Tag Archive | Eco-theology

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.

 

PS: I’ll be launching a Patreon site soon to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Watch for details soon.

*          *          *

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.

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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.

 

PS: I’ll be launching a Patreon site soon to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Watch for details soon.

*          *          *

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.

 

PS: I’ll be launching a Patreon site soon to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Watch for details soon.

*          *          *

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)

Advent as Ending: Apocalypse as Good News

Advent as Ending: Apocalypse as Good News
David R. Weiss – December 16, 2018
The Gospel in Transition #3 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Advent typically begins with an image of ending. Each year of its three-year cycle churches following the Revised Common Lectionary find an apocalyptic Gospel text appointed for the first Sunday of Advent. These texts add an unabashed edge of apocalyptic energy to the too often domesticated pageantry of Christmas.

Climate change has its own apocalyptic energy—as looming world-crashing threat. Yet one of the paradoxes of the Transition Movement is its determination to lean into this impending crisis as opportunity to re-center ourselves on what really matters: living lightly on the earth, locally in community, and deeply in our humanity. It’s a challenging paradox to sustain.

Perhaps it’s helpful to recall that in the Bible apocalyptic literature is actually rooted in radical hope. Such a perspective offers some discomforting but provocative connections.

Although there are a variety of biblical passages (like the Advent gospels readings) where an apocalyptic tone surfaces, there are two great instances of apocalyptic literature in the Bible: Daniel and Revelation. Both feature near-psychedelic imagery in which harrowing portraits of a collapsing world are presented. Reading them from our vantage point—and projecting their message into the future as a prediction of world-ending events—it’s easy to find them unsettling. But, in fact, both books were written for people living in such a harrowing present that they were actually offered (and received!) as good news—gospel—breaking into this world in its most extreme moments.

In both cases the authors were writing for people living under harsh societal oppression and brutal persecution by imperial powers.[1]In this context, apocalyptic cataclysm—overwhelming as the imagery is—was a message of radical hope. The present insufferable world was about to be swept away. As it needed to be if there was to be a path forward.

The less all-out visionary but unmistakably apocalyptic tone of the Advent readings in the lectionary is a stark reminder to us that all three of the synoptic gospels (many scholars question whether these words go all the way back to Jesus himself) place an apocalyptic exclamation point on Jesus’ ministry.[2]One way to read this is that the manner of life presented by Jesus—grounded I would argue in a radical praxis of inclusive compassion—unleashes its own world-transforming energy.

It’s an energy we tend to keep boxed up in all manner of ways ranging from “right doctrine” to “personal piety” to “cute Christmas pageantry.” Almost as though we want to ensure it can’t effect world transformation. Mary’s Magnificat (also appointed for the Advent lectionary) is more open in its longing. Trading apocalyptic imagery for straight forward social and political reversal, Mary’s song suggests that somehow in the promised life of Jesus the proud will be scattered, the mighty cast down, the rich left empty, the lowly exalted, and the hungry fed. Taken seriously, her words intimate a gospel nothing less than apocalyptic in impact.[3]

If it’s hard for usto feel radical hope in the face of cataclysmic change, that may have something to do with where we stand in the world today. Years ago, when teaching the story of the Exodus to college students I suggested “we would be wise to feel a bit of fear as we read these passages, in the uncomfortable honesty that we today stand closer to the Egyptians than the Hebrews. In a world where many live like slaves so that a relative few can live like kings, we are among those who wear purple.”[4]The plagues—themselves a mini apocalyptic narrative—upend the worlds of both the Egyptians and the Hebrews, but that upending is good news for those who had been enslaved (although there is no lacking of murmuring among the Hebrews as they wander the wilderness in the coming years).

So where do we stand in the story of climate change? Well, most of us stand in places where the upending of the world as it is, is not good news. But the truth is that for most of the world’s inhabitants—more viscerally acquainted than we are with the costs of our addiction to petroleum, our exploitation of animals and ecosystems, our racist objectification of our fellow humanity, and our unrelenting consumption of the planet—for most of the world’s inhabitants the continuation of the world as it is, is precisely the threat. And the apocalyptic disruption of the status quo might well count as good news.

Unfortunately, because of how interconnected our world is, the level of disruption coming with climate change will take a steep toll on the entire web of creation. And, in many cases, the greatest toll will be exacted on those least responsible and least able to respond.

Nevertheless—and I’m being intentionally provocative here—the Transition Movement[5]dares to suggest that it’s possible to move into the impending upending of the world that is … as a step toward good news. To choose to radically simplify our lives, to break our addictions to both fossil fuel and needless material stuff, to reclaim skills needed to live lightly on Earth, to dramatically localize our lives, and to deepen bonds of genuine community—all such choices, which we can begin to make now, are ways to embrace apocalypse—even as our lives are upended—as bearing good news.

This is not to make light of the damning losses that we have bartered for these past few decades (primarily by way of corporate agendas and political inaction, but also by personal indifference and unexamined habits of greed). The losses, already underway but to be fully revealed in the decades ahead, will be apocalyptic: world-rending. But it is to say that, if this present world—insufferable for so much of creation—is about to be swept away, as it needs to be if there is to be a path forward for the whole of humanity and for the health of creation, then there is in that apocalypse a very severe sort of good news.

And our capacity to make the changes needed in our lives may well hinge on our ability to imagine, within the tumult of apocalypse, a whisper of goods news. Not to domesticate its terror, but to taste the very real joy that can yet be had if we choose—in this Advent moment—to turn away (repent) from lives that trade almost entirely in death to prop up a façade of success that is coming quickly to its end.

PS: I’ll be launching a Patreon site soon to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Watch for details soon.

*          *          *

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 Book of Daniel, while fictionally set in sixth century BCE (“Before the Common Era”), was authored in the second century BCE under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Hellenistic Greek ruler who viciously attacked both Jewish faith and culture. The Book of Revelation was written near the end of the first century CE (“in the Common Era”) under the reign of Emperor Domitian who demanded imperial idolatry from Christians under pain of death. In both contexts the community of the faithful found their faith pushed to the extreme, as though nothing less than the rending of one world and the appearance of another would open a way forward.

[2]The texts (for Years A, B, C) are: Matthew 24: 36-44; Mark 13:24-37; Luke 21:25-36. While Jesus himself was active in a context of significant multifaceted social-political-religious oppression, by the time the synoptic gospels themselves were authored (usually dated 40-60 years later), the stakes seemed even higher. The Jewish Revolt, the Fall of Jerusalem and the early years of Roman persecution of Christians all made the idea of Jesus’ return a powerful source of radical hope.

