AT HOME ON EARTH—Christian Spirituality in a Time of Climate Change
PART TWO – Evangelical: Haunted by Hope (PDF here)
Lecture by David R. Weiss
at the Ecumenical Religious Center, UW/Eau Claire — October 9, 2016
Sponsored by Grace Lutheran Church, Eau Claire
Hosted by University Lutheran Church UW/Eau Claire
[NOTE: This lecture series has had a bit of a built-in challenge. Three inter-related talks, but in three different venues, and spaced out over a seven week period. I’ve had about 300 total people attend, but only a small handful of folks have attended all three. So lectures two and three have needed to include lots of “echoes” back to earlier talks to keep everyone together. I will get talk #3 formatted and posted yet this week. Over the winter, I’ll hope to integrate all three talks into one longer text without all the repetitions. Until then, you get them piecemeal and with repeats. Oh well.]
In just three weeks I’ll mark the 20th anniversary of my first talk on Christianity and climate change.
Imagine that. November 1st, 1996, I spoke at an annual meeting of the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies held at Ripon College about three hours east of here. I was a graduate student in Christian ethics at the University of Notre Dame. My youngest child, Susanna, was just seven months old.
Twenty years later here I am, back in Wisconsin talking once again about Christianity and climate change. But a few things have changed. Susanna is now twenty years old herself, and a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And during her lifetime we’ve effectively traded in one planet for another.
Before I talk about that “planetary trade” let me set the context for tonight’s talk. This is the second of a three-part series titled, “AT HOME ON EARTH: Christian Spirituality in a Time of Climate Change.” Part One, delivered in September, was titled: “Apocalyptic: Owning the Anguish that is Ours.” I’ll reprise the main thrust of that message again this evening and then move on to Part Two: “Evangelical: Haunted by Holy Hope.” On Reformation Sunday, October 30, at Grace Lutheran Church, again in the evening, I’ll deliver Part Three: “Prophetic: Resistance as Faithful Speech and Faithful Action.”
It would have been easier, perhaps, to plan just a single event. But, to me, that seemed not only intellectually daunting, but also emotionally dishonest. Climate change is not a challenge you can attend to for 90 minutes, leave enlightened, and then simply resume your life as usual. I’m going to talk about work—hard work—that will occupy the next decades of our lives.
We’ll do that work one way or another. Either in response to unrelenting episodes of global disaster relief—some of them along our coastlines, others right here in our heartlands as the severity and frequency of floods and storms increase. Or in serious soul-searching that re-shapes the American Dream to reflect the ideals of King’s Beloved Community and the generosity of a nonetheless finite Planet Earth.
That’s not the proposition of a single lecture—probably not even of three lectures. But this is, at least, a start.
Here’s my message in a nutshell. What does “Christian Spirituality in a Time of Climate Change” look like? Well, it’s apocalyptic … evangelical … and prophetic. Few of the mainstream Christian churches have worn any of those phrases very comfortably. But the world needs us to be each of these things today.
By “apocalyptic” I don’t mean that we need to stand on a street corner and announce the end of the world. Not quite. But we do need to be apocalyptic in a truer biblical sense—and in two distinct ways. First, we do need to announce the ending of one world—that “planetary trade” I’m coming back to in a moment. Second, like biblical apocalyptic literature, we’re going to need to ransack our contemporary boxes of imagery and symbolism to try and capture the hearts and minds in our midst, to prepare them for the journey ahead.
By “evangelical,” I don’t mean “saving souls for Jesus.” I mean something closer to what the ELCA had in mind when it reclaimed “evangelical” in its name at its formation in 1988: that the message we have, as a church, is good news—worth sharing. And in a time of climate change that message will be especially important because news that is good will be harder and harder to come by.
Finally, by “prophetic,” I don’t mean we make predictions about the future. I mean (again, more biblically), we need to read the signs of the present moment and then speak truth boldly—even, and especially to power. And we need to engage in action that dares to live toward a different world. That’s “resistance,” and I’ll say more about it on October 30th. I’ll be very glad to see you there.
