The Parable of the Blind Golfers

Parable of the prodigal son
The Prodigal Son

Parables and Scripture

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.

Mark 4:11

Each chapter of the book Faith in an Age of Limits starts with a quotation from scripture that is pertinent to the topic of that chapter. Additional Biblical quotations are provided throughout the text. In general, the New International Version (NIV) is used. But, on occasion, the King James translation is chosen because its language is so magnificent.

Each chapter also starts with a parable or short story — a narrative, usually containing an unexpected twist in the story line, that aims to provide an insight into a spiritual or moral truth. As with the parables of the New Testament, no explanation or interpretation is offered. Indeed, multiple interpretations are possible. For example, is the parable of the Prodigal Son to do with the young man who wastes his inheritance, the resentment of the older son who obeys the rules and who feels slighted, or the naivety of the father? You, dear reader, have to figure it out. There is no right or wrong answer. Through his use of parables Jesus was telling us to think.

Chapter 2 starts with the Parable of the Blind Golfers — one that is particularly appropriate for those of us with a technical or engineering background.

The Parable of the Blind Golfers

Parable of the blind golfers

A priest, a doctor and an engineer are playing a round of golf. All is going well until they catch up with a group ahead of them who are playing badly and slowly. They ask the greens-keeper why this group is so slow. He replied, “They are firefighter heroes. They all lost their eyesight while rescuing children from burning buildings — they are totally blind. In recognition of their service we allow them to play here for free.”

The priest says, “What heroes. I will offer prayers of gratitude for their sacrifice and I will pray for their recovery.”

The doctor adds, “There have been big advances in eye surgery recently. I will contact some ophthalmologists that I know; they may be able to offer medical help.”

Then they all look at the engineer who says, “Why don’t they play at night?”

Pontius Pilate and Truth

Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?”
Pontius Pilate Questioning Jesus

Jesus says,

“. . . 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.”

To which Pilate replies,

“What is truth?”

John 18:38

As we think about a theology for an Age of Limits I suggest that one of the bases should be, “Understand and tell the truth”. The key word in that phrase is “understand”. Christians know that they must never lie. They also know that they must always speak and act with integrity.

Let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay

James 5:12

Telling the truth can go even further. In his book De Mendacio (On Lying), written around the year 395 CE, Augustine of Hippo says that it is wrong even to tell a white lie.

However, in our extraordinarily complex society it is often very difficult and challenging to determine exactly what is truth. Consider, for example, the effect of the current pandemic on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Environmentalists are encouraged that, in spite of the all the problems and tragedies that it has caused, the consequent reduction in economic activity has at least led to an improvement in air and water quality, and also in GHG emissions.

However, it turns out that the climate change benefits of the wrenching changes we are enduring have not been all that great. Greenhouse gas emissions are down by only 5% this year. How can that be? How can the enormous cutbacks and losses that we have endured led to such a small decrease in emissions?

To find an answer, let’s look at which sectors of the economy use fossil fuels. In round numbers they are:

  • Utilities — 45%
  • Industry — 25%
  • Transport — 20%
  • Residential — 5%
  • Other (including agriculture) — 5%

The picture below shows grounded jets at Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The transportation industry has gone through wrenching cutbacks. Indeed, the tourist industry has pretty well collapsed. But, as the highlighted number shows, that industry accounts for only 20% of GHG emissions, which is why the fall in overall emissions is less than most people would have expected.

Grounded airplanes at Dallas Forth Worth airport following the COVID-19 shut down.

A 5% cutback reduction in GHG emissions is good, but the cost has been enormous. Not only have tens of thousands of people died in the United States alone, there have been drastic reductions in the number of elective medical procedures, the consequences of which are not yet known. And more than 30 million people have lost their jobs in just two months. Environmentalists like to use the word “sustainable”. Well, what we have gone through in the last two months is unsustainable.

Yet the United Nations tells us that, if we are to stabilize the earth’s temperature, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% per year, every year for the next twenty years. The reductions that we have seen this year have been insufficient to meet the U.N. goals in spite of the enormous human and economic cost. Yet, if we are to achieve the U.N. targets, we need to repeat what has happened this year every year for the next twenty years. That does not mean that  we stabilize at current levels of economic activity and unemployment — it means that we repeat what we did this year every year for the next twenty years.

I started this post by posing Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” I suggest that, if the church is to provide the leadership that is so badly needed then people in the faith community need to understand complexities of the type just described. This will be difficult. Most church leaders have a liberal arts background, and have had little training in science, technology or mathematics. Hence, they do not gravitate to the type of analysis just provided. In particular, they rely on qualitative statements and goals. For example, the Episcopal church has published a mission statement to do with climate change. It reads in part,

Our General Convention policy calls on lawmakers to significantly reduce carbon emissions within this century

What is the meaning of the word “significant” in the above statement? We need to apply a number to that word. If the number we select is an annual reduction of 7.6% in GHG emissions per annum, then the mission statement needs to address the drastic economic and human changes that are implied. This is not to say that we should not strive to meet that goal, but it does mean that we understand the quantitative nature of truth.

The New Normal (2) — No Debt

U.S. National Debt 1990-2019

This is the second post in a series that discusses what the “New Normal” might look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control. In the first post — The New Normal (1) – Community — I suggested that our economies are likely to become more localized and our supply chains shorter. Should that turn out to be the case then the Church has an opportunity to provide leadership, particularly those churches that are organized around the parish principle.

