Lest the Good News be True

Occasionally as I write letters to my children, I include a piece I wrote during the chapter of life I’m describing. Hence, I pulled this piece out today . . . and decided to post it to my blog as well. Thirty-six years old, it’s held up remarkably well. I wrote it as a seminary class assignment in 1986. Our task was to “do Christology” by writing our own mini-gospel that explained who Jesus was, not in abstract theological terms but through story. This is my effort. Although my own Christology has changed a bit over the years, I’m still comfortable with how this tale unfolds. I did not know Jesus historically (of course!), but based on what I have read in the other gospels—and on how I have “encountered” him in my own life—this is my gospel, the good news about the Jesus that I have come to know.

Lest the Good News be True
David Weiss

To all you who wonder and tremble lest the good news be true: let me offer my troubled witness.

It all began with John, the son of the priest. He always had been different, a little beside himself about everything. When he was about twenty-seven years old, he left—just disappeared for three years. It seems he lived in the desert. No one knows for sure. He came back more than different and very beside himself. He came preaching repentance as if possessed, as if the world would end tomorrow. Crowds flocked to him down by the Jordan where he baptized thousands.

And Jesus and I went up, too. It was never the same after that. Up until that day everything about Jesus seemed so ordinary. He was quiet, gentle, properly religious. But maybe, as I think back, maybe he was only biding his time. All those years waiting for the right moment, the right person to push him over the edge.

In the twinkling of an eye everything changed. We were there listening as John told of the Kingdom. And then Jesus was listening far beyond John as though to the Kingdom itself. His eyes burned. When he stepped forward to be baptized John looked at him terrified. John baptized people a dime a dozen, but before Jesus, before his burning eyes, John froze. He seemed to feel as if all his preaching has come to life and was standing here in front of him. As he lowered Jesus into the river, I heard him whisper to himself, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”

I am pledged to honesty. If I had known what would follow, I never would have gone with Jesus that day. But I did, and from then on there was no turning back. The labor pains of the Kingdom had begun.

After the baptism Jesus left for forty days. He was scared. He told me, “The desert is calling, and I must go to be sifted like wheat.  Pray for me.” He didn’t want to go. But he went; he was driven, caught up into the hand of God

He came back with his eyes quietly aflame with some vision of the Kingdom. He went back home; why, I don’t know. Home was the wrong place to come. Home is the place where you can spend your whole life saying you’re sorry. And Jesus had no time for apologies.

He took for his platform words from Isaiah: “I have been anointed to preach good news.” It didn’t fly.  Some folks thought he was just plain presumptuous, a home-town boy with a big head. Others were uneasy because he wasn’t Jewish enough. (He did have some peculiar notions about there being room in the Kingdom for the Gentiles.) But mostly people were offended because Jesus called their lives into question—and into action. He was consumed with a passion for justice, and apart from justice he had no time for religious sacrifice. Like I said, it didn’t fly.

So he took his show on the road, traveling from village to village and throughout the countryside. Crowds of curiosity seekers sought him out, listening politely, sometimes marveling at his words—but always from a safe distance.

He spoke with almost naïve simplicity concerning the Kingdom. He said it came as a gift, and that it was in our very midst. He said the Kingdom was compassion even as God was compassion. It was always that, the talk about compassion, that got him in trouble. I guess he took it too seriously. It wasn’t just a nice word; for Jesus, compassion was everything. It was the Law and the Prophets.  And it was to be pursued relentlessly. It was a costly compassion. It meant sharing possessions, prestige. And simple human honor.

A few of the upper crust of folks followed, mostly women. And a fair number of marginal people came along. And there were always children running about, like mascots of the Kingdom.

Jesus spoke almost entirely in stories and parables. It was a joy to hear him speak because you could tell that he knew—he saw already the Kingdom he was describing.

And there were the healings, which he accomplished with a quiet amazement. Not so much that he was surprised as he was ever delighted in the miracle of health. A lot of people came at least once just because of the miracles, but Jesus was never much of a showman. He knew, with a certain terror, that the power to heal wasn’t his own to claim.

You always felt like he really wanted to be accepted as an ordinary person. Everything about him was special, but he never needed it that way. Holiness seemed to engulf him, but he never desired a monopoly on it.

And there was the praying. Every time we turned around, he was praying. Every step he took, every gesture, every word seemed part of some grand prayer that was his life. Most of us breathe to live; Jesus prayed. And always to the Father, to this person of pure compassion.  Not to some distant deity of power, but to an infinitely close and blossoming flower-Father of compassion. All of his denouncing injustice and proclaiming the Kingdom flowed from the Father’s compassion.

Most folks who didn’t like his talk about compassion just left and ignored him. Wrote him off as a fanatic of some sort, which I guess he was. But the religious leaders were another story. They, too, were in the business of holiness, and it all revolved around the temple and ritual and sacrifice. Jesus preached compassion and said that you could find in your neighbor a temple where to make sacrifices of compassion. The religious rulers despised him, and we often heard them murmuring against him.

So there was a certain unsettledness about his work. I mean, Jesus knew that he wasn’t winning big points with the folks in power.  But that was never his goal. Still, he wasn’t blind to the threat he posed. I said that he never needed to be special, but he sensed that he was. He sensed that the world didn’t know what to do with such holiness. And I think he knew there was a long history of using holiness for blood sacrifices.

And he wondered about himself. On one level he spoke out of an inner confidence and seemed wholly in charge of himself. At other times you felt like he lived with himself as with as total stranger, never knowing what to expect next. So, one day, when he asked us, “Who do the people say that I am?” he wasn’t giving us a test. He wasn’t seeing if we knew. He was desperately and fearfully confirming his own worst fears. When Simon Peter blurted out, “You are the Christ!” Jesus’ eyes burned with anguish—he had been afraid of just that.

He had always been a bit uneasy with himself ever since the river Jordan. Increasingly during the months of preaching and healing it seemed at once more lightly and more fiercely that the hand of God rested upon him. He came to walk as though on air, but I always felt that he would’ve preferred his feet firmly on the ground. Maybe the best proof of who he was, was his uncomfortableness with holiness: he knew he was lost in it.

He set his face toward Jerusalem, and I think during those final weeks that we all knew something was up. He was more extreme than ever before, more human perhaps. He laughed, especially among the children, with an angelic fullness. When he was silent all the earth seemed still out of respect. And one day, approaching Jerusalem, he wept, and it was as though tears fell from heaven. He had come into his own, as they say, but for Jesus that meant coming into God.

When we entered the city he was at the peak of his popularity. It was the festival of Passover, so the people were in an excited mood. Word reached Jerusalem that Jesus was at hand, and a great crowd gathered to welcome us. They were hardly all avid followers, but as I said, there was a festive atmosphere, and our little band gave the city a good reason to party.

But it didn’t last long. Our first day in Jerusalem, we went up to the temple. Jesus’ eyes, which had burner brighter each step of the journey, exploded. His entire person had been given over to compassion as the way to holiness. There he saw holiness marketed in exchange for animals and sacrifices. He lost himself, seized by some holy wind, and he swept through the temple driving them out.  And he spoke, as an heir might, saying, “This is my Father’s house, but you enter carrying coin purses and not compassion!”

Up until then the priests had tolerated him, uncertain before his popularity. But this was too much. They sensed that even the masses were uneasy about the temple incident. And they plotted to kill him.

It was a quiet week. Passover was on Thursday. Jesus seemed anxious, as if everything depended on Passover. We would share the meal together, all of us who had traveled with him. So we ate the meal, the great feast of liberation. The whole time his eyes were somewhere else. It was like at his baptism. For him this meal was no symbolic gesture; it was his life.

After we finished eating, he stood up with some bread and said, “Brothers, sisters, these many days you have walked with me. Together we have known life’s brokenness and have hungered for its wholeness. Now this bread will become as my body: broken. Share it, remembering me in a spirit of compassion—and behold, you make life whole.”

And he lifted up a cup, saying, “Brothers, sisters, together we have known life’s oppression and have thirsted for justice. Now this cup will become as my blood: poured out.  Share it, remembering me in a spirit of compassion—and behold, you will taste justice.”

We all wondered at his words: broken body, poured out blood, and we trembled. Then he said to me, “The garden is calling, and I must go to be sifted like wheat. Pray for me.” I didn’t see him in the desert, and I didn’t see him in the garden, but I knew this was worse.

Some of us went with him, but he went deep beyond us into the garden alone to pray. When he returned his clothes were soaked with sweat, and his face was streaked with tears and covered with dirt. His eyes were lost behind a flame that blazed with pure darkness. Anyone who saw him then knew that all hell was going to break loose. And it did.

In a frenzied commotion he was taken, arrested by Roman soldiers at the behest of the chief priests. They charged him with blasphemy, but it came to this, pure and simple: compassion, as Jesus preached it, was bad business for the temple. They got Pilate to condemn him as well, claiming that he was stirring up the people. Pilate wasn’t frightened of Jesus (though perhaps he should’ve been), but he did fear the power of the priests over the people, and they, in turn, feared the power of Jesus with the people. And Pilate figured, what was one Jew more or less. So he let them crucify Jesus.

I write now of these things with numbness and with shame, for in those final hours I . . . we . . . all of us were most distant from Jesus, scattered by fear, than at any other time.

I heard reports of the trial, saying that Jesus never spoke in his own defense. It’s possible.  He could’ve said nothing that Pilate would understand and nothing that the chief priests wanted to hear. Neither Rome nor the Temple was conversant in compassion.

On Friday they crucified him between criminals. The women, braver than we men in those last hours, recounted it to me. They said he prayed that the Father would not hold this against any of us. They said that Jesus promised a compassionate thief a place in the Kingdom. (So you see, even at death, he remained confident in the Kingdom’s coming.) And they said that just as he died he cried out, asking why God had forsaken him.  I believe, however, that somehow forsakenness was God’s way of being with him there.

When they buried him, the chief priests imagined that they had washed their hands and their people of this Jesus and his talk about compassion. But it wasn’t so.

For several days we were aimless, frightened, wondering what to make of his confidence and forsakenness at the very end. On the first day of the week we gathered, numbly yet, to eat. Simon Peter gave thanks—and then, his eyes suddenly aflame, he took bread, broke it, and shared it with us. And he took the cup and did the same, saying only in a quiet voice, “To remember you, Lord.” And we ate and we drank, with a holy grief, with compassion.  And suddenly—he was there in our midst!  Alive. Eyes twinkling with joyful flames, and laughter on his tongue. He seemed to say, “Peace be with you.” And, “The Kingdom will come, and I will meet you there.”

No, we can’t explain it. Where are the words for something utterly new? But we believe now that the Kingdom of God’s peace will surely come. And that it will come on wings of compassion. And that if we wish to seek Jesus, we must seek him there.

Jesus was fond of saying, “What is the way to the Kingdom?  Compassion is the way. And, more than this, compassion is the Kingdom come.” Some of us have taken to calling Jesus “the Way.” But that mustn’t be misunderstood. Jesus never claimed a monopoly on that title. He taught that our common divine destiny is to embrace compassion. He only proved less fearful of the cost than most of us. He was the Way inasmuch as he was pure compassion. But he invited us confidently to become the same.

It is still only weeks since these last events have happened. There is so much more to tell: the things he did, the stories he told, the lives he caught up into his own. And I will write more of these things. But I knew you would be anxious to hear what has transpired among us, as I know that you have faithfully followed it all from your distance.

I never could have wished for this man to come as he did. Such compassion was beyond my imagination. But he came. And to all you who wonder and tremble lest the good news be true—this is my troubled and joyful witness: it is.

May 27, 1986 — David R. Weiss

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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 drw59mn@gmail.com. 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.

