The Christian New Deal: Part I

This blog is the first in a series to do with the nature of a ‘Christian New Deal’. It discusses the nature of truth in the context of the Age of Limits. It starts with Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” The conclusion is that the truth of the predicaments that we face is complex and hard to understand. Nevertheless it is our responsibility to do the work needed to understand that truth.

The picture at the top of this post is of Pilate questioning Jesus. In John 18 we read,

 . . . Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, 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.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

Book Release

Dante Forest DarkEach week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. One of the writers who has greatly influenced my thinking on Age of Limits issues is John Michael Greer. His work is described in the fourth part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark).  The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

A Theology for Our Times

The ultimate aim of the posts in this series is to help develop a theology that addresses the issues that we discuss — issues that are collectively the ‘Age of Limits’. Every so often, we will publish a post that provides some thoughts as to what that ideology might look like. Given that the Green New Deal has attracted so much attention, let us call it the Christian New Deal.

This post is the first in that series.

A Committee Meeting

I recently attended a meeting of a church environmental group. It works with individual churches and the larger community on a wide range of programs such as,

  • Eliminating the use of plastic bottles that are thrown in the trash;
  • Management of storm water run-off to minimize the loss of top soil;
  • The development of community gardens; and
  • Writing mission statements and resolutions to do with church policy.

At the conclusion of the meeting we had a round-table discussion at which people were invited to talk about what was on their mind. One person introduced the topic of the recent youth movement (see The Thunberg Meme), another talked about the impact of the Green New Deal. This led to an immediate change in the tone of the meeting. It became apparent that everyone understood that, regardless of actions such as ours, climate change — with all its scary consequences — is happening. And these consequences are not just on the other side of the world. The climate in our own locality has changed (there will be more rain than has been normal).

Programs such as the Green New Deal can be properly challenged on the grounds that they are not realistic, either in terms of engineering or project management. But a more fundamental difficulty with such programs is that they assume that we can have our environmental cake and eat it. If we take the proposed actions then we can have both a remediated environment and maintain our current standard of living. It would be wonderful if this assumption were true, but, alas, such is not the case.

Truth

One of the themes of the posts at this blog is that Christians must always tell the truth, even if the truth is difficult to understand. For example, in Of Wind Turbines and Anaesthetics we note that not only does it provide us with fuels such as gasoline and diesel, it is also the source of the petrochemicals that create the products that are so fundamental to our way of living. We cannot stop using crude oil without facing wrenching changes to the way in which we live — and people at the lower end of the economic scale will probably be impacted the most.

A much harder truth to accept is that our climate is taking us into a hot-house world that humans have never seen before. An increasing number of people are spelling out the details of this future. Examples are the book Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells and the paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy by Jem Bendell. The story that they tell is not pretty.

Back to the committee meeting that started this post. Is it enough for Christian groups such as this to focus on actions such as those described? Or should these groups spend at least part of their time and energy on describing our future — no holds barred?

A Theological Response

We have already talked about Augustine of Hippo and his book The City of God. But there is another work of his that it is useful to consider, and that is De Mendacio (On Lying). Augustine insists that Christians must tell the truth at all times — not even white lies are permissible. Therefore, I suggest that the first step in the development of a new theology is to be totally rigorous about telling the truth about the dilemmas that we face. Such a truth has three parts.

  1. Understanding the nature of truth is difficult. The issues that we discuss are complex and have many feedback loops. This means that, if we are to understand the truth then we need to do our homework.
  2. Telling the truth may cause alarm in others, and may (will) make us less popular. Carriers of bad news are not popular.
  3. The people who will be most affected by all these changes will be those toward the bottom of the economic scale.

I conclude that understanding and telling the truth is the first part of a Christian New Deal.

Of Wind Turbines and Anaesthetics

Book Release

Dante Forest Dark
Each week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We are up to the third part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark). We take a look at two important authors, Matt Simmons and M. King Hubbert, and their thoughts to do with peak oil and the nuclear power industry. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

Fossil Fuel

As young people become increasingly aware of the climate change predicaments that we face, they are taking action. Greta Thurnberg — Out of the Mouths of Teenagers — started the meme. Now young people in western Europe and the United States are following her lead. (By young, we mean less than 20 years old)

One of the slogans chanted at their rallies is, “Fossil Fuels Must Go!” But, as they say, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” Do these young people know what they are really asking for? Do they comprehend the utterly fundamental role of crude oil, natural gas and coal to our way of life, a role that goes way beyond merely supplying us with energy?

