Resilience – as Deep Agency
David R. Weiss – March 17, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #15 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
As I begin week 15 of my yearlong pledge, I’m keenly aware that each post I write begs for further development. Many of these short essays contain the seeds enough for an entire book chapter in them. Perhaps eventually I’ll come back to selected posts and fill them out further. For now the discipline of weekly blogging is helpful in getting a wide array of ideas out of the table, and I trust that as I devote myself further to this work, next steps will present themselves.
In this post I want to consider the second of four key facets to the Transition movement: that we must tap into deep agency, both as individuals and as local communities. Transition names the necessary commitment to shift away from the dominant expression of modern life insofar as it depends on intensive fossil fuel consumption. It seeks this transition because it recognizes that fossil fuel use is directly tied the catastrophic climate change currently occurring around the world, and also because it asserts that we can actually live fuller lives when we choose social patterns that are more in keeping with the planet’s natural limits.
Such patterns will produce lives that are overall necessarily (and rewardingly) more local in meeting the whole range of human needs. Precisely because these transitions will succeed only to the extent they fit their context, they require deep agency. Part of Transition movement’s wisdom is to trust that there is no central monopoly on environmental wisdom. Almost by its nature—indeed, by the planet’s nature—all environmental wisdom is local. Each place has its own unique eco-character and if human communities are to live in harmony with the planet that will happen place by place by place.
In transition, no one size fits all. No top-down hierarchy calls the shots. Yes, there are a number of requisite principles and skills. But beyond them, improvisation wins the day. And the hallmark of improvisation with integrity in one’s own ecological context is deep agency. It is knowing who we are, where we are, what’s needed in this place (both for Earth and for community)—and then making real choices toward transition from this knowledge. Imagination, creativity, vision, knowledge—these are foundational. But the energy to animate all of them in coordination rests in deep agency: the near miracle of taking charge of our lives within worlds that profit by keeping us consumer-cogs of the status quo. Deep agency involves becoming citizen-architects of the world that awaits our fashioning.
Citizen-architects. Who knew this could be such a high Christian calling? Well, Jesus and Paul, for two. And the author of Luke-Acts as well. Not that it is much in evidence in most churches today, where personal-communal-religious-civic agency are often a buried legacy, covered over by the multiple powers of clergy, money, tradition, and fear, all of which tend to erase the deep agency that is our vocation and Christian birthright. I’m not anti-clergy, though I might make an exception in a few specific instances … and I’m not anti-tradition, though I’m decidedly wary of traditions that too easily become more focused on self-preservation rather than anchoring vibrant responses to the present and being open to self-transformation in that process.
However, the vocation of citizen-architect—part of the church’s earliest tradition—is one tradition essential to fostering the deep agency needed for transition. It begins in Jesus’ ministry, where time and again Jesus himself shows far less interest in being atop a hierarchy than his later followers imagine (which they do more to their benefit than to the gospel’s). Jesus, for his part, sends the disciples out in pairs (Matt. 10:1-15 || Luke 10:1-20) telling them to share with those in need the same energy that swirls within him—and to do so freely. In fact, Jesus promises them (John 14:12) they will ultimately do things beyond what they’ve seen Jesus himself do. Not because they become greater than Jesus, but because the Spirit’s empowering energy within the community of his followers will ripen over time.
This commissioning as veritable equals becomes yet clearer when Jesus extends the “keys to the kingdom” to his disciples (Matt. 16:9). He tells them their authority is now sufficient to “bind or loose” (to forbid or permit) which, I’d argue, is less about establishing rules than it is about charting the way forward into uncharted territory. In a similar scene in John’s Gospel Jesus breathes on the disciples as a way of sharing God’s Breath/Spirit with them (John 20:22). It is about conferring deep agency. And doing so, not so much in his absence, but in his ongoing though invisible presence (John 14:15-28). Matthew captures this in the closing words of his Gospel, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
So Jesus establishes a community committed to a new way of being together in the world grounded in a notion of God’s radical grace and manifest in the practice of compassion toward one another. And he tethers them not to a fixed set of rules but to the living presence of Spirit, confident that the Spirit will guide the church as it exercises deep agency. When Luke extends his tale of Jesus from the Gospel into the Acts of the Apostles, he continues to show prayer as intentional opening to the Spirit. Just as Luke’s Jesus carries out his ministry persistently grounding his actions in prayer, Luke offers a portrait of the early church similarly drawing its life out of prayer. Its devotional life, to be sure (Acts 1:14; Acts 2:42), but also its socio-economic life (Acts 2:44-45). The early church was not simply (perhaps not even primarily) a movement driven by beliefs about the next world, but a daring, Spirit-driven movement about life in this world.
Still, citizen-architects? Yes, exactly. When St. Paul exhorts the early church at Corinth to “exercise bold speech” (2 Corinthians 3:12, often rendered—domesticated!—as “acting with boldness”) he is, in fact, using the Greek word (parresia) that is the specific term for the “free speech” exercised only by the free property-owning men who gathered in the assembly of Roman cities to chart their community’s future. The Christians to whom Paul was writing would have known this—precisely because it was speech forbidden to many of them: women, aliens, and slaves. Yet, emphatically for Paul, it was the baptismal birthright of every person in the church (free, slave, male, female, rich, poor, Jew, Gentile) to have parresia. Such bold speech was none other than the deep agency that guided the unfolding future of the church.
Once again we see why biblical literacy is a progressive Christian value. Our roots run back to a church in which agency was granted to—indeed commissioned to—every member in the community. This deep agency was fed by the gospel announcement of grace and the gospel praxis of compassion, and guided by the Spirit. Our Christian vocation is to be citizen-architects of a different world. In each generation we are called to envision the world that is needed—and then to bring that world into being. In this generation the world needed is one in transition. We’ll need to learn much from those beyond the church to better understand the world that is needed. But the breadth of empowerment that can help bring it to life…that lies within our own heritage, if only we dare to reclaim it. I say it’s time to take that dare.
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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!!
 I introduced these in GIT #13, “Redeemed for Resilience.” They were identified by Rob Hopkins and Sarah McAdams in “The Transition Movement: Past, Present, and Future,” roundtable discussion, 2018 Transition US Tenth Anniversary Online Summit: www.transitiongathering.org/videos.
 David Fredrickson, “Free Speech in Pauline Political Theology,” Word & World, 12:4 (1992), pp. 345-351.