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.

*********************************************

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.

Overthrowing the Tables of Technology

Jesus overthrowing the tables in the Temple as an analogy for religion overthrowing the authority of science and technology.

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.

Matthew 21: 12

We have seen in earlier chapters how the success of science works has marginalized religion‘s role in explaining how the world works. The development of scientific principles, followed by the astounding growth in industry over the course of the last 300 years has firmly established the authority of science and technology as a means of explaining the world around us. Over the course of the last five centuries we have seen the following events such as the following unfold.

  • Galileo said that the earth, the moon and the planets are all made of the same material. There is no quintessence. Later, we learned that we ourselves are also made of earthly materials. We are not special. There is no physical City of God.
  • Copernicus told us that our earth is not at the center of the solar system. We are live on a small planet orbiting an average star. We are not special.
  • Charles Darwin delivered probably the most devastating blow to our self-esteem. He said that we are not the pinnacle of life, nor do we represent the culmination of evolution. We have evolved, just like all other species. Darwin stated that evolution favors the survival of the most adaptable (not the fittest). There is nothing inherently special about having a big brain, or in being able to control fire, or in being able to manage large groups through the use of writing and money. It just so happens that these attributes worked very well for our species during the 10,000 years of the Holocene to such an extent that we have radically altered it. Maybe those attributes will be a handicap in the coming Anthropocene. Species do not evolve toward some type of pinnacle; they merely evolve to meet changing circumstances. We will see how adaptable we are when faced with the world that we have created.

But now, as we enter the Age of Limits, science is losing its prestige.

The over-turning of the tables in the Temple as described in all four gospels provides an analogy. While no one would claim that science and technology are corrupt in the manner of the merchants in the Temple, we nevertheless see that we have corrupted our planet; science and technology have stumbled, and stumbled badly. This gives an opportunity for the religious community to provide leadership in explaining what is going on, and in coming up with responses that work.

In Chapter 2 saw how van Doren explained Augustine’s response to the catastrophic events of the early 5th century by contrasting the City of Man with the City of God. He and the other church fathers set themselves the task of understanding the constitution of the City of God. In doing so they created the theology of the medieval church. This project culminated in the works of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

What Thomas Aquinas had tried to do was to resolve the question of the two cities, the one of God and the other of Man, which had lain at the heart of theological speculation for a thousand years. Augustine had viewed them as in eternal conflict. Thomas tried to bring them together in peace. In effect, he tried to write a single constitution for both cities that contained no internal contradictions. He tried harder than anyone ever had, and he was the greatest thinker to do so. But he failed.

The great intellectual challenge of the Middle Ages — understanding the nature of the City of God — lost its momentum and was replaced by the energy, insights and excitement of natural science: physics, chemistry and biology. Theology was no longer the Queen of Sciences.

We, in our time, are at a similar juncture. But this time it is the other way around. Science is losing its authority; the sense of never-ending material progress is being challenged on all sides and we are wrecking the environment and do not know how to extract ourselves from the morass that we have created. So maybe the time has come to develop a theology and a way of life that addresses the situation in which we find ourselves. So, maybe now is the time for Christians to show leadership. It has happened before. Leaders such as St. Augustine and Benedict of Nursia led western society through the Dark Ages that followed the decline of the Roman Empire. Can we repeat?

 

The Stoic Christian

 

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

The stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno 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 of his possessions to the bottom of the sea. Most of us would be overwhelmed and angry about such an event, but he chose to create a philosophical school in response to his calamity. Others 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.

One of Zeno’s later followers, Epictetus, said,

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.

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 suffer the consequences without complaint.

Stoicism recognizes that we do not control and cannot rely on external events. But we can control our thoughts and our actions — including the manner in which we respond to external events over which we have no control.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer is profoundly 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.

