When the Gospel Comes as Grief
David R. Weiss – May 14, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #24 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
It’s been a week now since the United Nations released a new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The Global Assessment Report, the result of three years of work by 145 researchers from 50 countries, reviews some 15,000 scientific and government sources and offers the most far-reaching appraisal to date of nature’s overall health. It is not encouraging.
The IPBES media release opens with a gut punch: “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.” How do you quantify that? The report has a statistic to offer from almost every angle; I’ll mention just one. Of the approximately 8 million total species of plants and animals (including insects) on Earth, one million are in danger of extinction, each one a cathedral millennia in the making.
The threat isn’t entirely due to human-driven climate change. The report names the top two causes as (1) human impacts on land and water habitats and (2) direct exploitation (e.g., over-fishing). Then comes climate change, followed by pollution. But each cause reflects human activity that’s been repeatedly indifferent to the needs of the natural world. This is not “creation groaning in travail” (Romans 8:22); this is creation being relentlessly executed by the ecological inertia of our choices.
Whatever the author of Genesis meant by according us “dominion” over creation, killing off better than 1/10 of Eden’s abundance does not count. Indeed, a careful study of the word “dominion” in the Hebrew Scriptures shows that it always refers to power-exercised-with-wisdom-and-justice. What we’ve done as a species—exemplified by certain “advanced” civilizations and cultures—is not dominion. It’s mere—sheer destruction. In fact, by biblical standards (and in the report’s judgment!), indigenous peoples living far more simply than us are perhaps the best examples of dominion on the planet today.
How do we respond to a report that is simply overwhelming in its bleakness? That catalogs so much life—habitats, ecosystems, and species—at risk? I recall a line in a film I saw decades ago (Mass Appeal, 1984). One character, a young seminarian, tells a story about his tank of tropical fish. One night the heater went bad and they all boiled. He recalls, “I woke up the next morning and went to feed them, but I found them all floating at the top. Most of them split in two, others with their eyes hanging out. It looked like violence, like suffering, but it had been such a quiet night. And I remember wishing I had the kind of ears that could hear fish scream.”
We need those kind of ears today. Neither undaunted optimism nor debilitating despair are useful now. We face a moment when, for people of faith, the gospel comes as grief. (I think this is true in secular terms as well, although it would be described somewhat differently.) Grief will be fundamental in any pursuit of the transformative change the IPBES report says is necessary: “We mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values.”
Yes, there is much to be done: changing individual choices, exerting political pressure, pursuing technological breakthroughs, and altering corporate agendas. But in the midst of all that doing, we need to root ourselves, as it were, in grief. And because our culture as a whole avoids grief, communities of faith may have a unique responsibility in this precarious moment: to work feverishly to facilitate grief.
Grief, by itself, is not nearly enough to save us, but it is a fundamentally spiritual undertaking (tapping into our emotions on an existential scale) and if we do not embrace it, everything else done by ourselves and others is little more than banter on the way to oblivion. Read that sentence again, if you have to. I’m not saying that politics and technology and industry (and more) have no role to play. I am saying—shouting if need be—that grief is the most important entry point and the most neglected one in addressing climate change. And every week of worship that we delay in giving voice to ecological grief as our primary work as the church today, we fail to be the people of faith that God and the whole of creation need us to be today.
But not just any grief will do. Professor Josef Settele, one the IPBES project’s co-chairs, observes, “The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world” (emphasis mine). I absolutely agree, but I worry his tone remains too anthropocentric. As though we must now care because WE are in peril. I disagree. For grief to be gospel, it must be larger than this.
In fact, grief expressed as our felt response to the threat now posed to human society and to our particular human loved ones, while still an honest emotion, is more like throwing an adult temper tantrum over a world whose physics and math have sorely disappointed us. It’s venting grief because the finite yet overall abundance of our home does not meet the baser appetites we’ve allowed to take root.
As a theologian, I have to say quite clearly: any response rooted in human self-interest is doomed. Many seem to believe the exact opposite: that we must somehow activate and leverage self-interest, our own survival instinct, to respond to this ecological crisis. I think that assumption makes two critical mistakes. It presumes we are somehow ‘separate’ from the rest of the world. But from the macro level of ecosystems to the micro level of intestinal biomes, to be self-interested is both theologically and scientifically dishonest. There is no human ‘I’ or ‘we’ that is not intrinsically more-than-me and more-than-human.
Second, to regard it as overly idealistic (unrealistic) to call for grief on behalf of flora, fauna, and even terrain for its own intrinsic value is an error rooted in primal arrogance believing that our deepest energy comes from love of self rather than love of that which is other. If we grieve for the rest of creation only on account of its transactional value to us, we preclude ourselves from tapping into the oceanic energy of the cosmos, which alone might grant us the transpersonal power necessary for this moment.
On the other hand, grief that arises in response to our willingness to feel our connection to all that is imperiled, that grief—even as it threatens to undo us because of its intensity—can also connect us to the sacred energy that even now courses through the cosmos. In this sense, that grief is gospel, because it is born of our recognition that, along with all the rest of creation, we are at home on Earth.
But will even that grief be enough to save us? Quite frankly, I don’t know. But anything less will not save us; of that I’m certain. And whatever solutions politics, technology, and economics might provide, if they—if we—are not schooled by grief, they’ll be of marginal value. (Whatever short-term gains they offer us, will be only short-term if we have not done the deep work of re-rooting ourselves in the whole of creation, work that will be done first by waves of grief.)
I understand, we like our gospel to come with a ‘guarantee.’ As if anything worthy of the word ‘gospel’ must be able to produce news that is ultimately ‘good’ on our terms. But overall we have not yet done an honest cost accounting of the peril in front of us. Just this weekend the atmospheric CO2 measured Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii crested 415 ppm for the first time since … three million years ago. That’s since before our earliest, most distant, pre-human ancestors. As far as our future goes, all bets are off. To say that today visceral creation-wide grief is gospel doesn’t guarantee anything except a slender possibility of life with integrity. Which, if you really think about it, is all gospel has ever promised.
PS: 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. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
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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 essays 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,” I aim 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! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com
 May 6, 2019: www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment
 Lloyd H. Steffen, “In Defense of Dominion,” Environmental Ethics 14 (1992), pp. 63-80.
 See GIT essay #4 “Christmas: The Most Important Four Ounces in the Manger.”