Friday, August 14, 2015

The All-Embracing Eucharist

After hearing some more recommendations of it, I recently (finally) started reading Alexander Schmemann's book, For the Life of the World. I'm deliberately going through it slowly to absorb as much of its depth as I can in my spiritual immaturity, but already in this first chapter these paragraphs jumped out at me. The context is Schemann's rejection of the "sacred-secular" divide that has become so ingrained in the modern world and his invitation to abide by the sacramental worldview held by the Orthodox Church.
To name a to bless God for it and in it. And in the Bible to bless God is not a "religious" or a "cultic" act, but the very way of life. God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day (that is, time), and this mans that he filled all that exists with His love and goodness, made all this "very good." So the only natural (and not "supernatural") reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and—in this act of gratitude and adoration—to know, name, and possess the world. All rational, spiritual, and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. ... The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with his eucharist, he transforms his life, the one he receives from the world, into life with God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the "matter," the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.
Men understand all this instinctively if not rationally. Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite—the last "natural sacrament" of family and friendship, of life that is more than "eating" and "drinking." To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that "something more" is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.
Man was created from the start to serve as priest, as mediator between God and creation, experiencing all as sacrament, taking the things of this world and lifting them up to God in a perpetual eucharist. This does not preclude the existence of an ordained priesthood, but they serve as examples and symbols for us, not simply as surrogates; what they do in the liturgy, man was made to do in all of life in this world. This is just one of the ways in which the church, and the liturgy that takes place within it, is meant to be a microcosm of all creation, or at least of the way it was made to be, the way it will be.

Obviously this invites parallels with the Reformation doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers", which, as this interesting paper argues, was not originally about giving all Christians the right to do anything a priest could do, but about pulling down the rigid wall of class-like separation between the two stands (standings or walks of life) within the church, namely clergy and laity. Luther rightly attacked the Catholic distinction which arguably did compromise the unity of the church, but by confining his point to matters of church governance and focusing on the role and meaning of the priesthood within the church, he played right into the the divide between "sacred" and "secular", church and world, which Schmemann opposes.

I think Schmemann would say that the basic duty of a priest, then, is not to lead or to hold authority, but to give thanks, to celebrate the eucharist by taking all that we have been given by God and raising it up to him in blessing and thanksgiving, as the host is during each liturgy. It is to this task that we are being built up a holy priesthood (1 Pet 2:5). It is not much of a stretch to say that we are saved in order to serve as priests. I look forward to absorbing more of Schmemann's wisdom.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The perils of being a Christian florist, baker, clerk, etc.

Is the legalization of same-sex marriage a threat to religious liberty? According to this article, many Christians think so, especially after the Supreme Court ruling making it legal in all 50 states. Christian caterers, bakers, photographers, florists, and clerks are refraining from serving same-sex marriages, claiming that to participate would impinge on their religious liberty. This is a step beyond previous applications of religious liberty which simply let faithful separate themselves from institutions they can't support in good conscience rather than refusing to serve others. The subsequent ridicule and persecution of these individuals (and, in some cases, businesses) for taking a stand on their beliefs is seen by many Christians as a form of persecution by an irreligious culture that we can only expect to get worse. Rachel Held Evans has written a very sobering article analyzing and critiquing this "persecution complex", which is a heart check well worth reading, even though I ultimately disagree with her support for same-sex marriage in the church.

The refusal to serve same-sex couples for the sake of "religious liberty" presupposes, of course, that abstaining from having any part in same-sex weddings is morally obligatory for Christians, even those who normally serve weddings as their job. It is to this assumption that I would like to offer a response in four parts. At least two of these I have already stated in previous posts but would like to reaffirm and clarify here. All four take the form of distinctions that I think it is important, now more than ever, for Christians to keep in mind in order to live faithfully in a culture which, undeniably, is increasingly rejecting God, or indeed any kind of transcendent power or value beyond the cause célèbre of "liberty" in all its forms.

The legal institution of marriage is not the sacrament of marriage.

As I have said, I have previously made this point, but I don't think it can be repeated too often now. In the Bible marriage is not referred to as an "institution", but as a "mystery" (Eph 5:32)—or, in the Latin which has become the basis for our English word, sacramentum. In Orthodox teaching a "sacrament", or mystery, is a particular, visible means by which we receive the grace of God to a certain end. As Fr. Thomas Hopko explains, the goal for Christians and for the Church is for all of life to become "sacramental", lived in mystical and life-giving union with God; the sacraments are simply special examples of this union; unlike the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church has never restricted the term "sacrament" to just seven rites. "In the sacrament of marriage," Hopko says, "a man and a woman are given the possibility to become one spirit and one flesh [Gen 2:24] in a way which no human love can provide by itself." Christian marriage began simply as the formal recognition or blessing of the love between a man and a woman, a union designed by God not merely for our enjoyment, but to visibly depict the unyielding, transformative, covenantal love of Christ for his bride, the Church.

My point is that this dimension of marriage has obviously always been distinct from the one recognized by the state. This was obvious in the early Church, which (in a curious reversal of the modern situation) blessed marriages that the empire was not willing to sanction, e.g. between two people of radically different social classes. Even in later centuries, when the Church was nearly coterminous with the state, the legal institution of marriage was distinct from the spiritual mystery believed to be taking place. It is becoming increasingly evident again today: though most couples still find it advantageous and desirable to have their marriage recognized in the eyes of the state, this remains, as it has always been, distinct from their sacramental union in the eyes of their church. The state can do whatever it likes with the civil institution of marriage, but it has no power whatsoever to redefine the sacrament of marriage.

Increasingly today, there is a disconnect between the character of legal and sacramental marriage as well as their nature. This article talks about how the sacramental view of marriage has largely been replaced in our culture by what the author calls a "therapeutic view" of marriage, one whose main point is the happiness, betterment, and self-fulfillment of two individuals. This is a much more pragmatic and self-oriented approach than marriage as a sacrament, one which is able to be dissolved at any time if the marriage turns out to no longer be mutually beneficial. The replacement of the sacramental view with the therapeutic one in our culture (to say nothing of our churches!) was and is a far greater threat to the "sanctity of marriage" than the legalization of same-sex marriage or even the rise of "no-fault divorce", not least because it made these things seem not only acceptable but desirable. Why is it so rarely questioned, in stark contrast to the public and ugly protests against same-sex marriage?

So I would like to state one more time that it is misleading and arguably dangerous to simply refer to marriage (whether in a civil or religious context) as an "institution", and to think, speak, and act under the assumption that what is said and legislated regarding this institution in civil or political discourse somehow affects its spiritual nature, or vice versa. The ongoing redefinition of marriage in our culture may be a strong sign that it is becoming (or has already become) post-Christian, but it is no threat at all to the sacrament that continues to be performed in American churches, and Christian activists do themselves and their brothers and sisters few favors by believing otherwise.

Tolerating sin is not condoning sin.

As I said in my virally popular post on same-sex marriage, we still have a lot to learn from Jesus in how we treat other people. (Understatement of the year?) I'll simply quote myself for a moment:
who did Jesus associate with, besides His disciples? Tax collectors (like His disciple Matthew, Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14), "sinners", (Matthew 11:19, Mark 2:15-17, Luke 15:1-2), Samaritans (John 4:4-42), and Gentiles (Matthew 15:22-28, Luke 7:1-10)—in general, the castoffs and outcasts of His society. It was the Pharisees, the "holy" men who claimed the moral high ground, for whom He reserved most of His scorn (see Matthew 23). Obviously there is much that Jesus could have condemned about the lives the people around Him were leading, yet in most cases He says nothing; He stays and eats with them and attracts them to His teaching. ... Yet Jesus does not endlessly tolerate peoples' sin or treat it like it's no big deal. The difference is in the order in which He does things.
For many American Christians (or at least the ones who make it onto the news), the prevalent attitude towards gays seems to be one of condemnation: confronting people with the truth, telling them the "bad news" of their sins so they can receive the good news of the gospel. Even when this is done out of "love" rather than unconcealed hatred or disgust (of which RHE gives some chilling examples), holding out peoples' (particular) sins in your witness, to the point of being willing to disrespect them or even to refuse to serve them in a professional capacity, is incongruous with our Lord's example. Except for the Pharisees and teachers of the law, he never used peoples' sins as a reason to treat them badly—more often as an occasion to treat them with love and grace, knowing that this would more effectively lead them to repentance. I would say more on this, but it leads very closely into the next distinction...

