The Christian New Deal — Part II

This is the second post in the series ‘The Christian New Deal’.

This is the second post in the series, ‘A Christian New Deal’. (Part I, here, is based on the Pilate’s simple, yet unnerving question, “What is truth?”)

Book Release

Dante Forest DarkEach week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We now conclude Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey. The chapter provided an overview of how I learned about issues such as climate change and peak oil (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark).

The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

Respect for Nature

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the early sections, we read that God gave humanity control over nature. For example, Genesis 9 starts with the following words,

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.

The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.”
Given the resource, environmental and climate change crises that we, as Noah’s descendants now face, that commandment seems to be out of place. At the very least, if we are to have control over “every creature”, then we need to exert that control responsibly — something we have signally failed to do.

In the New Testament we see a different picture. Jesus frequently talks about the natural world, and seems to be respectful of it. The quotation that I have selected for this post is taken from Matthew 18. Jesus puts himself forward as a “good shepherd”. In the analogy, the sheep represents a person that has strayed. But Jesus uses a natural scene as the basis of his message.

If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
The shepherd is exerting control, but in a responsible manner.

Need for Systems Theology

There are many books, web pages and blogs which discuss topics such as climate change and resource depletion, and that also provide suggested responses. (Some of the faith-based sites are some of which are listed at our Resources and References page.)

A limitation of many of these programs and analyses and is that they consider topics such as climate change and resource depletion in isolation, rather than as part of larger, complex systems. For example, consider the following line of argument,

  • New sources of oil are  costly to develop (the easier sources have already been depleted).
  • Hence the price of oil will go up.
  • Hence people will use less oil.
  • Hence fewer greenhouse gases will be generated and the global warming impact will be lessened.

But maybe it is not so simple. If less oil is available then more coal will be used as a substitute, so the global warming impact will be increased. It’s tricky.

The point is that simple solutions to our problems are often simplistic, they fail to take into consideration all the relevant factors. Indeed, we often find that our actions result in the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ and/or Jevons Paradox.

In a religious context the importance of systems theory means that we need to develop a theology — a ‘religious systems theory’ — that helps us understand what is going on, and how we should act in the new and rather scary world that we are entering.

The Green New Deal

A phrase that has gained considerable attention in recent weeks is ‘The Green New Deal’. This is a political program that proposes radical action to address climate change issues, while simultaneously boosting the economy. We have published various posts that discuss this proposal, including the Green New Deal and the Leadership of AOC and Greta Thunberg. My conclusions are that we need a Green New Deal, or something like it, if we are to have any chance of navigating the coming crises, but the Green New Deal as written will not work. It fails to meet realistic engineering or project management criteria. What we need is a Christian New Deal.

The Great Chain of Being

Great Chain of BeingIn medieval times, the concept of the “Great Chain of Being” held was used to explain the world, and our place in it.

The Chain consisted of a hierarchy. At the top is God, who is perfect. Below Him are angels. Below them is life on earth; at the top are human beings, below them are animals, then come plants. Below living beings are inanimate objects, with fire — which seems lifelike — being higher than rocks. Each of these links could be divided. For example, at the human step, kings are above aristocrats who in turn are above peasants. Humans can aim to be more spiritual, more like God, and so move up the chain. On the other hand, if they act less spiritually they move down the chain.

Then along came Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

Evolution and Progress

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Darwin is often credited with having created the concept of evolution. He certainly advanced our understanding as to how and why species change and develop. But other people had had similar ideas before him. Indeed, farmers of livestock had known for centuries that they could selectively breed desirable characteristics in their animals — thus creating a form of forced evolution. What Darwin did do is explain why natural evolution occurred (he was never able to explain how it happened, the principles of genetics were developed long after his death).

The term “survival of the fittest” is often used in discussions to do with Darwin’s insights. Yet this is not a term that Darwin coined, he used the words “descent with modification”. An even more appropriate phrase would be “Survival of the Adaptable”. This distinction is not a mere quibble — it will be a factor as we consider the world in an Age of Limits. If the term “survival of the fittest” is to be used, then it should refer not just to fitness to survive in the current ecological and environmental conditions, but to fitness to survive when conditions change.

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection.

In the words of Tim Radford states, of the Guardian newspaper,

He [Darwin] did not suggest that evolution was a form of progress. For him, an amoeba in a puddle of water was just as suited to its environment as a duck on a lake or a preacher in a pulpit.

