Tag Archives: Richard Bauckham

Reconciling a Wounded Planet

Over the weekend of September 18 and 19 I had the privilege of attending a conference at Coventry Cathedral entitled Reconciling a Wounded Planet. The idea was to bring together those concerned about our environmental crisis, to share stories of hope, and make positive partnerships for future action. And this it did – we had the opportunity to get together in groups, including by region and interest – and it has led to the organisation of an event at which Richard Bauckham will be speaking in Cambridge on 21 November.

For me, the location and theme of reconciliation were perhaps the most powerful. Coventry was heavily bombed in World War II, and the cathedral largely destroyed. The immediate response from the then bishop was that the ruins be left and a new cathedral built adjacent, and he started a ministry of reconciliation that continues to this day. The physical space, both from the presence of the old cathedral and some rather “brutal” aspects of the architecture in the new, emphasises that past evils are real, and cannot be erased from history, yet there is hope for better relationships in the future.

This idea is, I feel, a helpful one for talking about our planet. As Richard Bauckham showed us in his reflections on Colossians 1:15-20 (and has written about elsewhere) we should be living in a “community of creation”, each human, animal, plant and so on participating and fulfilling his, her or its own role. There is room for debate as to exactly what that role should be for humans, but it is clear that we have fallen short of it as a species, and need to seek peace with other humans the remainder of creation. But what we have already done cannot be washed away: for many decades if not centuries we will have to live with and live around the damaging legacy of our prior and contemporary environmental neglect.

Another powerful but related image, this time presented by Bishop James Jones, is the idea that we are on a cruise ship on the ocean, destination and timescale unknown. Those of us fortunate to live in the UK or a similar nation are in first class, benefiting from the fruits of the voyage. But our luxury is often based on the hard labour of others: the global south in this picture is on the lower decks. The revolution needed for greater equity between humans on the planet will be difficult and take time. And, what’s worse, the legacy of the suffering will last longer. Inter-human reconciliation will still be needed to resolve issues resulting from this lingering hurt: those who live in areas of the world damaged beyond repair by climate crisis feeling rightly aggrieved at the descendants of those who caused it. It is this kind of ministry where Coventry has much to teach us – interestingly it was noted that they had had an environmental conference as far ago as the early 1970s.

Turning to the more practical side, we had speakers and participants in all sorts of spheres, working in churches and communities, through to businesses, and one of the streams looked at the potential benefits of technologies. In all of these, the encouragement was that much is being done, but the worry is that it is too little and too late, and a constant refrain just under the surface was the question of how we get the mainstream of the church to take these issues seriously. This came out in the group I was participating in: health, education and welfare, which I’ll write up in more detail in another post. As noted in both my comments on Adrian Brown’s Grove booklet and the talk by James Hindsen, a school teacher engaged in trying to promote sustainability, there are plenty of excellent ideas out there for improving sustainability education, but a big gap between activists and the majority who seem unable to care. This is an issue that I fear we are failing to solve.

At the time of writing, we are waiting for the organisers to synthesise the various bits of feedback and ideas into some sort of joint statement – potentially quite a challenging process given the amount of material generated – but it has the potential to be a helpful and inspiring new manifesto for the church in the leadup to Paris. In the meantime, if I’m representative of those who went, there are plenty out there with new ideas, inspiration and contacts, continuing the work to reconcile human to human and human to planet.

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The depressed environmentalist? Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I described some aspects of the current environmental and socio-economic situation that make one want to give up. Here’s what I’ve found helpful in deciding not to!

Let’s start with Carolyn Baker who wrote a long response to Daniel Drumright’s essay. She shares his analysis of Near-Term Extinction, an his imagery of us heading to death but uses the imagery of a hospice as she describes how we should choose to prepare for it consciously. NTE “demands that we confront our own death and the meaning of our life”. Hospice care provides the right setting for this:

People willingly enter hospice care because they clearly, consciously know, as my friend did, that they are dying. Typically, in hospice care they receive a quality of nurturing rarely found elsewhere. Not only are they bathed in kindness but if they choose, they are actively supported in reflecting on their lives and intentionally and lovingly prepared for their death.

