Monday, December 21, 2009

On the World's Largest Stage: Narrative, Heroism, and the Ecologium in Global Climate Change (pt4)


The theme of the kingdom of God is the theme of creation restored to and flourishing in its relationship to the creator. It is the end of the alienation between created things and the realignment of the duality between world and God. And it is the placement of experiencing, imaging, and narrating humans within a creation of which they are not the final measure. Simultaneously, it is the full movement of humanity into their fully responsible roles as the ones who image God and creation alike. The theme of the kingdom of God is that which tells humanity what it will be like to be re-created re-creators and the exalted satisfaction that must result. It is a necessary corrective to the dominant narratives.

The earlier vision of the earth representing heaven in Scholastic fashion has long been exposed as overly authoritarian and confining, as an excess of human rather than divine directive. Yet the modern narrative that replaced it has also been exposed as overly arrogant and incautious, as an excess of human freedom against God and, now, God’s creation. Finally, the postmodern narratives may well be eventually exposed as overly cynical and insubstantial, as human limitation pushed over into human hopelessness and helplessness. This last is the experience of many people, and it is an implicit abdication of human responsibility.

It is not the experience of the kingdom of God. Though they may play a part in its rancorous becoming, the dominant narratives which describe God over and against the world, humanity against nature, or people always divided against themselves have no place in the kingdom of God. Nor do they have a place in the story of global climate change, as a principle theme of that story is the theme of nature responding unpredictably to human agency, a category which all the other narratives have not fully understood. The chaotic nature of global climate change implies for the first time a freedom not only of humanity and of God, but also a freedom of the world. Global climate change is an awesome statement of the world’s own subjectivity. It is a reactive subjectivity to be sure, but the capricious nature of climate change implies a category that a new narrative of God, world and humanity must consider: that creation itself will be an agent of the future and an actor within God’s salvific story. The story of climate change is the story of the stage itself come to catastrophic life.

The kingdom of God, with its roots in Hebraic scripture describing the land and its creatures in precisely such vivid and reactive terms, stands poised to readily absorb this element. And it stands to include it within the new story of God and world and humankind as it directly embraces them – because the kingdom of God is love, and the love of all creation. And what is love, after all, if it is not human direction, freedom and limitation all embraced in right proportion and degree? In the kingdom of God, the creatures themselves sing praises to the creator, and the elders and the martyrs sing with them.

The kingdom of God is the vision of the election, not of narrowing selections of humanity, but of all creation; it is the reselection of all things in new categories which might not precisely match the old – in Christ, for example, there is no male or female, and the lion lies down with the lamb. The realization of the kingdom of God is the revelation of “him who loves and freed us…and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.” The kingdom of God is the kingdom of enduring trust in God’s provision, the kingdom of God’s pervasive presence, and the power and the glory of the all- consuming, all-consummating Sabbath.

Thus, we recreating humans will not be the summit of the recreational kingdom of God, but we will certainly be its foundation. The revelation of the kingdom begins precisely with the suffering servants of the church and proceeds decisively and intricately toward the extinction of all darkness and the proclamation that God will be the light of the everlastingly recreated world. This recreation proceeds apace, and in precisely the opposite direction in which creation first occurred –not in order to undo it but to redo it in the image of Christ. And the kingdom image of God in Christ is the image of humanity directed toward the service of God through and for God’s creatures, freed to employ human talents liberated from sin and its contaminating effects, and graciously limited by the realization of our place within creation and our trust in God’s provision. The story of the kingdom of God is the story of what it’s like to be recreated.

It is also the story of what it’s like to be holy, because it is the story of what it’s like to image God – and whatever else the image of God might be, it is certainly holiness. The experience of God is the experience of holiness and the realization of our created state. The experience of the kingdom of God is simply the extension of this experience unto all created things. “Holy, holy, holy” is the song the creatures sing and the everlasting Sabbath is the all-consuming, all-consummating day of holiness. It is the vision of the sanctification of all things and the extinction of the alienation that leads unto corruption and to death. The holiness of the kingdom of God is the holiness of teeming multiplicity, of everlasting and exultant multitudes welcoming the descent of the new Jerusalem, the holy city coming down from heaven and the everlasting exuberance of the experience of the holiness of God, who is the new temple of God’s own kingdom.

The vision of the kingdom of God is the vision of world and God and humanity no longer divided but realigned, distinct but entwined in holy flourishing. It is the vision of God touching all creation, all creation embracing God and humanity caressing in love all the natural world. The story of the kingdom of God is the story of where salvation leads. It is also how the story of global climate change might end – in full consummation of God’s own promises and in the full restoration of humanity and world to God.

