Thursday, November 22, 2007

LUBH 13 - summary

Last gathering together of the 'Let us be human' argument, with an update of my 'pledges' at the end.

LUBH - summary

Welcome to the very last session of the Let Us Be Human sequence, prophecy, peak oil and the path for the faithful. Now today a summary which is why there is no crib sheet with notes so also I am going to suffer, I didn't realise I was going to suffer because normally I have my notes right in front of me to spark things off. But anyway what I am going to do is run through what we have covered over the last twelve sessions and come up with some specific pointers for a way forward.

Now to begin with the prophecy bit, as I am sure you all know as I have said it so often the prophets throughout the Old Testament and culminating in Christ centre on just a handful of things, the call to right worship of the living God - that we shouldn't indulge in idolatry, that we shouldn't prostitute ourselves to false gods, and as the other side of that coin, there is the call to justice - to social justice to love thy neighbour, hence Jesus's summing up that we love God, with all our hearts, etc. and we love our neighbours as ourselves. This sums up the prophetic teaching throughout scripture. And I started off with Jeremiah who was very unhappy to be a prophet because God said to him "Go and tell the people of Judah that Jerusalem is going to be destroyed and you are going to see such suffering in the streets of Jerusalem." He said, "Oh please I don't want to have to say such an unhappy message, they will all hate me", and they did, they threw him in jail, they tried to kill him etc., but he was compelled to give this prophetic judgement when the Babylonian army would sweep into Jerusalem and destroy the temple and massacre the Royal family and take off all the leading lights of the community off into exile in Babylon itself. So the prophetic message is - "This is the right way to live, in touch with the living God, justice between you and your neighbours, and if you turn away from this for long enough then there is a mighty judgement coming." And I think we are in a situation which is analogous to that Jeremiah faced, there is a mighty judgement coming on us.

Now I started off talking about peak oil, now peak oil is that geological phenomenon which describes when the flow of oil from any particular well hits its maximum, so it's the point of maximum flow. The analogy I used is running a bath from your hot water tank, to begin with you can control the flow of water by turning the tap fully on or fully off or somewhere in between, and you open it up to fully on and you have got plenty of water coming through. But of course over time your hot water tank draws down and at the end there is just a trickle and no matter what you do with the tap you can't change it from being a trickle. And the same thing happens with an oil well, with an individual oil well, with oil wells across a region and globally and the phenomenon is called peak oil, it is talking about when the global flow of oil is at it's maximum and chances are we actually hit that two years ago, in May of 2005. Now it's possible we might tick up just a little bit more from where we are, but the evidence is accumulating and becoming stronger and stronger, May 2005 was when there was most oil available in the world, and oil is a wonderful, miraculous substance as a source of energy, as a source of raw materials, and we have built up our economies upon it. Not simply in terms of the transport system where it is most obvious where we have an entire transport system built around the internal combustion engine and it relies on liquid fuel, without that liquid fuel it will collapse.

Now the point about peak oil is that, so far for the last hundred and fifty years as the industrial technology and revolution and economy has really picked up lots of steam, if you had enough money you could get the energy. That will no longer be the case. There will be a limit and a consistently declining amount of energy available. That means that energy, instead of being cheap and abundant is going to be scarce and expensive. And all the things which we do which depend upon cheap energy being available will cease. For example, private transport and use of cars. Now it's not going to cease overnight, but within twenty years, that sort of time frame, unless we have a wonderful, technological discovery which solves all our problems. But we could have done with discovering that twenty years ago. In terms of the time frame for shifting all our infra-structure away from oil and onto bio-fuels or whatever technology has wanted to dream up, it takes a very long time to change things like engines and petrol stations and so forth, and the most exhaustive analysis that has been done of this is in the United States, it's called the Hirsch Report, commissioned by the American government, says that if you plan for peak oil twenty years before hand there is no problem. If you start planning for it ten years before the peak, then it will take you ten years to recover. If you don't do anything until the peak's arrived, it will take you twenty years to recover. That's what we are looking at: a great dislocation.

