Tag Archive | Climate Crisis

This IS the Kobayashi Maru

This IS the Kobayashi Maru
David R. Weiss – May 10, 2023

It’s true, there are days that the company I keep wears me down. I’ve made the abyss of ecological overshoot my conversation partner. The banter is not cheery.

Overshoot, in a nutshell, refers to the reckless plunder of the planet in the present, borrowing heavily against the wellbeing of the planet in the future. It is living in excess … until the biosphere—and the “sociosphere”—collapse in exhaustion. And it has become so normal as to be almost boring.

Did you notice, back on March 13, when the United States went into overshoot? I didn’t. But that was the day—just 72 days into the year—by which the average U.S. consumer had consumed their entire year’s worth of goods. From the Ides of March onward, we are borrowing from (well, stealing, since there is no plan and no way to pay it back) the wellbeing of tomorrow. We are plundering the planet. The mantra of our lifestyles having become, “To hell with those who come after us! Born too late; it’s just their fate: they’re screwed!”

It is not a mantra to be morally proud of. But it is the mantra of consumer capitalism (and its close kin: misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia, anthropocentrism). It is the mantra SUNG by the socio-economic structures of our lives. It is the mantra in which we are entangled. And, even if we are “lucky” enough to die before the debt comes due, it is the mantra that will exact repayment—in the form of catastrophic system-wide ecological-economic-social collapse in the lives of those who come after us. Some of whom we have birthed and named and raised with love ourselves.

Except for the super-wealthy, that mantra is indiscriminate. As our life choices carry its chant, we may assume that those damned to hell by the illicit leisure of our lives are surely ones unknown to us. Those born in distant lands or those whose humanity is hued different than our own. But unless the balance of (stolen!) “wealth” in your bank account is measured by multi-millions or more, your hope to buffer those of your choosing from calamity will be next to nil.

Which brings us to the Kobayashi Maru.

The Kobayashi Maru is an imaginary civilian spaceship in a training exercise of the same name in the Star Trek universe. In the exercise, Starfleet cadets encounter the Kobayashi Maru, disabled in hostile space and facing certain disaster. Their training has formed them to seek to rescue the ship, even if it means endangering their own crew and vessel. But the exercise was set up—designed—to be impossible. Every attempt at rescue would result in the loss of both vessels and all lives.

The point was to force a cadet-in-training to encounter a no-win situation. Because at some point, as a starship captain, they might well face a no-win situation out in the field. In the simulation, the rational response—to ignore the moral claim of the imperiled lives and focus on protecting their own crew and vessel—is immoral. While the moral response—to risk (and inevitably lose) one’s crew and vessel in a failed rescue attempt—is irrational.

Were it left there, Star Trek would’ve had its own mythic motif of existential tragedy. But this is Star Trek, and Captain James T. Kirk is not the author of Ecclesiastes. Instead, according to Kirk’s own admission, he was the only Star Fleet cadet to ever “beat” the Kobayashi Maru test—because he cheated. After losing twice, he managed to reprogram the simulation to make winning a possibility.

Today, in a world too far into overshoot to simply ease back, we face the Kobayashi Maru dilemma. It would be immoral—on the scale of global ecocide—to make no attempt to alter the trajectory of overshoot, which imperils countless Earth ecosystems and individual species—including humanity. And yet, if catastrophic system-wide ecological-economic-social collapse is now inevitable, are we not faced with a truly no-win scenario, where even doing the right thing “too late” is no more than noble failure?

Yes and no.

Unlike the Star Trek simulation, our present dilemma wasn’t exactly “designed” to be no-win. Perhaps a hundred years ago (maybe as few as seventy-five years ago) there were still different choices available to us, with different outcomes possible. “Winning”—achieving sustainable balance on a small planet—was theoretically possible, with the right mix of wisdom, reverence, humility, restraint. But since the Great Acceleration (dating roughly to 1950), Western “civilization”—which can only honestly be described as the deliberate desire to plunder the planet by any means necessary, hence the quote marks—has pretty much nailed the gas pedal to the floor of the car, making even the desperate desire to slow down beyond difficult. So, by now, “design” is a moot point. We can argue about who did the nailing, and the list of villains would be legion, but most of us (in the “developed”—that is, the plundering—world) have been complicit. We are in a no-win scenario.

Still, while I am loathe to lionize Captain Kirk, there is a glimmer of subversive grit in his willingness to cheat the system in order to save the innocent.