The church (much less an individual Christian) is not the "moral police".

To put it more clearly, the role of the Church, at least in the present time, is not to pass judgment on the world; it is instead to judge those already in the Church. St. Paul says this 1 Corinthians 5, saying pointedly in verses 12 and 13: "For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. 'Drive out the wicked person from among you.'" It is God's place to judge the world; it is ours to judge ourselves and each other (Mat 7:1-5), and to make known his gospel and salvation to the world.

I don't understand what Christians passing condemnation on homosexual behavior in the world are trying to do. Do they expect non-Christians to abide by a roughly "Christian" ethic of marriage, despite not understanding or partaking in its sacramental, grace-filled depths? Our culture has arguably lost the vocabulary and very ability to do so, having traded the Church's sacramental, covenantal understanding of marriage for language of self-fulfillment, personal liberty, individual rights, and the pursuit of happiness. We cannot expect anyone to recover this understanding without first being converted. In light of this, expecting those outside the Church to play by our rules when it comes to marriage is not helpful, and may even be counterproductive.

What I mean by this is that refusing to do something as basic as bake a cake for someone (as part of a business transaction) because of your religious beliefs makes them feel (in the words of the New York Times article) "judged and mortified" and will very likely have the effect of driving them away from having anything to do with those beliefs. Even if you consider warning people of their sin a "loving" thing to do, in such a case as this they will likely only see it as "loving" (rather than hateful) after they have been converted; until then, it may create a formidable (and unnecessary) obstacle to that conversion.

The Church reads Matthew 13:24-30, the parable of the weeds, as a warning against judging those outside for these reasons. In seeking to root out the "weeds" (sinners, enemies of the kingdom of God) in this world, we may also uproot the "wheat" (those who are or would become Christians) along with them. It is trumpeted nowhere as clearly as in evangelical Protestantism that you don't have to get "cleaned up" before coming to God in repentence, and this sentiment is very true. Why does homosexuality work any differently? Why this insistence on calling gay couples out on their sin, to the point of claiming that being required to serve them would be a violation of your religious liberty, of your rights as an American citizen?

Paul, it turns out, has much to say about the use of "rights" or "liberty", specifically in 1 Corinthians 8-10. As a faithful, Messiah-following Jew, Paul is very much aware that idols have no real existence, and that meat sacrificed to idols is just meat. He is at liberty, therefore, to eat such meat without any wrongdoing. But in 8:9 he warns, "only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." The popular perception that Christianity teaches bigotry and discrimination is definitely a stumbling block in our culture. Do we contribute to it through the exercise of our "liberty"?

In chapter 9 Paul goes on to describe his rights as an apostle, but also expresses a radical willingness to renounce these rights in order to win as many people with the gospel. (9:15-18) "For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more." (9:19) Throughout these three chapters Paul shows how he elevates the salvation over others above his concern for himself: "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. ... Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved." (10:24, 32-33) The example he thus sets is of one who is willing to lay nearly everything aside, including rights and liberties (or maybe even his own salvation; Romans 9:1-5), to win people over to the gospel. Discriminating against same-sex couples for the sake of your "religious liberty" has the opposite effect, and seems to reflect the American worldview a good deal more more than Paul's.

Elsewhere he well describes the attitude that Christians are to assume, not least of all at times such as this. (Note how the beginning of verse 16 implies that verses 14 and 15 describe the attitude Christians should hold towards those outside the Church, even those who persecute them)
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16 Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. 17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but [rather] give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance [is] Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. 20 Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [Rom 12:14-21 NKJV]
Paul did not believe that Christians should antagonize or behave callously towards those in "the world", but rather (leading by example here) that they should live uprightly and graciously, giving no occasion for criticism or scorn except for their proclamation of Jesus Christ. (cf. 1 Cor 10:32, 2 Cor 6:3) The Lord's promise that the world will hate us for his sake (Jhn 15:18-21) is by no means an invitation to seek out such hatred, or to dismiss it without self-examination when it flares up.

Doing your job for someone is not an approval of their decisions or lifestyle.

But isn't it still important to avoid participating in sin? Isn't this even more basic than winning people for Christ? Indeed it is. But is simply having anything to do with a same-sex marriage "participating in sin"? Not necessarily; in most cases it is simply doing your job. How far can this attitude be taken? Should Christians working in printing companies refuse to make invitations for same-sex weddings? Should Christians at rental companies refuse to lend them tables, chairs, or ice cream machines? Should Christians in commodities firms make sure they don't sell any precious metals or stones to jewelers who might in turn sell wedding rings to gay couples?

The more general question to be asked is this: when is it acceptable to apply your own religious beliefs to others in your capacity as a worker (as opposed to an individual, and as opposed to personally sinning)? To which I would tentatively answer: if it is your job to apply your beliefs to others. That is, if you are a spiritual leader under whose religious authority they have placed themselves. If you are a pastor or priest, if the scope of your job actually includes sanctioning and blessing the union of a couple through the sacrament of marriage, then by all means do your job properly and be discriminatory in whom you marry. You have the constitutional right to do so, and to do otherwise would be a corruption of the teaching and practice of the Church.

For the rest of us, I don't think it's appropriate to use your job to apply your beliefs to others, at least not if it means doing your job poorly or not at all (all things being equal, isn't it better for Christians to be known as good rather than bad employees?). Simply doing your job for someone doesn't mean accepting everything about how they are living or what they are doing. Again, this is not the same as abstaining from work that you regard as actually sinful. It also does not rule out sharing and living your faith as an individual, as long as it doesn't detract from your work.

Try to apply this to case of a Christian (say) baker tasked with making a cake for a same-sex wedding: you are being asked to make a cake, not to officiate at the wedding or to justify it in God's sight. So do your job and make the cake. It is not yours to call the couple out for whatever kind of sin they may be living in, but rather to search your own heart for sin, such as fear or intolerance of your neighbor. If your Christian faith comes up, by all means express (as a Christian individual) that you believe God intends for marriage to be between a man and a woman, but that (as a Christian baker) you are nonetheless happy to serve them. If your mere disapproval induces the couple to look elsewhere for a cake, then you will not be the "intolerant" or discriminatory one.

Postscript: After some more reflection, I don't think the separation I just drew between being an individual and being an employee is absolute. It is fairly straightforward if you are simply tasked with making something or performing clerical work for a wedding. If your job actually involves personally participating in a wedding (e.g. as a photographer or musician), it becomes much harder to make such a distinction, and (in my view) more justifiable to abstain from serving a same-sex wedding for conscience's sake—especially if you are already selective in the jobs you take on.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The American Worldview

In my last post I mentioned the idea of an "American worldview" that is instrumental in shaping American culture and public life. I meant to expand more on this, which I will do now.

What is a worldview?

I'll start be defining what I do and don't mean by "worldview". In evangelical circles there is a certain way of defining and thinking about worldview. The highly creative "choose your own adventure" apologetics book What's Your Worldview? by James Anderson (reviewed here) states that "[a worldview] represents your most fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the universe you inhabit ... It reflects how you would answer all the ‘big questions’ of human existence, the fundamental questions we ask about life, the universe, and everything." A worldview is to thinking as the atmosphere is to breathing: fundamental and indispensable, but hard to detect and usually taken for granted. The review further indicates that the "big questions" worldviews answer focus on such weighty topics as the nature or existence of God and truth.

