Tag Archive | Climate Change

Resilience – as Imagination

Resilience – as an Act of Imagination
David R. Weiss – March 15, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #14 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

The Transition movement is grounded a two-fold recognition.[1] First, fossil fuel is finite and, at some point in the not too distant future, production will begin to decline, leading to cost increases that will require us to transition to other energy sources. That’s not about preference or convenience, it’s about (initially) economic necessity and (eventually) material necessity when oil and gas become not simply costly but downright scarce. Second, we now know—and have known for decades!—that using fossil fuels is slow-cooking the planet. It’s altering the atmosphere in ways that will have repercussions on Earth’s climate for decades even after we stop using them.

Ultimately this isn’t a matter of political debate or a lifestyle preference. It’s about a fast approaching collision between past (and present!) choices, scientific fact, and basic math. And sadly, primarily because of corporate and political and even religious resistance (add in some personal human stubbornness as well, but this is small compared to the other driving forces) this is going to be an ugly collision.

So Transition takes it for granted that we NEED to transition away from an economic life (and a culinary life and a cultural life and a transportation life and a recreational life …) that depends on fossil fuel. In that sense, transition itself isn’t so much a choice the transition movement argues for, as it is simply the shape of the future it foresees. We will transition. What makes Transition distinctive, though, is that it has no interest in going into that fossil fuel-less world kicking and screaming, nor even with somber resignation. No, it’s eager to pursue transition because the Transition movement sees a host of good things coming our way. More on that later, but in short it sees the our transition away from fossil fuel as offering the opportunity to renew communities in vibrant, localized way that will deepen our humanity, our health, and our joy.

BUT—that doesn’t mean the aforementioned collision is going to be anything other than ugly. Which is where resilience comes in. More than merely the capacity to bounce back after a hard shock, in Transition, resilience includes the inner confidence that as communities we can, indeed, withstand the coming shock, and can move forward beyond it … toward something that may be radically simpler but also radically better. And therefore rather than passively waiting for the shock to hit us, resilience says we can choose to move toward that fossil fuel-less future. Resilience allows us to lean into transition with an urgency that is tempered by both confidence and longing. One key facet of resilience, as I mentioned in my last post, is to enliven imagination in a political-economic-cultural system designed to shut it down.[2]

Fossil fuel dependency endangers both us and the planet so “effectively” because it permeates so many systems. It’s central to producing and transporting almost everything we make and much of the food we eat. We rely on it to light and heat our homes, run our appliances, and get us from here to there to everywhere. It’s bound up with our comfort and convenience, but also with many things necessary for civilized society. Put all these things together and it’s just plain hard to imagine other ways of life that are so drenched (in largely unseen, non-greasy ways) in oil.

Add to this short list that the fossil fuel industry is extraordinarily profitable, and we have a scenario in which lack of imagination isn’t simply a matter of personal or even societal laziness, it’s orchestrated. We live in a political-economic-cultural system designed to shut imagination down. Today we may be more nuanced in our understanding of how these systems work, but, as I’ve noted earlier (GIT #6 “Home by Another Route”) this is hardly a new insight altogether. It’s exactly what the apostle Paul means when he observes that our lives are constrained not only by the temptations or the mere limits that come with being human but also by “powers and principalities”—amoral but deadly forces that get embedded in systems. Human choices conspire with them, but even human passivity acts as accomplice because these forces operate with a relentless inertia of their own that welcomes our indifference … or our distraction.[3]

In this context—and spanning two thousand years—Jesus’ parables and teaching persist as seeds that seek to expand our vision beyond what is and focus our attention on what matters. Such gifts are more necessary than ever today because the stakes involve the entire human community as well the flora and fauna across the planet. Churches (indeed faith communities of all stripes) MUST become places where enlivening our capacity for vital social imagination is not viewed as a civic nicety separate from church but as a ministry imperative. It is the pressure of the gospel on the present moment—and it is always pressing for transformation.

Thus, it is a matter of remembering—and reclaiming—who we are. At the heart of Jesus’ ministry was his announcement of the “kingdom of God.” More clumsily—but more accurately—rendered as “the activity of God reigning as king,” Jesus’ parables, healings, and table fellowship both image and embody the surprise and reversal that accompany the energy of God as it moves through our world.

While Jesus uses kingdom language (likely as a severe critique of human kingship) we might today name the positive dynamic of divine energy as kin-making activity. This radical unsettling grace transforms children, Samaritans, women, even lepers into mascots of God’s kin-dom. It resides as the revolutionary spirit behind Jesus’ commission that we see his visage on the least of these in our world. It drives Paul to declare a “new creation” in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor male and female” (Gal. 3:28). Of course these differences remain, but they no longer serve as reasons for division. (Except that the powers and principalities continue to play these differences off against each other: rich vs. poor; human vs. nonhuman; first world vs. developing world; labor vs. environment, etc.)

For this reason, biblical literacy is a progressive Christian value. It enables us recover the full power of the gospel, producing inward and outward transformation at both personal and societal levels. The gospel declares the love of God for the whole of creation and beckons us to imagine a world—in this world—that echoes God’s love, not simply for those most like us, but even and especially for those least among us, whether human or non-human. This imagining is what the Transition movement calls for, although it frames this in secular language. But as faith communities we not only have a clear doorway into this conversation, we also have both a heritage to honor and a vocation to answer. Called to be this generation’s new creation community, Christian imagination invites us to lean into transition with an urgency that is tempered by both confidence and longing.

 

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!!

[1] http://transitionus.org/why-transition

[2] Rob Hopkins and Sarah McAdams in “The Transition Movement: Past, Present, and Future,” roundtable discussion, 2018 Transition US Tenth Anniversary Online Summit: www.transitiongathering.org/videos.

[3] Just in February 2019 Joe Balash, U.S. assistant secretary for land and minerals management told a meeting of companies involved in oil exploration, “One of the things I have found absolutely thrilling (!) in working for this administration is that the president has a knack for keeping the attention of the media and the public focused somewhere else while we do all the work that needs to be done on behalf of the American people.” Whether he’s serious or cynical in calling this “work on behalf of the American people,” his recognition that the fossil fuel industry is aided by distraction is all too accurate. www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/14/offshore-drilling-trump-official-reveals-plan-and-distractions-delight.

Redeemed for Resilience

Redeemed for Resilience
David R. Weiss – March 2, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #13 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

This week’s post further introduces the notion of being “redeemed for resilience,” but before we turn to that I need explain a bit about why both parts of that claim might catch many who identify with the Christian tradition off guard. I ended my last post asserting that there are surprising resonances between key insights of the Transition movement and the Jesus story and the early church as glimpsed in Acts and Paul’s epistles. I called these touch points “surprising” because the church that nearly all of us know is on this side of Constantine.

Although Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity and the subsequent “conversion” of Christianity to the imperial religion of the Roman Empire makes for a complicated tale, the basic shift is pretty clear. Over the course of the fourth century, Christianity transformed itself from a faith that lived at the edges of society—and quite set off from political power (at times persecuted by it)—to a religion at ease with … and entangled with the dominant political power … and invested in its preservation and expansion.

It’s hard to overstate this shift. Both the initial pitch and dynamic of the gospel message are aimed at those who live—and die—at the edge of power. In the wake of Jesus’ historical ministry, the early church, while clearly beset by its own internal struggles over the role of women, the embrace of the Gentiles, and a host of other topics, nevertheless distinguished itself as a Spirit-driven movement. From Constantine onward the Spirit was increasingly domesticated—hobbled would be accurate.

