Proper 17: The Place of Honor

Christian humility

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

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (September 1st2019, Year C) is from Luke 14:1, 7-14.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Through a Glass Darkly

In this gospel reading we are told to be humble and not to choose the place of honor.

One aspect of the need to be humble is to understand that no one can predict the future accurately. We must understand that any forecast we make should be made tentatively and with an understanding that we could easily be proved wrong. But although we need to be cautious when we talk about what the future holds that does not mean that we cannot see an outline as to where we are going.

I keep coming back to the words of the Apostle Paul.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

1 Corinthians 13, 12

Even Paul, with his magnificent intellectual and spiritual gifts did not have a clear picture of the future. But this does not mean that he was blind — he could see and outline of what the future holds.

Theology

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

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

I have highlighted the first of these three points, Understand and tell the truth. The nature of truth in our highly complex and rapidly changing society is difficult to discern. But that does not mean that we cannot see an outline; we need the courage to understand what is happening, otherwise we will not be able to work out the best response.

Book Progress

Books in the Library of Congress

I am working on a book with the working title A New City of God. Parts of the book are quite detailed, and some are technical. Therefore, in order to keep the book manageable in size, I have created a serious of Supplements. These will be available as .pdf files, and can be downloaded at no cost.

In the meantime, the first of these supplements is entitled The Green New Deal. In it I take a look at the proposal made by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues earlier this year from a Christian point of view. I conclude that its aspirations are great but that it does not pass the red face test with respect to engineering and project management realities. Nor does it call upon anyone to make any type of sacrifice — something that will be necessary in coming years.

The Sadness of Six Degrees

Book: Six Degrees

One of the most useful books on climate change is Six Degrees by Mark Lynas. The book has six core chapters — one for every 1°C increase in planetary temperatures over the pre-industrial baseline. Unlike many other books in this genre it is quite specific as to what the world will look like in coming years.

The author does not, however, provide dates as to when each degree of temperature rise will take place.  One reason for his hesitation to provide dates is that, when he when he wrote the book, he did not know how human society would respond to the predictions made by scientists such as himself. The book was published in the year 2007 — at that time there was a rather naïve assumption among many people that we, as a society, would react rationally and energetically to the warming of the earth.

The reality, of course, is that there has been no effective response, thus giving the book an air of sadness.

The final chapter is entitled ‘Choosing Our Future’. In it Lynas projects global temperature increases over the pre-industrial baseline, the level of CO2 that would create that increase, and the action that needs to be taken to avoid the increase. Here are some of the figures he uses.

  • One Degree. 350 ppm. Avoidance probably not possible.
  • Two Degrees. 400 ppm. Peak Global Emissions by 2015.
  • Three Degrees. 450 ppm. Peak Global Emissions by 2030.

Here are the actual concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.

CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Three conclusions can be drawn from this graph.

  1. The increase in CO2 is remarkably steady. In spite of all the conferences, resolutions and statements of good intent, the rate of increase of our emissions has not slowed down. (Indeed, it appears as if the rate of increase of the rate of increase is also positive.) In the year 2020 we will be at 420 ppm. If the trend continues unabated, we reach 450 ppm somewhere around the year 2040.
  2. Assuming that Lynas’ projections of temperature increase are correct, then 420 ppm means that we cannot avoid a 2.5°C increase. At 450 ppm global temperatures are about 3°C above the pre-industrial baseline.
  3. The target dates set by Lynas ten years ago seem now to be just wishful thinking.

I have used the following sketch already, and doubtless will use it again. Our responsibility is to create a sense of realistic hope.

Fatalism – Realistic Hope - Hopium

Realistically the earth is going to much warmer than it is now within the lifetime of many people reading this blog. But we should not be fatalistic — a 3°C world is very different from the one that we live in now, but it is livable. At the same time we need to avoid hopium — a vague, unjustified belief that “something will come up” or “they will think of something”.

Creating a Butterfly Garden

Creating a butterfly garden

One of my church colleagues publishes a blog called “Holy Comforter Creation Care”. In it she talks about the importance and value of native plants in our gardens. The latest post is Creating a Butterfly Garden.


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Proper 16: Rearranging the Deckchairs

Deckchairs Titanic neatly arranged
Deckchairs on the Titanic — neatly arranged

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

Appointed Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Membership Episcopal church

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

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

Theology

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

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

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

Additional Reading

India drought Chennai

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

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


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The Stordalen

 

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

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

Matthew 7:1-2

1 stordalen  =  10,491 bacon cheeseburgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stordalen-Gunhild Tree Hugger
Gunhild Stordalen: A Tree Hugger

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

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

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

An Inconvenient Truth
Bennett — reproduced with permission

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

The Gore Mansion
The Gore Mansion

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

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez environmental hypocrisy

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

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

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

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

Her response,

“I’m just living in the real world”.

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

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

Benedict of Nursia
Benedict of Nursia (480-547)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Proper 15: 2019

Calendar 2019

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

Appointed Gospel

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

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

father against son
and son against father,

mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,

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

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

The Present Time

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

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

The following may be reasons for this change.

The Daily News

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

High Publicity Events

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

Greta Thunberg climate change

Mainstream Acceptance

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

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

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

China and India

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

Personal Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Knowledge

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

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

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

Theology

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

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

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

Additional Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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