Nature Bats Last

Babe Ruth at bat
Babe Ruth before calling his shot

No one yet knows what the final impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be. Key questions  to which we do not yet have answers include the following,

  • How long will the pandemic last?
  • When will the spread of the infection die down?
  • Will it decline to zero, i.e., will it disappear, or will there be a constant case load such as we see with the flu and the common cold?
  • Will there be second and third waves, such as happened in the flu pandemic of 1918?
  • How many people will be infected?
  • What percentage of those infected will die or suffer long-term health effects?

But even at this stage people are discussing how the pandemic will affect people’s attitude with regard to climate change and other Age of Limits issues. In coming posts I will offer a few thoughts on this topic.

My first reaction is to do with the third of the theological points that I have proposed in previous posts, which is Live within the biosphere (Church Leadership). We read the following words in Genesis 9:1-3.

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.”

We have followed these commandments all too successfully. We have been fruitful and have increased in number, the animal kingdom lives in dread of us, and we have been given everything. And what a mess we have made of our environment.

Even those who believe that they are acting responsibility with regard to God’s creation fall into this trap. For example, many churches have committees that use terms such as ‘Care of God’s Creation’ to describe their work and mission. But such phrases suggest that we are in control of what goes on in the natural world. It suggests that we are outside nature, not part of it.

Readings that are more appropriate for the world that we are entering are from Ecclesiastes 1:5-7 and John 3:8.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.

So, the first lesson that we can draw from the current pandemic is that we need to remember that we are not in control of the environment: “Nature Bats Last”.

(The title of this post is taken from the blog published by Guy McPherson. Of all the people who write on Age of Limits issues he must be the most extreme. He says, “Habitat for human animals is disappearing throughout the world, and abrupt climate change has barely begun. In the near future, habitat for Home sapiens will be gone. Shortly thereafter, all humans will die.”)

Church Leadership

The Western Wall and Kotel Tunnels 2020
The Western Wall (2020)

The last few weeks have been, as the Chinese say, “interesting times”, both for myself and for society as a whole. At a personal level we embarked on a 10-day trip to Israel about four weeks ago. It was the first time that I had been to that nation and I really enjoyed it. Israel must have more history per square mile than any other country in the world. Such a trip brings to life so many of the stories and events that we read about in the Bible. I now find it much easier to visualize, for example, Jesus giving his Sermon on the Mount (even if we do not know the exact location of that event).

On our return to the United States I went down with a fever. The symptoms were mild. But, given all the concerns to do with the corona virus, I decided to check in at our local health care facility since I had just returned from an overseas trip. The good news is that I only had a case of the normal flu (Type A). I have also had to work through one or two other health issues — all of which are working out well, but all of which required me to step back, which is why there have been no posts for the last couple of weeks.

During the same time period the world around us changed a lot, maybe irreversibly,  as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. How it will all play out remains to be seen, but we have already learned much about ourselves and our society.

Susan Goff Bishop Virginia Episcopal Church
Susan Goff — Suffragan Bishop of Virginia

Our church was quick to respond. In the very first stages of the crisis our bishop issued instructions prohibiting gatherings. For at least two weeks (and probably much longer) all group activities, including Sunday morning worship, will not happen. In response, we quickly organized a successful Sunday morning video church service.

All of these events created a period of enforced idleness for me and so gave me an opportunity to reflect on the goals of this blog — ‘Faith in an Age of Limits’ — and of the associated Facebook page: ‘Climate Change Theology’. In particular, I took advantage of the downtime to write this rather lengthy post — it summarizes some of my thoughts to do with the Age of Limits and with the  implications of the pandemic that is suddenly upon us. Although we face lots of difficulties, and although the future looks challenging — to put it mildly — the predicaments that we face do provide an opening for the church and for people of faith to provide leadership.

What form that leadership may take, and how people of faith and the church overall can provide that leadership, best serve their communities, both through service and spiritual support, both for the long-term crisis that I refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ and the short to medium-term issues raised by the pandemic is the focus of this series of posts.

Background

Abandoned pump jack

I started this blog in August of last year and have published about 49 posts during that time. I have also completed the first draft of my book A New City of God — Faith in a Changing Climate. Now is a good time to back up and to provide an overview of what I see as the challenges that we face, and how they present an opportunity for church leadership.

I first took an interest in what I now refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ about ten years ago. This was the era of ‘Peak Oil’ — the idea that crude oil is a finite resource that we are using irreversibly and that will eventually be depleted. (We now understand that the issue is not to do with the amount of crude oil in the ground per se, but the amount of oil that can be affordably extracted. The same idea applies to all other natural resources.)

This initial interest in peak oil was a starting point in understanding that we are facing many other types of limit, including climate change caused by our CO2 emissions, population overshoot, destruction of the biosphere and an end to continuous economic growth. Some of these factors are shown in the following sketch.