Prosperity

Writers such as Steven Pinker and Bill Gates point out that humanity has become far more prosperous over the course of the last 300 years than at any time in recorded history. By virtually every measure — life span, infant mortality, safety, peace, knowledge, happiness — there has been steady improvement, not just in the West, but worldwide. Pinker attributes this change to Enlightenment thinking — the development of rational thinking and the use of reason. But a simpler and more obvious explanation for the sudden and extraordinary improvement in the quality of life is that, also about 300 years ago, we learned how to extract and then use the enormous amount of energy available to us in fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and, above all, crude oil.

Thomas Newcomen (1665-1729) inventor who created the atmospheric engine, the first practical fuel-burning engine in 1712.
Thomas Newcomen (1665-1729)

 If we have to pick a specific date for that event I would go with the year 1712. It was in that year that Thomas Newcomen developed an “atmospheric/steam” engine for removing water from mines.

The Energy Business

Bottle of crude oil
Crude Oil

The sketch below is a visualization of how many people view the oil industry. A hole is drilled in the ground, oil flows out of that hole; it then flows along a pipeline to a refinery, which separates the oil into various fuel streams such as gasoline, diesel and heating oil.

Oil well pipeline refinery

Proponents of alternative energy propose that we build wind turbines and solar panel farms. They generate electricity, thus replacing the fuel streams. This would then allow us to shut down the fossil fuel industries, particularly the oil business.

Unfortunately, it is not nearly so simple. There are two objections to this far too simplistic scenario.

The first objection is that the energy density of wind, solar and other alternatives is much, much less than that of oil. To generate enough electricity for the United States, for example, much of the southwest would have to covered in solar panels. Which in turn would require an enormous build out of the electric grid. We would also have to replace all forms of transport with their electrical counterparts. (This would exclude airplanes — we are nowhere close to having batteries with sufficient capacity.)

The second objection, and the one that is the focus of this post, is that crude oil contains an enormous number of complex chemicals that provide the chemical feedstocks that are used to manufacture a bewildering array of products — all of which contribute to the prosperity that Pinker talks about.

Petrochemicals

The sketch below is a very simplified schematic of a typical oil refinery.

Oil Refinery schematic
Very Simplified Oil Refinery Schematic

And here is a picture of an actual refinery.

Oil Refinery
One reason that so many processing steps are required is that crude oil, the composition of which varies enormously depending on the source, rarely contains the desired product mix. For example, the gasoline fraction in crude oil is typically around 15%. But the market demand for gasoline is such that many of the lighter and heavier streams are treated so that they can be added to the gasoline pool.

In addition to containing the relatively simple molecules (such as octane/gasoline and butane/lighter fluid) that make up the fuel products, crude oil also contains many complex molecules that are refined and sent to petrochemical plants. It is these complex molecules that provide the basis of so much of our modern industrial civilization.

The sketch shows some of the products that a refinery produces. The naphtha stream has been highlighted.

Crude-Distillation-Naphtha

When mixed with various other product streams that contain the complex molecules, naphtha becomes a petrochemical feedstock. This feedstock is sent to chemical plants where it is further treated and used to make the enormous range of products that provide the basis of modern life: plastics, antibiotics, fibers, agrochemicals, inks, packaging, dry cleaning agents, engine coolant, synthetic rubber . . . the list goes on.

So, if “fossil fuels must go”, then so must all the other useful chemicals that our society relies on.

Windmills Cannot Make Anaesthetics

Offshore wind turbines
Our civilization relies almost entirely on crude oil, not only as a source of fuel, but as the foundation of our way of living. This means that, even if we do install an enormous number of wind turbines and solar panels to, at least partially, replace the fuels that we use now, we will still need to extract and refine crude oil. to provide petrochemical feedstocks. This is something that windmills and solar panels will never do.