So this is the trigger, and this will factor in to all sorts of things, essentially, our economy, our civilisation is built upon this easy energy being cheaply available and that is going to be taken away. I then went on to talk about the background to this, which is the problem of exponential growth. That within a finite area exponential growth when there is a sudden new abundant resource available, oil in our case, allows for a local population explosion, and that population explosion tends to crash. If you have for example a petri dish with bacteria, the bacteria will grow and accumulate and use up all the available energy sources, you know glucose in the medium, in the petri dish, and if there are different blocks of bacteria growing at the same time they will end up having little lines between them where antibiotics are produced, little bits of biological warfare in the petri dish. But then once the available energy resources have been used up the population crashes and dies.

Now this is the very dark side of the predicament that we face, that we as the human species have rapidly and vastly expanded and you can see the dates, 1800 we are at 1 billion, 1930 at 2 billion, 1960 at 3 billion, 1975 at 4 billion, 1987 at 5 billion, 1999 at 6 billion - you can see it's just shooting up. And that's a wonderful thing in the sense that there's enough food available to feed vastly more people, but that food is dependent upon cheap energy being available. Take that energy away and the food won't be there. And the systems, the ecologies around the globe are straining under the weight of so many people and we are entering into a time of great stress and hardship.

I then went on to talk about idolatry, this central command from the prophets that you must worship none but the living God. And an easy way to think about what that means is to say get your priorities in order, don't give too much importance to the things which aren't really that important, and do give importance to the things which are important. So if your culture emphasises and values things like producing money, or becoming a celebrity, these are not as important as the compassion and solidarity which God calls us to show to one another, and think of the story in Luke's gospel, Dives and Lazarus where Jesus describes the rich man who has lots of comfort in this life and Lazarus at his gate begs and then they die and Lazarus goes to heaven and Dives never actually does anything actively against Lazarus, he just ignores him, you don't have to be actively hurting the poor, you just have to ignore what is going on, you have to ignore the extent of poverty in, (especially) in Africa.

And there is something about our Western civilisation, especially in north western Europe and United States, which has given science too prominent a place in determining what is of value and what is of meaning. And you can think of science as being the ability to look into the very small and the very big. Think of telescopes and microscopes, they are arrangements of lenses. Imagine that you take one eye out, and you put it in front of the other eye and with these two lenses, one in front of the other, you can look into the very, very small and you can look at the very, very distant, but what you lose is a sense of perspective. You get no sense of proportion. And this is what science has done to our civilisation, we can discover all sorts of interesting facts but we have lost any sense of what is meaningful and what is ultimately of most importance, and that I think is our root idolatry that we need to disentangle our culture from.

We then talked about the wrath of God, that there is a pagan understanding of wrath and I have the image of King Kong, when you have the pretty blonde about to get gobbled up by the monster and the whole point is you have got to sacrifice in order to appease the monster. And contrasting with that is the ancient Jewish understanding used in the first temple, whereby it is God's initiative to come to us and redeem us from our sins. So our God is not an angry God to be appeased in the way that King Kong for example needs to be appeased. But there is this notion throughout the Old Testament and the New of the wrath of God, and what I'm saying is that the wrath of God is when we are allowed to experience the consequences of our own decisions. In other words it is when grace doesn't apply. Grace is when we are allowed to escape from the consequences of our own decisions, we don't get what we deserve. And the wrath of God is when we do get what we deserve. I think the wrath of God is rather similar to the notion of karma.

Now this is an image of New Orleans the day after the hurricane Katrina passed through. Now it is tenuous to say that any one individual hurricane is caused by global warming, but an increase in the rate and strengthen of hurricanes that has been seen, can be attributed to there being warmer sea temperatures as a result of global warming. And that is just one example, there are many, many others. But one example of where our actions have certain consequences.

I then talked about living in the Kingdom, talked about the apocalypse, apocalyptic imagination, living in the light of the end times. Because Christianity is structured around a longing for and an expectation of an end to the world. But this has become very distorted over time and has become something which has in a sense longed for by - I was going to say political reactionaries - it's not just political reactionaries, I talked about the Left Behind series, multi-million selling in the United States, and they were all about the rapture when those who are good get taken away from the world and then those who are left have this almighty struggle where they, you know there's even a video game where they were encouraged to kill the unbelievers, and you get points for how many you shoot and so forth. This is rather a long way from a genuinely Christian vision of the future.