Elements of the Age of Limits

Predicaments, Not Problems

A key insight, and an idea that threads through much of what I write, can be summarized as follows,

We are confronted with predicaments, not problems — problems have solutions, predicaments do not. There are no solutions, only responses.

I am an engineer who has worked in the process and energy industries for many years. Like most engineers my mental model is that there are always solutions to the challenges that we face. Indeed, given sufficient money, commitment and time we can not only maintain Business as Usual (BAU), but we can even expect life to be better and better. Material progress is part of our faith system. The idea that progress has come to an end, and may even be going into reverse, challenges our fundamental view of the world.

The 300-Year Party

A second key insight is to do with the concept of the 300-year party. All living beings — humans are no exception — live by taking in energy. That energy is used for basic survival, growth and reproduction. If we take in more energy that we use then we can grow and prosper. If, on the other hand, we expend more energy that we take in then eventually we die.

The energy used by all living species, including humanity until recent times, comes from the sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface. That light is used by plant life. Some of that plant life is eaten by animals, including ourselves. (The post ERoEI discusses this background in greater detail.) Such a lifestyle is — to use a currently fashionable word — sustainable. It is the world of biblical times.

Newcomen’s Engine
Newcomen’s Engine

But then, quite suddenly, we found a new source of energy: fossil fuels — first coal, then oil and natural gas. No longer did we have to live in energy balance with our environment. We learned how to exploit millions of years’ worth of stored sunlight. (If I were to pick a date for that event I would go with the Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the atmospheric engine in the year 1712.) The use of this stored sunlight meant that we no longer needed to live in energy balance with our environment, we started a party that is now coming to an end.

The analogy is with someone who lives on a modest income. She spends no more than she makes in wages and has only a small bank balance. Then she receives an inheritance. Her bank balance increases but her income stays the same. For a short while she can afford a wonderful life style: a large home, a new car, vacations around the world. But, eventually, the money runs out and she is forced back to living on her old income. But now she is saddled with expenses that she never had before, so she is worse off than she was before receiving the inheritance. She should, of course, have saved the inheritance and spent it carefully and with an eye to the future, and for her children and grandchildren. But she didn’t. We are in the same place as that lady. We inherited and then literally burned through an inheritance of stored energy with hardly a thought for what we would do when it ran out. We just assumed that “They” would “think of something”. After all, if “they” can invent the cell phone then surely “they” can find a new source of energy that can keep the party going.

But the 300-year period during which we have gobbled up the planet’s resources at such an astonishing rate is coming to an end.  We are learning that our faith in science and technology is a false faith. Moreover, while we were consuming the earth’s resources in such a cavalier manner that we have created waste products — of which carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is probably the most important — and have just thrown them away — not acknowledging that there is no such place as “away”.

On top of all this, we have used the gift of stored sunlight to support an unprecedented growth in the earth’s population go from 1 billion to 7.5 billion. The chart shows that the population of the world in biblical times was well under a billion. In the late 18th century, following the start of the industrial revolution (which would be better named the fossil fuel revolution) we see a dramatic increase. There is a further sudden increase around the year 1950. The chart also shows how such increases closely track our production of crude oil.

World population and growth in oil production

We hear much talk about alternative energies, sustainability and “green living”. These are good ideas and they deserve our full support. But they are not even close to providing the energy base that we need to maintain our current extraordinarily, energy-extravagant lifestyle. Alternative energies do not provide a solution to the energy crisis that we face, they only help us respond and adapt.

Faith

If our faith in endless material progress is misplaced then maybe we need to consider the role of religious faith. Indeed, it is this thought that provides the inspiration for this blog and the book I am writing. In particular, people of faith should consider how they can help the world respond to the hard choices that we are all going to have to make in the coming decades.

As I was researching the material for this blog and the book I learned about that remarkable man, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). Augustine lived at a time when the western Roman Empire was in decline. Indeed, during his lifetime the City of Rome was itself was sacked for the first time in centuries. He understood that all cities of men, indeed all human organizations, eventually fail (just look at all the “failed states” in the Hebrew bible). Only the City of God, he argued, is permanent. (Hence the title of his seminal work, the book City of God.)

It is this concept that is central to my interpretation as to what is going on now in our society. Our current ‘City of Man’ — an industrial culture based on the gift of stored energy in the form of fossil fuels — is winding down, and it is why I chose the domain name ‘New City of God’. What will our new City of God look like?

In his day Augustine recognized that the situation provided an opportunity for the church to provide badly needed leadership. So, it is in our time. There is, however, one major difference between our world and that of the western Roman Empire. Our “empire” in based on technological advance. This means that our leaders will need to understand concepts that would have been foreign to Augustine and the other church fathers. These include science, ecology, thermodynamics, systems theory and the management of very large projects.