Those with political power typically regard religion as an asset to be used to their benefit. And from Emperor Constantine to President Trump this has most often meant using “Christianity” to unite nations and baptize patriotism (often alongside colonizing or otherwise suppressing “others”). The unity and the patriotism are shaped by the values of the dominant powers of the day and rarely reflect the gospel values of Jesus. And the more thoroughly such “Christianity” is interwoven with the dominant culture that supports that dominant political power, the more we all become … docile. And while you likely won’t find “docile” listed as an antonym to “resilient” in your thesaurus (I checked mine), it’s close enough. If resilience is what we need, docility is what we can’t afford.

This isn’t to say that threads of the initial Jesus’ movement haven’t found their way forward past Constantine. They have. But post-Constantine the most authentic expressions of the gospel dynamic are often relegated to the exceptional. Reserved for the domain of personal piety, “radical” communities (whether convent, monastery, commune, or even cult), or, in moderation, congregations.

But what if we were redeemed … for resilience? What if the commission to carry the gospel to the ends of the Earth was less (or not at all!) about savings souls for Jesus and more (or entirely!) about helping to unleash the power of the gospel to humanize societies and to harmonize them with ecosystems around the globe? Hint: that’s where I’m putting all my chips.

Redeemed. Christian vocabulary is loaded with land mines. And while the twin attics of Christian history and theology display remarkable diversity, common understandings are often unhelpfully narrow. I don’t mean, “redeemed from our sins”—especially not where “sins” is reduced to rule-breaking that buys us a one-way ticket to damnation unless we’re somehow “redeemed.” No. When I say, “redeemed,” I mean something much less and much more.

Much less in that I’m not talking about some supernatural transaction that plays out across the scope of eternity; I’m talking about having our worldview “bought back,” re-directed at the rather mundane level of daily life. Much more in that I actually believe THIS is what Jesus intended: a “re-purchasing” of our imagination and our actions such that we honor the image of God in our neighbors and the dignity of creation all around us. Much more in that this is redemption that bears fruit here and now, which happens to be not only where we most need it, but also where God most desires it.

Resilience. Recall that Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition movement, describes resilience as the capacity “to withstand shock and then adapt … to think on one’s feet in any given situation.” But he adds that even more than this, resilience is able to meet shock/threat “as an opportunity to step forward and engage … in a positive and creative way.”[1]

I have sometimes described “faith” to my students as NOT the set of beliefs we hold but the internal-intuitive posture (trusting, fearful, cynical, judgmental, etc.) with which we lean into life. That faith/posture is both birthed and fostered by the beliefs, practices, biases, and experiences at play around us. In this sense, resilience is a faith/posture cultivated to meet the world in the midst of its acknowledged threats nonetheless grounded in trust. Not a naïve trust that everything will just somehow work out, but a more gritty trust that somehow—as a community of people (beginning at the most local levels) we can make choices that move us in the direction of living harmoniously on a finite planet. That’s resilience.

And at its authentic heart, Christianity is a story with the power to redeem us for resilience, to reshape our worldview decisively—redemptively—such that (among other things) we turn from living off the world to living in/with the world. And we make this “turn” with such vitality and joy that words like “born again” (John 3:1-8) or “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:16-20) are legitimate hyperbole.

Last fall, on the tenth anniversary of its arrival in the U.S., two Transition movement leaders identified several of its core insights as these: (1) to enliven imagination in a political-economic-cultural system designed to shut it down; (2) to tap into deep agency, both as individuals and as local communities; (3) to reclaim and share the very earthbound skills required in this moment; and (4) to do these things without waiting for permission from the “governing” (political, corporate, and cultural) forces around us.[2]

In the coming weeks I’ll explore each insight as it has echoes in Christianity. I’ll argue that not only Jesus’ parables and teaching but also the early church’s use of language, imagery, and ritual are precisely efforts to enliven imagination in a political-economic-cultural system designed to shut it down. I’ll assert that Jesus’ commissioning of disciples and Paul’s call to exercise “bold speech” on behalf of the gospel both seek to tap into deep agency, both as individuals and as local communities. I’ll suggest that Jesus’ teaching about “the least of these” (among others) as well as the portrait of the early church found in both Acts and Paul’s letters in a certain sense anticipate the need to reclaim and share the very earthbound skills required in this moment. And I’ll propose that both Jesus’ ministry and Paul’s vision for the church are rife with invitations to do these things without waiting for permission from the “governing” (political, corporate, and cultural) forces around us.

Next week we begin by looking at Jesus and the early church as an exercise in enlivening our imagination. I hope you’ll be back.

 

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!!

[1] www.transitionnetwork.org/news-and-blog/building-resilience

[2] Rob Hopkins and Sarah McAdams in “The Transition Movement: Past, Present, and Future,” roundtable discussion, 2018 Transition US Tenth Anniversary Online Summit: www.transitiongathering.org/videos.

(Perhaps) the Most Important Ask of My Life

(Perhaps) the Most Important Ask of My Life
David R. Weiss – February 27, 2019

Usually on my blog I post my reflections, whether inward or outward, set here for your consideration. Today I’m writing directly to YOU.

Some of you have followed my blog since I launched it a decade ago. Several of you have subscribed just in the last month or two. However long you’ve been with, thanks for listening in as I put words on the sparks that fly across the gray matter in my mind. Now I’m going to ask you—if you can—to put some money out in support of those sparks.

I’ve launched a Patreon website to help fund my thinking and writing for years to come. In this blog post I’ll explain why I’m doing this, what changes, and how you can support me in this endeavor.

What changes?

In a word: nothing. My blog posts will remain public and available (free) to everyone who comes to my website. This is partly a theological conviction: my theology is grace-driven—grounded in the GIFT character of God’s love—and I want my work to reflect that as clearly as possible. That’s important to say because most persons who use Patreon as a way to fund their work use a “transactional” model where paid support gets you quicker or more extensive access to what someone produces. That’s a very legitimate choice for most persons, and it has a certain pull even on me (my groceries, utilities, mortgage all operate transactionally—I only access what I pay for), but I intend to continue blogging as gift. It feels like the right choice for me even as it’s a risky one.

On the other hand: everything changes. Maybe. To the extent that the support for my work comes forward from you and from new followers, I’ll be able to devote more time to thinking and writing about the things that matter most to me … to the church … and to the wider world. Patreon offers me the possibility to do this work more faithfully and more fervently than I’ve ever been able to in my entire life.

Why—and why now?

For a host of reasons I’ve never found a real match between paid employment and inner gifts. I’m not going to review those reasons here (I’ve blogged about them several times in the past years). I’m not going apologize for missed opportunities or getting distracted by good work that fell short of being vocation—or for work that has been vocational but not economically sustainable. I’m here to ask for support as I do the work that calls out to me now … and likely for the rest of my life. I hope you’ll step up and be there with me. But if not, you’re still welcome to keep reading as I chart this new course. Maybe my work will draw you further in as it goes along.

My vocation goal is toward public theology—thinking out loud about God and the deepest sources of meaning in our lives as they intersect with the issues of today. Thinking, writing, speaking, teaching. For a large season of my life (about 20 years) that call focused foremost around welcome to LGBTQ persons. In recent years, without leaving that work behind, I’ve felt pulled strongly to the challenge of climate change and imagining how Christian (and other) communities can faithfully respond. I expect this work will last me for the next 20 years. Climate change isn’t going anywhere (except in the direction of worse), so, quite frankly, I expect I’ll be doing this work until I lose my life, my mind, or my faith. I’m in for the long haul.

