Proper 16: Rearranging the Deckchairs

Deckchairs Titanic neatly arranged
Deckchairs on the Titanic — neatly arranged

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.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (August 25th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 13:10-17.

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

This passage gives us two issues to think about. The first is the miracle that heals the crippled woman, the second is the tension between Jesus and the synagogue leader about how to observe the sabbath laws. It is the second of these that may be able to provide us with guidance to do with our actions in the coming years of climate change and resource depletion.

The synagogue leader is portrayed in a negative light. He is taking a legalistic attitude that, “We all know the rules about keeping the sabbath; we should obey them. No excuses.” Jesus does not argue against the sabbath rule itself — he is simply saying that there are times and circumstances when it is right not to observe that rule.

But there is another way of looking at this story. It may be that the sabbath rule itself needs to be modified. In our time our church leaders tend to focus on issues such as gender equality, same-sex relationships and diversity. These are important issues. But maybe they should no longer be our priority. The leadership of our church, like the synagogue leader, may need to consider the changed circumstances of the world around us.

One of the Attachments to my book A New City of God is entitled, ‘Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Episcopalian Titanic’. It is written tongue-in-cheek, but the point is a serious one. The church’s focus on current issues may help explain why membership in virtually all denominations is declining so precipitously. The chart shows membership in the Episcopal church.

Membership Episcopal church

As recently as the year 2005, membership was over 800,000. Currently it is at approximately 550,000 (the red line); the number of active Episcopalians is now less than 0.25% of the population of the United States. Were this trend line to continue then membership would hit zero around the year 2045. (In fact, the line will probably level out in the 10,000 to 15,000 range, but the general conclusion is the same. The Episcopal church in its present form is likely to become merely a rump organization.) The reality is that the modern Episcopal church has very little influence over the direction that our society is taking. And, unless the church speaks to issues that really matter to society as a whole, its influence will continue to dwindle.

If the Age of Limits issues discussed at this site are as serious as they seem to be then we should focus on them. If we do so, we may find that the membership decline could be stopped, or even reversed.

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am trying to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

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

I have highlighted the second of these three points — Accept and Adapt — because we cannot predict how nations and societies will decline. However, we do need to accept that decline is inevitable, and that we will need to adapt to new, strange and frightening circumstances.

Additional Reading

India drought Chennai

At this blog I do not spend much time discussing reports to do with climate change and related issues. There are many other sites that provide that information. However, one post did catch my eye and that was India staring at a water apocalypse. Other related articles discuss the fact that the city of Chennai in India is facing a near collapse of its fresh water supplies. Moreover, this situation is not temporary — as the climate changes much of the Indian subcontinent will be facing long-term drought.

This information attracted my attention because one of the world’s largest oil companies (Shell) decided some years ago to move many of its financial and administrative functions from the United States to Chennai in order to save money. I wonder if the planning for this move looked at the city’s water supply. Already workers in Chennai are being asked to stay home. If the shortage of water gets worse, as it probably will, Shell may have to consider relocating many of these functions somewhere else.


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The Stordalen

 

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

Matthew 7:1-2

1 stordalen  =  10,491 bacon cheeseburgers

As an engineer I like to think in numbers. Hence one of my favorite quotations is from Lord Kelvin (of degrees Kelvin fame) — yet another bewhiskered Victorian gentleman.

Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)
Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.

The catch is that it is difficult to know how we can measure our own contribution to environmental degradation. We talk about our carbon footprint, but how is that footprint to be measured? Our knowledge is indeed of a “meagre and unsatisfactory kind”.

One tongue-in-cheek response to this challenge has been provided by John Michael Greer in his post A Wilderness of Mirrors. He refers to an article in the Daily Mirror entitled Globe-trotting billionaire behind campaign to save planet accused of blatant hypocrisy. Greer says,

Late last year . . . the mass media trumpeted yet another study proclaiming yet another low-meat diet that would supposedly save the planet. The study was funded by a Norwegian vegan billionaire named Gunhild Stordalen. For a change, reporters actually looked into the story, and turned up the fact that Stordalen’s commitment to the environment apparently begins and ends on her dining table.

Diet aside, she’s got the same colossal carbon footprint as other members of her class; her idea of a modest wedding celebration, for example, included flying a private jet full of friends from Oslo to Marrakesh and back.