De Mendacio

The goal of the posts at this blog is to try to figure out the parameters of a new theology — one that works in an Age of Limits. Some thoughts as to how to do this comes from looking at the works of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). His book City of God provides a basis for my own A New City of God. But Augustine also wrote other important works, one of which is De Mendacio (On Lying), part of a larger book entitled Retractions.

Augustine took the ninth commandment very seriously.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.

In other words, you must always tell the truth.

George Washington and the Cherry Tree

In the context of the Age of Limits, telling the truth is not always as simple as saying, “I cannot tell a lie  . . . I did cut < the cherry tree > with my hatchet”. (It’s a neat irony that the story about George Washington and the importance of telling the truth is not itself true.) In our world, telling the truth means doing the hard work of understanding the nature and complexities of our multiple predicaments.

With regard to coal, natural gas and crude oil, the truth is,

Fossil fuels should not be burned, they should be used only to manufacture petrochemicals.

We can conclude by saying that the slogan “Fossil Fuels Must Go!” is correct, but only if the emphasis is on the word fuel. The complex molecules that are derived from oil, natural gas and coal are truly irreplaceable. We should make every effort not to use them to make useful products, not just burn them.

 

The Leadership of AOC and Greta Thunberg

One of the themes of this site is that there is an opportunity for the Christian church to provide leadership in the rather scary future that awaits us. But first we have to focus on Age of Limits issues, and stop placing gender debates up front and center — see the post Rearranging the (Episcopal) Deckchairs.

Actually, for once, we may be able to have our environmental cake and eat it. In his post When the Going get Tough, Women get Going. “Middle Ages 2.0” Ugo Bardi says,

In Europe, Greta Thunberg has smashed all the memetic barriers succeeding in doing what nobody else had succeeded before: bringing the climate emergency within the horizon of the public and of the decision makers. In parallel, on the other side of the Atlantic, another young woman, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez has been doing something similar with her “Green New Deal.”

These are remarkable changes and I think it is not casual that they are brought by women. It had already happened during the early Middle Ages, when women took a prominent role in taking the lead in reshaping a dying empire into a new, vibrant civilization, one that we sometimes call the “Dark Ages” but that was a period of intelligent adaptation to scarcity. It was also a civilization displaying a remarkable degree of gender parity in comparison to what the European society was before and what would become later on.

I find it interesting that, unwittingly, I have been following the leadership of these two dynamic young ladies at this blog with my various posts to do with the Green New Deal and Skolstrejk för Klimatet.

This line of argument would suggest that, if the church wants to promote gender equality, then maybe direct advancement of that goal is not the way to go. Instead, we should provide leadership in our search for “intelligent adaptation to scarcity”. In doing so, we may find that much of our leadership will be provided by the likes of AOC and GT.

Greta Thunberg Sweden


The image at the top of this post is taken from the cover of a book to be published by Devil’s Due. Of their book they say,

It’s no secret that AOC has become the unofficial leader of the new school, and has sparked life back into Washington and that’s reflected in the enthusiasm on display by the men and women contributing to this project. While we all don’t agree on everything, we share a common excitement for the breath of fresh air the new Congress brings.

The Thunberg Meme

Ugo Bardi at Cassandra’s Legacy has just published The Thunberg Effect Seems to be in Full Swing: Will It Last? He uses Google Analytics to show the effect of her leadership. The blue line shows interest in the topic of ‘Climate Change’; the red line in the topic of ‘Greta Thunberg’.
Thunberg Meme

It is too early to know if this young lady really has started a movement, but it is interesting to note that she herself cites Rosa Parks as one of the people who inspired her. Maybe she and other young people have started the equivalent of a new civil rights movement.

10-year National Mobilization

On March 6th of this year our local newspaper, the Ashland-Hanover Local, published an article to do with the building of a solar generating plant in our county. What struck me was the fact that the project is likely to be delayed for many months while it is reviewed by the normal political process.

We have already published posts to do with the Green New Deal at Green New DealThe Third Road  and elsewhere. Part of the program states,

the “Green New Deal goals” should be accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization.

The contrast between this ambitious program and the lack of urgency associated with projects such as the solar plant in our community could hardly be greater. If programs such as GND can generate that sense of urgency then more power to them. But so far, it has not happened.