Church Leadership

A few years ago, our parish was looking for a priest. So, we set up a search committee. Members of the congregation were asked to tell the committee what they would like to see in the successful candidate. The normal attributes of the ideal candidate were listed: strong preaching, good at working with young people, sound financial management, a bible scholar, and so on. I suggested that, in addition to all these talents, that the successful candidate should have a good grasp of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. People laughed, and said that such a condition would mean that we would never find a priest. They were correct, but I was not joking. We cannot solve our problems/predicaments if we do not understand the root cause of those problems.

The Corona Virus

Corona virus COVID-19

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

In a startlingly short period of time COVID-19 has come to dominate our lives. This is obviously a rapidly changing situation, but already it has generated the following thoughts and questions.

  • Serious as the impact of COVID-19 may be, it pales into insignificance when compared to climate change and other Age of Limits issues. Yet the virus has totally dominated our lives. This is discouraging — it is yet another instance of short-term thinking (remember the example of the lady who spent her inheritance with no thought for the future. We are all Prodigal Sons.)
  • The pandemic has shown the importance of believing scientists and other professionals in a time of crisis. Faith is based not only on prayer and the study of scriptures, but also an understanding of science and technology.
  • Once more, as in Augustine’s time, the church is provided with an opportunity for leadership.

Demise of Globalization

I started this post by saying that I am an engineer who has spent a career working in the process and energy industries. For much of that time the dominant economic theme has been one of globalization and its cousins: Just-in-Time (JIT) management and the use of single-source suppliers. Over the years borders have become ever more porous — people, goods, money and (yes) diseases have found it easier and easier to travel the world.

Even before the corona pandemic, there were signs that globalization was running into trouble. Political movements such as ‘Brexit’ and ‘Make America Great’ showed that many working people had lost confidence in in the promises that were being made. But the pandemic has highlighted the brittleness of the supply chains on which we have come to depend. To take just one example, an oil company that operates platforms in the Gulf of Mexico is running into difficulties because some of its critical equipment comes from a single source — a source that unfortunately happens to be in Italy — a nation that is currently in lockdown mode.

Systems

The world that we have created is extraordinarily complex; it has so many moving parts that it can be very difficult to understand what is going on. Richard Heinberg provides the following example of systems complexity.

Someone gets sick in China in December of 2019, and by March of 2020 the US shale oil industry is teetering on the brink. What’s the chain of connection?

  • January 2020: The coronavirus epidemic explodes, forcing China to institute a massive quarantine.
  • Chinese oil demand craters as a result of hundreds of millions staying home and untold numbers of businesses going offline.
  • March 7: Saudi Arabia asks its OPEC partners and Russia to cut oil output to keep prices from crashing.
  • March 9: Russia refuses, so the Saudis decide to provoke a price war by producing even more oil and selling it at a discount.
  • As a result, world oil prices fall from $50 (Feb. 17) to $33 (March 9).
  • Meanwhile it is arguably the US, not Russia, that will be hurt most by the price war. As the world’s largest oil producer, the US has seen nearly all of its spectacular production growth in recent years coming from light, tight oil produced by fracking. But fracking is expensive; even when prices were higher, the fracking industry struggled to turn a profit on this unconventional petroleum source. With an oil price heading toward $30 or possibly even lower, not even the most efficient fracking companies with the very best acreage can make investors happy. So, dozens of domestic US oil producers are set to go bust.

Deflation

1932 Depression

I grew up at a time of high inflation. That was bad, but deflation is worse, and it is deflation that is likely to be in our economic future.

  • The driving deflationary force will be the lack of spending due to lack of wages. Businesses of all types lay off or furlough their staff  in response to the pandemic. These people no longer receive wages, so they cannot spend money on goods and services. Hence economic activity slows down. Even people who remain employed or who have savings reduce their spending because (a) there are fewer places to spend their money, (b) they want to avoid mingling with other people, and (c) they are holding on to their money for a “rainy day”. The drop in demand for goods and services leads to more closures of factories and stores, so economic activity is reduced further and yet more people are laid off. It’s a vicious circle.
  • Prices for goods and services are likely to go down, but may not always do so. However, because people anticipate price reductions, they hold off making optional purchases “until next week”.
  • There is a contraction in the money supply and in financial credit. This is presumably why the United States Federal Reserve has reduced interest rates and bought bonds — they are trying to make sure that there is sufficient money and credit in the system.
  • Those who are in debt, particularly those people who have lost their jobs, are in trouble. Their income has shrunk or disappeared, but they still have to pay make payments for their rent, student loans or credit cards. Moreover, the interest rates on those loans will remain at their previous high levels. Moreover, these people may not be able to borrow money to keep themselves temporarily solvent since the value of many of their assets will have declined.
  • If a borrower defaults then the loss will have to be absorbed by the financial institution that made the loan or by the taxpayer.

As I write, there is a run on the grocery stores as people give way to panic buying. But, if the above analysis to do with deflation is correct, there should not be many long-term shortages (in spite of the cracks in the supply chains). Instead, there will be a shortage of people with sufficient money to buy the goods and services that are available.

