After Epiphany: Home by Another Route
David R. Weiss – January 9, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #6 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
We celebrated Epiphany this past Sunday. You know, the journey of the magi, the star in the sky, the three gifts. And, of course, the palace encounter with King Herod who feigns reverence for this rumored child-king in hopes of tricking the magi to come back and reveal the infant’s whereabouts. The tale is perhaps apocryphal: the resulting slaughter of the holy innocents is attested nowhere outside Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, it may be an evangelical fiction crafted by Matthew to evoke the memory of Moses’ birth story in his Jewish readers. Either way, the account meshes with Herod’s well-known paranoia. He routinely killed anyone he saw as a political rival—he ordered the political execution of hundreds of persons, including a brother-in-law, a mother-in-law, his second wife, and three of his own children. Whether his well-attested ruthless paranoia was, in fact, turned on Jesus, the tale is of a piece with Herod’s character.
For a moment, then, Jesus’ young life hangs in the balance. Thankfully the magi, having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, journeyed home by another route. There are a thousand points on which history turns. In Matthew’s Gospel the magi’s decision to go home by another route is one of those points. For us, too. Which is why I’m spending the year thinking, writing, talking about climate change and Christian faith. Following any of the familiar routes forward will end catastrophically … if not for us, then for generations to come and for countless companion creatures on the planet. History will turn on the route we choose. I think the Transition Movement offers a promising way to go “home by another route”—and one in deep alignment with core Christian values.
The Transition Movement begins by acknowledging three daunting problems we face. (1) Our lives—our desires-expectations-cultural worldview—presume an unsustainable rate of consumption of a finite resource, fossil fuel. Whether because we’ll eventually exhaust the resource itself, or exhaust the easily accessible sources, leading to steep increases in cost, our fossil fuel-fed lives are about to become fossils themselves. (2) Even if oil weren’t finite, the atmosphere’s capacity to preserve a livable planet for us is. Climate change is the result of industrial, transportation-heavy, convenience-and-consumption-driven lives that ignore the impact of our choices on the planet. (3) Our lives are also entangled in a global financial system that banks on unending growth (excluding the environmental costs of doing business on a finite planet from its market calculus). It trades on an increasingly “magical” notion of money—even as it heightens the gap between rich and poor. All three of these out-of-balance relationships are evidence of human indifference to finitude—and they are about to have a catastrophic collision with reality.
These crises are interwoven and together they “make sense” as manifestations of human sin: our readiness to break relationship with God, others, world, and self in pursuit of a false notion of reality in which we are “godlike”: disconnected from each other and the world, able to pursue “abundance” for ourselves (or our in-groups) without need of others. Moreover each crisis now runs on a decidedly structural inertia that requires little more than passive human complicity to keep churning away. In this sense each crisis is now upheld by what Paul referred to as “powers and principalities” (Eph. 6:12)—not supernatural demonic forces, but rather the mundane, social-systemic, supra-human forces that get embedded in social arrangements, cultures, industrialized systems and so forth.
The Transition Movement’s response is also in line with Christian convictions—albeit ones that have often atrophied for lack of exercise in our Christian lives, both personally and communally. Recognizing that the three-fold crisis noted above demands our transition to a life that uses far less energy, depends far less on an extractive economy, and is resilient enough to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions on a climate-changed planet, Transition invites us, as it were, to be of good cheer. It asserts:
(1) Since these transitions are really non-negotiable on a finite planet, let’s embrace them thoughtfully rather than ignore them until they’re thrust upon us by crashing systems. Transition holds that a different world is possible—and that there are tangible, practical steps that can begin the journey there.
(2) Let’s fashion more resilient communities—specifically working to establish systems/services that can withstand the inevitable shock of planetary systems that will be rocked by rapid change in the decades ahead. Such changes will include weather patterns, growing seasons, land use, and population movements. Globalized/centralized systems will be less able to respond than localized systems that are cooperatively networked together. Thus, resilience includes re-localizing our economy whenever possible, building deeper relationships with those who produce the goods we need, and sharing skills that can empower us to live simpler and more sustainable lives. (Re-localizing also involves re-localizing our sources of fun/entertainment.)
(3) Most fundamentally, Transition says, pursuing these goals will lead to lives that are richer in both meaning and joy. Lives that reflect what Jesus promises as “life abundant.” (John 10:10) Some of this happens “naturally”: the by-product of community-building activities. Some of it involves an “Inner Transition”: intentionally re-fashioning a worldview in which we are AT HOME on a finite planet, joyfully knit into community across diversity, and happy to pursue meaning and purpose through art, knowledge, and relationship rather than material consumption. Given that our inner worldview is the terrain in question, this re-fashioning is minimally psychological-philosophical in nature, though I think it is most effectively accomplished on a spiritual level. Not that it must be Christian or even explicitly religious, but such a transformation in worldview—as needed for sustained and abundant life on a finite planet—requires roots in awe and wonder. And those roots grow deep in psychic soil that is fluent in a sense of the sacred.
“Tomorrow” is the country to which we (and our children’s children) are heading home. We have long needed (for numerous generations!) a path forward far different than the one we’ve been on. Transition can take us home by another route. It’s time we begin that journey.
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. 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!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
Matthew 2:1-18.For one view of how this tale fits into Herod’s larger story (and a view sympathetic to its plausible historicity) see here: www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/12/08/The-Slaughter-of-the-Innocents-Historical-Fact-or-Legendary-Fiction.aspx.
My discussion of Transition here is drawn primarily from the Transition U.S. website. See the links to peak oil, climate change, and the economic crisis here: www.transitionus.org/why-transitionand the description of its Guiding Principles here: www.transitionus.org/initiatives/7-principles. Also, Timothy Gorridge & Rosie Beckham, The Transition Movement for Churches: A Prophetic Imperative for Today, London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2013, pp. 1-13; and Ruah Swennerfelt, Rising to the Challenge: The Transition Movement and People of Faith, Quaker Institute for the Future, 2016, pp. 45-49.
I mean “godlike” in an entirely wrong-headed and wrong-hearted way, imaging “god” on our terms, rather than God’s. Similarly, any pursuit of “abundance” in isolation from the web of being—from genuine relationships with fellow humans-creatures-ecosystems—is “abundance” only in an illusory and ultimately self-contradicting manner.
Paul declares that in our struggle to be faithful, we contend not merely with flesh and blood—the frailties and temptations of our own humanity and the obstructions of others—but against “principalities and powers.” Though his words were originally read to reflect a worldview that saw human activity beset by demonic influences, a number of twentieth century scholars (Jaques Ellul, William Stringfellow, John Howard Yoder, and Walter Wink) argued Paul was making a much more sophisticated and insightful observation: calling out our capacity to set up empires, societies, cultures, that establish whole systems with an inertia that is greater than any individual person—an inertia that seemingly takes on a life of its own. Not a consciousness, per se, but an institutionalized energy that can will forward a set of assumptions that carry destructive consequences.