Sleepwalking through a Cataclysm: A Pentecostal Wake-up Call

“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” God declares, “and your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” Many Christians heard that biblical text yesterday in church, for the Feast of Pentecost.

Prophecy only occasionally has anything to do with predicting far-off future events. Biblical prophets more often see the present with vivid clarity and then say uncomfortable things about it. That clarity of vision sometimes happens in a dream but mostly we have to be awake, with our eyes wide open.

As I thought about prophesy on Pentecost, here’s a short list of what came to mind: intractable social problems; dysfunctional political parties; erosion of the common good; a whole generation or more without any grounding in a religious tradition; and polar bears swimming for their lives without any ice in sight while poachers profit from slaughtering elephants. The list would be longer if I were more awake.

I believe most citizens of the North Atlantic (myself included) are sleepwalking through a cataclysm. I’m not sure what will wake us; perhaps only divine intervention can interrupt our somnambulist delusions.

Sound alarmist? A current catalogue of crises would begin with these:

  • About ten days ago this planet registered over 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a level not seen for roughly three million years, even while we frack for more gas and scrape the bottom of oil-sands barrels; the irreversible tipping point for global climate change swiftly approaches and we may have just passed it (here’s a startling graph of the problem).smokestacks2
  • We now live with the most severe gap between those who control not only national but global wealth and resources and those who have virtually nothing; even conservative economists consider that gap unsustainable and it maps closely to the widening gap in education.
  • Yet another gap widens with alarming speed, the one between ideology and facts; just witness what happened to Bill Nye (the “science guy”) when he noted for a Texas audience that the moon actually reflects the sun’s light (he was booed) or what a Christian pastor said about Christianity as the founding religion of the United States that now stands at risk from homosexual activists (this matters because that pastor is now the Republican candidate for Lt. Governor of Virginia).
  • All the boring stuff about infrastructure will soon seem far less boring when this nation’s duct-taped electricity grid crashes, or when the more than 4,000 dams at risk of failure actually fail, or when the next 70-year old gas pipeline explodes; the American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the U.S. infrastructure a grade of D+.
  • The wildly disproportionate number of African American men incarcerated in the U.S. strongly suggests that Jim-Crow culture never really ended but merely changed tactics, which includes keeping the poor in poverty and restricting their access to education.

I imagine most people think about that catalogue of socio-political problems as discrete items on a check-list. Most of us likely recognize some of their intersections and overlaps. Relatively few, however, would include all of those and more in a description of a single event, as the word “cataclysm” suggests. But that’s precisely what I now believe we must do.

I believe we are witnessing in slow-motion a singular, cataclysmic unraveling of community, of the social bonds that have for millennia enabled humans to survive and thrive. Those bonds now include the indispensable relationships with varied ecosystems, both  local and global. To be sure, many of us enjoy resilient, thriving communal bonds, even if only in our households or neighborhoods. But this is not enough, not by far, not in an era of global commerce and planetary-interdependence.

Most of us are happily sleepwalking through this cataclysm, though mostly through no fault of our own. The very conditions that set the stage for this unfolding disaster have ingeniously hidden their mechanisms from view behind a screen of comfort. As I write this, I sit in a beautiful backyard garden surrounded by budding fruit trees next to a house with an affordable mortgage. Very little about where I sit would encourage me to wake up.

bible_us_flagMany would of course lay the blame for our sleepy state at the feet of religion, especially Christianity. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Marcella Althaus-Reid (one of the more traditionalist and therefore queer theologians I know) argued that Western Christians have been lulled into a compliant sleep by adopting Western cultural sensibilities as benchmarks for Gospel values. That wedding of modern Western culture and institutional Christianity may well qualify as one of the biggest blunders in Christian history, perhaps second only to the quasi-official adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.

