Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Spirituality and the Earth Week Two: Apocalypse Now? Witnesses to a suffering creation

Slide Show
  Apocalypse Now


I began last week by talking about the urgency of the problem of climate change.  None of this is new – there were no raised eyebrows in the cathedral as I reported that the latest IPCC report by the world's top climate scientists warns we have just what's left of this decade to put some good global energy and resource habits in place in order to avert runaway global warming of the order of 4-6 degrees.[1]  The IPCC tell us in their latest report that climate change is no longer just a prediction, and they detail examples of how climate change is producing the expected changes across the planet right now.  They also warn us that unless we – which is to say all of the economies and governments, all of the world's multinational corporations – and in particular the we who represent the real problem – consumers, particularly Western consumers who typically consume the per capita equivalent of at least two planet's worth of annual capability – unless we make the rapid structural changes that are required this decade, then on the basis of today's knowledge and today's technology uncontrollable catastrophic climate change is unstoppable. Already the talk is beginning to morph into when rather than if, and the dismal reality of adaptation rather than mitigation.  But – and it's a big but – there are no guarantees that a planet warmed by 6-8 degrees can offer natural habitats for most of the species we are now familiar with, and no guarantees that agriculture and food production can be sustained at anything like the rate a 9 billion people world will require.
Last week we spoke about the Hebrew Wisdom tradition and the Wisdom tradition of Christian spirituality, and I suggested that Wisdom provides a language and a praxis for a green Christianity.  It is a spirituality that tunes us in to the Earth as the web of sustaining relationships that is the necessary context for our own lives, and that has integrity and value in and of itself.  Wisdom takes the point of view of the Other, and Wisdom sees human life as inseparable from the life of the Earth.  Wisdom gives us virtues for an ecological age, like self-limitation and relationality – and I suggested a Wisdom praxis based on love for the Earth needs also to be balanced by the Franciscan cautions of poverty (not taking what isn't really ours), chastity (seeing the Other as a unique Word of God, not as an object of our own desire), and humility (knowing the reality of our own lives as connected to the Earth).
But is any of this enough?  If we believe what we are being told by climate scientists then we are facing an existential crisis.  How can Christian theology and spirituality find an appropriate language to frame a response?
This week we engage the language of Biblical apocalyptic to find a model for speaking theologically about climate change in a way that acknowledges both risk and contingency on the one hand, and redemption and hope on the other.  Our model also provides a framework for Christian activism which is aware both of its own responsibility and the grounding of future hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  My aim for this session is that we will gain some experience in using apocalyptic language as a theological resource at the same time as recognising the dangers of an over-literal application.  I hope that in our discussion participants will be able to evaluate some proposals that come from this model.

Apocalypse now?

The Hebrew Bible offers several helpful narratives for the current crisis,[2]  perhaps most obviously in the story of the Flood and the subsequent Noahide covenant.  This narrative needs to be accessed carefully given that the Flood is sent by God as a punishment.  Problematic also for the purposes of the current ecological crisis is the fact that in the Noah cycle God changes God's mind.[3]
A more relevant question may be whether the present existential crisis invites the use of Biblical apocalyptic.  Again, we need to access the resources carefully, with consideration to the historical circumstances in which the apocalyptic narratives were written.  Every age has its own crises and challenges – I think a worthwhile analogy to the current crisis is the Black Death which struck Europe in the 14th century killing about one third of the population and driving survivors mad with fear.  Was the world ending? Many thought so, and apocalyptic cults magnified the hysteria and possibly even provided greater opportunities for the transmission of the virus.  The use of Biblical apocalyptic needs to cautious, and needs to be grounded above all the Gospel imperative of hope.
However I believe there is merit in exploring the opportunities for applying apocalyptic categories to the current crisis, for two reasons.  Firstly, because apocalyptic language is used in the Bible in relation to existential threat, and so offers starkly delineated alternatives for the future of a creation grounded in God's own life.  Secondly Biblical apocalyptic deals with questions of eschatology, or the true end of all things.  This, I believe, is an appropriate framework for a theological reflection on the choices forced upon us by climate change. 

Eschatology: A systems approach?