The image I have of the Great Depression is of farmers who have milk for sale but their hungry, unemployed customers have no money. So the farmers wound up pouring the milk down the drain. That’s deflation.

Church Leadership

Churches around the world are responding in real time to the challenges of this pandemic. It seems to me that many of them are doing a good job — they are looking for innovative solutions to the rather frightening new world that we have entered. But the pandemic could also be a time when church leaders can think through the nature of their mission, both material and spiritual, in a world of declining resources, climate change and population overshoot.

Theology

As I thought more about the intersection between technology and faith I realized that I was circling the issue of “The study of God and of God’s relation to the world”, i.e., theology.

Theology does not have a good image. It is often seen as being an intellectual game that is neither relevant nor interesting to the ordinary person of faith. Theologians are jokingly perceived as those who wonder “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. That phrase has itself become a metaphor for time-wasting and irrelevant debate.

Rowan Williams (1950- )
Rowan Williams (1950- )

A leading theologian of our times is Rowan Williams, now retired from his post as Archbishop of Canterbury. Much of what Williams says, particularly with regard to climate change and the biosphere, makes a lot of sense and is excellent advice. But here is an example of his theological writing (from the year 2007).

A doctrine like that of the Trinity tells us that the very life of God is a yielding or giving-over into the life of an Other, a ‘negation’ in the sense of refusing to settle for the idea that normative life or personal identity is to be conceived in terms of self-enclosed and self-sufficient units. The negative is associated with the ‘ek-static’, the discovery of identity in self-transcending relation.

A person who is frightened about a pandemic disease or who is wondering how to juggle the requirements of holding down a job while looking after children who are no longer at school needs a theology that “speaks to their condition”.

C S Lewis and the moral law
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)

For many people of my generation a writer that had great influence was C.S. Lewis. In books such as Mere Christianity. Lewis explained theology clearly and showed how it fit into our lives.

Some thoughts as to what a theology that is relevant to the times may look like are provided below.

Systems Thinking

If theologians are to provide guidance and understanding to the rest of us then they need to have a good grasp of systems theory. They need to understand how our highly complex and interactive world works.

Theology Is Personal

Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE)

Theology is often perceived as being dry, pedantic and dull. Maybe one reason for this perception is that theologians seem to be like theoretical physicists who are looking for a Grand Unified Theory that explains everything, including some of the deepest moral and spiritual questions that we face. The catch is that we not like scientists standing outside the system we are trying to understand; it is God that is outside the system, He is external to us. We are like people living in a two-dimensional world when God operates in three dimensions. We cannot come up with a theological Grand Unified Theory.

In fact, it often seems as if the best theology is personal in nature. This may be one reason I based some of my thinking on Augustine’s seminal work City of God. The ideas in his book are central to Christian thinking and to scholastic theology, but no one would claim that the book is an easy read. Indeed, it seems as if it remains in need of a good copy editor. But City of God is not his only work. Augustine also wrote Confessions — one of the first personal works in our literary canon. It is not quite a full autobiography, but the book does present Augustine as being fully human, with all that that means. It make his theology personal and relevant to us all.

Theology Should Be Practical

Professional theologians divide their discipline into four major categories: biblical, historical, dogmatic and practical. Of these, the one that is of most interest to the person in the pew is ‘Practical Theology’. Osmer has organized this topic around four questions,

  1. What is going on?
  2. Why is it going on?
  3. What ought to be going on?
  4. How might we respond?

These questions seem to summarize many of the thoughts that have already been presented in this post.

Morality

In his posts at Experimental Theology, Richard Beck points out that the social justice movement is, at its heart, a moral movement.

. . . it is taken as axiomatic among social justice warriors that oppression and injustice are systemic problems requiring systemic solutions. Our problems are not moral. You hear this claim every time you hear a social justice warrior throw shade on the notion that change doesn’t happen by asking people to change their hearts.

. . . by pointing out the moral and spiritual dimensions of justice work in these posts I’m not denying the systemic side of the equation. My argument isn’t reductionist (systemic or moral?), it’s holistic (systemic plus moral!).

His argument applies equally well to the manner in which we respond to the Age of Limits and to the corona virus pandemic. The challenges that we face are systems issues, and it is our responsibility to do our best to understand such systems. Indeed, much of my writing at this blog and in my book is to do with how the elements of systems interact with one another. These systems can be to do with basic science and thermodynamics, or they may be about human activities such as the management of very large projects. However, the manner in which which we understand and respond to issues such as climate change and the corona pandemic is fundamentally one of morality, not systems theory.

Church Leadership

Just as Augustine and others of his time worked out a theology that provided a foundation of intellectual life for the coming centuries, so we need a theology that will have to involve a mix of traditional faith topics, such as prayer and the study of scripture, along with an understanding of science and technology.