To the many solutions Althaus-Reid proposed to this quandary, I would add this: divine intervention. I do not mean the kind Cecil B. DeMille imagined in his silver-screen Bible epics. Divine intervention will look today like it always has, vividly illustrated by Pentecost but without the special effects. Luke’s biblical account of the earliest Christians in his Acts of the Apostles relies on very few divine pyrotechnics. He portrays instead completely ordinary people doing wildly extraordinary things, all of them inspired and cajoled by the Spirit. Luke describes that Pentecostal effect: Christians turned the world upside down (17:6).

In the midst of an unfolding cataclysm, we need some world-changing prophecy. I’m actually very hopeful that the Spirit will do today what she has done so many times before – wake us up to see the world with prophetic clarity.

When that happens, we will need another gift from that same Spirit: the ability and willingness to understand one other beyond the many linguistic and cultural barriers that divide us. And still another gift: the love that makes friends from enemies and family from friends. And yet one more, perhaps above all the others: courage.

"Holy Spirit Coming," He Qi, 2009
“Holy Spirit Coming,” He Qi, 2009

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

7 thoughts on “Sleepwalking through a Cataclysm: A Pentecostal Wake-up Call”

  1. Of course, the gift of the Spirit in the Bible story was exactly that, the ability to hear one another across linguistic (and cultural?) divides. All of a sudden, the foreign tongues became intelligible. That gift of the Spirit was appropriate for a people who had just been charged to evangelize. And you are right, I believe fundamentally so. None of the problems you mention can be solved without a deep sense of “being in it together,” of community, interdependence, and, yes, love.

    And only churches have a prayer of providing a space where we can practice the art of loving. That is not a statement to make one very hopeful, but I believe it is true. What other organizations will do it? Universities? Business? Even non-profit organizations are thinking about strategic plans and output measures.

    Yes, an intervention of the Holy Spirit is much needed. Will we gather in the Upper Room to get ready to receive?

    1. Yes, thanks, Niels! I wanted to say more about the Pentecost event breaking down barriers for the sake of the common language of “Gospel” but of course my post was already too long. You make an interesting point about the Church as THE space for the practice and art of loving into community. I agree with that as a theological principle yet worry (as I tried to suggest in the post) that the collusion of Western cultural sensibilities with institutional Christianity makes it ever more difficult to create spaces that counter-culturally loving, as it were. That’s why I tried to use the language of “intervention” for our “sleepwalking.” And of course I was preaching to myself first and foremost…

  2. As I click the “like” button I am aware that it seems a poor option for the reflection I just read. Thank you for putting into words feelings that have been picking at me for some time. Waking up is very difficult in a society that makes sleeping so attractive. I am reminded of a scene from the movie–The Year of Living Dangerously: in the midst of watching his beloved country, Indonesia, ruled by a brutal dictator, a reporter and photographer– repeatedly types out on his typewriter; “what then must we do, what then must we do, what then must we do…”.
    In response to this question I feel uneasy when all that I hear is silence. So, grateful for Pentecost and your wise words I find myself with a new mantra, “come, Holy Spirit, come”. I only pray we stay alert.

    1. Thanks, Carrie! I really was “preaching” to myself in that post. And I tried my best to end on a (somewhat) positive note but I find it increasingly difficult to retain a sold sense of hopefulness. When systems are designed to make people like me (and others) comfortable, it’s difficult to risk comfort for the sake of transformation…

  3. I agree with you, the only word that fits is ‘cataclysm’. Unfortunately, those who see the problem even somewhat clearly tend to be dismissed as alarmists, and most who see the problem have no idea where to start fixing things.

    I will agree with ‘religion’ being the cause to the point that Christianity became wedded to the power structures, rather than ‘a voice crying out in the wilderness’. but even as a non-Christian fed up with all organized religion and questioning whether I have any faith left, I think that Christianity – or even religion in general – alone is far from the entire answer.

    Finally, I will say that I hope your prayers for divine intervention are answered. I struggle to do what I can to be part of the solutions rather than the problems, but I am all to aware of the ways I fall short of that goal. And I truly think that it will take divine intervention to make a difference. I just wish I could still believe in it.

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