Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Climate Change and Spiritual Warfare

St Michael and SatanI reposted the Avatar review to get a start with some reflections on the theme of spiritual warfare in the context of faith-based environmental work.  What got me thinking about this was a remarkable series of posts on Richard Beck's blog under the overall title "Warfare and Weakness".   He begins the series by quoting William James

If this life is not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.

The New Testament agrees.  While the locus classicus, Ephesians 6:12, underlines that our enemies in the battle are not other human beings, it has no doubt that there is a high-stakes battle going on: "against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."  

Beck argues that "progressive" Christianity, in (correctly) shying away from militancy and domination, has failed to articulate a compelling vision of the life of faith as a "real fight":

Basically, I think progressive Christianity struggles because it often fails to give people a real, honest-to-God, bible-thumping fight. More precisely, progressive Christianity has a lot of fight in it, but it has often struggled to articulate that fight in robustly biblical ways. (Let alone the major problem of progressive Christians being too reactionary, focusing much of their fight against conservative Christians.)

So in these posts I'd like to try to paint a picture of what such a bible-thumping fight might look like from the perspective of progressive Christianity.
I wonder, what would it look like to conceive of the struggle to rein in climate change as a "bible-thumping fight" against "the prince of the power of the air"?  I'll try to write more about this.

Here are all Beck's posts for reference.  This is a wonderfully thought-provoking, insightful series.

Image: close-up of the statue of St. Michael and Satan, Coventry Cathedral, by Flickr user Simon Hammond, licensed under Creative Commons.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.  (Proverbs 13:12)

Using the most advanced technology, the spaceship cautiously descends to the surface of the remote planet. The men on board have made this journey for plunder: heavy metal, rare on earth, abundant at their destination. But to mine it, they will first have to “clean the place up”, as one character explains: to relocate, subjugate, or eliminate the peace-loving inhabitants. One crew member rebels. After living for some weeks with the indigenous people, he comes to a holy place and into the presence of the great spirit that watches over the planet. By the power of that spirit, the invaders are sent back to Earth – never to return.

James Cameron’s Avatar? No, this is the plotline for Out of the Silent Planet, a novel published in 1938 by Oxford scholar and prolific Christian author C.S. Lewis. Behind Lewis’ elegant prose, as behind Cameron’s gorgeous and beautiful computer-generated visuals, lie recognizably the same anxiety and the same hope. Anxiety that sees a greedy human society spreading like a stain across the galaxy, and hope that peace and security can be found not in an ample supply of “natural resources”, but in a right relation to the spirit that watches over the universe.

True, Lewis’ (and my) Christianity conceives of that spirit, and that relationship, differently from the pantheism of Avatar. How disappointing it is, for example, that in the last hour of the movie, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is in full swing, as though the  "one thing lacking" for the Na’vi is an ex-Marine to show them how to blow shit up.  Lewis’ ending, a richly comic yet serious scene in which the invaders are brought to condemn themselves out of their own mouths, has learned from the story of the cross: there is a real battle going on, yes, but victory is achieved not by trumping the violence of the adversary, but by subverting it

C.S. Lewis’ more rationalistic followers regard him as a producer of “arguments for God”, but I do not think this is his greatest gift. Rather, he is someone who can evoke the desire for God (as Austin Farrar said, “His real power was not proof; it was depiction”) and for relatedness, in God, to all creation. I think that if Avatar is remembered as a great movie it, too, will be remembered for its desire-evoking power. Not for its spectacular effects by themselves, and certainly not for its threadbare plot and cardboard characterization, but for its power to make us long for a connection – with each other, with the creation, with God – that we almost do not dare even to dream of. Lewis would have said that to begin to long for this connection is itself a step on the road to experiencing it.

Artwork: Avatar theatrical poster (lo-res copy). Original at It is believed that this reproduction for the purpose of critical commentary constitutes fair use under US copyright law.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mr Hopkins Goes To Paris

Eiffel Tower at sunset from Mont ParnasseReposting a very interesting article by Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition movement, about a high-level meeting he attended in Paris last week.  Here's how he starts:

Last week I attended an extraordinary occasion in Paris, which felt momentous and historic, but in the somewhat confused and mixed way these things often do.  Hosted in the incredible, palatial National Assembly, with its statues, chandeliers and gold leaf, the event, called ‘An Innovative Society for the Twenty-First Century’ was hosted by IDDRI (the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations) under the aegis of Francois Hollande, President of the French Republic (although the President himself didn't actually attend).  It was the first event I have been to which has had such high level support and an explicit questioning as to whether economic growth is the best way forward from here. 