[3]Luke 1:46-55. It’s noteworthy that Mary’s song of praise is sparkedby the words her cousin Elizabeth uses to greet her by, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These are fighting words. Really. For Elizabeth and Mary, who surely knew their Jewish heroines, these words were dangerouslyevocative. In oral cultures, phrases matter. Only twice in the Hebrew Scripture were women told, “Blessed are you among women.” You couldn’t hear the words and not have the memory of Jael and Judith come rushing at you. Jael earned them (Judges 5:24) for driving a tent peg through the head of a general who was oppressing the early Israelites. Later Judith received them (Judith 13:18) after beheading a general whose troops had besieged an Israelite town. This phrase heralded women whose cunning and courage proved crucial in toppling oppressive power. As a song in response to that greeting, the Magnificat is no mere wistful verse. It is poetry promising to upend the world.

[4]The imagery in these words came to me in 1996 the first time I taught this story to first-year students at Notre Dame; I’ve used the phrase “the ones who wear purple” to frame our entry into to the Exodus tale ever since.

[5]http://transitionus.org/home

Advent, Anticipation … and Climate Change

Advent, Anticipation … and Climate Change
David R. Weiss – December 11, 2018
The Gospel in Transition #2 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

As a child Advent taught me the meaning of anticipation.

Yes, presents were part of that—though far from the whole of it. I remember the excitement that my siblings and I shared when the Sears and Penney’s Christmas catalogs arrived. But more than this, Advent meant evening family devotions: with each child taking a turn reading the message, lighting the candles on our family Advent wreath, or extinguishing them afterwards. It meant Saturday practice for the Sunday school Christmas Eve pageant. Each year we went out to a local tree farm to find, then tag, our chosen Christmas tree, and—during Advent—we went back to cut it down, bring it home, and trim it with favorite ornaments, decorating the rest of the house as well.

I particularly recall Pastor Knappe explaining that, because several of the prayers of the day during Advent begin with the phrase “Stir up, O God …”, these prayers always reminded him that Advent was time to stir up the batter for Christmas cookies. And, sure enough, my Advent didmean not just stirring the batter with my Mom but also smelling the Christmas cookies as they baked.

Years later in seminary—courtesy a talk by Jürgen Moltmann—I came to understand the full power intended in the word Advent: that Christmas comes to us. Although the calendar suggests wemarch toward Christmas, the theological truth of incarnation is that what happens in Christmas is not the sum of ouractions but the sum of God’s.

Thus, Advent is less “preparation” (as though our deeds “make” Christmas happen) than holy waiting, reverent anticipation of what comes to us from beyond our reach.

It’s disorienting, counterintuitive, and uncomfortably insightful to consider climate change from the vantage of Advent. The climate change we’re currently experiencing unquestionably has been made by our deeds. Beginning around 1850 and accelerating dramatically since 1950, we’ve been loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gasses, largely through the use of fossil fuels. Unlike Christmas, then, the approach of climate change IS the direct result of human activity.

But, while the cause-effect link between human industrial activity, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change is supremely clear at the scientific level, it’s much less clear on the experiential level. Sure, we occasionally see factories belching smoke, but the exhaust coming out of my car is barely visible and yet adds to the 28% of emissions that come from transportation. The CD player filling my home with Christmas music, the LED Christmas lights on my tree, the street lights lining my street, and the brightly lit malls and skyscrapers give off no green houses gases at all … except that generating the electricity needed to power them all accounts for another 28% of emissions. Unlike cookie-baking, present-wrapping, or tree-decorating, there is no obvious and immediate link between our daily choices and our warming planet.

Moreover, the time lag between what we put in the atmosphere by way of emissions and when we experience those emissions aschanging climate is large enough that it escapes our logic. How can gasses given off when I was a child be impacting the weather events I experience today? Perhaps most unsettling of all, we can barely imagine the cascading consequences as changing climate impacts multiply each other, creating feedback loops that drive both the speed and the extent of climate change. Admittedly, the models here are uncertain—testament to the complexity of these relationships, but not to the consensus that feedbacks loop will escalate the stakes considerably.

This is where we are today. An atmosphere recklessly and relentlessly loaded with carbon for more than a century. Wound up like a tightly coiled spring. The extreme weather eventswe notice today—storms, heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires—are noteworthy not because we have them, but because we’re having them so frequently and so fiercely. But this is hardly “Christmas” yet as far as climate change goes. The full force of the carbon already loaded … hasn’t even begun to be felt.

And this is where climate change becomes too muchlike Christmas. Because even if we stopped adding more emissions tomorrow—both a technological and political impossibility—there is very little we can do to unwind the spring. (Yes, there are nascent—not yet practical—technologies for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, but to imagine they’ll come on line in a cost effective way in time to significantly lessen the tension in a spring more tightly coiled each and every day, well, hopeful as that sounds, it’ll be about as effective as Scrooge’s “Bah Humbug” was in delaying the coming of Christmas.)

We are in Advent for climate change. There is indeed plentywe can do to “brace” ourselves, to increase our resilience: break habits, learn skills, link arms and weave the communal networks that can support us as climate change unravels many of the networks we’ve come to take for granted. Still, just like Christmas, there is nothing we can do to actually prevent its arrival.

I don’t “celebrate” that. Not by a long shot. Nonetheless, it’s time to embrace a long season of Advent for climate change. For there is a manner of anticipation that can seed hope in this unfamiliar season. Advent is a season that reminds us: we know (or we used to know—and can remember if we set ourselves to the task) what it is like to prepare-by-waiting for the arrival of something that comes unbidden to our world. And that posture—if we can reclaim it—may be a life-saving posture for ourselves and for our children.

The images coexist uneasily. Climate change as a type of Christmas? Advent as holy longing; now Advent as near-holy dread? On this one point they coalesce: central (for Christians) to both Christmas and climate change is the whispered presence of Emmanuel—God with us.

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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!.

PS: I’ll be launching a Patreon site soon to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Watch for details soon.

 

The Gospel in Transition

The Gospel in Transition – A Year of Weekly Reflections on Facing Climate Change, Finding Hope, and the Alchemy of Christian Community
David R. Weiss, December 3, 2018

It was just an innocent-looking list of years, but it turned my life upside down.