Darwin created controversy among some Christians because he challenged their belief that the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible was also a geological text book. But he had two other insights that were more profound and much more challenging.

First he grasped the meaning of the words, “a long time”. Human memories go back no more than a hundred years or so; historical records are good for just a few thousand years at best. But Darwin understood that, when talking about millions of years, whole species can be created or can go extinct. He did not fall into what Frank Landis in his book Hot Earth Dreams calls the ‘Trap of Big Numbers’.

His second insight was that there is no such thing as a Great Chain of Being. We do not evolve toward (or away from) anything. Organisms merely adapt to their environment or else they go extinct. No one life form is better or “higher” than any other. The idea of “progress”, as illustrated in the following sketch, is misleading.

Evolutionary “Progress”There is no missing link between ourselves and our “lower” or “more primitive” ancestors such as apes. Each species adapts to the environment in which it lives. If the environment changes, say due to climate change, then existing life forms need to adapt to the new conditions. If they fail to do so, then new species will evolve. Human beings are not the end point of evolution.

The Church’s Response

It is generally taken for granted that the church’s response to Darwin’s work in the mid-19th century was one of condemnation and resistance. Actually, the religious response was mixed. Many devout Christians were quite happy to accept that God created the world and that natural selection was one aspect of that world. Many clerics resisted the idea that the world is much older than the few thousand years calculated from the Hebrew Bible. But others were willing to adapt to the new concepts.

Biology was not the only scientific area that was developing rapidly in Darwin’s time. Geology was also emerging and providing a new view of the world. There was debate as to whether the timeline in the Hebrew Bible was correct, or whether the Earth was actually millions of years old. Many of the people who denied the concept of natural selection were, nevertheless, willing to accept that the Earth was very old. These were the ‘Old Creationists’. Those who followed the biblical timeline were ‘Young Creationists’.

Darwin himself was an Anglican, with leanings toward Unitarianism. He remained loyal to the church throughout his life, although his faith became increasingly lukewarm. His personality was mild and accommodating, so he did not throw down the gauntlet and directly challenge the religious hierarchy.

Consciousness

Evolution and natural selection are impersonal. Living organisms have no choice about what happens to them. But human beings are, in this respect, different and unique — we have a consciousness and we can make free will decisions as to our future, both as individuals and as a society. In principle, we can choose how to evolve. It is this freedom of choice that gives us the Biblical dominion over nature.

Theology

As we try to figure out the nature of ‘The Christian New Deal’ the ideas and thoughts provided in this post suggest that our new way of thinking will (or should) feature the following.

  • Humility
    We humans need to understand that we are not the apex of civilization, we are not the end point of creation, we are not top of the Great Chain of Being (there is no chain, so it has neither top nor bottom).
  • Ruling the Earth
    We do rule the earth. But we have not done so in a responsible manner — we have taken little interest in the fate of other species and of the environment.
  • Living With Nature
    We need to try to live in harmony with nature. This means abandoning the idea of material progress as being the purpose of our lives.

We scientists don’t know how to do that

I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.

Gus Speth Canadian Club of Rome
Gus Speth

Information and analysis to do with climate and resource issues comes mostly from the scientific community. Scientists are rational, so they tend to go where the data takes them. For a generation or more they have believed that a simple presentation of the facts is all that is needed. When presented with these facts governments, companies, churches and individuals will, it is assumed, take the necessary action.

But that has not happened . Most people continue to live their lives as normal; they have done little or nothing to address climate change issues. Indeed, many people continue to deny the very validity of the scientists’ claims.

Even when they do take action, people and organizations will generally attempt to have their environmental cake and eat it. With few exceptions, people are not willing to voluntarily reduce their standard of living in order to achieve a higher goal. And no politician will run on the platform of, “Elect me and I will reduce your standard of living”. Such a program is a sure way of becoming an ex-politician. Politicians simply cater to our demands.

Which brings us to the quotation at the top of this post. (It is from the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome.) The problems (actually predicaments) that we face are the consequences of human action. Simply stating that we have a problem achieves nothing unless it leads to a change in behavior — the “cultural and spiritual transformation” described in the quotation.

Achieving such a transformation may seem like a hopeless task. But isn’t it what the church has been trying to achieve for the last two thousand years? (And not just the Christian church — many other faiths have similar goals.) All that has changed is that the goals have changed.