The metaphor that the people of Zeno’s time used was that of an archer firing an arrow at an enemy soldier. The archer must do the best he can to be ready for battle. So, he chooses the best quality bows and arrows, he trains hard, and he maintains his equipment well. These are actions under his control. But, once in the field in front of an enemy, there are issues that he cannot control. He fires his arrow, but it may be knocked off course by a gust of wind, or the enemy soldiers may move. He accepts the result, whatever it may be.

(I have tried I try to adopt something of a stoical attitude with regard to the writing of this book. I research the issues, I listen to the advice of other people, I enter it into my prayer life, and I work on the writing, publishing and marketing processes. Then I’m done. I do not need to worry whether people actually buy the book.)

In short, we should focus on goals, not on outcomes. (This approach is, of course, the antithesis of coach Lombardi’s, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”)

Stoicism does not condone fatalism, nor does it provide an excuse for “hopium”. Stoics do the best they can with the resources that are under their control — they are not passive. In the context of the Age of Limits, the stoic person may take the attitude, “None of us know what is going to happen two generations from now. Maybe global warming will kill us all, or maybe it won’t. . So let’s focus on actions that we can take to take care of problems that we know about, and where we have some measure of control.”

Moreover, stoics are not selfish or self-centered. They knew that any effective action would involve community. For example, in a society where slavery was part of the way of life, he advocated that slaves should be treated well.

Pillars of Stoicism

Three of the pillars of stoicism are shown below. For each I provide some thoughts in the context of the Age of Limits.

  1. Confront fears head on
    If you are worried about the consequences to do living a more basic lifestyle, then try it and see how you cope. For example, if you have a beautiful 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, certainly. But you will probably survive.
  2. Do not judge
    This precept is difficult for me since I have a strong ‘J’ component in my Briggs-Meyer score. It also is somewhat in conflict with the Platonic approach of ideals. Rather than labeling everything as being either right or wrong, the goal is always to look for the silver lining in all clouds.
  3. Impermanence
    Stoics recognize that nothing lasts. Two generations from now, few people will remember either myself or you, dear reader. Marcus Aurelius 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.”

Christian Stoicism

There are, of course, many other aspects to the Stoic response to life’s ups and downs. But my interest here is how it fits with the Christian response to the wrenching changes that are ahead of us, and to what degree it can contribute to a theology for the coming times.

Throughout this book I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.

Christianity and Stoicism

Christianity and stoicism have much in common. Four pillars of the stoic way of life are:

  1. Justice
  2. Wisdom
  3. Temperance
  4. Courage / Fortitude

There is nothing there that a Christian would challenge.

In the first century CE the stoic way of thought was widespread throughout the Roman empire. Therefore, it would not be surprising to find strands of that way of thinking in Christianity. After all, Paul himself came from Tarsus, a place where the stoic philosophy was widely accepted. Scholars debate the degree to which stoicism formed part of Christianity. I have no intention of wading into that debate. But I do believe, as discussed below, that the stoic world view should be an important part of the theology of the Age of Limits.

One of my reasons for saying this is that, throughout this book, I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.

The stoic point of view does, however, pose some challenges for Christians.

First, there is a fatalistic streak to stoicism. We are all going to die, eventually the universe is going to die (or so astrophysicists seem to think), no one will remember who we are two or three generations from now, so what’s the point? This is not an attitude that most Christians would endorse.

A second difficulty that Christians may have with stoicism is that people may be tempted to divide their life into two parts.

< Stoicism is > the philosophy of the “inner man” and the “outer man” . . . This became the code of privatism, of the nine-to-five man who keeps back the best part of himself for his private life of feelings, of the arts, of family, and of beauty. His real life takes place after five and on weekends . . .

Stoicism is well suited to a society that could not control or explain ravages of nature, such as plague, fire, war, or holocaust . . .

Cantor (1994)

A third concern is to do with the relationship of God to the world we live in. A stoic sees God as being part of the universe, whereas a Christian sees God as someone who created the universe and is therefore, in some manner, external to what is going on.