Sitting on the sofa or at the dining table, flipping through the newspaper, I’d seen plenty of headlines about climate change. I’d scan the stories. Catch an unsettling scenario here … a frightening-looking chart there. I suppose I knew just enough to know I didn’t really want to know more.

Full disclosure: twenty-two years ago (in November 1996, to be exact) I actually made my first academic presentation[1] as a Ph.D. student—on the fragility of our eco-system. A year-and-a-half later (April 1998) I gave a public talk[2] at Notre Dame’s Earth Day celebration in which I first addressed global warming. So climate change has been on my radar for a couple decades. However, alongside that interest, I was also finding my voice in support of a faith-based welcome to LGBTQ persons, and, in the Fall of 1998, a whole cascade of circumstances led me to focus—in my teaching, writing, and activism—on LGBTQ theology and welcome for nearly the next twenty years. Ecology was present in my personal ethics and climate change was there in the background of my awareness. But my best energy (fruitfully so) was invested elsewhere.

But about this list of years. Sparked by some news article in the spring of 2016 I googled “hottest years on record” and up popped a list that showed the 16 warmest years since 1880.[3] The list used 1880 as its starting point because that’s the first year we had enough accurate temperate records from across the globe to calculate an accurate global surface temperature. And since then we’ve been keeping really precise records. They were listed—these sixteen hottest years—in order of heat, so they looked like a pretty random set of years.

But when I looked closer I saw that, from 1880-2015, out of the last 136 years—all sixteen of the hottest ones occurred during my daughter’s lifetime—in fact, since she was just a toddler. Today she’s 22, and all eighteen of the hottest years on record have been since she turned two. She’s growing up on an altogether different planet than I did.

Now: not knowing … not acting … is NOT AN OPTION. Now Susanna’s face—is the face of climate change for me. Susanna’s future—is the shape of my work for the coming years. And I wrestle, like Jacob with the angel, determined that I will not let go until I receive a blessing of some sort that I can pass on … to help Susanna—and so many others—find a way forward on this strange new planet.

Hence, this blog. It’s only one small piece of that work, but it’s a place where I can offer others (that’s you!) a weekly glimpse at my thinking as it unfolds.

Addressing climate change will require responses from multiple arenas. Science, technology, public policy, news media, industry-business, arts, local communities, individuals—acting as both consumers and citizens, and more. My particular entry point is theology. That might seem far removed from the dynamics of a warming planet, but I suggest otherwise. The way we think about God impacts—often decisively—the way we think about ourselves. It establishes the points on our moral compass and grounds our conviction in making hard choices. Theology (and faith) tethers us to Something Bigger than ourselves as we plumb the coming tumult.

Tumult. I do not choose the word lightly. As I have read more and more about climate change over the past three years my alarm has grown and my hope has been schooled in humility. The news reports[4] this fall are perhaps most sobering because they represent “committee voices,” which, by their nature tend to be moderate in their tone, and even these moderate voices now report predictions and conclusions that sit at the edge of panic.

We may well survive this tumult. But we aren’t going to escape it. And the longer we focus on the most optimistic possibilities—as though we can still avert what will be the unmaking of the world as we know it, the more likely we are to be entirely unprepared when the worst of climate change hits. I am not without hope. But this blog and my work are rooted in my dawning awareness that only by acknowledging the depth of the crisis upon us can we take measure of the means that will serve us well in the days ahead.

For me, one source of hope is the Transition Town Movement.[5] Born a little over a decade ago in Ireland, Transition Towns use permaculture principles,[6] coupled with clear contextual commitment to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and simultaneously restore the strength of local communities: both economically and socially (and, I would add, spiritually). That’s an overly broad sweep, but over the coming year I’ll unpack these ideas further.

Right now it’s sufficient to say I find “gospel in transition”—and moving in both directions. I believe there is “good news” for this present moment in the Transition Town Movement. But I also believe that a host of fundamental principles and practices of transition resonate deeply with of the roots of vital Christian community. In other words, there is also Gospel hiding, as it were, in transition. Which is why I want to use this blog as a place to explore these resonances.[7] If the church aspires to be the church—the called and faithful people of God—in the midst of climate change, then listening to, learning from, and contributing toward the Transition Town Movement is an exercise of discipleship.

Finally, alchemy. Climate change will require more character, more conviction, more courage than perhaps any other socio-historical event since the Black Death of medieval Europe and Asia. If we are not scared, we are foolish. BUT—by choosing to make a regular practice of intentional communal acts of practical kindness, self-education, skill-sharing, localized-rootedness, and resilience-building we can transform fear and isolation into courage and hope. That’s the alchemy of Christian community. It is—absolutely—accessible in a host of other communities. It is not specifically Christian. But for those of us who express our faith through Christianity, there is an alchemy entirely ours. One that lifts up and embodies the best of Christian theology. And that’s where we’ll find hope.

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!). See you next week!

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of weekly reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. I’ll be launching a Patreon site soon to help fund my work in this area. Thanks for reading.

 

 

[1]“Beyond Ecological Security: Intimacy and Risk. Imago Deias a Theological Resource for a More Creative Encounter with the Earth,” David R. Weiss. Presented at The Wisconsin Institute, Ripon College, November 1, 1996

[2]“Consuming the Earth In Search of Our Worth,” David R. Weiss. Earth Day Talk at the University of Notre Dame, April 18, 1998

[3]https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201513

[4]http://nymag.com/intelligencer/amp/2018/10/un-says-climate-genocide-coming-but-its-worse-than-that.html

[5]http://transitionus.org/home

[6]https://permacultureprinciples.com

[7]My thinking will be plenty original, but these two texts have been a helpful entry point for me. The Transition Movement for Churches: A Prophetic Imperative for Today, Timothy Gorridge & Rosie Beckham. London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2013. Rising to the Challenge: The Transition Movement and People of Faith, Ruah Swennerfelt. Quaker Institute for the Future, 2016.

 

Earth-Honoring Faith: A to Z

I’ve just completed a two-week workshop on Earth-Honoring Faith at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I’ve written a series of short reflections on my experience here.

You can read them in this long blog post or download them in this pdf: Earth-Honoring Faith A to Z.

 

From A to Z – an Abecedary Journal of Reflections & Insights during the Earth-Honoring Faith Workshop at Ghost Ranch, July 2-8, 2017

David R. Weiss

A short note to those reading this “from the outside.” The Earth-Honoring Faith—Journey of the Universe workshop was the last of a ten-year series of EHF workshops curated by Larry Rasmussen at Ghost Ranch. Each workshop had a slightly different entry point (this year it was the film/book, Journey of the Universe) into conversation and reflection about how to midwife an “earth-honoring faith” in Christianity (but also in other faith traditions), one cognizant of current science, committed to addressing climate change, and able to foster a renewed mutuality with Earth and beyond.