Three Theological Points

It seems to me that a theology for our times must grasp the complex nature of the predicaments that we face before we can understand the nature of God and the meaning of religion in our time. I propose the following three points as the basis for discussion. It is my hope that professional theologians will find these points worthy of consideration as they think about the world that we are entering.

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

I will explore these three points in future posts. In this post I will jot down just a few words with regard to them in the context of current events.

1. Understand and Tell the Truth

It is the responsibility of people of faith and of church leaders to tell the truth — at least as they see it. We are already finding that those politicians who have consistently lied to us over the years no longer have credibility when they speak about the current crisis.  (My impression is that our church leaders have done a good job so far of being honest and forthright. Congratulations to them.)

But telling the truth goes beyond simply not lying. It means that we have a responsibility to understand the nature of the complex systems that we have created. For example, is the relationship between the corona pandemic and low oil prices, as described earlier in this post, true? So, is it good that oil prices go down? After all, low oil prices can stimulate the economy (which is good), but low oil prices will lead to people in the energy industries being laid off (which is bad). What is the truth regarding this complex situation? It’s tricky.

2. Accept and Adapt

The above statement is based on the assumption that we face predicaments, not problems. In the case of COVID-19 we will, presumably, eventually come to terms with the disease; it will not go away, but it is likely to become more of a background concern that we learn to live with (rather like the flu now). But many of the associated problems, such as the snapping of brittle supply chains, social distancing and the onset of deflation, could permanently alter our society, and not necessarily for the better. We will have to learn how to adapt to these new conditions.

Maybe the pandemic will serve as a rehearsal for the longer-term response to the Age of Limits predicaments that we have already described.

3. Live Within the Biosphere

The root cause of many of our problems is that we humans have acted as if we are somehow outside of nature — the natural world is something that we control for our own benefit. The pandemic has taught us just how wrong this point of view is — we are not in control of God’s world, we are a part of God’s world.

Christians and people of the Bible face a special challenge; they may have to abandon some details of the older interpretations religious texts. For example, following the flood, in Genesis 9 God says to Noah and his sons,

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.

Well, we pretty much aced that one, and look where it brought us. But, in an over-populated, polluted, resource-depleted world this verse is hard to defend. We need a new way of living within the biosphere.

Maybe the following verses from Ecclesiastes 1 (which are, admittedly, taken out of context) are more appropriate.

Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

The Church’s Opportunity

We live in difficult and unprecedented times. The industrial/fossil fuel revolution — the basis of so much of our prosperity — is winding down; the future looks increasingly uncertain and bleak; we  thought that we had built a society that we thought was somehow outside of nature. Now we are forcefully reminded that the forces of nature do not necessarily conform to our wishes.

These times do, however, provide an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. Many of the old answers to do with our political and economic systems will no longer work. (I found the following article in The Atlantic magazine to be particularly pertinent in this context.)

The situation provides an opportunity for the church not only to respond, but also to provide leadership. Church leaders will be called upon to explain why we are living in difficult times — they will be faced with the age-old question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” They will also be called upon to come up with new initiatives and practical responses. For example, if globalization is indeed moving into reverse, we will see more interest in the development of local communities — the parish concept.

Calverley Anglican church

Book: A New City of God

A New City of God — Faith in a Changing Climate. Cover.

I have completed the first draft of my book A New City of God — Faith in a Changing Climate. I will be looking for reviewers — more on this later. In the meantime, the current Table of Contents can be downloaded in .pdf format here.

Old-Fashioned Language

Bible — illustrates old-fashioned language

I am writing a book entitled A New City of God: Faith in a Changing Climate. The book has seven chapters. They are:

Chapter 1 — The Author’s Apology
Chapter 2 — The City of Man
Chapter 3 — Hubris and Nemesis
Chapter 4 — Truth and Consequences
Chapter 5 — Predicaments and Responses
Chapter 6 — Theology
Chapter 7 — The Church’s Response

The current Table of Contents is available here. The first draft of Chapters 1 through 6 is available here for review.

Chapter 7 — The Church’s Response discusses how individuals of faith, and how the church as a whole can respond to the Age of Limits predicaments that we face. It has been a difficult chapter to write. I eventually realized that, in spite of everything that I had written in the first six chapters, I was still thinking in terms of our current paradigm, our current way of living and thinking. One of the themes of those chapters is that we need to leave the ‘Church of Progress’, but doing so is much harder than most of us realize. We have been raised in a consumer-based culture. We assume that, as long as we have sufficient money, we can expect to receive whatever we what. There are no physical limits when it comes to meeting our desires.

We also live in a “techno-fix” culture. We take it for granted that technology will continue to advance and that, faced with any kind of problem, “They will come up with something”.  It is very difficult to grasp that those ways of thought no longer work. In fact, the real challenge is to understand that our actions have taken us to a point where there is no longer a response that will return us to Business as Usual.

