Finding Love in a Hopeless Place

Rihanna might seem a bit incongruous on a blog to do primarily with issues around faith and the environment.  My time at the Lausanne Consultation on Creation Care, though, has provoked a lot of reflection on my part and left me mulling over some things, and as I’ve done so, we found love in a hopeless place, has been acting like a constant theme tune, going round and round my head. I want to try to give expression to something in particular here, and I would love you to help us develop this further together. Let me try to explain.

At present there is an ongoing debate within the environmental/scientific fraternity around the two concepts of mitigation and adaptation and which should take priority in terms of effort and investment. Mitigation represents those who say, ‘we’ve got to fight to see climate change reduced as much as possible; we’ve got to work to reduce emissions, to force or persuade business and governments to take action. We cannot allow it to be business as usual: we’ve got to put our efforts into bringing about change’. Adaptation, on the other hand, represents those who say, ‘that’s all very well, but we have to face facts and recognise that climate change is here and it is only going to accelerate, so we have to put our efforts into helping poorer countries (and ourselves) adapt to this new situation’.

Of course, I’m painting too simplistic a situation and most people would recognise that we need to be doing both. Still, mitigation and adaptation represent two differing approaches to the massive and awful challenges that face us, both now and into the future, and they provide a tension. Listening to the sessions at the Lausanne Consultation, I realise that this same tension is present analogously as we develop Biblical theologies of wider creation care.

Much of what we’ve been about so far has been to do with mitigation. Akin to business and government, the Church worldwide has failed abysmally to recognise the place that wider creation care should occupy in its life and understanding, preferring instead to focus only on individual human beings and their society. The Biblical understanding that many of us have been developing, therefore, has been concentrated on persuading Christians and churches that wider creation care is a central part of what the Christian life is about: that God loves this world and deems it ‘very good’, that he created us to look after it with compassion and servitude; that it has gone wrong because of us, and that the world and all its inhabitants are part of God’s plans for the future, rather than the future being about an exclusively human existence in heaven.

Whilst the Church in the UK has pretty much got this now, the Lausanne Consultation has opened my eyes to how far behind us the rest of the worldwide Church is, with some pretty shocking stories coming from some of the participants about their national churches. Our Biblical approach so far has, in effect, being saying, ‘Wake up Church! This issues is serious and it is something Christians should care about and be actively involved with’.

But is this enough? I am increasingly feeling that, while we still need the ‘mitigation’ approach, we increasingly need to develop the ‘adaptation’ side too. Bill McKibben’s article for Rolling Stones magazine back in July made for truly terrifying reading and was like a bucket of cold water after a beautiful dream. Business, Government, individuals (and the Church) are in an oil-induced coma and the likelihood of them waking up and taking the real action we need is becoming increasingly slimmer. The future looks very bleak indeed.

The question I’m struggling with is, how will we deal with this new situation as Christians? I am writing this not long after Hurricane Sandy left around 200 people dead and millions with their lives turned upside down. As the years go by, such situations of devastation and turmoil will become increasingly ‘normal’. Just consider one example: the Andes glaciers in South America. They are the water source for millions and millions of people, but are disappearing rapidly. What will happen in Peru or Argentina when they disappear altogether? We will face the decimation of countless numbers of people and other species. How will we cope with such a thing: what will it mean to be a follower of Jesus in such a situation?

Alongside the important message of our ‘theologies of mitigation’, we need also to be developing ‘theologies of adaptation’ that acknowledge the horrors of the future we will face – and that many are already facing – and that provide us with resources that help us live faithfully as followers of The Way in such times. Our task will be to discover how to find love in a hopeless place.

As an example of what this might look like, I felt prompted to read through Micah whilst at the Lausanne Consultation and was struck when I realised the context for the well-loved verse of 6:8. It comes in the midst of a damning tirade from Yahweh against his people, particularly the leaders, set against the back-drop of a court scene, in which the created order form the jury: ‘Stand up, plead your case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say. Hear, O mountains, Yahweh’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth’ (6:1). Yahweh is calling his people back to repentance and to a life lived according to ‘his ways’ (4:2) and how does he want that to happen? Not through sacrifices and religious worship, but through a life that acts justly, and loves mercy, and walks humbly with him (6:8).