Our incredible faculty for the week were:

  • Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Neibuhr Professor Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary. He is author of many books and articles on Eco-Ethics including Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key.
  • Mary Evelyn Tucker, Senior Lecturer & Research Scholar at Yale University in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, and the Department of Religious Studies. A specialist in Asian religions, she is co-author (with Brian Swimme) of Journey of the Universe, and carries out multiple projects with her husband, John Grim.
  • John Grim, Senior Lecturer & Research Scholar at Yale University in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, and the Department of Religious Studies. A specialist in Native American & indigenous religions, he is co-director (with Mary Evelyn Tucker) of the Forum on Religion & Ecology at Yale, co-author of Ecology and Religion, and co-director/co-editor of the Harvard conference/book series, World Religions and Ecology.
  • Bill Brown, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Bill has written extensively on biblical perspectives of creation, including The Seven Pillars of Creation: Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder and Sacred Sense.
  • Betty Holley, Professor of Environmental Ethics & African American Religious Studies at Payne Seminary and a presiding Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
  • Julianne Lutz Warren, Fellow at the Center for Humans & Nature with a Ph.D. in conservation ecology. She is author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, an intellectual biography of his land ethic.

 

Each day at Ghost Ranch I set aside time in the afternoon and evening—often outside the Welcome Center until midnight—processing my thoughts from the day. Some are personal insights, most are drawn from the day’s presentations. They’re still largely unedited. And I didn’t write them in alphabetical order, but once I’d written the first couple (Night and Motion) I saw a pattern worth pursuing, and I followed it until I filled out the whole alphabet. I have so much more I could write about—and will. But this collection will be a seed packet. Who knows what will sprout from it?

Of course—these are MY reflections. They can’t begin to speak to the whole experience, but they offer a glimpse of mine.

 

Foreword – a reflection on my way to Ghost Ranch

Driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe I find myself swallowed—no, embraced—by landscape that is at once foreign and familiar. I don’t know this land. Not on the outside. I’ve only been a tourist here on a few brief occasions. But it seems as if this land knows me … as if, on the inside we are already well-acquainted.

Yes, there is a sparse stunning beauty on the horizon. The mountains, if not quite majestic are more than respectable. But it’s the close-up landscape that greets me like a friend. The scraggly land that only rarely—here and there, now and then—bursts into vibrant green. More often the land waits, unapologetically, between a dry brown and a windy tan, with only the barest hint of faded green. Like me.

This land echoes my inner landscape so well it is impossible not to feel instinctively at home, affirmed by the ground under my feet. It’s good to be here.

A is for Alchemy. In centuries past (likely still in some minds today) alchemy names the proto-scientific ambition that sought to transmute some common substance (usually some cheap metal) into something far more precious—often gold. Today we see it most often as a fool’s errand although the sincere diligence of its most ardent practitioners laid important groundwork for chemistry and pharmacy.

What I am learning this week is that while alchemy may well lie beyond the reach and patience of humanity, it is standard practice in the universe. From the Big Bang through supernovae and evolving life forms, alchemy is what the universe does. Starting with just quarks and leptons it fashioned hydrogen—and from there stars, planets, all the elements, oceans, plants, dinosaurs, and us.

It may overstate it to say the universe is consciously purposive. But is has been relentlessly creative and expansively expressive over its billions of year. Perhaps our place is not to play alchemist but to observe this alchemy already at play, to pursue an appreciative understanding, a posture of wonder, awe, gratitude.

 

B is for Bird. No happy tale, this one. Several years back the American Museum of Natural History was hiring an ornithologist (a bird expert). One of the most prestigious positions for an ornithologist in the world, the candidates were numerous and all top tier. When the search had been narrowed down to the final six candidates, each was invited to make a presentation on the bird that was the focus of their research.

At that point a sobering realization emerged. Of the six candidates, FOUR of them were studying birds that had gone extinct during the course of the researcher’s study. Life evaporating before their very eyes.

We aren’t perched on the edge of an extinction event; we have begun the cascade down the hill. As a direct result of this ominous intersection of human expertise and species extinction, the Museum added a dimension to their exhibits that treats the spiritual-religious facet of species loss, recognizing that this isn’t simply an historical event; it’s an existential one.

 

C is for Center. Our best science used to regard Earth as the center of all that is (which at the time wasn’t even the universe). Then Earth was displaced by the Sun (cause for no small bit of theological drama), but we still claimed the Sun-centered solar system as the center. Then we learned about not just stars but whole galaxies. And we discovered to our existential angst that we’re actually located in an outer arm of the Milky Way galaxy, swirling around its center, while floating in (what we thought was) a static universe. Now we know the universe itself is dynamic: in constant motion, still expanding from that initial Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago.

Here’s the scale: current best estimates are 100 billion or more stars in each galaxy—and likely as least one trillion galaxies in the universe. These galaxies are gathered in groups (of perhaps several dozen) that revolve around a center in their midst. These groups of galaxies revolve around yet another center in a cluster of galaxies (hundreds, perhaps thousands of galaxies to a cluster). And these clusters revolve around yet another center in superclusters of galaxies (comprising millions of galaxies at a time).

Here’s where it bends your mind. The center of our supercluster is a massive star at the center of the Virgo Cluster. Mathematical calculations confirm this star as “the” center of cosmic expansion. Everything is rushing away from this point. EXCEPT our best science right now says that every other supercluster (and there are millions of them) also has an exact center of cosmic expansion. There are millions of centers, all legitimately claiming with mathematical certainty and the gravitational pull to prove it, that THEY at the center of this universe. Boom. Mind blown. We can’t think that way for long.

But what if the same is true of religions? What if truth is not Christocentric or Judeo-Christian-centric or Abrahamic-centric? What if at the heart of all religions is a truth irreducible to others? What if, in our one universe, there are multiple centers of religious truth? Science (almost gleefully) bends our minds to tell us the truth of multiple cosmic centers. Would we expect spiritual truth to be any less challenging?

D is for DNA. Life’s evolved means of preserving the memory of its successes. Pythagoras’ greatest insight was his conviction that the essence, the ground of reality was not water, air, fire, but … number. Where many of us see only confusing equations, he saw sheer beauty in the endless array of precise mathematical patterns (including the theorem that bears his name).

