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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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,
Understand and tell the truth.
Accept and adapt.
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.
This week’s lectionary reading is taken from Matthew 11:2-11.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
This passage touches on two themes. The first is that we have a duty to support those who are suffering or who are in need. That duty never goes away. The second is that being a prophet is not much fun — at least not in the short term. These two thoughts bring us to a news item and some thoughts as to why we bother talking about these issues.
The following headline from the Guardian newspaper of December 6th 2019.
Greta Thunberg says school strikes have achieved nothing.
The article goes on to say that, “ . . . in the four years since the [Paris] agreement was signed, greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 4% and the talks this year are not expected to produce new commitments”.
So here we have a young lady with a truly outstanding gift for communication and public relations saying that her work has achieved nothing.
If she feels this way, what about regular folks (some of whom may be reading these words) who are trying to make a difference? Why not spend our time working only with our families and local community preparing for the seemingly inevitable consequences of what is bearing down on us? What’s the point of going to protests, writing blogs and organizing meetings?
In climate change circles there is much discussion concerning ‘Deniers’ and ‘Delayers’ — those people who do not accept that the climate is changing, or, if it is, that humans are not the cause of that change. What gets far less discussion are the factors that motivate and drive the ‘Missionaries’ — those who spend time, effort and money trying to persuade others that the world is changing, and that we need to take action.
Why do the Climate Change Missionaries do what they do? What’s in it for them? Certainly not money — and probably not fame or reputation. In fact, they are probably more likely to be blamed as things start to go awry: “Shoot the messenger”. As conditions deteriorate, those who preached about these topics will not be thanked; they will be blamed, “You knew about this, you should have told us about this earlier, it’s your fault”.
Returning to Thunberg, she is consistently outspoken about the lack of leadership from elected and business officials. In my view these people will continue to fail to lead because any serious response to the climate crisis requires people to make sacrifices. But any politician who asks for sacrifice soon becomes an ex-politician. And the fundamental goal of any business is to encourage people to consume more, not to cut back.
This leadership vacuum provides an opportunity for the church. In principle, church members and leaders are willing to sacrifice (something about Good Friday). Whether the church will actually step up to the plate remains to be seen. But filling this leadership vacuum is the mission opportunity that the church can offer to both its members and to the community.