But probably the biggest difficulty that Christians have with stoicism is to do with the meaning of our actions. Christianity says that our actions and way of life matter in the long run, whereas stoics say that, in the end, none of this really matters.

  • Stoicism: Live well, because in the end, what difference does it make?
  • Christianity: Live well, because in the end, it makes all the difference.

Flynn (2018)

Stoicism in an Age of Limits

In an Age of Limits a stoic response may encourage people to retreat from society. Their retreat can take one of two forms.

The first response is to retreat from society and to try and live a self-sufficient lifestyle. Persons taking this approach will grow their own food, make their own clothes and provide their own entertainments

The approach has much appeal, and should probably be followed, at least in part, by Christians. It aligns with the Greer quotation that we have already discussed (page 58), “Collapse now, and avoid the rush”. His argument is that our current lifestyles are unsustainable, so we would do well to prepare for the inevitable move toward simplicity.

The catch with this approach, at least when taken to extremes, is that, like it or not, we are all part of community, no matter how restricted its scope. No one person can truly be a Robinson Crusoe and live entirely on his or her own resources.

The second type of retreat can only be carried out by wealthy and powerful people. They create their own private reserve, often on an island. They aim to maintain their current lifestyle which they protect with a private security force.

This approach has deep and fatal drawbacks. A person is only wealthy if he or she has access to electronic banking in order to purchase useful goods. If the computer systems fail, or if the supply chains break down then that person becomes poor overnight. Moreover, a person who retreats in this manner will always be vulnerable to disloyal security personnel, just as the Roman Emperors could never fully trust their own bodyguards.

In conclusion, we see that the stoic response to life’s ups and downs may not be a complete and integrated philosophy, but it can make an important contribution to the theology of the future. And it provides practical guidance and help.

The Christian Stoic

We can draw the following conclusions to do with stoicism — and its fit with Christianity and the Age of Limits.

  1. There are fundamental differences between the Christian and the stoic world views. Nevertheless, stoicism influenced Christian thought.
  2. As we enter the Age of Limits, stoicism can provide practical guidance.
  3. It can also provide one of the pillars of a new theology.

Extinction Rebellion and Young Evangelicals

Extinction Rebellion
Two news items caught my eye this week.

Extinction Movement

The first was to do with the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protest movement. The Guardian says,

The Extinction Rebellion climate protest group has expanded to 35 countries and is building towards a week of international civil disobedience in April.

Wikipedia describes the movement as follows,

Extinction Rebellion (sometimes shortened as XR) is an international social movement that aims to drive radical change, through nonviolent resistance in order to minimise species extinction and avert climate breakdown

In an open letter members of the  movement, which was formed this year, say,

The science is clear, the facts are incontrovertible, and it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making.

What is interesting about this movement is their use of the word ‘Extinction’. They are not mincing words, or saying, “maybe this, or, on the other hand, maybe that”.

In an open letter they make the following demands,

  • The Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.
  • The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.
  • A national Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.

Taking these points one by one,

  • In in his book De Mendacio Augustine stressed that it is the responsibility of Christians to tell the truth at all times — not even while lies are acceptable.
  • Reducing carbon emissions to zero by the year 2025 will not happen. Any attempt to do so will lead to extinction by a different route.
  • Would the Citizens’ Assembly over-ride existing government?

Young Evangelicals

The other item that attracted my attention was this article. It describes how some young, Evangelical Christians are now taking climate change very seriously.

While many evangelicals are preoccupied with the long-term state of human souls and the protection of the unborn, Diego and the other students I met at Wheaton are also considering other eternal implications and a broader definition of pro-life. They are concerned about the lifespan of climate pollutants that will last in the atmosphere for thousands of years, and about the lives of the poor and weak who are being disproportionately harmed by the effects of those greenhouse gases.

I have never really understood why any Christian would oppose the science to do with climate change (and other Age of Limits issues). After all, if people are suffering due to these events then we need to understand what is happening before coming up with “solutions” that are not actually solutions.