The Christian vision of the future is that God will accomplish his purposes and the Kingdom is coming and the point of the church is to live in the light of the Kingdom, to live according to those Kingdom values and thereby be a sign to the rest of the world of what the world is going to be. We are to show the way to that end to the rest of the world, we are to embody it, we are to live it out, that's what living in the Kingdom is. And of course, the Eucharist is crucial to that - the sense of sharing and equality and feasting in the presence of Christ this is where we are tending to.

And so when we look at things going wrong in our present society, we are to evaluate them by the Kingdom and say what can we do in this particular situation which is more like living in the Kingdom and then we are of course to live it out. That's an image from Nigeria where they call oil "The devil's tears". And so one of the first things that we need to do and I'll come back and say a bit more about this at the end, one of the first and most important things that we need to do is to turn away from the use of oil, and start to structure our societies and economies on the basis of non-fossil fuel use. That doesn't mean no energy, it doesn't mean no electricity, it does mean much more local work, much more local economy, especially local production of food. When that cheap and easy energy gets taken away we are not going to get food flown here from Kenya or New Zealand.

And we do have a vision held out to us of what the Promised Land is and what's interesting I think in the Old Testament is that it's a very material vision held out - the land flowing with milk and honey, material wealth is not to be scorned in and of itself. God doesn't want us to starve, he's not punitive in that sense, we can't serve both God and mammon. We have to make a choice and if you seek first the Kingdom of God, then all these things will be given to you as well. But if we start to worship mammon then all sorts of bad things flow in consequence.

So I started to talk about the way in which we can look at the Bible in scripture as a resource for understanding our present ecological crisis, and I quoted Hosea 4, which describes the injustice and immorality being prevalent in the land of Israel, and it says - "Therefore the land mourns and the birds fly away, and the fish in the sea vanish and the cities are laid waste." That the state of the world reflects the state of our society, if we are unjust then the world will reflect that back to us. We cannot disentangle poverty from looking after the environment, from the wider ecological understandings, they are closely tied in, and I think there are all sorts of resources in scripture for understanding ourselves as creatures within creation who have an obligation to be faithful and good stewards, that we are to tend the garden, not to destroy it for short term gain, which is what we have been doing for hundreds of years.

Coming back to the question of social justice I talked a little bit about poverty being widespread in the world, but especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and the collision that is going to take place between the rapidly growing populations, especially somewhere like the Middle East and Saudi Arabia and the lack of availability of resources for example, the lack of availability of water, that they are mining the ground water laid down over millions of years. When global warming gets into its stride, it's already begun and those cities around the world that are dependant on glacier, melt water for their drinking water, like Lima in Peru, gets it's drinking water from glaciers, when those glaciers go, and they are going at a rapid pace, there is going to be tremendous human suffering and tremendous human migration. This is what's coming and this is the context where we need to share the wealth that we have.

I talked about foreign policy, another area of idolatry within our civilisation. About Sayyid Qutb, one of the founding fathers, philosophers of militant Islamism against whom we are engaged in the west in this long war. And you can't defeat a philosophy with bombs - it needs hearts and minds and that means we must look to our own spiritual resources in order to meet the challenge. Because the challenge that Qutb makes to western society is not a trivial one, it is not a foolish or superficial one, it has profound accuracy in it, and it is also evil, it is also profoundly wrong in many ways, but his criticism is not stupid and it can't be overcome by force of arms. If anything the opposite, to rely solely on the force of arms, plays into the narrative which he tells, whereby the western world is full of barbarians who have no sense of human value which is much of what I have just been saying. These are one of the ways in which the crisis which our society has begun going into are going to manifest themselves.