What will it mean to do that in a hopeless place, in our context of a world and people in crisis? That’s the kind of theology I think we need to be exploring.

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38 thoughts on “Finding Love in a Hopeless Place

  1. It’ll be interesting, Liza, to see where environmental concerns fit into the work that you’ll be doing, and what willingness there is amongst the churches in your area to engage with these things. Any ideas?

  2. “Alongside the important message of our ‘theologies of mitigation’, we need also to be developing ‘theologies of adaptation’ that acknowledge the horrors of the future we will face – and that many are already facing – and that provide us with resources that help us live faithfully as followers of The Way in such times. Our task will be to discover how to find love in a hopeless place.”

    Amen! That is pretty much precisely what inspired my current research. We are already committed to a dark path ahead (even if we still have the opportunity to change the shade from deepest gloom to merely dim), and this is going to mean all kinds of things socially, economically, politically, ecologically and, of course, spiritually. The church needs to be thinking ahead of time about the spiritual resources required for discipleship under such conditions. I selected fear as one aspect of what I think will be a wide range of new theological engagements required in the decades ahead.

    As for adaptation and mitigation, the following quote has been widely shared but is so excellent that it is worth repeating.

    “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.” – John Holdren.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/30/world/30climate.html?_r=2&

    PS “Hurricane Sandy left 110 people dead ”
    193 at last count, with 22 still missing.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Sandy#Impact

  3. PS Not just discipleship, but also mission will be affected. If the church continues to be a roadblock on these matters (as it is in many places), that is going to be a millstone around our neck in a similar (perhaps even more dramatic) way than some of our less glorious historical positions on slavery, women, child abuse, crusades and so on.

    • Thanks for both your comments, Byron. it’s interesting to me to hear that it was similar thoughts that inspired your thesis. Your second comment reminded me of someone I heard some while ago who talked about missionaries struggled to have much of an impact amongst Australian aboriginal people, precisely because they didn’t have have that wider creational emphasis that is such a part of aboriginal faith. I guess you may know more about that than me, being an aussie!

      I was also struck by something that a Brazilian friend said to me at the Lausanne consultation: he used to be a pastor of quite a large church, then he started asking, ‘what will church look like in an age of scarce/expensive oil?’, and he realised it would look very different to how it looks now: people wouldn’t be able to travel, you couldn’t have lots of energy-using technology etc, so he changed his church to look more like a post-oil church. He lost a lot of people!

      • I posted some further reflections on this second line of thought here: http://nothing-new-under-the-sun.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/morality-as-distraction.html.

        As for a post-oil church, I have another story. Back in 2006, my home church in Sydney (an old sandstone building in the inner city) burned down quite dramatically. Following the fire, there was obviously a lot of discussion about what to do next: take the insurance money and rebuild basically as it was? Sell the site and move elsewhere? Rebuild modestly? Fundraise aggressively and rebuild on a bigger scale? I distinctly remember a small minority of the congregation arguing that we should take the opportunity to build a post-oil energy efficient building without huge parking (lack of parking was a major issue with the old building and most of the new plans were made much more expensive due to the requirement of including multiple levels of below-ground parking in the new plan) and so without needing to go into debt. Since I trusted these people but hadn’t really looked very much at peak oil or climate change at that point, that was one of the reasons I started to look into these matters (I saw An Inconvenient Truth a month or two later). They lost the argument, but they won me to the idea.

  4. How far behind the rest of the Church is… I’ll say. It’s a 2-hour flight to here but we might as well be in another planet when it comes to understanding the care of creation. And not forgetting that paying lip service is not the same as doing, either, so the UK is far behind whatever is needed.

    I’ve read two pages of Bill McKibben and now I need a break and resume reading some other time. I thank God for him, but I can only take so much grim truth at a time.

    • Julio, you’re right about the UK church – we’re way behind practising what we say we believe theologically, and I hope you didn’t read what I said to infer any sort of ‘we’ve got it sorted’ attitude!