Lettering a Life

Lettering a Life
April 2, 2022 – David R. Weiss

Occasionally I choose to process my shit out loud. This is one of those times. If it feels like TMI (too much information), just skip this post and wait for the next one. (Don’t worry, I promise I’ll return to my anticipatory-collapse preoccupation soon!) But I trust that sometimes mulling in my own messiness and melancholy before (usually) climbing out at the other end … is helpful to some folks besides myself, so I offer it up as an act of generous humility. I’m NOT looking for pity. I’m on a journey of self-insight right alongside my work for social justice. Both get messy at times. And both are driven by a fierce commitment to put compassion—as transparently as possible—at the heart of my life.

*          *          *

I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this.

Four years ago I made a rather audacious pledge to my two biological children, both young adults by then. I told them that for the rest of my life—well, “for as long as both I and the postal service endure”—I would write them a letter every month. I explained that I hoped to use these letters “to tell the story of who I am and what I know … and, in some small way to help shape the story of who you are.”

David, Susanna, Ben – 2000

At 58 I was motivated by at least three things.

First, my own sense of mortality—a sense heightened by my mom’s slide into Alzheimer’s. Her memories are now inaccessible to all but God. Who knows whether that’s my destiny. But it is my choice to preserve for my kids an echo of me for the day when my voice falls silent (which it surely will one way or another). And—just in case—perhaps by regularly steeping myself in these memories, I can strengthen my mind’s tie to them.

Second, motivated also by my desire to recover a closeness to my children that has felt fraught in recent years—a desire sharpened by the geographical distance opening between us; both kids moved to California within a few months of each other in 2018. Who knows whether that distance will come to define our remaining years, or if we’ll find (or fashion) a nearness not measured in miles.

Susanna & Ben – 2021

Much of that fraught relationship flows from forces larger than our own lives; circumstances for which none of us is directly to blame. Still, what blame there is, is altogether mine. And still again, if nearness be tomorrow’s name, it will be named together. The intricate design of our mended lives—like Kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with glistening lines of gold—will reflect the care-filled and thoughtful choices we each make moving forward. These letters are one set of mending lines of gold laid down by me.

And third, motivated by an intuition that my own path forward must wind backward through my past. These letters are written at least partly for me. Nothing is lost in a life; and things buried rarely stay put. Having found myself on the precipice of inward collapse around five years ago, I was wholly unsure that there was any path forward. But I sensed that if there was one, it involved gathering up my past into my present so that whatever future might yet be, might somehow be a life made whole. If it’s possible to recount a life of (seemingly) eclipsed promise with grace, then perhaps that telling tends a fresh future might unfold. But here again, who knows.

Thus, that audacious pledge made four years past, was made with fear and trembling. Because I cared so much about making good on it, and because after wrestling in recent years with some pretty deep depression, I knew better than to assume I could make good on it.

Yet here we are, four years later, and I am 49 monthly letters in. I “titled” the series to Susanna “Reading with Dad,” after a favorite children’s book that bound our hearts together in her childhood. And I “titled” the series to Ben “Apple: Tree,” after the recognition, noted by many, that he and I share a bundle of similarities while being very much our own distinctive selves.

These letters are no mere notes. In them I am excavating my own past (and a bit of theirs). Most run 1500-2000 words. A few have come in just under that, but more have been longer. Some 75,000 words mark the tally of the tales I’ve told by now. A small book, and growing each month. After jumping around a bit during my first year of lettering, I settled into a habit of slowly writing through my life from childhood to present. After 49 letters, I’ve reached age 26.

As I remarked up top, I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this. Although this is writing I dearly want to do—many months while I peer into my past, that same past peers back at me. And by the time I sign my name and seal the letter in, I’m ready for a respite from that peering past.

Among the things I’ve learned thus far while lettering my life …

The memories of my childhood and youth seem all too few. General impressions—sure. And brief vignettes here and there—yes. But when my sisters reminisce, I quickly sense their store of stories—especially those of my youngest sister—surpasses mine by an order of magnitude or more. Perhaps because I’ve always been a thinker, I spent so much time up in my head (even in my childhood) that I never placed much stock in the things happening right around me. But how humbling to realize my siblings could likely tell more stories of my childhood than I can.

Nonetheless, what memories I can lay hold of, I’ve tried to set down. Now maybe it’s true for all of us, especially those who brood by natural temperament, but the most vivid memories I have are the eruptions of shame, confusion, hurt, and the like. I did not have a harrowing childhood by any means! But what harrows have been there, have been most faithful in following me across my years. I know there was laughter, fun, play, joy in my youth. I can say that in general. But the episodes I can recall in particular, are most often episodes painfully recalled. This, too, is humbling, as though my melancholy disposition colors what I remember as effectively as it colors my present mood.

I am not sure I would have sensed how stark a truth this is, had I not set out to pull these scattered pieces of my past into one present moment. In any case, I strive to write with compassion for the many selves I’ve been. I did not undertake these letters to lament, but to glean what insights I can for myself and to share what might be of worth to my children.

The couple other things I’ve noticed are “thanks” to the journals I kept off and on for about twenty years, beginning at the end of my senior year in college. Prior to that, my recollections are limited to what my mind, by will or by scar, has held onto. But beginning in June 1982 I have a cross reference of sorts for the next decade or so.

Of sorts.

Barbara Kingsolver observes in Animal Dreams, “A memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” So true. And a journal adds harmony to a memory, but while it captures more, it crafts what more it captures—and who is to say how truthful the crafting is. 

As I set out to tell each “chapter” of my life (currently done in alternating cycles of academic years and summers as I recount the years 1982-1986), I first collect the memories that come to mind. I jot them down and then review my journal to see what other details it might add in. I am reliably aghast.

There are significant—significant!—episodes in my own young adult life that I had utterly forgotten. I understand our minds only have so much memory and some things just don’t make the cut. But I’m regularly surprised at how MUCH gets scrubbed from even these early adult years. It mattered enough for me to journal about it—but never found a place in the conscious narrative of my life. It almost seems like I’ve been trying to forget my former life.

Alongside this, I’m also consistently chagrined at the unrelenting intensity of my introspection. As mentioned above, I am consumed with thinking. My mind whirs. All. Day. Long. I’ve known that, of course. But until these letters I’m not sure I realized the steep “price” of that. I wouldn’t trade my inward inclination away—it is at the heart of my beloved identity. But I can see now that it has often held a near tyrannical and sometimes cacophonous claim on my attention.

I suspect this is why activities like running, biking, and hiking have been noticeable balms for me: they draw-lure-pull me back into the fullness of my senses. My thinking is a fountain of insight and creativity—it is the locus of my deepest gifts—but unhinged from my whole self it has been as much peril as promise. That recognition alone—if learned even late in life—will mark a watershed.

In my journals—at least across these four years—I am reminded with embarrassing frequency of how much I hungered for intimacy-companionship-friendship. And how often that hunger opened into hurt, sometimes for me, sometimes for others. It is testament to the existential loneliness that has been my lot since my youth. That loneliness, too, is gift. But it took me decades to own it, and the learning curve was not pretty.

Finally, in the midst of all this “noise,” already in 1982, I began playing with the theological and spiritual thoughts that have become the overarching themes of my life. It’s true, some of these were first articulated with rough edges, but there are other passages that still catch my breath with their eloquent insight from forty years ago. Nonviolence, deep justice, contemplative quiet, daring discipleship, poetic theology, full hearted community, anguish for a fractured world—these notions have been my muses all along.

I say I’ve been “playing” with these ideas for a lifetime. And yet, if I’m honest, I have barely opened myself to them. My vocational journey—even as recorded in this short four-year window of journaling—has been shaped more by a lack of mentors who could accurately guide me, hesitancy that muffled my convictions, missteps of my own making and missed opportunities. Fast forward through the next four decades and it is mostly more of the same. This is not to discount any of the writing and teaching I’ve done. It is to put that in context. I have spent years playing with fire and, apart from some bright sparks, I have never burst into full flame.

And that isn’t harsh self-assessment; it’s quiet resolve. I am determined (even at this late date) to make sense of my life with fierce gentleness and unrelenting aspiration. Seeking after the wholeness that has eluded me thus far is part and parcel of my hunger to be a healing force for the world. Vocation ripples both inward and outward. And (as Robert Frost mused) I still have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.

The world needs all of me to show up. At long last. As do my kids and grandkids, my wife and parents, my community. And, not least, me. Lettering my life has been a humbling exercise thus far. But if I find the insight of these backward glances a bit searing at times, perhaps they hint as well at what might still lie up ahead. Fresh sparks. And finally, fire.

*          *          *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. 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 SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on April 3, 2022. 2 Comments

ON EDGE: God-talk on the Cusp of Ecological Collapse

ON EDGE: God-talk on the Cusp of Ecological Collapse
David R. Weiss, February 26, 2022
Process and Faith Twin Cities Connection

NOTE: This is the background essay (8000 words!) for my presentation to the Process and Faith Twin Cities Connection group. My oral presentation will be quite a bit shorter than this. Here is the essay, with selected bibliography, as a PDF. For those of you who find 8000 words a bit much on the screen (I would!), you can download this to read.

Thank you for the invitation to share my thoughts on the challenge of “God-talk on the Cusp of Ecological Collapse.”

Several weeks ago I wrote a sweet poignant poem that I titled “Love Letter to my Church.” I have a complicated relationship to the church in general, so I was a bit surprised to find myself reaching for words to voice something close to gleeful joy.

I share that this morning because in a significant and perhaps unexpected way, this talk is an addendum to the poem. It is rooted in and shaped by my lived experience in a vibrant faith community. I have come here to say some hard things—but to speak them with love … and with hope for the promise of gleeful joy. And I can do that today because I have a faith community for which these things are profoundly true.

Just two weeks ago in church we heard this benediction, originally from William Sloane Coffin: “May God give you the grace not to sell yourself short, grace to risk something big for something good, grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but Love.”

That whole benediction is worth bearing in mind as I speak today, but the phrase—“too dangerous for anything but truth”—that’s where we begin.

photo: Paul J. Greene

You see, we are in a kairos moment regarding our relationship with the planet—and with one another. Kairos, you may know, is Greek for time. But not just any time. Chronos is Greek for chronological time: clock time, calendar time, ordinary time. Kairos is time in its most consequential mode. It means fraught time. Time that is swollen, pregnant, bulging with promise … or peril. Choosing to play it safe in a kairos moment 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? That’s off the table.

The kairos moment we face poses deep questions about the task of theology and the vocation of the church; indeed, about the very nature of the human enterprise. You know some of that, no doubt. But I’m going to “turn up the volume” today because these questions have an urgency that hasn’t yet been fully reckoned within the church.

I’ve arranged my presentation in two parts. First, I’ll set forth the existential stakes of ecological collapse: that is, the threat posed to human life itself by the conditions of this moment.  Then, I’ll lay out what I regard as some of the theological stakes of ecological collapse. This includes the responsibility to engage in strident … vigorous godtalk and to actively fashion our life together in faithful response to the threat of ecological collapse. Silence or inaction in this moment is an act of betrayal against our neighbor, our fellow creatures, and God.

You will, I suspect, find some of my presentation alarming. I provide references for some of the key articles and books that have shaped my perspective at the end of this essay. This morning, rather than debate the science, I want us to engage in hard theological conversation, and my presentation is pitched to provoke that. You’re welcome to approach it as a fanciful if dystopian thought experiment if you prefer.

I think all of us would like to meet our dismay over the climate crisis with one more round of resolute conviction, believing that if we all just try a bit harder—somehow summoning the personal and political will that has been lacking until now—we can still turn this thing around. But for the next two hours I want us to ask together, “What if we don’t? Indeed, what if we can’t turn it around any longer?” What THEN do we say of God? What form THEN ought the church take?

