Friday, April 27, 2012

Confirmation bias: why I am suspicious of "good" news

The link between poverty and the dangers of our ecological predicament is an important one. Not only are those least responsible for causing the threat already (in general) suffering the early effects, they will (in general) be more vulnerable to worsening climate and ecological impacts. When we add in future generations and other species, then we have three groups who contribution is negligible or even zero but who are very likely to face the most severe effects. The temptation to motivated reasoning that justifies our present behaviours and cultural assumption needs to keep these groups firmly in mind if we are to assess our responsibilities honestly.

One important form of motivated reasoning in this context is confirmation bias, which is a well-established psychological pattern in which we evaluate new experiences and claims through our existing assumptions, preferences and convictions. We all tend to give greater weight to experiences and evidence that confirms what we already believe, rather than those things that disconfirm it, hence we all have a bias towards confirmation.

Particularly for those of us who are rich and comfortable (by global standards) or who hold a belief that we ought to be and/or can soon be, then we have a preference for things to stay as they are (more or less), or at least not to change too quickly. We don't want scientific results that imply doom and gloom to be true, particularly if they also imply our responsible for such outcomes and/or the possibility of mitigating the threat through modifying our habits and assumptions. We are likely to latch onto experiences and claims that help to confirm that preference and to pay less attention to experiences and claims that challenge it.

This is a moral temptation involving our perception of the world. If it is the case that gross injustices exist all around us, and that climate and ecological crises are very likely to contribute to exacerbating them in various ways, then we can be tempted to downplay the moral importance of this information. This might be by denying the science, by saying that we can't do anything about it, by saying that we should focus on a more narrowly defined set of moral concerns (e.g. purely national interest, or perhaps what is directly relevant for me and my family), by claiming that technology will rescue us from any bad consequences and so on. I would argue that part of Christian discipleship is learning to resist such temptations in order to keep having the horizon of our moral vision, to keep discovering that we are neighbours even to those who might not initially appear to be one of "us". The three groups I mentioned - the global poor, future generations and other species - each challenge us to expand the margins of our moral community, to discover neighbours we didn't realise we had. By focussing on what climate change and ecological degradation means and will mean for these groups, whose moral position is most devastatingly unfair, we can seek to foster a deeper and broader empathy and so nurture a richer moral imagination, capable of seeing more clearly the world through the eyes of others.

Asking "what's in it for me?" or "how am I threatened by climate change?" may, depending on one's ability and willingness to look carefully at the implications of the science, produce apathy, or fear and anxiety, or greed, opportunism and tokenism. But asking, "what are the implications for my neighbour, particularly those most vulnerable?" will lead in a very different direction, to a deep concern for others whose present and future flourishing is deeply dependent upon the choices we make yet whose ability to benefit us (at least in ways that generally enter into calculative reason of cost-benefit analyses) is severely limited.

In short, I believe that our climate and ecological crises are manifestations in the social and ecological realms of the visible and outward costs of the idolatry of consumerism and the hubris that sees humanity as exercising mastery over all things, rather than fulfilling the Genesis mandate in the pattern of Christ's rule: by being the servant of all. If this is true, then the temptation to read our predicament as something less than a spiritual crisis will be strong, since we don't like to confront evidence of our own moral failures. We want to believe that it is not as bad as all that, that the danger is still far off, that we are really helpless and bear no responsibility, that we'll find some techno-fix to ensure we don't need to look inside our hearts to see the pollution spreading within that is the root of the pollution without: the physical pollution we breathe and drink and eat and which is presently dissolving the bonds of the community of life.