(Math isn’t my strong suit, so one of my readers obligingly crunched the numbers, and showed that this little jaunt of Stordalen’s—one of many each year in her globehopping lifestyle, by the way—had a carbon footprint equal to no fewer than 10,491 of the bacon cheeseburgers she insists nobody ought to eat.)

Stordalen-Gunhild Tree Hugger
Gunhild Stordalen: A Tree Hugger

So maybe, if we decide to walk rather than drive to the grocery store, we can determine the impact of our decision by measuring the number of stordhalens saved.

(One person pointed out that ‘stor’ is Norwegian for ‘large’, whereas ‘liten’ means ‘small’. The stordalen is too large a unit for daily use, but if litendalen is a thousandth of a stordalen then it would be equivalent to 10.5 bacon cheeseburgers — a more practical measure.)

Greer made the same point when talking about Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth. Gore’s book and the matching video introduced many people to the ideas of global warming and climate change. (Gore had been Vice President under Bill Clinton, and came close to winning the presidency himself.)

An Inconvenient Truth
Bennett — reproduced with permission

Although what Gore said was properly researched, his message lost credibility because his lifestyle does not match his message. He lives in a large air-conditioned mansion (and owns other properties), flies around the world in jet airplanes and eats a high meat diet.

The Gore Mansion
The Gore Mansion

If he had really wanted to get his message across Gore would have moved to a small home without air conditioning, cut back on long distance travel (and then only by train), and eaten a mostly vegetarian diet.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez environmental hypocrisy

To bring the topic up to date, consider the reporting of the New York Post to do with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s carbon  footprint.

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign logged 1,049 car service transactions totaling over $23,000 between May 16, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2018, The Post found. Her campaign once booked 26 car-service transactions in a single day.

Even though her Queens HQ was just a one-minute walk to the 7 train, her campaign only made 52 MetroCard purchases, spending about $8,300.

And despite high-speed rail being the cornerstone of her green strategy, the Democratic firebrand took Amtrak 18 times, compared to 66 airline transactions costing $25,174.54 during the campaign season.

Her response,

“I’m just living in the real world”.

One reason that the way in which we live matters is that none of us have enough time to investigate all the issues that we face. So we tend to base our opinions on the character of the person presenting a point of view. (Advertisers know that the best reference is from a person that you know and trust.)

This idea of living the by the standards that are preached is particularly important for rich and powerful people such as the Stordalens or Al Gore. Otherwise, ordinary people will suspect that they are being asked to sacrifice their standard of living so that the wealthy can continue to live in luxury.

Benedict of Nursia
Benedict of Nursia (480-547)

The principle of living the life preached is one of the foundations of the monastic way of life. This is an important topic, and one that we will discuss in future posts. At this point it is sufficient to say that, when societies decline, there is often a revival of the monastic ideal. In the case of the western Roman Empire the person who embodied this ideal was Benedict of Nursia.

The Benedictine ideals are usually condensed into three principles: poverty, chastity and obedience. Although Benedict’s rule is demanding, it is not a harsh; indeed, it is built around a spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness. The key words are ora et labora: pray and work.

The counter-argument to Greer’s point of view is that the actions of individuals and small groups of people are not enough to make a difference. Indeed, Jevons Paradox suggests that whatever we do will be cancelled out by someone else’s actions. For example, we may choose to drive a smaller car to save fuel. But the fuel that we do not use is not really saved — it is simply used by someone else, somewhere else.

Therefore, it is argued, it does not matter if we personally lead a profligate lifestyle, just as long as we are able to change society’s rules and standards. The catch with this argument, as we have just seen, is that it can be perceived as being hypocritical and self-serving. But, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi,

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.

 

Proper 15: 2019

Calendar 2019

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.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (August 18th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 12:49-56.

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,

mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,

mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

The Present Time

I would like to consider the last phrase, “but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” in the context of climate change. One of the frustrations that many feel is that the facts to do with climate change are obvious and not all that controversial. Yet people, by and large, continue to ignore the looming crises  that a changed climate will bring.

But it could be that public awareness is shifting. In fact, it may be that the year 2019 has been something of a watershed, at least in the United States. Historians may look back on it as the year when, quite suddenly, climate change went mainstream and gained widespread acceptance.

The following may be reasons for this change.