The existential stakes of ecological collapse

We begin with my family. Margaret and I have a blended family of six children, aged 26 to 40, four of whom have spouses, and we have nine grandchildren, ranging in age from 5 to 15.

You don’t need to know more than that, but you need to know that much: I have children and grandchildren. I have a family that I love dearly. And I do not envision them living with the looming threat of ecological collapse as we do. No, I envision them—in their lifetimes—experiencing ecological collapse in the world. And almost certainly not from afar, but on their own doorstep.

You need to know about my family because only so can you appropriately gauge the weight of what I will say today. There is no detached cynicism in my words. No misanthropic glee. Rather, there is a great yawning sadness … MATCHED by a dogged conviction that there are yet things that we—theologians, pastors, church members, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents—can do. Not to prevent the calamity that is soon upon us, but to preserve the humanity that is in us … even as we face the collapse of the very ecological and societal systems in which we “live and move and have our being.”

Now, as you start shifting uneasily in your seats, let me remind you of that love letter I wrote to my church. I am here to say hard things. Very hard things—because I am so deeply moved by the luring promise of gleeful joy.

I don’t know exactly how collapse will unfold or what exact conditions it will bring. You can imagine some of them yourselves. Wildfires, drought, melting ice, rising seas, bigger storms, crop failures, waves of refugees, and HEAT. All things we’ve experienced, just amplified beyond what our imaginations can easily imagine. The pandemic gave us the mildest foretaste of others. Empty store shelves, broken supply chains, overwhelmed health systems, economic dislocations, inward despair, pitched civil discord. Collapse will unfold in scattered waves with disparate impacts around the world, but no corner of the globe will be spared. And it will involve human suffering on a scale never before seen—even if the worst of it does not reach our shores immediately.

Here is one metric. We are on path to reach a global population of 9 billion in another decade or so. I imagine we will. But during active collapse, from 2040-2100, that is, in the latter half of this century, global human population will likely plummet from 9 billion to 3 or 4 billion—or less.

That is A LOT OF DEATH. Not even counting the animals, whose deaths will outpace ours by far. My children will behold at least the start of this. My grandchildren will experience much of it.

You are alarmed by now—and you should be. This type of talk doesn’t make the ten o’clock news, the Sunday talk shows, the front page of the newspaper, or the latest issue of Christian Century. Yet I am committed to speaking truth as clearly and eloquently as I can, in the conviction that despite the tumult that is headed their way, there ARE things that we can do today that will decisively shape their capacity to weather the years ahead. Today your willingness, as theologians, pastors, lay leaders, and congregants to hear me out and then engage my presentation may be crucial in determining whether theology has a vital voice in the decades ahead and whether churches can bear gospel without being swamped by the tumult to come.

You know something about climate, I’m sure. It paints a daunting scenario for tomorrow. Here are just four of the reasons why climate change, already more accurately framed as climate crisis, is likely to become climate mayhem.  

First, as much as we lay people track the rising CO2 count with a sort of abstract dread, the heat-trapping impact of that CO2 doesn’t reach its maximum until it’s been in the atmosphere for 10-15 years. That means that right now the climate tumult we’re experiencing is driven by CO2 emitted soon after the turn of the century. And the CO2 emissions that have risen consistently year by year since then have locked in heat increases—and all their accompanying effects—for at least the next decade or longer. Even with no further emissions, our temperatures will coast upward until the mid 2030’s, and there’s no way to stop that.

Of course, that reference to “even with no further emissions” is folly, because in the fifty years since understanding that putting CO2 in the air might have harmful effects—and in the thirty years of direct warnings about CO2 emissions—we have continued to burn fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Even on our best behavior, the situation will get significantly worse before it gets better. The pandemic was a tiny test case for what it would mean to act collectively on our best behavior; it has not been a promising result. And industry leaders and politicians continue to be pursue profits and economic growth rather than the science of climate.

Second, climate change and temperature rise don’t occur in a vacuum. Rising temperatures melt ice, exposing either land or water. In response, those surfaces absorb more new heat than the ice did, driving more warmth producing yet more melting in a feedback loop. Something similar happens when permafrost thaws in the far north. As it thaws because of increased global warmth, it releases both carbon and methane into the atmosphere, trapping yet more heat unleashing more carbon and methane. Deforestation, driving by human activity in the Amazon threatens the rainforest’s self-sustaining integrity. That forest has already shifted from overall absorbing carbon to emitting it, fueling regional climate changes that further weaken the forest with global repercussions. There are multiple opportunities for climate change to set off self-reinforcing feedback loops like this.

If these feedback loops gain enough momentum, they become unstoppable and can act as tipping points in the overall climate, pushing regional or even global climate dynamics toward a new normal—and doing so with abrupt force. The IPCC initially believed—back in 2001—that tipping points were unlikely shy of a 5o Celsius increase in global temperature. But in three different reports from 2018-2021 the IPCC emphasized that new research indicates that some tipping points could occur anywhere between just a 1o and 2o Celsius rise in global temperature. We’re already at 1.1o; many climate scientists believe we’re already locked-in to a rise of 1.5o within the next decade or so based on current emissions; and likely to reach 2o by the middle of this century or soon after. In fact, if we simply meet the current national pledges by countries party to the Paris Accord, we’re on track for 2.7o by 2100. At any point from here on, we could pass a tipping point that could push us tumbling toward an abrupt change in the entire climate system that might not stabilize until 5o or warmer. That climate would be conclusively incompatible with organized global human society; it might well be incompatible with human existence altogether.

Third, as exciting as talk of Green Energy is—and we own a Prius Hybrid and have solar panels on the roof of our home—it brings with it a host of as yet intractable challenges. Under current technologies wind turbines—which thus far have only a several decade lifespan and no feasible means to recycle their components—cannot be manufactured without relying on fossil fuel; no other heat source generates temperatures high enough. Similarly, commitments to solar cells and batteries on a scale sufficient to power the planet, also commit us to intensive and ecologically destructive mining and exploitive human labor. Hydropower, except when very carefully designed, means reshaping ecosystems in ways that are destructive to virtually all but the human inhabitants in a region. And nuclear power, on a planet tilting toward collapse, is simply a ticking timebomb for millennia. Even something as simple as increasing energy efficiency is a problematic promise because historically EVERY increase in energy efficiency has been offset by a further increase in energy demand.

I don’t mean to be playing “Green-Grinch,” but while all these technologies are worth further development, NONE of them singularly or put together present a scalable realistic alternative to the amount of fossil fuel consumption that is heating our planet.

Fourth, in a bit of tragic irony, the industrial pollution created by burning fossil fuels has been BOTH warming and cooling the planet. While the CO2 and other greenhouse gasses released trap more of the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, the particulates in pollution—anything that’s not a gas (think dust, smoke, soot) reflect sunlight back before it reaches Earth, lessening the amount of heat that can get trapped. As we slow the burning fossil fuel, the concentration of particulates in the atmosphere will steadily decrease (we saw this happen within weeks of the industrial slowdown early in the pandemic) but the greenhouse gasses linger for decades. So even when we finally do right by the atmosphere, it will make global warming worse in one final and possibly dangerously fierce series of temperature rises. We have put both the rock and hard place in position—and now we find ourselves caught between.

It’s true that climate scientists and others debate the details of all these things. But the indisputable bottom line is that our situation is far more precarious than we are acting like. If we were airline pilots and saw this amount of turbulence on our radar screens, we’d immediately flip the “fasten seat belt” sign on and give our passengers a heads up that a rough ride is just ahead. As theologians, pastors, and lay leaders we owe our communities no less.

Unfortunately, as serious as our climate situation is, it’s only one symptom of a much larger and more threatening predicament: overshoot.

Overshoot is what’s really going to crash the social and ecological systems we take for granted and drive human population backwards … with a vengeance … starting in twenty years or sooner. And as unprepared as we are for climate mayhem, we aren’t even thinking about overshoot. And overshoot is about to re-write human history. Or, more accurately, complete the story we’ve already written.

Overshoot is a simple concept. In a closed, finite but dynamic and self-renewing system—like planet Earth—life can persist indefinitely, so long as it remains within the limits of Earth’s “carrying capacity” … but we have chosen in a structural, systemic, even religious way to ignore those limits. We’ve built an entire global economy and culture on the idea that endless growth—beneath which lies endless extraction of finite resources and endless exploitation of ecosystems, fellow creatures, and human siblings—is not only possible, but necessary, destined and deserved.

Because we live on a such a bountiful planet, and because we’ve had access to plentiful and cheap oil, we’ve been able to sustain this ecocidal illusion for several centuries. Of course, the roots of what we regard as modern “civilization” go back several millennia. Spun out of anthropocentrism, patriarchy, and the advent of accumulative wealth and its accompanying socio-economic inequity, these expressions of human society have done immeasurable harm since they emerged. But only from around the sixteenth century onward—with the scientific revolution, followed by colonialism, industrialism, capitalism, and white supremacy—did a constellation of values and power arise … that could damage the planet as a whole.

And only last century did our numbers and the global reach of our technological power become such that we began to outstrip Earth’s ability to recover from our excess. With the beginning of the Anthropocene, often dated to the period known as the Great Acceleration, around 1950, the global capitalist expression of human society took off and became THE defining influence on planetary well-being.

We’re not, of course, the only influence. Earth System science has identified nine interacting “planetary life support systems” that play key roles in maintaining an Earth hospitable to human life. Together, these systems (including climate change, but also biosphere integrity, phosphorous-nitrogen flow, ocean well-being, atmospheric health, and more) give Earth its personality: a personality that for 12,000 years (known as the Holocene period) has held steady the conditions in which humanity has been able to flourish. You might imagine them as nine pairs of hands holding a trampoline taut so that there’s a sweet spot for humanity to bounce on.

But since the Anthropocene, human activity has started bumping these critical systems around, sort of like banging away on their fingers at the edge of that trampoline. Scientists estimate that we’ve clearly transgressed four of these boundaries and likely two more. That’s what overshoot does, and if it pushes these systems too far out of a safe range they might well snap into a whole new equilibrium … perhaps without any sweet spot left for us to bounce on.

By now we’ve become culturally, psychically, socially, economically, politically, structurally, and perhaps even religiously addicted to overshoot—to the rush of stuff and the idol of growth—that we can’t really even imagine any other way of living on the planet. No other way than the one we’re seemingly locked into, which is undercutting the planet’s capacity to host humanity in its current expression … perhaps undercutting the planet’s capacity to host humanity at all. That’s a harsh irony. The period we’ve christened the “Anthropocene”—naming it after ourselves since we’re now the decisive planetary influence—may, in fact, become the period in which—under our own influence—Earth moves forward … without us.

Since 1970 we’ve been in active overshoot—consuming more resources than the planet can replace and jettisoning more waste that it can process. Each year since then we’ve been living at a planetary deficit … and carrying on as though that doesn’t matter. And each year, with few exceptions, we hit overshoot a little earlier than the year before. In 1970 we used up our year’s allotment of global resources on December 30. Last year we hit overshoot on July 29; every day beyond that for the next five months was deficit consumption.

Now think about that: not every country (or individual within a country) consumes at an equal rate. So, the fact that right now, as a whole, humanity is consuming 1.7 Earth’s of resources in a single calendar year means both that some of us are consuming resources that “belong” to others living right now—and also resources that belong to those who will live here tomorrow. Resources without which their future lives will be immeasurably poorer than ours today.

But it’s actually worse than that. Given U.S. consumption patterns, WE’LL hit overshoot for 2022 … in just 15 more days. By March 13 we will have consumed as much as Earth can annually provide for—were all humans to consume at our rate. We’re acting as though we can magically consume FIVE Earth’s worth of resources without somehow bankrupting the planet itself. We KNOW that’s not true, but we cannot imagine shrinking our consumption to one fifth of what it is as Americans. And yet, NOT TO DO THAT is to actively, willingly, make an ecocidal pact with the planet and a genocidal choice toward the next generations. It is sheer madness—and moral evil.