This apologetics page explains in more depth what a worldview is:
Our worldviews consist of our best guesses or firm convictions in answering the universal human questions: How did everything come to be? Why are we here? What happens after we die? What’s important? A worldview is made up of the beliefs about what is real and important. It is our beliefs about the unseen – the spiritual, the philosophical, and valuable. Our worldview will determine how we interpret our lives and the world around us. It shapes how we think about everything.
It goes on to list four core areas of belief that worldviews pertain to.
  • God and the immaterial
  • The meaning and purpose of life
  • Human nature
  • What we trust is the primary source of spiritual truth [i.e. truth about what is unseen]
This paper gets into even more detail about worldviews:
Our word worldview comes from the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in 1768 coined the term as Weltanschauung (in German Welt = “world” and anschauung = “view”). As the word itself suggests, a worldview is as a way of looking at the world. Your worldview is like the eyeglasses through which you view and interpret your experiences. Other phrases that capture the idea are “mental grid,” “frame of reference,” and “shared perceptions of what is real, true, and good.” A worldview seeks to answer the Big Questions in life, such as Who am I? Where did I come from? What’s most important in life? It’s a whole mountain of assumptions of which you may or may not be aware but upon which your conclusions are based.
Some common themes are evident here: worldviews comprise our most basic and important beliefs, our answers to the "big questions" about God, truth, the purpose of life, human nature, etc. Our worldview is important because it shapes and colors how we think about and interpret everything else in our lives and the world around us. It determines our presuppositional starting point for dealing with the information, events, beliefs, and questions we face in everyday life.

While the beliefs and questions this definition of "worldview" draws our attention to are hugely important, I no longer think it fully encapsulates the concept it sets out to do. This is because it centralizes cognitive beliefs and elevates them as the only thing that truly shapes our orientation to life. The paper explicitly says that worldview is distinct from culture, and that it is possible for two people (say, in a California suburb) to share the same culture but have very different worldviews. This assumes that culture is "shallow", consisting of things like language, behaviors, customs, and social norms that don't really affect at core how we view and interact with the world, while worldview is "deep" and consists of basic beliefs that do affect it. I think this assumption doesn't give culture enough credit—to our peril. The Christian philosopher Jamie Smith, similarly critiquing such cognitivist, belief-oriented "worldview-thinking", gives the example of a shopping mall as a significant formative influence which this kind of thinking misses (his reference to the Supreme Court is almost eerily timely):
Typical worldview-thinking is not primed to recognize something like [the way going to the mall shapes and aims our desire] because it is too focused on the cognitive. If you think cultural critique is based on ideas of beliefs, and that cultural "threats" come in the form of messages and "values," then you'll have a cultural radar that is only equipped to pick up on ideas and beliefs. But the mall has never been guilty of being a think tank; one doesn't usually think of the Gap or Walmart as sites of the culture war because they don't traffic in ideas. As a result, the threat of these sites doesn't register on worldview radar; because such worldview approaches remain largely fixated on the cognitive, something like the mall drops off the radar (while an institution like the U.S. Supreme Court is unduly amplified). But all the while the ritual practices of the mall are grabbing hold of hearts and capturing imaginations, shaping our love and desire, and actually forming us in powerful, fundamental ways. If our cultural critique remains captivated by a cognitivist anthropology, then we'll fail to even see the role of practices. This constitutes a massive blind spot in much of the Christian cultural critique that takes place under the banner of worldview-thinking. (Desiring the Kingdom 84–85)
The British theologian N.T. Wright, especially in his towering magisterial series Christian Origins and the Question of God, gives and utilizes what I consider a much more comprehensive and thus workable definition of a worldview. He begins his definition by saying:
Worldviews have to do with the presuppositional, pre-cognitive stage of a culture or society. Wherever we find the ultimate concerns of human beings, we find worldviews. From that point of view, as the echo of Paul Tillich in the phrase 'ultimate concern' will indicate, they are profoundly theological, whether or not they contain what in modern Western thought would be regarded as an explicit or worked-out view of a God-figure. 'Worldview', in fact, embraces all deep-level human perceptions of reality, including the question of whether or not a god or gods exist, and if so what he, she, it, or they is or are like, and how such a being, or such beings, might relate to the world, Though the metaphor of sight can over-dominate (worldview), the following analysis should make it clear that worldviews, in the sense I intend, include many dimensions of human existence other than simply theory. [i.e. the Greek theoreo, to see, discern, consider] (The New Testament and the People of God, 122–123)
This description has some parallels with the ones above, but also some clear differences: Wright explicitly argues worldviews are pre-cognitive (i.e. not consisting basically of cognitive beliefs), associates them with culture and society, connects them with the "ultimate concerns" of human beings (leaving room for desires and imagination, as Jamie Smith champions), and refuses to limit them to matters of theory. Elsewhere Wright clarifies, as above, that worldviews are like lenses through which you view the world: you rarely look at them or consider them consciously, except perhaps when they are violated or challenged; you more typically look through them at everything else. Or they are like the foundation of a house: normally out of sight and mind, but essential for supporting everything that comes after.

Worldviews, according to Wright, typically involve four things:
  1. The stories through which human beings view reality; the overarching narrative, and perhaps one or more sub-narratives, in which people locate themselves to make sense of their context. "Narrative is the most characteristic expression of worldview, going deeper than the isolated observation or fragmented remark." (NTPG 123)
  2. Answers to the basic questions of human existence and meaning, derived from the stories; element corresponds to the entire definition of worldview given by the earlier sources. These questions are basic ones like "Who are we?", "Where are we?", "What time is it?" (i.e. in the stories), "What is wrong?", and "What is the solution?". "All cultures ... have a sense of identity, of environment, of a problem with the way the world is, and of a way forward ... which will, or may, lead out of that problem."
  3. These stories and the answers they provide to the basic questions are expressed in cultural symbols. Wright explains that these symbols can be either artifacts or events. Applying this model to second-temple Judaism, he names things like Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Passover as such symbols. These symbols "can often be identified when challenging them produces anger or fear." (NTPG 124) and can function as social or cultural boundary markers; those who observe them are "insiders" to a culture, those who do not are "outsiders". Symbols serve as acted and visible reminders of a worldview that is otherwise largely invisible.
  4. Finally, worldviews include a praxis, a "way-of-being-in-the-world." The answer to the last question "what is the solution?" implies the need for action of some kind. "Conversely, the real shape of someone's worldview can often be seen in the sort of actions they perform, particularly if the actions are so instinctive or habitual as to be taken for granted."
Again, worldviews are like lenses through which people see the world, or like the foundations of a house: vital, but invisible. They are not usually called into conscious thought unless significantly challenged, but they can be discussed and reflected on if necessary; this is what makes conversion possible. More often, worldviews come into view through the basic beliefs (about what is) and aims (about what should be done) that they generate.

Thus, in Wright's (and my) view, worldviews are not so much what we today think of as "belief systems": theism, atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, and so on, nor are they epistemologies, though they probably include and assume these things. They are more comprehensive than either of these, much closer to what we would consider a "culture" with its common stories, symbols, and practice, and it makes sense to talk about them as belonging to societies (or in today's pluralistic world, subcultures within societies) as to individuals.

So, if it is possible to speak of worldviews as belonging to cultures and societies, it seems likely that the United States itself has a worldview, as I argued last time. Let's stop and try to see what this worldview is like using Wright's rubric.

Describing the American worldview

In what follows I will try to outline what I think the "American worldview" might look like. My answers will certainly be incomplete; you might be able to give some more examples.

The overarching American narrative, the one we locate ourselves in and see as having continued since our nation's earliest days, is the escape from tyranny and oppression (economic, political, religious) to justice and liberty, from absolute monarchy to democratic rule by the people, for the people. This mission was decisively accomplished by our gaining independence from Britain, but also continues to this day as we continue to work our America's founding principles and secure more and more rights for more and more people. This gives rise to subnarratives, like the women's suffrage and civil rights movements, which we look back on positively as having advanced the causes of liberty, equality, and individual rights which arguably serve as the end goals or ultimate "good" of the American narrative. Our story is one of struggle and victory over forces both internal and external that threaten to impinge on these causes.


