Are We Doomed?

June 24, 2015

My two favorite columnists, David Brooks and Ross Douthat, have now weighed in on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, here and here. While both give Francis high marks for bravely tackling the subject, and both appreciate his wonderful personal qualities, neither one of them sees the encyclical very favorably.

Brooks approaches it more practically, noting that “Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world.” He’s consistently against any market-driven innovation and any technological advance. There’s no acknowledgement that market-driven economic growth (as in China and India) and technological advance (as in crops that grow more food) have led to a huge diminishing in world poverty and hunger in the developing world, and to environmental improvements in the developed world. Brooks concludes: “The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.”

I agree with that, but I thought Douthat’s comments were more penetrating. Douthat divides social commentators between “dynamists and catastrophists.” Dynamists recognize severe problems but have moderate hope that human society is capable of innovative solutions. They “see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful society.” Catastrophists are sure the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and nothing can stop it. They are “united in believing that current arrangements are foredoomed, and that only a true revolution can save us.”

These two are more rhetorical style and temperament than developed philosophy. You can find both liberals and conservatives on both sides. Living in Sonoma County, I often encounter liberals who see utter ruin just ahead: to the environment, to the economy, to education, to democracy. And being an evangelical Christian, I often encounter conservatives who also see utter ruin just ahead: to the family, to traditional values like love of country, to freedom of religion (or any other kind of freedom.)

Dynamists of the left believe in the power of governmental and technocratic solutions, while dynamists of the right believe in the power of market arrangements.

According to Douthat, Francis is a catastrophist. He sees nothing but ruin ahead for God’s creation, given our current political and economic relations.

As I say, I catastrophism is a rhetorical style, beloved of the prophets. Such doomsday verbiage captures the attention and the imagination. It may help motivate people to take global warming seriously, before it is too late. That, I feel sure, is Francis’ intent, and I suspect he is willing to pass by nuanced discussion of economics in favor of getting his message across. He is a preacher by nature and calling, it seems.

As Douthat suggests, however, there are other possible outcomes that could make Francis ultimately look as foolish as Paul Ehrlich and his population bomb. “It’s possible to believe that climate change is happening while doubting that it makes ‘the present world system … certainly unsustainable,’ as the pope suggests. Perhaps we’ll face a series of chronic but manageable problems instead; perhaps ‘radical change’ can, in fact, be persistently postponed.” Or perhaps we will settle into stagnation, unable to deal with our threats, but also unable to triumph over them.

“In that case,” writes Douthat, “the deep critique our civilization deserves will have to be advanced without the threat of imminent destruction. The arguments in ‘Laudato Si’ ‘ will still resonate, but they will have to be structured around a different peril: Not a fear that the particular evils of our age can’t last, but the fear that actually, they can.”

As I read the Bible, stagnation is not the main threat to worry about. Neither is ecological destruction, significant as it certainly is. I find the Bible offering no hint whether environmental degradation will destroy us in the end or not. I do find a clear warning that our sin—our selfishness, self-worship, arrogance, lack of concern for our neighbor, refusal to care for the poor and to steward God’s beautiful world—will lead us to be judged and found wanting by our creator. That catastrophism requires a different kind of analysis—not one based on our environmental survival, but on our standing before a God of love and power.

On the Pacific Coast Trail

June 23, 2015

I just got back from backpacking in the eastern Sierra. At least a dozen years had passed since I was last in the back-country for a solid week, and it reminded me that there’s a big difference between being out of civilization for seven days instead of three. We spent the whole week over 10,000 feet, climbing over four near-12,000-foot passes. I discovered that I can’t go as far or as fast as I once could. Six miles with a pack and I was thrashed. But that’s okay. You can take the Sierra slow.

That is decidedly not the theory animating those hiking the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I was frankly shocked at how many of them we saw. They were easy to spot by the men’s (and they were mostly men) scraggly beards. They were young, tall and lean. They had very similar equipment. (I assume they all read the same guidebook.) And they were burning up the trail, traveling unbelievable distances each day. Of course, they had already hiked nearly 800 miles, so they were in pretty good shape!

One Kings Canyon National Park ranger said he heard that 4,500 PCTers had registered. Granted that many drop out, that’s still a lot of bodies traveling on one narrow wilderness trail. They start in roughly a one-month window, in order to make it from Mexico to Canada before the snow. You do the math. If half drop out, that’s 75 a day.

Another ranger told us that the numbers have been ratcheting up year by year for a long time. Apparently the movie and book Wild has stimulated a big increase. I suspect the numbers will ratchet back down. Who can spend upwards of six months hiking? Who wants to? (It’s not all scenic wonderland.) The ranger, however, was doubtful. He sees no end.