As I reflected on how we are trapped in our way of thinking it became apparent that some of the old-fashioned language that we used to hear in churches seems to be increasingly relevant. For example,

We have used up the earth’s resources, we have fouled the environment and we have filled the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Therefore, we need to Repent for our Sins. We hope for Mercy for what we have done, and ask for Forgiveness from the young people who are entering the world that we have created. We may even use the word Hell to describe that world. And finally, we hope for Salvation.

Maybe reverting to the technology and life style of earlier times also means reverting to the words that they used in those times.

Two Triangles

Book: Two Triangles by Ken Pye

The book Two Triangles: Liverpool, Slavery and the Church describes the trans-Atlantic slave trade that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. The book also discusses the church’s involvement in this terrible practice. Some church leaders provided theological justification for what was taking place, but others, including many in the Anglican church and the City of Liverpool, helped bring about the abolition of slavery within the British Empire. (Two Triangles can be purchased from the Liverpool Cathedral bookshop here.)

Although the events of the book seem now to be “just history”, the book’s message is surprisingly relevant to us now in our Age of Limits — for two reasons. The first reason is to do with the theological arguments to do with the morality of slavery, and their relevance to our use of fossil fuels. The second reason is that the slaves were needed to provide the energy needed to develop and operate the Caribbean plantations. We need the energy provided by coal, oil and natural gas if we are to maintain our current, abundant lifestyle.

The Triangle

The triangle that the book refers to was to do with trade ships that made journeys between three nodes of a trade triangle: Liverpool, Africa and the Caribbean. On the first leg a ship carrying rum, textiles and manufactured goods would sail south from Liverpool, England to ports in west Africa. Having unloaded its cargo it would be packed with slaves captured from the African hinterland. The ship would then sail west to the Caribbean using the trade winds. In the Caribbean the slaves would be sold and the ship loaded with raw materials such as sugar, cotton and tobacco. It would complete its journey by following the Gulf Stream and returning to Liverpool.

Slave triangle book Two Triangles

The descriptions in the book of the second leg of the passage — the transport of slaves from their homes in Africa to the Caribbean — were tough reading. ‘Nuff said.

Slave ship in book Two Triangles

Theological Justification

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

Colossians 3:22

The book provides an important discussion to do with theological tension between the verses in the Bible that endorse slavery and the Christian spirit of love for all human beings. We can see this same discussion playing out now with regard to climate change. There are those who want to do the right thing, i.e., reduce carbon emissions, even if that action means a reduction in our standard of living. And there are those who want to make money now, regardless of the morality of their actions.

Energy

Patrick Henry and slavery
Patrick Henry (1736-1799)

Many of the people living at the time of the slave trade recognized the immorality of what was going on, but they saw it as a necessary evil. One of the leaders of the American Revolution was Patrick Henry — “Give me liberty, or give me death!”. In the year 1773, a time when the slave trade was at its height, he wrote,

Would any one believe that I am master of slaves by my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not — I cannot justify it, however culpable my conduct.

Do those words sound familiar?

Indentured labor of various types was needed to provide the energy that their society needed to function. Henry, and the other prosperous people of his time, needed that energy to run their society and to maintain their standard of living. They knew that what they were doing was wrong, but they could see no way out of their dilemma. The analogy with what is taking place now is stark — we know that burning fossil fuels is creating many predicaments, but we need those fuels to maintain our way of life.

For both ourselves, and for Patrick Henry, the way out of the dilemma was “alternative energy”. In his case, during the 18th century a new source of energy was coming along: coal. The energy supplied by coal was so abundant that there was less need for the human energy. Later on, we found an even better source of energy: oil.

Is it coincidence that two things happened at about the same time? In the year 1859 Colonel Drake (who wasn’t a colonel) drilled his first successful oil well. The technology that he used — a drill string inside casing — is still in use now. Just a few years later, slavery in the United States was abolished. (In the picture, Drake is the person on the right in the stovepipe hat.)

Drake first oil well source of energy

Theology and Technology

Two Triangles emphasizes the moral component to do with the abolition of slavery. This is something that is needed now with regard to climate change. One of the consequences of climate change is that the people who suffer the most from its impact are the people who are least responsible for it happening. And it is not just people. The massive fires that have recently occurred in Australia led not just to people losing their lives and their homes, it also resulted in an enormous loss of wild life.

But moral and theological pushback by itself is insufficient. We need to find new sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. This is turning out to be very difficult. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of people of faith not only to make moral arguments, but also to understand how technology can help us find responses to the predicaments in which we find ourselves.

 

 

No Epiphany

Australian wildfires December 2019
This is not news

Like many churches around the world, our church has just celebrated Epiphany — the time when the magi or wise men visited the baby Jesus.

The word epiphany has been defined in the following ways,

  • An appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being;
  • A sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; or
  • An illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.

In the Biblical context the magi suddenly realize who it is that they have been directed to visit.  That is their epiphany.