Overshoot means we are about to discover what it feels like when Earth chooses to exercise its own “stand your ground” moment. In the next twenty to thirty years—before some of children reach my age—overshoot will flip planet Earth from its illusory coast on fading abundance into a crashing collapse that will shake the foundations of human society and culture.

Of course, there are differing perspectives about our prospects. But this perspective, even if alarming and largely kept outside the mainstream, is grounded in well-reasoned science and in peer-reviewed literature. It is shared by a range of ecologists, climate scientists, engineers, as well as a growing number of philosophers and spiritual teachers.

They agree this is about much more than the climate. At the end of every IPCC report or news story about the climate crisis, there is inevitably this offering of a thin sliver of hope: “but there’s still a tiny window of opportunity for humanity to respond.” But it simply and entirely misses the point. It’s not just that we have abjectly failed to find the political will to address climate in all the decades it’s been clamoring for our attention. No, it’s that we are in active overshoot—driven partly by our sheer numbers on the planet, but much more so by the rapacious greed with which we ransack God’s good but oh so finite creation. We are presently stressing Earth systems on so many frontssimultaneously—that to focus only on reducing CO2 emissions so we can continue to plunder the planet through a “green growth economy” is a delusion that will cost future generations EVERYTHING. There is NO future on Earth for a humanity that doesn’t acknowledge and embrace the limits of this planet. NONE. Those are the existential stakes of ecological collapse.

The theological stakes of ecological collapse

That’s why I want to invite you to engage with the very real possibility (in my mind, the damning likelihood) that the people and communities which we love, guide, lead—and in which we also live and move and have our being—are in stark peril. Already now, but so much more so in the near future. If we are to exercise our gifts and skills and passions and love FAITHFULLY, we need to begin asking seriously and with urgency, what does it mean to do godtalk and to be church on the cusp of ecological collapse?

I’ve been thinking about climate change as a theologian for six years now, after having first considered it briefly 24 years ago in grad school. Over the last three years my learning has shaken me to the core. When I returned to this topic in 2015, I anticipated adding my voice and my creativity to the challenge of turning back climate change and averting crisis, even if only at the last moment. I must confess I no longer believe that is possible. Which is why I have begun to ask in earnest what role theology and churches might play in helping us meet this approaching collapse, the effects of which we might still lessen, but the totality of which we can no longer avert.

I am not trained in process theology, although my thinking often moves in similar directions. But I know that process theology leans willingly into hard questions, seeks to conceive of God in ways that cohere with a scientifically-informed worldview—whether that is comforting or discomforting—and recognizes vulnerability, solidarity, relationality, and compassion as primary features of God … and of those who live in the image of God.

I will offer some provisional thoughts that strike me as helpful as we seek a theological voice and a communal faith that hold promise in the face of such stark peril. They are “provisional” because my own thinking is unfolding in real time. And because the challenges before us require that we see theology and church as fully participatory enterprises. We will need to ALL be invested in real-time thinking and acting in response to the prospect of collapse. There is no time to waste and no place on the sidelines for spectators.

First, this is a matter of “both/and.” I am not saying that climate crisis or overshoot or collapse are the only concerns that matter anymore. I do think they necessarily ought to frame our entire context of theology and ministry. But everything else goes on. We will continue to baptize, confirm, teach, worship, marry, bury, and otherwise accompany people through life—and that will continue to be holy work. Indeed, that accompaniment will become all the more important as every stage of our lives is met with precarity from increasing angles.

And we will continue to work for justice in our churches and communities on every front—racial, economic, immigrant, sexual, gender, environmental, electoral, and more. Each of these issues will become more pitched and more polarized as the fabric of our supposed security frays on the forefront of collapse. I understand, few of us have free time on our agendas these days, but the truth is that in every era we do theology and we are the church amid the whole of life. And right now, the whole of life is under existential threat. So, whatever we do theologically and however we are as church … must take note of that whole. 

Second, six years ago when I first began this work, I chose to organize my thoughts around this overarching evocative theme: Becoming an apocalyptic, evangelical, prophetic church … at home on Earth. I selected the first three words both because they have such rich meanings in the biblical tradition and because they name ways of being church that liberal-mainstream churches have mostly been uneasy with. I wanted to ask whether there are neglected “postures” in our past that might be useful today. The last phrase “at home on Earth,” was my suggestion that we need to stop viewing this planet as merely a place we hang out until we reach “the real deal”: heaven. We need to stop regarding Earth as “beneath” us. We need to embrace it as home.

Today I still regard these three “postures”—apocalyptic, evangelical, and prophetic—as evocative. But I am less interested in neatly distinguishing between them, as though some ways of speaking or being fit neatly in one category versus another. These postures mutually inform one another and mutually shape our godtalk and our community.

Apocalyptic is that dynamic that unveils what must now be known; that declares the endings of worlds whose time is up; and that summons us to deep grief for all that is being lost. Evangelical is that dynamic that announces astonishingly good news when none seemed possible; that declares vulnerability and solidarity (and not in omnipotence) as constitutive of God; and that births a community that echoes God by choice even as creation echoes God by nature. Prophetic is that dynamic that reads these times against the Time that is God’s; that speaks truth to power on behalf of the voiceless; and that calls for repentance as the whole reorientation of our individual and communal lives away from death and toward life, even when life seems no longer possible. To speak of God and to be the church on the cusp of collapse will involve all these postures, often interwoven in novel ways to meet any given moment.

Besides these postures from within our tradition, there are ideas and practices beyond it that I’ve found insightful as well. I will mention SIX of them.

1.  The Spiral of Active Hope is the fruit of Joanna Macy’s decades-long honing of a process that provides personal and communal grounding and empowerment in the face of overwhelming situations. She presents it as a four-fold dynamic. It begins in the practice of gratitude, not as a moment of perfunctory thanksgiving, but as attentively opening ourselves to awe. Beguilingly simple, coming from gratitude shifts the very ground beneath our feet. From heart rate to breathing to mental and emotional openness, coming from gratitude bathes our being in grace.

From that place we open to and honor the world’s pain. This is daunting and overwhelming—because the cries of the world are so pitched in this moment. From the human family to our animal siblings to entire ecosystems, there is anguish asking to be known. And mostly our attention is put elsewhere. The pace of our lives, the press of media, the desire for inner calm, all conspire to tell us, “Nothing to see here; just move all along.” But Active Hope says that this pain calling out to us is the cosmic echo of our inter-relatedness. It speaks the truth of who we are. And when we dare to pause and be with it, we find a kinship just waiting to reclaim us, and we rekindle empathy as the power we were made to run on. There are apocalyptic, evangelical, and prophetic dynamics at play all at once in this act of opening to and honoring the world’s pain.

With empathy reanimated—more accurately re-animating, because it is an ongoing process—we begin to widen and deepen our perceptions. We feel the depth and strength of connections that stretch across place and time, to others near and far, past, present, and future. We touch in our deep awareness the communion of saints. Even more, we discover our place in the community of being. And we find, perhaps, that kairos time can be invoked in the midst of such deep communion. Time becomes molten—measured not by minutes or years but by yearning: God’s yearning joined to ours.

Finally Active Hope goes forth in action. It incarnates itself in speech, in deed, in news ways of being. It is called The SPIRAL of Active Hope because it is not a once-and-done process, but a cycle that begins again from wherever you find yourself.

Macy grew up Christian but her adult spiritual practice has been Buddhist and her academic training is in systems theory. Active Hope is grounded in the conviction that relatedness is THE truth of the cosmos—and that by practicing the spiral we can reconnect to ourselves, one another, our sibling creatures—and to a near mystical sense of Life itself. These connections then join us to an energy that can steady us in tumult and even empower us to live with “active hope.” I’ve used the book, Active Hope, which explains the spiral and teaches it through exercises, at my church and have even written a liturgy that seeks to ritualize it. I can attest to its transformative power. Active Hope has many powerful touchpoints with Christian faith. It could easily, fruitfully, and faithfully be an active partner in theological conversation and communal faith practice here on the cusp of collapse.

It is worth noting that Macy wrote Active Hope in 2012. The book discusses overshoot and collapse, but at the time she felt that the Spiral of Active Hope could play a role in bringing about The Great Turning, the transition to an ecological way of living, in time to prevent collapse. Over the past several years, Macy, now 92 years old, has come to believe that humanity has missed the window of opportunity to avoid collapse. She now says that what Great Turning there may be, will unfold through collapse, not prior to it. I would place my work in this context as well: fashioning a church that can hold out the possibility of a Great Turning even within a shattered, fractured world.

2.  The Transition Town Movement is another source of inspiration. Founded in 2005 as a community-based movement anticipating the end of cheap oil and recognizing that we are not at all prepared for a “post-carbon world,” Transition Towns operate by four key assumptions. (1) We are better off to plan for a less energy-intensive future than simply “hit the wall.” (2) We need to build communal and structural resilience among us to weather the host of disruptive shocks that will come our way. (3) We need to start acting collectively, practically—in concrete ways—and with deliberate intention now. And (4) when we release the “collective genius” within our communities in this cause, we will discover ways of living that are more locally rooted, authentically connected, deeply rewarding, AND in touch with the limits of our planet.

Transition is rooted in permaculture, a philosophy that looks to the wisdom of Earth’s evolved cycles and systems, initially for agricultural practices but soon for broader life ways as well. You might say permaculture is a non-theistic, “down-in-the-dirt” practical theology expression of biblical Wisdom hailed as the architect of creation. Transition seeks to be an urban implementation of permaculture practices. And Transition acknowledges that fundamentally it aspires to evoke an inner shift in thinking and desires.

When Transition describes—and indeed incarnates in actual communities—a deep sense of joy at connecting to our neighbors in full presence, this is a vision of community that any church would envy. Because Transition is specifically focused on the practical steps in building healthy life-giving communities that can weather a tumultuous future, it is a most worthy conversation partner for a church preparing to face collapse.

3.  Deep Adaptation as a concept was introduced in 2018 by Jem Bendell, at the time a professor of Sustainability Leadership in the UK. In an online essay that went viral—it’s been downloaded more than a million times—he reports on the growing body of evidence suggesting that we have crossed the threshold of stopping catastrophic climate change. He argues that a variety of systemic-structural-academic obstacles as well as psychic denial have delayed any coherent representation of this view at large. In his essay he concludes that it is time to engage in “deep adaptation,” which is to brace ourselves in creative, constructive, compassionate ways for what he calls “likely near-term societal collapse” driven by abrupt and widescale disruptions in both ecological and social systems in response to the climate crisis.

Deep Adaptation runs avowedly counter to an individualist or tribalist “prepper” mentality. It promotes a communally-grounded posture toward life framed by what are called “the 4 R’s,” paired with four questions. Resilience: What values and behaviors do you want to keep in our culture and your daily life? Relinquishment: What values and behaviors are you ready to let go of? Restoration: What are the values and behaviors that you used to have in your culture or another culture that you’d like to adopt? And Reconciliation: With whom do you want to make peace while you can? Over the past two years Deep Adaptation has become a movement in its own right, providing a framework for practical and philosophical-spiritual conversation as well as collaborative practice among a growing decentralized community that seeks to anchor humanity in hands-on compassion in the face of approaching ecological collapse.

4, 5, and 6 are all concepts that might help us “thicken” our understanding of what has gone so wrong that we find ourselves here on the cusp of collapse today. 

