Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Freed to love: why (rich) Christians need to think about climate change

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Galatians 5.13-14.

Freedom is ordered towards love; we are free in order that we might love, and in love become slaves to one another. Christian liberty is the freedom to do good to my neighbour. Central amongst the goods I might do for my neighbour is echoing the divine call to enter into this very freedom to love. And so part of my free service will be inviting my brothers and sisters into the service of those around them: "Let us serve our neighbours and do good to everyone, especially to the household of faith!"

Yet this service is not exhausted by issuing such an invitation. There are many other ways of serving one another as well as proclaiming the good news of freedom in Christ. To be of service to my neighbours, some of the good things I can do will require more specific knowledge of my neighbours and their condition and context. Do they need food? Do they need to learn how to fish for themselves? Do they need to have their fish stocks protected from illegal fishing? Do they need medical aid? Do they need a healthcare system that delivers better care? Do they need a friend they can trust? Do they need a society in which trust is prized and protected? What fear or guilt is oppressing them? Is a fearful society confusing their ability to discriminate between threats? Are they a victim of crime? Is corruption undermining the rule of law in their community? Are they addicted to self-destructive behaviours? Does their society encourage them towards the idolatry of greed? Towards superficiality of judgement? Does their lifestyle (and that of their society) contribute to reducing the freedom of others to love and serve?

The answers to these questions will not be easy or simple. They will not be found only by studying the scriptures (though that will of course be part of it!). To love our neighbour, we have to pay close attention to the world and how it works, including the disputed areas.

At stake is the relation of knowledge to ethics. Saint Paul prayed that the Philippians’ love would "overflow more and more in knowledge and depth of insight" - knowledge of God and the good news of Jesus, yes, but also knowledge of one another and the world in which they are called to love. We cannot love our neighbours without some attempt at understanding them, their history and gifts, their situation and the world which we share, including its threats and possibilities.

For example, Christians amongst areas ravaged by AIDS will need to come to an opinion about whether HIV leads to AIDS or not (this is hotly contested in parts of Africa, and there are campaigns against the use of retro-viral drugs, and shoddy pseudo-scientists throwing mud into the air). Christian parents will need to come to an opinion about the benefits and costs of immunisation (where again, confusing signals have often been sent by the media based on poor scientific work). And Christians with influence in energy, in public policy, or those with carbon-intensive lifestyles and with global neighbours who live in drought or flood-prone areas will sooner or later have to have some kind of opinion on climatology and carbon.

Not every Christian is able or obliged to answer every conceivable question about how to love our neighbours, or to evaluate the variety of threats and opportunities we focus upon. But Christians do need to think carefully about which sources of knowledge are trustworthy, and what we do with that knowledge. Will we trust the IPCC and the national scientific bodies of thirty-two nations when they tell us they have over 90% confidence that human activities (particularly those in developed nations) are significantly contributing to changes with very serious negative effects now and increasingly into future decades (particularly on the world's poorest peoples)?

God doesn’t give us an exhaustive list of who we are to trust and how far. But that doesn’t mean the question is morally irrelevant or that refraining from the discussion is the best use of Christian freedom to love. This may not be the only or the greatest moral issue of our time, but it is a very significant one.

Christian freedom does not mean that we are released from the responsibility to consider carefully the effect that our habits, actions and beliefs have on those around us. Quite the opposite: we are liberated from the intolerable burden of having to save ourselves or our world, and given many opportunities to do all kinds of good. Let us use our freedom in order to love.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The ongoing relevance of ancient heresies

Today, the language of heresy is most often used in irony, humour or as a critical description of the activities of those who are perceived to be too judgemental (i.e. taking the category of heresy seriously today indicates that one is probably guilty of self-importance and silencing the voice of the other).