  • Who are we? We are rational human beings endowed by our creator with dignity, equality and certain intrinsic rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Where are we? The land of the free and the home of the brave, a beautiful land which we have claimed for democracy at great cost. More recently, it is also the world's largest economy, the most powerful global superpower, and a standard-bearer of sorts for the cause of freedom.
  • What is wrong? People (or certain subgroups of people) are still not as free as they should be; depending on your political affiliation, this may be because of poverty, capitalism, crime, discrimination, illegal immigration, or oppressive government policy, and different rights may be at stake.
  • What is the solution? Democratic or social change; mobilizing the people to claim their rights, just as the colonists did. 
  • What time is it? This question doesn't have a very clear or strong answer; the most accurate one might simply be "now". There is no expected future culmination of America's history, except perhaps the spectre of dystopia, a hypothetical negative future to be avoided at all costs by doing/not doing ____.

Some obvious American symbols would be artifacts like the flag, our founding documents, monuments like the Statue of Liberty, or buildings around our capital, irrespective of the people in them. Events like the Pledge of Allegiance and holidays like Veterans' Day, Memorial Day, and (of course) especially Independence Day would also be up there. while giving examples of symbols, Wright also mentions that monuments to economic success (e.g. skyscrapers) and veterans (represented by Veterans'/Memorial Day) might count. The key to seeing if something is a symbol of the American worldview is whether disrespecting it (whatever form that takes) is seen as "un-American", or even suspicious/threatening.

Some of the symbols mentioned above (such as the Pledge of Allegiance, or still more the national anthem) are participatory symbols which probably fit into praxis as well. More generally, though, civic engagement and active participation in democracy are seen as ways to secure liberties. As well, some are called into military service (which is seen very favorably) ostensibly to secure those liberties. More prominent than either of these in everyday life and based on the popular idea that America is already the "freest nation in the world", though, American praxis is oriented towards something referred to as the "American dream". This consists roughly in living a comfortable, happy, life, provided for by the well-oiled consumerist/capitalist machine, enjoying your liberties without trampling on anyone else's; what you do with your freedom, resources, and time at this point is up to the individual. One could sum up the American worldview by saying that its highest goal is freedom and equality for freedom and equality's sake.

Which is what I meant last time by "ateleological". There is in this worldview little sense of what you "should" do with your freedom once it is secured; such a thing would be antithetical to the very idea of freedom. There is no common higher goal or end (telos) toward which we are to strive; individual freedom, the pursuit of happiness, and self-determination, secured by individual rights, constitute the highest goal, which in turn make it possible for each individual to determine his or her own telos and pursue it. In this regard, the American worldview is profoundly at odds with Christianity, which is strongly, unashamedly teleological in its vision for human flourishing: "whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Cor 10:31)

Within this worldview, the legalization of same-sex marriage makes perfect sense. A group of people was formerly marginalized and denied equal rights; it made its desire for equality known and, through years of struggle, received it in accordance with the American ideal of freedom. It's almost the Revolution in microcosm. There is nothing in the American worldview inconsistent with "marriage equality" because within it there is no room, no vocabulary to even express, the idea of divine will as a reason to do or not to do something. Maybe there was when the population was substantially Christian with a large shared moral foundation, but this foundation has largely eroded, and continues to do so in the increasingly pluralistic present. This response to the Supreme Court ruling is fantastic and worth reading in full; at one point the author says, "I've long said that if the only argument against same-sex marriage is that God disapproves, then it not only ought, but must be allowed in the United States."

So if we are so concerned with God's disapproval of homosexuality, let's at least be aware of the worldview of individual libertarian freedom and self-determination that has led to its widespread acceptance. As I said last time, this worldview is too fundamental to be resisted through the political, polemical processes that seem to come so naturally to conservatives. Rather, we can resist it the way the early Christians resisted the prevailing worldview of their own parent culture, namely by living a different one, one shaped (as Wright is eager to explain) around the "gospel" of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. That so many churches view American freedom strictly as a positive thing, as entailing freedom to worship without persecution, and see no need to do as the early Christians did, is worrying.

How does the church become the alternative to the "American gospel" (drawing another parallel between the claims of country and of Christ)? Not embracing its language of equality and individual freedom as unqualified, "Christian" goods is a start, as is holding to Christian ethical teaching even if it is derided as unpopular or unequal. (But not seeking to impose it on those outside the church) Better still to examine oneself and one's church and look for how American values like individualism, self-determination, and directionless "liberty" have crept in. Or to look at how terms like "freedom", "equality", and even "rights" (ideas about which the Bible does have things to say) are defined and used in contrasting ways in American discourse and Christian teaching. I need to do this as much as anyone; I'm not even close to figuring out the answers to the questions I'm raising here, or even to adequately describing the American worldview.

Maybe the first step is simply to realize how comprehensive and pervasive worldviews are, and to look at how the worldviews of church and culture contrast. I would love to join (or start) a conversation on this subject.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The sanctity of marriage and the American worldview

AP photo.
Well, America, there you have it. This morning the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, and that same-sex couples in all 50 states should be allowed to marry. Supporters of "traditional marriage" (a term with dangerous connotations) have lost the "culture war". Depending on who you're listening to, this is either a huge advance in justice, equality, and the American Way, or a decisive lurch toward moral dissipation and religious persecution of all who do not embrace the new regime of "marriage equality".

I try not to listen too closely to either of these opinions.

I still stand by most of what I said in my surprisingly popular post on same-sex marriage. I still believe God designed marriage as a gift for mankind to be enjoyed by a man and his wife; I still fail to see how this inexorably leads to fighting against the right of same-sex couples to legally wed, let alone to denouncing them as sinners who need to repent of their idolatry. I still think people who adopt these stances are very often being selective in how they stand for their Christian convictions in a way that does their living witness few favors. I still think Christ set an example as radical in his day as it is today in how we, his followers, are to humbly love all people. (Because public opinion is decisively in their favor, I no longer think gay couples can be described as "the tax collectors of our day", but the Lord's example still stands)

As the relative sparseness of my recent posts shows, I am reluctant to assume that my thoughts on a given topic are particularly wise or worth listening to. But considering the magnitude of the Supreme Court's decision, I think this is a good time to restate with more clarity some things which I am reasonably sure about. Since my previous posts on same-sex marriage went up before I started my journey to Orthodoxy, this will also be an interesting look (mainly for me) at how my approach to social issue like this has shifted.

The "sanctity of marriage"

If you are one of the conservative Christians wringing their hands over the decision and the collapse of the "sanctity of marriage" that it heralds, I would like to point a few things out. We live in a nation where 50% of marriages end in divorce (relatively easy, legalized divorce, at that), where many people elect not to marry at all and simply cohabit or have hookups to get the pleasurable part of marriage with none of the commitment, where marriages are marred by desertion, adultery, even spousal abuse. All this to say that if you are hoping to save the "sanctity of marriage" in American culture, you are far, far too late. (And I do think it is culture, not legislation or court decisions, that is the fundamental issue; no one ever passed a law to make the hookup culture possible, and the real problem is not that same-sex marriage is now legally a constitutional right, but that so many people already considered it to be one) Out of all of these problems, some of which are much more clearly condemned in Scripture, why have you made same-sex marriage your hill to die upon? (I could also ask: why do you not equally protest legalized same-sex marriage in other countries, if gay couples getting married anywhere apparently threatens the sanctity of marriage?)

As a recently-married man(!), I am happy to report that the sanctity of my own marriage has not been affected in the slightest by the legal state of affairs in the United States, or in any other country. The real threat to the "sanctity" of my marriage is not the efforts of third parties to redefine it in the eyes of the state, but my and my wife's own sin, our selfishness, our weakness, all the ways that we fail to truly represent the love between Christ and the Church. The Lord taught us to remove the log from our own eye before trying to take out the speck from our neighbor's eye (Mat 7:3-5), a point well made now as ever. Since taking interest in the Orthodox Church over a year ago, I have found it consistently does a better job of teaching and applying this kind of humility, to an almost radical degree, than most western churches. What right have we to condemn the damage we perceive others to be doing to marriage if our own marriage is full of sin?