There’s some ambiguity in her argument (perhaps deliberately) as to whether we should be entering this process as individuals or as an entire society and species. Perhaps the latter – it is our current overconsuming society that is fated to die, or needs to be put to death, whereas we as individuals will, we hope, live. But each of us still needs to discern the meaning of our lives and what it might mean personally in a different environment.

Two sections that particularly spoke to me as someone trying to communicate this to others:

The project of self-awareness is nothing less than an epic saga–a hero’s or heroine’s journey into our essence. It encompasses the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between. It necessitates remorse as we look unflinchingly at the ways in which we have helped contribute to the annihilation of our planet, and it also includes intimate familiarity with the part of us that is inexorably whole and untouched by the madness of industrial civilization.

… living in the head as we prepare often feels safer than actually feeling what we’re feeling about the future. I regularly hear from people preparing for collapse that they feel safest when they are sitting at their computers amassing still more information about collapse or when they are busily engaged in some form of logistical preparation such as building a fortress or re-stocking food or medical supplies.

When we don’t feel we have the answers, particularly if we’re that way inclined (and I certainly am), it’s easy to retreat into academia and seek more data – and there’s plenty of it! But we’ve reached the point where we need to say what we do know, and be more honest about the uncertainty which is part of the problem. Part of the challenge of our new era is the newness itself and that our promises of increased growth, prosperity and certainty must inevitably fail, so we need to be comfortable with, or at least accepting of, what is to come, and support each other through it.

A second article which I’ve found helpful is by Robert Jensen, entitled “Apocalyptic Journalism” and Why We Need Reporters to Face the Reality of Crumbling Society.

Wide-ranging, and worth reading in full, Jensen’s argument is broadly that journalists – taking a wide definition of this – have a choice: ‘royal journalism’, writing from “inside the box” of our current culture, or adopt a more prophetic or apocalyptic approach. The first of these draws heavily upon Walter Brueggemann’s idea of ‘prophetic imagination’. Put simply, they speak out about the way things actually are rather than how they are perceived. “In the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, prophets are the figures who remind the people of the best of the tradition and point out how the people are strayed.”

Apocalyptic journalism refers more back to the original meaning of ‘revelation’ than the contemporary one that doom is soon to be upon us. Similar to the prophetic, it is intended to give us a deeper understanding of the world and society around us, to remove the veils those in power want us to see, and the propaganda and self-delusion inherent in our society.

Neither forces us to have solutions to the problems we face: Jensen is honest that we seem to have reached a dilemma with our use of technology where going forward risks causing further environmental and social damage, but going back in many respects would both be socially unacceptable and reduce the carrying capacity of the planet.

But: “If we don’t have easy, upbeat solutions and conclusions, we have the ability to keep telling stories of struggle. Our stories do not change the physical world, but they have the potential to change us.” “To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories that we modern humans have been telling about ourselves. The royal must give way to the prophetic and the apocalyptic.”

Jensen’s goal is brave, but one I think I, and many reading this perhaps, should strive for. To speak and write about the way things actually are, rather than what our wider society would have us say. It reminded me of the prophet Jeremiah, for whom I’ve long felt an affinity. He saw his messages ridiculed, thrown away, and suffered indignity and isolation from his community. He also repeatedly railed against God, frustrated at the mission he’d been given and the lack of apparent success. Yet he carried on.

He might have seemed a person with little or no hope, but seems to have had the kind of ultimate hope that Richard Bauckham describes in his Ecological Hope in Crisis?, referred to here before. Ultimate hope depends on what God does and our eternal promises, as distinguished from proximate hope, dependent on what humans do and what we may (or may not) achieve. The following words are worth holding onto in a world where humanity’s future often looks at best uncertain, at worst bleak.

We are not engaged in a step by step progress towards utopia. What we are able to do in realising our hopes does not, as it were, accumulate, as though we were building he New Jerusalem brick by brick. Sometimes good follows good in a process of improvement, sometimes it doesn’t. But the value is not dependent on progression. We
have all been brainwashed by progressivism. For things to be worth doing and worth having they do not have to lead on to even better
things. They have value in themselves, and nothing will be lost in the end.