Differentiating between eschatology as the 'end of everything' and the 'telos, or true goal of all things', Walter Wink provides a way of thinking about the true end of institutions and systems.[4]  This is a vital distinction in the expanding frame of reference that modernity has forced upon us – and especially if we are seeking language to talk about the pull of all things towards their true identity and true purpose within this creation – rather than in some over-spiritualised heavenly dimension.  How, for example, can we meaningfully talk about the 'true end' of humankind in a 14 billion year old universe hundreds of billions of galaxies,  in a single galaxy of up to 300 billion suns, on a planet that undoubtedly will see other forms of life evolve long after our species has expired?  How long do we have to wait for all things to be gathered 'in Christ'?[5] As long as another 14 billion years?  What if there's not a 'big crunch' but a 'big freeze', and everything falls silent and speeds apart faster and faster, for ever?
The point is that eschatology at the grand or cosmic scale is eschatology trivialised.[6]  Wink takes another direction, reflecting on the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in the second and third chapters of Revelation in order to develop an eschatology of institutions.  He notes that the 'angel' of an institution might be its character, or its culture, which sometimes seems independent of the individual people in it, and which may take decades or even centuries to develop.  The 'angel' of an institution is its guiding light, how it sees its purpose and how it conducts itself.  Wink comments that the 'angel' of an institution may become demonic - for example when the institution starts to behave in a way that puts its own life above those of the people it serves.  The eschaton of an institution, Wink believes, is to be recalled to its truest purpose.[7] 
This is an eschatology that discerns a movement within society, or within creation itself, that is always working to redeem institutions - nations, corporations, universities, churches - towards the truth of their own existence in relation to Christ and the world around them.  Wink's eschatological model discerns a subtle pull within creation that orients all things towards the truth, just as other forces within and outside of institutions may also be working to distort that image.  Wink's eschatological model bears a resemblance to Teilhard's force of unire, the attractional power of love that pulls creation forward in the direction of complexity-consciousness.[8]  And like Teilhard's model of Christ-Omega, Wink's suggestion also implies there is a stable point within the wider system to which a particular institution may be drawn even though other parts of the whole system may be far from their own eschatological completion.  The primary difference between Wink and Teilhard is that Teilhard takes the big picture approach and talks about the whole cosmos being drawn towards an escahtological or final fulfilment in Christ.  Wink, on the other hand, focusses on small discrete systems which have their own life-span and time frame, and proposes a model in which each is drawn in its own time to its eschatological fulfilment, which is the underlying truth of what it was created to be,  It is also worth noting that Wink doesn't focus on the individual but on the relational system or ecology within which individual lives unfold.  The point is that just as we can't live in isolation from the world around us, so to we can only grow towards our eschatological completion in company.
Wink's point may be generalised from institutions to natural systems or ecologies.  The implication is that there is an eschaton, or true vocation of any system towards which its angelos or corporate life is drawn, but this may only be revealed to the extent that the system allows itself to be conformed.  That eschaton might dance just out of reach throughout the life of a species, or an ecology - but it is nonetheless the truth towards which the entire life of the system is directed.  Sometimes the eschaton might be the distant memory of how an institution once was, or what its founders intended, and which functions as an aspiration or an ideal against which the reality is measured.  The advantage of Wink's notion is that the eschaton of an institution is essentially local and specific to the life of that system. 
It might be asked, for example, what has become of the angel of the coal industry - as it continues to extract fossil fuels despite knowing that accessible reserves are now way in excess of the amount that can be burned without breaching the 2 degree Celsius climate tipping point?  Or where is the angel of Federal Parliament - as it prepares to debate the repeal of existing carbon pollution legislation?  What is the angel of the glacial fresh water systems of Peru - a system on the brink of collapse.  Are these institutions or ecologies in tune with their true purpose?  Wink's terminology becomes a way to identify the wrongness of things and point to the truth of how they should be.
However, if the eschaton of a system or an institution is the critique of its angel from the perspective of eternity - then what if anything requires that its eschaton ever be realised?  History is replete with tragedy – indeed, that might even be its predominant genre.  Evolution is predicated on predation, suffering and extinction.  If eschatology simply tells us of the way things should be then does it have any substantive hope to offer at a time of existential crisis?  Wink's model may be overly optimistic in suggesting an inevitability that all things will be drawn to their true end, particularly when faced with an existential crisis in which the unthinkable is a realistic outcome.  Realistically, some systems must collapse, and our theology around the climate crisis must give us a way of acknowledging the true contingency of our situation.  For this, I suggest the language of apocalyptic is appropriate.

Identifying the martyrios?