In this post I would like to consider the issue of debt. My grandfather and his family suffered during the 1930s as the economies of the world entered what the British called the Slump and Americans call the Great Depression. It was a time of deflation, which meant that people’s income dropped, often drastically, but their mortgage payments and other debts remained. Consequently, many people in my grandfather’s generation learned to abhor debt. He felt so strongly its dangers that to him being in debt was not just a risk/reward financial decision, it was  morally wrong.

How the world has changed since his time. The chart at the head of this post shows U.S. federal debt for the last 30 years. In 1990 it was $4 trillion. By 2019 it was up to $23 trillion. What it will be by the end of the year 2020 given all the stimulus programs that are being proposed is anyone’s guess. But it is bound to be a new record — by a large margin. And it’s not just governments that have run up huge financial obligations. Individuals have bought into the same mind set; credit card debt, student debt, mortgages — the list goes on.

We are now entering a time of deflation, similar to that of the 1930s (see Church Leadership). Goods and services will be available. But, because so many people will be unemployed, there will not be sufficient money to buy those goods and services. Hence factories and service companies will cut back some more, hence more people will lose their jobs, and so on and so on. But the debts that we have taken on, both individually and as a society, will not go away. Hard times for all and bankruptcy for some lie ahead.

An additional problem is that the fractional banking system allows banks to use one asset to secure more than one loan. Each asset provides collateral for multiple loans. At a time when many loans are being called in at one time this policy means that it will not be possible to pay them all.

Even before the current crisis we were seeing problems with the effectiveness of debt. Economic growth has to be based on the growth of resources and the efficiency with which those resources are used. In recent years real growth has slowed or even stopped. Therefore, nations all over the world have responded by increasing debt levels. They are using future debt to pay today’s debt. In other words, they are using the wealth of their children to pay for their current life style. No wonder young people such as Greta Thunberg are so angry. Not only are we not paying our own bills, we are accumulating debts for our children to pay with money that they won’t have.

In a November 2018 Forbes article A Worldwide Debt Default Is A Real Possibility John Maudlin talks about the failure of ‘debt productivity’.

. . . debt is losing its ability to stimulate growth. In 2017, one dollar of non-financial debt generated only 40 cents of GDP in the US. It’s even less elsewhere. This is down from more than four dollars of growth for each dollar of debt 50 years ago.

This has seriously worsened over the last decade. China’s debt productivity dropped 42.9% between 2007 and 2017. That was the worst among major economies, but others lost ground, too. All the developed world is pushing on the same string and hoping for results.

Now, if you are used to using debt to stimulate growth, and debt loses its capacity to do so, what happens next? You guessed it: The brilliant powers-that-be add even more debt. This is classic addiction behavior. You have to keep raising the dose to get the same high.

His conclusion is that there will be what he calls a Great Reset.

. . . we will have to deal, one way or another, with the largest twin bubbles in the history of the world: global debt, especially government debt, and the even larger bubble of government promises. We are talking about debt and unfunded promises to the tune of multiple hundreds of trillions of dollars – vastly larger than global GDP.

The Bible does not tell us that being in debt is always a sin. But it does warn us about the dangers of debt and its part in the sin of worshiping money.

The rich rules over the poor, And the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.

Proverbs 22:7

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Matthew 6:24

Maybe my grandfather was more radical than he need have been. But, it does seem to make sense that we should stay out of debt as much as we can in the coming years.

Grandfather Parker on the occasion of his Golden Wedding (50th Anniversary)
Grandfather Parker on the occasion of his Golden Wedding (50th Anniversary)

The New Normal (1) — Community

St. Wilfrid Church Calverley, Yorkshire

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything. Even after the disease has run its course society will not return to the way it was — we are entering a “new normal”. This is the first in a series of posts that discusses what that new normal may look like and how the church may respond. The pandemic may , not just to what is taking place now, but also to the long-term impact of climate change.

At the time of writing, the pandemic is still increasing in scope. Countries such as China and Italy may have passed their peak (although there is always the possibility of a second wave). But many other countries are still on a rising curve of infections and mortality. We don’t know yet just how severe the final impact may be, or even how long the pandemic will last. Therefore any estimate as to what the new normal may look like is something of a conjecture. But some aspects are becoming apparent. For example, it is unlikely that the tourist industry will ever fully recover. We take a vacation in order to relax, to have fun and to experience new places. But, since vacations usually involve mingling with large numbers of strangers, many people will choose to take time off near their home because being near to so many strangers makes them uneasy. Such decisions have a ripple effect. For example, I live in a small town. A high proportion of the town’s tax income comes from the hotels and restaurants in the area. So we have to consider how the decline in tax revenue will affect funding of the police department and other local services.

In this first post to do with the new normal I would like to consider the issue of “social distancing”. We have been told by government authorities to keep at least six feet or two meters away from other people so that we do not infect one another. People seem to be heeding this instruction well. (There are exceptions, such as the pastor in Florida who insisted on holding church services. He is now under arrest.)