I hope to do more public speaking again, and I won’t turn down college teaching opportunities (although they’ve been rare of late)—so long as they’re also opportunities to deepen my own work. But at age 59, I’m interested in summoning all my energy, insights, all gifts, into doing work that really matters. And, if I can garner even a modest stream of steady income from Patreon, it will enable me to do this. Not selfishly, but as a way to honor a call which has always been about linking my work to the wider world. I hope as the reach of my work extends others will want to support it as well. But as I begin this adventure, I need the support of those who have already seen what I can do, and are willing to support me in doing more, with fresh energy and deeper focus. Which is why I’m reaching out to you as my first circle of support.

So, how can you support me?

Like many online fundraising sites, Patreon offers a secure platform for people to make financial pledges to help fund my work. Unlike nearly every other such site, Patreon only processes ongoing monthly sustaining pledges. It doesn’t accept one-time gifts. It’s a way for artists and writers to cultivate “sustaining members.” Patrons (potentially YOU) create an account, put in your credit card information, and select a level of monthly support from as little as $2/month on up to whatever you can imagine. (I have one passionate supporter who has pledged $50/month(!) although most of my first pledges are in the $5-$7/month range.) Patreon bundles together the whole range of small, medium, and large pledges—allowing everyone to give a level of monthly support that is meaningful and doable for them—and I get one monthly support payment from Patreon that can actually help make my work sustainable.

Several people have asked if they can simply make a one-time or an annual gift because for one reason or another that works best for them. No … and yes. You can’t make a one-time or annual gift via Patreon; that’s not how their model is set up. And, honestly, supporting me through Patreon offers me the steadiest stream of income. However, because this work matters so much to me, I’ll gratefully accept any support you offer. In that case, you’ll need to send a check or PayPal gift directly to me. I’ll deposit these gifts into an account where I draw on them monthly like the rest of my Patreon funds. Email me for details: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.

So, here’s the big question: WILL YOU JOIN WITH ME IN THIS ADVENTURE OF “COMMUNITY SUPPORTED THEOLOGY”? I believe this is where I am called to be in this moment. With your pledge you help affirm that call.

Here’s the link to Patreon. You can read my full pitch there, or go directly to the “Become a Patron” button in the upper right of the page.

Lao-Tzu is credited with the wisdom, “The longest journey begins with a single step.” For me, this is that step. However you choose to walk with me in the months and years ahead, THANK YOU.

~David

Not Even Kansas …

Not Even Kansas …
David R. Weiss – February 21, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #12 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Never mind about Toto or Dorothy, before long not even Kansas will be in Kansas anymore. According to a recent report in the journal Nature Communications (2/12/2019) one result of climate change is that Minnesota’s climate will eventually* feel like Kansas.[1]

*It’s the “eventually” that the problem. We’re not talking a couple hundred years. We’re talking several decades. At the current rate of climate change, for instance, in just three or four decades the southern Minnesota city of Faribault will have a climate that matches areas in Kansas—500 miles to the south. To put that in even starker perspective, it’s as though the city’s climate is moving south at 315 feet per day.

There’s nothing wrong with Kansas. Still, as University of Minnesota forest ecologist, Lee Frelich, recently remarked in testimony at a state legislative hearing, “I don’t know about you, but I didn’t move to Kansas for a reason.” Frelich’s bias, no doubt a matter of both preference and profession, is bound up with the absence of forest in Kansas. An absence looming for Minnesota as well.

As a Kansas climate creeps northward into Minnesota we may keep our 10,000 lakes, but in other ways our landscape will get an extreme makeover. The temperate broadleaf forests that now shade large swaths of central and southern Minnesota will give way to savannah grassland. Minnesota’s boreal forest—the two million acres of pine and spruce in our northern reaches—will be overtaken by maple and other deciduous trees as the evergreens “retreat” to Canada. That’s a polite way of saying they’ll die off because they can’t adapt to the damn heat. When my grandchildren reach my age (fifty years out), from the headwaters of the Mississippi across to the scenic North Shore they’ll more likely be met with sprawling prairie than towering pines.

Multiply those effects across all of Minnesota’s flora and fauna and the impact becomes staggering. We’ll lose up to a third of our native species. Moose, lynx, walleye, and Minnesota’s magical bird, the loon—all gone. Ticks and mosquitos? Not so much. Their range will expand, as will the range of various agriculture pests (in part because their late fall eggs will have a better chance of surviving warmer winters and then replenishing populations earlier in the spring). From withering drought to torrential downpour, from unrelenting heat to catastrophic flood, extreme weather, so called because it’s outside the norm, will become … almost normal. But no less extreme in the mark it makes on Minnesotans themselves.

Asthma, allergies, heat-related illnesses, and insect-borne diseases will all see a boom. Because of the way that poor air quality intersects with poor neighborhoods—and the way race intersects with both—communities of color will be hit hardest. The general upheaval wrought by climate change, plus the specific disasters it will unleash—will mean an uptick in mental health issues ranging from anxiety and depression to post traumatic stress and suicide.

Remember, the key word is “eventually,” and the problem is that, with climate change, Kansas is coming to Minnesota (so to speak) way too quickly. When “eventually” is compressed into a single generation there’s simply no time for ecosystems, animals, farmland, cities, or people to adapt. I support the Green New Deal. I’m all for Minnesota setting out a pathway to 100% renewable energy. These are good—even critical goals. But the carbon already loaded (and still loading!) into our atmosphere means that a Kansas climate has already packed its bags for Minnesota. Whether it arrives in two decades or ten, and whether it reaches all the way to the Arrowhead or slows down mid-state, these are variables. But whether Kansas comes? That ticket is already bought and paid for.

Which brings me to resilience. As we’re getting that extreme makeover courtesy of climate change—and that “getting” will stretch on for decades; Kansas won’t show up overnight but over years and years; its arrival will be at once far too fast for our comfort and yet also interminably slow until it finally settles in—during that “getting,” what we will need more than anything else is resilience.

Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition movement, describes resilience as “the ability of a system, such as a local economy or community, to withstand shock and then adapt to that shock. It’s the ability to flex, adapt and to change, and think on its feet in any given situation.” Resilience will be a real virtue while Kansas seems to be clobbering us from south to north. But Hopkins goes on to say, “The twist which we try to put on resilience in the Transition Network is that the ability to react to those threats shouldn’t just be a process to avoid the worst possible outcome, but should be seen as an opportunity to engage … in a positive and creative way. Resilience is an opportunity and a step forward [my emphasis], rather than purely a disaster avoidance strategy.”[2]

You hear an inkling of (perhaps begrudging) resilience when Lee Frelich—the forest ecologist—says of his beloved boreal forest, “We’ll just have to make sure it’s the best savannah it can be. Not a bunch of invasive species. We’ll have to move some of the plants from our little tiny savannah remnants in southern Minnesota up there. We’ll just have to do the best we can.”

I happen to think Christian communities have unique resources to foster resilience, although I certainly don’t claim resilience as a uniquely Christian virtue. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, heck, even—maybe especially—Pagans and atheists have their own unique resources for resilience (and that’s hardly an exhaustive list). But I’m writing for Christians right now and my message is that we have largely untapped resources for resilience in our tradition. And in the face of climate change that’s good news. Maybe not exactly of the sort we’d hoped for, but precisely the sort we need. I’ll unpack that more in my next post, but here’s a short teaser.