The Stordalen

Book Release

Priests in a hurry
Every week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We have modified our release program. Instead of publishing just the new pages, we will provide the entire book so far, including the current Table of Contents. This week we are up to the first part of Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark). The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

The Stordalen

1 stordalen  =  10,491 bacon cheeseburgers

Quantification

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.

One of the difficulties that many of us face when discussing environmental issues is to do with the units of measurement. We talk about our carbon footprint, but how is that footprint to be measured? Our knowledge is indeed of a “meagre and unsatisfactory kind”.

Saving the Planet

In his post A Wilderness of Mirrors John Michael Greer 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 how 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.)

Live the Life Preached

The above is, of course, written somewhat tongue in cheek (although the idea of quantifying environmental impact is a good one). But the point that Greer makes is serious: we must live the life we preach.

He made the same point in an earlier post 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. 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.

The Gore Mansion
The Gore Mansion

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. The report states,

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”.

Another New York Post article says,

Ocasio-Cortez has repeatedly attributed her success in beating Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley to walking the streets of her district, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx.

“I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles,” she tweeted last June, famously donating her worn-out campaign shoes to the Cornell Costume Institute for an exhibit about women and empowerment.

But Ocasio-Cortez and her staff appear to have done much less walking after she vanquished Crowley in the party’s June 2018 primary.

Instead, her campaign embraced the friendly skies, logging 66 airline transactions costing $25,174.54 during campaign season.

The Democratic firebrand or her staff took Amtrak far less — only 18 times — despite high-speed rail being the cornerstone of her save-the-world strategy.

Ocasio-Cortez has drawn considerable praise for her Green New Deal proposals, including at our site, and it may be that reports such as the above come from her political opponents. Nevertheless such articles can knock her message badly off course.

Confessions

I have already had much to say about Augustine’s works De Mendacio and City of God. But there is another work of his that is important in this context, and that is his Confessions. In one of the world’s first autobiographies he opens himself to his readers. He knows that that, before telling others how to behave, he has to act correctly himself. He takes very seriously the words from Matthew 7.

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?

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

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.

In his book The Benedict Option Rod Dreher suggests that Christians can form Benedict-style communities within the larger secular society. It is not necessary to actually become a monk or nun to follow many of Benedict’s principles.

Book: The Benedict Option

Top-Down Action

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.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi,

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

The Christian Response

In these posts I always try to come back to what the issues that we discuss mean to today’s Christian church. By doing so we may be able to figure out some aspects of a theology for our times.

The first decision that the individual Christian and that the church overall has to make is whether to work top-down or bottom-up, i.e., whether to take political action to change the actions of governments and large corporations, or whether to concentrate on individual lifestyles.

The ideal answer is that a person will adopt a simple lifestyle and then work with the church overall to change national policies. In practice, the decision will probably depend at least partly on the personalities of the people involved. Some people enjoy working with others who are trying to change policies, others prefer to work by themselves or with small groups.

A Low-Carbon Lifestyle

If we are to live the life that we preach then we need to cut back on those actions that have a large carbon footprint. But this is not always easy or justified. For example, we know that commercial aircraft are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases. Therefore we should stop flying. But does that mean that a person living 3,000 miles from her children and grandchildren must give up seeing them? We might say that she should take the train, or that she should drive her car. But what if there is no train service, or if her medical condition prohibits long-distance driving?

Or maybe someone with a large garden decides to grow her own vegetables and other produce. This is obviously good for the environment, and it reduces resource consumption. But the seeds that she purchases are delivered to the local nursery using the same supply chains that deliver food to the supermarkets. If the supply chains were to collapse she is in a pickle. So maybe she should save her own seeds. But many of the vegetables we grow now are hybrids so their seeds may not grow true. So now this person is into seed-saving, with all the work that that involves.

None of this is easy.

