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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Proper 13: The Stoic Christian

 

 

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). A stoic.

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.

Appointed Gospel

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.

Keep Calm and Carry On. An example of Stoic thinking.

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:

  1. Justice
  2. Wisdom
  3. Temperance
  4. 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.

Fatalism – Realistic Hope - Hopium

Theology

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:

  1. Understand and tell the truth.
  2. Accept and adapt.
  3. 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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