Bartolomé_Esteban_Murillo_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi
Adoration of the Magi. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

The theme of this site is to provide thoughts as to how we might develop a new theology — a theology that is appropriate for the world that we are entering. The three theological points presented for discussion are,

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

I have highlighted the first of these because it is the one I would like to consider in this post. Specifically, I would like to consider whether or not we, as a society, will have an epiphany regarding climate change. Will there be a moment when people suddenly “get it”, a time when “it clicks” that something is going on, that the world is changing? And, were such an epiphany to occur, would it be followed by decisive action?

Let’s think about these questions in context of this week’s news: the appalling wildfires that are consuming so much of Australia. Have the people of Australia had an epiphany where they, as a nation, understand the threat that climate change poses? Furthermore, has the Australian government recognized the error of its ways such that it is now doing everything that it can to slow down the rate at which the climate is changing? For example, has it stopped the export of Australian coal to other countries? The answers to the above three questions are “No”, “No” and “No”. The fires have not led to a nation-wide “illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure”? They may have led some Australians to consider a new way of thinking. But there has been no nation-wide change.

Why not? Why has there not been an Australian epiphany? Two possible reasons come to mind.

The first reason is to do with “normalization of the news”. The wild fires in Australia (or California or the Arctic or anywhere else, for that matter) are, by definition, only news when they are new, when they capture people’s attention as being something out of the ordinary. As soon as they become routine or long drawn out affairs they are, by definition, no longer news. Hence, they no longer grab our attention. Once the fire season is behind them, people switch their attention to other matters of more topical concern.

The second reason that the Australian fires are not an epiphany is that the Australian government understands that, were they to restrict coal mining, then many individual Australians would lose well-paid jobs. Even those who understand the magnitude and seriousness of climate change will, for the most part, continue with the same way of life. After all, they have children to raise, mortgages to pay and a retirement to save for. Epiphany or not, most people will not be prepared to make radical personal sacrifice in order to “save the world”. Or, to put it another way, they have not repented, as discussed in a recent post in this series.

So, with regard to the first of the three theological points — Understand and tell the truth — we can conclude that there will be no nation-wide epiphany. There will be not be a time when the world as a whole “wakes up” and “gets it”.

If this conclusion is correct then it is, to say the least, a discouraging conclusion. Maybe this is where people of faith and the church overall can provide leadership. Secular politicians cannot ask people to voluntarily reduce their standard of living. If they do, they soon become ex-politicians. But faith is not about material prosperity — so the leaders of the church can talk about a society in which people make voluntary cut backs in their standard of living for the greater good of all. People of faith can help bring about an epiphany, for at least some members of the population.


Postscript

The day after I published this post Reuters published an article Australia’s leaders unmoved on climate action after devastating bushfires.

While the fires are still burning the ‘Emissions Reduction Minister’ said,

In most countries it isn’t ­acceptable to pursue emission­ reduction policies that add substantially to the cost of living, ­destroy jobs, reduce incomes and impede growth.

This is a remarkably candid statement — he is not fudging around with “green growth’.

Repentance

Christmas candles
Credit: Pixabay

The post, Repent – Another World is Possible at the Resilience site caught my attention, and seems to fit in with my own Happy New Year discussion.

The author of the post, Vicki Robin, talks about old-fashioned concepts such as sin and repentance (although she does avoid the word salvation). She finds herself drawn to old-fashioned religious imagery; she tries to fit this imagery into a secular framework.
Here are some quotations from her work.

  • Haven’t we graduated from the angry Father God of the Israelites?
  • Proscribed rituals in the Talmud would today be diagnosed as OCD and medicated.
  • We are post-modern . . . we are not sinful.
  • How pitiful were the COP25’s flaccid results.
  • Repent is a biblical term for a biblical time, and this is a biblical time.
  • We have sinned against nature.
  • This is the time to repent. To fall on our knees before the enormity of our folly. To face the golden calf we worshiped.
  • I forgot I was part of the community of life.
  • I will never stop thinking — maybe won’t even after I die.

The purpose of this blog, and of the book/video that I am writing, is to help us all figure out a theology appropriate for an Age of Limits. Robin reminds us that creating theology is not merely an intellectual exercise. It includes old-time concepts such as sin, repentance and salvation.

Repentance starts with the recognition that you have thought and acted wrongly in the past and wish to think rightly in the future. But repentance also contains within itself the concepts of sin and salvation. It is a deeply personal issue. The term “Godly Sorrow” comes to mind.

We are at the start of a new year — a time for making predictions. I predict that we will see more articles and posts such as Robin’s. People will be looking for personal meaning in a degraded world; they will come to acknowledge their own role in creating that degraded world and they will be struggling with what it means to repent.

Happy New Year

episcopal-church-2

I wish everyone health and happiness in the year ahead of us. The year 2019 was a time of change, and I expect that 2020 will be no different.