The instruction has forced churches to stop holding meetings involving more than two or three people. But the fact that we are forced to physically stay away from one another does not mean that we cannot communicate by telephone and video. In some respects, this pandemic seems to have actually improved social interaction within the church community. Indeed, our bishop has asked us to use the term “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing”. Churches have been forced to conduct worship services on line and, if my own experience is representative, “attendance” at those services has been good. The situation has also encouraged church members to reach out by phone, video and social media to those members who are shut in or who are in forced isolation. Whether this trend toward increased social interaction will continue is anyone’s guess. But it does point to a bigger lesson with respect to climate change and other ‘Age of Limits’ issues. (In my area we had no snow this winter and the month of March was unusually warm — climate change has not gone away.)

In response to the long-term crises to do with climate change, resource depletion and population overshoot I suggest that the most effective response will be to develop local communities and shorter supply chains.

Grandma survived the great depression because her supply chain was local and she knew how to do stuff

The development of community presents an opportunity for the church — particularly those churches that operate on a parish system. The church becomes a center of the community. It doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs may be — if you live within the physical bounds of the parish then you are part of the community.

The lessons we are learning now about communicating with one another in a time of crisis can provide valuable guidance as to how to build community for the new and rather scary world that is heading our way.

Church Leadership

The Western Wall and Kotel Tunnels 2020
The Western Wall (2020)

The last few weeks have been, as the Chinese say, “interesting times”, both for myself and for society as a whole. At a personal level we embarked on a 10-day trip to Israel about four weeks ago. It was the first time that I had been to that nation and I really enjoyed it. Israel must have more history per square mile than any other country in the world. Such a trip brings to life so many of the stories and events that we read about in the Bible. I now find it much easier to visualize, for example, Jesus giving his Sermon on the Mount (even if we do not know the exact location of that event).

On our return to the United States I went down with a fever. The symptoms were mild. But, given all the concerns to do with the corona virus, I decided to check in at our local health care facility since I had just returned from an overseas trip. The good news is that I only had a case of the normal flu (Type A). I have also had to work through one or two other health issues — all of which are working out well, but all of which required me to step back, which is why there have been no posts for the last couple of weeks.

During the same time period the world around us changed a lot, maybe irreversibly,  as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. How it will all play out remains to be seen, but we have already learned much about ourselves and our society.

Susan Goff Bishop Virginia Episcopal Church
Susan Goff — Suffragan Bishop of Virginia

Our church was quick to respond. In the very first stages of the crisis our bishop issued instructions prohibiting gatherings. For at least two weeks (and probably much longer) all group activities, including Sunday morning worship, will not happen. In response, we quickly organized a successful Sunday morning video church service.

All of these events created a period of enforced idleness for me and so gave me an opportunity to reflect on the goals of this blog — ‘Faith in an Age of Limits’ — and of the associated Facebook page: ‘Climate Change Theology’. In particular, I took advantage of the downtime to write this rather lengthy post — it summarizes some of my thoughts to do with the Age of Limits and with the  implications of the pandemic that is suddenly upon us. Although we face lots of difficulties, and although the future looks challenging — to put it mildly — the predicaments that we face do provide an opening for the church and for people of faith to provide leadership.

What form that leadership may take, and how people of faith and the church overall can provide that leadership, best serve their communities, both through service and spiritual support, both for the long-term crisis that I refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ and the short to medium-term issues raised by the pandemic is the focus of this series of posts.

Background

Abandoned pump jack

I started this blog in August of last year and have published about 49 posts during that time. I have also completed the first draft of my book A New City of God — Faith in a Changing Climate. Now is a good time to back up and to provide an overview of what I see as the challenges that we face, and how they present an opportunity for church leadership.

I first took an interest in what I now refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ about ten years ago. This was the era of ‘Peak Oil’ — the idea that crude oil is a finite resource that we are using irreversibly and that will eventually be depleted. (We now understand that the issue is not to do with the amount of crude oil in the ground per se, but the amount of oil that can be affordably extracted. The same idea applies to all other natural resources.)

This initial interest in peak oil was a starting point in understanding that we are facing many other types of limit, including climate change caused by our CO2 emissions, population overshoot, destruction of the biosphere and an end to continuous economic growth. Some of these factors are shown in the following sketch.

Elements of the Age of Limits

Predicaments, Not Problems

A key insight, and an idea that threads through much of what I write, can be summarized as follows,

We are confronted with predicaments, not problems — problems have solutions, predicaments do not. There are no solutions, only responses.

I am an engineer who has worked in the process and energy industries for many years. Like most engineers my mental model is that there are always solutions to the challenges that we face. Indeed, given sufficient money, commitment and time we can not only maintain Business as Usual (BAU), but we can even expect life to be better and better. Material progress is part of our faith system. The idea that progress has come to an end, and may even be going into reverse, challenges our fundamental view of the world.

The 300-Year Party

A second key insight is to do with the concept of the 300-year party. All living beings — humans are no exception — live by taking in energy. That energy is used for basic survival, growth and reproduction. If we take in more energy that we use then we can grow and prosper. If, on the other hand, we expend more energy that we take in then eventually we die.

The energy used by all living species, including humanity until recent times, comes from the sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface. That light is used by plant life. Some of that plant life is eaten by animals, including ourselves. (The post ERoEI discusses this background in greater detail.) Such a lifestyle is — to use a currently fashionable word — sustainable. It is the world of biblical times.