When I was a boy, backpacking was a niche phenomenon. After a two-week hike we would find people at the trailhead who had no idea that anybody did such a thing. They acted as though they had discovered Neanderthals still living in the remote reaches of the woods.

Then, during my college years, “nature” met its cultural moment. The trails grew so popular that the National Parks and the Forest Service had to implement daily trail quotas. But hikers went in mostly for short trips—weekends or weeks. They hiked to experience wilderness and see the mountains. Most of that died out, when we had children.

Today, the focus is on feats of endurance. It’s very impressive, completing the PCT. And anybody who has fought long and hard to accomplish a goal knows there are great personal benefits. But still it leaves me with questions. Is this what the mountains are for? A proving ground for our toughness?

I suppose it goes with the growth in extreme sports. Our time seems driven to test our limits—on an individual and personal basis, not as a society. (We seem allergic to sacrifice and goal-setting as a nation. We can’t even agree on how to fix our bridges and pave our roads. Maybe we’re balancing that out with demanding physical feats.)

I thought about John Muir, who wandered these same mountains. When you read what he did you are struck by his heroic and stoic endurance. The dude was tough and fearless. In that sense, he would have identified with the PCTers. But he wasn’t tough to prove himself; he was tough because that was the easiest way for him to be in the mountains. It was the wilderness he sought, not an affirmation of himself.

The mountains will outlast this cultural moment. They will speak for themselves. I wonder whether some of the PCTers will come back for a second look, when they can slow down. I bet they will.

Mary Schweitzer is right

June 9, 2015

Just saw this article from Reuters confirming Mary Schweitzer’s findings of apparent red blood cells and collagen in T. rex fossils. Mary is the paleontologist I profiled in The Adam Quest.  Fascinating stuff.

The Church and the Poor

May 18, 2015

Don’t miss this column by Ross Douthat on the critique of the church emphasizing culture wars over concern for the poor. It’s a corrective to liberal bias, but also a fundamental challenge to the church. I think he’s hitting something very important.

Making Stuff Up

May 13, 2015

For the last six weeks I have been writing fiction Monday through Friday. It’s what I’ve wanted most to do since I was in the third grade. I love fiction, and I believe in the power of fiction. In my mostly-journalistic career I’ve managed to carve out time to write five novels; this will be my sixth. None of my novels has been anything like commercially successful, but what does that have to do with anything? I have the freedom to write fiction, and that’s what I’m doing.

I have to report, though, that fiction is much harder to write than non-fiction. I’ve written enough fiction that the techniques are not a mystery. I’m not floundering as I sometimes did in earlier novels. It’s just hard—hard every minute and every day. The reason can be expressed very simply: you have to make things up. You start with nothing. Every day you begin with a blank screen, and you try your best to breathe life into words so that people—real, three-dimensional people—walk and talk through your pages. So that real things of consequence go on. So that relationships develop and change. So that life is lived on the page.

It’s so much harder than non-fiction I can’t even put them under the same heading of “writing.” I know how to write. I’m a good writer. I am not sure I know how to create out of nothing. I’m trying, but I teeter on the edge hour by hour and often fall off.

All this to say: when you read the first words of Genesis, where it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” understand that this is a stupendous statement. A novel is a shadow of reality; God created reality. From nothing.

Lost World

April 21, 2015

The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.

When I first read N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God the experience was like that described by G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy. Chesterton imagines an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculates his course and discovers England “under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” Chesterton claims to envy this yachtsman, for, “What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

In reading Wright, I found that I was looking at all the familiar landmarks of the synoptic gospels but seeing them from a very different angle. Nothing was discarded, in the way that liberal readings are apt to do, but all was heightened and clarified. It took me three or four readings before I began to feel comfortable in this new country that was actually so familiar.

I’m having a similar experience reading John Walton’s two books on Genesis 1-3. Walton is a very conservative Christian—he taught for years at Moody Bible Institute before moving to Wheaton College–who takes every word of Scripture as indispensably true, but he reads this seminal text in a way that is entirely new to me.

It’s difficult to get a clear understanding of the whole argument without reading the whole book, which deals with many nuances of Hebrew, with many Ancient Near East texts, and with careful readings of the Pauline writings on Adam and Eve. Let me try, however, to give a few aspects of Walton’s argument that I found helpful, and that may pique your interest in reading more.

Walton starts by saying that we are a very materialistic age, and that we therefore read the text seeking an explanation of the material universe.  But in the ancient Middle East, he says, people took the material as a given: they were more interested in power and organization. All origins texts of that period, including Genesis, place the components of the universe in their roles and explain their purposes.