      • In my experience, the UK church is miles ahead of the Australian church on this stuff (and UK society is miles ahead of Australian society – except on water use). So while the UK has a long way to go, your progress is still an inspiration to me.

      • You came across correctly, I think—we could say the UK Church (sections of it, anyway) got the general picture sorted, so now what’s left is to sort the details… 🙂 A bit like the gospel, really. We know the general picture, but it’ll take a lifetime to do the stuff. But yes, a great example—it’s good to be able to say, “In the UK there’s a church doing X” and so on.

  5. Ruth – well written and passionate as always. My initial thoughts on how do we deal with some of these challenges when they become more commonplace centre on population displacement and immigration. I think this may turn out to be the biggest challenge over the next couple of decades.

    • Yes, I often speak about that when I’m speaking place. If you think that, globally, around 100 mill people live within 1 m of sea-level rise, and that the seas are predicted to rise by way more than that, then we begin to get some sort of idea as to the numbers of displaced people we’re going to be looking at in coming years. I hesitate to say that it’s terrifying, but really it is!

      • I actually suspect that changing precipitation patterns could be just as significant an issue in population displacement. Drought can be just as effective as flood – perhaps more so – in convincing people of the need to leave. Flooding is usually a fairly sudden and catastrophic experience, after which the community often pulls together and people pledge to rebuild. Drought is slow, grinding and cumulative, wearing down patience and generally doesn’t provoke the same kind of community support and solidarity as a flood or other sudden disaster. There are tens or hundreds of millions living in places where water supplies will probably not be sufficient; more than half the world’s population live in countries which are extracting groundwater at unsustainable rates (this doesn’t mean half the world is doing this, since, for example, only parts of China, India and the US are doing so – but there are still very large numbers of people who rely on unsustainable groundwater extraction).

  6. Great article thanks.

    When glaciers stop giving huge communites their water… those folk wont just sit there and die. They will become climate change refugees. They will move. If countries worry about people movements at the moment…. honestly… we aint seen anything yet.

    It will be difficult, there will be a growing loss of compassion, and it will lead to much violence and upheaval.

    Lets definitely do both: fight climate change and prepare for the effects.

  7. Agreed, a great thought-provoking article, I just wish I believed that “The Church in the UK has pretty much got this now”. Round here they haven’t , and there seemed to be a lot of lone voices among the attendees at Enough last year.

    • Mike, i know! It might not always seem like it, but theologically/biblically we really are light-years ahead of the churches in most other countries. A survey that the EA did a couple of years ago (surveyed over 17,000 people) gave the result that 97% agreed with the statement that ‘it’s a Christian’s duty to be a good steward of the environment’ (or something like that – I didn’t like the phrasing used, but no matter). I know there are some more conservative/right-wing enclaves where they still don’t see wider creation care as a priority, but they really are in the minority. I think the challenge for us is turning that biblical understanding into action and getting people to see that it isn’t enough to agree with that statement, you have to do something about it too, and that is where the rubber really hits the road, so to speak. It’s still tough for us and we still have a very long way to go, so I wasn’t trying to lessen that.

      • Yes. That sounds about right. My impression of UK churches as an outsider is that there is a fairly widespread theoretical commitment to creation care, but (a) this is often fairly shallow and simplistic (change some lightbulbs + recycle) and (b) doesn’t really grapple with the scale and pace of the changes that are already occurring (and which are already in the pipeline) – i.e. the point you’re making in this post.

        My own church would be a good example. I doubt you’d find many who wouldn’t express some kind of concern if pressed, but few could outline with any accuracy what the main issues are, and much of the leadership still consider environmentalists as “odd”. One senior leader (I won’t mention which one) commented to me one day (with reference to another congregation member who has a very visible, passionate and urgent concern about ecology), “Why are environmentalists always so weird?”. I told him: “Plenty of people would ask the same question about Christians. When you’re convinced of a reality that most people ignore or marginalise, you can easily feel like an outsider, and others who find such ideas threatening also label you as such.”

  8. I’ve just been looking through the papers from the Lausanne Consultation on Creation Care (available here). I assume that some of the thoughts of this post may have been in response to this paper?