Sam Norton has started a series in which he is articulating why one ancient Christian heresy (known as Donatism) has great relevance for us today, particularly in light of the recent controversies concerning sexual abuse by Catholic priests. You can read his first post here. Sam shows that in this case, the heretics dangerous mistake was being too judgemental! This illustrates something of the irony about our modern inability to take the category of heresy without irony.

I would love for Sam to continue his series with some consideration of the contemporary relevance of other ancient heresies, which continue to be important guideposts in our ongoing pursuit of living together well as human beings and followers of Christ.

Friday, March 19, 2010

"Mmm, forbidden doughnut": craving and myopia

Homer Simpson once sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a doughnut.* Those who've seen the classic episode know that Homer in his hunger immediately scoffs most of it, before realising at the last moment that as long as he leaves the final bite uneaten, he gets the best of both worlds: most of a donut and his soul. However, during a sleepy trip to the fridge for a midnight snack, Homer can't help himself and gobbles the remaining morsel, saying "mmm, forbidden doughnut".** Then, of course, all hell breaks loose.
*I could post the clip of "The Simpsons - Donut Hell" from YouTube, but assume it breaches copyright, so I won't.
**He actually says "mmm, forbidden donut", but I thought I would translate for my non-US readers.

Homer's short-sighted stupidity - first in making the deal, then in sealing his own fate despite knowing how to avoid it - is funny because it's true. We make shortsighted decisions knowing that they are shortsighted and will eventually come back to bite us, but, in the moment of decision, the immediate gratification surpasses the longer term consequences.

Now, where's that sashimi?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Are we to believe in the Antipodes?

Whether We are to Believe in the Antipodes
But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground credible. And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other: hence they say that the part which is beneath must also be inhabited. But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled. For Scripture, which proves the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, gives no false information; and it is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man. Wherefore let us seek if we can find the city of God that sojourns on earth among those human races who are catalogued as having been divided into seventy-two nations and as many languages. For it continued down to the deluge and the ark, and is proved to have existed still among the sons of Noah by their blessings, and chiefly in the eldest son Shem; for Japheth received this blessing, that he should dwell in the tents of Shem.

- Augustine of Hippo, City of God XVI.9.

In Augustine's day, it was widely known and accepted (at least among the educated) that the earth was round. However, this raised a problem. Since it was also known that the equatorial regions are impassable (think Sahara) and the necessary ocean voyage too lengthy to be feasible, then how could there be humans on the far side of the globe? It would only be possible if these hypothetical Antipodeans were not historically connected to the human civilisations which Augustine knew and to which Christ had come. For Augustine, although he had never been there, for the Antipodes to be inhabited would mean an unacceptable bifurcation in humanity - unacceptable because without the possibility of travel they were also without the possibility of hearing the good news. Given the impossibility of contact, to believe in life on the far side raised a series of problematic questions. Had God created two human races? Were there then also two Christs? Or were the others left without the gospel?

This may all seem fantastically speculative in today's globalised society, but the question of God's witness to those historically disconnected from the spread of the Christian message is a genuine theological and ethical issue. Is the chance to be saved a historical cultural lottery?

One attempt to answer that question is found the new preamble the Uniting Church in Australia has proposed to add to its constitution. Ben Myers is posting excerpts from a paper he is writing reflecting critically on that preamble.

UPDATE: Ben has just posted the conclusion to his paper.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

No mumbling the liturgy!

I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
    see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
    I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    from the great congregation.

- Psalm 40.9-10, NRSV

I once visited a congregation which made frequent use of thoughtfully prepared congregational responses (often what people mean when they refer to a service as "liturgical"). I joined in reciting the responses in what I considered a regular voice, pitched for the size of the room and the number of people. As is often the case, many of the congregation spoke the lines almost under their breath. After the service, I was quietly admonished by one regular congregation member who informed me that he found my volume distracting. I realise that speaking together is a skill that can take some practice to work well, but I was somewhat at a loss at this response. Apparently, he wasn't commenting on my adopting an unusual rhythm or strange emphasis, merely the fact that others could hear what I said.