Now, before you get too excited, let’s get realistic. Collapse is coming. It will be catastrophic. And there is no “win” that avoids this. At this stage of overshoot, there is no amount of green technology, no sudden onset of political will power, no miraculous new course set by corporations that can make this anything other than a no-win scenario. All hopes of “reprogramming” our dilemma in a way that preserves the reigning values that created it are OFF THE TABLE.

That is, the only way to re-program the Kobayashi Maru dilemma that we face, is to change the very scripts that guide the program while also recognizing that even if we succeed, at its best, “success” will look like a slightly cushioned collapse and will result in (perhaps, and if we are truly fortunate) some smattering of human communities able to regroup and persist on the far side of collapse. This is thin success by any measure.

Except by the measure of imagining any other way “forward.” Because every other imagining is death. By that standard, changing the scripts for even thin success … is a win. It is the only heroic aspiration on the table. And an aspiration only effectively exercised … collectively. (I cringe to say it, but we must decide to channel James T. Kirk together. I’m sorry.)

Still to come: reflections on the damning scripts that got us here (the core assumptions—the “code”—that creates the systems that frame the range of possible outcomes). And then reflections on the subversive scripts that might let us “rescue,” even if only as a badly battered vessel, the Kobayashi Maru … and the innocent lives on board that imaginary spaceship called Tomorrow.

* * *

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.

Unboxing Myself

Unboxing Myself
David R. Weiss – May 6, 2023

This essay is a conversation across time. I began my March 8 post, “Giving Up on Church for My Children,” with this line: “Perhaps every decision has multiple forces, tiny and large, stretched out behind it. This one surely does.”

Well, this post begins on September 14, 2022. I never completed it, but it feels important to come back now, fill it out, and publish it, because it explores one of the seismic shifts happening inside me that proved to be a precursor to my decision to “Give up on church for my children.”

I’ll start with the original September material (so you can get a sense of how these thoughts first took shape almost eight months ago), and I’ll note where I begin with fresh writing.

September 14, 2022—

Strange. For the past several weeks since Mom died (August 24), a multitude of people have been kind enough to check in with me to see how I’m doing. I’m fine. I’m not pretending to be okay; I’m simply not overwrought by grief. I think I lost so many pieces of Mom over the past years as dementia stole whole swaths of her from the rest of us, that my grief began and stretched out for years. Maybe at some point a finer more focused grief will find me.

Puck – photo by Ben Zamora-Weiss

For now, Mom’s death has unleashed an avalanche of existential restlessness. And I am wrecked. Or, maybe, it’ll just be the boxes I’ve been living in that get wrecked. I hope so.

I’ve been in therapy for a while now. Processing trauma and depression (both have roots running back to my teen years, with fresh additions of both in adulthood) and exploring how the dynamics of my mostly happy childhood have unhappily conspired to undermine some of my best hopes for adulthood. Oops—never saw that coming. Of course, it’s a long, complicated tale. In a sentence: the course of my life has been shaped and misshaped by a dysfunctional dance between my academic-intellectual excellence and my unconscious yet powerful pattern of linking … knotting … chaining (dammit!) my self-esteem to the external approval that came easily and abundantly. Not unlike Pavlov’s dog’s, my public performance became paired so consistently with positive reinforcement, that I fused the two together.

Thinking back to last week …

I am at L.’s for a counseling session on September 7. Recently back from Mom’s funeral. Trying to catch up on life and feeling the demands press in from all sides. I am stretched.

But, for now, I am settling in. Eyes closed, L.’s voice leads me through a short full-body check-in, encouraging me to listen for the whispers of my Self in the bodily sensations that are also finding their place in the room. In the quiet. In the stillness. The rocking chair (no proverbial couch in L.’s office) is firm, and, by now, familiar. We—the chair and I—move in a slow rhythm, initially negotiated between intent and inertia, then settling into something like a gentle wave. It is a good feeling, but as I rock, an inner restlessness rises within me. Asking me to trust a still deeper goodness. I resist. I relax. I’m in.

I never know what I’m listening for in these first moments. I sense stiff muscles, weary bones, occasional tingles and tickles. Does L. really think my assorted appendages bear messages? Do I? No matter. It works. Having “settled in,” I open my eyes, and she asks, “What comes up for you today?” Something always comes up. As often as not, what comes up is a bit messy. Not wholly welcome. Appearing as if at the invitation of a Self that is as yet distant kin.

Today the words speak themselves before I think them—an incantation set loose in the room. “I want to unbox myself.” L. smiles. “Tell me more.”