Apocalyptic themes are especially relevant in relation to the question of whether or not there can be confidence that the current existential crisis of climate change will lead to the true vocation or eschaton of the planetary system.  Stephen Finamore reflects on the apocalyptic themes of Revelation ch. 3-5, noting that the eschaton in John of Patmos's vision is actually hastened by the witness of the 'martyrs'.[9]  Finamore's general thesis (following a Girardian perspective) is that apocalyptic violence follows on a culture's loss of effective ritual and sacrificial resources to provide an alternative to victim-creation.[10]  The attempt by Christian communities to live by Jesus' enunciation of the values of the kingdom of God represents an alternative reality based on the universal renunciation of violence and retribution.  This countercultural enactment has the power to break the cycle of ritual fabrication and mimetic violence and so 'drives humanity towards the eschaton'.[11]  Christian communities can only offer indications of the reign of God, however, because both the Christian community and the world in which they offer witness are immersed in the web of human language 'derived from the scapegoat mechanism'.[12]  The witness of Christian communities can only be heard when articulated from the position of the dying Christ, because 'this is where God's clearest word to a violent humanity is spoken'.  This means that the faithful witness of Christian communities will be most effective where it provokes the violence by which the self-serving ideologies of the powerful are maintained.[13]  In the context of the unfolding crisis of climate change, Finamore's model suggests the Christian community can best unmask the violence being enacted against creation by powerful political and economic interests by speaking from a position of solidarity with the Earth and its living systems.
Although the language of Revelation has its own historical context in the persecutions of the early Church around the end of the first century, Finamore's reflection appears to imagine a generalised situation of existential crisis.  Finamore claims the witness of the faithful martyrs 'torments and provokes' a world that responds with persecution, and this hastens the collapse of untenable and unjust systems.[14]  For Finamore (and Revelation) the witness that provokes the powers and principalities into over-reach is that of faithful Christians.  However in the context of ecological crisis the whole of creation suffers and bears witness to the disjunction between the relations of shalom that are its true vocation, and the relations of predation and exploitation that disfigure all life.[15]  Following Ilia Delio we see that creation itself is cruciform, in that its suffering is the coincidentia oppositorum of oppression and shalom, or suffering and love.[16]  Thus in the context of ecological crisis we may say that the martyrios or witnesses to the unsustainable wrongness of relations in the created world are the living creatures themselves and all the living systems of Earth and water and air.  These eloquently testify, and by their threatened collapse provoke a sharp reaction from the beneficiaries of an economic system based on unsustainable growth and consumption.  However creation's witness is mute and non-verbal; it can only be articulated and made intentional by human witness and specifically the witness of the Church as the body of Christ.  Note that this supposes the Church can stand in the same relation to the non-human creation as that of Hebrew Wisdom.
Finamore believes the action of the martyrios provokes a 'winner take all' contest with the powers of the world, with the stakes being nothing less than either collapse into chaos or entry into a state that he refers to as the 'kingdom of God' or in the terms I will introduce next week, the eschatological vision of shalom.[17]  He is offering a vision of apocalypse without guarantee, a bloody birth that differs sharply from the gradual drawing of living systems into their eschaton suggested by Wink. 
However we can consistently combine this with Wink's idea of local or systems-based eschatology within the history of creation in a universe that is indescribably vast in scope.  The wasteful and costly energy of the creative process that admits collateral suffering and chaos as the concomitant of evolutionary progress necessitates the ubiquity of collapse and chaos.  An ecological theology must take account not only of galaxies and worlds but of countless species and ecological systems and civilisations that evolve with beauty and promise only to fall victim to randomness and violence - all while affirming the promise of Col 1.17 that 'in him all things hold together'.  In some sense beyond our comprehension the promise is that the countless rises and falls of living systems, and of systems within systems, make a concordant whole.  Thus, although (following Finamore) the outcome of apocalyptic crisis cannot be foreseen, the victims of collapsed systems are not lost but gathered into new beginnings.
Finamore discusses the plagues of Revelation ch. 6, noting the difficulty that in the Biblical text these are seen as divine acts even though elsewhere God acts to bring chaos out of order.[18]  The plagues are certainly suggestive of the unpleasant consequences of climate instability.  These consequences are ultimately not divinely caused but the result of the human choice to turn away from the original (Edenic) command to nurture and live in harmony with creation.  For the purpose of this evening's discussion, however, the crucial point is that the plagues of Revelation ch. 6 are the crises of a universe that is still in some sense awaiting the sacrifice of the Lamb - in other words the vision of John of Patmos apparently being experienced from a privileged position beyond time streams 'back from the future' to a world still contingent on the saving work of Incarnation.[19] The analogy with climate change is less evident here, as from our prosaic 21st century perspective the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Christ are established historical facts.  However Finamore argues that the work of Incarnation is inseparable from the historical witness of the martyrios, which is to say that the Church as the body of Christ must recapitulate through faithful Christian witness the sacrificial witness and death of Christ.  This means that the sense of 'already but not yet' applies not just forwards in time to the eschaton, but also backwards in time to the work of redemption.  Finamore argues that the 'martyrs' in this eschatological crisis are those who 'secede ... from the mimetic consensus' - which is to say that what provokes the crisis is not just the clash of ideas but the enactment of an alternative reality.[20]
What this means is that today's Church stands at a time of unique challenge.  We can secede to the culture we live in – and in fact my argument suggests that we are already sleepwalking into collusion with the individualistic and human-centric culture that is inimical to the life of the Earth.  Or we can recognise a wider application of the Gospel and stand in solidarity not just with human victims of injustice and violence but with the suffering creation itself.  This means developing a new language and a new way of being a community that recognises all creatures as kin and the Earth as the body of God which we share in the symbolic meal of the Eucharist.  New rituals and practices are needed to enact a new understanding of community – for example a friend's proposal many years ago that the leftover crumbs for the communion table should be shared with the ants and the birds takes on a new seriousness.  
From the point of view of ecotheology the crisis of climate change becomes a defining challenge for the Church not just to issue prophetic warning, but to practise solidarity in our own life with the mute witness of creation.  By living in such a way that the Church becomes an icon of shalom in its own life - liturgically, ecclesially and politically - the Christian community is finally enabled to fulfil its own true vocation as the Body of Christ and is drawn (in Wink's terms) towards its eschatonIn the final instalment, I will turn to the Biblical model of shalom and a model for the evolution even more so – community based on an ecotheology of resurrection.