Within the Transition movement resilience is not a top-down program of specified responses. Among its core insights are these: we need to enliven imagination in a political-economic-cultural system designed to shut it down; we need to tap into deep agency, both as individuals and as local communities; we need to reclaim and share the very earthbound skills required in this moment; and we need to do these things without waiting for permission from the “governing” (political, corporate, and cultural) forces around us.[3]

There are surprising resonances between these Transition insights and the Jesus story and the early church as glimpsed in Acts and Paul’s epistles. Surprising, because as a whole from Constantine onward the church has sought to be entwined with political-economic power and dominant cultures rather than to challenge (even subvert) them for the sake of the Gospel. But there are hints we were redeemed … for resilience. Next week we’ll start there.

 

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith 

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!!

[1] The information in this essay comes from these three news stories: Minnesota Public Radio News, February 12, 2019, City Pages, February 20, 2019, and Rochester Post-Bulletin, January 18, 2019.

[2] www.transitionnetwork.org/news-and-blog/building-resilience

[3] These insights are called out by Rob Hopkins and Sarah McAdams in “The Transition Movement: Past, Present, and Future,” a keynote roundtable discussion during the 2018 Transition US Tenth Anniversary Online Summit: www.transitiongathering.org/videos.

Extinguishing the Alphabet … of Bens and Bugs

Epiphany: Extinguishing the Alphabet … of Bens and Bugs
David R. Weiss – February 15, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #11 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

I encountered the Jewish legend decades ago in a book by Gail Ramshaw, Letters for God’s Name. The tale goes that a Jewish peasant is hurrying to finish his fieldwork to make it to the Passover service. But the sun sets, he cannot travel, and so he must spend the holy night in the field. Unable even to remember the words to the prayers, he decides in serene desperation to simply recite the alphabet and trust God to arrange the letters into their proper places.[1]

The image is one of faith and grace. Faith, that even our most meager efforts might somehow be sufficient—and grace, that God will not fail to work with what we sincerely offer. I affirm this as truth. And yet I want to push the story one bit further. What if the alphabet itself could not be found? What then? And before we rush forward to claim grace even in that extreme, I want to dwell for a moment in the terror … of an extinguished alphabet.

Because that’s what we’re facing ecologically. This past week, in the first global scientific review of the health of insects worldwide, we learned their precipitous decline is nothing short of damning.[2] Based on 73 different studies assessing insect populations, the review found that one third of all insects are now endangered. They’re presently going extinct eight times faster than mammals, birds, and reptiles (none of whom are exactly thriving!). We’ve lost 2.5% of the total biomass of insects each year for the past 25-30 years. With no recovery. Sit down and sit with that for a long quiet moment: compared to 1990, the year my now 31 year-old son turned three—over the course of his still young life—we’ve lost 80% of the total biomass of insects across the globe.

In words particularly strident in a peer-reviewed scientific paper (meaning that the phrasing had to pass by the watchful eyes of scientific peers not connected to the review itself) the study declares the very real possibility that “insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades. The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosysyems are catastrophic to say the least.” To say the least.

As Professor Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex in the UK explains, “Insects are at the heart of every food web, they pollinate the large majority of plant species, keep the soil healthy, recycle nutrients, control pests, and much more.” When the Psalmist says, “Let all creation praise the Lord,” (Psalm 148 and elsewhere)—well, in earth’s praise, insects are the alphabet. And we’re extinguishing the alphabet.

The cause is not a mystery. Broadly speaking it is the direct result of agricultural intensification coupled with the use of pesticides. “Intensification” describes the practice of eliminating all “wild areas” around farm fields: every bit of land is either left entirely bare or is treated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Together these forces have turned insects into a largely unseen population of refugees in their own lands—and have unleashed a planetary-scale genocide of these least of God’s creatures … with cascading consequences that threaten not only our survival, but the well-being of the rest of creation. In Germany, for instance, insect losses of 75% were recorded even in protected nature reserves. The web of being does not follow the boundaries we set for field and nation. And the holes we rip in that web run far afield.

Light pollution and urbanization add to the assault on insects, encroaching on the land and darkness that are essential for insect habitat. For its part, climate change is an “entangled” factor. In some places where industrial agriculture has not yet remade landscapes and farming practices climate change is still clearly taking a toll on insect populations. But even apart from this, the rise of fossil-fuel intensive agriculture (which is what industrial agriculture is) has been a primary contributor to climate change. The warming climate and the approaching end of insects are both linked to the oil that drips through the way we eat, from farmland to grocery store to kitchen table.

Is there no way forward? Which is really to ask, is there any way backward? Because backward is the direction we need to move. There are less oily ways to eat. But they presume skills, tastes, patience, and priorities that have been crowded out of our customs and character by the twin idols of “cheap” and “convenient. The stark imperative is to change the ways we grow, deliver, process, and consume food. These are daunting systemic changes. But they are probably the only changes that can save the bugs … and the world into which they are wholly (and graciously!) interwoven. There are, as well, small scale ways to harness empowerment through the pursuit of personal accountability and integrity.

For instance, organic farms continue to “host” far more insects, even as their farmers battle the worst plant pests in ways that protect produce without devastating entire insect populations. So now we know that buying organic is perhaps an essential spiritual practice, one that aims to honor the place of bugs in God’s creation choir. Similarly, ending our love affair with the grassy lawn may prove to be a revolutionary act. On The Rachel Carson Center’s blog one post invites us to “Make Meadows not Lawns.”[3] In so doing, we not only reclaim the ground around our homes as a sacred sanctuary space, we might also come to love our tiniest and most necessary fellow earthlings. (The word “love” is not gross overstatement; it actually hearkens to E.O. Wilson’s notion of biophilia, the demonstrable psychic and emotional benefits that accrue in a deep relationship with the natural world.) We might even remember that in our own mythic origins we were christened “humus beings”—fashioned from dirt and beckoned to tend the ground beneath our feet.

Re-thinking—re-making—our food choices and our yard choices also provides opportunities to build community (share ideas, trade/teach skills) within churches and neighborhoods. In fact, the alchemy of honest grief, passionate conviction, imaginative sharing, and communal bonding may be the only combination that carries us backward in a way that can also carry us forward. If God is to arrange the remaining letters of the alphabet into a prayer that might still heal the earth, we will need to embrace insects before they are lost.

The hard data in the scientific review is hard even for me (and I have a pretty close kinship with melancholy most days). Unless we make dramatic changes, of the 20% (of the 1990) insect biomass remaining from my son Benjamin’s childhood, only 10% will be left by the time he reaches eighty. By the time my grandson, who turns three this year and is also named Benjamin, reaches his eightieth birthday … insects may well be a memory. If they are, the odds of my grandson making it to eighty aren’t much better.

Climate change is not finally about reason or profit. It is about grief and love. And, right now, dammit, it’s also about the bugs.

[1] Gail Ramshaw, Letters for God’s Name, Seabury Press, 1984, p. i.

[2] All the background data in this essay comes from: www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature

[3] www.seeingthewoods.org/2018/12/20/make-meadows-not-lawns

 

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

 

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey.In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

[1] Gail Ramshaw, Letters for God’s Name, Seabury Press, 1984, p. i.