Of course, it is possible that it is not as bad as all that, that the risk is less imminent than the science suggests, there we truly are impotent in the face of calamity, that a silver bullet (or silver buckshot) wonder technology (or suite of technologies and economic policies) will mean we can keep on going more or less as we are without challenging consumerism. But because we really *want* these things to be true, we ought to be especially suspicious of claims and experiences that encourage us to hold them, constantly testing whether we might be engaged in wishful thinking, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias. Instead, as Christians shaped by the knowledge that faithfulness means constant repentance (our daily bread is confession and reception of forgiveness as much as any wheat-based product), we ought to hold an epistemology that expects true knowledge of the world will frequently reveal us to be in the wrong and in need of repentance and forgiveness.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive account, and it is important to acknowledge that prior to fallenness comes divine blessing on human participation in naming and understanding a good world. I offer no council of epistemological despair or unending scepticism. The suspicion of which I speak serves a positive purpose in service of neighbour and represents a modulation of God's "yes" to the created order, not a displacement of it by a mistrustful "no".

Nonetheless, we walk in the path of one who warned that following him would mean denial of self and carrying a cross. Anything that suggests the path of faithfulness requires the defence of my material prosperity, ease and luxury needs to be double and triple checked. There is no route to resurrection that does not involve mortification.

I am therefore suspicious of pieces of "good news" that purport to minimise our responsibility or the gravity of our situation. Sometimes, they may well be true, but the good news is that following a crucified and risen Lord means being able to look at my and our failings honestly, confident in the knowledge that they are already forgiven, that I am already being empowered to walk a new path, one that is honest and life-giving.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Always look on the bright side of life?

This is the first in a five-part series (parts two, three, four, five) that addresses a topic close to my heart: the importance of bad news and the strategic mistake of attempting to focus purely on the "bright side" of the cultural and infrastructural changes demanded by ecological crises. While frequently pointing out the kinds of steps involved in a healthy response is important, as is reflecting on the opportunities to embrace a better life afforded by our dire situation, nonetheless, unless we honestly face up to how serious and well-developed the threats we're moving into are, then any positive response is likely to remain shallow, ever tempted by tokenism and distracting gestures, and ineffectively tardy, since the worst that can happen if we delay is that we reach our bright green paradise a little more slowly.

My own PhD work on ecological fears in Christian ethics argues along similar lines. Facing the truth of our predicament requires us to experience and process certain emotions - including fear, grief, guilt and the disappointment or despair associated with dispelling certain false hopes. Unless we can locate these experiences in productive and meaningful ways (and I argue that the Christian gospel offers a compelling narrative at this point) we'll remain stuck in paralysing modes of thought: denial, distraction, desperation and despair.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lest we forget

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

- Rudyard Kipling, Recessional, 1897.

Lest we forget the ephemerality of empire and the dangerous temptation to national self-aggrandisement. Lest we forget the divine judgement upon human folly and pomp.

And lest we forget the hope of mercy, despite our manifold failures. Spare us yet.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The twilight of the blogs?

Is blogging in decline? Is it being replaced by Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and other social media? My very anecdotal and personal impression has been that a number of the blogs I read seem to be generating fewer comments and while my own traffic has been fairly steady for a few years, comments seem to be increasingly switching over to Facebook.

After seeing the above image from xkcd, I wonder whether the decline of blogs is now official?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Religious illiteracy

How much do you know about Christianity and other world religions? Test yourself on the questions below.

I've recently come across this 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which surveyed 3,412 people, asking them 32 questions (most multiple choice) about some fairly basic pieces of religious knowledge. These were not difficult questions. Although they did not ask "Is the Pope Catholic?", they came pretty close.

Incredibly, the average score was 16 out of 32, with self-identified Christians scoring notably worse than atheists and agnostics. Only 8 people (0.002%) got all 32 questions correct. Since most of the questions were multiple choice, even guessing every answer would lead to an average score of 9.05 correct, yet one in seven did not even rise this high.

Now, it might be easy (particularly if we happen to have studied in this area for some time) to do the quiz and feel pretty smug about our general knowledge of basic religious concepts and figures. Or to laugh at the failure of most Christians in the US to be able to answer even basic questions about Christianity, being soundly beaten by atheists. But the point is that this survey actually has significant implications for how the church thinks about its mission. Yes, it was done in the US (and there were four questions specific to the US context asking about the the Constitution and Supreme Court rulings), but I'm unsure that Australians (for instance) would necessarily score much higher.

