once, we may be able to have our environmental cake and eat it. In his post When the Going get Tough, Women get Going. “Middle Ages 2.0” Ugo Bardi says,

In Europe, Greta Thunberg has smashed all the memetic barriers succeeding in doing what nobody else had succeeded before: bringing the climate emergency within the horizon of the public and of the decision makers. In parallel, on the other side of the Atlantic, another young woman, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez has been doing something similar with her “Green New Deal.”

These are remarkable changes and I think it is not casual that they are brought by women. It had already happened during the early Middle Ages, when women took a prominent role in taking the lead in reshaping a dying empire into a new, vibrant civilization, one that we sometimes call the “Dark Ages” but that was a period of intelligent adaptation to scarcity. It was also a civilization displaying a remarkable degree of gender parity in comparison to what the European society was before and what would become later on.

I find it interesting that, unwittingly, I have been following the leadership of these two dynamic young ladies at this blog with my various posts to do with the Green New Deal and Skolstrejk för Klimatet.

This line of argument would suggest that, if the church wants to promote gender equality, then maybe direct advancement of that goal is not the way to go. Instead, we should provide leadership in our search for “intelligent adaptation to scarcity”. In doing so, we may find that much of our leadership will be provided by the likes of AOC and GT.

Greta Thunberg Sweden


The image at the top of this post is taken from the cover of a book to be published by Devil’s Due. Of their book they say,

It’s no secret that AOC has become the unofficial leader of the new school, and has sparked life back into Washington and that’s reflected in the enthusiasm on display by the men and women contributing to this project. While we all don’t agree on everything, we share a common excitement for the breath of fresh air the new Congress brings.