The Daily News

We are seeing a steady stream of news events to do with the reality of climate change. The following are examples,

High Publicity Events

The climate change movement seems to be building awareness through high profile events such as Greta Thunberg’s decision to sail across the Atlantic. Such actions are likely to have a greater impact than any number of earnest reports written by bespectacled scientists.

Greta Thunberg climate change

Mainstream Acceptance

But of all the trends, probably the most significant is that climate change is becoming part of our background. — something that is increasingly taken for granted. For example, in the August 16th 2019 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch the newspaper’s meteorologist, John Boyer, had an article forecasting the fall weather for the central Virginia area. He says,

. . . over the past century there has been a notable rise in both mean temperature and rainfall across Virginia from September to November, likely influenced by climate change.

What struck me was the almost casual manner in which Boyer, who writes for a  conservative newspaper, took it for granted that climate change is a factor in routine weather forecasting.

China and India

The above comments are mostly to do with the United States and western Europe. Unfortunately, other parts of the world, particularly China and India, are even less committed to making a change than the United Sates although they make a major contribution to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. (Comparative fossil fuel consumption for the top three nations are: China 36%, USA 34%, India 30%.)

Personal Stories

We moved to the Richmond area about six years ago from Houston, Texas. Our choice was made easy because we have family in this area. But another factor was our reading of NASA’s long-range climate forecasts. Our interest was not so much in temperature change (everywhere gets hotter) but in rainfall. NASA predicted that south Texas would get drier (but not to drought levels), that New England and eastern Canada would be very wet , and that rainfall in central Virginia would remain about the same. It looks as if that prediction has worked out quite well so far.

Increasingly, we will have more and more personal stories such as these. They could create a rapid change in perception. One of the commentators (staggering_god) at the reddit Collapse site likely has it right when he said,

More and more, people are going to have stories. True stories about things that have happened to them, their families, or their friends. That’s what will ultimately persuade people–not models, projections, scientific experts, or charts. Like a lot of farmers today, it will start like, “I don’t say it’s climate change, but the growing season is out of whack–something’s gone wrong, and it’s nothing like I remember growing up.”

Eventually, most people are going to have their climate stories. And probably the most important thing people can do is share their person stories of being affected by climate change.

And then, like magic, everybody is going to rewrite the past. And suddenly we will all talk like were all believers all along. Even if you said you were a skeptic two years ago, it will be as if it was decades ago. Corporations will all come out pro-climate action. Politicians will tie it to our deep-rooted American values. Everybody is going to start paying lip service. It’s going to be on t-shirts, mugs, Top 40 radio hits. Everybody is going to feel warm and fuzzy inside because they were part of the movement, always with the “good guys,” always virtuous and moral and good.

And then the next battle will come. Something will be passed. It will be substantial and specific. It will be real. BUT it clearly won’t be enough. And, like all the civil rights battles before, there will be the camp of people who scream that a LOT more needs to be done, that this is problem is systemic and is NOT FIXED. And there will be the other camp who say those people are alarmist, extremist, etc. The ruling class will say, “We’ve given you something. Isn’t that enough? Aren’t you satisfied? Why can’t you be satisfied with what we’ve given you?” It will be the people who think we’ve done enough vs. the people who think we haven’t done nearly enough.

Everybody will claim to be on the pro-climate side, but it will be almost the same battle repeating again–with a kind of soft denialism. Everyone will say they are on board with fixing the climate and taking action, but a good number of people won’t take the science completely seriously. They will consider it a “half-emergency”. It will be denialism but in a different guise. The gradualists vs. the abolitionists.

In short, we will have spent 30+ years doing NOTHING. Then we will do SOMETHING. And that will only be the very start. Every inch of ground after that point will be fought over. You’ll never truly weed out the denialists, they will just go underground, slow walk everything, and come up with endless “reasonable” objections. Mostly, the language will change. Everybody will agree that they’ve always been on the right side. In this way, the problem will likely become only more insidious.

In the end, the delays and obfuscations will lead to our utter destruction. But in whatever history we tell centuries hence, we were ALL for Independence. Nobody was ever a royalist. We were ALL with the abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln, the whole time. We ALL hated Nazis and supported the Allies. We ALL loved Martin Luther King. And we ALL thought climate change was a big problem and supported significant climate action.

