Agriculture, Christian faith, and the world’s future

This summer my family moved to central rural Ohio to live at the epicenter of our relations while I attempt a PhD. In the transition, I have been working at a biblically Wendell Berry-inspired, organic, chemical-free, local-only, farm-to-table food co-op kind of “thing.” It’s a protest alternative to transnational mega-corporate food supply that harms both the biosphere, human health, and ultimately human community. We get Amish, and back-to-the-land small farmer millennial, and family-owned orchard produce, to people who live in the city and have no access to it. The whole concoction is hilariously fun. My boss gave me the following book:

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School (2009).

In the forward by Wendell Berry, Berry says this:

“The human situation, as understood by both biblical agrarians and contemporary ones, is about as follows. We are, howbeit only in part, earthly creatures. We have been given the earth to live, not on, but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it. We did not make it, and we know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough about it to make our survival sure or our lives carefree. Our relation to our land will always remain, to a significant extent, mysterious. Therefore, our use of it must be determined more by reverence and humility, by local memory and affection, than by the knowledge we now call “objective” or “scientific.” Above all, we must not damage it permanently or compromise its natural means of sustaining itself. The best farmers have always accepted this situation as a given, and they have honored the issues of propriety and scale that it urgently raises.”

There’s some solid theology in there. If we can divest ourselves of the end-times/Left Behind/escapist nonsense that has infected so much of contemporary Western Christianity, perhaps we can focus better on bearing the image of the Creator to the rest of creation as His stewards, and live on this earth, as intended. To many young Christians, this is one of the top-tier issues of importance if Christianity is going to be a functional, rather than dysfunctional, influence in our world.

Advertisements

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.

Thinking in 50,000 year Intervals

Living on the road while we travel speaking about our transition to SE Asia as development workers/theological educators, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the blog. But here is something I wrote a while back and not yet posted.

Something became apparent to me the other day.  I realized that many of my Christian friends approach today’s issues as if Jesus will return in 50 or 100 years, max. So if we just hold the line on this or that issue, just hold on, we’ll be ok. Other issues can be ignored, because they will never happen. I suddenly realized one of the reasons I often come to different conclusions than them is that I tend to think in 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 year increments. What seems like a hold-the-line issue in the short-term, when thought about in vastly larger time frames, suddenly becomes very different.

I probably have science fiction to thank for this. It deals in large increments of time. When I think of the changing face of certain ethical questions and I see how Christianity has changed it’s take in the last 2,000 years, I can’t imagine we are going to freeze frame for another 20,000 or 100,000! Or when I think about say, climate change, if Jesus is coming back in 20 years, no big. We don’t live on Fiji, so loss of shore-line isn’t of immediate alarm to most evangelicals I know in Pennsylvania. But when I think in terms of 100,000 year increments, the question isn’t simply How do humans utilize advanced technology without heating the whole planet via emissions? Nor just, How do we steward the oceans so we don’t poison them utterly? (PS I like to fish). No, the questions include but go even beyond that, to How do we plan now for the settlement of the solar system, and beyond? How much do we invest now in a space elevator and terraforming Mars and the moon?  If the Ross Ice Shelf hits the water and sea levels raise 20 feet, how do we handle 2 billion displaced people? That, by the way, is a real and potentially immediate question, because we don’t know what the tipping point is to increase the rate of slide to the point the whole thing just goes.

Short term thinking can be incredibly disastrous. Proverbs highlights this in the Bible. But I rarely hear Christians in North America call upon their Christian faith to think long term. I find most of them assuming a very short length to human history, as if we are at the tail end. When we Christians limit our interests to the immediate future, can we blame other people for concluding we have nothing to offer for a long-term durable civilization?

Schumacher: the limitations of economics to reflect reality

“I’ll post it in a few days.” A few days! I am having trouble getting back to my blog as I am being subsumed under a wave of a zillion things to do as I wrap up my job pastoring a fantastic church in rural Pennsylvania, at the same time that I have another zillion things to do preparing for a move to SE Asia.

In any event, here is E.F. Schumacher’s quote, written in 1973, regarding the short-sightedness of modern economic activity: (Well, I think this is the one I had in mind 10 days ago!)

“Economics, moreover, deals with goods in accordance with their market value and not in accordance with what they really are. The same rules and criteria are applied to primary goods, which man has to win from nature, and secondary goods, which presuppose the existence of primary goods and are manufactured from them. All goods are treated the same, because the point of view is fundamentally that of profit-making, and this means that it is inherent in the methodology of economics to ignore man’s dependence on the natural world. (Note from Todd: you can monetize wood, but when there’s no forest left, money does not equal trees anymore).

Another way of stating this is to say that economics deals with goods and services from the point of view of the market, where willing buyer meets willing seller. The buyer is essentially a bargain hunter; he is not concerned with the origin of the goods or the conditions under which they have been produced. His sole concern is to obtain the best value for his money.

The market therefore represents only the surface of society and its significance relates to the momentary situation as it exists there and then. There is no probing into the depths of things, into the natural or social facts that lie behind them. In a sense, the market is the institutionalization of individualism and non-responsibility. Neither buyer nor seller is responsible for anything but himself.

….economists have felt entitled… to treat the entire framework within which economic activity takes place as a given, that is that is to say, as permanent and indestructible. It was no part of their job and, indeed, of their professional competence, to study the effects of economic activity upon the framework. Since there is now increasing evidence of environmental deterioration, particularly in living nature, the entire outlook and methodology of economics is being called into question. The study of economics is too narrow and too fragmentary to lead to valid insights…”

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 46, 54).