But he couldn’t have known the extent to which he was right, not simply about abstract equations or the laws of physics or the exacting relationships that make for visual or auditory art, but about life itself. In DNA life codes its accomplishments in patterns. Meaning it doesn’t need to pass on each finished molecule from one generation to the next. It simply passes forward the genetic memory, the blueprint, so that each new generation can build on the last (occasionally improvising through mutations).

Most astonishingly if you think about it, through evolution DNA has “taken flight.” To some extent among animals who teach the use of tools, but especially among humans, with the development of symbol and language, life’s memory is no longer bound by genetic code. Through cultural tradition, religious heritage, the arts and humanities, and through scientific knowledge, we have “externalized” DNA.

Though hardly without risk. Our increased awareness, our self-consciousness, allows us to more actively “partner” with DNA than any other creature can. We help fashion the next generation by what we encode in rituals, books, and more. But whether by abusive eugenics, racist science, bigoted religion, or oppressive culture, sometimes what we pass forward is precisely what life would prefer to forget: dysfunctional hatreds that are hardly the fittest for survival. We have yet to learn how to consistently shape ourselves through wisdom.

 

E is for Earth. Every one of the speakers here refers to our planet as Earth. Not “the earth”; simply Earth as a name. It’s a rhetorical move I intentionally made in my own eco-speaking at churches over the past year, but I wasn’t aware of others doing the same. I do it to personalize the planet, to refuse to make language reduce this life-giving orb to an “It.” Following Martin Buber’s wisdom, calling Earth by name bestows a Thou-ness to the planet. (BUT—it’s a thou-ness that science increasingly suggests is less ours to bestow than to acknowledge.)

Tonight I recall words spoken this morning commemorating Rina Swentzell, a Pueblo wise woman and former teacher in this course who died not quite two years ago. Rina married an Anglo man and one of her daughters, Athena, spoke about how difficult it was growing up in the pueblo with features that followed her father’s Anglo heritage far more than her siblings. Just shy of outcast, she was consistently “edge-cast,” regarded as “less than” by many outside her immediate family. Athena said it was a tortuous childhood, yearning to belong, yet recognizing that belonging rests in the chosen embrace by others … in her case an embrace largely withheld. Until her mother told her as a young adult, “No, you don’t belong to the people. They do not choose whether you belong. You belong to Earth, and each day she upholds your feet, she is embracing you. You always belong.

Here, too, Earth not only stands before us as Thou. Indeed, her grace is that she “thou”-s us unconditionally and irrevocably. We are because she claims us as hers.

 

F is for Fusion & G is for Gravity. That these letters fall right next to each other in the alphabet is both convenient and appropriate. A bit like yin and yang, fusion and gravity represent forces that can hold each other in check and that provide the creative tension in which the universe unfolds.

Consider: it is gravity, driven by unimaginable mass, that presses elemental particles together until fusion occurs, ultimately pressing hydrogen into helium, generating the explosive energy of a star. But that explosive energy, rather than simply exhausting itself, is captured again by gravity, triggering another cycle of fusion. A star’s life is an explosion caught in suspended animation—with an emphasis on both words. It isn’t a frozen explosion, it’s an ongoing explosion that never dissipates (well, at least not for billions of years).

Two side comments. Gravity, the physical force of attraction between all things that have mass, might be analogous to love, the emotional force of attraction that pulls persons together. I often remark that I have a “blended” family, since Margaret and I “blended” our children together when we married. But I’ve heard two people here describe themselves as being from “fusion” families—a notion I like because it acknowledges what I’ve known to be true: when families, like elemental particles, are fused together by love, something more than the mere sum of parts results. Something altogether new—with a burst of transformative energy to boot.

 

H is for Hope. But we begin with hevel, the Hebrew word that opens the Book of Ecclesiastes. Often rendered as “vanity” (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”), it’s a wispy word with lots of nuance. Other options: futility, absurdity, passing away, vaporous. One German commentator proposes Scheisse. It’s just the way life is: hevel happens.

Hevel speaks a real truth. Shit does happen. Our best hopes evaporate. Our dreams prove futile. These are undeniable aspects of human life. Absurdity makes a strong case for having the final word. Regarding climate change, hevel might ask, “What did you expect? Have you not been following human history? It’s populated by people with hevel for brains!”

But we need hope. So, consider hope a trustworthy hunger. How do we know it’s trustworthy? I’ll guess because it’s bound up with the memory of stars—the whole saga of the universe—woven into our psyches. We remain part of creation’s book, even if we’re no longer paying attention to the story. The story still claims us. I recall, playfully but purposefully, Winnie the Pooh and his honey pot. When Pooh gets lost in the woods, he follows the “rumbly in his tumbly”—his own trustworthy hunger—home to his honey pot. For us, the hunger to be at home on earth is trustworthy as hope comes. (I also believe religious traditions offer hope through their varied stories, symbols, and rituals. Personally, I see these as distinct doorways into the primal universal hope described above. My greatest “fluency” in is Christian hope, but I don’t regard it as more “true” than that of other traditions … or that of sheer scientific wonder. And some religious hope may be less earth-friendly than others.)

One caveat as we follow our hunger home. The more we re-member ourselves into the universe story, the more we’ll grieve for the pages we’ve ripped from the book (see “V is for Voices”). This grief is not disempowering, though it may be overwhelming. It represents the muted joy of getting closer to home.

Hevel happens, and is wont to revel in its happening. But hope—watered by tears—will have the last word. Because, finally, this story rests on perspective far larger and longer than ours. Be hungry. Go home.

 

I is for Intuition. How else to name the deep insights harbored in the sacred stories of indigenous peoples? (Plus, it was the word chosen by one of the Native women at our workshop.) I’m not concerned with the scientific “accuracy” of these many tales—and, I daresay, those who first told them weren’t either! Rather, these stories offered up the holy intuitions of those sages and seers in varied cultures whose vision outpaced science by centuries. Whose tales told truths far more fecund than mere facts. They tethered the people to the ground and sea, to the moon and stars, to the plants and animals, to the seasons of nature and the cycles of life. They didn’t imagine this web of life. No, they perceived its objective reality through the wisdom of their hearts. They saw our interconnections—often all the way to the stars—and simply spun tales so that others could hear the drama they intuitively knew.

