Wednesday, December 7, 2016

E O Wilson, ecology and Christian hope

I recently received out of the blue a Facebook message from a concerned Christian mother about her daughter having to watch a video by Harvard Emeritus Professor E O Wilson. Her concern was that Wilson's views don't line up with a Christian value of hope in preserving our environment. It's question worth pursuing for a blog post.

Anyone who has read The Creation knows that Wilson grew up a Southern Baptist, but abandoned that faith. The book is an attempt to draw common ground between Christians of this tradition and related and non-Christian scientists like Wilson. I think it is an admirable aspiration. We share one planet regardless of what we believe about its origins on future fate. It is full of a biological richness which exists for both its own sake, but also of which we are a part.

Christians of course believe more than this, and we can bring more to the table than a narrative of random processes (see more below). E O Wilson is an evolutionary biologist and the founder of sociobiology, the evolution of values, ethics, etc from simpler origins, based on his work with ants. Now while I don't share his world view, when someone of his importance speaks of the need say to set aside half the planet to save biodiversity, I'm going to listen to him because of his expertise, not his world views. The same goes for when I visit the doctor; thanks to our public health care system I don't mind which doctor I see so long as they have a medical degree and a track record of not misdiagnosing, etc.

So what is a Christian hope of preserving the creation? It is articulated in Romans 8, where using the language of the Exodus, where our bodies will be redeemed (from slavery to sin as Paul talks about in Romans 7) and the creation will be set free from bondage to decay (again, slavery/redemption language). I've written elsewhere about how this is best understood as a response to the claims by Rome that "Thine age, O Caesar has brought back fertile crops to the fields".

So a Christian hope is that Christ will return, the dead will be raised and (I infer) because humans will be redeemed in their natures, so the rest of creation will not be misruled by us. This provides us with an incentive. Just as our natures are being renewed so we do not go on sinning (Romans 6:1), so given the future is one of harmonious relationships with the rest of creation, we should be getting on with this now. And if our wisdom comes from a non-Christian scientist, so be it and thank God for their knowledge as he is the source of common grace.

Now given the state of the world, the Christian hope is both a) it will all be sorted out when Christ returns and b) at least in part that people of all faiths will be faithful to our creation care task (see Genesis 1-2), but does not exclude things becoming really bad in the mean time. As Paul points out in Romans 1, idolatry, be it of idols of stone or wood, of money, success, nation etc mean we are given over to our sins. This is no less clear in the current extinction or climate change crises, to name but two.

So my own 2 cents is that regardless of what Wilson thinks about "creation vs evolution" (and this is a topic for another time, but does call us to listen critically), I think he is worth listening to on a variety of issues, cooperating with where needed on the important task of "saving the planet" (more on this another time). We share one planet, and we're called to live in love with one another on it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Living Adventurously

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Advent is the time we remember the mystery of the incarnation. Among some people I know, it’s a time to reopen debates about Christology, the nature of that incarnation. For those of us willing to take it as a given and think about the implications, it should be a time to jump to the end of the book of Revelation and pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’.
Of course, there is all manner of debate and confusion over Jesus’ ‘second coming’ as there is over his first, but it’s always worth grounding the later in the former. And I mean so quite literally. We are used to thinking of Jesus as a man. And he was (is) a male human. Sadly, often in our imaginations and movies it is a blue-eyed Jesus we see, rather than a dark-skinned Galilean Jew. We can all too readily press Jesus into whatever mould we want. Scholars as well as laity are not immune from this.
John’s Gospel goes to great lengths to affirm Jesus’ divinity. More particularly, he is identified with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not some abstract conception of deity that might find home in the debates of philosophers, less still the rain-sending ‘Hughie’ of popular thought. For John, Jesus is the One who pitches his tent, or tabernacles, among his people, just as God did in the wandering in the wilderness. He is the Word who was present at creation, through whom all things were made. The echoes with Genesis 1 are quite clear.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Nature of Things - New Ecotheology book

Early last year I traveled across to Adelaide to give a paper at a conference at the Serafino winery on a theology of wilderness. The conference was an amazing one with a variety of speakers, an Aboriginal smoking ceremony (something I found profoundly moving) and some great views and company. The edited volume has finally been released by Wipf and Stock and is available online here.

The forward reads:

"In 2015 a conference on “Rediscovering the Spiritual in God’s Creation” was held at the Sera no winery complex in the McLaren Vale region of South Australia. The aim of the conference was not to seek consensus but to survey the landscape with a view to intentional responsible action in caring for God’s creation. Delegates were challenged to recognize their own worldviews and to widen their horizons to encompass the enormity of the transcendence and immanence of God’s presence in all creation. A group of leading international scholars and experts in the fields of science, ecology, theology, and ethics participated in a multidisciplinary conversation on the spiritual in creation, with the aim of discovering fresh horizons with regard to creation care, liturgy, justice, and discipleship within the Christian community. The chapters in this volume reflect the diversity of perspectives summarized in the Sera no Declaration, which was created towards the end of the conference. This declaration (which opens the volume) outlines a range of views relating to the presence of the spiritual in creation, views that are both traditional and radical. This volume highlights the current concern over ecological destruction and finds sources of inspiration in the deepest roots of our traditions and forms of spirituality to sustain efforts towards custodianship of the land and care for God’s creation."