    If so, I’d suggest that the author has perhaps not really looked at what the likely consequences of burning all current fossil fuel reserves will be. This is the key assumption behind their argument: “Regardless of how we might evaluate an ecological catastrophe against an economic one, the point is somewhat moot since. . . known fossil fuel reserves WILL BE be burned. In my opinion, this is an inevitability.”

    While I agree with the points about preparing for change, grieving and the necessity of discipleship in this context (indeed, not enough is said about ecological grief), I think that this assumption betrays a capitulation to the powers and a rejection of the possibility of corporate repentance. Political and economic “inevitabilities” rely on the limits of moral imagination. While I entirely agree that going way past 2ºC is very likely, to say that it is inevitable that we will burn all fossil fuel reserves is to have closed the door to the possibility of repentance.

    In other words, the geophysical inevitabilities of the catastrophic effects of burning 2,795 Gt are of a different kind to the political and economic inevitabilities that make such a move likely. We cannot bargain with the physical laws of the created order, but we can always hope for human repentance, however unlikely it may seem.

    • Yes, and in that hoping we can work and push for it too. I’ve realised that the mitigation/adaptation debate has become for me a metaphor of the pull I feel between hope and hopelessness, and is my way of expressing that.
      BTW that was good investigative work to find that paper! I chaired the session at which Lowell presented it and we had some very good discussion out of it (and also out of Claudio Oliver’s and Sam Ewell’s paper). What I’ve written wasn’t so much a response to it, but it definitely stimulated my thinking.
      And thanks for the story of your church in Australia – interesting!

    • I have likewise found that article about Bill McKibben’s math very much status quo. I am sure many people wanted to adapt to slavery, seeing it as an inevitable thing. How to expect slave owners to simply stop having the major profit which slavery brought? You get the point.

      I bet Isaiah and Micah and Jeremiah would be right up there next to McKibben: mourning, and preaching catastrophe, and calling to repentance.

      But hey, there’s room for people who want to say, “this is inevitable, let’s plant some trees”, if that’s the case with Lowell Bliss. So I’m cool with him. 🙂

    • Byron,
      Writing this particular paper for Lausanne was instructional for me, and continues to be so, thanks to Ruth’s blog and your comments. Thank you.

      The title of paper “A New Strategy of Hope in the Inevitable Failure of Climate Change Mitigation,” was meant to be provocative, but failure’s inevitability is arguable, particularly if we continue to insist on 2 degree C warming as our standard of success. My main point is not that we give up on mitigation, but that we think of it less linearly, something that the Holdren quotation (with its inclusion of suffering) encourages us to do. Our mitigation message should be “Keep eighty percent of all fossil fuels in the ground!” but what would it look like if that message began to be issued from the sites of a million-and-one adaptation efforts, large and small, launched in love by followers of Christ, couched in the biblical language of hope and overcoming?

      I am determined to take Hope seriously. Pope John Paul II developed a theology of hope which emerged from his experience in first Nazi-occupied and then Soviet-controlled Poland. Protestants in our generation, and my American evangelicals in particular, have not had the occasion to address hope. We are ill-equipped. In fact the first sermon I ever heard on hope was one from John Stott that I tracked down on the internet: (8/8/04 http://www.allsouls.org/media/allmedia.aspx). I’m afraid I can’t join you in hoping for human or corporate repentance, if that’s how it is framed up, just like I can’t find hope in Kyoto, Copenhagen, the IPCC, nor in President Obama’s quick little references to a warming planet, nor in McKibben and Klein’s new messaging strategy, etc. Our hope is in the person of Jesus Christ and in his Parousia, both of which make human repentance in 2012 a distinct possibility, but not an inevitability. It’s why I await these new theologies that Ruth is calling for.

      My published prayer going into Jamaica was that the other consultants would “ruthlessly apply wisdom” to my paper. I now see that, with Ruth, I was making a pun and didn’t even know it. Thanks again to you both. And here’s a quotation which should be quoted back to me: Wendell Berry once told his friend Wes Jackson: “A hard headed realist is someone who uses a lot less information than what’s available.”