[2] All the background data in this essay comes from: www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature

[3] www.seeingthewoods.org/2018/12/20/make-meadows-not-lawns

Epiphany: Ice Out on the Himalayas

Epiphany: Ice Out on the Himalayas
David R. Weiss – February 6, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #10 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

As I noted last week, Epiphany, the feast that marks the arrival of the Magi, is about “Aha!” moments of insight. For the Magi, their epiphany was evident both in the faith that led them to follow the star and in finding the Christ child; their tale symbolic of the universal reach of God. The season of Epiphany lifts up other “Aha!” moments for Jesus leading up to his transfiguration, a classic mountaintop epiphany. This week’s news offered another mountaintop epiphany, which is my focus today.

Sometimes referred to as Earth’s “third pole” because more ice is found here than anywhere else on the planet except for the Arctic and Antarctic, the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) mountain region spans eight countries. Moving roughly west to east these glacier-capped peaks are found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The fresh water in these mountains—rainfall, but especially the water stored in ice and snowpack—feeds ten major rivers, including the Indus and the Ganges. And this region is headed for “ice out.”[1]

According to a report just released (February 4, 2019) by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), even under a best case scenario (one researcher refers to it as the “miracle” scenario) in which we actually stop global warming at the “ideal” 1.50C, more than a third of the region’s ice and snow will be gone by 2100. Fully half of it will be lost if we only manage the more realistic (but still increasingly difficult) target of 20C in warming. And if we go on pumping carbon into the system at present rates, over two-thirds of the HKH region’s ice will be gone in less than a century.

Writing from Minnesota’s mid-winter deep freeze, with streets and sidewalks coated with ice—ice now covered with several inches of fresh snow (and more on the way), maybe ice-out isn’t such a bad idea. But it is. The glaciers in these mountains store water and release it seasonally. Besides being essential to the immediate ecosystem—home to 240 million people and a range of wildlife—the water that flows down from these mountains is critical for the agriculture, energy, sanitation, and water needs of close to two billion people.

The ICIMOD report hardly represents an extreme view. It was five years in the making, with more than 200 scientists representing 22 countries contributing research, and another 125 peer reviewers cross-checking it. It offers very much a “middle-of-the-road” consensus epiphany. And it is alarming—and unforgiving: climate change is driving temperature rise faster at higher elevation—and the impacts in the report are already “loaded” into the system.

If this is a facet of the climate crisis you haven’t heard of yet, that’s partly economic. 80 million of the region’s inhabitants live on less than $750 per year. Nearly all of the impacted areas would be considered parts of “developing” regions, thus rarely worth screen time or print space in our news cycle. Especially because right now it’s merely a dawning disaster. But wait until the dawn hits.

As the glaciers melt—which is a matter of when, not if—the melt will first dramatically increase river flows and threaten mountain lakes to overflow their banks in never-before-seen floods. But eventually—and that’s not a geological “eventually” spread over eons, that’s a generational “eventually” that will play out within single lifetimes—the decreased water levels will leave lakes and springs and streams starved for water. And along the way the only thing truly predictable about the lurch between flooding and barren rivers will be the ensuing chaos. Drinking water, hydro-electric power, agricultural production, human sanitation, and all the natural flora and fauna in the region will be upended. Of course, the people living in this area are among those least driving climate change, yet also among those most vulnerable to its effects. It’s an unfortunate and unjust double-membership that will be common in the coming decades.

Ultimately, when ice-out hits—whether one-third, one-half, or more—the ripple effects will reach well beyond the HKH region producing inevitable waves of migration and rounds of conflict. By then the waning of the world’s “third pole” will be rippling toward all of us.

How does this hard icy-cold, then rushing-wet, then parched-dry epiphany shape us? I suggest its primary meaning for us as individuals—as persons with limited political-corporate power—and as communities of faith is as a summons to grief. The most significant aspect of the consequences related by this study is their inevitability. We don’t know just how bad it will get, but the adjectives will range from terrible to devastating, from catastrophic to unimaginable. There is no near-miss happy ending available.

I do believe “hope” has a role to play in our response to climate change, but it is hope in a stark form that we are rarely comfortable with. Hope in the form that Václav Havel describes as “the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” It is hope in the form that remembers that the Jesus who says to us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) is the same Jesus who ends up crucified and is pointedly clear that following him involves a cross of our own. That form of hope.

Whatever we do to lessen the impact of climate change at this point—and there is much, both personally and politically that must be done—it should be done “hope-free,” so to speak.[2] Not because we imagine ourselves heroes at the last minute (after decades of denial), but because we are determined to move toward tomorrow, whatever it brings, with more integrity than we had yesterday.

And this is the least popular and most important word of wisdom I carry: we need to tap into grief to find that form of hope. The Transition Movement is paradoxical in extreme—like Luther’s theology of the cross, which asserts that the clearest vision is that which peers through suffering not around it. In a world determined to look ever on the bright side of things (even when it’s the false side) or, at worst, to distract itself from that which we’d rather not see—in that world, the capacity to see suffering, to grieve loss (and not simply our own, but that of others—and of Earth itself), to give voice to lament—these capacities will be existentially essential. We will not survive without grief.

It need not have the last word, but like a sustained note, it will need to color all the other notes we sing for a long, long time. And so long as we avoid the soul-deep lament that the world asks of us, we are not yet singing the song that must be sung. And that’s today’s epiphany.

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

[1] All the background data in this essay comes from these three news reports:
www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/04/a-third-of-himalayan-ice-cap-doomed-finds-shocking-report
www.commondreams.org/news/2019/02/04/climate-crisis-you-havent-heard-even-if-carbon-emissions-fall-third-himalayan-ice
www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/02/himalaya-mountain-climate-change-report
This YouTube video offers a very brief overview as well: https://youtu.be/8bPFAEdRp8o

[2] The phrase is Dahr Jamail’s (who also references the Václav Havel quote) in an excerpt from his book, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Destruction. https://truthout.org/articles/in-facing-mass-extinction-we-dont-need-hope-we-need-to-grieve

Epiphany: Bitter Cold while the House is on Fire

Epiphany: Bitter Cold while the House is on Fire
David R. Weiss – January 29, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #9 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

First, a minor mea culpa: I’m distracted these days by intense bargaining as steward for the Hamline University Adjunct Faculty Union. My intent is to begin shaping these weekly posts into a larger inter-connected arc, but the pace and passion of our bargaining is making that difficult these days. If you’re curious about what I mean, check out my first and second blog posts on that. Otherwise, let’s talk Epiphany and climate change.

The Feast of Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi to see the baby Jesus. It marks the end (the Twelfth Day) of Christmas and ushers in the beginning of the season of Epiphany, which runs until the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Because the visit of the Magi is usually seen as representing the revelation (i.e., the “epiphany,” the “showing”) of the Christ child to the nations, during the rest of the season in the church year we consider other ways Jesus is revealed from baptism to transfiguration.

But right now I’m thinking and writing about climate change and how it’s being “revealed” in this season as well. Right after Christmas I wrote about “shouting ‘Fire’ in church.”[1] Then just last week 16 year-old climate activist, Greta Thunberg, in a powerful speech delivered to some of the world’s wealthiest at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, declared, “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”[2] I couldn’t agree more.

And yet, as the memes on my Facebook page and the headlines in multiple news stories announce, it will be colder in many places here in the Midwest these next few days than in Antarctica. Not surprisingly, President Trump weighed in on this via Twitter: “In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming [sic]? Please come back fast, we need you!”

Well, what gives? On one level this is simply a matter of confusing weather (immediate, short-term atmospheric conditions) with climate (weather considered as a pattern over a long period of time). A short spell of intense cold weather does not cancel global warming any more than one cloudburst undoes a months long drought. Weather will always show much more variability than climate. And certainly, our perceptions register weather far more easily than climate, but to confuse the two as our president likes to do, becomes increasingly inexcusable as the stakes of climate change escalate. The man tweets the way Nero fiddled while Rome burned. (Irony: while the tale of Nero fiddling as his capital city went up in flames is almost certainly fictional, the image aptly describes exactly what our president is—in fact—doing.)