Communal responses, though often addressed to God in prayer, are just as frequently exhortations addressed to one another. I've always assumed that if we're going to use them (and I think they are excellent when done well, for all kinds of reasons), then we may as well not pussyfoot around. In such situations, I'm not just speaking to myself, or even to my neighbour, but am addressing (and hope to be addressed by) the congregation.

And so when the opportunity to speak of God's faithfulness and salvation amongst the congregation arises (whether in song, liturgical response, testimony, public prayer, scriptural reading or whatever), don't be shy. Open your lips and speak up!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On errors in the IPCC report

I had been thinking recently about addressing this question, which has been much in the media, since it relates to what we do with what we know. But I have just come across this excellent open letter, signed by over 250 scientists (nearly all active in research and publication in climatology and other closely related fields and working in top US universities and institutions), which sets out the issues very clearly and with much insight. It is worth reading in full, particularly if you have got the impression from recent headlines that climate science is in some kind of crisis of credibility.

UPDATE: In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO (Australia's top two climate science institutions) have recently released a six page PDF summarising the state of Australia's climate: rising CO2 and methane, rising average temperatures, rising numbers of record hot days, falling numbers of record cold days, rising sea levels, rising ocean acidity, shifting precipitation (including falling precipitation across the vast majority of populated areas) and some very brief discussion of what we can likely expect to lie ahead.

Futher update: Here is an excellent sober discussion of the extent and significance of the mistakes by an expert in the field.

Monday, March 15, 2010

How to start an argument

Recently, I've been blogging a little on climate change and it has understandably at times produced some lively discussion. However, Anthony (known to regular readers as the guy who jumps in to answer every question offering points, though in his spare time an Anglican minister) has decided he doesn't have enough controversy in his life and so has decided to open a discussion of church music.

He has some good thoughts on the practicalities of song selection and their role in a service. His post is worth reading, particularly if you have anything to do with serving congregations musically.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Calvin the Greenie

"The earth was given to man, with this condition, that he should occupy himself in its cultivation... The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition that, being content with the frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain. Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence, but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated. Let him so feed on its fruits, that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits it to be marred or ruined by neglect. Moreover, that this economy, and this diligence, with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy, may flourish among us; let everyone regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses. Then he will neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved."

- John Calvin on Genesis 2.15 in Commentary on Genesis (1554).

The earth was given to us. And, at the same time, we were given to the earth, to till it and keep it.

A recent study found that one quarter of the earth's arable land has been degraded through soil erosion, salinisation, desertification or nutrient exhaustion.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Revenge of the Blackbirds: Eco-parables from Mother Goose

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?
The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!
It is the world's poor who suffer the first ecological consequences of over-consumption by the rich.

The opening line of this dark parable announces its theme: the relation of economics ("sixpence") and food production ("a pocketful of rye"). The second line then introduces the problem: excessive or extravagant consumption. Once we have correctly identified the industrial capitalist ("the king"), the western consumerist ("the queen") and the worker from the two-thirds world whom they keep in subjection ("the maid"), then the tragic moral of this biting social commentary becomes clear.

Innocent children's nonsense song or a devastating critique of contemporary economics? You decide.

Of course, we could go on and identify the potent warnings and analyses found in other eco-parables from Mother Goose:
Jack and Jill - rising tensions over dwindling supplies of fresh water.
Doctor Foster went to Gloucester - climate change and de-globalisation, or the re-localisation of economies due to shifts in precipitation and sea level rise.
Hey Diddle Diddle - the deleterious effect on food security of astronomical beef production and excessive numbers of domestic pets.
The Grand Old Duke of York - indecision at Copenhagen.
Although I've indicated that points are currently on pause, I'll offer up to twenty for the best suggested readings of the hidden ecological messages encoded in other traditional nursery rhymes.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Belief you can change in

I've just re-stumbled across this post by Mike Wells from a year ago and really enjoyed it: Belief you can change in.

