Climate Crisis as Kairos Moment
David R. Weiss – November 2, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #46 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
Kairos. It means fraught time. Time that is swollen, pregnant, bulging with promise … or peril. Such is our time today.
The word is Greek. Both kairos and chronos mean “time” in Greek, but only chronos made its way into English (e.g., “chronology”). Chronos indicates time, second by second: clock time, calendar time, ordinary time. On the other hand, kairos indicates time in its most consequential mode. We know time in this dimension, too, but because we lack a way to clearly name it, our culture tends to let the gravity of such moments be carried by awkward whispers rather than by clear discourse. Which is not helpful when so much is as stake: in kairos time, decisions—from personal to political, individual to communal, neighborhood to government, consumer to corporate—are decisive, even fateful. And not because we vest them with power, but because the larger forces of the given moment make them so.
For this reason kairos time is precarious. Choosing to play it safe in such moments is not simply unwise—it’s impossible. There is no safety. Everything is at risk. And there are wise risks, foolish risks, communal risks, selfish risks, generous risks, perhaps even evil risks. But safety is off the table.
In the Bible kairos often means a moment of promise or possibility. Jesus begins his preaching by declaring, “The time/kairos is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent (literally: “reverse course”) and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). Similarly, Paul writes (2 Cor. 6:2), “Now is the acceptable time/kairos; behold now is the day of salvation (literally: the day of wholed-ness).”
But kairos is a necessarily participatory moment. We must act in response. To decide to “wait and see” rather than “repent and believe” is not simply a missed opportunity; it’s potentially a missed lifetime. Jesus chides the crowds (Matt. 16:2-3; Luke 12:54-56) for knowing how to read the sky and the wind to tell the weather—and choose wisely in response to what they read there—but then failing “to read the signs of the times/kairos,” that is, the mood of the day, with its social-political-religious ramifications. The edge in Jesus’ voice is because he knows how much is at stake. The promise is real—the peril just as much so. A short time later when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, he laments that the city “does not know the things that make peace” but has instead sealed its coming devastation “because you did not know the time/kairos of your visitation” (Luke 19:44).
Today we stand collectively—from individuals and families all the way up to governments, societies, and our very species—in kairos. Fraught time. Bulging with peril. Barely hinting at promise. In fact, in something that approaches ironic overstatement, the climate crisis (itself a looming catastrophe entangled with other crises) is a moment when “the signs of the times” (the evidence of the momentous choices we face) are—in many ways—read in the sky and on the wind.
The climate kairos is also exponentially present time: a moment almost apocalyptically disconnected from our past (although it clearly has roots back there). But to the extent that the climate crisis is redefining how weather happens, how ice melts, how oceans rise, how wild fires rampage, how crops grow, how cities flood and refugees move, how ecosystems (and their inhabitants) creep to more hospitable latitudes or collapse if they cannot—to that extent this climate crisis ushers in a whole new world. Meaning there is no guarantee that the values that seemed to serve us well in the past will be helpful in the world now opening before us. Some values that proved “successful” in the former world might be counter-productive now. Less noble values that were tolerable then might be deadly today. And other values that were unheralded in that earlier world may well be prove to be the ones most vital today. Who knows?
But the persons we choose to be today (even as we merely muddle forward)—the values that we affirm, the pathways we open up … and the possibilities we foreclose—will significantly set the parameters for the options our children and grandchildren have before them. The past guarantees them nothing now. Thus, for those of us alive today, kairos is soul time. Because the choices we make—at all levels—define our soul. Reveal our mettle. Crystalize our character. Decisively shape our identity. Image our God. We choose either to align ourselves with grief … or denial, with hope or fear, with love or hate, with spirit or despair. Kairos is time that will be made holy or unholy (life-giving or death-dealing)—by us.
Churches are not the only communities that can perceive, announce, and shape a response to kairos time. But because churches are committed to care for the well-being of the world, foster just and life-giving community, and shape personal character, they have a profound stake in recognizing kairos time and responding to it.
And because the stakes of this kairos moment are so high, churches ought to welcome every possible partnership and every source of wisdom in meeting this moment. Over the remaining six essays in this first year’s cycle I want to return to the Transition Town Movement and consider more closely the wisdom it offers to progressive Christian theology in responding to the climate crisis that is our common kairos moment.
Even though the Transition Town Movement does not use the term kairos, it represents a deeply thoughtful and implicitly spiritual attempt to respond to its own acute perception of kairos: time strained by climate crisis in ways that will remake us ecologically, and also socially, politically, and spiritually. This remaking is no longer optional (if it ever was). And many of the dimensions of this remaking will be determined not by human preferences, but by physics, chemistry, and biology—processes that will play out impersonally, relentlessly, and ruthlessly.
But there is a response for us to make in the midst of this remaking that is larger than us. And that our response might have integrity, compassion, grace, and a measure of beauty and joy—this is yet possible. But not guaranteed.
Kairos names the precarious possibility that is NOW. My job is to help us seize that possibility with a faith that inspires us to the best that we can be. Now that safety is off the table, it’s time for wisdom, imagination, resolve, and compassion to have their turn.
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
* * *
The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, 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.
 While kairos entered my vocabulary in first year Greek at Wartburg College in 1978, its theological nuances were filled out during my seminary years. The passages referenced here are used to explain kairos in Kairos: Three Prophetic Challenges to the Church (ed. Robert McAfee Brown, Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1986), pp. 3-4. That book explores how the contemporary Christian Church has summoned its followers to discern and live in response to kairos moments of the 1980’s (e.g., apartheid in southern Africa as well as the violence and political repression in Central America, Africa, and Asia).
 There are other movements besides Transition Town that also aim to support a personal-communal response to the perception of a climate kairos. Extinction Rebellion and Deep Adaptation are among them; and they also have profound spiritual resonances. I may explore these in future essays.