The Practical and Theological Litmus Test

I have a theological litmus test for any action, whether it is a decision by a church, a development initiative by a NGO, interaction between adherents of different world religions, economic theory, or just about anything else.

And this is it: does the action contribute to human thriving?

I think this covers it.

Throughout Scripture the issue keeps coming back to the Creator’s desire for His creation to thrive. While we have tended to read the (selected) texts since the Reformation to be simply about a contractual agreement to escape punishment for sin, the Scriptures continually draw our attention back to the Creator’s desire for shalom for His world.

The problem in Noah’s generation that brings on the apocalyptic flood?  Human thriving cut off by violence across the earth.

God’s continual concern with the welfare of the unempowered throughout the Torah, the writings  and the prophets; Jesus’ hometown self-definition in Luke 4 (18-21);his ministry of healing the sick; his contention that he came to bring abundant life; Paul’s confidence that in the Son all things are reconciled in heaven and on earth and all things hold together in him – all of these are about God’s desire for His Creation and image-bearers to experience wholeness and well-being.

Recall Irenaeus’ contention that the glory of God is man fully alive.

If for each theological direction we take, each decision we render on an action, be it church or community, this litmus test brings us to the crux: does it advance human and creational thriving?  This cuts past culturally-tied issues in Scripture which no longer obtain, it frees us from a legalism that always devolves into dysfunction, it breaks out of adventures in missing the point that accumulate around nit-picking Scripture battles and brings us to the central question What does God want in His world? We need a litmus test that engages that exact question, and I believe this one does.

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Hot Oceans

As the world population grows, and as (hopefully) larger numbers of people move from deep poverty into better living situations, we have to deal with the build-up of toxins in the biosphere. (For a discussion of carrying capacity see the previous post). The old adage the solution to pollution is dilution has limits based on the size of the container and the amount of toxins. As we saw two posts ago, a simple calculus used by environmental engineering is

Mass rate of accumulation = mass rate of input – mass rate of output.

We have to keep this in mind because, for all intents and purposes, (the bleed-off from the troposphere being so slight), we need to treat Earth as a closed system, in which we need to avoid piling up toxins too fast for the natural ecosystems to mitigate in their regular, natural rates. If we surpass this natural rate of breakdown to useful components, then we have to find ways to mitigate/ break down the toxins ourselves. For Christians with a biblical theology, this should be a conversation they deem important.

One of those things we are building up at a faster mass rate of input than the biosphere is handling, is heat. The amount of carbon being piled up in the upper atmosphere, acting with a greenhouse effect, is increasing the temperature in our world. Although Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have convinced huge numbers of Americans that this isn’t really happening, every government in the world is scrambling trying to draw up plans to deal with this climate change. They are scared to death at what it means for crop failure, and nations with large coastal populations in low elevations see the writing on the wall. (Some South Pacific islands no longer have human populations, they’ve had to leave as their island is no longer above sea level – this is what happens when glaciers melt at the rate they are.) You can read about how the various gasses interact and feedback on NASA’s website here http://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.

The oceans are a telltale for the mass rate of input, in terms of heat, changing things about our planet. Ocean temperatures right now are breaking all historical records. Summer of 2014 was the highest ever recorded (Axel Timmermann, professor of Oceanography, U. of Hawaii). The Atlantic’s surface temps are now 3 degrees hotter than 30 years ago. NOAA reports that fish species are moving north and south away from the tropics, pushed by the change in temps. Inuit tribes north of Alaska do not have a word in their language for salmon, as they’ve never seen one. Until now. Half of the 36 species of fish we eat for food have shifted northward and further offshore in the last four decades, some no longer found in U.S. waters. When one species moves (due to temps) and their whole ecological food chain doesn’t move with them, disasterous population crashes can occur. Fishery managers are seeing alarming results of this kind of thing, and fearing it is going to get far worse. Widespread failures in cod reproduction have already occurred. A 20% crash in worldwide tuna harvest in the visible future. If anyone wants to argue heat isn’t building up faster than the planet deals with it, simply speak with an oceanographer or saltwater fisheries scientist. We need to be serious in considering this heat build-up if we want thriving oceans with stable, healthy ecosystems we can fish. Christians, who believe the Creator instructed humanity to steward, rule over, and care for this planet, have a moral obligation inherent in our faith to care about this subject, and go beyond taking the word of talented radio entertainers.