If this is the case then the church needs to be a leader in persuading people to make serious cuts in their standard of living. It is not enough to have environmental committees that promote activities such as recycling, the creation of community gardens, advocating for changes in government policy and installing solar panels on the roof of the church. These are all worthy activities, but they tend to occur in intellectual isolation. We need a theology for our times — a theology that faces up to the harsh dilemmas that confront us.

George Mobus, author of Question Everything blog
George Mobus

The limitations of the rational/scientific approach were further reinforced by a recent post from George Mobus, a retired professor from the University of Washington Tacoma.  He says,

I honestly did not expect to be a witness to the end of civilization when I started blogging those many years ago. Though I thought I could clearly see where the trends (energy, climate, social) were heading and tried to lay out the arguments for why we needed to change our ways, I thought that the really bad outcomes would post-date my life. I grieved for my children, of course. But never really thought I would be witness to the end game itself.

Now I’m not so sure. In fact I think that recent developments in climate science, energy science, and political science make it clear that we have entered the end game already.

. . .

We will not be able to save civilization as we know it by any kind of technological magic. The rate of onset of climate change (notice the weather anomalies of late?) and the catastrophic collapse of fossil fuel energies (fracked wells are falling in production as we speak) not to mention the collapse of fisheries, soil depletions, and the insane left-vs-right political strife all mark the clear signatures of collapse, but this time on a global scale. 

. . .

I’m calling the game over. I just cannot see a solution that has humanity going on in any kind of lifestyle that we have grown accustomed to in the 21st century.

. . .

My advice is head for the hills.

. . .

And, good luck.

Mobus has, for many years, represented the rational, scientific way of thought. In this post he seems to have given up hope that human society, at least in its present form, is going to “make it”. The only hope that he offers is to suggest that humanity may develop sufficient wisdom in coming years to, in effect, start again. And we do this through an understanding of systems science.

Basically I argue that we evolved to pass a threshold of cognitive capacity that makes us humans unique animals. It isn’t intelligence, but the capacity to develop wisdom over a lifetime. Except that the average human being is just above that threshold, so their capacity is yet weak.

What I sincerely hope is that some of the survivors will attempt to preserve knowledge, key knowledge (as in systems science) with which to restart the social process

And what is theology but Christian “systems theory”?

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.

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.

Of Polar Bears and Honey Bees

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 have modified our release program. Instead of publishing just the new pages, we will provide the entire book so far. This week we are up to the second 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.

Saving the Environment

Some years ago, when global warming was still a new topic for most people, its most prominent feature was that of polar bears standing on floating ice. The bears seemed to be forlorn and literally cast adrift by human actions. We felt sympathy for the polar bears, even though, as far as we know, they contribute little toward human well being. Indeed, most of us would prefer not to meet a polar bear up close and personal.

But now many other species are under threat. For example, in recent months there has been a flurry of reports telling us that the world’s insect population is in serious decline. The response to this situation has been mostly on the lines that we need the insects because they fertilize our crops and so are fundamental to our well being. Bees are particularly important because, not only do they pollinate flowers, they produce the honey that we eat.

You see the little catch? We sympathize with the polar bears for their own sake, but we care only about the insects because of their usefulness to us. So why do we want to “save the environment”? Is it for the sake of the natural world itself, or is it because we need it for our own survival?

Rattlesnakes, Giraffes and Palm-Trees

The other day I borrowed a copy of the book As I Was Saying — A Chesterton Reader from our church library. The book contains some of the writings of G.K. Chesterton, including essays from Generally Speaking, published in the year 1928.

G K Chesterton
G K Chesterton (1874-1936)

In one of the essays Chesterton muses on our relationship to nature. The essay was written long before the modern environmental movement got under way. But, like E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, which I discuss in Chapter 2 of A New City of God, Chesterton’s essay seems to be remarkably prescient — or, at least, it asks the questions that we, in our environmental enthusiasm, sometimes fail to consider.

Here is the paragraph that triggered my interest.

A little while ago an intellectual weekly started an argument among the intellectuals about whether Man has improved the earth he lives on; whether Nature as a whole was better for the presence of Man. Nobody seemed to notice that this is assuming that the end of Man is to grow more grass or to improve the breed of rattlesnakes, apart from any theory about the origin or object of these things. A man may serve God and be good to mankind for that reason or a man may serve mankind and be good to other things to preserve the standard of mankind; but it is very hard to prove exactly how far he is bound to make the jungle thicker or encourage very tall giraffes.

Which brings us the modern environmental movement. Are we trying to save the coral reefs, the Amazon jungle, and the butterflies in our back yards for their own sake, or to ensure that our own needs are met?