And here is another link that's not brand new but which I found interesting on Andrew Katay's blog: Why Christian dating shouldn't be heading towards marriage.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Who is a child? III

Back in August, I began a three part series exploring my current theological understanding of children and so of my new role of parent. It took me a month to get to the second post and now I'm finally getting to the third and final one. Since it has been so long, here (again) is the outline:

Who is a child?
A precious gift of the Father and a member of the community of creation
A brother or sister for whom Christ died and an image-bearer called into service of neighbour
A recipient of God's Spirit, an addressee of God's word and a bearer of living hope

A recipient of God’s Spirit
Children, as members of the community of creation, are not only dependent upon the Father’s initiative and formed in and for the likeness of the Son, but are also quickened by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is God’s pneuma or breath, which he graciously breathes into all living things. Hence, for children too, each breath is not earned but received as a gift. The length of their lives is not a right, but pure grace. Therefore, while early death is a tragedy, even so it is both possible and right to give thanks amidst the tears for whatever life was given.

Being alive also means being able to act, and to be acted upon: to give and to receive; to kill and to be killed. And children, for all their surprising capacities, are nonetheless more sinned against than sinning, more recipients than givers. We are all mortal and vulnerable to the violent attention of our neighbour. But for children, as their capacity for action is generally less developed, so their vulnerability to being harmed is greater, and their need for nurture, protection and provision increases.

Yet the Spirit is not only the source of life, but also its perfecter, drawing all things towards their fulfilment in Christ. And so the growth of a child in being able to give and receive love is also the work of the Spirit. Children embody an openness to growth and change that is at once fragile and full of possibilities. It is fragile because the accumulation of hurt can lead the heart to close up, to harden in vain pursuit of self-protection. But it is also full of possibilities, because only a childlike willingness to trust and explore can expand lives beyond the borders of the self. Such openness is not only for children, since from them we all might learn again of the renewal of wonder and the wonder of renewal.

And so the double vulnerability of human life is brought into focus by the lives of children: vulnerable to sin; but also vulnerable to grace. We are never so secure in one that the other might not break through. But belief in the Spirit means discovering that the fight is not evenly-matched. And so children are not condemned to repeat the mistakes of their parents or their culture. The gift of the Spirit is not simply being, but truly being, and ultimately, truly being ourselves.* The Spirit brings not only life, but power. Not power to pursue our whims, or crush our enemies, but power to become children of God, power to act despite fear, power to persevere in love, power to break free of destructive habits.

And so it is possible for children to learn their parents’ strengths without each generation being an inevitable degeneration. There are no guarantees of progress, but it is possible for parents both to aim to set an example, and yet hope that their children might yet exceed it.
*Thanks to Anthony for this formulation.

An addressee of God’s Word
Children learn to speak because they are first addressed. Their communication skills are gained though imitation, repetition and play. They are brought into a conversation they did not start but in which they are invited to play a genuine role. This is true both at a sociolinguistic and theological level. Parents and carers speak to an infant who can only reply with cries and gurgles, in the hope that one day the conversation will be richer and broader. God initiates a spiritual conversation with us, rejoicing over us with singing before we know who we are or how to respond. And we only learn through imitation, repetition and play, gradually discovering the language of love in which we are addressed and through which we begin to form our stumbling replies.

The word with which children are addressed is the same Word given to us all: the incarnate Christ, breathed out by the Spirit. And as such, it is a word of welcome and permission: "let the little children come to me". This divine word of acceptance is spoken through many messengers and generally begins in and with the love and acceptance offered by parents and family to a newborn. It may be more or less articulate, more or less liable to be confused or drowned by other voices, but it is never entirely absent.