Walton argued in his first book, The Lost World of Genesis One, that Genesis 1 tells how God made the whole universe to be his temple. There is no interest in when and how, but strictly who and for what. All the players are summoned in an orderly fashion to their roles in the temple, including human beings who are made to represent God’s image and in that role to preside over his temple, keeping it and caring for it. Walton says there is nothing in the first chapter suggesting how long this took, or by what physical process it was done, or whether human beings were made in a single pair or by the thousands.

He makes the point that when God pronounces this “very good,” he does not say “perfect.” “Good” in the context means, “well-functioning.” All the pieces are in their places and are in play. There is no reason to assume that there is no death among the creatures: well-functioning creatures do die.

I particularly like one image that Walton uses to describe the nature of the story that Genesis 1-3 tells. He suggests that we differentiate between a “house” story and a “home” story. We have read Genesis 1-3 looking for the “house” story—how the building was constructed. We think it is all about wooden beams and concrete foundations and floor plans and roof joists. Instead, Walton says, we should read it as a “home” story. When a family moves into a house, they bring in their furniture, their decorations, their equipment. They assign rooms to different people and to different functions. Jill’s room and Kevin’s room, the dining room and the den are not defined by their physical characteristics but by the people who inhabit them and the way they use them. People humanize the house and make it their own. It then serves for family life, for hospitality, for renewal, for family rituals—for whatever purposes the family endorses. The “home” story is much more interesting—and much subtler–than the “house” story.

If Genesis 1 is a “home” story, what is Genesis 2? Walton reads it not as a repeat of and detailed account of the sixth day of creation, but as a subsequent series of events. He believes Adam and Eve are real historical creatures, but not necessarily the first homo sapiens. Rather they are chosen by God (like Abraham, later on) to be representative and archetypal human beings to extend God’s rule. They are placed in a garden where they fellowship with God, name the animals, discover the meaning of sexual differences (Walton argues that the description of God making Eve from a rib and presenting her to Adam may be Adam’s revelatory dream of the value and purpose of marriage), and are given two trees—one a tree of life, so they need never die, and one a tree of wisdom, which they are warned not to eat. They seize wisdom, rebelling against God. (Perhaps, in God’s good time, he meant to share it with them. But they wanted it for themselves, immediately.) Their expulsion from the garden means that, just like all the other creatures, they cannot eat from the tree of life. And so they bring death to the whole human race, because we cannot enter the garden that they were evicted from.

This understanding of the fall turns the original sin upside down—not as an introduction of death, but as a rejection of life. That leaves room for an interpretation of our world where God’s good intentions are shown not in a perfect original creation—one without death, suffering, pain, earthquakes, disease, predation—but one that is well made with an end in mind. That end is that image-bearing humans in fellowship with God (through the One Man, the Image of God) might achieve a perfect new earth and heaven.

Even as I write this brief summary I am aware that you can take exception to Walton’s exegesis at many points. It’s hard material to interpret—and it’s not just Walton’s grasp that one might question; any interpretation you care to summon up raises its doubt and questions. Walton doesn’t skip over hard questions. He tries to deal with every word of the text, including New Testament writings that are relevant. (In one chapter on Paul’s view of Adam, N.T. Wright himself adds a brief section.)

I found it stimulating stuff. Perhaps the most significant contribution is to bring Genesis 1-3 into the literary world of its period. When we do that, Walton says, we find that many of the material questions we want to ask are not addressed at all. Instead, a worship-oriented view of the cosmos as God’s home and temple emerges. That clearly connects to the rest of Scripture, as a material history does not.

As for the possibility that science’s evolutionary story of origins is true, Walton simply makes the case that nothing in Genesis 1-3 rules it out. How and when God created the living creatures, including humans—Walton says Genesis does not address those questions. We can believe the science or not, on its own evidence.

Going to Church

April 17, 2015

My friends Dean and Mindy took us along on their excellent adventure visiting churches all over California. (They are warming up for a 2016 odyssey visiting 50 churches and 50 bars in 50 states.) Since they are doing urban churches right now, we went to an Oakland church (ACTS Full Gospel Church of God in Christ) that just happened to be within walking distance of the Oakland Coliseum. It turned out that the A’s were playing, so after church we attended the game, which the A’s sadly lost in extras. Here’s Dean and Mindy’s blog, in case you are interested in the church. They forgot to write about the game.