As I said in my previous post, I think it's misleading to talk about the present conflict as being over the "definition of marriage". Why must the Church and the state have identical definitions of marriage, when their definitions of so many other things (not least who is a "Christian" and what is a "church") are allowed to differ radically? Talk of marriage as an "institution" adds to this confusion of terms. In classical Christianity, marriage is much more consistently considered a sacrament—a way in which God imparts grace to his people. If it is to be an institution, it is certainly no legal institution; Christians have been supporting a different ethic of marriage since before Constantine, when people of different social classes would be united in marriages that could not be recognized by the government. (An ironic reversal of the modern situation) America's historic profession of "traditional marriage" is an artifact of the Judeo-Christian ethic of its founders, not an article of the faith. This ruling is a radical redefinition of the legal institution of marriage, but it does nothing to alter the Christian sacrament of marriage. (This author puts it better than I can)

Keeping faith out of politics?

I'd like to turn now to one of the arguments I hear in support of the ruling: that Christians shouldn't oppose it because that would be bringing their faith into politics, which would be a violation of the "separation of church and state". (It goes something like that) As you have no doubt heard, this phrase, so often cited as a summary of the First Amendment (or at least the part of it pertaining to religious freedom), does not actually appear in it. The actual text reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
Obviously, this amendment pertains only to Congress; it says nothing about whether or how individual Christians, or members of any other faith, are to carry their faith into political engagement. (Does this also mean the president or Supreme Court can issue executive orders/rulings "respecting an establishment of religion"?) If there is a general rule stating that Christians should keep their faith out of politics, it will have to be found elsewhere.

But what if the problem is not the mixing of religion and politics, but the unwise mixing of religion and politics?

I said earlier that I stand by most of what I wrote in my earlier post. I say this because I no longer agree that "Jesus' concern [in ministry] was not political in nature, changing the conditions of the kingdoms of this world, it was incarnating a completely different kingdom that is not of this world at all, with any ensuing political change merely a side effect of the coming of the Kingdom of God." I now consider it much more accurate to say that Jesus' ministry was political, strongly so at times—just not in the ways people expected.

The truth is that the modern dichotomy between religion and politics (and, arguably, the ability to imagine "religion" as a discrete part of life separable from everything else) is a new invention, dating back to the Enlightenment and no earlier. It will do us no good to try to apply it to Jesus. In the first century, what we would call "religion" and "politics" were virtually inseparable, especially for the Jewish people, for whom there was little difference between "religious" and "political" parties. The Jews' definition of "salvation" entailed the forgiveness and vindication of Israel, the defeat of the Gentile nations that oppressed her, and the exaltation of the Lord as the actual ruler over the whole world. This would, of course, have earth-shattering political consequences.

In the opposite corner, the Roman empire had a worldview of its own which, if possible, combined "religion" and "politics" to an even greater degree: the emperor was divine, the son of god, savior of the world, the bringer of "peace and safety", and worthy of reverence, if not a god worthy of worship in his own right. To live as a loyal subject of the emperor was to pay him the proper respects; even the Jews merely managed to work out a deal where they would pray to their god for the emperor, rather than to him as everyone else increasingly did.

It is often assumed that Christ came bearing an unexpectedly apolitical answer to the hopes and prayers of Israel: instead of salvation from the Romans, salvation from sin and death; rather than the rulership of Jesus over an earthly kingdom, his spiritual headship over the Church. As the Lord said, "my kingship is not of this world." (Jhn 18:36) This is only partially true. Once you understand the worldview implicit in the Roman empire and the rising tide of emperor-worship, you begin to see all the ways that the New Testament writers (especially Paul) proclaim the Christian gospel in such a way as to contrast with the imperial "gospel". "Jesus is Lord"; by implication, Caesar is not. Jesus is the savior of the world, not Augustus. He is the ruler over all, whose coming we are to faithfully await; he is truly the Son of God; he is the one who will set the world to rights. He is the "real deal", the true Lord of which the emperor with all his pompous claims and titles is only an imitation. In the Christian gospel, all the promises of the empire were revealed to be false and Christ the one who could truly fulfill them.

In other words, the gospel, as the early Church understood it, was political in that it made "political" claims in competition with those of the empire. Yet this did not mean confronting Rome head on, with its own tactics, as if Jesus had tried to set himself up as a rival emperor in the east hundreds of years before the division of the Roman empire into east and west. Jesus triumphed over the powers and authorities of this world not by political or military victories (as the Jews expected), but primarily by dying and rising from the dead (cf. Col 2:15), demonstrating his lordship over death and all creation. Against the Roman "gospel" and the imperial worldview surrounding it, the early Christians fielded a different gospel, the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, with a different way of living, different answers to the questions to which the emperor claimed to be the solution, and a different narrative in which to locate themselves.

Confronting the powers

What I am suggesting is that American Christians today need to do the same with our country. Just as Rome offered its people a ready-made worldview by which to order their lives, I suspect that there is such a thing as an "American worldview". What is the narrative in which our American culture encourages us to find ourselves? What answers does the American way of life offer to the human condition? I am probably not the person to answer this question in full, but a few quotes from documents that have shaped our nation should be demonstrative. From the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The preamble of the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
And from Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that helped pave the way for today's:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. 
These help to sharpen the suspicions I already had: the American "worldview", though hard to define precisely, places a high priority on individual rights such as life, equality, personal liberty, and the "pursuit of happiness" (whatever that entails), and sees it as the purpose of government to secure these rights. In a more postmodern twist, this liberty entails the right to self-determination, the ability wherever possible to define the course and meaning of one's existence without hindrance. In light of these values, consider a few quotes from Justice Kennedy's ruling today:
From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations. 
The fundamental liberties protected by [the 14th Amendment] include most of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. See Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 147–149 (1968). In addition these liberties extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs. 
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
Kennedy easily applies the rights to personal liberty and self-determination to marriage: if the right to marriage is so important, so essential to a meaningful, fulfilled, "dignified" life, then of course it is unconstitutional to deprive anyone of it without due process of law. However much conservatives may decry same-sex marriage, it's hard to argue that it runs against the spirit of the Constitution.

Maybe what we, as Christians, need to be critiquing is not individual hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, but the hypertolerant, individualistic, libertarian-self-determination worldview on which this nation is founded, which gave rise to this ruling and others that Christians have rightly decried. True justice, true freedom, and true meaning are found in Jesus Christ, not the American way. The early Christians refused to bow before effigies of the emperor; do we today refuse to bow before America's functional "savior", the ateleological sanctity of individual rights and self-determination? Do we glimpse even a fraction of the ways in which our citizenship in the kingdom of God pushes up against our American citizenship, or worse, do we consider the two somehow complementary, as if patriotism is really next to godliness? Obviously the way to oppose such intangible ideals is not by antagonistic protesting or pushing for such-and-such legislation. Rather, it is to live differently, as the body of Christ, the embodiment of a worldview centered around the death and resurrection of the Messiah—much as the early Church did.

Rather than a defeat, this ruling can be an opportunity for Christians to reevaluate and seek to embody to the world a more balanced vision of "God's plan for marriage"—to be known not primarily for what we are against (let alone for being sticks-in-the-mud on a few particular issues). The Christian model of marriage is not simply bigotry, but something far greater and more beautiful, of which the insistence on "traditional marriage" is only a corollary. Through marriage we are called to live out the self-sacrificial, transformative love between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:22-33), which even today has the potential to be a tremendously compelling witness for the faith. In the absence of a deeper closing statement, I think St. Paul's words are apt concluding instructions: "Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. ... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom 12:17,18,21)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Our Common Home

If you haven't been living under a rock, you have no doubt heard that Pope Francis has finally released his encyclical on the environment, entitled Laudato Si' after its first two words. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to read it, or if its considerable length is too daunting, one of the stories summarizing it. It is a truly remarkable treatise on the modern human condition  worthy of being read and noted by everyone. I will only comment on it here briefly, since I have very little to add to Francis' challenge.

