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.
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.
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.
An encouraging number of people have expressed an interest in the topic of ‘Climate Change Theology’. Therefore, I will make an adjustment to this weekly post. To date, I have been publishing a post at this site once a week on Wednesday mornings at 10:00 a.m. east coast time. Typically the posts have been in two parts. The first part looks at this week’s appointed gospel reading in the context of the Age of Limits (climate change, resource depletion, population overshoot, and so on). This week I struggle with what it means to be a missionary in today’s consumer culture when climate change and related issues are just part of the cacophony. (One unexpected benefit of this writing strategy is that it means that I am prepared for this week’s sermon, regardless of the topic being discussed.)
The second part of a typical post consists of one or more short discussions to do with the dilemmas that we face. For example, last week we looked at my fourth “Aha!” moment: the I-10 Freeway, and at the unreality of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% per annum for the next two decades, as called for in a recent United Nations report.
As time permits (and, like everyone else, I have a life to live) I will add a third section to do with theology.
This week’s lectionary reading is taken from Matthew 3:1-12.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The familiar phrase, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” spoke to me. The Christian faith is a missionary faith. We are directed by passages such as this from Mark 16.
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”.
Yet preaching about climate change and resource limits seems to have very little impact. We have a situation where it is certain that the world’s climate is going to be radically altered within the lifetime of many (most) people living now. There is even plausible discussion suggesting that climate change may be so drastic as to lead to the end of civilization within a generation or two. Whether you agree with such extreme predictions or not, we still need to address three facts: (1) Age of Limits issues are existential — radical change is on the horizon, and everyone — there are no exceptions — everyone, will be affected, (2) very few people really care, and (3) our national and international leaders are not, in fact, leaders.
Given this background, what are the news media obsessing about? Mostly impeachment, Brexit and this year’s superbowl.
“Aha!” Moment #5: Psychohistory
In previous posts I have shown how I have had various “Aha!” moments when an idea or an insight suddenly clicked. There have been five of these so far. They are:
This week, I would like to look at the fifth of these: Psychohistory. It came about when I re-read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a set of science fiction stories set at a time when humanity has developed the technology to travel to other planets. At the start of the series all the inhabited planets in the galaxy are part of a single empire. But the Empire is declining in power, wealth and prestige. The hero of the series, a man named Hari Seldon, develops a discipline that he refers to as psychohistory. This discipline, which combines elements of history, sociology and statistics, allows him to understand how societies change and evolve. Based on his analysis, Seldon is able to organize new societal structures that will form the basis of a new empire that will develop quickly and bring a quick end to the chaos resulting from the breakdown of the first empire.
The reason that this book series formed the basis of an “Aha!” Moment is that we need to develop our own theory of psychohistory. The issues that we face — climate change, resource depletion, over-population, to name but a few, are not only inherently complex, but they interact with one another in ways that are very difficult to understand and predict. Some over-arching theory is needed. Such a theory will provide us with an understanding as to what is taking place, and will allow us to develop means of addressing the predicaments that we face.
As an example of the need for systems thinking, consider the call for the elimination of fossil fuels from people such as Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It could be that their message is mostly unnecessary because our use of these fuels, particularly oil, is probably going down anyway, as discussed in the Peak Prosperity post Houston, We Have A Problem. Slide 4 from Art Berman’s presentation is particularly revealing.
The production of conventional crude oil in the United States reached a peak in the year 1970, as predicted by the great M. King Hubbert in 1956. In recent years there has been a surge in the production of Light Tight Oil and Shale Gas, as the slide shows. But there are many indications that tight oil production has reached a peak and that it will decline in the next five years (for example, this this post to do with Chesapeake Energy).
If production does decline as quickly as it ramped up then Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez may be reminded of the proverb, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it”. Another example of the need for systems thinking, this one to do with the realities of project management, is provided in the post The Slow Train.
This is the first post to do with the topic of Climate Change Theology. As a starting point, I would like to consider the following words from Ecclesiastes 1.
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.
I chose those words because they seem to express a view of the type of world that we need to create rather than the one that we have created based on what was told to Noah after the flood (Genesis 9).
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.”.
Do we really need to “be fruitful”, to increase the world’s population? Do we really need to have all other creatures live in “fear and dread” of us?
I started thinking about the need for a theology for our times when a friend at church asked, “Where is God in all this?” We are entering a time when society as a whole will be asking the same question. Which means that the church needs to have a response if it is to provide meaningful leadership. The starting point for such an effort is to develop an intellectual framework, or, in religious terms, a theology.
Theology is to do with seeking truth through God’s word (theos, God, and logos, Word). As a semi-retired chemical engineer you may reasonably ask why I am writing on this topic. Shouldn’t we leave it to the professional theologians, the seminarians and the ordained clergy — people who are trained to understand and interpret God’s word? It’s a good question, one which we will discuss in coming posts.
In the meantime, let us start with the very sensible question that Pontius Pilate asks in John 18:38.