As co-addressees of God's revealing and redemptive Word, children are therefore dignified. The divine address is a recognition and conferral of personhood. Before knowing anything, they are known, and loved. They are welcomed by God and so are to be welcome among us. We must make room in our lives for children. This is not to say that all have an obligation to generate offspring, but that no one may attempt to live a life that avoids or ignores the voices and presence of children. If God has recognised them, welcomed them, who are we to turn them away?

With this recognition comes the responsibility to respond. Communication is far more than a mere transferral of information, it is an offer of communion, of mutual sharing, of relationship. To be addressed is to be invited, summoned to reply. The same Spirit that breathes out the word also opens the heart to respond. And so all children are to be given room to hear and obey the divine address, to begin learning the language of faith, hope and love so that they may become full conversation partners. Fluency is the task of a lifetime.

A bearer of living hope
Finally, children are born into a dying world, a world filled with problems they did not create. They suffer deprivations and afflictions they have done nothing to deserve. They frequently succumb to the patterns of failure in which they are raised, or by rebelling against them, create an equally distorted mirror image of their parents' dysfunctions. Likewise, they inherit riches they have not earned and a cultural and familial legacy deeper than they can fathom.

And yet, children also represent a renewal of life, a new generation that will face different possibilities (and which may face similar possibilities differently). They are not bound to repeat the mistakes of their parents. They can grasp afresh the human condition and act in ways that are more than merely the sum of their inputs.

And so children are at once bearers of both continuity and discontinuity, ambiguous symbols of new life amidst decay, and yet still of death amidst even new life.

But children also live in a world ravaged by grace, inundated with the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead, and so a world infected by hope. Their lives, though arising from the dust, are not exhausted in three score years and ten. Their bodies, though frail and susceptible to accident, neglect and abuse, are nonetheless witnesses of an open secret: all things are to be made new. Even here, amidst the most beautifully fresh and thus also most poignantly flawed aspect of human life, the already-dying flesh of a newborn, even here, the Spirit of God hovers, waiting to breathe life forevermore.
See here for the first post and here for the second post in this series.
Image by Steve Chong.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The energy density of oil

"When you draw 10 gallons [45.46L] of fuel into the tank of your car, in the sixty seconds it takes the energy flow is equivalent to the full output of a 25 megawatt power station."

- James Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia:
A Final Warning
(London: Penguin, 2009), 64.

We have never found a substance as useful and powerful as oil. It is the distilled power of thousands of years of ancient sunlight poured into your petrol tank. Of course, oil is indeed a natural and renewable resource. It is just that the oil we use globally each year takes about three million years for the earth to replenish.*

Happy driving.
*This claim comes from How Earth Made Us, a fascinating BBC documentary series hosted by Prof Iain Stewart (and available on iPlayer to UK residents if you are very quick). I've also just read (amongst other things) this article in New Scientist, which gives a useful update on the state of "non-conventional" sources of oil. These include Canada's tar sands and large amounts of oil shale in the US. Bottom line: there are truly huge source of unconventional oil still in the ground, but getting them out will be very tricky. At the moment, they still do not represent a silver bullet for an impending energy shortfall.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Are unbaptised Christians like de facto marriages?

Some people live together, sleep together, share finances, raise children together and do many or most of the things that married couples do (argue together, begin to look and sound like each other...), yet have not exchanged explicit public promises of commitment to one another. Their habitual actions mean that while they have never publicly made and received the promises that make a marriage (or those promises remain implicit or private), they are nonetheless acting (and are generally treated) as though they are in fact married. Hence, their relationship is a de facto marriage.

Some people repent of their sins, place their faith in Christ, love God and neighbour, participate in a Christian community and do many or most of the things that Christians do (argue together, begin to look and sound like each other...), yet have not exchanged explicit public promises of commitment with Christ. Their habitual actions mean that while they have never actually made and received the promises that make a Christian (or those promises remain implicit or private), they are nonetheless acting (and are generally treated) as though they are in fact Christian. Hence, are they de facto Christians?

Just a thought.