Chesterton continues,

All sane men have assumed that, while a man may be right to feel benevolently about the jungle, he is also right to treat it as something that may be put to use, and something which he may refuse to assist indefinitely for its own sake at his own expense. A man should be kind to a giraffe; he should if necessary feed it; he may very properly stroke it or pat it on the head, even if he has to procure a ladder for these good offices. He is perfectly right to pat a giraffe; there is no objection to his patting a palm-tree. But he is not bound to regard a man as something created for the good of the palm-tree.

It is very clear where Chesterton is going with this line of reasoning.

We protect nature, not for its own sake, but for ourselves. If an environmental activity does not directly benefit humans, then that activity need not be carried out.

So, for example, we recognize that we should not use some insecticides to protect our crops because those insecticides also destroy other insects, such as bees, which are beneficial to us. But this is not a moral decision — it is merely a cost-benefit calculation. We do not reduce insecticide usage because we care about bees, but because we care about ourselves.

Plastics and Polymer Fibers

Since Chesterton’s time the mood seems to have shifted — we now “preserve nature” (as if “nature” is something external to us) for its own sake.

For example, the chemical industry has manufactured billions of tons of plastics and polymers. When we have finished using these plastics, we throw them away. But there is no “away”. Moreover, these plastics do not degrade quickly — they stay in the environment long after we have finished using them, and many of them wind up in the ocean. Now we are learning that plastics/polymers in the form of tiny threads are being found in the internals of fish that live in the deepest parts of the ocean. (These threads are microfibers made of polyester, rayon and nylon and are found in laundry effluent. Evidently a single piece of clothing can generate up to 250,000 of these fibers.) So “away” includes the fish that live in the deep oceans.

Deep-Sea-Fish-1
“Away”

If our concern is to do with “nature” and all the creatures that inhabit it then we should stop manufacturing polymers for use in clothing and we should revert to wearing clothes made of natural materials such as wool and cotton. Yet the artifical materials allow us to have comfortable, hard-wearing clothing at an affordable price. And even if richer people could afford to switch to natural materials, many people toward the bottom end of the economic scale cannot.

So, should we protect these fish even though very few people have even seen these fish and which, as far as we know, contribute nothing to our health and prosperity? Or should we continue to use polymer fibers, knowing that they are of great benefit to us, particularly less well off people, and let the deep sea fish take their chances?

Similar thought processes can be applied to other types of plastics. For example, shrink wrap film allows us to protect food from contamination, and so contributes to our overall health. But, when discarded, that film winds up in trash heaps, where it remains for many years, and so becomes a chronic environmental problem.

Finite Resources

Another factor that has changed since Chesterton’s time is that he did not have to worry too much about resource limitations. For example, up until his time, if people wanted land for farming, they took it.  If it so happened that that land was currently being used by wildlife such as giraffes then there was no problem — there was room for both farms and wildlife.

We now realize that there is only a finite amount of land available and that we need to set aside space for the giraffes, otherwise they will cease to exist. But, once more, we need to understand why we are doing this. Are we doing if for the giraffes, or for ourselves? Are we making a moral argument that giraffes have a right to life — even in limited numbers? If so, how much space should be set aside for wildlife, and how much for farmers who are growing much-needed food?

Striking a Balance

So we need to strike a balance between “saving the environment” and providing people, particularly people who have few economic options, with a superior quality of life. On the one hand if we insist that the environment should be protected at all costs then we human beings would have to depart this planet Earth. As long as we are here we are going to impact the environment. The other extreme is to permit unlimited exploitation of natural resources and to dump our waste products wherever we please.

Neither of these extremes is going to happen. So what is the correct balance?

Many environmentalists would argue that this discussion is merely academic, that, in practice, we are so far to the side of favoring consumption of resources that we are not even close to being in balance. But we need to be careful. For example, at the time of writing (early 2019) the State of California has all but given up on its high-speed rail project. Why? Fast trains between metropolitan centers such as San Francisco and Los Angeles not only make economic sense, they helps the environment by taking people out of airplanes that create large quantities of greenhouse gases. Yet the project fell apart partly due to resistance from environmental groups who did not want their land despoiled by this new industrial endeavor.

Another example concerns the abolition of factory farming — a move which is definitely good for nature and for millions of animals. But that decision may not be so good for those people who are already having trouble affording sufficient food.

The Christian Response

Throughout my writing I try to understand how Christian theology should adjust to the world that we are entering.