Sources: NOAA, Scripps Institute, Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research (Germany), James Cook University (Australia), National Marine Fisheries Service, Indian Institute for Tropical Meteorology, University of British Columbia, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Jason Schratwieser/ Sportfishing July/August 2016

Earth’s Carrying Capacity. That’s a myth

Theology at the end of this blog. First, some environmental talk. I have an occupational background in environmental biology (not to mention a Master’s degree in International Development), so I understand the idea of carrying capacity. And I don’t believe in the idea that Earth has a “carrying capacity” of humans. Drawn over from environmental studies of animals in an ecosystem, the reason this is a non-starter for me in regards to human population, is that history has shown, time and time again, that people are capable of creatively adapting and developing ways to live in an ecosystem far beyond what its “previous” carrying capacity was thought to be prior to the innovation.

Estimates of the carrying capacity of the Earth (for human population) since van Leeuwenhoek in 1679, have been laughably incorrect over and over again, not to mention ranging from 1 billion to 1000 billion! The low end estimates were based on the agricultural technology of the day (tillable acres and output divided by human consumption per capita) and those estimates of carrying capacity have been repeatedly increased due to the increase in agricultural output per acre enabled by new advances in farming practices. I’m typing this on Point Loma, a very densely populated part of San Diego. The carrying capacity of this area is a million fold what it would have been for the Diegan Indios 500 years ago, but then we aren’t hunter-gatherers. I’ve lived on one of the most densely populated pieces of land in the world: Java, Indonesia. Rice terracing and fish farming have increased the food-producing capabilities of that land far beyond its natural contours. As a 2012 UN study put it, “technological advances in efficiency can be a divisor of per capita impact.” 1 When the interdependent variables in dynamic systems modeling today are applied to carrying capacity, there are so many estimates regarding future variables, the range of estimates becomes so huge as to be meaningless. A 1995 article in Science called for “extreme skepticism” regarding carrying capacity estimates for the reasons I’ve just cited. 2

A meme I saw said “God makes a world for humans – 70 % saltwater ocean.” It was witty on the surface, but it really doesn’t make the point it attempts. Humans figure out how to live in ecosystems as we go. Our ancestors walking out of Africa could not have survived near the Arctic Circle with the savannah lifestyle they knew – but the Inuit and Eskimo have learned how to thrive there for thousands of years – with only Neolithic technology! 70% of our world is indeed oceanic – but we have only scratched the surface on learning how to live there. We can learn to live in oceanic environments just as surely as we did in Arctic ones. Aquatic farming is just in its earliest stages. Not only is there plenty more for us to learn about farming Earth’s various biomes, but we haven’t even hardly started with urban farming and stackable skyscraper farms. Figures for carrying capacity are always and utterly tied to current technology and practices. Any talk of carrying capacity should start by saying “If we never, ever do a single thing different than we do today…” And that’s just silly.

But there’s a strong theological reason to question the idea of carrying capacity. For those Christians who believe we are past the carrying capacity of the Earth, we need to ask “Which of the people currently alive would the Creator God prefer had never been born?” It is theologically repugnant, from a Christian point of view, to imagine there are any. We don’t need less people created in the imago dei. We simply need what every group of people have needed (and worked out) since the digging stick was invented and there were more babies born in the tribe: new ways to find, (or in our case) increase, harvestable output.

And by the way, there is no shortage of food in the world per capita. There are local scarcities we haven’t transported to effectively. It’s not a quantity issue, it’s a transportation issue and a governance issue. Next time let’s talk about carrying capacity and pollutants in a closed system.

1 http://na.unep.net/geas/archive/pdfs/geas_jun_12_carrying_capacity.pdf

2  ttp://www.montana.edu/screel/Webpages/conservation%20biology/cohen.pdf

Environmental Systems Calculus*

When we talk about the human habitation of Earth today, we want quantitative understandings of the planet’s carrying capacity. Materials and energy balances are key tools in achieving a quantitative understanding of the behavior of environmental systems.  They serve as a method of accounting for the flow of energy and materials into and out of a system.  Mass balances provide us with a tool for modeling the production, transport, and fate of things like pollutants or resources in an environment… examples of mass balances include prediction of rainwater runoff, oxygen balance in a stream, the temperature change in a river from the discharge of cooling water from a power plant, or the temperature rise due to global warming.

In its simplest form a materials or mass balance may be viewed as an accounting balance. For an environmental process the equation would be

Accumulation = input – output.

There are both known and unknown inputs, outputs, and accumulations in system modeling, but the mass balance should account for and solve the amount of unknown inputs and outputs.

Time is also a factor: For many environmental problems time is an important factor in establishing the degree of severity of the problem or in designing a solution. Another simple equation from environmental engineering:

Mass rate of accumulation = mass rate of input – mass rate of output

In plug-flow systems, a calculus equation can tell you how many km of pipe is needed to decontaminate a certain amount of polluted water as it flows through the pipe with a catalyst inserted. This kind of rate-of-flow-and-conversion is another calculation we need in order to understand our carrying capacity as a planet.

