Proper 28: The City of Man

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) — Author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) — Author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary reading is from Luke 21:5-19.

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

In this passage Jesus is predicting great calamities. Indeed, the Temple was destroyed only 40 years after his death. Many of those who look deeply into climate change reach similar conclusions (the subreddit Collapse is an example of a site populated by people who think this way). Jesus is also saying that many of those who prophesy will come to a sticky end, and that they will be betrayed by many of those that they trust.

As we consider climate change, resource depletion and the other issues discussed at this blog we may anticipate a calamity, such as what happened to the Temple. In fact, our City of Man is more likely to undergo a ragged, stairstep decline (with some periods when conditions may briefly improve). It is unlikely that we will be able to point to a single event — a single point in time “when everything changed”.

Aha! Moment #2: Augustine’s City of God

Augustine of Hippo and the City of God

In last week’s post I suggested that many of us develop an understanding of the issues that face us in a series of Aha! Moments when suddenly we “get it”, something “clicks” with us.  I have had five such moments. They are:

  1. A realization that we face predicaments, not problems.
  2. An understanding of what Augustine of Hippo was up to when he wrote his book City of God (and how it applies to our situation).
  3. An understanding that just having new sources of energy is not enough, we will also need new sources of a myriad of manufactured goods such as light bulbs.
  4. When I saw a picture of the East Freeway between Houston and Beaumont, Texas during Tropical Storm Harvey.
  5. A reading of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of science fiction books.

The second of these Aha! Moments, the one that is discussed in this post, is to do with the thoughts and actions of St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the early part of the 5th century CE.

He wrote three books that are particularly appropriate for the times in which we are living now. They are: De Mendacio (On Lying), Confessions and, above all, City of God — a book that is particularly important and relevant to us now. It provides us with guidance as to how the Christian church may provide leadership in troubled times, and why it is important to develop an appropriate theology.

This is why I have used the title of Augustine’s most famous work for my own work. Augustine understood that all “cities of men” will eventually fail and disappear, just look at all the failed states in the Hebrew bible. He maintained that the only permanent city was the City of God. Therefore, he and other church fathers set themselves the task of understanding the constitution of that city — in other words, they developed a theology appropriate for their times, a time when central control was disintegrating and decision-making was devolving to create what was to become a feudal society. I suggest that Christians need to do something similar now. It seems likely that, as we run into limits to do with climate, resources and over-population, that our society will also tend to fragment — large nations, corporations and even churches will break into smaller components. We will move from globalization toward decentralization.

What will that theology look like? As a semi-retired chemical engineer I feel a degree of trepidation about offering thoughts to do with theology — a topic that is the domain of scholars, seminarians and ordained clergy. Nevertheless, I suggest the following three points that may, at the very least, contribute to the work of those professionals.

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

Proper 14: The Unexpected Hour

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

Appointed Gospel

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

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

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

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

Collapse

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

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

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

Limits to Growth

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

Where Were You When Global Warming Happened?

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

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

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

Speed of Decline

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

City of God by Augustine of Hippo

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

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

Babylon hanging gardens

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

Babylon hanging gardens

Global Collapse

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

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

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

Ugo Bardi Seneca Cliff

Theology

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

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

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


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