Newcomen’s Engine
Newcomen’s Engine

But then, quite suddenly, we found a new source of energy: fossil fuels — first coal, then oil and natural gas. No longer did we have to live in energy balance with our environment. We learned how to exploit millions of years’ worth of stored sunlight. (If I were to pick a date for that event I would go with the Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the atmospheric engine in the year 1712.) The use of this stored sunlight meant that we no longer needed to live in energy balance with our environment, we started a party that is now coming to an end.

The analogy is with someone who lives on a modest income. She spends no more than she makes in wages and has only a small bank balance. Then she receives an inheritance. Her bank balance increases but her income stays the same. For a short while she can afford a wonderful life style: a large home, a new car, vacations around the world. But, eventually, the money runs out and she is forced back to living on her old income. But now she is saddled with expenses that she never had before, so she is worse off than she was before receiving the inheritance. She should, of course, have saved the inheritance and spent it carefully and with an eye to the future, and for her children and grandchildren. But she didn’t. We are in the same place as that lady. We inherited and then literally burned through an inheritance of stored energy with hardly a thought for what we would do when it ran out. We just assumed that “They” would “think of something”. After all, if “they” can invent the cell phone then surely “they” can find a new source of energy that can keep the party going.

But the 300-year period during which we have gobbled up the planet’s resources at such an astonishing rate is coming to an end.  We are learning that our faith in science and technology is a false faith. Moreover, while we were consuming the earth’s resources in such a cavalier manner that we have created waste products — of which carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is probably the most important — and have just thrown them away — not acknowledging that there is no such place as “away”.

On top of all this, we have used the gift of stored sunlight to support an unprecedented growth in the earth’s population go from 1 billion to 7.5 billion. The chart shows that the population of the world in biblical times was well under a billion. In the late 18th century, following the start of the industrial revolution (which would be better named the fossil fuel revolution) we see a dramatic increase. There is a further sudden increase around the year 1950. The chart also shows how such increases closely track our production of crude oil.

World population and growth in oil production

We hear much talk about alternative energies, sustainability and “green living”. These are good ideas and they deserve our full support. But they are not even close to providing the energy base that we need to maintain our current extraordinarily, energy-extravagant lifestyle. Alternative energies do not provide a solution to the energy crisis that we face, they only help us respond and adapt.

Faith

If our faith in endless material progress is misplaced then maybe we need to consider the role of religious faith. Indeed, it is this thought that provides the inspiration for this blog and the book I am writing. In particular, people of faith should consider how they can help the world respond to the hard choices that we are all going to have to make in the coming decades.

As I was researching the material for this blog and the book I learned about that remarkable man, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). Augustine lived at a time when the western Roman Empire was in decline. Indeed, during his lifetime the City of Rome was itself was sacked for the first time in centuries. He understood that all cities of men, indeed all human organizations, eventually fail (just look at all the “failed states” in the Hebrew bible). Only the City of God, he argued, is permanent. (Hence the title of his seminal work, the book City of God.)

It is this concept that is central to my interpretation as to what is going on now in our society. Our current ‘City of Man’ — an industrial culture based on the gift of stored energy in the form of fossil fuels — is winding down, and it is why I chose the domain name ‘New City of God’. What will our new City of God look like?

In his day Augustine recognized that the situation provided an opportunity for the church to provide badly needed leadership. So, it is in our time. There is, however, one major difference between our world and that of the western Roman Empire. Our “empire” in based on technological advance. This means that our leaders will need to understand concepts that would have been foreign to Augustine and the other church fathers. These include science, ecology, thermodynamics, systems theory and the management of very large projects.

Church Leadership

A few years ago, our parish was looking for a priest. So, we set up a search committee. Members of the congregation were asked to tell the committee what they would like to see in the successful candidate. The normal attributes of the ideal candidate were listed: strong preaching, good at working with young people, sound financial management, a bible scholar, and so on. I suggested that, in addition to all these talents, that the successful candidate should 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, but I was not joking. We cannot solve our problems/predicaments if we do not understand the root cause of those problems.

The Corona Virus

Corona virus COVID-19

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

In a startlingly short period of time COVID-19 has come to dominate our lives. This is obviously a rapidly changing situation, but already it has generated the following thoughts and questions.

  • Serious as the impact of COVID-19 may be, it pales into insignificance when compared to climate change and other Age of Limits issues. Yet the virus has totally dominated our lives. This is discouraging — it is yet another instance of short-term thinking (remember the example of the lady who spent her inheritance with no thought for the future. We are all Prodigal Sons.)
  • The pandemic has shown the importance of believing scientists and other professionals in a time of crisis. Faith is based not only on prayer and the study of scriptures, but also an understanding of science and technology.
  • Once more, as in Augustine’s time, the church is provided with an opportunity for leadership.

Demise of Globalization

I started this post by saying that I am an engineer who has spent a career working in the process and energy industries. For much of that time the dominant economic theme has been one of globalization and its cousins: Just-in-Time (JIT) management and the use of single-source suppliers. Over the years borders have become ever more porous — people, goods, money and (yes) diseases have found it easier and easier to travel the world.

Even before the corona pandemic, there were signs that globalization was running into trouble. Political movements such as ‘Brexit’ and ‘Make America Great’ showed that many working people had lost confidence in in the promises that were being made. But the pandemic has highlighted the brittleness of the supply chains on which we have come to depend. To take just one example, an oil company that operates platforms in the Gulf of Mexico is running into difficulties because some of its critical equipment comes from a single source — a source that unfortunately happens to be in Italy — a nation that is currently in lockdown mode.