We are AT HOME ON EARTH. Which is why we need a church, both individual believers and communities of faith, willing to be apocalyptic, evangelical, and prophetic in the face of climate change.
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So, about that planetary trade. Well, Susanna—and any of the rest of you who fall into that twenty-or-so age group—you got the worse end of the trade. By far.
People my age and older, we live on a different planet today than the one we were born on. But Susanna, she was born into a world altogether different than the one my parents knew. Within Susanna’s lifetime—in fact, just since she was a toddler in 1998, she’s lived through all sixteen of the hottest years on this planet since 1880.
Why “since 1880”? Because that’s the year we finally had enough accurate temperature reports from around the world to calculate a true “average global temperature.” Since then we’ve kept very precise records.
And according to those records, out of the past 136 years, every one of the hottest sixteen years has happened during Susanna’s lifetime. I’ll read them off, so you can FEEL the weight of this heat. Susanna was born in 1996. The hottest 16 years since we began measuring them in 1880 have been 1998, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. By the end of this year, she’ll—no doubt—add 2016 to her collection.
So we have … traded one planet for another. Same Earth, but now seemingly governed by a whole new set of temperature dynamics, a whole new range of weather extremes, a whole new series of changes in ecosystems and economies moving toward us with increasing speed. And before the worst of it hits, we’ll be handing the keys over to Susanna’s generation.
I’m going to be almost mercilessly blunt because climate change needs your full attention. Starting yesterday. (Actually, starting last century.) And the wellbeing of those who come after us hinges—perhaps more than at any point in this planet’s four billion years—on the choices made by those of us alive today.
We’re facing an apocalypse, not the once-and-for-all “end of the world,” but, true to its biblical meaning, the ending of one world—and the beginning of another. The world that we will bequeath to our children is not the world we were born into. That world … is no more.
Climate scientists reference global temperatures against a standard baseline, which is the average global temperature over a 30-year period from 1961-1990 (about 14oC, 57oF.). After coming out of the last ice age, around 12-14,000 years ago, global surface temperatures have leveled off and been quite stable. In fact, for the past 10,000 years we’ve been within half-a-degree Celsius on either side of that baseline. And even when it has fluctuated a bit, it’s always taken at least 500 years to move even half a degree cooler or warmer. Except over the last century. In just the past 100 years, we’ve warmed the planet by 1 whole degree Celsius, with most of that increase coming in the last 50 years.
Did you catch that? Primarily because of the cumulative impact of industrialized human society, in just the last 50 years, we’ve moved the temperature needle more than in any 1000-year period since the end of the last ice age.
By most scientific accounts, an increase over that baseline of more than 2 degrees Celsius would begin to pose significant challenges to human society. Which is why the recent Paris Agreement, reached by 195 nations in December 2015, aims to reduce greenhouses gasses to a level that will stop global warming at that 2-degree mark. And the big news is that just this past week, thanks to ratification by several more nations, the Paris Agreement will formally go into force next month.
But … there are some problems even with this.
First, the 2-degree limit is often referred to as a “guardrail,” because were we to move past it, the consequences could be catastrophic. As one climate scientist puts it, if we approach a 3-degree (Celsius) increase we enter a realm of global warming that is likely “incompatible with an organized global community.” So we want a guardrail. Now, I’ve driven on some winding mountain highways with pretty sheer drop-offs. I was very grateful to see a guardrail—but the last thing I wanted to do was bump up against it.
So virtually every climate scientist agrees that limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is a far safer bet—like the rumble strips at the edge of a highway, to jerk you wide awake before you even bump the guardrail.
But here’s the real problem.
No, let me personalize this: here’s the problem, Susanna. If we stopped burning coal tomorrow—I mean literally: tomorrow— And if we stopped any further oil or gas exploration— If we didn’t even tap into the oil fields we know are there, but haven’t drilled in yet— If we only used the oil and gas coming from currently operating oil and fields—and NO MORE COAL at all—well, that oil and gas alone—in the fields where we already have wells operating—will push us right the past 1.5 degree rumble strip. Add in the coal coming out of mines already operating, and we’ll plow right through that 2-degree guardrail.