4.  Wetiko is a Native American word—specifically Cree—although the idea appears in other Native languages under slightly varied spellings. It literally means something like “cannibal,” but its full meaning is a person who lives life without regard for the community, who lives utterly at the expense of others, someone who consumes the world. Cannibalistic in that sense. It was viewed as a sickness of the soul—and a contagious one, such that persons regarded as wetiko must either be cured or driven from the community lest they “infect” others.

As Native peoples watched the way white men moved across the land—seeming to kill for the joy of killing—they came to view white people in general as wetikos: an entire society of cannibals afflicted with a soul-sickness that drove them to live with wanton disregard for balance, relatedness, or any life except their own. Wetiko is like socio-ecological amplification of Luther’s notion of sin as incurvatus se—the state of being curved inward upon oneself. Wetiko, viewed as a genuine madness—a disconnection from others and from the natural order that manifests in diabolical deeds—names the culture in which we find ourselves today. The notion of wetiko brings the non-Western wisdom of Native peoples into a crucial conversation about the roots of our predicament.

5.  Terror Management Theory offers another angle on this. Rooted in Ernest Becker’s 1970’s book, The Denial of Death, this theory argues that because human beings are uniquely (so far as we know) aware of our impending non-being—our death—we make enormous psychic and cultural investments in denying death. Becker viewed this inexorable existential dread—the seeming inescapable cost of self-consciousness—or more accurately our active efforts to suppress this as “the mainspring of all human activity.” We—at least some of us, maybe most of us—are driven by a relentless attempt to prove our worth and establish meaning in a universe that just as relentlessly erases us.

Becker suggested that entire cultures, religious beliefs, building projects, and even most of our mundane choices are motivated by the persistent awareness that we will die, an awareness we seek to submerge beneath every bit of civilization we can build over it. Except now, having exhausted the finite resources of the planet in an attempt to escape our own finitude, we have brought the planet itself to the edge of dying. And have likely hastened our own death in the process. Becker and those who have developed his theory more recently suggest that even though religious beliefs offer us comfort in the face of death, to the extent they portray death as unnatural, as divine punishment, as somehow offensive to the human spirit, they merely press this terror beneath the surface, where it multiplies and leaks out elsewhere in our lives.

Can we imagine, within our Christian tradition, ways to name and embrace death as a goodness within the order of life? Worthy of neither stoic acceptance, nor defiant resistance, but willing embrace of the wisdom of God who made a finite world and called it “very good”? Is it possible that the only true moral agency must necessarily be mortal agency—ethics on the far side of making peace with death?

In fact, psychologists working in Terror Management Theory report tests that demonstrate that practices of humility, gratitude, and authentic bonding make us less prone to existential anxiety. They help settle us into a sense of being at home on Earth. In other words, the very practices endorsed by Deep Adaptation, Transition Towns, and Active Hope actually work to endow us with mortal agency—a sense of empowerment even in the face of death. Churches, too, have claimed to do these things. But rarely as though our lives depended on them. Today they do.

6.  Moral injury names what happens when we find ourselves ordered or compelled to act in ways that fracture our own moral compass. Soldiers who find themselves doing things on the battlefield that constitute a very betrayal of their core self, experience moral injury. Employees required to operate in ways that put the bottom line or company loyalty above human decency or environmental respect experience moral injury. But ALSO: simply living in an extractive capitalistic system inflicts moral injury upon every member of society every day. We are compelled to meet our own daily needs at the expense of others around the globe and at the expense of the planet itself.

To find ourselves with no clear option except to live in contradiction to the values we claim, displaces us from our very moral identity and from our sense of what it means to belong to the human community to the story of humanity itself. Moral injury has been described as numbed living, living with a sense of being dead, or worse, living in the suspended awareness of one’s moral dying. It is to awaken to the terror of the world’s pain—and to recognize our complicity in that pain without knowing how to withdraw our consent. If we are honest, this is the damning predicament for every person of faith today (indeed for every human person)—we are caught living-dead in a system that we KNOW is genocidal toward the poor and ecocidal toward the planet and yet we have no way out.

The only adequate response to moral injury is to transform the systems that inflict it. And that is a big task. It may be that the extractive capitalist system is so thoroughly embedded in our culture and society today that only collapse will effect system transformation. But here, too, the practices modeled by Active Hope, Transition Towns, and Deep Adaptation work to link us more authentically to one another—seeking to honor finitude and to promote the flourishing of all. This does not change the world system directly, but it offers us access to a counter-system within the belly of the beast—a way to link our lives to a community that is life-giving, a community that may become the seeds of what can be NEXT … if we can endure collapse itself.

All three of these notions deepen the contemporary relevance of Paul’s talk of “principalities and powers” in Ephesians 6. Paul seems to have an awareness of human-made 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 backed up with power that can have dehumanizing, inhuman consequences. Are such systems are afflicted with wetiko? Were they first shaped by existential terror? Do they not mercilessly inflict moral injury? We must press ourselves to fathom the dynamics that disorder our world today.

To return to my initial themes:

Godtalk on the cusp of ecological collapse will have, at least at times, an apocalyptic tone. It will unveil the extent to which our way of living today is in fact dedicated to uncreating God’s creation. It will announce the ending of one world, declaring that our future is about to be radically disconnected from our past. The fact that we find such an apocalyptic tone disconcerting is, in fact, evidence that we’ve made quite a bit of peace with the oppressive world that is ending. And it will be apocalyptic in summoning us to sustained lament for the suffering playing out on the planet in this moment. It is the last thing we want to do. Right now, it is the ONLY thing that grounds the legitimacy of anything we do.

Godtalk on the cusp of ecological collapse will have, at least at times, an evangelical tone. It will whisper a humble but defiant “nevertheless” of good news. It will remind us of a truth always easier to offer to others: that even in the worst of times, God’s daring choice is to be vulnerably present alongside us—a choice written across the cosmos. From the forests that feed us oxygen to the microbes in our guts that enable us to feed ourselves, radical relationality is the truth of the universe. And it will invite us to gather in communities that creatively foster mutual relationship as the expression of imago Dei, both in how we be church to one another and to the world.

Godtalk on the cusp of ecological collapse will have, at least at times, a prophetic tone. It will not shrink from reading the signs of these times for the people who look to it for guidance. It will speak for those whose speech goes unheard—the poor, the animals, the ecosystems. It will call out—even by name—those particular institutions, corporations, and individuals whose agendas and actions represent crimes against creation and crimes against the future. And it will not only call us to repent and to change our ways, but will also dare to imagine a way forward where none seems possible.

And godtalk on the cusp of ecological collapse will teach us—perhaps for the first time—that we are at home on Earth. This will mean telling stories and fashioning rituals that exercise our imaginations in powerful ways regarding the blessing of finitude. Other traditions have found ways to do this. We are late to this game, but the planet is waiting for us to embrace it as home. Whatever other worlds or lives might be, in this world and in this life, it is a deep goodness to be at home on a pale blue dot. More than enough, it is grounds for awe and joy.

Finally, being at home on Earth is profoundly practical theology. In light of overshoot, we must explore what “One-Earth living” might mean—that is, to live as people who annually take no more than what one Earth can offer and renew in one year. This implies two uncomfortable but non-negotiable ecological truths. Simplicity is neither an optional virtue nor something we must resign ourselves to: simplicity is the very essence of love on a finite planet. Second, choosing to thoughtfully restrain our population is a undeniable corollary. Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on care for creation, Laudato Si, is remarkably insightful on many fronts, but its complete silence on the moral imperative of responsible reproduction renders the rest of its wisdom “a noisy gong or a clanging symbol”—that is, wisdom far short of ecological love.

I’ll close with one final thought.

Sometime last fall I was in a group discussing the role the church could play in addressing the climate crisis. I said that I expected congregations could play an important role … “as the world unraveled.” The tone of my words did NOT carry any upbeat cheer or hint at expectation of any late-in-the-game rally on our part. A friend asked me, with quiet alarm, “You haven’t given up hope, have you?”

I was not quick to respond. Partly because she has young children. So, she ought to have a vested interest in hope. Then again, I have children and grandchildren of my own. But I also hesitated because that’s such a complicated question for me right now.

I have a near heretical degree of faith in the potential of human beings for good. Tangled as we are in forces that oppress us, and prone as we can be to selfish impulses, and ambiguous as we can be in our inner worlds, I remain persuaded that the “very good” God uttered over creation lingers still, even if worn and tattered a bit. Perhaps on account of our own theological missteps we have been quick to think too little of our capacities for good, and have played into the hands of forces all too willing to twist them for ill. I continue to believe that Christians and Christian communities can bear good news and embody gospel in our shared living still today. Even as the world collapses. (I actually think this is true of humans and human communities as well.)

And I have near absolute conviction that in every moment God offers us the chance to do what is right. Even as those chances get twisted by circumstance and choice and outside forces, the activity of God in the world is perhaps nothing more and nothing less than the presentation of freedom yet again in this moment and then the next.

I have uncommonly high expectations for human beings and for God. But here’s where it gets complicated: I also have high expectations for the reliability and dependability of the laws of nature. I believe, even at the last minute, we might see the error of our ways and that wide swaths of human society might choose a different course. I don’t know that that’s likely, but I think it’s possible. Because God meets each and every human being with that offer of freedom in each and every moment of their lives. So, absolutely possible, even if unlikely.

But that carbon dioxide and methane will act differently in the atmosphere? Or that Earth will somehow magically generate infinite resources for our absurdly inflated population? Or that the planetary system will be “sympathetic” to our anguish, even if expressed too late? Not a chance.

Our future will play out under the same laws of nature that it has in the past. And that means, as far as I can tell—and sweet Jesus, I wish it was otherwise—that collapse is coming. And I’m not at all convinced that we have any chance any longer to avert it.

Fifty years ago? Perhaps. A hundred or two hundred years ago? Yeah, theoretically so. Though, truth be told, the cultural and religious distortions that we wed ourselves to millennia ago have chased us across history. But, YES, there have been times when multiple futures were possible.

Even today, multiple futures are possible. I simply believe that now every one of those multiple futures includes some version of collapse. What makes these futures multiple is our response to collapse. So, Yes, I have “given up hope” for a future that does not include collapse. Because physics doesn’t grade on a curve.

But to my dear friend, and to you, I would also say, I hold out vibrant hope that even in collapse there can be communities worthy of gleeful joy. Because compassion, mutuality, solidarity, vulnerability, radical relationality—these truths can be embraced, even under the most trying conditions—and when they are, the result is always gospel. Good news. The presence of God erupting in human life.

I suppose you could say my hope these days is in a different key. But it is hope, nonetheless. And I continue to nurture it for the sake of my children and grandchildren and so many others. And I’m eager to help build communities where gleeful joy shines brightly … and the tumult has not overcome it.

*           *           *

drw 2022.02.26

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. 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 SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Selected Bibliography

Related writings by me

Weiss, David R. “AT HOME ON EARTH—Christian Spirituality in a Time of Climate Change. On becoming an apocalyptic evangelical prophetic church.” Lectures at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota, March 2017. (Presented in an earlier version to Grace Lutheran Church, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, September-October 2016.) https://tothetune.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/htlc-on-climate-complete.pdf.

—. The Gospel in Transition: 52 weekly essays at the intersection of faith and climate, December 2018-November 2019. https://davidrweiss.com/essays/the-gospel-in-transition.

—. “Dark Hope: a series of essays on ‘dark hope’ in the midst of collapse,” July-August, 2021. https://tothetune.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/2021-dark-hope-set.pdf.

—. “Sacred Circle Liturgy.” (Liturgy fashioned around Active Hope themes; customizable template provided.)
https://tothetune.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/sacred-circle-template-read-only.docx.