So, our situation is this. As human civilization has grown and continues to, we are increasing the inputs of some things in the system at a rate that outpaces the output. At the same time, we have a hard time calculating the availability and sustainability of some of the key resources – estimates have been wrong time and again. Likewise, we don’t know the tipping point of some processes, since we’ve never been to this spot before. More on what this means for our future as humans on this planet, and how theology affects our calculations, next time.

* Intro to Environmental Engineering Fourth edition (Davis & Cornwell). My family includes an environmental engineer.

‘Our Modern Ailment’

For over a hundred years, Western writers have bemoaned a condition they have called various things, perhaps most often ‘our modern ailment.’ As we export modern, Western life to the rest of the world,  people working in international development have been wrestling with this for the last 50 years, as well. Simply put, ‘our modern ailment’ is the idea that alongside the good things that technology and the modern life have brought us, we have lost something of our humanity, community and soul. Important parts of our former ways of life have faded away, and people are the worse for it. Hundreds, if not thousands, of serious writers and thinkers have looked at society and remarked about this in the last 100-150 years.

The last couple of years reading agrarian philosophers Henry Beston and Wendell Berry have stirred up my thoughts on this issue, although I always noticed it. My shorthand definition of agrarianism is the idea that people are better off more in touch with the earth in small farming communities where human relationships are close and there is a connection to the rhythms of life connected to the land. An addendum would include saying that many modern conveniences have stolen away the formative benefits of many tasks, including the relational and creational aspects of them.

Example: Four people raking leaves together talking, is better than one person alone with a leafblower and earbuds. Five people in a kitchen canning peaches, laughing and enjoying one another is better than one person buying a can of peaches at a store. The growing interest I have observed among 20 and 30-something year olds today in doing things the old way, from making apple cider together to gardening antique varieties of produce to cooking parties or learning to woodwork, blacksmith, hunt, raise chickens, you name it – all indicate people are yearning for a more tactile and Creation-connected life than the hyper-modern world has delivered. Mother Earth News and its ilk remain for a reason.

There are a variety of ways in which “modern conveniences” have backfired sociologically and  in the human psyche. Can we learn to live a life of joy, connectedness, and wholeness? Can we recover some of the things our great-grandparents knew brought meaning to life? And does Christian faith have a valuable contribution to bring to the table in being connected to one another and the natural world God made? If it does, we will have to rediscover the broader world of the Bible in place of the narrow, modern consumer version of  evangelicalism so common in the West.

Wesley on our life

I’ve been reading a great book about Wesley and came across a great quote.  Not Wesley the Dread Pirate Roberts, but John Wesley, founder of the Methodists (1703-1791). The book is Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith by William C. Guerrant, Jr and published by Seedbed, 2015. It’s very Wendell Berry-ish, and absolutely jam-packed with Wesley’s many thoughts on food justice. Wesley, who believed the Gospel to be about EVERYTHING (not just individual spiritual salvation) spoke quite a bit about food justice issues (distribution, animal treatment, industrialization, obesity, health, you name it) that are in the headlines all the time today.

So, the quote is in two parts, the first a statement he made in 1747 and the second he made in 1790. It’s a great image of God’s care for creation, our place in the scheme of things, and the implicit insight that God, Who has always been about relationship, is therefore all about synergism between Himself and humanity in the care of His world, and in, well everything. It summarizes our task very simply. Here it is:

“He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment….  Do good. Do all the good thou canst.”

New book on Atonement

Nearly 70 years ago Nazarene scholars were saying that the penal substitution view of the atonement was counter to Wesleyan theological commitments and implied a God who had to kill someone (exacting justice) BEFORE he was free to forgive. Since not even we humans suffer that limitation, Wesleyan theology, has a very difficult time imagining that the God who is love is required, by His own sense of justice, to take it out on someone before He can forgive someone else. In penal substitution’s view, God is not free to forgive until He has punished someone; He is not free to be merciful, until he balances the scales of justice with retribution.atonement book vail

Despite this theological dissonance, no one in our tribe has gotten anything on paper to offer a better option. Until now. Eric Vail, professor of theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, has penned ‘Atonement and Salvation: The Extravagance of God’s Love.’  A fabulous read. Kindly worded, readable, it takes in the pertinent scholarship and discusses the atonement and salvation in large, Biblical categories, rather than more narrow, 16th century European ones. I recommend it. Beacon Hill Press: 2016.