. . . 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.
The Episcopal diocese of Virginia held its 225th annual convention November 14-16, 2019 in Crystal City, just outside of Washington, D.C. Our task force, ‘Care of God’s Creation’, had a table in the exhibit area, and led a workshop and sponsored a Resolution to do with single-use plastics. The topics of climate change and environmental stewardship were mentioned many times throughout the conference. Clearly, this is an area in which the church can provide leadership.
The workshop was attended by about 35 people. A message we received was that parishes would like the diocese to provide assistance with complex activities such as installing solar panels and building rain gardens.
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.
This week’s gospel (September 8th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 14:25-33
Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
This is a tough passage. Are we really to hate our family members? Most of us would say, “No”. Yet there is one group of people who have given up their worldly life, including their families: those who live the monastic or “religious” life.
As the western Roman Empire declined we have seen how men such as Augustine provided a spiritual and theological foundation for the church. Another movement that became very important in the waning days of the Empire was monasticism. The name usually associated with this movement is Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE). The first Benedictine monastery was established at Monte Cassino in Italy in the year 529 CE., southeast of Rome
Although he did not found an order, as such, he did set up a system for the monastic life that was widely adopted. The monks live in community under the direction of their Abbot. But they also pursue their own personal, spiritual vocations. Benedict wrote the famous “rule” that still directs life in Benedictine monasteries. The rule is strict, but not harsh. Although deeply spiritual, the order was practical and sensible.
The Benedictine ideals are condensed into three principles: poverty, chastity and obedience. Their way of life is demanding, but not harsh; it is built around a spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness. It is also built around the discipline contained in the words ora et labora: pray and work.
It was these communities that did much to hold the civilization of the old western empire together for the next 500 years or so. They provided cultural continuity following the decline of the western Empire. In particular, they copied religious and secular texts, thus preventing the knowledge in these texts from disappearing.
Although very few people are called to the monastic vocation, Benedict’s guidance is useful for Christians living now in our world — a world that is slowly, but irreversibly slipping into material decline. We are not going to jump from our SUVs to a Cistercian monastery all at once, point that is made by Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option. Dreher recognizes that the church is no longer at the center of western civilization. Indeed, he refers to the modern church as a, “chaplaincy to a consumer culture”. The book’s sub-title is ‘A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation’. He uses the Benedictine way of life as guidance for all Christians, including those who are not formally part of a monastic community. (As the Age of Limits starts to bite I anticipate a revival of the monastic movement within the Christian church.)
One of the fundamental challenges faced by Christians when confronted with climate change and all the other issues that we talk about is whether to respond by modifying one’s personal life, or whether to work top-down, i.e., with political systems at national and international levels. In practice, most of us will do some of each. We will also gravitate to the area that best fits our talents and personalities. The monastic idea provides a good example. The monks lived a strict lifestyle, but they were also part of the larger world.
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:
Understand and tell the truth.
Accept and adapt.
Live within the biosphere both material and spiritually.
I have highlighted the third point to do with living within the biosphere. By living simply, those in the monastic community give us an example of how to live well without dominating the world around us.
Article: Climate Change and the Gospel
There is not a lot of literature to do with the theology of climate change, and even less to do with other Age of Limits issues such as resource depletion. However, the article Climate Change and the Gospel written by David Atkinson provides some interesting thoughts and guidance on these lines.
The following quotation will probably resonate with busy church parishioners.
I suspect that underneath some of the lack of urgency among Christians, is a belief that environmental concern, or ‘creation care’ if you prefer, is not really a Christian priority. It is not central to the gospel of Jesus Christ, though it is a worthy thing to do if you have time. So we may have an ‘Environment Sunday’ once a year to ‘do our bit’. Or maybe an extra hour on the already overloaded theological college curriculum to discuss climate change. Perhaps we may try to get the idea of solar panels on our church roof past the Diocesan Advisory Committee, the Victorian Society, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the local brigadier who lives next to the church. But, please, with endless diocesan initiatives for mission, with assemblies to take in the church school, with a couple of funerals a week, with trying to keep alive our Partnership Link with an overseas diocese, with constant pressure to up our diocesan quota, and with dwindling numbers in the congregation, please do not ask us to do any more!
I believe that Christian people ought to be leading players in debates and in taking action about climate change. Because what ultimately matters is not scientific knowledge, or technology, or a change to our economic system – vitally important though all those are. What matters is how we see ourselves in God’s world, how we humans relate to the rest of God’s creation. It is about what makes for human flourishing and the wellbeing of all God’s creation, on which our life depends. This is about morality, and spirituality.
David Atkinson refers to the theological concept of the ‘Cosmic Covenant’ (Atkinson, 2015). It is a triangle consisting of God, humanity and the Earth. He says that is implicit in the first chapter of the Bible, when, after the emergence of all other creatures, humanity is created in ‘the image of God’.
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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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
Understand and tell the truth.
Accept and adapt.
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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