Friday, 27 March 2009

Ebor Dem

Anyone training to be a teacher is told that the worst form of teaching is the lecture. Good if you can remember 10%. Sermons are lectures too, though you are allowed to meditate in and through them. There are no questions afterwards, although there may be comments from the floor.

I don't then understand why the Archbishop of Canterbury, doing all these lectures, uses such a compressed and turgid style every time.

Goodness knows what those hearing him make of it. No doubt, partially hearing and digesting bits of a lecture, they do ask questions. I had two responses when simply reading his Ebor Lecture on the environment. First was an "oh no" as it went in my eyes and did not register content in my brain. Secondly, I asked what is the point of a lecture if he doesn't act on it: for example, all that ethical content in the previous economics lecture set against the evil of the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria.

Anyway, I'll stop doing this sometime soon, but I had a crack at simplifying it for my own comprehension. My writing style is itself a high reading level figure (called in one case the Fog Index), so it might not be that simplified and Pot might be calling Kettle black. At least I address this matter. But then the question is: what of it?

Here is my summary (I comment below):

'The face of the earth' is no longer seen as a metaphor but it helps to connect to a biblical insight (24th psalm) - God's glory and overall sovereignty to the world and it is bigger than we can grasp.

So we can't oblige the environment to follow our agenda, however we bend it; we can't change the weather system or the order of seasons. But there are relations and interactions ignored at a cost of disaster, and the environment won't always adjust to us. It will survive us and the earth remains the Lord's.

Leviticus 25.23 tells us further that we are tenants on the Lord's land. Ellen Davis says that this chapter is about enslavement and alienation - losing family property is to become a resident alien, which is the same as the community settled by God into Canaan - resident aliens. Being impoverished and sold into slavery means the purchasing Israelite must treat the slave like a hired servant, buying back as a process of redeeming. A non-Israelite family buying ought to be redeemed. Imitating the holiness of God prevents everlasting alienation (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, ch.5, esp. 90-94).

This holiness is the key God agenda, not a human agenda. We and the environment are alike in relation to God - neither the mystery of the inner person or the resistance of the material world can be wholly possessed by us. Not possessing means not exploiting for our purposes.

Often we hear about Genesis and having dominion over the non-human creation. Not so, set against Leviticus and elsewhere in Jewish scripture. But what of redeeming when not possessing? Is it just to stand back?

No - we are to cultivate. We joyfully experience the powers of nature (St Augustine). Focusing those powers by our work keeps us in paradise and lets us resist temptation. If nature is seen just as a threat to be overcome then that is the effect of the Fall - alienation again. Aquinas says we use our reason to share in the working of divine providence, therefore to bring out the potential of humanity and nature - and that means discerning the right form of action: such as the prevention of harm or a non-pillaging use of resources for human nourishment and security (allowing for resource restoration).

Ungodly approaches to the environment means manipulation for human advantage and ignoring complex connections that are violated, such as: biodiversity, low cost returns on labour, and its finite limits for restoration.

Do exploit and you discover too late the damage done: a lost necessary species, a foreign life-form upsetting the local balance, loss of neighbouring life forms, damaged soil, supplies of fossil fuels ending. It's not just climate change but a range of doomsday scenarios. Technology to do good is also that which can do harm by domination through violence, such as through bio-terror (Martin Rees's 2003 book).

A.S.Byatt's novel The Biographer's Tale includes devastation we face through a catalogue of ignorance regarding insects especially bees, and the loss of other creatures through road building and crop spraying etc..

We have to use our intelligence,as Aquinas says, in order to redeem, as with Leviticus. This is to supply need, and to avoid famine and suffering.

Yet we collude in apparent unlimited economic growth, systematically ignoring economic and ecological global interconnectedness.

Ecology increasingly involves justice. Often those not making the decisions bear the cost of the wealthier nations' decisions. Decisions are not easy, when actions in the environment represent unintelligence and ungodliness. But asking the questions about what we do helps, and we realise that we are bound up with the destiny of the world. If we can't live within its contraints, the world may not 'tolerate' us.