—. “As the Dawn of the World Draws Near.” (Hymn fashioned around Active Hope themes.) https://davidrweiss.com/2021/04/21/as-the-turn-of-the-world-draws-near. https://tothetune.files.wordpress.com/2021/05/as-the-turn-of-the-world-draws-near-permission.pdf.   

Weiss, David R. and Tracy Kugler. Active Hope Reader’s Guide for Small Groups, 2020. https://tothetune.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/active-hope-readers-guide-read-only.docx.

Climate

Bell, Alice. “Sixty years of climate change warnings: the signs that were missed (and ignored).” The Guardian, July 5, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/jul/05/sixty-years-of-climate-change-warnings-the-signs-that-were-missed-and-ignored. Accessed July 5, 2021.

Bradshaw Corey J.A., et al. (2021) “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.” Frontiers in Conservation Science, vol. 1, article 615419. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419.  

Carrington, Damian. “Climate crisis: greenhouse gas levels hit new record despite lockdowns, UN reports.” The Guardian, October 25, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/25/climate-crisis-greenhouse-gas-levels-hit-new-record-un-reports. Accessed October 25, 2021.

—. “Human destruction of nature is ‘senseless and suicidal’, warns UN chief.” The Guardian, February 18, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/feb/18/human-destruction-of-nature-is-senseless-and-suicidal-warns-un-chief. Accessed February 18, 2021.

Harvey, Fiona. “Cop26 climate talks will not fulfil aims of Paris agreement, key players warn.” The Guardian, September 27, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/27/cop26-climate-talks-will-not-fulfil-aims-of-paris-agreement-key-players-warn. Accessed September 27, 2021.

—. “IPCC steps up warning on climate tipping points in leaked draft report.” The Guardian, June 20, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jun/23/climate-change-dangerous-thresholds-un-report. Accessed June 24, 2021.

Hood, Marlowe, et al. “Crushing climate impacts to hit sooner than feared: draft UN report.” Science X, June 23, 2021. https://phys.org/news/2021-06-climate-impacts-sooner.html. Accessed June 24, 2021.

Hu, Caitlin. “A new UN report urges a radical shift in the way we think about nature.” CNN: Project Planet reporting, February 18, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/18/americas/un-report-climate-making-peace-intl/index.html. Accessed February 18, 2021.

New, Mark, et al. “Four degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, number 369, (2011), pp. 6-19. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rsta.2010.0303.

Salamon, Margaret Klein. “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode.” Medium, 27 June 27, 2019. https://margaretkleinsalamon.medium.com/leading-the-public-into-emergency-mode-b96740475b8f. Accessed July 15. 2022.

“UN draft climate report: Impacts on nature.” Science X, June 23, 2021. https://phys.org/news/2021-06-climate-impacts-nature.html. Accessed June 24, 2021.

Watts, Jonathan. “Interview – Johan Rockström: ‘We need bankers as well as activists… we have 10 years to cut emissions by half’.” The Guardian, May 29, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/29/johan-rockstrom-interview-breaking-boundaries-attenborough-biden. Accessed June 15, 2021

The Limits of Green Energy

Siebert, Megan K. and William E. Rees. “Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition.” Energies, vol. 14, no. 15, July 2021, article number 4508, https://doi.org/10.3390/en14154508.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. “Are Electric Cars the Solution?” The Tyee, 25 Jan. 2022. https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2022/01/25/Are-Electric-Cars-Solution. Accessed February 1, 2022.

Planetary Boundaries

Steffen, Will and Jamie Morgan. “From the Paris Agreement to the Anthropocene and Planetary Boundaries Framework: an interview with Will Steffen.” Globalizations, 18:7 (2021), 1298-1310. https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2021.1940070.

“The nine planetary Boundaries.” Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University. https://stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html. Accessed July 22, 2021.

Rockström, Johan. “Bounding the Planetary Future: Why We Need a Great Transition.” Great Transition Initiative, April 2015. https://greattransition.org/images/Rockstrom-Bounding-Planetary-Future.pdf

Overshoot and Collapse

Ahmed, Nafeez. “MIT Predicted in 1972 That Society Will Collapse This Century. New Research Shows We’re on Schedule.” Motherboard, July 14, 2021. https://www.vice.com/en/article/z3xw3x/new-research-vindicates-1972-mit-prediction-that-society-will-collapse-soon. Accessed July 28, 2021.

Bologna, Mauro, and Gerardo Aquino. “Deforestation and world population sustainability: a quantitative analysis.” Nature: Scientific Reports, vol. 10, article number 7631 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-63657-6.

Catton, William R., Jr. Overshoot. University Of Illinois Press, 1980.

Collins, Craig. “Four Reasons Civilization Won’t Decline: It Will Collapse.” CounterPunch.org, March 13, 2020. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/03/13/four-reasons-civilization-wont-decline-it-will-collapse. Accessed August 10, 2021.

Dowd, Michael. “Collapse in a Nutshell” and “Overshoot in a Nutshell,” online presentations, November 2021. https://postdoom.com/resources.

Helmore, Edward. “Yep, it’s bleak, says expert who tested 1970s end-of-the-world prediction.” The Guardian, July 25, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jul/25/gaya-herrington-mit-study-the-limits-to-growth. Accessed July 28, 2021.

How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times. Book Review by David Holmgren. February 9, 2021. https://holmgren.com.au/writing/book-review-how-everything-can-collapse-a-manual-for-our-times. Accessed October 25, 2022.

Ingram, Catherine. “Facing Extinction.” (Online essay, 2019.) https://www.catherineingram.com/facingextinction. Accessed August 3, 2021.

Living in the Time of Dying. Directed by Michael Shaw, 2020. https://www.livinginthetimeofdying.com.

Moses, Asher. “‘Collapse of Civilisation is the Most Likely Outcome’: Top Climate Scientists.” Resilence.org, June 8, 2020. https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-06-08/collapse-of-civilisation-is-the-most-likely-outcome-top-climate-scientists. Accessed July 22, 2021.

Once You Know. Directed by Emmanuel Cappellin in collaboration with Anne-Marie Sangla, original title Une fois que tu sais, Pulp Films, 2020. https://www.videoproject.org/once-you-know.html.

Servigne, Pablo. How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times. Polity Press, 2020. [First published in French, 2015.]

Servigne, Pablo, et al. Another End of the World Is Possible: Living the Collapse (and Not Merely Surviving It). Medford, Polity Press, 2020. [First published in French, 2018.]

Wiedmann, Thomas, et al. “Scientists’ warning on affluence.” Nature Communications, vol. 11, no. 3107 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16941-y.

Active Hope

Macy, Joanna, and Chris Johnstone. Active Hope How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. Novato, Calif. New World Library, 2012.

Macy, Joanna. “Entering the Bardo.” Emergence Magazine, July 20, 2020. https://emergencemagazine.org/op_ed/entering-the-bardo. Accessed August 10, 2021.

JOANNA MACY: Climate Crisis as a Spiritual Path. Directed by Anne Macksoud and John Ankele, Old Dog Documentaries, 2021. https://vimeo.com/588455489
Transcript: https://www.kosmosjournal.org/kj_article/joanna-macy.

“To Collapse Well.” Interview with Joanna Macy by Michael Dowd, Post-Doom Conversations, February 2021. https://postdoom.com.

Transition Town Movement

Gorringe, Timothy, and Rosie Beckham. Transition Movement for Churches. Norwich, Canterbury, 2013.

Hopkins, Rob. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Green Books, 2008.

Ruah Swennerfelt, et al. Rising to the Challenge: The Transition Movement and People of Faith. Caye Caulker, Belize, Producciones De La Hamaca, 2016.

The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilization? Directed by Peter Armstrong, Bullfrog Films and Empathy Media, 2021. (Profile of David Fleming.) https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thesequel.

Deep Adaptation

Bendell, Jem. “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.” Online essay; originally published July 27, 2018; revised and updated July 27, 2020. https://lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf. https://jembendell.com/2019/05/15/deep-adaptation-versions.

Wétiko

Forbes, Jack D., and Derrick Jensen. Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wétiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Terrorism. Seven Stories Press, 2008.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Levy, Paul. Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil. North Atlantic Books, 2013.

Levy, Paul. Wetiko: Healing the Mind-Virus That Plagues Our World. Rochester, Vermont, Inner Traditions, 2021.

Terror Management Theory

Alecson, Deborah Golden. “This Mortal Coil: Sheldon Solomon On How Fear Of Death Affects Our Lives.” The Sun Magazine, no. 544, April 2021, pp. 5-13.” https://thesunmagazine.org/issues/544/this-mortal-coil.

Moral Injury

Stout, Brian. “Wounds want to be healed: ‘Moral Injury’ and belonging.” (Online essay, February 21, 2022.) https://citizenstout.substack.com/p/wounds-want-to-be-healed. Accessed February 24, 2022.

Just Good Sex

Called to Be Bodied: Sexual Ethics and the Vocation of Embodiment
David R. Weiss – (Revised February 2019)

NOTE: This is the “supporting essay” for my presentation on Sexual Ethics. You can access as a PDF here. You can access the PowerPoint slides here. There are several slides that are “additions/asides” to the essay. I’ll be speaking from the slides, so I won’t cover everything in the essay, and I’ll add in a few side remarks.

*           *           *

Because no ideas exist apart from the stories of our lives, let me tell you this much about me, so that you have some inkling of the lengths and limits of my thinking about the challenge of sexual ethics. I am straight and very happily married, though also twice divorced. I am a survivor of a teenage sexual assault and two decades later of a years-long violent marriage. I do not approach the promise or the peril of sexuality lightly. 

Additionally, I’ve been a vocal faith ally to LGBTQ persons for more than two decades. From 2000-2002 I led about 90 students at Luther College on a journey into the terrain of GLBT theology. My thought deepened beyond measure during those years, enriched by the insights, experiences, and trust of those students. Since then, I’ve published a collection of essays; given a couple hundred presentations on college campuses, in churches, and at community events; and released a CD of “welcoming” hymn texts.

Finally, if my thinking about the married mystery of sexuality and spirituality is marked by uncommon passion, conviction, and tenderness, it is also and exquisitely thanks to my wife, Margaret. What I first imagined to be true of the harmony between body and spirit, between sexuality and sacredness, I discovered to be true with her.

*           *           *

First, a couple of opening observations.

It’s time we acknowledge that human sexuality is simply, profoundly, and mysteriously part of the fabric of who we are. It is not, as Christian tradition has often been tempted to regard it, some alien, untrustworthy force ever tempting us to sin. But it is (at least sometimes) much more than merely the psycho-biological means of attraction-mating-reproduction. Ultimately, human sexuality is far more complex than either the puritanical strands of Christianity or the mechanistic descriptions of science have suggested. There are some things sexual we can “measure” objectively, but sexuality itself is one facet of the human eco-system in which we dwell. We discuss sexual ethics from the same vantage point as which we study it, reflect on it, and experience it—as participants in its mystery.

Second, it’s time to recognize, however uncomfortable it may be, that sex, like light, seems to be fundamentally paradoxical in nature. Light doesn’t behave neatly as either a wave or a particle; instead, it sometimes acts like one and sometimes acts like the other. And it seems that whether it is wave-like or particle-like in any given setting is determined at least in part by the expectations we bring to it (that is, the experiment we use). Many of us find this bewildering and frustrating. We want light to be neatly one or the other. That’s the way we like our world. But physicists (who find light’s ambiguity more intriguing than threatening) tell us that light simply doesn’t fit into the neat categories we’d prefer. And, if we turn off our moral filters long enough to just listen to the voice of sexual experience, we hear something similar. For some persons sex has a sacred, creative, unitive character to it. For others, it is a deeply human, immensely satisfying, but not at all mystical experience. For others, it has a quality of ecstatic pleasure that is not necessarily tethered to marriage or monogamy. Bottom line: at the level of honest observation, of sincere listening to others, it simply doesn’t matter whether I “approve” or not. Sometimes sex is wave-like. Sometimes it’s particle-like. That’s just the way it is.