And this captures what I said …

I’ve become keenly—uncomfortably—aware of all the boxes I place around myself. The ways I’ve limited who I am and who I desire to be in order to maintain the approval of others. The ways I conspire with outside expectations to box myself in. And, in order for my truer Self to expand and flourish, I need to unbox myself. Which is scary.

Not least, because I’ve done it so well, that very few people suspect how hard I am working at being someone else than myself … for their sake. Well, for my “mistaken sake,” to keep the external approval rolling in.

It hit me while driving home after Mom’s death. Mom barely knew me over the past year. She remembered my name; somedays, my wife; never my kids, my work, or my writing—not really any of my life. She didn’t really know me at all anymore. And yet—for her sake, and mine, and Dad’s, and my sisters’ sakes—I wish I’d gotten home to see her (and my immediate family) far more often in what turned out to be the last year of her life. I didn’t.

Box 1. Instead, I limited my trips home … lest I inconvenience—no, less I disappoint and risk losing the approval of—those I work for at church. It’s only a part-time job, but with hours scattered across the week, it’s impossible to get to Michigan City (eight hours away) without missing a couple of days I’m scheduled to work. I write that now with a measure of disbelief.
I placed the approval of others above presence to my mom and family.

I understand, many of us are limited by the demands of our work schedule. But this particular work generates only marginal income and is NOT central to who I am. I should have quit my job (or insisted on redefining my schedule) rather than place myself in a box that left Mom and family mostly on the outside.

It’s not a disaster. Mom forgot every visit within hours of my leaving. I don’t “blame” anyone but myself. And even myself, I only blame if I don’t learn from this moving forward. Still, it’s a searing insight to realize how beholden I’ve been … even as an articulate, successful adult … to outside approval. “Entangled” fits.

But that’s actually the least significant box, because that bit of work doesn’t matter all that much in the big scheme. There are other boxes, and they’re interwoven. (Box 2: climate. Box 3: church. Box 4: theology/faith.)

[That’s the end of September 14, 2022 material.]

Six days later, still stinging from these insights, I resigned from my parttime job at the church. But I gave twelve weeks notice, until mid-December, so as not to disrupt any fall programming that my parttime position supported. It was, as I look back, my weak attempt to curry one last round of approval on my way out the door.

Fast forward to May 5 and I’m going to fill out—then rip up—those last three boxes so I can be done with this and move on.

Box 2. Climate. I’ve steeped myself in climate reading since 2016. When I returned to this theme (which I’d first explored almost two decades earlier in grad school), I naïvely assumed I would add my voice to the growing chorus of those working on climate issues—and that, even if only in the nick of time, we would indeed “save the planet.” Sadly, I no longer regard that as possible. But, not wanting to risk the approval of those many friends who still want the last line of every alarming paragraph I write to come back to a note of hope, I’ve worked hard to keep the public display of my personal views on the climate crisis just this side of alarmist so as to remain in a box labeled (even if only in fine print) “respectable.”

Bottom line: the planet will (eventually) be fine. But we will not, nor will many of our companion creatures whom we continue to sacrifice to idols of consumption and convenience. So, this is the work that will occupy the rest of my life: how do we live with purpose, when we can no longer realistically live with hope? Believe me, that’s a heavy lift. Our world is collapsing, and while there are things we can do to lessen the impact (the single biggest of which is to radically simplify our lives), there need to be people working patiently and with focus on what collapse means for our humanity and how we might safeguard some of the character and culture that we’d like available for those who will endure the worst of what is yet to come. That’s my work. And I cannot do it faithfully so long as I’m beholden to the approval of others.

Porter, Puck – photo by Ben Z-W

So, tear that box up.

Box 3. Church. Insert “Giving Up on Church for My Children” here. Clearly, one big part of tearing up this box is the urgency of ecological-social collapse and my driving desire to speak in words that might reach my children. But there’s a bit more to it than this. Because as much as the “church” box keeps me away from my children, it affords me security and approval from my past. But a security and approval that not only hinders my work now but hinders as well the authenticity that must be the foundation of what I’m doing. The Christian church is no longer the right place for me to be.

So, tear that box up, too.

Box 4. Theology and faith. This is the box I’ve held most dear. It’s where my intellectual and artistic gifts—heart and mind—intersect to shape my most prized identities as theologian and writer. The identities themselves are profoundly true. But so long as I express them inside a box bounded by the expectations and approval of others, the whole of me and my gifts cannot show up. And now they have to. Too much is at stake to play it safe any longer.