This is with no new drilling. No new mines. And it isn’t based on idle speculation. This is using the type of numbers that come from unforgiving disciplines. Like math.
But it’s actually even bleaker than this. Not only are all the pledged reductions under the Paris Agreement voluntary, but right now, even if every one of the 195 nations ratifies their commitment and meets their respective pledge, the damn unforgiving math still works out to an increase of about 2.7 degrees by the end of this century. We’ll bang into the 2-degree guardrail right after mid-century, just as Susanna reaches my age. And by 2100 we’ll have banged it hard enough and long enough that we’ll quite possibly be careening over the cliff.
We measure the threat in degrees, but it isn’t just the temperature. It’s the whole set of cascading consequences. This is just a small sampling:
As polar ice melts, sea levels rise, permanently flooding many coastlines, displacing tens of millions of people, as well as the industries and economies that are there.
Increasing carbon dioxide in the air drives ocean acidification, which, in turn, harms coral, shellfish, and plankton—the very infrastructure of the ocean ecosystem.
Warming oceans feed the volatility in weather playing out right now in Hurricane Matthew, but evident as well in greater storm intensity and flooding in some areas, and increased drought and wildfires elsewhere.
The ripple effects will run further through human societies and biotic communities. Some regions will see gains in agriculture, but overall crop yields will drop—even as population continues to rise. Whole ecosystems will shift … and sometimes shatter. By the time my grandchildren reach my age up to one third of all plant and animals species alive today will face extinction.
It’s like the whole planet is running a fever, complete with body aches and vomiting. And nearly all the consequences of climate change will fall first and hardest on those least able to adapt: the poor. Well, animals, plants, ecosystems—and the poor.
The more I venture into this, the more I want to say to my own daughter, to all of my six children and nine grandchildren, I AM SO SORRY.
Because we did this.
Not me, personally. And not this generation by itself. But we humans, mostly in the West (although Russia, China and the rest of the developing world are trying to emulate us … with a vengeance)—we humans, addicted to material stuff, indifferent to the needs of a finite planet, and burning fossil fuels at an obscene rate—we did this.
And we’re going to leave this simmering planet to you.
Now, I’m here as a Christian theologian, not a climate scientist. If you want to argue the science, you’ll have to do that with someone else. I can tell you this. Most people that know me would describe me as tending to be reserved and under-reactive. A few find me frustratingly so. And yet, speaking as a father, grandfather, and theologian, this science is pretty APOCALYPTIC, and it scares the shit out of me.
So I’m asking for your full attention, as I ask, with you, “What now?” How do we think—feel—act—as individuals and as communities of faith—in a time of climate change … in a time of apocalypse?
This is tough: because first, WE NEED TO JUST STOP AND WEEP.
We’d rather do something. When we finally realize the extent to which climate change is going to rewrite the options for our grandchildren’s future on this planet, we want to do something. And we want to do it right now.
Even among the science experts who speak with sobering clarity about the crisis we face, there is often an impatience to add, “But there’s hope, there’s technology just around the corner that can help us …”
There may be technological breakthroughs that can aid us in the decades ahead, but if we do not first come to terms with the insatiable and idolatrous pursuit of stuff that has crept into the entirety of our lives—that has irreparably … apocalyptically … altered our planet—then no amount of technology will safeguard for long either the planet … or our souls.
I will turn to “hope” in just a minute, but until you feel the anguish of the Earth and all its creatures, until your gut, like mine, begins to twist in the depths of lament, until then, the hope I have to offer won’t find its mark.
What the world does least well these days is repent: admit the folly of its ways and the damage caused, and then change course. The church isn’t much better at this, if we’re honest. But we do have language for it. We do have rituals for it. We have psalms and songs and prayers and liturgies for it. We have the capacity to do for ourselves and to model for the world the first things that need to be done by those AT HOME ON EARTH today: See. Grieve. Repent.