This is not a huge leap for us. Sometimes bread and wine and water are holy for Christians – and sometimes not. But we don’t consider them “sinful” whenever they’re not holy. It’s possible for something to be wonderfully mundane. And even mundane fresh-baked bread is a delicacy. Even a fine glass of wine by sunset or candlelight can be transcendent. Even a waterfall can be awe-inspiring. And even sex that doesn’t aspire to be sacred can be beautiful. All of us stand to gain by speaking with clarity and conviction about the values that guide our sexual lives. Might we not be intrigued, like the physicist, by the rich and multifaceted ways that people testify to experiencing sexuality? That way, when we do turn to the task of making choices about what types of sexual expression are healthy and whole, we don’t do so by first silencing a whole range of voices even before they speak.

A final prefatory remark. Thoughtful conversation about sexual ethics needs to happen in a whole bunch of places; I’m simply best-equipped and most invested in helping it happen well in churches. Also, because this conversation isn’t likely to go far at the generic level, I’m offering reflections that I hope resonate with other church-going folks. I surely don’t mean to suggest that “ethical” sex only happens is among Christians! But I do I think these ideas and principles can help progressive Christians have thoughtful, respectful conversations about sexual ethics. Other communities may find other principles more helpful … and that’s okay.

*           *           *

I recall, at age 5 or 6, being eager as a new reader to join everyone else at my Lutheran church in the liturgy from the red Service Book and Hymnal. So it was that Sunday after Sunday, long before puberty, I confessed that I was “by nature sinful and unclean.” I told myself – I taught myself – that my very embodiment set me in opposition to God. Were a parent to so intentionally undercut the self-esteem of a child we would call it emotional abuse; but that a church should do it, we called that “character formation.”

Our difficulty as individuals and as a church at imagining a healthy relationship between sexuality and spirituality has roots far deeper and more complicated than my childhood recitation. But we have not come to be so alienated from our bodies by happenstance. We have cultivated this discomfort in ourselves quite carefully, even if we have not always done so knowingly. And while our church statements have grown very polished at calling sexuality one of God’s good gifts, few of us really believe that. We have learned to instinctively associate sex with shame, and no simple church statement is going to undo that. We must mine the core images of our tradition and see if we can find there images with the power to reclaim the original unity between body and spirit. I begin in John’s Gospel and then turn to Genesis.

“In the beginning was the Word – the Loving Wisdom of God. And all things were created through this Word. And not a single thing was made apart from the Word.”  (John 1:1,3 freely rendered)

“And God said – by use of a Word, speaking with Loving Wisdom – let us make human beings in our image . . . as a reflection of divine life, as an echo of communal love.”  (Genesis 1:26a, freely rendered)

“And God formed an adam out of the adamah, that is, God fashioned an earth creature out of the moist earth, God shaped a human being out of the rich humus from which the green plants would grow.  And God breathed into the humus and gave it life.” (Genesis 2:7, freely rendered)

Thus, we are called into our bodies by the Word, the Loving Wisdom of God. And we are given life by divine breath, an unspoken Word, the spirit of life that moves silently in and out of us – from both our lungs and our souls. This is the Word in which we live and move, in which we breathe and have our being. 

We are dirt deemed worthy to dance. We are soil sown with soul.  Incarnation – that miracle of divine breath embodied in a human frame that finds full expression in Jesus of Nazareth – began in the Garden of Eden. We are bodied mud married to Holy Breath. Among our most primal vocations then, among the very first tasks given to us by God, is the vocation to be bodied selves. It is so primal that we often forget it altogether. But so far as we know, we alone among earth creatures face our embodiment as a dilemma. What does it mean to be suspended between instinct and eternity, to have a transcendent awareness – a capacity to imagine a Beyondness to our existence – and yet to have that awareness fixed within a very finite human frame?

Sexual ethics and the vocation of embodiment are thus intertwined, and our sexuality is both divine gift and divinely given task. Sexual ethics, then, might be seen as inquiring about the rules that guide sexuality among embodied selves. Or the goals that we ought to strive for in our sexual relationships. Or the character that we hope to reflect in the narratives of our lives. 

I suggest that we begin by remembering that it was Holy Breath that animated us. It was God who embodied us. We are imago Dei, the echo of Love now formed in flesh. And we are not so by accident or by mistake, but by God’s intent. That this is our vocation does not imply that it is easy, but it hardly follows that it is impossible – or that it is best pursued by a pattern of disciplined avoidance. (The parable of the talents is instructive on this last option.)

If, as many of us learned, spirit and body are set eternally in antagonistic relationship, it makes sense to see sexual ethics focused on restraining the “sinful and unclean” impulses of our bodies. And clearly we are broken, distorted, misshapen by the cords of sin that entangle our lives. We are all too capable of investing our bodies – sexually and otherwise – in deeds and desires that are destructive to ourselves and others. We gain nothing and risk much by denying this. 

But listen, because we have not heard this other truth very well: our brokenness cannot tear us from the web of creation over which God continues to proclaim goodness.  Misshapen as we are, even in our rebellion, we bear within our bodies the possibility of divine presence – because incarnation is the song that God has chosen to sing in this universe, from first to last, from height to depth.

And here the questions of vocation and ethics find their real substance. What if I am by nature – by God’s earthy creative impulse – soil sown with soul? What if I am dirt destined by God to dance – and sensually so? What if I am by nature bodied mud married to Holy Breath? What then? Well, then the task of embodiment is not about avoiding temptation but about cultivating the fullness of love in our fleshly frames. 

One particularly evocative way to name this is to say we are called … to be Holy Kindling. Few biblical theophanies, few manifestations of God, are so memorable as God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush. It is memorable for more than its botanical novelty and its Hollywood special effects. Through these flames, God offers a name that links God’s own identity with the promise of liberation, saying, “My name is YHWH, the One who will be whatever must be to bring freedom.” And, lest we forget what we are capable of, we see that a mere bush can host the presence of God without being consumed, that creation is not in perpetual rebellion against its creator, but is capable of hosting the sacred in its own limbs.

So our vocation is to be Holy Kindling, to be burning bushes – to find our own limbs aflame with the presence of God. And the challenge of a consistently Christian sexual ethic, whether for straight or gay persons, is to discern the conditions under which our sexuality is hospitable to the presence of God.

We do catch glimpses in the biblical narrative of what it might mean to host the very presence of God in the practice of our sexuality. To see them, however, we must look past the handful of red-flagged texts so often raised without reference to their cultural-historical setting and without appreciation for the deep complexity of scholarly opinion surrounding them. There are more promising biblical themes with clear relevance to sexuality, but for the most part we have been so convinced that the sacred and the sexual are at worst mortal enemies and at best partners in an uneasy and watchful truce that we miss these glimpses even when they are set right before us.

To begin with, I find it telling that the same Hebrew verb can mean both “to know” and “to make love to,” as though the language itself intuited that knowing and loving are somehow overlapping realities. Thus, the challenge of sexual ethics, the vocation of bodily loving, involves discerning what it means to know well.

For Jesus and for the prophets there is no ambiguity at all about what it means for finite, embodied creatures to know God well. Indeed, if we let the evocative fullness of the word come through, Jesus and the prophets offer powerful insight into what it means to make love to God. It is not a matter of philosophical contemplation. It is not a matter of hidden esoteric mysteries available only to a select few. Knowing God is a very specific activity. Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah all declare that it means to pursue justice for the least members of our community. Micah sums it up memorably: knowing God means doing justice, pursuing mercy, and walking with humility. Jesus’ ministry embodies this same truth from the lives he heals, to the meals he shares, to the world-changing tales he tells.

Knowing God is earthy stuff; making loving to God is a matter of attending to the quality of our human relationships. 

So what does this suggest for sexual ethics? Several things at least. When it comes to ethical principles, less is more. A well-chosen few will carry us further than a whole bunch that function more and more like rules. I’ll name just five, including three that echo Micah’s wisdom mentioned above. Here’s my suggestion for principles that mark five ethical aspects of an embodied sexuality that can host the presence of God: justice, mercy, humility, procreative energy, and joyful abandon.

First, to know – and to be known – sexually in ways that welcome that presence of God, must pass the measure of justice. When we exploit power differences, whether based in money, age, race, gender, or social role, we fail to image God who is known in relations that are just. 

This suggests why prostitution (sex work), pornography, and sex that eroticizes the dynamic of domination is at least morally problematic (complicated) for Christians. It also allows us to articulate clearly why professional boundaries are so important for clergy, counselors, teachers, and the like. And why incest and spousal abuse are wrong. Relationships in which power is leveraged to secure or to distort sexual activity do not image the God whose love is just. This does not produce an absolute rule, however, because justice must be measured in every particular relationship. Yet it does offer us a biblically grounded way to frame our discussion of sexual ethics.

Second, to know – and to be known – sexually in ways that honor the invitation to be dirt that dances – will involve the pursuit of mercy. That is, our sexuality will evidence toward both self and others respect and tenderness – a genuine care for the other’s comfort, pleasure, and joy. Again, what this means in any given relationship will vary as much as humans themselves vary, but it gives us another biblically grounded place to begin our discussions.

Minimally, mercy means that sexual expression between persons ought always be matters of mutual consent. Sexuality always involves some measure of self-revelation and vulnerability – to some extent we are physically, emotionally, psychically, and spiritual naked to the other. I believe this implies fidelity (practiced faithfulness) as a corollary of mercy. Part of the power of sexual intimacy is its capacity – its alchemy – whereby vulnerability becomes transcendence. Absent either justice or mercy, such vulnerability is neither wise nor safe, but in the midst of relational fidelity it is truly to stand on holy ground.

Yet even this reference to fidelity is not an absolute rigid rule: fidelity is about promised faithfulness that is honest and clear. We are surely not bound to strict fidelity from our first interest in another person. But as the physical and emotional intimacy in a relationship rises, it should be met with an equal increase in professed and practiced fidelity. Such fidelity may not always be life-long. It may not always be exclusive. But it ought to be honest and clear in its terms. This, too, will find unique expression in each particular relationship. Fidelity is not a single cookie-cutter; I suspect it is a tin full of different patterns. Nonetheless the patterns ought to be recognizable as faithfulness by those who hold them and (ideally) by the wider community as well.

Third, to know – and to be known – sexually so as to stand in awe before the presence of God and another human person – will involve genuine humility. In our intimate relationships this suggests the practice of patience. Sexual intimacy is an unfolding mystery better paced by our own deepest intuitions than by the messages of the marketplace. To say that sexuality can host the burning presence of God is not to encourage people to go out and start a bonfire the first chance they get. The erotic energy harbored in human touch is the spark of divine presence. The human body is holy ground. That doesn’t mark it as off limits; it does mean that we venture onto it with reverence and wonder – and at a pace that honestly reflects our own readiness for intimacy as well as our partner’s. And with a measure of humor, because sexuality involves the foibles and clumsiness, the false starts and the wobbly grace, that mark any human activity.

Additionally, humility suggests that as we encounter persons – whether in our intimate relations or in our public communities – whose sexual practices and preferences differ markedly from our own, we begin by listening for the truth of their experience. We need not affirm everything for ourselves or for others, but we are obligated, under a biblically grounded ethic of knowing, to listen humbly and well to the truth that others may carry. The narrative of our tradition is at pains to remind us of the freedom of God over against the temptation to confine that freedom to human buildings, human traditions, and human biases. This insight alone would make a world of difference in how conversations about sexuality play out in the church (and in our homes and among our neighbors).