But there’s more than mere misunderstanding at work here. This bitter cold spell is quite likely related to global warming.[3] It provides all the more evidence that, as Greta puts it, “our house is on fire.” The polar vortex is the more or less disc-shaped swirl of cold air that typically sits atop the arctic. The polar vortex always demonstrates variability in both its strength and position; the stronger it is, the more it remains centered above the pole. When it weakens, it allows the cold air gathered at the top of the planet to roll southward in a much colder than usual blast of winter air. And the accelerating loss of arctic sea ice—and the general warming of arctic land and water—weakens the polar vortex. The result is that cold arctic air is held much less “secure” at the pole … and is much more likely to be drawn down into the Midwest—exactly as we’re experiencing this week.

So, while we shiver under dangerously cold temperatures this week (although just for several days) the planet overall continues to warm—dangerously and unabated. Indeed much of the rest of the world is rather wilting as we alternately boast-bemoan our January temperature plunge. Some parts of the arctic have warmed so much overall that there are places on Baffin Island in northern Canada where the ground is now exposed—free of ice—for the first time in at least 40,000 years (over 100,000 years by some estimates).[4] And since the arctic is warming at a rate two to three times the rest of the planet, it’s quite possible that as we lurch toward a much hotter future, we’ll also be visited more frequently by the frigid air of a polar vortex knocked off balance on a warming planet.

As a recent piece in the Atlantic reported, “2018 was hotter than any year in the 19th century. It was hotter than any year in the 20th century. It was hotter than any year in the first decade of this century. In fact, with only three exceptions, it was the hottest year on Earth since 1850. Those three exceptions: 2018 was slightly cooler than 2015, 2016, and 2017. The past four years, in other words, have been the four hottest years ever reliably measured.”[5] Let that sink in. Of the past 168 years, the four hottest have just happened. Right in a row. And—because our current polar vortex spill across the Midwest is little more than a blip on a big planet across an entire year—odds are good (read: bad) that 2019 will make it five in a row. How’s that for an epiphany?

We like to see an epiphany as the revelation of something good, as a cause for hope. But sometimes epiphany signals a truth that must be grasped—even when it shatters the world you prefer. Greta Thunberg, prophet of a climate epiphany and kindred spirit to my restless soul, concluded her comments at the World Economic Forum like this: “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

For those committed to denial—whether because of economic interests, the lure of first world comforts (read: developing world theft), or the sheer enormity of cataclysm aimed our way—fear and panic are going to hit at some point. But the Transition Movement is about reckoning with the reality of climate change without waiting for politicians or the wealthy to reach the point of fear and panic. It’s about choosing a different path, as individuals and (more importantly) as local communities right now. Not because that different path will “save” us. No. Rather, because that different path may allow us to build a bridge forward into a future altogether different than any of us dreamed of.

I’m convinced there is joy to be had both in making this transition and in the life that awaits us beyond it. But it’s epiphany right now. And both the bitter cold and the burning house are trying to show us something. I suggest we stop and see.

 

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

 

[1]www.davidrweiss.com/2019/01/03/christmas-and-the-holy-innocents-on-shouting-fire-in-church

[2]www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate

[3]www.blog.ucsusa.org/brenda-ekwurzel/winter-storm-jayden-the-polar-vortex-and-climate-change-3-factors-that-matter

[4]www.grist.org/article/the-melting-arctic-is-revealing-caveman-era-landscapes

[5]www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/01/nasa-noaa-shutdown-2018-warmest-climate-record/581221

After Epiphany: Home by Another Route

After Epiphany: Home by Another Route
David R. Weiss – January 9, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #6 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

We celebrated Epiphany this past Sunday. You know, the journey of the magi, the star in the sky, the three gifts. And, of course, the palace encounter with King Herod who feigns reverence for this rumored child-king in hopes of tricking the magi to come back and reveal the infant’s whereabouts. The tale is perhaps apocryphal: the resulting slaughter of the holy innocents is attested nowhere outside Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, it may be an evangelical fiction crafted by Matthew to evoke the memory of Moses’ birth story in his Jewish readers. Either way, the account meshes with Herod’s well-known paranoia. He routinely killed anyone he saw as a political rival—he ordered the political execution of hundreds of persons, including a brother-in-law, a mother-in-law, his second wife, and three of his own children. Whether his well-attested ruthless paranoia was, in fact, turned on Jesus, the tale is of a piece with Herod’s character.[1]

For a moment, then, Jesus’ young life hangs in the balance. Thankfully the magi, having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, journeyed home by another route. There are a thousand points on which history turns. In Matthew’s Gospel the magi’s decision to go home by another route is one of those points. For us, too. Which is why I’m spending the year thinking, writing, talking about climate change and Christian faith. Following any of the familiar routes forward will end catastrophically … if not for us, then for generations to come and for countless companion creatures on the planet. History will turn on the route we choose. I think the Transition Movement[2] offers a promising way to go “home by another route”—and one in deep alignment with core Christian values.

The Transition Movement begins by acknowledging three daunting problems we face. (1) Our lives—our desires-expectations-cultural worldview—presume an unsustainable rate of consumption of a finite resource, fossil fuel. Whether because we’ll eventually exhaust the resource itself, or exhaust the easily accessible sources, leading to steep increases in cost, our fossil fuel-fed lives are about to become fossils themselves. (2) Even if oil weren’t finite, the atmosphere’s capacity to preserve a livable planet for us is. Climate change is the result of industrial, transportation-heavy, convenience-and-consumption-driven lives that ignore the impact of our choices on the planet. (3) Our lives are also entangled in a global financial system that banks on unending growth (excluding the environmental costs of doing business on a finite planet from its market calculus). It trades on an increasingly “magical” notion of money—even as it heightens the gap between rich and poor. All three of these out-of-balance relationships are evidence of human indifference to finitude—and they are about to have a catastrophic collision with reality.

These crises are interwoven and together they “make sense” as manifestations of human sin: our readiness to break relationship with God, others, world, and self in pursuit of a false notion of reality in which we are “godlike”: disconnected from each other and the world, able to pursue “abundance” for ourselves (or our in-groups) without need of others.[3] Moreover each crisis now runs on a decidedly structural inertia that requires little more than passive human complicity to keep churning away. In this sense each crisis is now upheld by what Paul referred to as “powers and principalities” (Eph. 6:12)—not supernatural demonic forces, but rather the mundane, social-systemic, supra-human forces that get embedded in social arrangements, cultures, industrialized systems and so forth.[4]

The Transition Movement’s response is also in line with Christian convictions—albeit ones that have often atrophied for lack of exercise in our Christian lives, both personally and communally. Recognizing that the three-fold crisis noted above demands our transition to a life that uses far less energy, depends far less on an extractive economy, and is resilient enough to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions on a climate-changed planet, Transition invites us, as it were, to be of good cheer. It asserts:

(1) Since these transitions are really non-negotiable on a finite planet, let’s embrace them thoughtfully rather than ignore them until they’re thrust upon us by crashing systems. Transition holds that a different world is possible—and that there are tangible, practical steps that can begin the journey there.

