Let us be Human: Christianity for a collapsing culture
Author Sam Norton writes about his book, Let us be Human: Christianity for a collapsing culture:
It's the sort of book that (I hope) someone conversant with Peak Oil etc could give to a friend who is a committed Christian, and explains, not just the basic problems but *why* Christians should be concerned about it, how the real problems arose, and what in Christian terms should now be done. It isn't about addressing Peak Oil etc directly (e.g. prepare to use less fuel, advice about growing your own vegetables etc), it's more about generating the required virtues that will enable those steps to then be taken. So it's like the undercoat before putting on the paint.
The publisher writes:
We live in a time of escalating crises and environmental disasters – how should the church understand them, and how should the church respond to them? In this short, readable and punchy book, Sam Charles Norton argues that the fundamental problem of our time is a spiritual one – that we have forgotten what it means to be wise – and that the path for the faithful through this time of crisis is to re-establish the priority of worship. Only by becoming more distinctively Christian can we engage constructively with the collapse of our culture.
Introduction: the prophet Jeremiah
The prophet Jeremiah lived through a time of great upheaval and warned the people of Israel that they had fallen away from the living God. He told them that if they did not repent and turn back to the living God then great suffering would descend upon them. He was ignored, despised and ridiculed – and great suffering came.
We are living in similar times.
Jeremiah was possibly the greatest prophet of Ancient Israel, and his ministry flourished around 626 BC to 586 BC. Like any sensible man, he had no desire to act as a prophet, a mouthpiece for the living God, and he experienced God's overmastering of his own desires as akin to being raped (Jeremiah 20.7). Jeremiah's was an intensely unhappy life, which may be reflected in his name, which likely means ‘God will cast away’. He lived to a great age, possibly as much as 90, but those years were filled with great suffering.
Some 350 years before Jeremiah's time, Israel was split into two competing kingdoms – a Northern one known as Israel, and a Southern one known as Judah. The Northern kingdom had been conquered by Assyria in 722 BC, and during Jeremiah's ministry Judah itself was coming under pressure from the new regional power of Babylon. However, in contrast to the Northern Kingdom, the authorities in Judah felt that they were invulnerable, for the simple reason that God was present in the temple in Jerusalem, and they therefore believed that Jerusalem could never be conquered.
This was the context for Jeremiah's message, which foretold a profound rejection of the people of Judah by God. Jeremiah prophesied that because of the prevalent idolatries and injustices committed and permitted by the people, God's wrath would come upon them, and it would take the form of Judah being conquered by the Babylonians. Jeremiah was active in the court politics of the time, and tried to persuade the people in authority to surrender to Babylon, in order to avoid greater suffering. However, other prophets, such as Hananiah, reinforced the prevailing assumption that all would be well. The Hananiahs were listened to; the Jeremiahs were rejected, imprisoned, even thrown into the sewer (Jeremiah 38.6)!
In 586 BC the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem:
“On the tenth day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, who served the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down.” (Jeremiah 52:12-13)
The King of Judah was brought to the steps of the Temple, whereupon his family were slaughtered in front of him and then he was blinded and bound, taken into captivity to Babylon itself. There he joined all of the upper classes in Judah's society, who had been taken into Exile by the Babylonians: 'by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion' (Psalm 137).
Imagine that you are part of this society which sees God as present in the temple and knows, therefore, that Jerusalem is inviolate and invincible – and then utter disaster comes upon you. This is where a great shift in Hebrew thinking about God happens. Up to this point the Ancient Hebrew people had thought of God as a tribal deity: “our God is bigger than your God”, where God is simply one God amongst other gods, the most powerful in the pantheon.
When you are faced with this sort of calamity, however, you have two choices: you can either say, “Our God isn’t as strong as the other Gods, therefore he is dead” and the worship of God dies off (which happened many times in ancient history); or – and here the genius of the Hebrew people is demonstrated – the people respond by escalating the attributes of God and say, “God is faithful; if this has happened to us, God must also be in charge of the Babylonian armies, therefore God is the only God, God is the creator of everything”. There is a shift from God as a tribal God of the Israelites, to God as the creator of all things.
This is the real genius of the Hebrews: to be faithful no matter what. They are “a stiff-necked people”, but this steadfastness is why they are the chosen people. God touched them and gave them a way of growing into a greater understanding of the truth.
So why is Jeremiah our guide? After the calamity, when the leadership of Israel was in Exile in Babylon, they drew comfort from remembering what Jeremiah had taught. He was seen as the great prophet for the exiled community, because he taught that God was in charge of the whole process. God is not a tribal God, God is the one creator of the universe and therefore God was present in the calamity of Exile – God had not deserted the community. Jeremiah lived through a time of great trauma and crisis, and yet he was able to sustain hope.
