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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

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Saving the Planet One Dogmatic Doctrine at a Time

Ideas matter. They matter all the time, but especially in times of peril – social, political, and ecological peril. We live in such perilous times today.

These days, ideas matter in direct proportion to every degree of elevation in the planet’s mean temperature (the double entendre here is useful). All of us need to take action now for this planet, this “fragile earth, our island home.” But we won’t get very far without sustained and careful thinking and deliberation. Ideas matter.

I don’t mean that ideas matter in isolation from action. That binary distinction is more than a cliché; it’s as furry with mold as the old blue cheese I recently found in my refrigerator. No one does hardly anything without thinking, even when some forms of thinking have become a habit. Ideas matter.

Consider just two recent examples of the clarion call for thinking carefully and deliberately together about our world. The first comes from Bill McKibben, a leading environmental advocate and writer. His latest piece in Rolling Stone is one of the more sobering assessments I’ve read about our global climate change crisis. McKibben himself describes the piece as among the most important he has ever written.

The second comes from someone I don’t know on a website I only recently found. Alan Goldstein describes in concise and compelling ways the current economic and social crisis our planet now faces. I find his analysis on target but his proposed solution weak.

Both of these pieces illustrate my point: ideas matter. Among the ideas that matter are religious ones generally, and theological ones in particular. Just read the daily newspaper. Religious ideas are fueling war, conflict, economic policies, social configurations, ecological positions…the list goes on and on. So how curious that neither McKibben nor Goldstein offers even a single word about religion!

How human beings think about God (or not) in relation to ourselves, to other humans, and to other animals has a profound impact on how we live (even if our practice doesn’t always match our theory perfectly or even closely). So how then do we think about God? And how do we deliberate together about our thinking? And how do we put our thinking into action and how does our action reshape our thinking?

I care about these questions as a human being, as a Christian, as a priest in the Episcopal Church, and as a theologian. I’m grateful for the responses in various venues to my recent blog post that suggest that others care about this, too.

So I decided to assemble a series of blog posts to describe how I approach theological ideas and the difference they make in how Christians live. That’s a ridiculously huge topic, so these are more like conversation starters.

I’ll begin with this: There is no grand solution for our planetary problems. There is no universal, all-encompassing strategy for human thriving. We all seek in vain for the pill, the method, the text, the location, the practice, the rite, the community, the guru, the geography, the school that will cure what ails us.

I’m glad there is no such thing or place or person or community that can do that. Because what we have instead are shards of beauty, slices of the piercingly poignant, the strands of awe dangling in the breezes of forests, the pimples of delight on the chin of lovers, the absurd glory of dead pets, and the stains of thumb-marks on pages turned in cherished texts.

We take all of this into our wildly graceful moments of human relationship, into our fumbling attempts at creating transcendent communities, and our visceral responses to weather reports.

All of this is the stuff of religion and theology. But few would guess it from reading media reports about denominational gatherings. If Christian theology can’t go back to the campfire where we all sit together and tell stories and shape communities of action and practice, then we are doomed.

But I don’t believe that. I believe religion generally and Christian theology in particular can help turn the tide toward flourishing – what God has intended all along. My next posts here in this blog will offer suggestions about how Christian communities might make ideas matter. Stay tuned. And please add your voice – without it, we’ll be stuck, mired, buried in a culture that denigrates ideas.

Don’t let that happen. Ideas matter.

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“Enchanté, Madame”: Why Good Policy Alone Won’t Save Us

Christ is risen and we’re killing the planet. I know – you’ve heard something similar countless times. Another species extinct. Another ecosystem threatened. Global climate change. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Maybe you haven’t heard this one quite so often: If it’s okay to rape women, it’s okay to rape the planet.

That grisly connection is, alas, being performed right now on legislative stages in Washington, D.C. and in far too many states. The link between the current war on women and the war on the planet (the former talked about incessantly these days and the latter, not so much), is subtle but vitally important.

I firmly believe that the many complex “issues” we face today are woven together in complex, lovely, troubling, spiritual ways. I want to try to evoke that here, if only as a preface to the great work our species must now confront. So let’s consider just a few of the dots that need connecting at the moment:

  • First, access to birth control and abortion (which is still technically legal in this country) is under attack. If only this were old news. I appreciate the moral quandaries faced by people of good faith about abortion, but now we’re seeing restrictions appearing even when the health of the mother is at stake, and even in cases of rape and incest. So, is it really okay to rape women? (For more on access issues, read here, which is wonky and policy-heavy, but important; or Rachel Maddow’s take on it here.)
  • Second, access to clean water, clean air, and a safe food supply is equally under attack. This doesn’t appear often enough in the headlines. According to some, the current Congress is the most anti-environment Congress in U.S. history. (Read more about that here; though this is a partisan source, it nonetheless provides helpful links to actual legislation, and it’s disturbing.)
  • Third, access to the truth requires tedious knowledge of legislative riders, appropriations bills, and countless other political arcana that make most people reach for a cocktail instead. The U.S. House, for example, recently passed a much needed piece of legislation for student loans, but paid for it by reducing health care funding that might affect women the most. (The word “might” is important there and I recommend Ezra Klein’s take on this here.)

These are not sexy dots to connect. But connect them we must. Consider this recent pithy observation about environmental responsibility from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the world is “not just a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” (Read a great essay on this here.)

I can’t help but wonder if far too many men think the same way about women – women’s bodies as warehouses, incubators, resources, objects. We’ve had a few decades now of insightful analysis about the link between male privilege and ecological degradation – men can control “mother” nature just like they (try to) control women. But I’m not at all convinced that such a link has sunk into our collective consciousness. (Even less likely to have sunk in are the connections between misogyny, homophobia, and global climate change…but I digress.)

So I wonder: How might all of us think differently about our own bodies, the bodies of others, the bodies of non-human animals, and the body of this planet? Would thinking differently make a difference in how we live, the social policies we support, the politicians we elect? I hope so. But what does “thinking differently” mean?

What about “enchantment”?

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book that proposed precisely that and I’m still trying to tease out its implications. The book is by James William Gibson, called A Re-enchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. It’s an insightful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and lovely book. I also believe Gibson captured something critical and essential: arguing about environmental policy won’t solve any of our problems unless we rekindle our nearly forgotten enchantment with nature.

By “enchantment,” Gibson means many things at once: nature isn’t anyone’s private property; it isn’t just a “resource”; it has its own life and value and beauty quite apart from humanity; and it’s uncanny, uncontrollable, lovely, grotesque, compelling, beyond categories of human meaning making. It is, in a word, enchanting.

I really want to think more and write more about this, and I will. But for now, in the midst of these Great Fifty Days of Easter (Easter is a season, longer than Lent), I frequently find my spiritual attention gravitating toward the image of the “new creation.” The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just for him, and it wasn’t just for every other human. In some way, Easter proclaims God’s stubborn commitment to life for everything, without exception. Now that is surely peculiar, thankfully.

So, could that great Gospel proclamation lead us to a re-enchantment with the world and all its many wondrously uncanny and glorious bodies? Could it, at long last, dismantle the utilitarian and objectifying posture toward women’s bodies that so many politicians, not to mention religious leaders, seem to adopt? Could Easter move us to find each other and the world around us enchanting?

I believe it could. And not a moment too soon.