G.K. Chesterton was a devout Christian and a member of the Roman Catholic church. His attitude is very much in the spirit of Genesis 1:28.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

This passage supports Chesterton’s argument that nature is here for our good, not that we are here for nature’s good.

Genesis 9:1-3 is even more outspoken.

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”

A theology that is appropriate for an Age of Limits cannot accept the world view put forward in the Genesis passages. Maybe a starting point for Christians is to help people understand that we cannot have our environmental cake and eat it. We cannot “preserve nature” and simultaneously “preserve our standard of living”, let alone hope for a more materially prosperous future.

Our theology should reflect this reality. To what extent should we make sacrifices, not just for other people, but also for the natural environment? Where do we draw the line? And, if we are to make sacrifices, who do we include in the word “we”? Just those who are already reasonably prosperous, or thos who are already struggling to maintain an adequate life style?

More fundamentally, we need to understand that we are not “over” nature, we are not even separate from it. We are part of nature.

 

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.

Mary Poppins and Hopium

Mary Poppins: A Deus Ex Machina

The following material is extracted from the manuscript of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits.

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Mary Poppins

Last week may family and I saw the movie Mary Poppins Returns. We had a good time and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I had not seen the original Mary Poppins, so I was only vaguely familiar with the story line.

As I am sure that most of you know, Mary Poppins is a governess who floats down from the sky to help families in distress. Then, once she has sorted out their problems, she floats back into the sky to await the next movie release, I suppose.

The term deus ex machina (“god from the machine”) is used in drama to describe an action or event that comes from outside the plot and that resolves the difficulties in which the characters are enmeshed. The fictional character Mary Poppins is an example of a deus ex machina. On page 81 we discussed Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’ concept. Mary Poppins can be seen as a ‘White Swan’.

Wilkins Micawber
Wilkins Micawber

On page 10 (of the book) I describe the philosophy of the wonderful Dickens character, Wilkins Micawber. He is always on the edge of bankruptcy, but he is always cheerful and hopeful. One of his stock phrases that he uses in response to the crisis du jour is, “Something will come up”. He trusts that a Mary Poppins, a deus ex machina, will come to rescue him.

I have no doubt I shall, please Heaven, begin to be more beforehand with the world, and to live in a perfectly new manner, if -if, in short, anything turns up.

Now, the Mary Poppins movie and the Micawber character are both fictional, and not to be taken too seriously. But, on a more somber note, when faced with the realities of resource depletion and climate change many people have a similar response. They acknowledge the nature of our predicaments, but they say that, “Something” — they don’t know what it is — “will come up”. The something may be a new technology, it may be a new source of energy, or it may be the latest political initiative.

Hopium

The optimists may be right — maybe something will, in fact, come up. But the term for this attitude is not hope, it is “hopium”. (It’s the response that many investors have when they own a stock that is going down in value — they hang on in the hope that the situation will somehow improve.)

Those who take the attitude of “something will come up” do have some historical basis for their claim. For example, in the book SuperFreakonmics the authors Levitt and Dubner talk about the horse manure problem that large cities faced at the end of the 19th century. Horses were used for all types of transportation: streetcars, wagons, carriages all had to be pulled by horses. The book says,

The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure. A day. Where did it go?

. . . in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure.

The problem was so severe that a ten day conference was organized to try and come up with solutions. After three days the conference was ended because no progress was being made.

The solution to the problem was, of course, the introduction of the gasoline-powered automobile. Within a very short period of time motorized cars, trucks and streetcars replaced the horses and the “peak dung” problem simply went away. Of course, we now face the pollution problems created by automobiles.

The following points should be noted about the horse manure predicament.

  1. It was not solved by people trying to work out a solution. The solution seemed to come out of nowhere.
  2. It was not solved by tuning the existing system, for example by finding ways of needing fewer horses in the cities, or trying to develop more continent horses.
  3. Government intervention was not a factor, nor were government actions such as modifying tax codes or writing regulations to do with horse management.

So maybe someone will come up with an invention that converts the Age of Limits predicament into a problem. For example, if someone were to develop an electric battery that could store 100 times the energy of the batteries now in use the world would change in a hurry. The recent increase in production in the United States as a result of “fracking” is certainly making a short-term difference to the American economy. New technology can help.

But just relying on such a breakthrough is irresponsible. New technologies and new initiatives will use energy, and the First Law tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Then the Second Law tells us that all of our activities, no matter what they are, will increase system entropy.