The beginning of the encyclical (paragraphs 1-2) quote the pope's namesake in the course of laying out his vision:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
He further uses Saint Francis' love for, openness to, and communion with God's creation as model for all Christians, recognizing that is both the gift of a benevolent Creator and a "book" by which we can know something of him. (10-12) He states his call thus:
The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. ... I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. (13-14)
He then wastes little time in the problems he is calling to attention. It is somewhat regrettable that Laudato Si' is so often referred to as the "climate encyclical". As promised and hoped, Francis does address the matter of climate change head-on, coming down solidly on the side of the scientific consensus (23-26):
The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes. Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity.... If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas.
Is evident in this section, Francis is surprisingly literate in discussing the mechanics of this and other problems he highlights; it must be remembered (especially by politicians who seem to have forgotten) that the pope is himself a scientist, with a degree in chemistry. Just as strongly, he addresses the undeniable human consequences of climate change.
Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation.
Yet the climate is just one of the many issues Francis calls us to respond to. He also discusses pollution (20), industrial waste (21), the western throwaway culture (22), water scarcity (28) and quality (29), and the loss of biodiversity (32-42). And after all this, he moves on to issues that are more sociological than ecological, echoing his conviction that humans are indivisibly connected with the rest of the creation (240): urbanization (44), societal breakdown (46), harmful effects of technology and media (47), and socioeconomic inequality (48-52). The scope of Francis' vision for human (or creational) flourishing, the depth of his compassion for humanity and nature, is breathtaking, as expressed in one of his concluding sentences:
it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. (224)
In the face of all these problems, so often I turn away from most of them and focus on a few pet issues like climate change or recycling, if that. Francis' conviction shows me that this is due to the smallness of my heart; I simply can't bear to think in such length about the modern human condition, though I wish I could. Simply stopping manmade climate change is not nearly enough; this document reads like a blueprint for a truly Christian, truly human(e) way of being in the world. No one is fully equal to the task which he describes. This encyclical is not, I think, meant to be read by us as individuals, but as citizens, employees, members and supporters of movements and organizations that can tackle the big challenges, and, for some, as members of the body of Christ who are the real recipients of God's command to be stewards of his creation. To this end, in chapter two of the encyclical Francis compellingly lays out the Christian foundation for creation care, doing so much better than I did in my previous post on the climate.

Part of me is quite happy that Laudato Si' is getting as much publicity as it is, even if it arrives with much more fanfare than Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew's letter published years ago (in paragraphs 7-8 Francis favorably recognizes the prior contributions of Bartholomew, whose response to the present encyclical is also well worth reading, as is his joint response with the Archbishop of Canterbury). I hope that it will help to direct both public opinion and public policy towards courses of action that will bring about the kind of flourishing and harmony with the creation that he envisions. Yet it is hard not to finish reading it without feeling sobered at all the ways we harm ourselves and exploit the world around us, and what will be involved in shifting our present course.

Returning to the subject of the climate (maybe for the above reasons?), I appreciate how Francis is using his considerable moral authority to increase the pressure on climate change deniers. I could already tell you that it is immoral to reject humility, the basic facts, and public opinion in claiming without foundation that you know better about the climate than the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. But Francis also highlights our moral responsibility to live in harmony with (rather than selfishly exploit) the rest of the created world, and the human consequences of climate change, which will disproportionately fall on the poor and vulnerable who had a relatively small role in causing the rising sea levels, scorching droughts, or food chain collapses that made them into refugees. In other words, environmentalism is not just about self-preservation; it is about social justice and living as created beings worshipping our Creator. Climate change denial is not only blind (does anyone else appreciate the irony that religious leaders now seem to be more scientifically literate than a good deal of civil leaders?); it is callous for refusing to see and take responsibility for the consequences of our contributions to the problem at hand. As this excellent response from BioLogos says, Laudato Si' "makes a moral call for action based on the fundamental premises of the Christian faith – premises so fundamental that we can all, and must all, agree."

In summary: read Pope Francis' encyclical, or at least an executive summary of it. Recommend it to your friends and loved ones. The vision if offers, of a way through the ecological, technological, and sociological problems besetting modern-day humanity, is motivated by a compassionate heart that compels attention, if not partnership, not just from all Christians, but from all people. His seamless connection of this heart with the Christian faith and gospel is one of the best examples of evangelism I have seen in this day and age. For all the differences between my faith tradition and the pope's, I stand in complete agreement with him on the subject matter of this encyclical, and I hope that it finds traction in the hearts, minds, and lives of many.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Climate change: How we know it is real and what we can do about it

As the 2016 presidential election becomes harder to ignore, I realized to my surprise that so far I have been silent on an issue that is incredibly important to me and much more controversial than it should be. The time has come for me to firmly plant my flag concerning the reality of climate change.

The fact of the matter is that the Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate, most of this warming is due to human activity, it is already having an increasingly negative effect on biodiversity and our ability to thrive, and it will have catastrophic consequences if we do not take action soon to reduce our production of greenhouse gases.

The science

The scientific basis for global warming is well-understood, based on physical principles that are beyond questioning, and supported by observation. The greenhouse effect, the process by which atmospheric gases (primarily water vapor and carbon dioxide, but also methane and others) absorb and trap heat radiated by the earth, is entirely uncontroversial, supported by basic science and observation of the Earth as well as other worlds (especially Venus, where it is responsible for the lead-melting temperatures). Thus, as the concentrations of "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere increases, we should expect them to retain more heat, producing a net atmospheric warming effect.

And this is exactly what we observe. Recent measurements show that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is steadily increasing. (The red line is the raw measurements, the black line is after correction for seasonal variation)
Over a somewhat longer timescale, we see that it might actually be exponentially increasing.
Lately, the growth rate of CO2 concentration has been about 2 ppm (parts per million) per year, or about 15 billion tons per year.
There is abundant evidence that this change in atmospheric carbon is anthropogenic (manmade). Human emissions of CO2 per year (see page 45 of that publication) are about 30 billion tons per year. This means that rather than producing a net emission of CO2, nature is in fact absorbing about half of the CO2 we emit. Additionally, atmospheric oxygen levels are steadily decreasing, which is just what we'd expect if the excess CO2 is being produced by burning carbon (i.e. fossil fuels) rather than by being released from a natural reservoir.
Over a longer timescale, this plot shows the correlation between the current rise in atmospheric carbon and human industrialization, beginning in the 19th century. By far the most obvious conclusion is that atmospheric carbon levels are increasing because we're putting it there by the burning of carbon-based energy sources.
One more plot shows the range of natural variation of atmospheric CO2 levels over a much longer timescale, and the relative magnitude and suddenness of the recent increase. Yes, carbon levels have changed in the past, but the present increase is virtually unprecedented in both its size and rapidness—150 years is the blink of an eye in geologic terms, and in that time we have already matched the increase in carbon over the past 11,000 years since the last ice age. Recently, atmospheric carbon reached 400 ppm—its highest level in the last three million years.
If the greenhouse effect works, this increase in atmospheric carbon should produce an increase in global temperatures. And it does. This plot shows five independent data sets of global surface or lower atmosphere temperature over the past 35 years. The second, smoother graph shows the data after removing the effects of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, solar variability, and volcanic emissions (several of the common natural explanations given for global warming). After filtering out these natural variables, a clear trend toward warmer temperatures remains.
This change in observed global temperatures can be correlated with a number of other variables, some of the most obvious of which are depicted below: receding glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels and temperatures, changes in the migration and habitation of plant and animal species, and increasing humidity. Independently measuring and correlating all of these indicators considerably strengthens the case for a warming planet. And besides scientific measurements, the effects of global warming are already being felt around the world: increased flooding in coastal cities, record-breakingly hot months/summers/years/decades, and (in the past few years) the devastating drought in California. The effects of climate change are felt perhaps nowhere as strongly as in Pacific island nations like Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and the Maldives whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels.
Again, this warming trend can be traced back to the previously mentioned manmade increase in atmospheric carbon levels by a variety of means. The independence with which these indicators can be measured and correlated with each other makes the case for anthropogenic climate change much stronger than it would be if it were based on only one variable.