Hell, too much was always at stake. It just took a climate crisis and my kids to make me choose risk over security.

Obviously, I’ve hardly been a “preserve-the-status-quo” theologian. I’ve rather ransacked the attic of Christian theology to find kindred spirits over the years. I’ve found myself drawn to theology from the margins, often hearing in these voices the call for justice that most resonates with my own sense of the sacred. I’ve often told others over the years that I managed to remain Christian thanks to the company I found in the attic and at the edges. (See “Tipping Points” and “Doubtful” for more on this journey.) And that was true.

Nevertheless, I have also silenced more than my share of intuitions along the way. My sense of God is so thin as to be vanishing. My view of Jesus is so wholly human as to deny him any divinity that I don’t also share. My sense of ethics is so thick as to eclipse any interest in an afterlife. And yet, with my sense of self tightly tethered to outside approval, I’ve spent most of my adult life carefully contributing to a conversation in a tradition where I still feel boxed in.

Last July I was unnerved by an article in Christian Century, “When my dad killed God.” In it, Don Hamilton wrote about the backlash his father, William Hamilton, experienced in the mid-60’s after he became associated with “death of God” theology. Despite its name, this theology was less about “killing God” than making honest theological sense of the human capacity for evil—a capacity often wrapped in religious language (still today!). “Death of God” theologians pressed toward an ethic that prized the precarious pursuit of compassion apart from any divine guarantee of success. Don Hamilton wrote that his dad “never stopped being a Christian, with Jesus as a companion on his journey.” But he became the target of hate mail and death threats, eventually losing his teaching position and a host of friends. Although written with genuine warmth, it was not a cheery remembrance. Rather, a costly one.

Ironically, what unnerved me was that, already while reading it, I regretted that I’d never dared to be honest enough to spark that much controversy. My own theological inklings over the years—captured in my sporadic journaling—are testament to questions no less piercing than William Hamilton’s. To suppositions no less daring than his … no less faithful(!) to the legacy of Jesus. But I’d never dared to go public with mine. So how were my kids ever to fondly recall my courage?

Then, this past spring, I began exploring the Unitarian Universalist tradition as a faith community that might offer me more “breathing space.” I read a bit of early UU history … and discovered a whole other attic of kindred spirits. From the 16th to 19th century, these first precursors to the UU faith were impassioned voices at the edge of the Christian tradition. They questioned doctrines that felt too small for God as sensed by their reason, experience, and pursuit of justice. The story of their bold commitment to unbounded authenticity (which eventually led them further and further afield from Christianity) has been … bracing for me to read. Because, up to now, my commitment has been to an authenticity bounded by the Christian tradition, even if mostly at the edge.

Porter (box), Persimmon – photo by Ben Z-W

It’s time to tear that box up, too.

I cannot and do not discount those who find the Christian tradition a fruitful space in which to do their work. But I also cannot and do not discount any longer the sense within me, that my own theological wings might’ve unfurled in even deeper and more gracious ways had I allowed myself to venture beyond the tradition of my upbringing sooner. I have poured energy—endless and creative, prophetic and persuasive—into dialoguing with a tradition increasingly not my own.

And now that my own children, as well as the wider world, need my wings unfurled as fully as possible, it is time for me to pour my energy—endless and creative, prophetic and persuasive—into dialoguing with authenticity. In community with others, yes. But beginning with an authenticity that is foremost my own.

I don’t yet know entirely what form that will take, but I’ve already told my kids to be ready to write that remembrance. And once I clear away all these torn up boxes I intend to get to work.

* * *

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.

Meet Me in the River

Meet Me in the River
May 2, 2023 – David R. Weiss

I am awash in grief you might say. It is the sacred ether in which I “live and move and have my being” these days.

If the words sound familiar, they’re from Acts 17:28, where Paul employs them to describe our subsistence within the life of God. In fact, he’s quoting Epimenides, a Greek philosopher-mystic-poet from six or seven centuries before him, who coined the phrase in a poem to Zeus. In both cases, the meaning is that our human existence is rooted in a Reality larger than ourselves—and that we can only navigate our own lives meaningfully in the humble recognition of that larger Reality.

For me, that larger Reality is perhaps best called Compassion. I see this as the driving force in Jesus’ life. Not some abstract ideal, but the animating energy moving through his being yet also in some mysterious way much larger than him. Compassion—literally, “to suffer with”—is the dynamic disposition of the cosmos to promote the birth of whole worlds and the flourishing of ecosystems and communities. In theological verbiage: God.