A second passage which was preached in Chapel here last week, is also relevant:

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. Titus 2:11-15, ESV

The Christians of that period faced uncertainty and persecution, but were instructed to hold on, live good lives in the present age in the certain hope of a glorious future one whenever that would come (and we now know of course it wouldn’t for centuries, certainly not in their lifetime).

That is in some sense all we can do. Jeremiah couldn’t save his people from exile: they were unwilling, but he held firm. Whether we face extinction as a species, a crisis, or (by some miracle) a smooth transition to a more sustainable future, this should be our attitude: stand firm, support each other, and do our best to bring about less unsustainability.

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Communicating Hope conference

Last week I shared a couple of days with about sixty people as we looked at the issue of how to find hope in our current environmental situation and how to communicate it more widely. It was organised by Ruth Valerio of A Rocha and Margot Hodson of JRI, with the main speakers were Martin Hodson, Richard Bauckham and Andy Atkins.

It’s taken me a while to process my thoughts. I think this is a good sign as it has forced me to reconsider both what we as a group of thinkers, activists and communicators should be doing, and me personally. (I haven’t seen much other comment on the conference online, so maybe other people are doing the same!)

This can only really be a personal overview and I’m only going to give brief outlines of the talks. I think Richard Bauckham’s talk is going to be published online, and it’s one where you’re better off reading the source than a second-hand description! And although the talks were important, the heart of the event was getting together and wrestling through the various issues, and giving us a safe space to express our own emotions.

These were particularly to the fore at the end of the first evening, after Martin Hodson’s “problems” talk presenting the latest updates to our environmental state. It need not be said that these were predominantly gloomy, with only a couple of potential green shoots. We then got into small groups to come up with our own ideas of what the problems were. Our group’s 14 post-it notes was not atypical.

The two morning talks gave some pointers to how we might go forward. Richard Bauckham encouraged us to rediscover the true nature of the Christian hopes. We’ve too often seen there just being one: our ultimate hope in eternal life with God in a fully restored creation, which has led to one of two opposite faults. Either we do too little to look after this one, or make an attempt to progress towards utopia on Earth (in line with post-Enlightenment thinking) and get frustrated when it doesn’t happen.

Instead we should see hope as rooted in a combination of love and faith, maturity and realism, seeing positive outcomes we can aim for which are feasible from where we are now. It may or may not be too late to avert major climate catastrophe, but we can at least do the best we can to mitigate from making it worse, to adapt as best we can, and help people imagine a possible future which is better than the one we fear.

Andy Atkins gave us the benefits of his practical experience as a campaigner. Again I can’t really do justice to his talk, but the main points I took away personally were the need to be wise in how we use what we have in the light of rapidly changing situations, and to ally with each other to use our respective strengths.

Interspersed through this were more time for group discussion, an Open Space discussion on various themes – our group looked at how we get a sustainability message out beyond our small community in the church – prayer and worship.

So what did I take away?

Perhaps greatest was a new sense of purpose and hope. It is so easy to get jaded, depressed and a sense that nobody else cares for what you do, but although the practical situation seems increasingly dire, there is still hope, plenty to do, and other supportive people there doing it too. In the week since the conference I’ve felt new passion for what I’m doing, and a few new positive ways to go forward.

It was certainly an encouragement to hear that our Sustainability in Crisis conference and this blog had been helpful to various people in their thinking and contacts.

I think the most urgent task, for me at least, is to get the message out to as many in the Christian community as possible, and now have a possible pathway for that to happen via a new contact in a significant place.

There was also a reminder that things are interconnected to a greater degree than we often see. I’ve been rethinking what I understand by stewardship/dominion in Genesis 1, which will be the subject of a future post, but if I’m right it could be helpful in unsticking some of the places the debate has got stuck.

But perhaps most is a reminder that we’re not doing this on our own: there is a community out there with the same concerns, and it helps to reconnect with them, reflect, and recharge periodically. The conference was much more than that, but had it been just that it would still have been worthwhile.

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