I’m honestly not sure that modern ears (attuned to contemporary science and/or contemporary religion) can easily or fully “hear” what these indigenous traditions say today. The gaps in worldview are so great, it’s almost like trying to interpret a whale song. Such songs undeniably carry rich meaning, but rely on a “grammar” and “syntax” that we have yet to fathom. Regarding intuition, our contemporary minds have invested so much energy in linear-logical thought that we may well have rendered them incapable of hearing other tones. In which case, respectful listening to what we cannot hear may be the best we can do. And that virtue alone may help us hear.

J is for Journey. Of course. That’s the theme of the workshop: Journey of the Universe. In a nutshell, the point (the power!) of this unassuming phrase is that, far from being a static backdrop against our lives, the universe itself is an unfolding story—a drama, in which we have a role. This ought to humble us: we are, after all, players in a cast that includes supernovae and black holes—forces beyond anything we can conceive of. But it also ought to inspire us: we are the fruit of a story fourteen billion chapters in the making—and not one chapter is dispensable to our being here. It’s taken everything the universe has in it to reach this point where we step onto the stage. Whoa.

Sadly, we’ve assumed our role is to plunder our corner (read: planet) of the universe. Driven, I’d argue, by existential insecurity and a patriarchal order that equates dignity with dominance, we’ve invested deeply—and across centuries, perhaps millennia—in a project destined to be our death if we cannot find another role.

I recall the words of early feminist theologian Nelle Morton who said to her sisters, lest they be wearied by their own arduous journey toward gender justice, “the journey is home.” From Big Bang to first stars to our galaxy, our Sun, our Earth, we dwell within story upon story upon story. An endless cascade of journeys, one nested inside the other. Our role—uniquely ours because of our capacity for culture—is to be troubadours of the journey. To learn the stories as best we can and to find our place within them, offering songs (whether scientific, religious, philosophical, or artistic) that honor the journey we’re on.

 

K is for King. Today Betty Holley’s presentation on Martin Luther King, Jr. helped us see the profoundly creative connections between “King and the Cosmos.” Although understandably best known for his leadership in the civil rights movement, Betty showed how wholistic King’s vision of a truly universal justice was. It’s possible we prefer to keep King’s reach bound by race for our own comfort, but his words and wisdom touched on economics and militarization, indigenous rights and ecological concerns.

Far beyond the claim (itself resoundingly important[!]—though also historically conditioned) that “all men are brothers,” King also declared “all LIFE is inter-related,” comprising “an inescapable network of mutuality … a single garment of destiny.”

Moreover, his capacity to move the conscience of the nation on civil rights helped inspire the environmental movement—and the environmental justice movement (the wing of environmental activism focused also on racial justice). As Betty read through the Principles of Environmental Justice drafted in October 1991, the echo of King’s wholistic vision of justice, now embraced and developed by others, stilled the room in awe.

For me, it was a revelatory affirmation of what liberation theologians call the epistemological privilege of the poor: the clarity of vision that is uniquely accessible to those on the underside of systemic injustice. Suffering does not guarantee insight, but privilege almost always insures ignorance. And in this document, suffering’s voice is crystal clear. (http://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html)

 

L is for Light. I’m a poet: I listen for evocative connections; I take delight in the suggestive. So listen to this. If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear, does it make a sound? I’d say, No. It’s sending out a puff of waves, but if there are no ears to hear them, it just vibrations moving through air.

God said, “Let there be light.” Did anyone hear that? God doesn’t have physical ears, and there were no humans and no animals around to pick up those “spoken” vibrations. I know, it’s all myth. I agree. But play along. Listen for the delight.

The Milky Way is a galaxy with a spiral structure. When scientists first noted its spiral “arms,” they thought the arms were comprised of matter swirling around the galaxy’s center. Now they understand that the spirals are caused by gravitational waves pulsing outward through the galaxy. Think waves of powerful attraction, waves of love.

Imagine the vibrations of God’s breath saying “Let there be light,” despite there being no ears to hear the words. Only silent vibrations pulsing outward. But as these words-waves move they pull gas clouds together with such force (love) that they IGNITE into massive stars—“Light!”—and burn for millions of years until they’re expended and the waves-words pulse further outward igniting more stars along the way. We SEE Genesis 1:3 occurring in the spiral arms of galaxies, the universe responding to God’s soundless-but-brilliant call for light.

 

M is for Motion. We started the morning 250 million years ago up on the mesa. The ground exposed under our feet used to host a jungle populated by dinosaurs. Part of Pangea back then (the great singular land mass before our current continents went their own ways) this ground was equatorial at the time. Like me, it traversed a thousand miles or more to get here this morning. Now some cosmic dance places us as partners. Here. Today.

Later on—the layers in the exposed mountains tell the story—this land was all sand dunes. Dried out by a mountain range, itself long since expired, that stopped all the rain on the western slopes. And millions of years after that, it was a large inland sea. Jungle, dunes, seabed. These are my neighbors in this place across time. And they have graciously welcomed me to the neighborhood.

 

N is for Night. Sunday night—my first night here. When have I known the comfort of such dark? When has silence been such an intimate companion? Too rarely, for sure.

My roommate headed to bed shortly after nine. I showered, gathered my things and headed to the library, where I read and reviewed notes for tomorrow’s conversation. From 9:30-10:30 I was alone … then the high school and/or college kids came. Hardly noisy, but the stillness was gone. By 11 I finished my work and had my phone & laptop fully charged. I made my way, clothed in darkness, to the Welcome Center where the rock patio stills holds a bit of the day’s warmth, and I have been sitting in the dark wrapped in nothing but stillness. No voices. No cars. No media. The lazy chirp of crickets at most.

I don’t imagine I could live like this daily. I know I could. In this expanse the voices that clamor inside me don’t feel so much urge to run amok seeking attention. They quiet down and organize themselves into something like a lilting symphony. A soothing melody with myriad variations that rolls like a lazy—friendly—river behind my thoughts without disrupting them.

I was made for silence. Sure, I am head over heels in love with words. But apart from silence, they become unruly noise. In the stillness they unfold themselves with the patience of leaves. It is such joy.

And this: whoever taught us to be afraid of the dark did so to keep us from learning the liberating wisdom that lies beyond sight. (Yes, I know there are things to fear in the dark, though no less fearsome things operate in broad daylight if we’re honest.) But darkness carries a beauty deeper than eyes can see. Not simply that it compels us to look inward—but that it reminds us, sometimes, simply to stop looking at all.