But today, in this place, in this time, Compassion most often tastes salty. Like tears of Grief.

Our world is dying. The wounds inflicted on the biosphere by our industrial civilization continue unabated. Indeed, what we like to call “civilization” is more accurately described as the relentless malignancy of the life patterns chosen by the dominant societies on this planet.

For at least fifty years the scale of that malignancy—our imbalance with the rest of the natural world—has been public knowledge. “Debatable” only by those whose interests aligned with wealth rather than wellbeing. And yet from the wealthy individuals and corporations who twist politics to promote profit … to the socio-economic structures that constrain the choices available to most of us … to the cultural-religious worldviews that form our appetites and imaginations … we continue to accelerate toward collapse as if there is no tomorrow. Which, come to think of it, there won’t be—on account of that ongoing acceleration.

But still, it seems an act of gratuitous violence to slam ourselves—really, our children and grandchildren—into a brick wall as hard as possible. Isn’t there something to be said for kindness on the cusp of collapse?

Hence, Grief.

Ironically, it’s often experiences of beauty and community that trigger grief for me these days. (See, for instance, my earlier pieces on “Even Beauty Cannot Save Us” from February 2022 or “Two Things True” from July 2022.) Sunday afternoon Margaret and I attended the Apollo Chorus concert out in Plymouth. Listening to a men’s chorus sing with gusto and joy surrounded by a community of folks happy to hear their music. Beauty and community rolled together. And grief. It is a sort of wistful recognition that there are moments in which humanity shines, in which creation gleams. Moments to be treasured … soon to be endangered … if not extinct.

Hence, awash in Grief. And yet, it is a good grief.

Our world is dying. And in such a time as this being as fully connected to the world as we can is our only pathway toward integrity and humanity. Disconnected—whether pretentiously (and falsely) set above or despairingly (and just as falsely) set alone—we are figments of a faulty imagination. We are human, only to the extent we are wed to the humus (and everything else!) in the world around us. And there is no honest relationship with the world that is not awash in grief.

To clarify, there is no authentic relationship with anyone or anything that does not require an openness to grief. To meet any aspect of the world, from fellow creature to entire ecosystem, as a Thou rather than an It, is to be open to curiosity and awe, joy and grief, in relationship. But today, the level of grief that is prerequisite to being connected to the world is so immense as to be daunting. And almost our entire way of life is oriented toward avoiding grief. (The most obvious exceptions being those industries [e.g., funeral homes, burial services] that manage to monetize its inevitability. The most laudable exceptions being hospice and other “pro-death” movements that aim to honor the place of death and grief in life—laudable, but as yet marginal movements in society at large.)

No wonder, then, that our default disposition toward grief is avoidance. By entertainment … travel … shopping … when all else fails, by frantic distraction.

But here’s what comes next in a dying world: collapse and chaos. Followed by brutality and inhumanity. And the only way we can avert these outcomes in ourselves and our communities is by opening ourselves to grief. As never before. On a scale near unimaginable. Grief, especially as communal practice, is the only portal through numbness and into authentic relationship with a world so badly wounded as ours. Grief at what we have done to our fellow human beings … our companion creatures … the Earth itself … the planetary systems that are the very womb of life … and, not least, to ourselves.

There is no way across the gaping chasm of these wounds except to grieve them in full measure. And in that grieving to invite empathy into our hearts (our lives!)—to allow the echo of our buried kinship with all that is to rekindle itself.

Worlds are born on geologic scales that our minds can hardly conceive. It took almost three billion years of one-celled organisms flourishing in Earth’s oceans for the first multi-celled organisms to appear. Worlds die on scales less grand, but often just as inconceivable because their dying begins unnoticed—and because we are keen to dismiss the rumors of their impending death.

But “keenness” cannot confer capacity. And whatever capacity we once had—perhaps just decades ago—to avert this dying, has been forfeited in exchange for continued ROI (return on investment) and for extended “ease and convenience.” And now the dying is a done deal. The details left to be negotiated concern the scope, the devastating breadth and depth of death, and the speed, whether a few decades or a few generations. But the continuity of our “civilization”? That’s off the table.

The goodness in Grief is that it is the only bargaining chip we have of any value. Its value is to birth empathy, to rekindle kinship, to cultivate kindness and compassion, to convene community, and, if possible, to carry humanity from one side of the chasm to the other. Floating, as it were, on our tears.

We will need a river of them. And—we will need to let go of this shore in order to cross. So, this is my invitation: meet me in the river. Let’s cross together.

* * *

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.