We're not (on the whole) surrounded by people who have tried Christianity and found it wanting, but by people who simply don't know what it is, apart perhaps from a few media-derived stereotypes. And this probably includes many of the people in the pews next to us.

Here are the questions, arranged under various themes and slightly abbreviated. Precise wording is available here. The ordering of the multiple choice answers varied.
  1. What is the first book of the Bible? (Open-ended)
  2. What are the names of the first four books of the New Testament, that is, the four Gospels? (Open-ended)
  3. Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born? Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth or Jericho?
  4. Which of these is NOT in the Ten Commandments? Do unto others…, no adultery, no stealing, keep Sabbath?
  5. Which figure is associated with remaining obedient to God despite suffering? Job, Elijah, Moses or Abraham?
  6. Which figure is associated with leading the exodus from Egypt? Moses, Job, Elijah or Abraham?
  7. Which figure is associated with willingness to sacrifice his son for God? Abraham, Job, Moses or Elijah?

    Elements of Christianity
  8. What is Catholic teaching about bread and wine in Communion? They become body and blood, or are symbols?
  9. Which group traditionally teaches that salvation is through faith alone? Protestants, Catholics, both or neither?
  10. Was Mother Teresa Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Mormon?
  11. What is the name of the person whose writings and actions inspired the Reformation? Luther, Aquinas or Wesley?
  12. Who was a preacher during the First Great Awakening? Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney or Billy Graham?

    Elements of Judaism
  13. When does the Jewish Sabbath begin? Friday, Saturday or Sunday?
  14. Was Maimonides Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu or Mormon?

    Elements of Mormonism
  15. When was the Mormon religion founded? After 1800, between 1200 and 1800, or before 1200 A.D.?
  16. The Book of Mormon tells of Jesus appearing to people in what area? The Americas, Middle East or Asia?
  17. Was Joseph Smith Mormon, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu?

    World Religions
  18. Is Ramadan the Islamic holy month, the Hindu festival of lights or a Jewish day of atonement?
  19. Do you happen to know the name of the holy book of Islam? (Open-ended)
  20. Which religion aims at nirvana, the state of being free from suffering? Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam?
  21. Is the Dalai Lama Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Catholic or Mormon?
  22. In which religion are Vishnu and Shiva central figures? Hinduism, Islam or Taoism?
  23. What is the religion of most people in India? Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or Christian?
  24. What is the religion of most people in Pakistan? Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian?
  25. What is the religion of most people in Indonesia? Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian?
  26. Who is the king of Gods in Greek mythology? Zeus, Mars or Apollo?

    Atheism and Agnosticism
  27. Is an atheist someone who does NOT believe in God, believes in God, or is unsure whether God exists?
  28. Is an agnostic someone who is unsure whether God exists, does NOT believe in God, or believes in God?

    Religion in Public Life
  29. What does Constitution say about religion? Separation of church and state, emphasize Christianity, or nothing?
  30. According to the Supreme Court, can a public school teacher lead a class in prayer?
  31. According to the Supreme Court, can a public school teacher read from the Bible as an example of literature?
  32. According to the Supreme Court, can a public school teacher offer a class comparing the world’s religions?

The hardest question was #14, which only 8% got correct. If everyone had guessed, you'd expect at least 20% would have got it. The easiest was #30, which admittedly only had two options, yet 89% were able to answer correctly.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Connect the dots

I offered a few thoughts back here on the connexions between extreme weather and climate change. This topic continues to be the subject of much investigation and the links are many and complex. Nonetheless, a few metaphors are becoming commonly accepted by scientists attempting to communicate their findings.

The first is the image of a baseball player on steroids. Adapting it for use in Commonwealth nations, let's talk about a cricketing batsman on steroids. Taking the drugs improves his muscle condition and makes it possible for him to hit balls harder. While it is not possible to say whether this or that six is the result of drug-enhancement, it is nonetheless possible to see that the player is now hitting more sixes than he was before he started taking drugs. The odds have shifted in favour of bigger shots. In the same way, we're getting weather on steroids, with greater odds of dangerous extremes.