The list of contributions is impressive with international names such as Paul Santmire, Celia Deane-Drummond and Ernst Conradie. There are many Australian contributors too such as Mark Worthing, Anne Elvey and Vicky Balabanski.

Monday, October 24, 2016

At the end of the pipeline: decolonising creation and climate

With Columbus Day having recently just passed, the issues of colonialism and national identity will be fresh in many people’s minds. Columbus wasn’t the first European to arrive in the Americas, and indeed no European can be said to have discovered it given the thriving Indigenous peoples. Americans will be much more familiar and better equipped than I to talk about the vision of America’s manifest destiny. It was arguably a noble vision for a new nation. However, it is clear how far short of that vision the US has fallen, so that even in Alexander Humboldt’s, upon visiting America in 1804, could express such disappointment that revolutionary fervour didn’t yet extend to the emancipation of slaves.

The theological underpinnings of oppression are nothing new, and not unique to the US. However, in the “new world”, such ideas were given fresh impetus, running counter to the revolutionary spirit of freedom. As Alfred Cave notes in his paper, Canaanites in a Promised Land: The American Indian and the Providential Theory of Empire, Old Testament ideas of Canaan, the Promised Land and the conquest, were used to oppress and dispossess the first peoples. English settlers were cast in the role of God's new Chosen People, whereas the first nation peoples were cast as the Canaanites, and seen as idolaters, devil worshippers and savages. It was easy enough to justify violence and extermination.

What’s often less appreciated is the role the spread of diseases played in the invasion of the “new” world. In the journal Nature in 2015, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin examined a number of definitions of the Anthropocene, the age of human domination of the Earth’s major support systems. They document that estimates of the regional population of the Americas in 1402 range from 54 to 61 million people. Numbers plummeted to about 6 million by 1650 due to introduced diseases, war, enslavement and famine. Such a fall in population led to a collapse in agriculture and a measurable drop in global carbon dioxide levels. Such a meeting of “old” and “new” worlds demonstrates the connection between environmental destruction, empire, colonialism and genocide.

The conquest of Australia, my home country, lacked the narrative of chosen people and promised land, but instead suffered under the myth of terra nullius. In truth, Indigenous land use was many and varied, including permanent settlements, aquaculture and extensive fire management. Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia observes how often Europeans admired how much like a gentleman’s garden the land appeared, but totally ignore the gardeners. Terra nullius has been consistently used to deny first peoples land rights and right to self determination.

The colonialisation of land use and of national identity in both the US and Australia continues into our management, or better still, mismanagement of creation and continued ignoring of the wishes of First Peoples. In the US, the Standing Rock Pipeline in the North Dakota Plains once more highlights how ideas of progress and growth trump the rights of Indigenous people. With threats to drinking water and sacred sites, Dakota has become a focus of discontent with the colonialisation of creation. The response has been predictable, with dogs, pepper spray, strip searches and attempts to silence the media. In Australia, criminalisation of protest is also used as a tactic to protect unnecessary mining. This development affects indigenous artifacts and the site is the continued subject of indigenous protest.

It seems to me that there are various narratives that the gospel needs to undo. The first is that of endless growth, fueled by our addiction to fossil fuels. Bill McKibben has shown that most of the remaining fossil fuels need to be left in the ground. This means that in order to stay below 2 C of warming above pre-industrial levels, there needs to be no new coal mines and no new pipelines. Our path into the 21st century and beyond needs to be marked not simply with a shift to renewable energy. We also need to focus less on growth, as Jesus said to focus less on the building of bigger barns. Likewise, with a country like India signing on to the Paris climate agreement, we might give more thought to how be better neighbours to a country that is facing its climate responsibility, and yet has to lift millions out of darkness by connecting them to electricity. [Updated 24/10/16] The WTO’s ruling against India’s domestic content requirements for solar panels is in my view, and example of not being a good neighbour. Surely at this point addressing climate change is more important than insisting upon forcing open markets.

We also need to decolonialise our theology, and listen to indigenous voices on the sacred nature of creation, particularly indigenous Christian voices. We tend to read Genesis 1 through Francis Bacon, and view creation as a resource. John Walton has helped us see creation as a sacred temple. It’s time to hear more from the world’s first peoples on how they see creation as sacred. I’m most aware of what has been done in Australia with Rainbow Spirit Theology, and imagine that similar exists in the US. We need to have “ears to hear”, because we are not dealing with the Canaanites we are called to destroy. We are dealing with those whom God has placed in their places so that they might seek and find him (Acts 17:22-31) and with whom we share a common world. If we’re to honour these people as made in the image of God, this world as God’s good creation, and God as creator, we need to listen to them, to protest with them, and to speak truth to power with them.