If we hope to be God’s faithful people in this moment of apocalypse, it will mean allowing ourselves to feel the full grief of where we are. And only act, only do, after that grief has washed over us. I’m talking about soul deep lament. Indeed, such sustained lament may be the only thing that can truly stir us to repentance.
I’ll say more about the shape of that repentance in three weeks. Because, in a culture hell-bent on destroying the ecosystem, even acts of repentance take their place among a whole repertoire of acts of resistance.
So, let’s turn to HOPE.
We’ll continue to lament for years, decades most likely. We’ll need to be creative, determined, frantic, and persistent, in how we lament. But we cannot despair. Not for ourselves. Not for our children or grandchildren. Not for the companion creatures on this planet whose fate is now thoroughly bound up with our own.
So, in the midst of our lament, we need hope to sustain us. But, as I said a few moments ago, not a hope tied to technology. I’m not anti-technology. In fact, I’m certain that if there is any real hope for livable “organized global community,” it will involve technological breakthroughs. But that isn’t the church’s business nearly so much as repentance is.
If we can’t reject the consumerism that not only drives our addiction to fossil fuel but also consumes the planet at an unsustainable pace, then no amount of new technology will help us. This ability to find worth in living without needing so much stuff—I don’t even know if it’s possible—but, if it is, THAT type of living is the church’s business to offer.
So the hope we need, not just as a church, but also as a world, must lay the groundwork for that.
I’m sure we have multiple resources for this in our tradition. I’m going to identify two of them: Remembering who God is—and Remembering who we are.
First, God. Let’s think for a moment about Eden, Egypt, and Exile.
The Garden of Eden tale is not history; it’s myth—a primal story holding truth that runs deeper than factual data. I’m going to fast forward to the very end of the tale. After the Fall, Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, and any thought they might have of returning to the Garden—to the world that once was—is prevented by angels wielding flaming swords. This is the first apocalyptic, world-ending-moment in the Bible. Here’s what we need to notice. This story is not at the end of the Bible, but at the very beginning. Because even outside of Eden they discover that God is still with them.
Now consider the Hebrews in Egypt. They arrived there during a great famine, as Joseph’s honored guests. But then, as Exodus 1:8 relates in its own apocalyptic tone: “a new king arose who did not know Joseph.” Thereafter the Hebrews were enslaved for generations. Reduced to anguish and lament, utterly cut off from any imaginable future. And yet, they, too, discover that God is still with them, hearing their cries and ultimately acting through Moses for their liberation.
Finally, imagine the Israelites living in Exile. Their nation conquered by Babylon. Their last kings humiliated, then killed or imprisoned. Their capital city and, more significantly, their temple razed to ground. Reduced to refugees, they, too, have truly endured an Apocalypse. But even in the depth of Exile, they learn as well, that still God is with them.
It’s comforting to recall God’s presence to others in moments of devastation and despair. To realize that God was there, even then … for them. It may be less comforting but more important right now to recognize that suddenly this story is about us. We’re the ones facing an apocalypse today. It’s our turn to be haunted by holy hope.
The prophets eventually echoed this persistent solidarity of God in the name Emmanuel, which means “God-With-Us.” Christians, from the time of Matthew’s Gospel onward, have dared to see in Jesus’ life the embodiment of that name, Emmanuel.
Besides this, another thing we see, in both biblical testaments, is that the manner in which God is Emmanuel—with-us—is primarily by way of vulnerability. This vulnerability is perhaps both the most overlooked and, today, the most needed aspect of God.
We tend to identify God most closely with power. We assume that what makes God “God” more than anything else is sheer power. I don’t want to dismiss God’s power as inconsequential, but I suspect it is our own lust for power that drives the assumption that—“of course”—God must be all-powerful. Because if we could choose, we’d choose that sort of power for ourselves.
However, in the biblical story, while God certainly exercises power, God chooses vulnerability again and again. Look at the company God keeps: second-born sons, enslaved people, slow-tongued leaders, women, Gentiles, and awkwardly outcast prophets. These are not choices made by someone betting on the conventional wisdom for success. These are not the companions you choose if you want to make sure the odds are always on your side. Instead, this is the path of presence that the God of the Hebrew Bible chooses: to pursue wholeness not by avoiding vulnerability but by embracing it. That’s really important: the biblical witness suggests that wholeness comes not by avoiding vulnerability, but by embracing it.