The second commonly-used analogy, mentioned in this video, is the idea of "loading the dice". Weather is always variable, just as rolling a pair of (six-sided) dice will give you results ranging from 2 to 12, with 7 being most common. But if you take one of those dice and add a dot to each side, so that it now ranges from 2 to 7, then you'll still see a lot of variation, including the occasional low number. But 8 will now be most common, and it will be possible to roll a 13. Some of the events we've seen in the last handful of years around the globe have been the equivalent of 13s, standing as much as six standard deviations above the average (using the period 1950-80 as a baseline). Indeed, if we just look at events that are three standard deviations or more above the average, then statistically on an unchanging planet, we'd expect (on average) just 0.3% of the globe's surface to be experiencing such conditions at any one time. Yet over the last decade, the average has been about 10% of the planet's surface facing such extreme conditions. In fact, if we want to be a little more accurate, then rather than painting an extra dot on all the sides of one die, it is as though we have taken one of our pair of six-sided dice and replaced it with an eight-sided die. The point is not only has the average increased and upper extreme become more extreme, but the range of possible weather experiences has widened, leading to greater variations in temperature and precipitation. Not only are the extremes hazardous to human health and ecosystems (both natural and managed), but greater variability is now also becoming more widely accepted as harmful.

All our weather now occurs in an atmosphere increasingly shaped by human activities. There is no "natural" weather any more. We are moving into a new regime that includes higher numbers, and 13s will not be the end of it. We've only warmed about 1/5th the projected warmth of our current trajectory within my daughter's lifetime and perhaps 1/10th of the likely long-term warming.

The chances of the ball being hit out of the park keep increasing.

UPDATE: After posting this, I came across this post that examines this topic in more detail and includes the following very helpful video.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why has the Titanic become a myth?

"People say, why are you so fascinated by this wreck? And for me it's a study of human psychology and the way people deal with crises. And they dealt with it in different ways. Some were in denial. Some were in a trance. Some just took action, didn't think, just went, just did. And others were craven cowards who thought only of their own survival. We all know that we would fall somewhere on that spectrum but until our lives are really put at risk - you know, the moment of truth - we don't know what we would do. [...]

"Part of the Titanic parable is of arrogance, of hubris, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. Well, where have we heard that one before? There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now. Within that human system on board that ship, if you want to make it a microcosm of the world, you have different classes, you’ve got first class, second class, third class. In our world right now you’ve got developed nations, undeveloped nations. You’ve got the starving millions who are going to be the ones most affected by the next iceberg that we hit, which is going to be climate change. We can see that iceberg ahead of us right now, but we can’t turn. We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum. There too many people making money out of the system, the way the system works right now and those people frankly have their hands on the levers of power and aren’t ready to let ‘em go. Until they do we will not be able to turn to miss that iceberg and we’re going to hit it, and when we hit it, the rich are still going to be able to get their access to food, to arable land, to water and so on. It’s going to be poor, it’s going to be the steerage that are going to be impacted. It’s the same with Titanic. I think that’s why this story will always fascinate people."

- James Cameron, Director of Titanic (1997) and Titanic 3D (2012),
National Geographic: Titanic - the final word.

Today is the centenary of the sinking of the HMS Titanic. Some people have got excited at the fact that some young people took a while to discover that the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster film* was based (at least at the macro level) on actual events. But that is not what I mean by myth. The story itself has become a shared cultural reference point, a story picture of flexible but fairly-well defined meanings. Why has the story of this particular ship been so often invoked, when so many other (often numerically greater) maritime tragedies have been quickly forgotten? As Cameron points out, the narrative of these events is very easily turned into a parable, or a myth - as the ship itself was already mythic in name and epic in scope when it was launched. We want to make sense of tragedies, and this one, for all its mysteries, seems to offer some pretty clear morals. Pride goes before a fall. We're all in the same boat. The bigger they come, the harder they fall.