A Theology for Our Times

This year I plan on a series of posts built around the theme of a ‘A Theology for our Times’. We live, as they say, in “interesting times”. At such times we need an intellectual framework that helps us understand and respond to what is going on. For people of faith this means that we need a theology that is relevant to a world of climate change, resource depletion, over-population, pollution and so on.

I approach this topic as an engineer who also has a background in systems engineering and the management of large projects. This experience can, I trust, be of value to professional theologians, seminarians and ordained clergy as they try to figure out a suitable theology for an Age of Limits.

A few years ago, our parish was looking for a priest. We set up a search committee — a process with which I am sure many of you are familiar. Members of the congregation were asked to tell the committee what they would like to see in the successful candidate. The normal attributes of good Bible knowledge, working well with children, preaching a powerful sermon, and so on were put forward. I suggested that the successful candidate should also have a good grasp of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. People laughed, and said that such a condition would mean that we would never find a priest. They were correct, of course. But I was not joking. An understanding of thermodynamics and other technical topics helps us grasp the root cause of many of our problems  and should be part of a theology for our times.

In order to assist in the process of developing a suitable theology I suggest that the following three points be considered.

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

I will unpack these points in future posts — and I very much welcome feedback. But before doing so it is important to examine why a new theology may be needed. After all, isn’t God’s truth as revealed in the Bible sufficient for all times and all places? I would say that the answer has to be, “Yes and No”. The fundamentals do not change, but their application will change under different circumstances.

In this context, three names come to mind. They are: Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther and John Wesley. We will look at how these men responded to the world of their times, also in future posts. They shared the same fundamental beliefs, but they each developed a way of understanding their world that addressed the situation in which they and other people of faith found themselves.

Even when interpreting the Bible, we need to see issues in context. For example, in Genesis 9, following the flood, God says to Noah and his sons,

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.

Well, we pretty much aced that one, and look where it has brought us: an over-populated, polluted, depleted world.

Maybe the following verses from Ecclesiastes 1 are more appropriate to our times.

Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

Final Thoughts on 2019

Time magazine’s Person of the Year was Greta Thunberg (GT) — and rightly so. Quite suddenly she started a meme that swept the world. Those who choose to deny that the climate is changing, and that those changes are caused by human beings, are now very much on the defensive.

But it is important to understand the mood of GT and her followers. To put in plainly, they are angry.

Greta Thunberg release hell

Credit: Ugo Bardi

One of the more puzzling aspects of the meme was the response that she received in the Halls of Power. Repeatedly she was applauded and praised  by those who had failed to make the changes that she wanted them to make. Why?

Consider the well-known words from Matthew 8.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Greta Thunberg Time magazine cover 2019

Here is what Thunberg says,

I speak on behalf of future generations. I know many of you don’t want to listen to us – you say we are just children. But we’re only repeating the message of the united climate science.

Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future. Is that really too much to ask?

In the year 2030 I will be 26 years old. My little sister Beata will be 23. Just like many of your own children or grandchildren. That is a great age, we have been told. When you have all of your life ahead of you. But I am not so sure it will be that great for us. Now we probably don’t even have a future any more.

You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late. And yet we are the lucky ones. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences. But their voices are not heard.

Did you hear what I just said? Is my English OK? Is the microphone on? Because I’m beginning to wonder.

People always tell me and the other millions of school strikers that we should be proud of ourselves for what we have accomplished. But the only thing that we need to look at is the emission curve. And I’m sorry, but it’s still rising. That curve is the only thing we should look at.

You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before.

If we were to use old-fashioned religious language, it as if she is telling us that we have sinned.

Nor is she offering much in the way of forgiveness.

If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.

Incidentally, here is what the emissions curve that she talks about looks like.

co2 carbon dioxide concentration 1960-2015

She is right. All the well-meaning rhetoric has achieved nothing.

Let’s compare her words with the following message from the Episcopal Church (USA) from the year 2019. It is structured in the form of three goals.

Goal #1
Create and sustain a network of Episcopalians dedicated to the care and protection of the whole Creation, especially by providing grants and cultivating circles for Story Sharing among  practitioners in local and regional ministries.

Goal #2
Stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable victims of the impact of climate change – particularly women, poor people, and people of color – as part of seeking the liberation and flourishing of all God’s people.

Goal #3
Set climate mitigation benchmarks as individuals and as a church, in order to live more simply, humbly, and gently on the Earth.

The difference in tone between the messages of Thunberg and of the Episcopal Church is unmistakable. The church’s message is one of accommodation and reason; hers is one of condemnation.

Rhetoric

Martin Luther King I have a dream speech

Maybe one reason that GT’s message is so powerful is that, even though English is not her first language, she speaks powerfully and to the point. It puts one in mind of that earlier meme, the one created by Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in the year 1963. He also spoke about children and the world in which they were growing up.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

As church leaders wrestle with the impact of climate change and other Age of Limits issues, they will need to understand how the intellectual and emotional environments are also changing.