Systems

The world that we have created is extraordinarily complex; it has so many moving parts that it can be very difficult to understand what is going on. Richard Heinberg provides the following example of systems complexity.

Someone gets sick in China in December of 2019, and by March of 2020 the US shale oil industry is teetering on the brink. What’s the chain of connection?

  • January 2020: The coronavirus epidemic explodes, forcing China to institute a massive quarantine.
  • Chinese oil demand craters as a result of hundreds of millions staying home and untold numbers of businesses going offline.
  • March 7: Saudi Arabia asks its OPEC partners and Russia to cut oil output to keep prices from crashing.
  • March 9: Russia refuses, so the Saudis decide to provoke a price war by producing even more oil and selling it at a discount.
  • As a result, world oil prices fall from $50 (Feb. 17) to $33 (March 9).
  • Meanwhile it is arguably the US, not Russia, that will be hurt most by the price war. As the world’s largest oil producer, the US has seen nearly all of its spectacular production growth in recent years coming from light, tight oil produced by fracking. But fracking is expensive; even when prices were higher, the fracking industry struggled to turn a profit on this unconventional petroleum source. With an oil price heading toward $30 or possibly even lower, not even the most efficient fracking companies with the very best acreage can make investors happy. So, dozens of domestic US oil producers are set to go bust.

Deflation

1932 Depression

I grew up at a time of high inflation. That was bad, but deflation is worse, and it is deflation that is likely to be in our economic future.

  • The driving deflationary force will be the lack of spending due to lack of wages. Businesses of all types lay off or furlough their staff  in response to the pandemic. These people no longer receive wages, so they cannot spend money on goods and services. Hence economic activity slows down. Even people who remain employed or who have savings reduce their spending because (a) there are fewer places to spend their money, (b) they want to avoid mingling with other people, and (c) they are holding on to their money for a “rainy day”. The drop in demand for goods and services leads to more closures of factories and stores, so economic activity is reduced further and yet more people are laid off. It’s a vicious circle.
  • Prices for goods and services are likely to go down, but may not always do so. However, because people anticipate price reductions, they hold off making optional purchases “until next week”.
  • There is a contraction in the money supply and in financial credit. This is presumably why the United States Federal Reserve has reduced interest rates and bought bonds — they are trying to make sure that there is sufficient money and credit in the system.
  • Those who are in debt, particularly those people who have lost their jobs, are in trouble. Their income has shrunk or disappeared, but they still have to pay make payments for their rent, student loans or credit cards. Moreover, the interest rates on those loans will remain at their previous high levels. Moreover, these people may not be able to borrow money to keep themselves temporarily solvent since the value of many of their assets will have declined.
  • If a borrower defaults then the loss will have to be absorbed by the financial institution that made the loan or by the taxpayer.

As I write, there is a run on the grocery stores as people give way to panic buying. But, if the above analysis to do with deflation is correct, there should not be many long-term shortages (in spite of the cracks in the supply chains). Instead, there will be a shortage of people with sufficient money to buy the goods and services that are available.

The image I have of the Great Depression is of farmers who have milk for sale but their hungry, unemployed customers have no money. So the farmers wound up pouring the milk down the drain. That’s deflation.

Church Leadership

Churches around the world are responding in real time to the challenges of this pandemic. It seems to me that many of them are doing a good job — they are looking for innovative solutions to the rather frightening new world that we have entered. But the pandemic could also be a time when church leaders can think through the nature of their mission, both material and spiritual, in a world of declining resources, climate change and population overshoot.

Theology

As I thought more about the intersection between technology and faith I realized that I was circling the issue of “The study of God and of God’s relation to the world”, i.e., theology.

Theology does not have a good image. It is often seen as being an intellectual game that is neither relevant nor interesting to the ordinary person of faith. Theologians are jokingly perceived as those who wonder “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. That phrase has itself become a metaphor for time-wasting and irrelevant debate.

Rowan Williams (1950- )
Rowan Williams (1950- )

A leading theologian of our times is Rowan Williams, now retired from his post as Archbishop of Canterbury. Much of what Williams says, particularly with regard to climate change and the biosphere, makes a lot of sense and is excellent advice. But here is an example of his theological writing (from the year 2007).

A doctrine like that of the Trinity tells us that the very life of God is a yielding or giving-over into the life of an Other, a ‘negation’ in the sense of refusing to settle for the idea that normative life or personal identity is to be conceived in terms of self-enclosed and self-sufficient units. The negative is associated with the ‘ek-static’, the discovery of identity in self-transcending relation.

A person who is frightened about a pandemic disease or who is wondering how to juggle the requirements of holding down a job while looking after children who are no longer at school needs a theology that “speaks to their condition”.

C S Lewis and the moral law
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)

For many people of my generation a writer that had great influence was C.S. Lewis. In books such as Mere Christianity. Lewis explained theology clearly and showed how it fit into our lives.

Some thoughts as to what a theology that is relevant to the times may look like are provided below.

Systems Thinking

If theologians are to provide guidance and understanding to the rest of us then they need to have a good grasp of systems theory. They need to understand how our highly complex and interactive world works.