And watch out for icebergs.
*And its recent perfectly-timed-for-maximal-cash-in-from-free-media-publicity 3D re-release.
H/T Joe Romm for the reference and second quote.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Other Arab Spring, and other stories

Tom Friedman (NYT): The Other Arab Spring: "All these tensions over land, water and food are telling us something: The Arab awakening was driven not only by political and economic stresses, but, less visibly, by environmental, population and climate stresses as well."

SMH: Coal seam gas is no climate saviour. On the contrary, exploiting alternative fossil fuels only increases the total available pool of carbon that can be transferred from safely underground into the atmosphere and oceans. Indeed, the benefits of gas over coal are frequently overstated. Natural gas is a bridge to nowhere, in the absence of major improvements to leaking. Leaks throughout the supply chain mean that, from a climate perspective, natural gas is at best only slight better than coal (and may actually be worse) over a twenty year timeframe, since methane, while relatively short-lived, is far more potent at warming the planet than carbon dioxide. According to another new study, the benefits of even a massive switch from coal to gas would be relatively minor and would not be seen until late this century.

The Conversation: Medium density is the future.

Yahoo: Beyond 2ºC. Former UNFCCC chief admits we're not going to hold warming to two degrees, long agreed as an international target. Anyone reading the literature would have known this for some time (we're on track for four degrees. Or more), but that someone with so much invested in the international negotiations to admit this publicly is a big step, largely ignored in the media. H/T Lou.

TAE: The nature of tipping points. Some clarity on a commonly misunderstood and misused phrase. Some of the final comments about CO2 are a little overstated, but it's a useful summary.

The Atlantic: Physiological limits of adapting to warming. A summary of this 2010 PNAS paper by Sherwood and Huber, in which they point out that there are certain climatic conditions above which humans simply cannot survive.

CC: Fascinating new study on the effect of a melting Arctic on northern hemisphere weather. The basic idea is that as the Arctic warms faster than the rest of the globe, the temperature difference between the Arctic and the equator drops, which results in a slowing down of the jet stream, which in turn results in slower-moving weather patterns, which exacerbates extreme weather by making dry or wet, hot or cold spells all longer and so more intense. This is yet another study contributing to the growing body of evidence that the extreme cold UK winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11 may well have been linked to changes in the Arctic. More of these studies are linked in the comments back here.

Bill McKibben: How we subsidise our own destruction. McKibben offers five pieces of simple and straightforward advice on distinguishing good from bad subsidies.

Guardian: Lloyd's of London warns against Arctic drilling. No one really knows how we would clean up an oil spill in the Arctic, which in icy waters would not break down at anything like the pace of the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster. But even if all the oil is safely delivered from under the Arctic to the atmosphere, via a brief sojourn in our cars, it will still spell the end for Arctic ecosystems. And much else besides.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A bet you're not allowed to make

What chance do we have? Are we going to make it? Are we doomed to a future of worsening outcomes and increasing ecological hostility? How do we face a dark horizon and keep going?

Bill McKibben was recently asked, in an interview with Yale Environment 360:* "what gives you any reason, any optimism at this point, that it is going to get dealt with?"

The "it" in question is the worsening climatic outlook as decade follows decade with very minimal action on a cumulative problem that gets more difficult, threatening and intractable as time passes. McKibben's answer:
"Well, I’m not all convinced it is going to get dealt with. You know, you wrote that we seem to be on kind of a suicide mission as a civilization. And that case is easier to make than the case that we’re going to figure out how to deal with it. So I don’t know. I’m very hopeful that in the last few years we’ve finally built a big global movement that gets bigger all the time that didn’t exist before. And I’m hopeful that we’re getting closer to the nub of the problem. [...]

If you were a betting person, I’m afraid you’d be wise to bet that we might not pull this out. But I just don’t think it’s a bet you’re allowed to make. I think the only thing that a morally awake person can do when the worst thing that ever happened is happening is try and figure out how to change the odds — with not any guarantee that it’s all going to come out OK. Because it may not. I mean it clearly isn’t going to come out 100 percent OK. We’ve already had big losses and they will get worse. Whether or not we can stop short of complete catastrophe, we’ll find out. And we won’t find out in a hundred years, we’ll find out rather more quickly than that. Our lifetimes will be more than long enough to see whether or not we actually grabbed hold of this problem or not.