The point is that it is easy to say that we should live a simply, but such a decision is more difficult to implement than it first appears. We are not going to jump from our SUVs to a Cistercian monastery all at once.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough

Vilfredo Pareto
Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923)

I started this post with some comments on the importance of quantification. Continuing with that theme, it is useful to keep in mind the Pareto Principle, often referred to as the 80/20 rule. The Principle was developed by yet another bewhiskered Victorian-era thinker: Vilfredo Pareto — an Italian economist and misanthrope. He noted that most of the wealth of the Italian communities he looked at was not spread evenly — in fact, typically about 20% of any population owned 80% of the wealth.

His principle, which, to the best of my understanding, has no theoretical underpinning, is widely observed to be true in many fields of human activity. It can be expressed by the following equation,

log n     =     c     +     m * log x

where n is the number of items whose value is greater than x; c and m are constants.

Examples of the principle’s applications in an industrial context include:

  • 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its customers.
  • 80% of a company’s sales are made by 20% of the sales force.
  • 20% of the workers are involved in 80% of the accidents.
  • 20% of the equipment items cause 80% of the facility shutdowns.
  • 20% of a company’s products will account for 80% of the total product defects.

In a church context we generally observe that.

  • 80% of the revenue comes from 20% of the parishioners.
  • 80% of the social services are provided by 20% of the parishioners.
  • 80% of the internal arguments come from 20% of the parishioners.

The practical effect of this rule is that there is no need to be a perfectionist. Just 20% of the effort will achieve 80% of the desired results. We can choose to live more like the Benedictines without having to follow every aspect of their rule.

Conclusions

So, as the Age of Limits closes in, how should individual Christians live, and what should the church’s strategy be in a world of so much uncertainty and anxiety? We know that the option of maintaining BAU (Business as Usual) is not an option. As resources dwindle, and as the climate becomes ever more erratic, we will be forced into a simpler lifestyle — like it or not. It is this knowledge that prompted Greer’s famous remark,

Collapse now and avoid the rush

In other words, prepare for a lower standard of living now. Such a decision does not necessarily mean that we have to suffer hardships. Indeed, many people who adopt a simple lifestyle say that they prefer it to our current, fast-paced way of living.

From the overall church, it will be necessary to work with governments, corporations and other secular bodies to create policies that align with our predictions as to what may take place in the coming years. For example, church leaders need to decide whether they prefer an incrementalist, “realistic” strategy, or whether they should follow a bold approach such as that outlined in the Green New Deal.

Or should the church adopt a different strategy — one of adaptation and resilience, as discussed in The Third Road? None of these decisions are easy.

Three tracks Richmond VA

Rearranging the (Episcopal) Deckchairs

Book Release

Priests in a hurryEvery week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. This week it is the second part of Chapter 1 — For the Christian in an Hurry: The 300-Year Party. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here. (The Table of Contents for the complete book is available here.)

While working on this blog and on my book A New City of God three events occurred at roughly the same time. They were:

  1. Greta Thurnberg made her speech to the COP24 Conference in Poland. Her words went viral and they have encouraged young people around the world to take action.
  2. The Methodist church in the United States is going through turmoil with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.
  3. I carried out a calculation to do with the membership of the Episcopalian church while writing A New City of God.

Pull these three threads together, and I am reminded of the image at the head of this post, which shows the neatly arranged deckchairs on the doomed Titanic on her fateful journey across the north Atlantic.

The Titanic

Titanic Sinking
Der Untergang der Titanic

The story is familiar. The luxury steamship RMS Titanic sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, off the coast of Newfoundland after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage. The submerged portion of the iceberg scraped against the hull, tearing a gash along much of her length. Of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 perished in the icy North Atlantic.

The quotation, “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic” has become a staple of our discourse. It implies futile, symbolic action in the face of catastrophe. Indeed, the sinking of the Titanic has generated many other aphorisms and oft-repeated quotations such as,

Until the moment she actually sinks, the Titanic is unsinkable.
Julia Hughes

Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.
Erma Bombeck

. . . the disaster suddenly ripped away the blindfolds and changed dozens of attitudes, practices, and standards almost literally overnight.
Brander 1995

When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course, there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident . . . of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.
E.J. Smith, Captain of the Titanic

Captain E.J. Smith — Titanic
Captain Edward J. Smith (1850-1907)

The Brander quotation is important. The magnitude of the incident led to a total overhaul of the safety standards as sea (known as SOLAS). Those standards are with us today, and have saved countless lives.