Common Knowledge

This week’s Peak Prosperity site has an article entitled Why Common Knowledge Changes The World. The article is to do with financial issues but the concept of Common Knowledge can be applied equally well to the perception of climate change. There are three steps.

  1. A small number of people with specialist knowledge become aware of the problem. The great majority of people either do not accept that there is a problem or — more commonly — they simply ignore the whole issue.
  2. Then more and more people recognize that there is a problem. Their private knowledge, in this case, goes from denial or ignorance to accepting that “something is going on”. But the crucial point is that this knowledge is private and that they believe that others have yet to change their mind.
  3. Then, suddenly, people become aware that they are not alone or isolated. Hence private knowledge quickly becomes public knowledge.

I suggest that we are currently at Step 2 and that the transition to Step 3 could happen within the next two or three years.

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am trying to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

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

I have highlighted the first of these points. More and more people are gaining an understanding of what is taking place but they feel rather isolated. However, once enough people gain an understanding, and once they talk to one another, the whole public perception of climate change could shift quite quickly.  Whether that change in perception will lead to effective action remains to be seen.

Additional Reading

The American Meteorological Society has released its 325 page report State of the Climate in 2018. Here are some quotations from the Abstract.

In 2018, the dominant greenhouse gases released into Earth’s atmosphere—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—continued their increase. The annual global average carbon dioxide concentration at Earth’s surface was 407.4 ± 0.1 ppm, the highest in the modern instrumental record and in ice core records dating back 800,000 years.

. . . global surface (land and ocean) temperature was the fourth highest on record, with only 2015 through 2017 being warmer. Several European countries reported record high annual temperatures. There were also more high, and fewer low, temperature extremes than in nearly all of the 68-year extremes record.

. . . Pakistan, recorded its highest temperature of 50.2°C, which may be a new daily world record for April.

. . . The 2018 Arctic land surface temperature was 1.2°C above the 1981–2010 average, tying for third highest in the 118-year record, following 2016 and 2017. June’s Arctic snow cover extent was almost half of what it was 35 years ago. Across Greenland, however, regional summer temperatures were generally below or near average. Additionally, a satellite survey of 47 glaciers in Greenland indicated a net increase in area for the first time since records began in 1999.

. . . On 17 March, Arctic sea ice extent marked the second smallest annual maximum in the 38-year record, larger than only 2017.

. . . For the Antarctic continent as a whole, 2018 was warmer than average. On the highest points of the Antarctic Plateau, the automatic weather station Relay (74°S) broke or tied six monthly temperature records throughout the year, with August breaking its record by nearly 8°C. However, cool conditions in the western Bellingshausen Sea and Amundsen Sea sector contributed to a low melt season overall for 2017/18.

. . .The deeper ocean continues to warm year after year. For the seventh consecutive year, global annual mean sea level became the highest in the 26-year record, rising to 81 mm above the 1993 average. As anticipated in a warming climate, the hydrological cycle over the ocean is accelerating: dry regions are becoming drier and wet regions rainier. Closer to the equator, 95 named tropical storms were observed during 2018, well above the 1981–2010 average of 82.

. . . Globally, fire activity during 2018 was the lowest since the start of the record in 1997, with a combined burned area of about 500 million hectares. This reinforced the long-term downward trend in fire emissions driven by changes in land use in frequently burning savannas. However, wildfires burned 3.5 million hectares across the United States, well above the 2000–10 average of 2.7 million hectares.


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Proper 14: The Unexpected Hour

Alarm clock for the second coming
Every week, as time permits, I look at the appointed Episcopalian lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s Gospel reading (August 11th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 12:32-40.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Collapse

Let’s take a look at that last sentence to do with the “unexpected hour”.

As we saw from the discussion to do with last week’s gospel reading, none of us know the future holds. We can make our plans but, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.” As they say, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”. This week’s reading is on the same lines — the Son of Man will come at some unexpected hour. The passage could be interpreted as meaning that there will be a final hour for all of society. Or maybe it means that each of us individually will experience his or her own time when “this night your life will be demanded from you”.

Either way, the passage suggests that, in addition to being unexpected, the ending will be sudden. The anticipation of a sudden end is part of the Christian tradition. Recent examples are the “Rapture” and the “Singularity”. Unfortunately the idea of sudden, lights-out end to the world does not really fit our understanding of decline in an Age of Limits. The image below is from the ‘Limits to Growth’ report first published by the Club of Rome in the 1970s. It shows how factors such as population growth, industrial output and food production vary over time. None of the curves exhibit a sudden step change. Some of the projected changes such as ‘Industrial Output’ change quite quickly but we are talking in terms of decades, not hours.  There is no sudden end time.

