The Gospel in Transition – A Year of Weekly Reflections on Facing Climate Change, Finding Hope, and the Alchemy of Christian Community
David R. Weiss, December 3, 2018
It was just an innocent-looking list of years, but it turned my life upside down.
Sitting on the sofa or at the dining table, flipping through the newspaper, I’d seen plenty of headlines about climate change. I’d scan the stories. Catch an unsettling scenario here … a frightening-looking chart there. I suppose I knew just enough to know I didn’t really want to know more.
Full disclosure: twenty-two years ago (in November 1996, to be exact) I actually made my first academic presentation as a Ph.D. student—on the fragility of our eco-system. A year-and-a-half later (April 1998) I gave a public talk at Notre Dame’s Earth Day celebration in which I first addressed global warming. So climate change has been on my radar for a couple decades. However, alongside that interest, I was also finding my voice in support of a faith-based welcome to LGBTQ persons, and, in the Fall of 1998, a whole cascade of circumstances led me to focus—in my teaching, writing, and activism—on LGBTQ theology and welcome for nearly the next twenty years. Ecology was present in my personal ethics and climate change was there in the background of my awareness. But my best energy (fruitfully so) was invested elsewhere.
But about this list of years. Sparked by some news article in the spring of 2016 I googled “hottest years on record” and up popped a list that showed the 16 warmest years since 1880. The list used 1880 as its starting point because that’s the first year we had enough accurate temperate records from across the globe to calculate an accurate global surface temperature. And since then we’ve been keeping really precise records. They were listed—these sixteen hottest years—in order of heat, so they looked like a pretty random set of years.
But when I looked closer I saw that, from 1880-2015, out of the last 136 years—all sixteen of the hottest ones occurred during my daughter’s lifetime—in fact, since she was just a toddler. Today she’s 22, and all eighteen of the hottest years on record have been since she turned two. She’s growing up on an altogether different planet than I did.
Now: not knowing … not acting … is NOT AN OPTION. Now Susanna’s face—is the face of climate change for me. Susanna’s future—is the shape of my work for the coming years. And I wrestle, like Jacob with the angel, determined that I will not let go until I receive a blessing of some sort that I can pass on … to help Susanna—and so many others—find a way forward on this strange new planet.
Hence, this blog. It’s only one small piece of that work, but it’s a place where I can offer others (that’s you!) a weekly glimpse at my thinking as it unfolds.
Addressing climate change will require responses from multiple arenas. Science, technology, public policy, news media, industry-business, arts, local communities, individuals—acting as both consumers and citizens, and more. My particular entry point is theology. That might seem far removed from the dynamics of a warming planet, but I suggest otherwise. The way we think about God impacts—often decisively—the way we think about ourselves. It establishes the points on our moral compass and grounds our conviction in making hard choices. Theology (and faith) tethers us to Something Bigger than ourselves as we plumb the coming tumult.
Tumult. I do not choose the word lightly. As I have read more and more about climate change over the past three years my alarm has grown and my hope has been schooled in humility. The news reports this fall are perhaps most sobering because they represent “committee voices,” which, by their nature tend to be moderate in their tone, and even these moderate voices now report predictions and conclusions that sit at the edge of panic.
We may well survive this tumult. But we aren’t going to escape it. And the longer we focus on the most optimistic possibilities—as though we can still avert what will be the unmaking of the world as we know it, the more likely we are to be entirely unprepared when the worst of climate change hits. I am not without hope. But this blog and my work are rooted in my dawning awareness that only by acknowledging the depth of the crisis upon us can we take measure of the means that will serve us well in the days ahead.
For me, one source of hope is the Transition Town Movement. Born a little over a decade ago in Ireland, Transition Towns use permaculture principles, coupled with clear contextual commitment to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and simultaneously restore the strength of local communities: both economically and socially (and, I would add, spiritually). That’s an overly broad sweep, but over the coming year I’ll unpack these ideas further.
Right now it’s sufficient to say I find “gospel in transition”—and moving in both directions. I believe there is “good news” for this present moment in the Transition Town Movement. But I also believe that a host of fundamental principles and practices of transition resonate deeply with of the roots of vital Christian community. In other words, there is also Gospel hiding, as it were, in transition. Which is why I want to use this blog as a place to explore these resonances. If the church aspires to be the church—the called and faithful people of God—in the midst of climate change, then listening to, learning from, and contributing toward the Transition Town Movement is an exercise of discipleship.
Finally, alchemy. Climate change will require more character, more conviction, more courage than perhaps any other socio-historical event since the Black Death of medieval Europe and Asia. If we are not scared, we are foolish. BUT—by choosing to make a regular practice of intentional communal acts of practical kindness, self-education, skill-sharing, localized-rootedness, and resilience-building we can transform fear and isolation into courage and hope. That’s the alchemy of Christian community. It is—absolutely—accessible in a host of other communities. It is not specifically Christian. But for those of us who express our faith through Christianity, there is an alchemy entirely ours. One that lifts up and embodies the best of Christian theology. And that’s where we’ll find hope.
My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!). See you next week!
I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of weekly reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. Thanks for reading.
“Beyond Ecological Security: Intimacy and Risk. Imago Deias a Theological Resource for a More Creative Encounter with the Earth,” David R. Weiss. Presented at The Wisconsin Institute, Ripon College, November 1, 1996
“Consuming the Earth In Search of Our Worth,” David R. Weiss. Earth Day Talk at the University of Notre Dame, April 18, 1998
My thinking will be plenty original, but these two texts have been a helpful entry point for me. The Transition Movement for Churches: A Prophetic Imperative for Today, Timothy Gorridge & Rosie Beckham. London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2013. Rising to the Challenge: The Transition Movement and People of Faith, Ruah Swennerfelt. Quaker Institute for the Future, 2016.