 

O is for O’Keeffe. Georgia O’Keeffe, of course. The famous artist stumbled upon Ghost Ranch in 1934, first spending summers here in a rented cottage, eventually managing to buy the house and a few acres of land. She spent her summers here exploring the terrain on foot and then capturing it on canvas. A loner all her life, she sought isolation on the Ranch and only uneasily fashioned alliances with the other residents. When she could no longer live at the ranch, she retired to Santa Fe, eschewing social contact to the end, declaring, “I find people very difficult.” Me, too.

I need to add—and quickly—that there are plenty of people I love: Margaret, my six kids, nine grandchildren, parents, siblings, and plenty of other family and friends to make a short working list.

But the truth is, my best gifts, my deepest joys and strongest sense of purpose, unfold mostly in solitude … and tend to wither in its absence. I might well fall prey to despair were I not tethered to others, but I need to cultivate space—especially in the form of time and solitude—for my best self to come forward more consistently. I want more “social balance” than Ms. O’Keeffe chose, but no less honesty. So, although I don’t say if very often, here it is: I find people very difficult. J

 

P is for play. Longer recess may have begun as a genetic mutation that lengthened our childhood, humanizing us in two distinctive ways. We see “play” in the young of many mammals—it carries an essential role in building the skills that equip them to successfully navigate their world. But as childhood lengthened dramatically for our earliest human ancestors, they spent successively more and more time “at recess.”

First, this meant their brains had significantly more time to mature while still young, tutored by play in ways that stretched and deepened cognitive development beyond anything the animal kingdom had ever seen. Second, one “by-product” of play that followed us into adulthood is doing things that bring delight as an end in themselves. Thus, sport, art, literature, music, dance are all instances of “play” polished to a fine point. Indeed, the freedom we experience as beings with a sense of choice is also a form of play carried forward into adulthood.

Ironically, under this hypothesis, we stand—in truth—not simply on the shoulders of our wisest elders, but equally on the giggles of those mischievous children in our distant past.

Carrying this notion one step further, many development theorists (I’m thinking particularly of James Fowler) posit a stage of post-conventional awareness in which adults—those who reach it anyway—experience a second naiveté, an ability to relish wonder and complexity with joy that is play in its richest form. Unfortunately, modern society—from education to market to employer to parish—all conspire to halt our development shy of post-conventional maturity. Today, more than ever, if we hope to bequeath a breathing planet to a next generation of children, we adults must remember how to link the knowledge we have to the wisdom of play.

 

Q is for Quest. I am my own worst critic. (That’s sheer assumption—maybe people say worse things about me behind my back than I imagine. I just know the critical voices in my head can be severe, even savage.) Blessed with many gifts, I rarely manage to bring them together with focus. Despite my plentiful passion, my days are usually defined more by distraction than determination, shaped more by my anxieties than my aspirations.

I’ll be honest. My “quest” in coming here was fundamentally to disrupt the distracting rhythms of my life sufficiently to re-center myself. Yes, “earth-honoring faith” is a central passion for me, and cultivating some contacts and deepening my understanding will be helpful. But I needed something more than another academic conference. I needed a setting that invited personal transformation as much as professional development. Ghost Ranch has been that for me. (And—holy shit!—I still have eight more days here!)

Maybe next week, after the workshop is over and I’m here as part of the Adult Service Corps (read: free labor for five hours/day), I’ll take in the museums and a few hikes. This week—maybe you’ve noticed—I’m writing. Processing each day’s ideas a bit, although I barely scratch the surface of all there is to think about. Most importantly, I am daily re-making myself. Giving words and silence the place they need in order for determination, focus, and joy to blossom in my life. (But see “V is for Voices”; this joy is both gracious gift to my soul and anchor for soul-rending grief.)

This is heart-work for me. Remembering who I am and what I need. Tending the desert in my soul. I came to the right place, surrounded by the right people, to do this work. And I’m determined to carry a well-tended desert back with me to the land of ten thousand lakes.

R is for Religious. I won’t argue if you’re skeptical. Religious traditions have done their damned best to stain their own image. They’re too often pressed into the service of top-down power and hierarchy. Wielded as cultural weapons rather than serving as wombs for wonder, they are—without question—ambiguous at best.

And yet, how else to stand before a world—from the terrain our eyes meet to the stars rushing away to ancient days beyond our gaze—a world “charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)? Go ahead and replace God with Mystery or Allure. Reduce it to a capital-G Grandeur, and put the period right there, if you wish. The bottom line is that, given our sensuous perception and given the world’s sheer Isness, our fundamental response should begin with wonder and awe.

And religious (keeping organized and institutionalized religion at arm’s length) is the human posture that allows wonder to wind its way like ivy around our lives. It invites awe to grow in our souls. Finally, being religious is not about believing in God or practicing strict rituals. It is about meeting the world with a deep bow of boundless gratitude. Now go practice.

 

S is for Stardust. It sounds fanciful to say, but it’s true, we carry stardust in our hearts. The iron that reddens our blood was born in stars. Indeed, all the elements that comprise this planet, from rocks to plants to animals—all of this is made from stardust. But we alone know this.

The Earth Charter, which we reviewed today, is glorious in its aspirational vision for our life together. It’s like a moral murmuration (see W is for Whirlpool): a glimpse of human lives moving in full alignment in a pattern of justice. It’s what moral consciousness looks like under the right conditions so that universal self-organizing dynamics can emerge.

It’s also a long way from aspirational charter to actual change. I get that. But stardust! In its powerful Preamble, the Earth Charter summons us, both individually and collectively, to a life geared toward “being more rather than having more.” That change needs to happen (and quickly, because the time is short!) in our lives, our communities, our common commitments, our governments, our actions of resistance and hope. But it begins in how we see ourselves. It begins in our hearts—the very stardust core of our being.

We are stars come to life. It’s time for us to trace our genealogy back to the beginning. To find our place in a proud family, where our ancestors truly shine down on us each night. A family where it is already an honor, already enough, simply to be.

 

T is for Touch. This is perhaps THE challenge of “earth-honoring faith.” Yes, we need to grasp the basics of the science, both cosmology and climate change. And, yes, we need to reckon soberly with the implications of our present economic-industrial inertia for our livelihood on the planet—and the livelihood of our fellow fauna and flora. But we need more than this.

We need to touch hearts. The stark numbers are essential, but they don’t tell the whole story. In fact, for most people, numbers don’t tell stories at all. Which is exactly why religion (and arts of every kind) have a crucial role to play here. We must move people to grief, to hope, to imagine, to resolve, to resist, to renew. Our knowledge must find expression in stories that can touch.