Limits to Growth

A central theme of this set of posts is that our national and political institutions have failed to provide leadership in the face of mounting crises to do with climate change, resource depletion, destruction of the biosphere and on-going financial emergencies. This situation provides an opportunity for the Christian church to provide that missing leadership. But our theology will have to move from the idea of collapse being a one-time event. Instead, we are looking at a future that will be muddled and confusing with no single end time.

Where Were You When Global Warming Happened?

The lack of a single end-point is something that we all have trouble grasping. For example, people might ask, “What will the world look like after global warming?” The simplest answer is, “Look around you, global warming started many years ago, hence we are living in a post-warming world.”

But next year the world will look slightly different. And the year after that slightly different again. Wait 50 years and we will have trouble recognizing what we see. But — and this is the crucial point — there is no single “before and after”; global warming, resource depletion, the destruction of the biosphere — they are all processes not one-time events.

So, in response to the question at the head of this section, there is no answer. Global warming is not a single point memorable event such as the attack on the World Trade Center.

Speed of Decline

The book that I am working on has the title The New City of God. I chose that title because Augustine of Hippo wrote his book, The City of God, at a time when the western Roman Empire was visibly declining. (He was living when the City of Rome itself was sacked in the year 410 CE.) Augustine recognized that all human societies and nations collapse sooner or later. For example, the Hebrew Bible is full of “failed states” such as Assyria, Babylon and Ancient Egypt. His insight was that only the City of God is permanent. From this insight, he and other church leaders of his time developed a theology that provided the foundation for the church for the next 900 years.

City of God by Augustine of Hippo

But nations and societies do not all fail in the same way or the same rate. Indeed, it could be argued that the Roman Empire never completely failed. The eastern part of the Empire survived for a thousand years after the time of Augustine. Even the western part did not disappear completely. The City of Rome became site of the headquarters of the Roman Catholic church, the Latin language became the basis for many modern languages such as Italian, Spanish and French, and the Roman legal system is still in use in many parts of Europe.

Other civilizations, however, have completely disappeared, leaving hardly a trace of their existence, except maybe in the ruins of monumental structures such as pyramids and buildings. Here is an artist’s impression as to what the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon looked like in Biblical times.

Babylon hanging gardens

And here is a picture of what they looked like when being excavated.

Babylon hanging gardens

Global Collapse

There is, however, one huge difference between Augustine’s time and ours. The Roman Empire, was large, but it did not encompass the whole world. There were societies and nations in Persia, Africa and northern Europe that may have influenced the Romans, but that were not part of the Empire. There were also whole societies in Asia and Latin America about which the Romans knew nothing.

Such is not the case in our time. The issues to do with climate change, resource depletion and all the rest are global — there are no parts of the world that are not affected. Which means that, as the protestors say, “There is no Planet B”.

How severe our collapse will be, what it will look like and how quickly events will unfold remain to be seen. In the words of the Apostle Paul, we can only see through a glass darkly. Two of the people that I follow on the Internet are Ugo Bardi at Cassandra’s Legacy and John Michael Greer at Ecosophia. They tend to see the future differently. Bardi talks about a fairly quick collapse using a model that he refers to as the Seneca Cliff. Greer sees a future of a ragged, gradual descent. But neither of these two writers anticipates a moment in time when everything will come to an end.

Ugo Bardi Seneca Cliff

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am attempting to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It is based on the following three points:

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

I have highlighted the second of these three points — Accept and Adapt — as the theme of this week’s blog. As the Gospel reading tells us, we need to be dressed for action and to have our lamps lit. But we need to be ready for a process of change, not for a one-time event.


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Proper 13: The Stoic Christian

 

 

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). A stoic.

The Episcopal church publishes a lectionary which tells us which passages of scripture are to be our focus for each week. As time permits, I will look at the prescribed reading — usually the Gospel — in the context of the Age of Limits. It is important to understand that I am merely a retired chemical engineer; I am not a theologian, ordained cleric or seminarian. But, even though I am a loyal Episcopalian, I feel that I also belong to Luther’s “priesthood of all believers”. At the very least I hope that what I write may be of assistance to professional theologians.