(2) Let’s fashion more resilient communities—specifically working to establish systems/services that can withstand the inevitable shock of planetary systems that will be rocked by rapid change in the decades ahead. Such changes will include weather patterns, growing seasons, land use, and population movements. Globalized/centralized systems will be less able to respond than localized systems that are cooperatively networked together. Thus, resilience includes re-localizing our economy whenever possible, building deeper relationships with those who produce the goods we need, and sharing skills that can empower us to live simpler and more sustainable lives. (Re-localizing also involves re-localizing our sources of fun/entertainment.)

(3) Most fundamentally, Transition says, pursuing these goals will lead to lives that are richer in both meaning and joy. Lives that reflect what Jesus promises as “life abundant.” (John 10:10) Some of this happens “naturally”: the by-product of community-building activities. Some of it involves an “Inner Transition”: intentionally re-fashioning a worldview in which we are AT HOME on a finite planet, joyfully knit into community across diversity, and happy to pursue meaning and purpose through art, knowledge, and relationship rather than material consumption. Given that our inner worldview is the terrain in question, this re-fashioning is minimally psychological-philosophical in nature, though I think it is most effectively accomplished on a spiritual level. Not that it must be Christian or even explicitly religious, but such a transformation in worldview—as needed for sustained and abundant life on a finite planet—requires roots in awe and wonder. And those roots grow deep in psychic soil that is fluent in a sense of the sacred.

“Tomorrow” is the country to which we (and our children’s children) are heading home. We have long needed (for numerous generations!) a path forward far different than the one we’ve been on. Transition can take us home by another route. It’s time we begin that journey.

 

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

 

[1]Matthew 2:1-18.For one view of how this tale fits into Herod’s larger story (and a view sympathetic to its plausible historicity) see here: www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/12/08/The-Slaughter-of-the-Innocents-Historical-Fact-or-Legendary-Fiction.aspx.

[2]My discussion of Transition here is drawn primarily from the Transition U.S. website. See the links to peak oil, climate change, and the economic crisis here: www.transitionus.org/why-transitionand the description of its Guiding Principles here: www.transitionus.org/initiatives/7-principles. Also, Timothy Gorridge & Rosie Beckham, The Transition Movement for Churches: A Prophetic Imperative for Today, London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2013, pp. 1-13; and Ruah Swennerfelt, Rising to the Challenge: The Transition Movement and People of Faith, Quaker Institute for the Future, 2016, pp. 45-49.

[3]I mean “godlike” in an entirely wrong-headed and wrong-hearted way, imaging “god” on our terms, rather than God’s. Similarly, any pursuit of “abundance” in isolation from the web of being—from genuine relationships with fellow humans-creatures-ecosystems—is “abundance” only in an illusory and ultimately self-contradicting manner.

[4]Paul declares that in our struggle to be faithful, we contend not merely with flesh and blood—the frailties and temptations of our own humanity and the obstructions of others—but against “principalities and powers.” Though his words were originally read to reflect a worldview that saw human activity beset by demonic influences, a number of twentieth century scholars (Jaques Ellul, William Stringfellow, John Howard Yoder, and Walter Wink) argued Paul was making a much more sophisticated and insightful observation: calling out our capacity to set up empires, societies, cultures, that establish whole 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 that carry destructive consequences.

Christmas and the Holy Innocents: On Shouting “Fire” in Church

Christmas & the Holy Innocents: On Shouting “Fire” in Church
David R. Weiss – January 2, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #5 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Maybe your church, like mine, seized on the Sunday following Christmas to sing an extra dose of Christmas carols, sort of a communal self-reward for having delayed our gratification throughout the season of Advent. I appreciated the chance to air out my holiday lungs on some favorite (and a couple new-to-me) songs as much as the next person. But I did have to hold back on the impulse to stand up and holler, “Fire!” in the sanctuary. I succeeded. But I’m not sure that was the right choice.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents, which recalls the infant boys slaughtered by King Herod in his paranoid—and failed—attempt to remove the threat he believed Jesus posed to imperial power,[1] falls on December 28, meaning it’s almost always elided by our preference for Christmas cheer. I consider this an instance of systemic liturgical injustice: an important feast gets squeezed out of our awareness because we’ve been so impatient (all Advent) to celebrate Christmas, and now we have only twelve days to do our celebrating (in song, sermon, liturgy) before the liturgical calendar rushes us on into Epiphany. This year, in fact, we only get ONE Christmas Sunday—how dare we spend it contemplating the Holy Innocents.

Perhaps there was a time past when church was so much part of our daily life that we could sufficiently celebrate Christmas on the other eleven days and set aside the fourth day to pause and contemplate the lives taken in effort to suppress Christmas itself. But today, between Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and then “getting back to work,” we have no time to pause for lives lost. Which is why I was so tempted to holler, “Fire!” Because pause we must.

In Matthew’s Gospel the Holy Innocents are those targeted by empire in an attempt to protect imperial power and to prevent the rise of any person who might propose a different way of being in the world. The story makes Herod the villain (and I’m hardly defending him!), but the truth in Matthew’s tale is that the slaughter of innocents is, in fact, business as usual for empire. We see it today—most poignantly on our southern border, but no less in the way that mass incarceration targets black communities or the way that low-intensity warfare targets civilians around the globe. And on and on. Empire today (think multinational corporations as well as political leaders) hesitates no more than Herod at protecting its power and quashing even potential threats. There are a multitude of holy innocents in our world.

But in a season of climate change, no one is more innocent than the creatures whose fate it has been to share the planet … with us. The animal kingdom has always taken its chances on continents drifting, climate shifting, and such. Even apart from human impact, no animal species is guaranteed a free ride. But between the speed to which we’ve accelerated climate change and the extent to which we’ve remade the planet to better consume it, animals are under threat today as never before. So much so that we Christians ought to be rising in our pews and hollering, “Fire!” in one holy chorus of anguish and alarm.

Consider the reports coming in from across the globe. In just the last 44 years (1970-2014) the worldwide population of animals plummeted by nearly 60%; in tropical regions the population loss reached almost 90%. During the same time period, freshwater fish populations fell by 83%.[2] Another study found flying insects down by 76% in German nature preserves over 27 years.[3] Another one charted a recent 10-year period in New Mexico during which bird populations fell by 73%. And another reported a 98%(!) loss of bugs in the Puerto Rican rainforest over 40 years.[4] Some suggest we are perched precipitously at the beginning of “the Sixth Extinction”[5]—although this one would be the first to have human agency as the driving factor. But regardless of whether whole species go extinct or merely find themselves genetically maimed by sheer loss of numbers and diversity, it is minimally honest to speak of a wave of ‘biological annihilation”[6] sweeping the planet. Almost all of it due to human impacts (consumption, land use, climate change, pollution, etc.).

Still, on December 26, nearly every news source cheerfully reported U.S. holiday spending up by 5.1% in 2018[7] If that doesn’t shout, “Joy to the World,” I don’t know what does. Except, on a finite planet, already stretched past the breaking point that isn’t good news. It’s the bleak affirmation that the slaughter of holy innocents—driven by a commitment to preserve one way of life at the expense of countless others—continues undeterred and on a scale even Herod could not hope to achieve. We are empire.

Those who see this, need to start crying “Fire!” in the sanctuary. We need to do more, of course. But we cannot do less. And the longer we insist on keeping our good decorum during worship the longer we render ourselves incapable of the deeper changes that are necessary if we wish even to blunt the brute force of climate change and planetary collapse now just decades away.