The danger

You may be asking, "so what?" Carbon levels and global temperatures have fluctuated widely in the past (as previously mentioned, our current level of atmospheric carbon was last reached 3 million years ago), so how do we know that the era of global warming will actually be worse rather than just different? Well, as also previously mentioned, the difference between manmade climate change and natural climate change is one of both scale and rate. An optimistic estimate of 2° C of warming will push global surface temperatures to a level not seen since the last time we had this much carbon in the atmosphere, the Pliocene era three million years ago. And if we keep producing carbon at anything like our current rate, this number will likely be higher. Most species alive today didn't even exist tens of millions of years ago when things were last this hot, so we can't expect them to be able to adapt.

Even more significant is the fact that while climate changes naturally over the course of thousands or tens of thousands of years (during which greenhouse gas emission and absorption remain roughly balanced at all times), manmade climate change is operative over just a few hundred years—orders of magnitude faster than the natural rate. Past instances in which atmospheric carbon levels and global temperatures changed suddenly and in an imbalanced way (as they are doing today), due to large igneous provinces or other causes, almost always resulted in mass extinction events—and it is very likely that our actions are sending the Earth into another one, as they are producing the same symptoms by the same means. The stress we have placed on species and ecosystems through other means like pollution, habitat loss, overhunting/fishing, and the introduction of invasive species makes it even harder for them to adapt to manmade climate change as they have to natural climate shifts in the past. This article explains these difficulties in more depth.

While warming temperatures may bring some positive effects, like improved agriculture and vegetation activity at higher latitudes and an ice-free Northwest Passage, the negative effects are expected to be far greater. These include unhappy things like decreased water supply and desertification (as in California), increased danger of heat stress, the growth of oxygen-poor zones in the ocean, extinction of numerous vulnerable species and the loss of biodiversity, and the displacement of hundreds of millions due to sea level rise. All of these things will carry catastrophic economic consequences for developing and developed nations alike. Still more troubling are effects like decline in global phytoplankton and the leakage of methane from formerly frozen areas that will create positive feedback, further intensifying the warming of our planet. In theory, if the planet warms enough to push the water vapor concentration in the atmosphere to a sufficient level, the feedback could become into a self-sustaining loop that would turn the Earth into a second Venus (though we would likely already be doomed well before it got to this point).

The consensus

The scientific consensus on climate change is clear and unequivocal. A survey of peer-reviewed climate science papers found that 97% of the papers expressing a position explicitly affirm that anthropogenic climate change is real. If this figure seems surprisingly low, keep in mind that the 3% includes implicit (rather than explicit) endorsements, implicit rejections, and no opinions. Another, similar survey which only counted explicit rejections of anthropogenic climate change found that 24 out of 13,950 articles reject global warming—just 0.17%. This consensus is even stronger (at least 98% explicitly affirming) in more recent papers.

In light of all this, it saddens me to see so many of our nation's leaders (and the people who voted for them) willfully ignore the scientific consensus in favor of their own fantasies about climate change: that it is not happening, that is it is not a problem, that it is not caused by us, that there is no consensus, or that there is no need for them to take action because "I'm not a scientist" (and, apparently, not willing to trust them either). Certainly the media, in its well-intentioned dedication to balance, is partly responsible for enabling this ignorance: it creates the illusion that climate change is a two-sided issue under discussion rather than a matter of scientific fact. But really there is no "debate" or "conversation" regarding the reality of climate change; there is only an overwhelming consensus and those who (all too often for political or ideological reasons) refuse to accept it.

As an analogy, consider the fact that due to tidal acceleration, the Moon is moving away from the Earth at a rate of about 3.8 cm/year. This trend is not immediately or intuitively obvious to an observer, but it is well explained by basic physical principles and verifiable by multiple methods: studying ancient observations of eclipses to establish the Moon's position in the past, gravitational data from satellite laser ranging, and simply bouncing light pulses off the retroreflectors left by the Apollo astronauts and measuring the return delay. Scientists are just as certain that anthropogenic climate change is happening as they are that the Moon is drifting away from the Earth. I have never heard anyone express doubt about the latter. Why is the former any different—because of its implications for how we live? Our own desires, interests, and preferences cannot change the truth of what we are doing to the climate.

The theology

My knowledge of the fragility and beauty of the Earth and our dependence on it, as well as my own experiences in nature, would be sufficient to instill in me a deep and abiding concern for environmental issues, especially anthropogenic global warming, dangerous as it is. But as a Christian, I have another, even stronger foundation for environmental concern and action.

In Genesis 1 God creates the heavens and the Earth (v. 1) and all the life on the Earth, declaring everything that he had made "very good" (v. 31). He also creates mankind in his image, to fill the Earth and subdue it and have dominion over nature. (v. 28) Does this mandate give us license to do as we please with the environment? No, for it must be considered along with the innate goodness of created nature and our role as God-appointed regents over it. If the creation is really good, and not "fallen"/evil or simply morally neutral raw material for our own designs, then by harming it we are harming God's handiwork. The image of God in man is not the only reason for human worth and dignity; simply being created at all conveys great worth and value. The mandate uses militaristic language ("subdue", "have dominion over") because of the present, frustrated state of the creation (cf. Rom 8:19-23), but this dominion always has as its intent wise, beneficent rule and redemption as God himself works, never exploitation or destruction.

The Psalms contain abundant examples of the value of creation as it reveals the glory of God. In Psalm 19 "the heavens are telling the glory of God" to the ends of the earth and the sun "like a strong man runs its course with joy". Psalm 33 praises God (through the Psalmist's ancient understanding of the cosmos) as the creator and ruler of the heavens, the earth, and the sea. Psalm 104 goes into considerably more detail, poetically describing the act of creation as well as God's ongoing governance of the created order, providing food for man and the animals; even the cycle of life and death is the occasion for praise. Psalms like these express what I have heard described as a sacramental view of nature which Fr. Stephen Freeman describes as the opposite of modern secularism, the reckoning of all the workings of the cosmos as a ceaseless act and a voiceless hymn of worship to their maker.

As an Orthodox Christian-to-be, I am happy to be part of a church which faithfully preserves and teaches this understanding of the cosmos. It is truly the basis for robust, authentic Christian environmentalism. As proof of this, one need look no further than the current ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew. Like Pope Francis, he is deeply concerned about the human impact on the environment; unlike Pope Francis, he has already published a strongly-worded and very wise encyclical which expresses a theological basis for caring for the creation much better than I can (and takes a strong stance on climate change, much like the one the Vatican is expected to take). Even if you haven't been reading all the links I've been posting thus far, take just a few minutes and read it

One other way Christian teaching can contribute to the conversation on climate change is in its abiding concern for the poor. It is an unhappy fact of global warming that the nations most affected by it tend to be poor and developing (as well as very low in carbon emissions), while the nations least affected are predominately the wealthy nations responsible for causing it in the first place. It is a textbook negative externality on a global scale, a terrible injustice. Prominent among the Christian's reasons for environmental concern should be the awareness of the possible unjust effects of his/her actions on the poor who stand to lose the most to climate change—their crops, their livelihoods, even their homes and their lives.

In light of all this, arguments fielded by Christians in opposition to environmentalism are revealed for the falsehoods they are. Since they seem to exist solely among laypeople and not among scientists or theologians, I will not attempt to state them in a clearer, better-supported form as I usually do. These are not carefully-considered theological responses with any kind of historical pedigree or arrived at after careful reflection; they are from-the-hip answers that use Christian-esque ideas to justify a false position arrived at due to other factors.

First, I have heard it argued that God, as creator, is sovereign over nature, and that man doesn't have the power to change it or thwart his plans. My first response is that this is simply factually false. Man evidently does have the power to cause global-scale environmental changes because we are doing so and have already done so. This is simply undeniable, supported by reliable, repeatable observations; for instance, as shown above, we have demonstrably increased the carbon concentration of the atmosphere by about a third. Theological arguments can't falsify a scientific theory; only a scientific argument can. As Mark Noll explains in relation to young-Earth creationism in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, authentic Christian thinking requires listening to both "books" of God's revelation: Scripture and creation, not using your interpretation of one to contradict what we can know through the other. To do so is, ironically, to deny God as creator in order to confess him as sustainer of the creation.