Read the rest here.

Photo by Flickr user tijmengombert, licensed under Creative Commons.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

More on "Hope in an Age of Despair"

Rainbow ValleyLast week I posted a review of "Hope in an Age of Despair" by Jonathan Moo and Robert White.  At the end of that review, I wondered whether the authors felt there was any place for a "proleptic", provisional application of apocalyptic language to our present predicament.

Jonathan Moo responded by email, and has kindly allowed me to share part of his message:

You're right that I was rather cautious (perhaps overly-cautious) about applying Revelation's eschatological language to the crises of our time. As you point out, John himself does this for his own era by linking the fall of Babylon (Rome) with the end of the age and in-breaking of God's kingdom and, in much of his book, by using 'apocalyptic' language just to describe the way the world is in this age between Christ's first coming and his coming again. So I do think there is legitimate scope for creative re-application of such language in other times and places, so long as we always are clear about both the proximate nature of such anticipations/realizations and our own limitation in discerning the significance of the events of our time. The same applies, of course, to what we do stress in the book more positively about our attempts by God's grace to anticipate, to realize and to embody the priorities of the new creation in the present.

What we need are artists, poets and writers who can help us creatively re-deploy such language and imagery; but what we don't need are more crude pronouncements by fundamentalists that such-and-such disaster has occurred as God's judgement upon such-and-such a place because of 'x' or the same sort of reflexive equation that more liberal types make between America/the West and Babylon or the interpretation of every 'natural' disaster as a just punishment upon humankind's profligacy. But in my concern about over-simplification and misapplication, I perhaps was not bold enough to suggest better ways of using such biblical language!
 So, what might be good examples of such present-day "creative redeployment"?

Image by Flickr user rwangsa, licensed under Creative Commons

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Alex Honnold Advocates For Clean Energy

"So you're a climber, huh?"
"I saw this video the other day, about this one crazy kid..."
Uh huh.
"Know who I'm talking about?"
I know.
I met Alex Honnold once, in 2009, when my partner and I were heading down after the West Face route on Yosemite's Leaning Tower and he was on his way up there to attempt some free-climbing project of his own.   At that time most Yosemite climbers knew about him, but he was not the media figure he has since become: the public face of climbing, and, at least according to some, the greatest athlete, in any sport, that our world currently knows.

Now Alex has apparently decided it is time to use his fame to enlist support for a bigger cause, and the cause he has chosen is "clean, accessible energy".  The website of the Honnold Foundation ( says "The Honnold Foundation seeks to improve lives world-wide by offering grants to organizations that make a positive difference in the world", and it lists three such projects for current support:
  • SolarAid helps families in Africa’s remotest off-grid regions afford food, education and a brighter future by distributing small solar lamps that end dependency on costly, toxic kerosene.
  • GRID Alternatives is a non-profit organization that brings the benefits of solar technology to low-income communities using a barn-raising model.
  • New Dream seeks to cultivate a new American dream—one that emphasizes community, ecological sustainability, and a celebration of non-material values.
What a great collection of projects.  The Foundation's website seems pretty new, as yet, so it doesn't have any "how can I help" or "donate here" stuff.  It will  be interesting to see how this develops.

PS: Since, as well as environmentalism and sometimes climbing, this blog also explores questions of faith, I should note that Alex is apparently a devout atheist

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Evangelical Scientists Urge Action on Climate Change

From Sojourners: When you think of an evangelical Christian, do you think of a scientist who is passionately concerned about the impact of climate change?  After this week, you should.

I am one of over 200 scientists from across the country who identify as evangelical Christians and who released a letter this week calling on Congress to act on the moral and scientific imperative to address climate change. The letter — framed in scripture — points to the call to care for the poor and steward God’s creation as key elements contributing to their concern.  

Despite the media’s portrayal of culture wars between the scientific and faith communities, those who signed the letter do not see it that way. 

“I am a scientist because I am a Christian," Dr. Cal DeWitt said.

In fact, many see science itself as an integral part of God’s plan for the world.

“Christian scientists across the country view science as a gift from God, a tool to discover the mysteries of Creation,”  Dr. Larry Louters, a professor at Calvin College in Michigan, said.