I guess the only other thing is just that this, what’s the alternative? [laugh] Existential despair just seems like a kind of poor strategy in many ways."
This puts in a nutshell an attitude I've been trying to articulate for some time. A reasonable evaluation of our likely chances of avoiding very serious negative consequences would rate them as slim at best. Damage is already apparent; considerably worse is already built in due to the inertia of the climate system; catastrophically worse appears highly likely as the result of political, economic, infrastructural and cultural inertia. When "success" now means reducing a threat from catastrophic to very bad, and the chances of achieving even that are slight, then things might seem hopeless. But in the face of such a scenario, the attempt to "change the odds" is really the only morally defensible position. This does not mean to "change the odds" that my family and I might somehow escape unscathed, or even that life as we presently know it might somehow continue, but to change the odds that our planet will remain more or less suitable for flourishing human society and more than human life, to diminish the extent to which the possibilities of human (and more than human) wellbeing are permanently constricted by the effects of our present actions.

Now, one can disagree with the scientific, political or moral assumptions behind this line of reasoning - and I'm quite happy to have those discussions - but if we are indeed in such a position, then finding reasons to continue with creative persistance will only become ever more important on the path ahead.
*The full interview also touched upon the XL tar sands pipeline, the influence of money on politics and the strategies of ecological activism. It's worth a look as I think McKibben has many interesting things to say. H/T Lou.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Communicating Hope: Hope in an age of environmental crisis

"What relevance does the Christian message of hope have in our world that seems increasingly hopeless? It is noticeable that the Christian scene has changed, from the Christian tours of 2008/9 entitled, ‘Hope for Planet Earth’, to a recent (2011) Faraday Institute conference entitled, ‘Sustainability in Crisis’. A key turning point for the environmental movement in general was the Copenhagen Summit, which delivered so little, despite all the focus leading up to it. A grim and sober realism now seems appropriate, rather than a sense of, ‘if we all pull together we can do it’. What role, therefore, does a Christian theology of hope play in this? Is there any hope, humanly speaking, or are we beyond that? What role should a message of Christian hope play in our ecological message to churches and individual Christians? Are we just encouraging a 'pie in the sky' theology by peddling hope where there is none? Can a message of hope actually become de-motivating when the reality seems so different? It is this cluster of questions that we see as representing what we are calling, ‘the hope gap’. This is the focus of the present meeting."
Sometimes, things come along that are right up my street. This is part of the advertising blurb for a 24 hour conference in May organised by A Rocha UK and the John Ray Initiative (two Christian ecological organisations). Doing a PhD can be a lonely and isolating process and discovering that others are asking similar questions is like stumbling upon an oasis.

For others in the UK who might be interested, full details are here. Keynote speakers include Richard Bauckham (NT scholar and theologian), Andy Atkins (director of Friends of the Earth UK), Martin Hodson (environmental biologist), Margot Hodson (director of John Ray Initiative) and Ruth Valerio (A Rocha UK).

These questions I think are critical for Christians today who wish to think about what it will mean to communicate the good news of Jesus in a world increasingly suffering from ecological bad news. If we are to speak of hope, and those who follow a crucified and risen king cannot do otherwise, then how do we do so in ways that open up possibilities for human action and perseverance? How do we avoid giving false hopes? How do we avoid encouraging a quietism that abandons the neighbour in their distress and yet simultaneously avoids implying that we save ourselves? And in the face of increasingly dire scientific projections, what kind of penultimate hopes may a Christian hold today?