In the gospels Jesus continues that pattern. He incarnates it. Of course, it culminates on the cross, where the vulnerability of both Jesus and God reaches a startling crescendo, but it’s also at the very heart of his ministry. In daring to touch lepers and others whose illness has set them apart, Jesus’ healings begin by stepping into the vulnerability of others. In choosing to eat with outcasts in a society where your table companions were carefully monitored and could cost you your reputation, Jesus’ mealtimes are unmistakable choices to be vulnerable. In calling us to love our enemies, to meet them with creative nonviolence rather than outright force, Jesus’ approach to social change is to become vulnerable. And in using his parables about the “kingdom of God,” to turn our notions of kingship inside out and upside down, Jesus invites us to imagine a very different way of being imago Dei, reminding us that we are made in the image of that vulnerable God.
Remembering who God is: that God is not only present to us, but also vulnerable with us is important, because it can hold us in hope, as we move into lament and toward resistance.
The other source of hope I’ll mention is Remembering who we are.
I just hinted at this: we’re imago Dei, creatures called to image a God who pursues wholeness through vulnerable solidarity with others. But there’s more.
Given the anguish we’re going to need to face, we’d be wise to root our grief in a renewed sense of who we are and where we fit in the Garden we were commissioned to tend. The Genesis 2 creation account says God fashioned “Adam” from the dust of the ground. That’s what the English tells us, anyway. The Hebrew is more evocative. There we learn that God formed an adam from the adamah: literally, that God fashioned an earthling from the earth, or, as I like to say, a HUMUS BEING from the HUMUS.
This etymological—and ecological—truth about our profound kinship to the ground, reminds us that, from Eden onward, we were intended for intimacy: humus beings, commissioned by God to tend the humus, caretakers of the Garden to which we are indelibly linked.
If there is any path forward for us, as people of faith, as inhabitants of a finite and fragile planet, it is by way of intimacy: with each other, with our companion creatures, and with the earth. We are humus being, with iron (born in the stars!) coursing through our veins, and the breath of God billowing in our lungs.
We have a kinship with creation that we have not yet fully acknowledged, but it has been true for as long as long human beings have been. The Bible embeds this truth in the creation account, but science affirms it as well in many ways. I mention just one.
We know now, that far from being set clean apart from our companion creatures, we live thanks to the countless of them with whom we share an unimaginable intimacy. Well, not quite countless, but truly unimaginable. As I stand here tonight, my relatively healthy human body is home to approximately 100 trillion microbes. These tiny critters are NOT ME, yet they live in and on me, assisting my digestion, immune system, and carrying out other duties essential to keeping me alive. Some portion of them neither help nor hinder me; they simply call me “home.” 100 trillion of them.
So not quite countless, but pretty unimaginable. How many is 100 trillion? If I were to thank each of them for keeping me healthy or just for keeping me company, thanking one microbe per second—so, sixty thank you’s each minute, 3600 thank you’s every hour—if I did this nonstop, I’d still spend three million years saying thank you to each microbe that helps me be me.
By the way, because microbial cells are a lot smaller than human cells, the total number of individual cells that these most intimate neighbors of mine have actually outnumber my own human body cells by at least seven to one. So right here, standing in front of you, there are seven to ten times as many cells that are not “David” as cells that are David. If we could separate them all out, these microbes would weigh somewhere around seven pounds. That’s a lot of “not me” that is fully interwoven with me. There are a multitude of ecosystems that we need to find our deep connection with, but we begin right here: I am my own ecosystem. And so are you.
Speaking both theologically and scientifically we are intended for intimacy. Remembering this about ourselves—that we are already deeply interwoven with creation in multiple ways—is another source of hope. It can renew in us a felt kinship that allows us to grieve for the rest creation—now imperiled by our own folly—as for our own kin. To grieve at a depth that begins to finally enliven the intimacy for which we have always been intended.