Here's the official press release:

Evangelical Scientists Hold Press Conference to Urge Congress to Act on Climate Change
200 Scientists Sign Letter Calling for Protection for God’s Creation
**To listen to a recording of today’s call, please click here.**

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review: "Hope in an Age of Despair" by Jonathan Moo and Robert White
I just finished reading this new book, which is subtitled The Gospel and the Future of Life on Earth.  I'm not sure whether the physical edition is published in the USA yet, but I had pre-ordered it on my Kindle and it duly showed up on electronic publication day (June 21st).  As I mentioned in a comment on a previous post, I had the opportunity to meet Dr Moo at the beginning of last year and to hear about his theological work on the contribution of New Testament eschatology to environmental ethics. I therefore looked forward eagerly to this more extended treatment.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

State of the Climate 2013

Here's a video of Professor Richard Alley speaking at a conference on Communicating Climate Science last month.  (Additional information can be found here.)  He addresses some of the latest experimental data regarding global temperatures, ocean heat storage, crop yields, sea levels, ice melt and more...

Richard will be one of the speakers at Faith for Thought 2013 in State College, this September 28th.  Save the date!

H/T for the video: Doug Hunt

Careless and Crazy Again

Climate change affects us all, but it has a bigger impact on women than men throughout the developing worldA few weeks ago, I wrote about a recent study arguing that "religious belief could slow global warming action" because (according to its authors) traditional Christians believe that planet Earth "has no future".

The journal Religion Dispatches just published a much longer and more nuanced analysis of the same study, which I was alerted to by a Facebook post from Mitch Hescox.  Robin Globus Veldman, the author, writes
Although mistrust of end time believers’ earthly intentions has smoldered for decades, a new study about “End Times Theology” has added fuel to the fire. According to the study’s authors, political scientists David Barker and David Bearce, when it comes to climate change, “a belief in the Second Coming reduces the probability of strongly agreeing that the government should take action by more than 12 percent.” 
 She goes on

But as someone who spent 14 months doing interviews and focus groups with conservative Christians on their views about climate change and the end times, I see major problems with their [Barker and Bearce's] approach.
Veldman justifies this claim by a detailed analysis of the survey questions used and the different factors, brought out in focus groups, which might contribute to a response.  All the points are interesting but the one that most intrigued me was #2:
 ...participants in every one of the nine focus groups I conducted had the impression that scientists were saying climate change would precipitate an apocalyptic end to the world, an idea they rejected on the grounds that the Bible—not scientists—foretells how the world will end.
The whole essay can be found here.

Photo by Flickr user Oxfam, licensed under Creative Commons

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Holding Down The Truth

'Nittany Lion Shrine' photo (c) 2006, Rob Lee - license: a year ago, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child abuse.  Shortly thereafter, Louis Freeh, an independent investigator, released the report that Penn State had asked him to produce.  Freeh had been asked to find out how Sandusky had gotten away with abusing minors over many years, to investigate whether University personnel had failed to respond or report appropriately, and to make recommendations for the future.

Freeh's report named and shamed "four of the most powerful people at Penn State" for failing to protect children over a period of more than a decade.  For many readers, this will have been in the end of the story.  But for others, Freeh's conclusion was simply unimaginable.  For some, protecting the "honor" of the PSU football program seems to have taken first priority.

In these arguments (endlessly rehashed in the letters pages of the Centre Daily Times), people often pose a simple dilemma.  Guilty or not?  Did Paterno, Spanier and the rest really sit down one day and say, flat out, "It's a real shame that Jerry is a molester, but these kids have to be sacrificed so that the football team can keep winning"?  Or are these "powerful people" really ignorant and innocent, simply additional victims of a master manipulator? To me, both these alternatives seem implausible.

There is a resonant phrase in Paul's letter to the Romans which refers to those who "hold down the truth in unrighteousness".  It reminds me of our (my!) almost endless ability to avoid facing up to reality, to stop unwelcome insights rising to the surface of our consciousness.  When one reads the emails cited by Freeh, with their evasive phrasing, it seems that the writers are trying almost as hard not to name the reality that they are facing as they are trying not to name any of the individuals involved.

We all do this.  At some level we know, for instance, that our extractive way of life (whereby we measure our well-being by the speed at which we convert "resources" to "waste") cannot be sustained forever.  But acknowledging that at the level of conscious action will require painful change.  So we (I) don't.  We hold down the truth, and hope it will stay buried for just a little longer.  It's a natural response.

But it doesn't make us innocent.