 

U is for Us. Though likely not the “us” to which your mind races. I’m thinking of the “us” in Gen 1:26. “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings …’” Many have wondered or argued at length over this “us.” Some say it’s simply an instance of “the royal ‘we,’” as when a monarch speaks on behalf of the whole realm. Others believe it shows God speaking to the angels. And still others hold that it reflects an early intimation of the Trinity. I don’t really care, but I’m going to cast my vote for a yet more evocative reading.

Genesis tells us, “God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation …’” creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …’” (1:11, 20, 24) I don’t imagine for a minute that the author of Genesis is making scientific or historical claims. He’s spinning a tale that will orient his people meaningfully in the world in which they dwell. But it does seem significant that he portrays a God who works with creation in creative partnership.

So, given what we know today of life’s unfolding course, why not read the “us” as God turning to the entire animal kingdom (all brought forth in the immediately preceding verses), and saying to them with a grand evolutionary invitation, “Now, let us—all of you creatures—let us together make human beings in our image … so that they carry within themselves both the seeds of creaturely roots and the aspirations of God.”

 

V is for Voices. A whole symphony of them. Silent. Silenced. Tonight we listened to audio recordings of birdsongs of five birds gone extinct in the past century. I was wholly unprepared. These songs were instances of aural beauty that will. Never. Be. Sung. Again.

We heard them tonight. Though not resurrected. Still fully dead. Songs from beyond the grave. As I listened a macabre scene played out in my head against my own wishes. I imagined myself plucking each bird, feather by feather, until I took each brutally bared body and twisted the neck to stop the song. Forever.

Julianne Warren’s presentation was as exquisitely poignant as anything I’ve experienced. Teary-eyed and breathless, I scrawled in my notebook, “Oh————you ripped a hole in my soul! I did not know how to feel such grief. Only that I needed to. And you led me there. What a strange thing to say ‘thank you’ for.”

I know, I’m not to blame. But my “innocence” does those birds no good. And I have my own strong intuition that hope is something sown deep in the soil of our souls, where it requires the salty water of tears before it sprouts. Tonight I watered hope.

 

W is for Whirlpool. This patterning effect occurring with water is emblematic of the self-organizing dynamics at work within the universe. Seemingly present at all levels of matter and perhaps responsible for producing the spark of life itself, these dynamics are manifest when matter—even at a very simple chemical level, encounters conditions that lead it to organize itself spontaneously (and without any outside direction) into a patterned and persisting order. From crystalline structures to nanoparticles, from whirlpools in water to murmurations by starlings, we see a universal tendency to resist entropy (the tendency toward disorder and chaos) with creative pattern.

Hardly inevitable unless the conditions are right, self-organizing dynamics might offer a clue to human morality. My own flight of fancy here (still refining it): is it possible that ethical principles like justice, compassion, altruism, mutuality and so forth are the “moral whirlpools” that appear in human consciousness—under the right conditions? Might they represent consciousness intuitively organizing itself for life-giving purposes.

Within matter, self-organizing dynamics arise only when the physical conditions are right—temperature, pressure, etc. Otherwise entropy holds sway. So … are there conditions—physical, social, spiritual—that are prerequisite to the emergence of life-giving morality? I suspect so. And it feels rather pressing to discern them before entropic morality (principles, to be sure, but ones “guiding” life toward chaos) wins the day … at least in this corner of the universe.

 

X is for X, X + 1. I know, it seems like I’m reaching here, but wait until you see where I’m going. This morning we looked at Proverbs 30:18-19 as a text showing the biblical declaration of wonder for creation. It’s an example of “graded numerical parallelism.” What does THAT mean? Glad you asked. Simply put, as Bill Brown, our speaker, explained, the first clause speaks of X number of things, and the next one makes the same clam regarding X + 1. J

Here’s the verses:

Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand:

the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock,

the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of one lover with another.

And here’s the wonder. The poem declares its awe for creation by exclaiming in wonder at the mystery manifest in natures three great domains—no, four. The way a bird moves across the sky, the way a snake moves across the ground, the way a ship moves across the waters—and, most especially, the way love moves across human hearts.

A simple poem, astonishing in its exquisite reach for wonder, made clear by x, x + 1.

 

Y is for You. Yes, you. It’s the penultimate letter in the alphabet, but I’ve saved writing this reflection until the very end. In Journey to the Universe (p. 122), Mary Evelyn Tucker & Brian Swimme describe the existential restlessness that marks humanity: “Other species found their biome and settled into it, but nothing has seemed to satisfy us fully. Every place we went we felt we were at home, yet not at home.” They go on to suggest that perhaps our vocation is to so immerse ourselves in the wonder of this entire place—from Earth to space—that “we become the human form of the universe,” and that perhaps only then will we find ourselves at home on Earth.

I agree. But my mind is still pondering the phrase “other species found …”, and I hear “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but …” (Luke 9:58)—which, of course, is Jesus talking about himself. And I can’t help but wonder, Were we mistaken in thinking he was talking only about himself? We (Christians, at least!) are eager to maintain Jesus’ monopoly on messianic status … as though that’s the highest honor we can accord him. But what if that “honor” undermines his entire message? (I’m just asking.)

But I am really asking. What if Jesus was actually modeling messiah—for all of us? As our universal vocation. What if incarnation is our common calling? What if being a Cosmic Christ—someone chosen by God … by the Universe … smeared with oil (anointed) … selected by evolution … seeded by stardust … to be representative of Love—what is THIS is my destiny—and yours? Yes, you.

 

Z is for Zest. Specifically, “zest for life,” a favorite phrase of Teilhard de Chardin. But “favorite” misstates it. For de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist and theological cosmologist, zest for life names the quality of the human spirit on which our survival depends. It is the perseverance to survive against all odds, the determination to get up again, and again, to press forward. But it is not Sisyphean fatalism or stoic resignation. Zest for life involves taking stark account of the situation in front of you, assuming full responsibility for the weight your choices carry for tomorrow, and drawing deeply on the subterranean spring of joy that feeds the soul … not with happiness but with something far grittier: zest for life.

Whether you conceive of this zest as fed by God or by Nature or by Human Spirit writ large, this zest—think faith in its most visceral expression—is quite likely what will determine whether tomorrow dawns on a world that includes us, or one in which our memory fades to extinction. So, here’s to Zest!

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David R. Weiss

drw59mn@gmail.com