God's love cannot compel justice and virtue; it is unbiblical to think God will step in to sort our the folly or sin. We are free to make a disaster; God's love won't let us go but there is no safety net. To think otherwise makes a nonsense of Old Testament prophets and Jesus's urgency when preaching.

But our intelligence used can limit the ruinous effect of our intelligence (A. S. Byatt's fiction again). It needs in Christian terms a change of heart, conversion, redemption out of an egotism that obscures judgement. Grace is need to escape from the distortions of pride and acquisitiveness. We reason including that we cannot master everything within the physical world.

So, we use reasonable skills of reason-based negotiating the material world. For example, some deny climate change but such scepticism is unreasonable where the sea rises as at Bangladesh and Tuvalu (one can argue how much is human and how much is cyclical, but there's the force of the argument about the effects of increased levels of carbon emissions and it surely isn't coincidence).

Christianity says we are not God and do not need to be God. We need to be aware of our limits in what we properly do in this fragile and moral world.

The previous lecture on the economy said the financial crisis was less about greed and more about pride: that of attempting to forget our absence of total control. We are finite, despite the denials, as in Ernst Becker, The Denial of Death, and he identified our fantasy of being 'self-created'.

Jonathan Porrit says that our general belief in progress through exponential growth means we deny the complexity of limits (Capitalism as if the World Matters, 215). He says politicians haven't worked out a form of risk-with-innovation capitalism that isn't disastrous for the environment. It needs monetary calculation of depleting natural capital and assessing individual and social well-being. This means practical and ethically defensible uses of technology for profitability along with environmental responsibility (rather different from the last two centuries). We have had an economic liberalism that says either you have current global capitalism with no democratic input or it all descends into unwanted protectionism.

This different way connects to a renewed sustainable democratic politics. Common values need defining in a renewed civil society. These values are the inteconnectedness of forms of capital - social, human, natural (293).

This involves adding vision to renew the use of intelligence. The faiths provide vision: not a private human vision on to a passive nature, but creative engagement to show interconnectedness with the powers of nature that bring joy (St Augustine) but also conscious of costs and not fantasies of unconditional domination.

The Christian view is of a priestly relationship: that humans draw out of nature its closer relationship with its creator to give a sign of love and generosity. Such negotiation with the environment would promote peace and justice, alleviate suffering and spread resources - human need met within the environment's constraints. The environment remains itself but becomes sacramental of its originating gift, the face of the earth being of the face of God. The Eucharist has this: the first fruits of a material world communicating divine generosity.

Creation is frustrated if humanity is unredeemed (touched on in Romans 8). Human selfishness stops nature producing justice and generosity. When it could be so otherwise, a doomsday scenario has the material world left to itself and chokes humanity.

God's purpose is for created intelligence to draw out nature's potential (each fulfils the other). Yet this created intelligence - us - could disappear unsupported by nature as it had diminished. By not attempting to fulfil the relationship between us and nature - the shared vocation - humans are rebelling against the creator.

There is further the context of the divine action that decisively redeems humankind - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as his face to us that unveils our faces as we move towards God (II Corinthians). Thus we can reveal nature as a sign of love, via respect and letting it be. Christ liberates us from an anxiety that drives us towards possession; we are liberated, our intelligence is recreated, and so we can liberate the earth.

Christos Yannaras sees a loss of relation in modern society and the 'artistic' vocation of transforming the world. That forgetful loss makes technology toxic: but, as in his Variations on the Song of Songs, love compels us to see things differently, like when loving God we glimpse the landscapes we encounter together as seen through the eyes of God as 'very good'. Yannaras sees this as 'a gift of erotic joy', of desire.

This is more than adding in environmental costs, but this Christian vision suggests not just a duty of care but a conversion towards making whole: its redemption like our redemption, its face uncovered like ours before God. When God hides his face creation goes into fear and slips back (Ps 104: vv 29-30), but his breathing on it renews it. That movement of the Spirit has our love and intelligence going in the same direction.

By the way, I wish he would do a proper bibliography!

