Oct  2017 03
Before It Is Too Late

Biases are really sticky and resilient. Even insights that seem earthshaking and on-point at one time can blind at another.

For example, at the end of this month millions of Christians will, in some fashion, mark the 500th anniversary of the Augustinian monk and Old Testament professor Martin Luther’s call for an academic disputation on 95 points which later became one of the explosions that added up to the Protestant Reformation.

How historians assessed Luther before the Shoah, when they might have minimized his anti-Semitism, and after the rise of the Nazis, who used Luther’s awful condemnations of Jews, markedly changed.

How Columbus was presented during my school days bears little resemblance to his portrayal today, and as an Italian-American I find more truth in today’s portrait than the bleached, romantic version of Columbus sailing “the ocean blue… for me and you.”

One of those sticky, resilient biases I learned was about God and history. My first formal theological education included the writings of Gerhard Von Rad, John Bright, and W.F. Albright.

Each of them emphasized God’s action in history, each drew sharp lines between the people of Israel—who experienced God as their liberator, redeemer, judge, and caregiver within history—and the peoples they encountered in Canaan and the empires of the Ancient Near East, each of which participated in one kind or another of fertility cults: rituals (sometimes sexual) that enabled peoples to participate in holding the world together, perpetuating the seasons and cycles of nature, and upholding the hierarchies of society.

If one emphasizes history too much, one can eclipse humankind’s relationship to our common home: earth.

When humankind emphasizes history to exclusion of creation, we tend to make humankind the pinnacle of creation, as if we are the level of being that really counts. A history-centered theology can feed, and has fed, into exploiting all the resources of the earth of our benefit—“our” meaning those who can control fossil fuels.

A book I am putting on my “read as soon as I can” list was reviewed in a recent Christian Century by Dr. Norman Wirzba. (I’ve learned a great deal from the two Wirzba books I’ve read, Food and Faith and Way of Love. Highly accessible, profound, practical.) The book he reviewed is The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh.

Wirzba begins his review with this sentence, “By century’s end, Miami will have disappeared.” He concurs with scientists who call this era, in earth-time, the Anthropocene Age. “The Anthropocene marks the moment when humans became the dominant force in planetary history, responsible for the widespread alteration of the world’s land, ocean, and atmospheric systems.”

Ghosh names three mindset-forming forces that have contributed to the Anthropocene Age, and “the great derangement:”

  • The modern novel which treats “nature” as simply the stage on which human dramas are played.
  • The power of capitalism to disconnect humankind from subsistence living, from tilling and keeping: “Call it the unmooring of economic forms from ecological realities.”
  • A conception of freedom in which “there is no place for nonhuman forces or systems.”

One more quote from the review: “Trapped within an individual, interior vision of the world, people are rendered incapable of understanding or addressing the systemic, long-term, place-bound decisions that need to be made if catastrophic displacement and suffering of creatures are to be minimized.”

This all makes sense to me. And I don’t like it one bit, because I recognize way too of my assumptions in Ghosh’s critiques, beginning with an overemphasis on God acting in history and an underdeveloped de-centering of humankind in God’s creation.

Interestingly, Ghosh is hopeful about the power of religion to change our minds. Politics, economics, and other secular mindsets mindlessly fail to do other than fuel the present direction, which is to propel humankind toward a degraded planet.

Wirzba is more skeptical about the power of religion today, seeing how Christianity has accompanied imperialism, capitalism, and the desire for unbridled freedom. However, he also reminds us that God is among us and that religions, including Christianity, could be forces for homemaking and for helping humankind live with the humbling reality of being creatures.

For me, when considering the incredibly powerful weather systems and other forces that shape life on earth and that humankind is managing to degrade, I am reminded of the Garden of Eden story, especially Adam and Eve passing the buck. Adam blamed “the woman (God) gave me” for giving him the fruit. Eve threw the serpent under the bus.

Adam and Eve have to live with their choice, in the real world, and learn to take responsibility. It seems we human beings are still learning how to do that, including how to change our minds when once-useful insights no longer serve. And, when it comes to issues such as catastrophic climate change or gun violence in the U.S., changing minds today would not be too soon. I pray it is not too late.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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