Fourth, it seems more than mere coincidence that sexual intimacy can be biologically procreative. So I suggest that the presence of procreative energy is one more dimension that God hopes for in sexual relationships, that in our bodied knowing we, too, reflect God’s creative impulse to be about giving life. 

This procreative aspect of sexuality only incidentally – and only occasionally – has to do with bearing children, but I intentionally use this term to reclaim it from the way it has been wielded as a weapon against the LGBTQ community. Far more fundamentally to be procreative is to care for this world. Indeed, we were first embodied – in Eden – to tend the Garden, to guide creation’s bounty and tend its scarcity in ways that promote the flourishing of all. This is a human vocation, quite independent of sexual activity. But given that sex is one powerful way we generate and share energy, it seems fair to expect that energy so deliciously brought forth between lovers should also spill outward into the world, leading us to lovingly tend that corner of creation around us – whether children or other humans, animals or ecosystems, neighborhoods or civic communities, or simply gardens and recyclables.

Lastly, to be blunt, good sex ought to be fun. And if it’s clouded by shame, disgust, obligation, fear, etc., for either person that’s pretty good evidence that the sex in question is somehow less than healthy and whole. For Christians this “fun” might be a real challenge because many of us have been taught either that sex is the primal temptation that turns us from God or at least that it is deserving of near total discretion in polite conversation. Good sex is neither. Where else in our lives are we so mistrusting or quiet about that which brings such joy?

So, I suggest that if we aspire to know – and to be known – sexually, to be bodied selves in which the full flame of God’s presence bursts forth in our lovemaking, then we will make love with joyful abandon. Because God said of our original embodiment, that it was “very good.” Because the Song of Songs makes exquisitely clear that our bodies are capable of celebrating sexuality such that we become gracious gifts one to another. Because it is possible for there to be moments still today when we find ourselves naked in the Garden and not ashamed. Moments when our touching embodies the gospel, when this tactile grace grants us what might truly be called a sacramental awareness of an unconditional love that has always held us, but which we (all) have largely forgotten on account of the brokenness into which we are born. Such a gift is not mere icing on the cake – it is the wafer itself, the body offered to make us whole.

Let me re-cap. I have suggested that we are bodied selves as the expression of God’s good wisdom. Our sexuality is a matter of Christian vocation, because God calls us into embodiment. One particularly evocative image for this vocational task is to suggest that our bodies can burn with the presence of God no less than the burning bush before which Moses stood. Finally, drawing on the prophetic and gospel traditions, as well as on the wider biblical narrative, I have suggested that an ethic for sexual relationships that can host the presence of God will be marked by justice, mercy, humility, procreative energy, and joyful abandon. Naming these principles hardly settles every ethical question in advance by producing a set of fixed rules. But that isn’t how ethics works. It isn’t how adults operate. It isn’t how life is lived. And it was never the original challenge of embodiment. The goal has always been integrity: improvisation grounded in creativity and character as we seek to image God while we fill our fleshly frames with love. 

In offering this biblically grounded set of values and principles, I hope not only to clarify our own ethical reflections but also to foster conversations that can be include family and friends in the church and in our wider communities. Hardly the final word, these principles simply offer a place to begin. The integrity we seek is the fruit of good conversation, in which ideas and practices can be compassionately and appreciatively contested. We have much to talk about. Best that we find words that carry both the wisdom of our tradition and the love of our lives as we meet the challenging questions of our day.

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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 drw59mn@gmail.com. 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 SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Even Beauty Cannot Save Us

Even Beauty Cannot Save Us
David R. Weiss – February 5, 2022

I am at the Minnesota Orchestra tonight for a concert of East Asian orchestral music to celebrate the Lunar New Year. And my eyes are moist with tears while my heart breaks wide open at the beauty of it all.

If you ask me, a concert like this carries the dream of global unity far better than the Olympics. This music, coming from Korea, China, Vietnam, and Singapore offers stirring evidence of universal themes in human existence. Life, love, longing. Captured in music that evokes teary-eyed awe.

Alas, it will not save us.

Still, this is one gleaming example of the best of who we are. Truly. In these moments, when the orchestra brings this music to life—and when we appreciatively receive this gift—we encounter something More, something so transcendent that we hover at the edge of Holy. Such beauty!

But it will not save us.

My tears are bittersweet. Supremely so. Sweet because this is what we were meant to be. Bitter because too much now I have caught wind of tomorrow. Our world will unravel. Is unraveling. Our future was fractured—our grandchildren’s forfeited—in decades past.

And now even such beauty cannot save us.

This orchestra, this music, this concert, embodies the possible. That humanity is not destined to be inhuman. We are capable of beauty. Worthy of awe. Created for conviviality. Ennobled by compassion. We can be transfigured by joy.

But none of that will save us.

The world has turned. Past tense. And is still turning. Imperfect tense: damning tomorrow with today’s inertia. We imagine it can never be too late. Of course, once we come to our senses, it will all be okay. We’ll fix things. No. We have no idea what we have done.

We dare not gauge the damage. Nature may well love us (although the phrase rings anthropomorphic), but she does not negotiate. And our tab is well past due.

So, tonight in Orchestra Hall my eyes are wet with awe. And grief. Tinged with gratitude.

Even beauty cannot save us. But it might salve us yet. It might not only comfort our wakened, wizened souls, it might also enable us to affirm of our spirits: this is who we are. Not were. ARE.

A salve. In the ruins of what once was—but was perhaps never meant to be—beauty (and awe, compassion and conviviality, even joy) might yet be our last testament.

It is too late to save us. But it is not too late to sing.

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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 drw59mn@gmail.com. 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 SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Carjackings and Canaries

Carjackings and canaries
January 24, 2022 – David R. Weiss

I am buried in other work right now, but I am also deeply unsettled by the recent escalation in number of carjackings and other material crimes—and the rise in aggression shown in committing them. For instance, as Minnesota Public Radio recently reported (citing as its source the Star Tribune), Minneapolis saw a 537 percent (!) increase in carjackings in the twelve months from November 2019 to November 2020—and that rate has continued to increase (albeit more slowly) since then.

Our local nightly news seems to regularly lead with the latest report of a carjacking, often replete with terrifying video footage. Average Minnesotans are scared—our sense of insecurity and outright anxiety is being stoked daily.

What to do? Should we employ more police? Impose stiffer penalties? Build bigger jails and prisons. Adopt a siege-mentality alongside our prudent defensive driving skills?

Because I am busy, I will say this swiftly and bluntly: Tax the hell out of the rich until they bleed.

I do not say this because I think it’s likely (would that it were!!!!!!!!!!!!), but because it’s true.

Carjackings are—without question—like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. They are the unmistakable signal that our socio-economic environment has grown toxic. I am NOT defending carjacking. I am, however, insisting that we put it in perspective.

As King said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” So perhaps carjacking is the grammar of the bereft. When you’ve seen your neighborhoods plundered, your prospects for the future effectively erased, then the rage shown—if not justifiable, because it typically targets those who are relatively innocent—is at least explicable.

From 1975 to 2020 the top 1% (the elite rich; annual income close to $1 million, and, of course those far above that) have DRAINED $50 TRILLION from the bottom fifty percent. That’s carjacking on a scale never reported on the nightly news—unless mentioned in passing as an abstract data point.

But it’s NOT an abstract data point. It a tale of inhumanity. When you factor in the cost to health, public safety, mental well-being, familial stability, education, and so forth—all such things negatively impacted by the INTENTIONAL IMPOVERIZATION of the least in our society, this is violence-by-wealth on the scale of a crime against humanity.

Had this obscene—terrifying!—wealth theft not occurred, the median wage in the U.S. would have increased by $19,000 per year. And I can virtually guarantee we wouldn’t be having daily doses of fear injected into our consciousness because of a wave of violent carjackings.

Between 2006 and 2018 alone, 87% of the new wealth generated ($12 trillion out of $13.8 trillion) somehow “drifted” into the bank accounts of the top 1%. Nobody was pistol-whipped to make that happen, but it was far more violent in its effect. Indeed, the bottom HALF of our society saw their wealth fall during those same years.

If you watched your long economic odds twist in the wind from birth to teenage years and then began to understand—or at least sense—that this twisting was not mere misfortune but the very intent of the system into which you were born … And then were treated over the holidays to obscene commercials about people with the wealth to buy whole new luxury vehicles as gifts (how many households really do that?! that’s the 1% celebrating their wealth and rubbing our collective noses not even so much in their wealth as in our collective precarity) … Well, if you’re a canary in THAT coalmine, you might just feel like jacking a car.

Not even because you imagine you can keep it. Simply because it rips away the security assumed by those above you but within your reach. Because it voices the smallest tip of your rage at a system that has consistently STOLEN from you.

More police? Tougher sentences? Bigger jails and prisons? Adding siege-mentality driving to our skill set?

Mark my words, the elite rich are happy to see fear of violent young men carry the lead on the evening news. Because it’s a massive and largely successful distraction from their continuing appetite to live with genocidal avarice and criminal indifference toward the poor.

The poor have been hemorrhaging at the whim of the rich long enough. Tax the rich until they bleed. Anything else is rearranging irrelevant pieces on the game board.

* * *

Note: I didn’t plan to write this essay today, although the spate of carjackings—and this general angle on it—have been on my mind. But while reading How Everything Can Collapse, a primer on the damning likelihood of ecological/economic/societal collapse (I know, cheery January reading), I read a chapter discussing the contribution of wealth inequity to the dynamics of collapse. Both computer modeling and sociological data agree: rising wealth inequity has toxic social effects in the short run and catastrophic ecological effects over the long term. It is not too strong an assessment to say that the wealthy have gamed the political-economic system to suck wealth upwards at the willful expense of suffering and death by the poor and at the cost of careless irremediable damage to the ecosystem. Wealth is, in point of fact, deadly to humans, creatures, and entire societies and ecosystems. (Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, How Everything Can Collapse (French edition, Éditions du Seuil, 2015; English edition, Polity Press, 2020), especially pp. 110-122.

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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 drw59mn@gmail.com. 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 SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Love letter to my church

If you know me, you know I have a long, complicated relationship with congregations. I usually find myself at the edge of a faith community, because it’s the only place I seem to find breathing space. And I have occasionally been deeply wounded—deeply harmed—by persons in congregations. So I tend to carry myself with a measure of prudent caution. But the congregation to which I am connected these days (St. Paul’s UCC here in St. Paul) has been a healing, inviting place for me to be … and to breathe. This poem was sparked by my quiet joy after a small group book discussion, but is truly the culmination of a host of experiences that leave me … tingling.

Image by @just_katiek on Instagram

Love letter to my church

I am not much on effusive displays of affection—
at least not in public. 😉
But I need to say this, or I’ll explode.
There are times you make me tingle
from baptized head to blessed toe.
Sunday morning worship that aims for authenticity—
blending prayer and preaching, silence and song.
Organ swelling, musicians playing, choir singing,
and kids—reverent, antsy, curious, quiet: BLESSED.
Meal fellowship where, ever over cheery words,
Jesus shows up in the breaking of bread.
Adult learning that asks us to lean in—hard—
to the places where faith and life cross—and cross again.
Coffee hour (but damn this pandemic!)
when casual conversation is sacramental
and we indeed become church to one another.
Small groups that make brave space to weave strength
on the loom of our shared vulnerability.
Sarah says, in her blessing at the end of worship,
“… and the community and power of the Holy Spirit.”
That’s us! Right there, caught up in the life of God.
In a world fraught with injustice and uncertainty
—but also rampant with beauty and joy!—
you make me excited (even amid my fears)
for what tomorrow might bring.
I’m glad we’re in this together.
Don’t blush, but even “tingle” falls short.

DRW – January 20, 2022

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. 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 SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on January 24, 2022. 2 Comments