The Point of Holiness

NT Wright has expended considerable ink in saying that the point of Israel was not for Israel itself, but for the whole world. Israel was chosen by God to be the vehicle through which He blessed the Gentiles with the knowledge of the One True God. Copious amounts of OT scriptures can be cited. Most Christians and Jewish folk themselves agree with this reading of the OT. Israel did not exist as an end in itself – all nations were to be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. Israel was called for the sake of the Gentiles.

In the same way, Christians living a holy life  – a human living as the kind of creature she or he was made to be – is not an end in itself. It is for the sake of the whole creation: reflecting the image of God into the world around, something the entire Creation is standing on tiptoe waiting expectantly for according to Romans 8:19. As Wright says of 8: 26-27 “…this is no incidental reference to prayer and the work of the Spirit. The whole point is that when we pray we are not merely distant or feeble petitioners. We are starting to take up our responsibility as God’s image-bearing human beings, sharing God’s rule over creation.”*

Paul’s climax in Romans 8, overlooked in the Western tradition for a thousand years, is not that we are holy and get to go to heaven, but rather that God’s plan is coming together: holiness as humans finally leading the way expressing God’s rule to the whole creation as His stewards in the way it was always meant to be. Holiness is not an end in itself, in the sense that it is for itself; no, it is for the sake of the whole Creation. God’s world can only be put right when its masters are right. And saying we can’t finish the job of New Creation is no way to shirking our calling and duty, anymore than saying I can’t resurrect my own body so it doesn’t matter what I do with my body!

The holiness tradition that I grew up in, and I think our Pentecostal & Charismatic cousins, missed something vital here. Holiness, as I was growing up, was a goal in and of itself, something you aimed at for its own sake. Once you had it, you had sort of arrived, and now just needed to help other people get it. It was because God wanted people to follow a certain standard… this is how God is, this is how you should be. But the why and for what sake was often left out. Connecting it to the larger story in Scripture was left out… or just seen as part of getting to heaven… we were good at quoting “without holiness no man shall see the Lord”. In the end it was self-serving. That’s because we had virtually no theology of the Creation and ecology. Back then people would have laughed out loud at the thought that holiness was for the sake of the planet. That’s because our Hal Lindsay / Left Behind theology had us thinking God intended to burn the planet up and throw it in the trash. Yes, God’s “very good” Creation extolled throughout Scripture.

Instead of repeating the latest idiotic responses of the Far Right, US evangelicals need to read and consider carefully the theology they will learn when Pope Francis releases his encyclical on the environment. It’s time for us to grow up. Just as Jesus-generation Jews mistaked their calling thinking it was only about Jewish folk rather than the nations, so modern Christians need to stop the mistake of thinking our calling is only about humans, rather than the whole created order.

 

*Wright, N. T. (2014-06-03). Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (Kindle Locations 1364-1366). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Chopping down Louisiana’s forests to meet Europe’s energy goals

Humanity’s original vocation in Scripture (never rescinded) is to steward God’s property, the planet. As a can’t-get-enough hunter and fisher, backpacker, gardener and all around nature lover, I’ve always been interested in our world’s biomes and their health. It’s one of the reasons I did an MA in International Development.

Western Europe wants green energy. Good so far. They’ve decided wood pellets are green. They call it “biomass energy.” Problem: Western Europe doesn’t have jack for forests. So they’re getting their wood pellets from the southeast USA. 2.5 million tons in 2008, which jumped to 9 million tons in 2012. They want 20 million tons annually by 2020. That 20 million tons annually is planned to come primarily from the US and Canada.

That’s a lot of clearcutting.

And as far as following established limits, in 2008 activist Dean Wilson traced bags of cypress mulch at Walmart and Home Depot labeled “sustainably harvested” back to the Atchafalaya Basin. The Basin’s cypress swamps serve as a hurricane-absorber for the coast, and are a refuge for all manner of wildlife. Due to the past, when Big Business says cypress aren’t being cut down, environmentalists are leery to believe it again. Plus, clear –cut areas can rejuvenate, but the biome for wildlife is catastrophically altered overnight, and the hurricane-mitigating abilities are wiped out until it grows back.

One questions is, how “carbon neutral” are wood pellets when used on this kind of scale?

Well, eventually, when the trees grow back, but it’s the next 50 to 100 years environmentalists are VERY worried about in terms of carbon in the atmosphere. It’s the tipping-point effects of the carbon affecting the planet’s temperature that we are concerned about now, not when the trees are sucking carbon at the rate they are now, 60 to 80 years from now.  For example, get the Ross Ice Shelf sliding faster off the Antarctic land mass than it already is… well, if that baby hits the water in one big slide, expect sea levels to go up at least 3 meters immediately. Result? Among other things, several billion people as refugees around the world, and US Senators will lose their beachfront homes.

To a large number of  American evangelicals, many of whom expect the Second Coming any minute since President Obama won a second term and their kids listen to rock music, the whole global warming/climate change discussion is a conspiracy for communists, the UN, or the Anti-Christ (or all 3) to take over the world. As a result, they’ve opted out of any serious engagement in the climate change issue, citing that they still love nature “I like going to the lake as much as the next guy…”

But for those of us Christians concerned about environmental issues, as for the wood pellets in Europe:  Is this an example of what we want to call ‘green’?

You can read the story here:

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/16/green-energy-demandineuropemaybethreateningamericanforests.html