Appointed Gospel

The Gospel lesson for this week (August 4th 2019, Year C) is Luke 12:13-21. In it God says to the rich man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” (The meaning and sadness of these words was brought home to all of us when we learned just two days later that one of the members of our congregation passed away suddenly — to our knowledge her health had been good up until then.)

This Gospel also speaks to those of us who understand that climate change will have drastic, even catastrophic, effects on our way of life. Our way of life will not end in a single night, but it is coming to an end. Many Christians are working diligently to slow down the pace of change and/or mitigate the consequences. But, when we look at the magnitude of the predicaments that we face and at the overall feebleness of our political response, these actions often feel futile. (This loss of hope — even a feeling of despair — can be seen in web sites such as reddit’s Collapse. The writers at such sites may be exaggerating the scope of our difficulties, but their attitude is real.)

A danger with this way of thinking is that it could lead people to develop a sense of fatalism, a feeling that that events are fixed in advance and that human beings are powerless to change the future. In the words of Socrates,

If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold on to it forever.

Which brings us to this week’s Gospel reading.

The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’

But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!

We see that Jesus recognized and understood the fatalistic approach to life. But the above passage makes the point that we should not just give in to fate, we must actively pursue a more spiritual life in such time as is left available to us. Specifically in the  context of the Age of Limits, we should have two responses to this passage.

First, we should not just give in — we should do what we think is the right thing to do when faced with the dilemmas of climate change, resource depletion, biosphere destruction and over-population. The second response is not to give in to the siren call of ‘hopium’ with an attitude of “they will think of something”.  It is our responsibility as Christians to understand the scary implications of the phrase, “It is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet.”

The philosophy of stoicism provides a middle ground between despondency and hopium. It is a way of thought that was founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BCE. He had been a wealthy merchant but he was literally washed up when a merchant ship that he owned sank in a storm, taking all his possessions to the bottom of the sea. Others, including Christians, who have followed in his footsteps are the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Nelson Mandela, who did so much to free the people of South Africa. In the first century CE the stoic way of thought was widespread throughout the Roman empire, with the City of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul’s hometown, being one of its centers. Scholars debate the extent to which the writings of the Apostle Paul were influenced by the stoicism.

One of Zeno’s followers, Epictetus, summarized this way of thinking when he said,

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.

In the year 2017 the following image from the Second World War went viral. It was prepared in the year 1939 by the British government in anticipation of air raids of cities by the German air force. It is stoic.

Keep Calm and Carry On. An example of Stoic thinking.

Or, as Hamlet put it, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

In short, we should focus on goals, not on outcomes — an approach that is the antithesis of coach Lombardi’s, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Stoics recognize that nothing lasts. Two generations from now, few people will remember either myself or you, dear reader. Marcus Aurelius himself said, “Alexander the Great, and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”

Stoicism also recognizes that we do not control external events. But we can control our thoughts and our actions — including the manner in which we respond to those external events. Indeed, for many people the very word “philosophy” has come to mean stoicism. When something unfortunate happens to us, we are encouraged to be “philosophical”, i.e., to accept the consequences without complaint. Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known serenity prayer is stoic.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Stoics urge us to confront fears head on. So, if you are worried about the consequences of living a more basic lifestyle as a result of resource depletion and climate change then try it and see how you cope. For example, if you have a modern air-conditioned home and you live in a hot climate, try turning off the air conditioning at the height of summer for a week or two. You will be uncomfortable, but you will survive. And you will be better prepared if the power should go down for a long period of time. In other words, “Collapse now and avoid the rush”.

The four pillars of the stoic way of life are:

  1. Justice
  2. Wisdom
  3. Temperance
  4. Courage / Fortitude

Most Christians would accept these four tenets with little debate. However, there is one important difference between stoicism and Christianity. Stoicism says, “Live well, because in the end, what difference does it make?” Christians say, “Live well, because in the end, it makes all the difference.” (Flynn 2018).

The Christian message is one of realistic hope — lying somewhere between fatalism and hopium.

Fatalism – Realistic Hope - Hopium

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I have tried to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

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

This week’s post is to do with the second of these three elements: “Accept and Adapt”. We accept that there are forces out of our control, but we try to responsibly adapt to those forces.


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