Lest we presume this is “on us” as individual consumers, the truth is that the changes most urgently needed to stop this slaughter of holy innocents are at the level of industrial agriculture, corporate boardrooms, and national and international politics. But change in those arenas can—and must—come rushing upward from below. And that upward rush will only come if and when we take charge of our own lives—personally and communally as Transition Movement thinking suggests.[8] AND—as we lay claim to the emotional-psychic-spiritual energy that owns the depth of loss burgeoning around us … even during the Christmas season—perhaps especially during the Christmas season.

I’m not taking cheap shots at Christmas. Before long the apocalyptic character of climate change will capture so much of our attention that any worship at all that does not acknowledge it will be simply irrelevant. It’s time that we look at every liturgical season, every lectionary text, every familiar worship theme and image, and ask ourselves how it might nurture the imagination to weep for creation, or to defend it, or to alter our lives so as live more nearly in balance, or to face down the powers and principalities that sell slaughter these days. And I simply think the Feast of the Holy Innocents is too powerful a moment to pass over in silence because we’d rather sing carols.

Earth’s creatures are dying. At an unfathomable rate. Because of human sin. And their deaths foreshadow the world we are preparing for our grandchildren. That world is rushing at us, starting yesterday. The very least we can do is holler, “Fire!” And we may be surprised at what more we’re capable of, once that word crosses our lips.

 

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

 

[1]Matthew 2:1-18. Many question the historicity of the slaughter; there is no independent record of it outside this single biblical passage. It’s possible Matthew fashioned the tale as one strategy among others to show Jesus as a “new Moses” (compare Exodus 1:15-2:10). However, the symbolic importance of the Holy Innocents does not hinge on their historicity but on their place in Matthew’s gospel narrative.

[2]www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2018.

[3]www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/18/warning-of-ecological-armageddon-after-dramatic-plunge-in-insect-numbers.

[4]https://truthout.org/articles/from-insects-to-starfish-were-edging-toward-biological-annihilation.

[5]The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. www.pulitzer.org/winners/elizabeth-kolbert.

[6]The phrase appears to have been coined by Paul Ehrlich. www.pnas.org/content/pnas/114/30/E6089.full.pdf.

[7]https://newsroom.mastercard.com/press-releases/mastercard-spendingpulse-u-s-retail-sales-grew-5-1-percent-this-holiday-season.

[8]https://transitionnetwork.org/about-the-movement/what-is-transition.

Christmas: The Most Important Four Ounces in the Manger

Christmas: The Most Important Four Ounces in the Manger
David R. Weiss – December 26, 2018
The Gospel in Transition #4 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

The most important four ounces in the manger are the ones we never talk about. I might argue that they’ve always been most important, but in the face of climate change—and the deep transformation required in how we view the world if we hope to bequeath any semblance of functioning society to our children—these four ounces are ones we absolutely need to grapple with today.

Before I get there, though, let me make clear where I’m coming from. I regard theology as more concerned with evocative claims than metaphysical claims. I recognize many Christians think otherwise. They see the doctrine of Incarnation as a metaphysical truth claim: in Jesus, God became human. I don’t. I see it as an evocative truth claim: in Jesus we see one instance (and with striking clarity) of what God’s presence in our midst looks like. That will, no doubt, trouble some of my readers, while heartening others. I’m not interested in arguing which claim is more “right”—something I don’t think is provable in any case. Besides, the connection I want to make with these four ounces remains powerful whether you treat it evocatively or metaphysically. But it seems important—as my blog byline suggests—that I, at least, “err on the edge of honest.”

So, these four ounces. They’re microbes. Itsy bitsy creepy crawlies, if you like. Point is, without them there is no incarnation, metaphysical, evocative, or otherwise. And I’m betting they vastly outnumber the host of angels that serenaded the shepherds on that hillside on Christmas Eve. Science tells us the average adult human is home to about 100 trillion microbes that are essential to our being alive. It’s a package deal: there is no such thing as a human being whose “aliveness” is not fully interwoven with these trillion-fold tiny creatures. They aid in our digestion, play key roles in our immune system, and carry out other duties essential to keeping a person alive. Jesus could not have been fully human, fully alive, without these 100 trillion microbes. As an adult, these microbes constituted about six pounds of his body weight. As a newborn, they would’ve already numbered in the trillions and comprised about four ounces of his six pounds of holy babyness.[1]

Whether you prefer your incarnation metaphysical or evocative, this is a pretty astounding insight: whatever we mean when we say God became incarnate, microbes are part of that. Of course, the gospel writer John didn’t know that science, but he captures it well when he writes: “And the Word became flesh …” (John 1:14) The Greek word here (sarx/flesh) means just that: the soft fleshly substance of a living body—whether human or animal. True, John is thinking specifically about Jesus, but his choice of sarx/flesh beckons us to hear God choosing an intimacy and solidarity that is much more radical than “merely” becoming human … more theologically evocative as well as more scientifically accurate.

Ironically, then, John’s prologue (John 1:1-18) not only provides some of the key theological infrastructure for the highest reaches of the doctrine of Incarnation, identifying Jesus with the pre-existent Word and that pre-existent Word with God,[2]it also opens up to the most expansive—the lowest and earthiest notion of incarnation. Later John writes, in perhaps the most well known verse in the New Testament, “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). The Greek word is kosmos, from which we get our word, cosmos. It means just that: the cosmos, the universe, or, more casually, the earth and its inhabitants. In explaining the motive behind Incarnation, John says, God loved it all. And, if we allow our theology to converse with our science, Incarnation becomes the truth claim that God embraces all creation so thoroughly as to enlist even microbes in revealing God’s love.

I think this offers several salutary insights as we try to imagine how to reposition ourselves within the world in a more harmonious and sustainable way. First, it reminds us that the scope of God’s incarnating love includes critters we don’t even think about … and surely the many that we do. We won’t work hard to save what we don’t love, and recognizing the reach of God’s love may help lengthen the reach of our own.

Second, if incarnation itself blurs the lines between the human and the non-human world, it challenges one of the fundamental binaries that has allowed us to recklessly and dangerously exploit the rest of creation. If divinity takes on not just human life but microbial life—in the service of love—then truly the entire “world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins) in ways we had never quite imagined. Indeed, our transition away from a way of life that presumes to use the world up as a matter of convenience hinges on breaking down the falsehood that we’re somehow set off from the non-human creation. Recognizing that Jesus—whether evocatively or metaphysically—embodies both is one place to start.

Third, what’s true of Jesus in his incarnate mystery is equally true of us in our more mundane humanity. (But don’t get me started, because I think the lines between incarnate mystery and mundane humanity blur—not just in Jesus, but in us, too!) In any case, this is good news. There are a multitude of ecosystems that we desperately need to find—feel, enact—our deep connection with, but we can begin right here: by acknowledging that each of us is our own ecosystem.

Those four ounces in the manger say something profound about God, Jesus, creation, and our place in all of it: interwoven. It’s high time we see that as both sacred and mundane truth.

 

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!). Thanks for reading and see you next week!

 

[1]I’m guessing, of course.Here’s the basic calculation per evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis: 10% of the drybody weight of humans is comprised of microbes. Adjusting for differences in water weight by sex (adult males are 60% water; adult females are 55% water), 4% male body weight is microbial; 4.5% female body weight is microbial. I’m presuming an adult Jesus weighed about 150 pounds and a newborn about six, but the exactness of those figures is irrelevant to the point I’m making. Rob Dunn, Every Living Thing(New York: Collins Books, 2009), pp. 138-143, cited in Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key(New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 20-21.

[2]“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God.All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:1-3)