Three Events

I started this post by saying that three events had made an impression on me. Let’s take a quick look at each of these events.

The Thurnberg Speech

Greta Thurnberg accusing world leaders of not acting on climate change
Greta Thurnberg (2003 – )

We have already discussed Greta Thurnberg’s clear, honest and courageous speech. It has encouraged thousands of young people to follow her leadership. To state the obvious, these young people (and many of their parents) are interested in staying alive. Consequently they are also highly critical of the actions of the hypocrisy of the generations that have preceded them. Maybe there is a message for the church there.

Climate Change Protest

Methodist Turmoil

united Methodist church

At the time of writing (February 2019) the Methodist Church in the United States was starting a conference at which LGBT and same-sex marriage issues were to be voted on. The result could be a breakup of the church. The USA Today says,

“What the United Methodist church will look like in March will likely be very different than it is today,” said the Rev. Ron Robinson, a chaplain and religion professor at Wofford College, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. “This has the most significant potential for major division out of anything in my lifetime.”

Now gender issues are of high importance to many Christians — not only to Methodists, but also those in other denominations. The catch is that such discussions have, as an unstated assumption, that the present physical world will continue more or less in its current form. The passions are strong and deeply felt. But, if Age of Limits issues are going to create wrenching problems, then such discussions do have a flavor of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Episcopalian Membership

While writing my book, I decided to research the status of the Episcopalian Church in the United States. Using 2017 data from the church’s web site I developed the following rather  scary chart.

Episcopal Church Membership
Episcopal Church Membership: 2006-2016

Membership in the church has declined steadily over a period of ten or more years. (Attendance at Sunday services is probably a more important figure than nominal membership. But it shows the same trends. Average parish attendance in the year 2011 was 65; by 2016 it was down to 58.)

While church membership is declining, the nation’s population is growing. The Episcopal church’s membership was 0.28% of the population of the United States in 2005, but had dropped to 0.19% in 2016. So, in the period 2005-2016 church membership fell from 827,000 to 601,000, a 27% drop. But the church’s percentage of the population fell from 0.28% to 0.19%, a 32% drop.

A simple linearization of the line, which has remarkably little scatter, shows that membership is declining by roughly 22,000 per annum. Given that current membership is at around 600,000 we can expect to hit the zero point somewhere around the year 2045. This is not what will actually happen, of course. The line will show an asymptote (hockey-stick effect) near its end; membership will level off at a low level, but it will not hit zero. Or the church may merge with another denomination struggling with a similar data set.

But, if the church is to have any meaning for the population at large, this trend must be reversed. I recognize that religious faith is not just a matter of numbers, but numbers do matter.

Related to the  decline in attendance and membership is the fact that the church’s congregations are getting older — not only are more members needed, it is even more important to attract young people.

Assessment

So we have the following situation:

  • Young people are growing increasingly passionate about climate change issues.
  • The church is spending its time and energy on issues that do not seem to be important to those young people.
  • Church membership and attendance is down. In particular, youth participation is dwindling.

And so the conclusion is . . .

Yet most church communities are not responding to climate change issues with the same level of passion as are young people. (After all, we don’t want to be controversial, do we?) This means that, from the point of view of these young people, church leaders are, by and large, simply rearranging the deck chairs on their sinking Titanic. So, unsurprisingly, they have little interest in joining the church. Who can blame them? No wonder that membership curve is declining so precipitously.

Moreover, even when the church does consider climate change, it tends to treat it as  just one concern among many. Most churches have committees to organize activities such as food banks, spiritual retreats and mission trips. So the tendency is to treat climate change, and other Age of Limits issues, as being just one piece of the overall program. (“We will form a committee to take care of that.”) But climate change (and other Age of Limits issues) are existentially important — they are the Titanic. And, if the Titanic sinks, i.e., if the climate is drastically disrupted, then the other activities will sink with it.

Conclusions

If the church is to engage the trust and the confidence of young people growing up in a world that is changing frighteningly fast then Age of Limits issues need to become central to the mission. They are not just one activity among many — they are core to our beliefs and our actions.

Which means that a theology that fits this new world is needed.

Stay tuned.