Delio, Ilia. Christ in Evolution. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008.
Finamore, Stephen. “A Kinder Gentler Apocalypse? René Girard, the Book of Revelation, and the Bottomless Abyss of the Unforgettable Victim.” In Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend, edited by Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, Kindle Edition., 196–217. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2011.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. Christianity and Evolution. London: Collins, 1971.
Wink, Walter. “Redeeming the Entire Universe: The Spirit of Institutions.” In Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend, edited by Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, Kindle Edition., 171–76. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2011.
Worthing, Mark William. God, Creation, and Contemporary Physics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.

[1]T. F. Stocker et al., IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis.  Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, March 2014 See Fig. SPM7(a), page 21.
[2] For example, the narrative of the Fall speaks to the sense of alienation from creation.  More generally, the narratives of Exodus and Exile provide resources for communities facing an uncertain future, and I shall argue below that the apocalyptic narrative of Revelation provides more specific resources for an existential crisis affecting the whole of creation.
[3] Appalled by the Flood visited on the Earth because of humankind's propensity for violence, God eventually accepts that humans are 'evil from their birth', and accedes to the use of animals for food as a concession to violent human tendencies.
[4]Walter Wink, “Redeeming the Entire Universe: The Spirit of Institutions,” in Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend, ed. Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, Kindle Edition (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2011), 171–76.
[5]Col 1.16-17.
[6]For example Mark William Worthing, God, Creation, and Contemporary Physics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), which takes the approach of trying to connect Biblical escatology with physical cosmology.
[7]Ibid., 176.
[8]Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution (London: Collins, 1971) See especially “Christology and Evolution”, pp. 76 ff.
[9]Stephen Finamore, “A Kinder Gentler Apocalypse? René Girard, the Book of Revelation, and the Bottomless Abyss of the Unforgettable Victim,” in Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend, ed. Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, Kindle Edition (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2011), 205.
[10]Ibid., 202.
[11]Ibid., 203.
[13]Ibid., 204.
[14]Finamore comments that Revelation consistently refers to Jesus as “a witness and one who testifies”, and that the Christian is called to reprise this role.’The word for witness is often linked in the text to death, and it is clear that in Revelation the word for witness carries connotations of the English word martyr that is derived from it’. Ibid., 205.
[15] cf Rom 8.25
[16]Ilia Delio, Christ in Evolution (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008).
[17]Finamore, “A Kinder Gentler Apocalypse? René Girard, the Book of Revelation, and the Bottomless Abyss of the Unforgettable Victim,” 205.
[18]Ibid., 208ff.
[19]Ibid., 210.

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