UPDATE: Richard Bauckham's talk is now available online.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The good news of Holy Saturday

Between the falling curtain of Friday's tragedy and the silence, confusion and laughter of Sunday comes a dramatic pause. Saturday is not merely interval, but closing credits. On Saturday, the future has disappeared from view and the dreams of yesterday dissolve into tears and dread. Cruelly, the world did not end on Friday. The sun has risen once more on a world unchanged, indifferent to the execution of another pitiful Jew. Abandoned to the catastrophe of a failed messianic promise, the disciples are scattered sheep. Pilate's wife tries to banish her nightmares with a stuff drink. Joseph of Arimathéa keeps his head down after his rash act of generosity to a condemned man. The centurion can't shake a lingering unease. Simon of Cyrene digs a few splinters from his shoulder.

The sun shuffles its westerly way and another day departs.

Yet Holy Saturday is what puts the "and" into "cross and resurrection". Without this day of rest, this day of regret and grief, then the story would jump straight from death to new life in a way that may confuse the two. Without Holy Saturday, we may be tempted to think of the resurrection as the secret meaning of the cross, of death being but a door to a better life, of the purpose of life being escape from this vale of tears, of the soul as trapped by the body's prison. We may leap directly from Calvary to the burning hearts within the disciples and conclude that the resurrection is a metaphor for their inner renewal in the face of death, a new liveliness of fellowship and encouragement as they remember the one whose presence and words had touched them so deeply and wonder at the mysterious fact that his death did not erase their appreciation of him after all. Or we may surmise that the departing spirit of Christ took with him the relevance of the man Jesus, left behind his body and earthly identity as a mere cypher, the abandoned vessel through which the divine Logos had communicated with humanity. Without Holy Saturday, Christianity threatens to become some version of Gnosticism.

But Holy Saturday is good news. Its very gloom is an assurance that despair need not be reconciled with decay, that death need not be interpreted as a secret friend, that perseverance is not futile stubbornness but has instead grasped hold of one of the deepest and strongest threads in existence: the faithfulness of God to his creation. It is a dark and dreary day, not to be prematurely disturbed by rumours of an as yet incomplete renewal.

So do not banish the doom from this day, for it is what holds open the space between cross and resurrection, gives the momentary pause that lets us distinguish the two, a holy hiatus in which despair is at home and hope impossible.

Only on a Holy Saturday can the God of impossible possibilities be properly worshipped.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Apathy is not an option

"No one who believes in a God that loves all people should be able to sit by as the wealthy harm the poor on a massive scale."

- John Torrey, Why Religious People Must Speak Up About Climate Change,
Huffington Post, 21st March 2012.

This piece clearly articulates one of the key ethical drives behind caring about climate change. Given that it is the wealthy who are by and large responsible and the poor who are most vulnerable, it represents a form of global injustice. We could add to this that it represents intergeneration injustice, another way in which those who have done little or nothing to contribute to the problem are left with facing the worst consequences.

Beyond injustice, we can also speak of respect for the Creator in respecting creation, our delight in the created order, our debts to and dependence upon the rest of the community of creation, love for our neighbour, prudence in the face of catastrophic harms and the rejection of idolatrous consumerism. There are many avenues into considering why Christians ought to care about our climate crisis (and ecological crises more generally). This Catholic article argues that it is part of a consistent ethic of life. With the potential for conflicts widely acknowledged to be exacerbated by climate change, then those who wish to be blessed as peacemakers should care too. Even those who believe that careful stewardship of economic resources is a high priority must acknowledge that credible climate damages outstrip many of the suggested mitigation strategies.

In short, if the earth is indeed warming, if our actions are the primary driver and if severe negative consequences are likely to continue to mount, then Christian discipleship does not leave room for climate apathy. Each of these claims is well established and the burden of proof lies with those who dissent from them. Christian discipleship also entails intellectual honesty. Honest scepticism is willing to update its beliefs in light of new evidence. If you do find yourself outside the scientific mainstream on this matter, then it may be worth being extra careful in reflecting on why and whether you choose to remain there.

There is more to climate change than these ethical considerations. Theological ethics does not specify in advance the best path of response for our policy, infrastructure or behaviour (though it may give us principles in evaluating proposals, such as being suspicious of the lures of wealth, paying extra attention to the plight of the most vulnerable and so on). For those already concerned, then becoming better educated on this very complex topic is an important next step. But apathy or indifference are not faithful options.