The Hebrews understood the Exile as God chastising the community, seeing God like a father disciplining a son, the one whom he loves, in order that the son might flourish. Jeremiah was also vouchsafed a vision of a time when God would bind up the wounds of the broken hearted and restore the people of Israel under a New Covenant.
As in the time of Jeremiah a great calamity is coming upon us, and I believe it is coming upon us because we have turned away from the living God. We are idolatrous as a civilisation and society and we are unjust as a civilisation and society. So, for exactly the same reasons that Jeremiah criticises his community and foretells destruction, I believe that we too stand under the same judgement. Just as Jeremiah saw the armies surrounding Jerusalem, so too can we see the parameters of our own unavoidable crisis.
We in the West do not face a direct equivalent of a Babylonian army camped outside of our gates; nor do we enjoy the direct presence of the Lord in the temple of Jerusalem. Our idolatries are different – yet our predicament is equally grave. A great calamity is coming upon our civilisation, a calamity that has been foretold and warned against for at least two generations, and those warnings have been ignored. We too have enjoyed the comforts of an idolatrous society and allowed injustice to flourish unchecked. We have now left behind the time of decisions and have entered the time of consequences.
“Unavoidable” is a strong word. I do see calamity as unavoidable. As a man I am by temperament very optimistic and I believe in the grace and unearned mercy of God. Yet the more I explore the reasons why calamity is upon us, and the more I consider our current political arrangements, the state of the churches and what the church spends its time arguing about, the more I understand why people have not heard in time. There have been sufficient signs of what is coming for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, but still most people, including most Christians, have not learned to read the writing on the wall.
It is the purpose of this book to describe what it means to face our cultural crisis and collapse from a Christian point of view. I view the environmental and resource crises as essentially symptoms of a much deeper spiritual malaise. If we are to respond to this crisis as Christians then a full understanding has to be established – a full understanding not simply of the crisis that we face, but also of the nature of our faith and what God is calling us to choose.
My argument therefore falls into two parts: in the first part I seek to diagnose the nature of the crisis we are experiencing and then, in the second part, I explore what Christian understandings can bring to address the nature of the crisis.
Part One begins by talking about the nature of peak oil, which is the phenomenon by which any oil field, or aggregation of oil fields, reaches a point of maximum production before declining. I explore the implications of this phenomenon when considered on a world wide scale, and outline the nature of the problems that global peak oil will provoke. I then broaden my enquiry out to consider the problem of exponential growth within a finite environment, which is the broader predicament that our civilisation faces, and of which peak oil is a single part.
In Chapter Three I begin to address the deep cultural root underlying the crisis itself – and why we have not taken steps to address the crisis before now – which is the over-emphasis upon science as a guide to life.
I end part one in Chapter Four, summing up and explaining why our crisis is fundamentally a spiritual crisis – that we no longer know what it means to love God. As a result of our culture turning away from God we will experience the Wrath of God, and our culture will collapse – I explain the right way to understand this.
Part Two is about what Christians are called to do in the face of the collapse of our culture. I begin in Chapter Five by talking about the New Covenant which Jesus established, and the way in which it provides Christians with the determinative means of keeping God at the centre of our lives.
Chapter Six talks about the ways in which the New Covenant has been distorted and misrepresented over time, leading to manifest social injustice, and Chapter Seven looks at the consequences of this in our wider society, and the way in which this injustice drives the environmental crisis. Part two ends with Chapter Eight, in which I explore what it means to talk in Christian terms about the end of the world.
The concluding Chapter to the book as a whole, summing up my argument, is entitled 'With you is my contention O Priest' – as I believe that it is because the church lost its way and lost touch with God that the wider culture in turn lost its way and lost touch with God – and we are now facing the crisis of our time. If Christians are to respond constructively and positively to the collapse of our culture then we need to put our own house in order first.
My main purpose in this book is not to persuade that calamity is coming, although a sober understanding of the material I cover in Chapters One and Two would likely generate that conclusion. I believe that we are beyond the point when that is the most important question. What I most want to discuss is the question: “What is the path for the faithful in our time?”
For those who believe in a loving and merciful God, how do we respond in the face of calamity? Just as with the ancient Hebrews in Exile, what we are to experience is not a meaningless process. Hope is still possible. Our calling is to hold on to that same hope and to pursue the abundant life which is God's intention for us, in order to inherit our full humanity as his children. We are called to be human, in the light of the only one who is truly human, even Jesus Christ our Lord.
© Sam Charles Norton, 2012
Sam Charles Norton is the Rector of West Mersea in Essex, England. He studied Philosophy and Theology at Trinity College, Oxford; Heythrop College, London; and Westcott House, Cambridge; and before being ordained spent several years working for the UK Department of the Environment. He can be found on-line at the blog 'Elizaphanian'.