So in this context what are we to do? I think we are first and foremost to be faithful. Faithful is the one who calls, I think that's from Hebrews, not to give up hope, not to give in to despair, but to keep the faith with the one who has gone before us and who shows us what it means to be human and how to live, that we are to walk in the path he trod. Unfortunately, as that Hosea passage goes on to say, God declares, after describing the immorality and the judgement being enacted upon the land, "With you is my contention O Priest." The root of all the problems which the community faces lies in the apostasy of the clergy. It's because, and I can tell you a long, eight or nine hundred year old story about how this happens, whereby those who are in charge of the church lose sight of the faith, they lose sight of the gospel, they turn away from the truth and theology becomes this academic subject with no practical relevance to how people live their life, and slowly, the fish rots from the head down. Slowly Christians get into the process of slaughtering each other, and there is a natural and necessary revulsion in the society against that slaughter. And you get the enlightenment acting against the church saying "These people are evil they will force you to do horrible things." And those charges are not unjust. There have been some faithful witnesses, faithful witnessing communities, over the time, but broadly speaking western Christianity has been profoundly compromised, and we can see that even now, when the Anglican community get so caught up in it's own internal business, when there is so much widespread suffering.
It brings to mind when Christ criticises the Pharisees, they are so concerned with tithing their dill and cumin that they reject the much weightier matters of the law and justice, so we are called to be faithful.

This quotation from one of my favourite theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, "We would like a church that again asserts that God not nations rules the world, that the boundaries of God's kingdom transcend those of Caesar and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price". That the church community is called to be distinct. We are called to be salt in the world, we are called to be the yeast in the bread, we are called to be the light shining on a hill, and when we simply become absorbed into the world and indistinguishable from the world then we are fit only to be trodden underfoot and discarded. We are called to show to the world what a different sort of community can be like and thereby draw people to it.

At the heart of it is keeping the Eucharist, breaking the bread and the wine which all the ecumenical summits agree is the source and the summit of Christian life, even the tutors at Spurgeon's college, a chap called John Colwell, says, "The main purpose, the main worship of the church, should be meeting together on a Sunday morning to break bread and drink wine together." And I went into what that meant in terms of the new covenant, that this is how we are put right with God and put right with the world and this is where we are taught and shaped as Christians, this is the heartbeat of the faith. It is not the entry way into the faith which is baptism, which has it's own crucial importance, but it is for those who have come in this is where the abundance of life flows. We should maintain discipline, it is not a free for all. I talked about Alasdair MacIntyre and his image of those who are taught how to lay bricks and there is a tradition of bricklaying that it has been learnt and studied how to lay bricks and for someone who wants to learn to lay bricks, the best thing to do is to come in and learn at, be an apprentice to the master. That's how it's done. The skills, the practices are passed on from person to person. And of course, if someone comes in and says "I want to learn how to lay bricks but I'm not going to listen to you because my opinion is just as important." They won't learn.

And the idea that the training for example of clergy should be driven as much by personal choice and options or in fact the training and Christian formation of all the people who come into a church, the idea that personal choice is at the heart of how this proceeds is a nonsense. Imagine, just to bring this home, that someone was training to be a doctor, and in their first year at medical school they look at the syllabus and they say "I'm not sure I fancy doing anatomy this year, I think I would rather spend some time on, I don't know, psychology, therapy." You imagine that the school says, "Well, if you are interested in doing that, fine, but that won't make you a doctor. To be a doctor you have to do, this, this, this and this, that is what being a doctor is." And the way in which that sense of understanding what it is to be a Christian has been lost. It's just one index, it's just one sign of how far we have fallen away from what the faith means. There are certain things which are essential to actual living out the Christian life, the disciplines, which I'll come on to. But that's a picture by the way of the Amish, those of you who were here for my extensive rant against various churches might remember that I exempted the Amish from my criticisms, not because I agree with everything they agree with, that they believe, but because they are actively living out their faith. And they are a community who are shining as a light as we have seen after those awful murders of the school children.

So, I want to finish with what I call some pledges which are really trying to bring some of the preamble, that context into sharp focus, and sharp relief. This is a picture of Taize, tremendously successful ecumenical and extremely appealing to young people, Christian community in Southern France. Had a big influence on me, and at the heart of it, it is a highly disciplined community. It's very difficult, it is almost impossible to be a Christian on your own, and it is very difficult for a Christian community to be a Christian community without maintaining some forms of discipline, some forms of structure, actually working together in a common purpose, in a common aim. It's a bit like rowing, like the boat race, you have got eight beefy men and they are honed to work together in unison and together they can accomplish much more than any of them could do on their own, it's the working together that makes a difference. And this is what I think the church, all churches are called to be. To be a community of people rowing in the same direction.

