From the Atlantic Ocean has recently come the devastating power of hurricane Dorian as well as the quiet voyage, by solar sailboat, of 16-year old Greta Thunberg from England to New York. Dorian destroyed huge swaths of the Bahamas and brought extensive damage once again to our east coast. We still don’t know how many people lost their lives and loved ones. The roar of the storm and the quiet voice of this Swedish girl carry the same message. The global climate change predicted for decades by scientists is now upon us. We can no longer afford, if we ever could, the lies or silence of leaders in government, business, or cultural institutions. Even if we wake up now, we are walking into a radically altered world in the near future.
This awareness comes with personal demands. How and how much should we travel? Travel and transportation account for about 14% of current greenhouse emissions. Air travel has doubled since 2003, yet airplanes remain dependent on fossil fuel combustion as far into the future as we can see. In a single trip across the Atlantic I create emissions equal to an entire year of driving. Yet we and our friends travel constantly by air and auto, extolling the benefits of international tourism. We depend at every moment on goods brought to us over many miles by ship, plane, and truck. We continue to eat meats and dairy products from animals generating enormous amounts of methane. Those and other agricultural processes contribute another 14% to current emissions. We turn to the internet for incorporeal contact with the wider world, only to generate in turn enormous amounts of emissions for electrical production to drive and cool the internet. We respond by traveling, often by air, to yet more conferences on climate change or to visit places that may disappear before our children die.
All of which is to say that we are caught like fish in the whale. We are part of a system of earthly destruction. As with the venerable words of confession, “there is no health in us.” It is here that we enter into a fresh appreciation of what theologians might call “original sin,” but not what you might have learned at church. In western Christianity this notion, born out of St. Augustine’s life and thought in the fourth century, located some original aberration in our history in the sexual act. Though with little or no Scriptural basis, it became the main lens through which western Christian understood the story of creation. I cannot rehearse here the spiritual dead end into which this preoccupation led us.
But “original sin” can also find other meanings as we think about what has gone fundamentally wrong in our world. The ecological crisis that is upon us awakens other interpretations. From this vantage point, we might say that somewhere, back in the beginnings of the industrial revolution, something happened that drove us into this ecological dead-end. Certainly, one part of it was seizing the knowledge of how nature works. This is, in a sense, the “wisdom” of the tree that stood in Eden’s garden. Yet this knowledge became the basis for exploiting the earth for our own narrow purposes. The knowledge itself, then, was not evil. It was used to dominate the natural world rather than find how to live within it. The evil lay within the fearful anxiety in which we try to avoid our earthly finitude by grabbing more and more from the life around us. We clutch, we consume inordinately, we covet, steal, and murder in order to be secure and survive. And, as in the Garden story in Genesis, when we come to the contradiction between the wisdom of the tree and our own fear, we hide and lie. Hiding and lying invade our public and private life. making it even more difficult to confront the truth of our situation.
Now we can no longer hide and lie. The little child has ripped off our pretentious façade. This little whisper of history drives me back to a constant theme in Jesus’s preaching, first in his attack on hypocrisy, lying, and self-deception; second, in his invocation of God’s constant care for the birds and flowers of the field. He attacked fear and lying with the courage of one who lives beyond the curtain of death and with the quiet peace of recognizing his origin in the God of Life. I still haven’t fully absorbed what this means, but I am, perhaps, crawling the way there.
I’m thinking more about how much I will travel and how. How much I will rely on purchased goods from afar. How much I will string out my life on the digital highway. It’s personal. It’s political. It’s economic. It’s religious. It’s upon us. I’m feeling these questions acutely; how much more are my grandchildren, who will be living in it. And I’m thinking about Greta, the little child who is striking out to lead us.
My old friend Gerd Decke, a retired pastor and consultant to many church organizations, sends me these reflections to post:
We just had a beautiful demonstration in Berlin on Friday which reminded me of many Kirchentag justice, peace, and integrity of creation demonstrations and church service events in the opening and final services: many young people in the majority, many old people and in between generations with little children and many out of all corners and cultures of the world – and many posters in English! They say there were 270,000 people in the streets of Berlin and before the Brandenburg Gate. A happy, friendly and determined atmosphere of “eco, not ego”. Not “nach uns die Sintflut” but we need a “Sinn-Flut”.
Your reminder of Jesus’ words against hypocrisy and lying and deception and for God’s care for the birds and the flowers in the field are so much to the point. More and more I think that “the Word of God” is in Jesus Christ and not in the deep reflections on God which the many religions and innumerable spiritual thinkers are speculating upon what God is about.
Therefore when I think of God I think of the father of Jesus Christ who communicated the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the disputations and the wisdom sayings and acted in way of all-inclusive breaking the barriers in his way of meeting and treating people, especially those not in power like the women, the children, the handicapped, the sick, the poor, the simple fishermen, the non-educated, those from cultures beyond Israel, the enemies (the Romans, the publicans, the Samaritans), the sinners.
If you take Jesus seriously you take God seriously. As Reinhold Niebuhr rightly said “Don’t take the bible literally, take it seriously.” In Jesus that is almost the same. The parable of the rich fool is maybe as pertinent for our situation as can be. It seems we live in the richest and most secure situation ever in our societies, but we are producing death for the generations to come through our life style of hoarding and overproducing.
Greta reminds me of Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man”, extremely serious and determined, extremely focused and somewhat crazy, but deeply human.
Thank you Bill! A thoughtful, action provoking reflection challenging us to rethink our patterns of behaviour at every level. But we need some careful thinking here on how do deal with complexity. How do we protect millions of jobs in poor countries dependent on tourism if we cut down on air-travel? How do we replace conferencing with skype without developing and affording new technologies? I acknowledge that the argument from complexity can become an excuse, but we need help in finding alternatives that do not have unintended consequences. What resources do we have for thinking through these conundrum? Help!
Skyping may be an answer to conference travelling, and
You certainly remind us of our personal accountability for global warming. Something we can do other than helplessly blame the fossil fuel industry. Thank you.
This is powerful, insightful and challenging. It’s so important that you wrote about the way the church has misinterpreted “original sin.” Thank you.