Faith Fit for Collapse – Delivering Dark Hope #6
David R. Weiss – August 3, 2021
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This is #6 in an 8-essay series in which I’m thinking out loud and a bit on the run about what it means to be church (or any authentic human community) … in a time of approaching ecological-social collapse. I’ll develop many of these thoughts further in the future, but I want to set out an overview of sorts. (Here are links to essay #1, essay #2, essay #3, essay #4, and essay #5. While each essay treats a different facet of the larger project, there is a narrative arc to them. I encourage you to read them in order when possible.)
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In this essay I want to introduce some of the themes I think can guide churches in fostering a “faith fit for collapse.” That sounds underwhelming. As in, “Really? ‘Fit for collapse’? That’s all you got for us?!” Fair enough. But trust me, when collapse hits—and hits hard—this is the faith you want. This is incarnational faith absent the Hallelujah chorus, unassuming, cobbled together, stumbling in the dark, but stubbornly incarnational nonetheless.
We begin with a couple necessary asides.
One. I align myself with the faith community that draws its life out of the story of Jesus and the vision of justice-mercy-compassion-grace that forms the grand arc of God’s liberating love in the Bible. But I do NOT regard Christianity (or the Bible) as having a monopoly on sacred wisdom. I believe most long-standing religious and philosophical traditions harbor genuine truths in their teachings and practices. And no single tradition has it all “right.” I do my thinking alongside and with the church—specifically the progressive edge of the Christian tradition—because this is where I make my spiritual home, and this is the collection of language and imagery I know best. Because as yet this community has little inkling of what it can—and must—do to bear good news to a world in collapse. And because awakening this community is my vocation: that place where my deep passion and joy meet the world’s deep hunger and need.
Two. This is Christian faith … on edge. I’d argue that authentic Christian faith has always and everywhere been “on edge.” Placing compassion—active empathy-solidarity with the suffering—as a core Christian virtue, means that anytime the church is anywhere other than alongside those who suffer, seeking to undo the causes of their suffering and working to promote their ability to flourish, it’s being something other than the church. Usually that’s been as chaplain to empire (or culture or economy … or whiteness). Occasionally, as Inquisitor, by many different names. The Christian faith I suggest here moves against that current and is decidedly, unreservedly … on edge. It may seem vaguely familiar but uncomfortably disconcerting. Yet with all my heart and all my mind, I believe it is the path that beckons to those who follow Jesus. I’m sure my understanding will deepen as I write (and live!) my way into it. But I am convinced the path begins here. Now. So let’s.
Features of a Faith Fit for Collapse. These are just some of my intuitions. The challenge for the church is to reclaim ancient ideas and/or practices that cultivate features like these—or to create fresh ideas and practices to do so. None of them are uniquely Christian, but they will have a distinctively Christian expression in the context of our story and life.
Gratitude and awe. Obviously, there are deep roots for this in the biblical tradition, but Joanna Macy sets it as the foundation for her “Work that Reconnects.” She regards it not simply as a praiseworthy disposition; in our present context it’s the essential anchor for our work. Cultivating and then embodying practices that instill and strengthen gratitude and awe is a life-or-death proposition in a time of collapse.
Grief and lament. This is about honesty, but it goes further. It begins with confessing, recognizing, and feeling in our gut the anguish of all the horror we have wrought on the natural world, the many ways we’ve uncreated creation. Part of this is accountability. Adulting involves honest self-appraisal. But the deeper, near mystical part of this, is that ONLY authentic grief and lament before the suffering of the world can open a doorway forward. ONLY this. We are at a DEAD END until we grieve. And the sides are closing in. Fast. Holding onto gratitude and awe for dear life, we must fashion ways that open us to grief that has every right to swallow us whole. But it won’t.
Empathy-Solidarity. What we will discover, bathed in grief that is honest and overwhelming, is that we are IN FACT (not as warm fuzzy feeling, but IN FACT!) kin to all creation. Our capacity for grief is the echo of our original kinship, often recounted in myths and more recently confirmed by science. Interwoven and entangled are not nice metaphors. They are gritty descriptions for the blessed mystical-ecological messiness of nature. And this empathy-solidarity, rooted in the original fabric of the cosmos can tie us back into the energy of the universe: Love. But ONLY on the far side of grief, ONLY as empathy with ALL creation. Any attempt to “cheat” here, to be anything less than “all in,” will cost us everything. The church has become very good at making modest demands on its people. Today the God who created and loves the world we have so despoiled asks everything of us. It is time for the church to be a partner in that ask.
Compassion as Mutual Vulnerability. We idolize security. Insofar as “death is the cause of sin” (see essay #3), our desire for security in the face of finitude is among the most deeply ingrained self-defeating impulse we carry. The truth of this life is that we all die, and we’re all bound together, one living messy mass from tiny microbes to brilliant minds: one. Until death comes for us. Compassion is not a virtue by which the secure offer aid to the insecure; it is the revolutionary solidarity by which we own the truth that we are all vulnerable, and our best “protection” is to be vulnerable together. This means embracing the goodness of finitude, which will be a challenge for the church. This is a MUCH bigger project than a paragraph, but somehow, if we want to keep “heaven” as part of our faith, we must use it to bolster our commitment to the preciousness of this life (in which we die), lived in mutual vulnerability … and joy. For whatever years we have, here … is home.
The Liminal is Holy. But only if we make it so. We have learned (for example, in hospice) to accompany both patients and families as they hover (liminally—on the threshold) between worlds. We will dwell for years in the discomfort of a great inbetweenness. It may unleash chaos and terror. But if we learn how to hover within the liminal while holding one another close we can render it holy, pregnant with opportunity, even in the midst of collapse.
There is more to say. And other days to say it. The features named above (and more) will need to find expression in our theology and practice, prayers and hymnody, sacraments and social gatherings. Our faith-formation (for all ages) will involve developing the character that supports these features and sharing the skills that allow us to embody them. In every facet of our being church we must learn to manifest God’s liberatory love for creation. Not because such love can forestall collapse, but because it can endure collapse. That’s where we are. That’s what we need. God help us if we turn away.
But we’re not here alone. Besides countless persons in my own faith tradition, I’ve encountered “clarifying echoes” from outside it. These help me re-true my own inheritance, or recover pearls of great worth that have been neglected over the years. Joanna Macy’s Active Hope and The Work that Reconnects—steeped in her own experience of Buddhist teachings and systems theory—have been revelatory and have confirmed my own intuitions. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writings on Indigenous wisdom have been a treasure. And my readings in the Transition Town Movement, Permaculture, and Deep Adaptation have offered profound moments of common recognition. What I write on the page continues an unending conversation in my heart and mind … and with you.
Finally, in my last piece I admitted, “daunting” seems too small a word for what we face. But I also said it’s possible to imagine communities that might cultivate passions and joys that center our energy on tending the world. “Salvation” shares the same root as “salve,” a healing ointment. Rather than thinking we can save the world, perhaps it is enough help that we might salve the world: tend its wounds, and our own, as best we can. Perhaps that is the sacred wisdom we need most today.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.