Question: What sort of community would we have to be in order to be the sort of people who live by our convictions? Stanley Hauerwas again.

1. Pray. It's the foundation for everything else.

Everything I have being saying today might be wrong, everything I have been saying for the last few months could be wrong and the only way you will be able to discern, you and I, what is the truth is through prayer. Prayer is the foundation for everything else, and if we are to discern the will of God for each of us as individuals, for us as a community, then prayer is where we will begin.

2. Worship. Especially that breaking bread and wine.

It's irreplaceable. It's not the only form of worship. It's not the only legitimate, and wonderful, and positive form of worship either. But it is essential, the breaking of bread and sharing of wine in the context of telling the story of who Jesus was and is and is yet to come. It is essential.

3. Abandon the idol of economic growth.

To use the jargon of economists, "Economic growth in our society now has negative marginal utility." What that means is that as we grow a little bit bigger in terms of the economy, in terms of money and paper, the actual quality of life has become less, and there have been rather exhaustive, statistical analyses of this showing that actually our quality of life peaked in the late 60's, early '70's. The quality of life for the people living in this country has got worse ever since, even those who are materially better off. You know there are various indices, there's even one accepted by The Economist, you know the newspaper The Economist. They are quite robust, but it has become an idol in our society. Think of how often the politicians mouth the platitudes of needing to preserve growth, that you will be richer. And they do that because they are reflecting the desires and preferences of the voting population. I am not meaning to be, all the time, entirely cynical about the political class, lots of them are very noble in intent, but it is very difficult for them to stand up and say something against the idols of the age, if it means career suicide. If it means they just won't be listened to, and to start to change that, to start to change the direction of the wind within which the politicians have to sail, means that communities need to change what they value. And we need to start looking more towards the quality of life, what actually allows for human flourishing, rather than simply repeating this economic cycle. That we buy more widgets so that the widget-makers can earn a living, so that they can buy more widgets, and keep the system ticking over.

And this will come to a real crunch, probably within a decade, fifteen years, when our society faces a choice - and the choice will be this, at that point there will be nowhere near enough oil flowing to keep our cars on the road, which will have widespread economic implications, and the choice which we will face is do we set up plants to convert coal into petrol, which can be done. But if we do that we can abandon any hope whatsoever of preventing global warming, which will be incomprehensibly destructive, if we switch to coal, because what that will do is simply give us one more generation of economic growth, another twenty, twenty five years. And then the coal will be exhausted so we will be back to square one, but in the meantime we will have destroyed the planet we live in, and that choice will be faced, within I'd say within fifteen years. Coal is the enemy of humanity. We need to switch away from, and make sure we don't go down that road.

4. Switch to a green electricity supplier. Building on this and there
could be dozens of little points. Here is just a handful.

In other words one that will never use coal. It costs a little bit more, a few percent more. Of course beneath all this is conserve, actually use less, for all your electricity supplies, switch to a green electricity supplier.

5. Repudiate the aeroplane so far as is humanly possible.

For those who have got relatives in New Zealand or whatever, it is not straightforward to simply say "We are not going to use the aeroplane anymore", because there are actually other priorities in life. Preserving links between families being one of the most important. But simply jetting off to Southern Spain for a fortnight in the sun, when this has a wholly disproportionate impact on global warming, because it's not just about the oil that is used in flying the plane, it's to do with the impact of flying the plane at that level in the atmosphere has, and the actual disruption it causes there.