Theology Is Personal

Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE)

Theology is often perceived as being dry, pedantic and dull. Maybe one reason for this perception is that theologians seem to be like theoretical physicists who are looking for a Grand Unified Theory that explains everything, including some of the deepest moral and spiritual questions that we face. The catch is that we not like scientists standing outside the system we are trying to understand; it is God that is outside the system, He is external to us. We are like people living in a two-dimensional world when God operates in three dimensions. We cannot come up with a theological Grand Unified Theory.

In fact, it often seems as if the best theology is personal in nature. This may be one reason I based some of my thinking on Augustine’s seminal work City of God. The ideas in his book are central to Christian thinking and to scholastic theology, but no one would claim that the book is an easy read. Indeed, it seems as if it remains in need of a good copy editor. But City of God is not his only work. Augustine also wrote Confessions — one of the first personal works in our literary canon. It is not quite a full autobiography, but the book does present Augustine as being fully human, with all that that means. It make his theology personal and relevant to us all.

Theology Should Be Practical

Professional theologians divide their discipline into four major categories: biblical, historical, dogmatic and practical. Of these, the one that is of most interest to the person in the pew is ‘Practical Theology’. Osmer has organized this topic around four questions,

  1. What is going on?
  2. Why is it going on?
  3. What ought to be going on?
  4. How might we respond?

These questions seem to summarize many of the thoughts that have already been presented in this post.

Morality

In his posts at Experimental Theology, Richard Beck points out that the social justice movement is, at its heart, a moral movement.

. . . it is taken as axiomatic among social justice warriors that oppression and injustice are systemic problems requiring systemic solutions. Our problems are not moral. You hear this claim every time you hear a social justice warrior throw shade on the notion that change doesn’t happen by asking people to change their hearts.

. . . by pointing out the moral and spiritual dimensions of justice work in these posts I’m not denying the systemic side of the equation. My argument isn’t reductionist (systemic or moral?), it’s holistic (systemic plus moral!).

His argument applies equally well to the manner in which we respond to the Age of Limits and to the corona virus pandemic. The challenges that we face are systems issues, and it is our responsibility to do our best to understand such systems. Indeed, much of my writing at this blog and in my book is to do with how the elements of systems interact with one another. These systems can be to do with basic science and thermodynamics, or they may be about human activities such as the management of very large projects. However, the manner in which which we understand and respond to issues such as climate change and the corona pandemic is fundamentally one of morality, not systems theory.

Church Leadership

Just as Augustine and others of his time worked out a theology that provided a foundation of intellectual life for the coming centuries, so we need a theology that will have to involve a mix of traditional faith topics, such as prayer and the study of scripture, along with an understanding of science and technology.

Three Theological Points

It seems to me that a theology for our times must grasp the complex nature of the predicaments that we face before we can understand the nature of God and the meaning of religion in our time. I propose the following three points as the basis for discussion. It is my hope that professional theologians will find these points worthy of consideration as they think about the world that we are entering.

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

I will explore these three points in future posts. In this post I will jot down just a few words with regard to them in the context of current events.

1. Understand and Tell the Truth

It is the responsibility of people of faith and of church leaders to tell the truth — at least as they see it. We are already finding that those politicians who have consistently lied to us over the years no longer have credibility when they speak about the current crisis.  (My impression is that our church leaders have done a good job so far of being honest and forthright. Congratulations to them.)

But telling the truth goes beyond simply not lying. It means that we have a responsibility to understand the nature of the complex systems that we have created. For example, is the relationship between the corona pandemic and low oil prices, as described earlier in this post, true? So, is it good that oil prices go down? After all, low oil prices can stimulate the economy (which is good), but low oil prices will lead to people in the energy industries being laid off (which is bad). What is the truth regarding this complex situation? It’s tricky.

2. Accept and Adapt

The above statement is based on the assumption that we face predicaments, not problems. In the case of COVID-19 we will, presumably, eventually come to terms with the disease; it will not go away, but it is likely to become more of a background concern that we learn to live with (rather like the flu now). But many of the associated problems, such as the snapping of brittle supply chains, social distancing and the onset of deflation, could permanently alter our society, and not necessarily for the better. We will have to learn how to adapt to these new conditions.

Maybe the pandemic will serve as a rehearsal for the longer-term response to the Age of Limits predicaments that we have already described.

3. Live Within the Biosphere

The root cause of many of our problems is that we humans have acted as if we are somehow outside of nature — the natural world is something that we control for our own benefit. The pandemic has taught us just how wrong this point of view is — we are not in control of God’s world, we are a part of God’s world.

Christians and people of the Bible face a special challenge; they may have to abandon some details of the older interpretations religious texts. For example, following the flood, in Genesis 9 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 brought us. But, in an over-populated, polluted, resource-depleted world this verse is hard to defend. We need a new way of living within the biosphere.

Maybe the following verses from Ecclesiastes 1 (which are, admittedly, taken out of context) are more appropriate.

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.

The Church’s Opportunity

We live in difficult and unprecedented times. The industrial/fossil fuel revolution — the basis of so much of our prosperity — is winding down; the future looks increasingly uncertain and bleak; we  thought that we had built a society that we thought was somehow outside of nature. Now we are forcefully reminded that the forces of nature do not necessarily conform to our wishes.

These times do, however, provide an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. Many of the old answers to do with our political and economic systems will no longer work. (I found the following article in The Atlantic magazine to be particularly pertinent in this context.)