      God bless you,
      Lowell

      • I like that pun, Lowell, very nice. And thank you, you help me by reminding me to hold on to hope, despite what I see around me. And I hope that you might be a part of bringing about these new theologies. BTW, I think Richard Bauckham is providing some fruitful material in this regard. He presented a wonderful paper at a conference I helped organise last year – you can see a summary of it here: http://ruthvalerio.net/2012/06/03/the-theology-communicating-hope-2.

      • Lowell,

        Thanks for taking the time to reply and I appreciate your comments. I entirely agree that our hope is the Lord who made the heavens and the earth, the one who died for us and now lives and pours out his Spirit upon all flesh.

        Hoping in this One sustains the possibility that another way of being human is indeed possible, that denying oneself and taking up one’s cross are no futile gesture in the face of the powers of this world, but the most genuine way to be human and to make a difference.

        There is indeed nothing inevitable about repentance. I have no reasonable expectation that mass repentance is likely anytime soon, nor am I pretending that we have any significant chance of keeping warming below an already extremely dangerous 2ºC. Where it comes, it arrives as a gift, often unexpected.

        I also very much appreciate your comments about calling for mitigation from sites that, out of love for neighbour and a desire to honour God, are also adapting and building resilience for a bumpy ride ahead.

        So it was especially your comment about the inevitability of burning all fossil fuel reserves that struck me as odd. I completely understand the (il)logic that is taking us rapidly in that direction (and indeed into a massive expansion of the pool of available fossil hydrocarbons through the deployment of technical developments opening up non-conventional sources). I can see and have spent more than a little time during my PhD research analysing the political, economic and cultural systems that give an enormous amount of inertia to the present global industrial order. But human society is not merely the victim of its circumstances; we are also the subjects of our own actions. And the possibility of radical political, economic and cultural change can never be ruled out in advance. From a theological perspective, I agree with Oliver O’Donovan’s point that at the heart of all human freedom is the freedom to repent.

        Especially when burning (and expanding) fossil carbon reserves means at least +4ºC by 2100 and probably something more like +6ºC, with perhaps double that by 2300, then it becomes more difficult for me to imagine how human civilisation is possible under such outcomes (even with as much adaptation as we can muster) than it is to imagine a radical transformation of our present trajectory. When the (ecologically) unthinkable meets the (politically) impossible, it is perhaps time to expand our imagination of what is possible.

        Having said that, I do very much appreciate your emphasis on the significance of grief in a healthy response to our predicament. What has already been lost is great, and far more is very likely to be added to it in the foreseeable future. Anyone not going through a process of grieving is probably not really paying attention, or has hardened their heart.

        It is actually because in many ways your perspective is so close to my own at many points that I protested your line about inevitability so strongly.

        Grace & peace,
        Byron Smith

  9. Hey Ruth – I have appreciated (as I always do!) your Blog article and been made to think and reflect. I’m not particularly qualified to add anything to what you’ve said, but I shall follow the debate with appreciation! It does seem to me that Mitigation and Adaptation are both reflective of the heart of God – and that it’s probably no bad thing to add Transformation to those qualities! Hope lies in an amalgam of all three perhaps? I do not ultimately believe that it is a hopeless case – tho at times it’s difficult to see exactly ‘how’ there can be life beyond that devastations that are increasingly obvious – whatever the cause of them. But then I guess that Isaiah wrestled with that as well in a broken Nation that had spectacularly lost it’s way. So for a people still loved and encouraged the Prophet seemed somehow to catch a vision of the art of the possible – always seen most clearly when God steps in through all His people – not just the Church!
    There – told you I don’t have much to add! But keep up the good work! S

  10. Pingback: Adaptive theologies for a changing climate | Shored Fragments

  11. Very thought provoking. And I completely agree with you. From a different perspective, I think it’s not just Christians that have to contend with this (kinda assuaging, in a sense). I feel that climate change is a huge problem despite faith and ideology, so we as humankind need to face this global catastrophe before it’s too late. Continue doing what you’re doing, it’s awesome!

    • Hello dialecticquencher – whoever you are, it’s very nice to meet you here and thanks for your supportive comments! You’re right, this is something we all must face, whether of faith or not. Thank you.

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