[This blog piece has been submitted to another site, but since I haven't heard back I'm putting it up here. I've updated the text on the WTO ruling, which previously read that it was against the Indian solar industry, rather than the amount of local components.]

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Post Justice Conference Melbourne 2016

So it's Sunday night and I am still on a high after the Justice Conference. Chance to catch up with a few friends, make some new ones, and be inspired by some amazing and faithful Christians who believe that justice is at the heart of God. I think a few people must have provided feedback after last year's conference, because climate change was more prominent this year. Kuki Rokhum from EFICOR in India spoke powerfully about the impacts of climate change in India. Did you know that there is a direct connection between slavery and climate change? People forced off their lands by failing rains become vulnerable to all sorts of abuse, including slavery. Kuki noted that "While we are debating about climate change, people are dying." As I noted in our workshop together with Claire Dawson, my co-author (or I'm hers) on A Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World, denial is part of while male privilege.

Our workshop was ably led by Jo Knight of TEAR. We talked about what brought us to being so concerned about climate, basic science and impacts, framing theology and directions forward. In an hour it was impossible to be comprehensive in all of this - I teach a 12 hour course at Eastern College here in Melbourne!

I am motivated to do more, write more and speak more - where my strengths are. Hopefully that translates into more regular blogging.

There will be talks online soon on the Justice Conference website. So much goodness, so make sure you get a hold of them when you can. And don't lose hope!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Justice Conference Melbourne 2016

This blog has been too quiet. It's not that I haven't been busy, but more of that soon.

I will be at the Justice Conference in Melbourne, speaking on a panel on climate justice. I will be with Claire Dawson, my co-author on A Climate of Hope, and Kuki Rokham who works with EFICOR, TEAR's partner in India.

Reflections on our workshop will follow. Hope to see some of you there!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Harambe, politics and the social media echo chamber

In the echo chamber that is social media, ideas quickly blow up and become polarised. This week, a 17 year old western lowland gorilla was shot when a three year old boy fell into the enclosure. It appears that experts largely agree this was the only course of action. Thank God the child was largely unhurt. One can only wonder what would have happened had Harambe the gorilla not been shot, of if the child had fallen into the enclosure of a carnivore like a big cat.

Now one cannot have an issue that the gorilla was shot to protect a child's life. However, much of the social media echo chambering and political footballing concerns me.

Early on, people were asking why it was the the gorilla was shot - could there have been another way, like tranquilizing? It seems this would have been too slow. Others questioned whether or not the gorilla needed shooting at all. Was Harambe being protective of the child as Jane Goodall thought it might? Anyone who has seen David Attenborough's footage with mountain gorillas knows that they are capable of great tenderness towards each other, and humans. And yet a male's first responsibility is to protect his own. No, we must accept what happened. No doubt in time, the questions will be answered about the enclosure, and whether or not it was sufficiently safe for the child, and the gorilla. Likewise, we need to be very slow in blaming the family.

But I'm concerned about the polarisation that has occurred. There are some who are quick to mock those of us who show genuine concern over the fate of non-humans, for political and or religious reasons. To care for a gorilla is not to care less for the child, or for refugees as some would contest, using this incident as a political springboard. Yes, coverage of moral issues is skewed, but do we belittle one set of issues (non-human moral status and extinction risks) for another (our concern over refugees). I'm not convinced two wrongs make a right.

I saw recently a blog that said that one human was of more value than a million gorillas - the image of God theological argument. My response is, what kind of calculation is that? Isn't that providing the wrong answer to the wrong question in this case? Doesn't this kind of approach feed exactly into the predicament of this species being endangered in the wild?

The other kinds of responses are equally silly. Calling the killing of a non-human murder , even one as closely related to us as a gorilla, is wrong headed. We do not have to directly equate the death of a gorilla and a human as morally equivalent to understand that this was a tragic event. Would those people rather that the child died instead? Maybe Peter Singer might make this argument, but not a Christian thinker like myself.

The calls for gorillas not to be kept in zoos is a more complex one, but also a knee jerk reaction here, as they are endangered in the wild. If zoos can help keep this species alive (and that includes obviously providing a safe space for them), then there they should stay. Releasing any zoo animal back into the wild is not that simple.

To summarise then: I'm grateful the child is alive, though I'm saddened it has come at the loss of a creature both endangered and a magnificent work of the creator God. The reactions on both ends miss the point and just seem like an exercise in stone throwing across the divide. Once more, social media seems incapable of supporting a reasoned discussion or reaching some kind of understanding between people. Perhaps I'm just ranting, but it's only that I care about three year old children, displace refugees, and a natural world that's dying. And all these things matter.