The situation provides an opportunity for the church not only to respond, but also to provide leadership. Church leaders will be called upon to explain why we are living in difficult times — they will be faced with the age-old question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” They will also be called upon to come up with new initiatives and practical responses. For example, if globalization is indeed moving into reverse, we will see more interest in the development of local communities — the parish concept.

Calverley Anglican church

Book: A New City of God

A New City of God — Faith in a Changing Climate. Cover.

I have completed the first draft of my book A New City of God — Faith in a Changing Climate. I will be looking for reviewers — more on this later. In the meantime, the current Table of Contents can be downloaded in .pdf format here.

Old-Fashioned Language

Bible — illustrates old-fashioned language

I am writing a book entitled A New City of God: Faith in a Changing Climate. The book has seven chapters. They are:

Chapter 1 — The Author’s Apology
Chapter 2 — The City of Man
Chapter 3 — Hubris and Nemesis
Chapter 4 — Truth and Consequences
Chapter 5 — Predicaments and Responses
Chapter 6 — Theology
Chapter 7 — The Church’s Response

The current Table of Contents is available here. The first draft of Chapters 1 through 6 is available here for review.

Chapter 7 — The Church’s Response discusses how individuals of faith, and how the church as a whole can respond to the Age of Limits predicaments that we face. It has been a difficult chapter to write. I eventually realized that, in spite of everything that I had written in the first six chapters, I was still thinking in terms of our current paradigm, our current way of living and thinking. One of the themes of those chapters is that we need to leave the ‘Church of Progress’, but doing so is much harder than most of us realize. We have been raised in a consumer-based culture. We assume that, as long as we have sufficient money, we can expect to receive whatever we what. There are no physical limits when it comes to meeting our desires.

We also live in a “techno-fix” culture. We take it for granted that technology will continue to advance and that, faced with any kind of problem, “They will come up with something”.  It is very difficult to grasp that those ways of thought no longer work. In fact, the real challenge is to understand that our actions have taken us to a point where there is no longer a response that will return us to Business as Usual.

As I reflected on how we are trapped in our way of thinking it became apparent that some of the old-fashioned language that we used to hear in churches seems to be increasingly relevant. For example,

We have used up the earth’s resources, we have fouled the environment and we have filled the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Therefore, we need to Repent for our Sins. We hope for Mercy for what we have done, and ask for Forgiveness from the young people who are entering the world that we have created. We may even use the word Hell to describe that world. And finally, we hope for Salvation.

Maybe reverting to the technology and life style of earlier times also means reverting to the words that they used in those times.

Church of England Climate Resolution

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)
Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)

The synod of the Anglican church has just passed the following Resolution.

That this Synod, recognising that the global climate emergency is a crisis for God’s creation, and a fundamental injustice . . . call upon all parts of the Church of England, including parishes, BMOs [Bishop Mission Orders], education institutions, dioceses, cathedrals, and the NCIs [National Church Institutions], to work to achieve year-on-year reductions in emissions and urgently examine what would be required to reach net zero emissions by 2030 in order that a plan of action can be drawn up to achieve that target;

(Additional sections discuss the reporting process.)

The following were my initial thoughts on reading this resolution.

Congratulations #1

Congratulations to the Anglican church on providing desperately-needed leadership. One of the themes of this blog is that climate change and related issues provide an an opportunity for the church. The Anglican church has stepped up to the plate.

Congratulations #2

Congratulations to the Anglican church for leading by example. The church leaders are not saying that you — whoever “you” may be — need to take action. The leaders are saying that we need to live the life we preach.

Zero

But, and there’s always a but —  the devil is to be found in his usual location. What exactly do the church leaders mean by the word “zero”? Consider the following questions that the Resolution raises.

  • Do we prohibit the use of gasoline and diesel-powered automobiles to get to and from church? If so, how do we take care of those who want to come to church, but who are disabled or elderly? Do we need to sell off our church van?
  • Do we prohibit the use of electricity in the church because most electrical power plants use coal or natural gas as their primary source of energy? If we do stop using electricity how are we to have meetings after dusk unless we use candles? Does such a prohibition apply to the church’s telephones and email systems? After all, they use electricity provided by fossil fuels.
  • Do we stop printing church bulletins and newsletters? Computers, printers and “the cloud” are all heavy users of electricity. Moreover, the equipment itself contains large amounts of embedded energy.
  • Do the churches find a new source of fresh, clean water for use in their kitchens and bathrooms give that the water and sewer utilities use fossil fuel energy for their construction, maintenance and operation.

A picture of Thomas Cranmer, one of the founders of the Anglican church, is shown at the head of this post. In his day the industrial revolution had not yet started so society made virtually no use of fossil fuels. If we are to follow the Resolution to the letter then we will need to return to the early days of the Anglican church not just spiritually, but physically. Are people ready for that? There were no flush toilets in his day. It takes (fossil fuel) energy to manufacture the chemicals that ensure our potable water is, in fact, potable, and to pump that water to where it is needed, and then to treat the sewage that we create. (Roughly 10% of a barrel of crude oil goes to make petrochemicals.)

(One response to these questions is that we could use “alternative/green energy”. Leaving aside nuclear power, which has its own environmental baggage, the sources of alternative energy usually referenced are solar panels and wind turbines, along with the massive battery banks needed for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. But these items are not “fossil fuel free” — their manufacture, installation and operation requires the use of existing energy sources.)

