Text: Mark 4:35-41 (Jesus stills a storm)
Despite an autumn-like chill in Alberta this Labour Day weekend, summer 2018 has been hot. All-time record temperatures have been broken around the world, including in Calgary. Heat waves have been longer than normal and wildfires have been widespread. Alberta and BC have not been the only regions choked with smoke. This has also been the case in the western United States, southern Europe, and Siberia.
Memories of heat and smoke are some of the key things I take from this summer. When Kim and I visited my family in Ontario and Quebec, we encountered extreme heat in Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City. When we came back to Edmonton it was often hot and smoky. And when we spent a week in the Okanagan in August, choking smoke was present pretty much the whole time.
Although individual weather events cannot be linked to climate change, this summer’s high temperatures, burning forests, and smoke have helped to raise popular awareness of the findings of climate scientists.
Of course, an increased awareness of climate change is not the only thing I gained this summer. I also spent a lot of time reading books, many of them spiritual biographies. One was by a fellow student of mine from Emmanuel College, the Rev. Anne Hines of Toronto. Another was about the German Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by the Nazis in World War II. Another was the autobiography of Tom Harpur, an Anglican priest, long-time religion editor for The Toronto Star, and author of “The Pagan Christ” among other books.
The one I appreciated the most is “The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness,” by Karen Armstrong. I re-read it after reading its predecessor, Armstrong’s first book called “Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Life In and Out of the Convent.” Armstrong entered a Catholic convent as a 17-year old in 1962 and left in 1969 after seven harrowing years that left her broken in body, mind, and soul. “The Spiral Staircase” tells the story of her recovery in the years that followed.
A pivotal moment in this recovery occurs when Armstrong hears the poem “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot. In the poem, Eliot confronts the clash between scientific rationalism and faith with these words: “Because I know that time is always time / and place is always and only place / and what is actual is actual only for one time / and only for one place / I rejoice that things are as they are and / I renounce the blessed face / . . . consequently I rejoice, having to construct something / upon which to rejoice.”
Eliot finds joy despite the fact that things are as they are. Today, they are fewer realities more frightening than climate change. So today, I reflect on how we can be people of faith in the light of this reality.
As you know, fossil fuels are ancient plants trapped in the crust of the earth and cooked by heat and pressure over millions of years. In the past 150 years, a massive amount of these fuels have been mined and burned, meaning that the solar energy stored in plants over hundreds of millions of years is being released into the atmosphere and oceans in just a few years.
One article I read this week speculated that the amount of oil, coal, and natural gas burned each year is equivalent to the burning of 20% of all the plants and forests on the earth. If true, this stunning idea makes it clearer to me why fossil fuels are radically changing the climate.
Climate scientists say that unless humanity drastically decreases its fossil fuel consumption, sea levels will rise, intense storms will become more frequent, and damaging swings in weather – between heat and cold, and drought and flood — will increase.
Happily, fewer people each year deny the truth of climate change. Action to tackle it has been inadequate. But the end of denial is not nothing.
Believing in climate change is similar to most of our other beliefs. We take it on faith. If we trust in the scientific method and in the integrity of the scientists in academia, government, and elsewhere, then we have little choice but to believe most of what we read in textbooks and science journals.
I believe that the world’s population grew from three billion when I was born to 7.5 billion people today because I trust the integrity of professional demographers. For similar reasons, I believe that the earth revolves around the sun despite the evidence of our senses to the contrary.
No one can be an expert in all fields of knowledge; and so our beliefs flow from trust in social processes. The basic question is, do we have good reasons to trust those processes.
Religious faith has traditionally been founded in the authority of church leaders and of sacred texts. Did the Angel Moroni show Joseph Smith where the golden plates with God’s words were buried in upstate New York in 1823? If you trust the Book of Mormon, then you believe this fact.
Did YHWH murder the first born of every Egyptian as a way of pressuring the Pharaoh? If you trust the book of Exodus, then you believe this fact.
Is artificial birth control a mortal sin? If you trust the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, then you believe this fact.
Personally, I don’t believe the stories in the Book of Mormon and the Book of Exodus any more than I believe the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. I turn to science and open public discussion and not sacred texts or religious leaders to inform my beliefs about the world.
The same thing applies to the stories about Jesus in the New Testament and the teachings of the United Church of Canada. I trust the stories about Jesus not because they are from books claimed to be holy by my ancestors, but because they outline a path of death and resurrection that fits with what I have found on spiritual paths. On such paths, everything is challenged, including religious beliefs. On such paths, sometimes we find room in which new life and new beliefs arise.