6. Never set foot in a major supermarket.

The shops themselves are astonishingly wasteful of energy and if it is essential for you to get that something from Tesco and they are not going to have it in the shop up the road, which I believe is opening in July, they do home deliveries and home deliveries are a good thing, so it is not so much stop using Tescos, although I could argue for that, it is as much about not actually using the physical buildings themselves, because they are so astonishingly wasteful of energy. So that you have got chilled fish on open display while it is also warm enough for you to walk around in a shirt. To keep that system going requires a very complicated heating and chilling system which uses an awful lot of energy. If the Tesco buildings and supermarkets for example were to turn into warehouses so that the food was still available but was distributed, that would be a huge step forward in reducing our carbon emissions in this country, but of course it threatens the idol of choice, because we want to walk around the supermarket and say, "Oh, I fancy this, I fancy that." A more disciplined approach might be needed.

7. Stop using the car. Or if you are using the car share it.

There's a wonderful scheme - I'm hoping that we can start setting this up within the churches here for sharing car journeys. If someone is going to Colchester, we can get a little database running, saying, "Oh I can hitch a lift, share petrol costs." We are going to have to do it anyway but this is a very easy and straightforward way of the church being this pioneer community showing where we have got to move to.

8. And of course, learn to grow your own vegetables.

I actually managed to grow a potato - success! I have broken the ice, stunning. So I am just beginning and I know there are many, many people here with great expertise in growing vegetables, but frankly we are going to need to have much more local sources of food, because the agricultural system itself is so dependent on fossil fuels, at every stage of the process, that it is one of the sectors that is going to be hit most hard by peak oil as it kicks in.

9. Share. Share to begin with simply with our own community.

I am very hopeful and optimistic that the computer systems and the internet will survive all this, because they can be incredibly useful. If for example there were people who had this a wonderful nice new Flymo which they used once a week to mow their lawn, why can't that be shared amongst half a dozen families, so it takes what two hours depending on how big your lawn is to mow your lawn and that bit of equipment can be shared and used amongst the community, you know, reducing the amount of expenditure that needs to be done and actually bringing the community together. Another example we could set up a little our own DVD library, and again it can be done purely on the computer, no one has to shift things round, so that you look along who's got what sort of film in the church community, and you say, "Ooh I want to watch that" and so you actually have some human contact with someone in your church community, and say, "Do you mind if I borrow your DVD of this film?" I mean simple, simple things, but it starts, and all these things can start to accumulate and the saving that are then generated can be distributed and given to various good causes. Last one.

10. Choose the human option.

This is a band called "Show of Hands", Peter took me to go and see the other day, but what I was going for was this picture, although they probably do have a bit of electronic reproduction, you don't have to have electronic reproduction to have good entertainment. If you are going to watch a film, like we were doing in here before, gather lots of people together to watch the film together, make it a much more human and interactive and social process. Or get people together to sing songs together, human entertainment rather than electronically reproduced entertainment, is what I mean by that. Because however much gloom I might sometimes come out with I do believe that on the other side of the crisis life will be incredibly good and positive, it will be much closer to the Promised Land, because our idolatries will have be forcibly removed from our way of life. But it will only be great and wonderful for those who get there, and frankly I think a large number of people won't, because of the consequences of our past decisions as a society.

But there is a Promised Land, we will, there will be community, a human community, an advanced technological human community on the other side of these crises. But in order to, think of the crises as a great mountain, in order to get over the mountain we need to discard some of our heavy baggage and we need to lash ourselves together with rope and we need to work at it together in a disciplined way in order to get over the hump, to get past the mountain to get to the other side. And these I think are just indications of the ways in which we need to move, to leave behind some of the things which destroy human life, they destroy our own lives, they spiritually impoverish us, they destroy the physical lives of people in the planet. We need to leave these things behind in order to embrace a more fully human way of life. It will be difficult to get there, we will also have to go through the desert, but on the other side of the desert, here is a different image, there is the Promised Land.

I will be putting together all the material from these talks, ideally it will end up as a book, in the meantime I can supply the handouts but on the church web site all the talks are up to be listened to again and the power point presentations are available and the notes, so there will be a resource there. We are thinking about putting them on a CD for anyone who wants to use them again, but as I say hopefully they will come together in the form of a book when I have had a chance to polish it and remove all the things I come out and say where actually I'm not sure I really fully meant that!! There will hopefully be available a book bringing all this material together in the summer. Even if I have to self publish it, which is very easy now on the internet.

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