Further, we know that God created us in his image as free, responsible beings with real moral agency and the ability to make real moral choices. This is implicit in all of the Bible's ethical commands, which wouldn't make sense otherwise, and has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Sidestepping discussions of the exact nature or extent of this freedom, God's sovereignty obviously doesn't mean that he defends the integrity of his image in man by intervening to stop us from wronging or killing each other. Why then should we expect him to prevent us from sinning against the environment? There is no biblical support for such an idea, and plenty for the kind of Christian environmental ethic I sought to lay out above.

Additionally, this argument sidesteps the question of whether and how Christians are to care for the environment; it simply claims (without serious justification) that God will somehow restrain or prevent the negative consequences of our failing to do so, so there is no need to try. But if we really are appointed as stewards and even priests of the rest of the creation, then this argument is saying in effect that we should simply ignore this vocation because there was really no reason for God to give it to us in the first place. This is horribly irresponsible and dualistic, not to mention hubristic. "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" (Rom 9:20) By contrast, it is not hubristic at all to believe, on the basis of multiple independently measurable indicators, the sobering truth that human activity is having a major effect on the Earth's climate, which we have a mandate to care for. Rather, it is the beginning of humility and repentance.

The other argument I sometimes hear is similar to the first, but even worse. It is the sentiment that because Jesus is coming back to bring the old creation to an end and inaugurate the new, we don't have to be especially concerned about the environment. Similar to the previous argument, it basically states that we don't need to care about the effects of human activity on the environment because God will intervene to prevent them, in this case by returning to bring about the end of the world. In other words, it presumes that Jesus will return before climate change can begin to have catastrophic effects on future generations. But, in Jesus' own words, "watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." (Mat 25:13) Jesus was clear about few things relating to his return, but he was crystal clear about the fact that we can't know when it will be. (See also Mat 24:36,44,50; Mar 13:32; Luk 12:40,46; Acts 1:7) Like the first argument, it sidesteps any kind of teleological discussion of our appointed role as stewards of the creation, focusing only on why we will supposedly be spared from the consequences of scorning our calling.

Why not justify other corporate sins in this way? Why not support slavery, since Jesus will come back to break every chain? Why not selfishly exacerbate the suffering and poverty of people in developing countries (which, incidentally, is one of the effects of global warming), since Jesus will return to wipe every tear from their eyes? "And why not do evil that good may come?" (Rom 3:8) The return of Jesus and the last judgment, far from a cosmic reset button undoing our sins, will be a day of reckoning in which we will be called to account for all that we have done (Mat 25:31-46, Rom 2:6-8, 14:12, 2 Tim 4:1, 1 Pe 4:5, Rev 20:12). It is hard to imagine a greater folly than expecting the day in which everyone will be judged for what he has done to be the occasion for our escape from accountability for sins against the environment.

Edit: The sovereignty of God, invoked in the first counterargument, is relevant to discussions of the climate in another way. The Christian faith involves an unstoppable hope, based on the Incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of our Lord, that is sufficient to overcome even the grim certainty of death. Paul, describing this hope, says powerfully, "I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom 8:38-39) So one implication of the sovereignty of God is that we are to remain hopeful and not despair no matter how bad things seem, since for many Christians they have seemed much worse. But not to fear is not to do nothing. Like any other issue incumbent on the Church, climate change demands a response, but that response should be out of hope, not fear or gloom.

What can we do?

In the face of these terrifying visions, and the continued politicized denial of climate change, especially by Republican leaders, it is very tempting (certainly for me) to simply despair of hope that anything can be done. At times like this it's very beneficial to rest and remind myself of some of the reasons for hope that we can actually address the climate crisis. But if you grasp the magnitude of the problem and the need for broad and deep action to address it, then remaining a bystander stops looking like a suitable option. I will try to present ways I have found to take personal action against climate change. Most of them are not that hard!

First, you can reduce your carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint is the sum of the carbon emissions caused by your actions and lifestyle, both directly (i.e. by driving or burning other fuels) and indirectly (e.g. by buying or using products that require carbon to produce or transport). Some ways to do this include:
  • Use less heating and air conditioning in your home. If you are a homeowner, this might mean insulting your home better to avoid having to heat it as much or installing a "smart" thermostat that only regulates your home's temperature when people need it. If, like me, you rent an apartment, you can still leave your thermostat at a lower temperature in winter and rely more on fans and opening/shading windows than air conditioning in the summer.
  • Minimize your energy usage. Ways to do this include using compact fluorescent bulbs for lighting (or, better yet, long-lasting and super-efficient LED bulbs), turning off lights when you leave a room, turning your computer off when not using it, and plugging devices that use power even when turned off (e.g. lots of electronics) into a power strip so you can fully de-power them when not using them. As previously mentioned, minimizing your use of heating and air conditioning also helps with this. If you are a homeowner, you can also try to install energy-efficient (e.g. Energy Star) appliances.
  • Use less hot water; heating water takes a lot of energy. If possible, you can do this by installing more efficient shower heads/faucets/toilets. Homeowners can also turn their hot water temperature down and/or ensure that their water heater is well-insulated.
  • The classic trifecta: reduce, reuse, recycle. This boils down to consuming and throwing away as little as possible. If you're unsure about what you can recycle, your city's web site should tell you. (Here is the one for Minneapolis as an example)
  • Drive less or not at all. When possible, use alternate forms of transportation like walking, cycling, carpooling, or public transportation. This may not be easy, but besides the environmental benefits it will also save you money, especially if you are able to completely replace owning a car with other ways of getting around. I am almost through my third post-college year without a car and loving it. I spend $85 a month on my bus pass and a total of about $200 a year on parts and maintenance for my bike. Not only do I save a lot of money, I love not having to spend lots of time driving or (as is all too often the case) sitting in traffic. Once we are married, my fiancee Marissa and I plan to own one car between us, which should be more than sufficient for our needs. This option may require some bigger lifestyle modifications, but can be quite worth it and have a major impact on your carbon footprint.
  • Eat less meat, especially red meat. Producing a given amount of calories of meat uses a lot more resources than producing the same amount of calories of plants. Even if you don't go fully vegetarian, reducing the amount of meat in your diet can make a sizable difference. Apparently minimizing your consumption of rice is also beneficial, since most rice is grown in methane-emitting paddies. Eating locally-grown food is also an obvious step (reducing fuel costs of transporting it), as is avoiding wasting food.
Second, you can offset your carbon footprint. This means supporting environmental projects that remove an amount of carbon from the atmosphere equal to the amount you put in. The cost of this is apparently just $15 per metric ton. The average carbon footprint of an American is 27 tons per year, which translates to an offset of $405, or just $33.75 per month. This is a surprisingly low price to pay to become "carbon neutral", and of course you can decrease it by lowering your footprint. This handy site lets you estimate your carbon footprint and donate to offset it.

And third, you can take action beyond your individual/household's carbon footprint. You can support organizations that are helping to fight climate change and promote the welfare of the environment like The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, or the World Resources Institute. (The very useful website Charity Navigator can help you find another organization to support if you like) Or you can join the public conversation addressing climate change by signing petitions, writing to your elected officials about your concerns, or simply by telling others about it to raise awareness, perhaps by sharing concise, persuasive resources on the web (hint hint). The strategy and tactics of dealing with global warming are much more complex subjects than the basic scientific facts. Once we are in agreement that anthropogenic climate change is real, there is plenty of room for diversity of opinion on what to do about it, how to balance short-term needs and economic realities with the long-term need not to cook the planet to death. My goal in shutting down climate change denial is not to end constructive conversation, but to make it possible and invite more people into it by showing the obscurantist, anti-science rhetoric of denial for what it is and calling us to rise above it. If we are to resolve the climate crisis, we need all the voices—and hands—we can get.