I can’t speak with complete detail about how HOPE, grounded in an affirmation of who God is and who we are, might hold us steady as we plumb the depths of grief. Not because I don’t have ideas, but because this isn’t only my grief, it’s ours, and as a church we’ll need to imagine together how to sustain our hope and how to embody our lament. But I will offer a first few thoughts.
It’s important to be clear that we aren’t hopeful as an end in itself, as a sort of abstract optimism. In the face of the truly apocalyptic moment that looms before us, hope serves two critical roles. It keeps the grief over what we have done from overwhelming us. And it makes possible—against all outward signs that we can’t make a difference—the conviction that resistance is the form our faith takes today.
Held by hope, we should learn all we can about the need for our lament. That will mean seeking out books, films, speakers, and experiences that acquaint us better with our extended family—the world around us—and the dimensions of climate change headed our way.
We should revisit the stories and psalms of lament in the Bible, perhaps hearing them with fresh ears as we listen to their words now set against our own anguish. Ultimately, we’ll want to write our own psalms of lament, our own litanies that name our grief speak, our own rituals that lead us toward repentance.
I suspect there are powerful ways to voice lament as we move through the liturgical year, once we begin to listen against the temptation to meet each new season simply as the rhythm of a past that we have now ecologically broken with. The longing of Advent, the manger in the barn, the slaughter of the innocents: each of these images has a word to bring to us today, but we’ll need to listen with hearts aching deeply for this world. Even a feast like “Christ the King” might become now a moment to ask about how Christ’s pattern of vulnerable kingship undermines the rulers and corporations that threaten the planet today. To do these things is not to redirect worship to our “agenda”; rather, it is to allow worship to speak into our lives today. To indeed be haunted by Hope that is with us even now.
I wonder about ways to acknowledge the kinship between the baptismal water in our fonts and the melting glaciers, the dying oceans, and the rising floodwaters around the globe. How does the wetness of gracious promise traced on our foreheads, connect us just as truly to the profound grief of water across the world? I wonder about how we might wrestle with the communion elements—bread and wine—as symbols both of God’s grace, Jesus’ suffering, and the way that both wheat and grapes have been grown and harvested in ways so at odds with the planet’s health.
I am certain that church potlucks, maybe even grief groups for creation, have a place in this work. The church does pretty well at surrounding those who grieve with comfort and care. If we truly acknowledge our kinship with the created world, we will be pressed to respond to this grief, too. We’re already quite good at outpourings of sympathy for those struck by natural disaster. It’s time to read the signs of the times—and the science of the times—and own the disaster unfolding in front of us, across our landscapes, unraveling our ecosystems before eyes that have been slow to see.
This is a daunting picture, starkly drawn but truthfully spoken, I believe.
We will need moments of joy and renewal. Laughter and relaxation. And they will come. In fact, I believe that once we turn faithfully toward lament, we will discover a new depth to our moments of joy. A new richness to the ring of our laughter. But the longer we delay, the more quickly what we count as happiness today will become regret tomorrow. Those probably don’t sound like upbeat words, but if you could see the coming storm, you would realize they are actually filled with hope.
What does “Christian Spirituality in a Time of Climate Change” look like? It’s apocalyptic, evangelical, and prophetic.
Apocalyptic: because we live already—and irrevocably—on the far side of a warming planet. We need to own the anguish that is ours. We need to find ways from personal devotion to Sunday worship and beyond that allow us to plumb the depth of almost unfathomable lament.
Evangelical: because we are haunted by holy hope. By a God who—according to the tales we hold sacred—will be with us no matter what. A God who has shown that vulnerability is the path to wholeness. A God who intended us for intimacy with all creation, and who yearns to accompany us as we take up that call.
And Prophetic: because when we, who have been held fast by hope, have felt full the anguish of the ecosystems all around us and have found our hearts softened to the point of repentance, THEN we will be empowered in spirit to resist. To alter our own lives, to speak truth to power, and to reshape our culture in a way that finally affirms that we are AT HOME ON EARTH.
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David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”