Timing

The Resolution calls on church institutions to work out how to reach “zero emissions” by the year 2030. We are now in the year 2020. Given that committee meetings and task forces will all take time to reach their conclusions, this means that the church has about eight years to organize and implement what would be a truly radical program. Is such a goal realistic?

Another of the themes of this blog site is that we need to understand project management realities (the posts 40 Gigatons and The Slow Train illustrate this point). The fact that something can be done on a small scale does not mean that it can be quickly implemented on a national or international scale. Such projects take time, engineering resources, funding and political will. Above all, they require that people willingly reduce their material standard of living.

Conclusions

Once more, congratulations to the leaders of the Anglican church for providing such important and badly-needed leadership. The next step is for them to make it clear to all church members that this Resolution will require everyone to sacrifice many of the conveniences and comforts provided by industrial society.

 

Anger

Greta Thunberg anger

How often at do we hear words in our churches to the effect, “We need to get our young people involved in . . . ”? Church membership is declining and, increasingly, the people who do attend are gray-haired. We know that we need young people to participate in our activities and to provide leadership for the future. But nothing seems to work. All sorts of ideas are put forward to increase youth participation. Maybe we need to be more conservative (or liberal); or maybe our worship services should be more (or less) liturgical; or maybe we should use more (or less) modern music. None of these ideas or initiatives seem to make much difference; the decline seems to be inexorable.

The chart below shows the membership in the Episcopal church in the United States. The steep decline it shows is hardly unique to that denomination — all types of church are reporting similar trends.

Membership Episcopal church

Maybe one reason that young people have a declining interest in church activities is that they see the church as out of touch with their concerns. Inter-generational gaps are hardly new — young people are always anxious to cast off the ideas of their elders and to strike out on their own. But in our time the gap seems to be particularly severe. Increasingly, young people look at the world that they are inheriting from us older folk, and they are angry. They are angry that we have taken so much and left them with so little. The spokesperson for this anger is that remarkable young lady, Greta Thunberg. She and others in her age group are reading articles such as this one The Future will be Worse than We Thought.

Thomas Cole course of empire

No wonder they are angry.

Jesus reserves some of his harshest criticisms for those who fail to treat children well.

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.

Matthew 18

Thunberg is not playing nice.

If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.

If we were to use old-fashioned religious imagery, it’s almost as if she is condemning us for sin.

So how are we older people to respond? Greta and her friends want us to take action — they want us to at least slow down the rate of global warming. (In fact, she probably knows that it is too late, that we are facing predicaments, not problems. But she is giving us a second chance.) To use another old-fashioned religious word, she is offering us a chance of redemption. But we probably need to start with repentance — an acknowledgment of our responsibility for what we have created.


Postscript

After I had finished this post and scheduled it for publication I picked up a copy of this week’s Time magazine. The article describes how young people around the world are rebelling against the mess that their elders have made. Here is the cover.

Time Youthquake Cover

Young people have always known how smart they are. As George Orwell said,

Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.

Having said which, it does seem as if the current generation gap is wider than it was for earlier generations.

Of Priests and Thermodynamics

Illustrates temperature and thermodynamics
Some years ago, my church started a search for a new priest. The search committee developed a list of attributes that they and the members of the congregation would like to see in the successful candidate. These attributes included the normal requirements that the selected person be a powerful preacher, good at financial management, skilled at working with both young and old people, have a deep knowledge of the Bible, and so on — in other words, a perfect person.

I suggested that the successful candidate should also have a thorough understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. People thought I was joking — such a requirement they said meant that there would be no priests at all. They were correct, of course. But my suggestion was not a joke; if we are to properly address the challenges that we face in the coming years then leaders of faith will need to have an educated grasp of technical topics, where the word “educated” is used in its Renaissance sense. Church leaders will need to have enough technical knowledge such that they can evaluate the claims and counter-claims that are made on topics such as climate change and crude oil depletion.

The catch is that priests are already fully committed to their ministry, indeed they are usually over-worked. They don’t have time to research these issues in sufficient depth to form a defensible opinion. Moreover, their inherent talents and interests generally lie in other areas, such as working with people.

One of the themes of this blog site is that secular leadership is not actually providing leadership. The reason for this failure is that any effective response requires that we all make substantial sacrifices in our material standard of living. Yet any politician who talks this way soon becomes an ex-politician. This provides a wonderful opportunity for the church to provide leadership.

Another theme is that we need to “Understand and Tell the Truth”. This is hard, very hard. The issues we discuss are extraordinarily complex and difficult to understand. Church leaders simply do not have the time, nor usually the background, to carry out the needed research.

So how are priests and other church leaders to become educated in Age of Limits issues such that they can provide credible leadership? Maybe one approach would be to develop an academy in which people of faith provide an honest and rational explanation as to what is taking place. They would not fall into the trap of “other-sideism” — they would provide clear direction for the faith community. This does not mean that their opinions would always be correct, of course. Discourse would be necessary. But such discourse would avoid hopium and wishful thinking. It would also try to see the truth in a society which is awash in fake news, truthiness, advertising, factoids and outright propaganda. The discourse would be based on an understanding that we cannot negotiate with the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

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.