What is the method here? The method is the Jewish Scriptures as a kind of resource analogy book: a myth or story world where it relates to alienation. But we can draw alienation from more practical, direct, economic-analytical sources. I'm not particularly bothered with what Leviticus says about this or that, and to denounce a Genesis reading as unbiblical is a sort of politics of book-playing. It is just another reading, isn't it, about dominion? That reading has its own logic, which for those who go below the surface is not about domination anyway but kingship.

We can have visions and dream dreams, but this face of God to face of humanity to face of nature, all grounded in some miracle of (from Rowan Williams's point of view) reconstituted bones into a transformed body, seems to me to be indulging in redundancy - an unnecessary extra round the houses regarding the problem at hand.

Do we need such visions or stories in order that we become good gardeners of all the earth's resources, in that we grow plants to eat and, largely at environmental cost, husband animals to eat and use them? I noticed that he didn't actually mention animals.

It seems the Archbishop has his own internal agenda: that of promoting human intelligence and activity, and demoting the also Christian viewpoint that God will act on the last day in redeeming the mess and saving those who are chosen to be saved whilst damning the rest. And this is indeed as much a Christian view. It's the one peddled on all those Christian-Zionist and creationist satellite stations. It may be nonsense he is opposing, but it is of Christianity.

He says that those who will have God jump in and intervene deny the Jewish prophets and Jesus's urgency. No they don't: and, anyway, Jesus believed that God was going to intervene very soon and his urgency was directed at people. "Sin no more" in order to enter the new coming reality. Jesus did believe in an intervening God, even if the Archbishop doesn't.

I don't either. I believe that this environment is evolved, that it has formative limits that produce relationships of species in location interacting. As Armand Marie Leroi states, like the climate to the weather, there is a systemic element to the chaos of specific evolution.

What we have to do, therefore, is recognise the limits of the system with our actions of feeding and using, or understand that the system will shift to another equilibrium - even a relatively lifeless equilibrium - if we, as an overlarge part of this system, bugger it up.

I don't accept, personally, that global warming is all human made, or that the human element is systematically disastrous. The earth was severely colder and hotter in history without our contribution. Huge forests in Europe have been cut by humankind over millennia and we did a lot of coal burning and other polluting until recently. Our contribution now may be of ever larger effect, but even without it there will be environment-system shifts, and we may be adding to something of hugely greater force or contradicting an unwelcome natural movement. We ought to reduce our additive footprint, but that doesn't stop change.

The difference between Rowan Williams and me is this: the earth is not here for our benefit. There is no God patting us on the head to get on and water the plot where the natural world doesn't do it so well so we are all glorified (nice story as it may be). We will come and go like all the other species.

If we need a myth it might well be that of the tenant, but one who will die in the property or move on. But there is a practical basis of action that is meditative and contemplative. Using his words this time:

...in Christian terms, this needs a radical change of heart, a conversion; it needs another kind of 'redemption', which frees us from the trap of an egotism that obscures judgement. Intelligence in regard to the big picture of our world is no neutral thing, no simple natural capacity of reasoning; it needs grace to escape from the distortions of pride and acquisitiveness.

How interesting are his words, given all the controversy surrounding Kevin Thew Forrester, the Christian bishop-elect who draws on Buddhist meditative practice. "The trap of egotism that obscures judgement" is a Buddhist notion, and most clearly and directly such. By intelligence the Buddhist would use awareness: awareness involves intelligence but it also involves calm and skillful application. It is not for nothing that Buddhism and Jainism are the most environmentally sensitive of faiths, because, of course, they go to the essence of the matter. 'Grace' as some outside requirement is just a prop to suggest we cannot do it: well we can: we can use our awareness if we develop it by disciplined contemplation, mediation and reflection.

Perhaps the Archbishop, in his denial of an intervening God, and his promotion of intelligence, does not wish to be seen as a Pelagian. Well at least a Pelagian gets on with the job.

Now I wish he'd get on with his job, and tackle that evil in his backyard down in Nigeria.

1 comment:

Scott Hankins said...

I prefer Fr. Terry's approach, which are using here to great advantage.