Similarly, I don’t trust the leaders of the United Church of Canada just because they have been elected. I trust their regulations and rulings to the extent that they result from dialogue in which shared values of love, mutual respect, and openness to the findings of science are present. If those conditions were not present, I would not feel comfortable in the denomination.
Last month, the Roman Catholic Church faced another scandal based upon an investigation of horrific child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania. I agree with former Catholic and current United Church Observer columnist Michael Coren that the abuse of children will not be effectively tackled by Catholics until they discard beliefs about a male-only priesthood, enforced celibacy for priests, and opposition to the free and joyful expression of sexuality including homosexuality.
But even with a Pope like Francis whom I like and admire, such changes seem far off. The Catholic Church is founded on sexism, homophobia, and repression. With such foundations it can only produce a set of beliefs in which I would recommend no one put their faith.
The Catholic Church may be huge and influential, but unless it is radically changed, it will soon exit the world stage.
Hmm. Such a development seems almost as unthinkable as the idea that humanity will find a way to decrease its fossil fuel consumption by 90%.
In Thomas Moore’s most recent book, “A Religion of One’s Own,” he linked the decline of the church with climate change. Moore begins by noting that in many areas religion is “disappearing, going the way of bookstores, print newspapers, and landlines.” He tells a story about not being able to find a Catholic priest who could preside at the death of his father in 2012, something which floored him. He writes that “the emptying and graying of the churches feel much like climate change – something big and ominous is happening to us.” (pp. 1 and 3).
I don’t know how the Roman Catholic Church can be reformed anymore than I know how a world economy based on limitless growth can deal with climate change. But I am sure they both will happen.
The human race will not make it to the 22nd Century without equal rights for men and women and straight and queer people in all nations and institutions. Nor will it survive without uniting itself and finding a way to organize the economy that doesn’t require limitless growth.
One way or another, these developments will occur. I just pray it will be through peaceful dialogue and not through violent upheaval. We will see.
The changes required to halt climate change are collective and global. For this reason, I am not planning to sell our house in Lendrum and move to within walking distance of the church. Nor will I forego flights to the Caribbean in the winter. But I do support the idea of increasing the price of carbon, and by a lot, despite the many political leaders who argue otherwise.
When carbon finally has a price closer to the cost of the damage its release into the atmosphere and oceans causes, much will change in society. Cities will become denser. Whole careers will disappear and new ones will appear. The texture of daily life will change, and often for the better, I imagine.
The latter idea was brought to my mind at the end of the trip that Kim and I took to Ontario in July. We had gathered with family for a second memorial for my mother in Cobourg ON and a burial ritual in the Gaspe region of Quebec.
We spent the last night our of our trip at the cottage of Rob and Jennifer McPhee north of Kingston ON. We had a great time and were grateful for their hospitality.
On the morning of our departure, we drove down a rustic lane from their cottage to a modest two-lane highway. We then drove through the quiet countryside for 20 minutes to a hamlet called Parham where my father had been a student supply minister when he was a Divinity student at Queen’s University in the 1940s. From there we drove down to Lake Ontario to Highway 401 that connects Toronto to Montreal. When we joined it, it was four lanes. That soon grew to six, then eight, then 12 until it culminated in 16 lanes across the top of Toronto. As the warren of expressways also mushroomed we gave thanks for GPS on our phones that helped us find the particular strand of this spaghetti that would return us to the car rental garage at Pearson Airport.
We made it, of course. But the thought of commuting on these highways every day boggled my mind. It made the five minutes I spend every morning driving on the Whitemud from Lendrum to Mill Woods seem like a stroll in a park by comparison.
Not only are highways like the 401 part of the reason why humanity burns 95 million barrels of oil every day. They are dangerous, stressful, and disheartening; and so, I enjoy imagining how future generations will find more rational ways of getting from point A to point B. Not only will the oceans and atmospheres breath easier, life will be more convivial and soulful, I believe.
In these times of rapid social change, many people respond with fear. Instead, I recommend that we find a trusting faith in the only place the 21st Century reasonably offers it – in public discussion, in the scientific method, and in the social struggle for truth that eschews the partial in favour of the universal, the tribal in favour of the human, and the fearful in favour of the loving.
Can we trust in God’s Love despite uncomfortable truths like climate change? I say “yes” despite how tough it can be to see a way forward. Is there hope? I say “yes” again, although I leave that for next Sunday’s reflection, in which I will return again to T.S. Eliot’s poem and to Armstrong’s reaction to it.
The alternative to faith is fear. So, as long as I value sanity and confidence more than fear, I will search with fellow pilgrims like you for ways to stay on God’s path of faith, hope and love. It is a joyous journey that starts by accepting that things are as they are.
May it be so. Amen.