My Promised Land Again

April 17, 2015

I wrote last week about My Promised Land by Ari Shavit, a powerful, emotive history of modern Israel. What struck me most was the recording of Israel’s founding—the evocation of a people on the brink of an abyss, about to be exterminated in eastern countries and assimilated in western countries. The idea of the nation of Israel—Zionism—was anathema to many Jews who saw their salvation in religious identity, not in establishing a state after more than 2,000 years without one. Even if you believed the premise that a Jewish state would transform their situation, was the idea practical? Shavit shows that it was made practical only through a remarkable combination of zealous idealism and ardent pragmatism. He dramatizes real people and real places where extraordinary determination, skill, chutzpah, smarts and risk-taking created a desert miracle, a vital, successful, creative and sometimes joyful country. If a degree of cold cruelty was unavoidably at its heart, Israel was still a remarkable accomplishment.

Shavit mourns this Israeli history—sees it as tragic as well as triumphant—because he thinks the tough and practical unity that built Israel has been splintered, its idealism gone down the drain, its smarts smothered in a senseless macho that is its own enemy. I don’t know much about today’s Israel, so I can’t agree or disagree with Shavit’s analysis. I do know that it struck me as having a parallel in my own country. During much of our history the USA has been highly pragmatic and determined when it faced large national problems. We have been a can-do nation. That has meant facing and solving problems, doing whatever it takes, regardless of our ideological presuppositions and differences. The Depression is a good example. Franklin Roosevelt found traction with approaches that violated many well-established principles of government. The nation—not all the nation, but most of it—threw itself behind what he wanted to do. It’s not clear that people were converted to his ideas about activist government. But they knew they had a problem, and they were willing to put their ideas to one side while they solved it.

I can’t imagine us having the toughness to do that today. We can’t even fix our bridges. Maybe it’s just that we haven’t faced a great enough problem, one that shows us we have no choice but to respond.

**

Shavit’s description of Jewish desperation also reminded me of a much earlier time: the 1st century AD. Then too Israel faced a double threat: assimilation into prosperous Greco-Roman culture, and annihilation by the military power of Rome. Revolutionaries and terrorists—zealots–led a violent response. Other Jews saw their survival in assiduous law-keeping, which would preserve their identity as a separate people. Jesus offered a different solution. He proposed love for enemies and neighbors alike. He insisted on forgiveness seventy times seven. He and his disciples would enter Gentile homes to bless them. Law-keeping would promote love and sacrifice, not separation. They would heal and cast out demons, but never take up a sword. They would willingly give their lives.

If you see this through the lens of private religion, as Protestants (and a good many Catholics) have been eager to do, it’s not so offensive. A few nice and harmless individuals don’t rock the boat much. But Jesus addressed not a collection of individuals, but the nation of Israel. He came to be King. What he proposed dealt with personal sin, but also Israel’s sin, which according to all the prophets had led to its loss of identity and its subjugation by foreign powers. Jesus proposed his way as the nation’s way—and as the nation’s salvation.

Most of the Jews of that day couldn’t see it. It was too radical, too dependent on miracle. They chose either law-keeping separatism or war-making—much as did Jews in the 20th century. In the first century, the war-making led to national catastrophe. Modern Israel seeks to undo that catastrophe.

I don’t know whether that second attempt will succeed. It’s early: the nation of Israel has been with us less than threescore years and ten. Thinking about it, however, sharpens my awareness of how radical a course Jesus followed and bids me follow. It goes against our most basic instincts to choose the cross. Think of offering that pathway to Israel today. They are not much more likely to accept it than they were the first time.

Two thousand years later, it’s still too soon to say whether Jesus’ movement will succeed. That’s where faith comes in.

Addiction

April 14, 2015

Today I had a conversation with a friend about somebody he loves very much. She is struggling with herself and that makes her difficult to live with. He wants—for his own sake as well as hers—for her to snap out of it. He doesn’t understand why she continues to make bad decisions. She knows what she ought to do—why doesn’t she do it?

He is a recovering addict, so he knows addiction very well. Nevertheless I had to spell it out to him: sin is an addiction.

Like addictive substances, it has a short-term appeal. It meets a need. It may even make us temporarily happy. But of course, the long-term is very destructive. As with heroin, so with sin.

Also as with heroin, we may know perfectly well what we ought to do, but the pull of addiction is too strong for us. We are all perpetrators, but we are also all victims.

Robert Schuller

April 14, 2015

Christianity Today Magazine has published my lengthy retrospective on Robert Schuller.  (He died April 2.) Schuller was an important figure in 20th century American Christianity, with enormous influence. My best line: “He did for church what Disneyland did for amusement parks.” That may sound snarky, but if you think about how Disneyland changed the image of amusement parks (formerly seedy, dirty, morally dubious) you’ll understand that it’s not. For a certain generation, Schuller rehabilitated church, making it a happy, light-filled, positive place. But did that transformation really work? Thinking  about Schuller makes you consider seriously whether the Christian faith can be managed through a marketing campaign. He wasn’t the first or the last to try, but he was purer than most–and more skillful than most–in his wholehearted commitment.


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