But it is not the only possible end. There are other futures less desirable – one of these being the catastrophe of the ecologium into which we are currently heading. The gap between these possibilities produces much of the tension in which we live, and much of the tension of the biblical and climatological narratives alike. For while we know we live in an inescapable story, we do not yet know what kind of story it will be. Much is determined only by the outcome, and while we must certainly be living in a drama, we have yet to learn whether it will be wonderfully comedic or devastatingly tragic. It may well be that the promises of God have such weight that they cannot help but come into fruition.

On the other hand, they might not, and our position as always and already within the story means that ultimately we cannot know. What we do know is that either way, our position as the servant foundation of the kingdom means that much depends upon us. The characters themselves always have much to say about a story and its resolution. Thus, the story of global climate change does not need magic, and it requires no dues ex machina. But it does need heroes. And it needs them very much.


The story of global climate change must have, in good Aristotelian fashion, a beginning, a middle, and an end. I have tried to suggest a very broad outline of this here. And I have tried to detail, with more specificity, some of the themes that must predominate in an undeniably Christian narrative of the emerging catastrophe: creation and fall, faith and humility, holiness and law, love and the promises of the kingdom of God. I have no doubt done so in ways specific to my tradition and my own particular perspective, and no doubt others might suggest different emphases and imply different solutions.

But I also have no doubt that the emphases implied by Wesleyan and Anglican tradition, articulated by process and continentalist philosophy, and affirmed by contemporary biblical exegesis at least touch upon rudiments of catholic Christian faith. And I hope that these things might suffice for some accord. The crisis of global climate change is precisely the sort of crisis that requires a catholic Christian spirit, and the way into the coming of the kingdom of God surely cannot be the alienating thinking that has so marked the internal strife of Christendom. Indeed, the rigid boundaries between denominations for the last several hundred years may well prove to have been a luxury of that collapsed reality. It seems doubtful that we can afford them now.

Besides, the very nature of heroic thinking is that which disregards immediate and self-interested problems in favor of the larger and longer good. And the story of the created and coming kingdom of God is precisely that story which produces heroes. The premodern, modern and postmodern narratives concerning God, world and humanity all constrict, distort, or condemn human agency to the point where it cannot healthily function. And it has been precisely these narratives that have throughout the centuries produced the ignorance, greed, and cynicism that has caused and perpetuated the current climatological crisis.

But the narrative of the love of God and God’s creatures founded in the Hebrew Bible, expressed in Jesus of Nazareth and promised in the revelation of the kingdom of God is precisely the love that gently guides, dramatically restores and transformatively blesses human nature into its fully recreated potential. It is love that makes the most powerful human agents, and love is what those human agents are for. It is love that breaks though the indecisive paralysis produced by the senseless multiplicity and sterile duplicity of our Western culture.

‘What, then, are we to do?’ is the perpetual contemporary question. But the answer is both simpler and more enduring than we might believe. If Christians are right that God so loved the world that he sent his only son, only sane response is to so love his son and the world that we love God back. All else must be secondary. All paths directed toward this end must be sacral and must certainly be blessed. The secret of the kingdom of God, after all, is that it lies within us. The heroes of the kingdom of love cannot be isolated individuals but must surely be a teeming multitude, a whole host of witnesses to the atrocities that humanity commits against love and love’s dominion.

In the story of the coming of the kingdom of God, each and every participating human person gets to be a hero in Christ. And if the biblical solution to the crisis is always broader than the inclinations that led to the crisis, then there must surely be more right answers within the kingdom than there are wrong answers outside of it. The narrow way leads unto the broad boulevards of heaven. In every case, the loving must only be heroic, and the heroic must only be

Already, for example, there have been two main types of heroism suggested: the idealistic, quiet and renewed ascetism which opts out of the capitalist and industrialist systems that have produced global warming, perhaps best displayed in the elegiac film Off the Map; and the pragmatic, hard-hitting, and tireless advocacy of the Green movement, perhaps best exemplified in the unflagging person of Ralph Nader. Neither of these are wrong, as one maintains the idealist vision necessary for a comedic resolution to the drama of climate change, and the other insists on the realism that prevents a tragic outcome of our story.

The disadvantage of these solutions is that they are entirely secular proposals, and one can see already the problem of dualities within the environmental movements. The benefit of a Christian narrative concerning global climate change, however, can be the addition of an embracing, conciliatory and humbling perspective for all who decide they love the world. We already have at least one prospective hero in saint Francis of Assisi. I submit that we embrace saintliness in the Protestant fashion, and become many more heroes in the sacred cause of serving God through his creation.

I might have seemed throughout these pages to suggest that the kingdom of God is synonymous with a comedic resolution to the current drama concerning the climatological crisis, and that the story of salvation is essentially equivalent to and coterminous with the story of the ecological movement. This very simply is not the case. The realm of the ecologium can be no more ultimately salvific than the realms of the politicum, ecclesium or economium have ever been or ever could be. Rather, as with all of these domains, the mandate of the kingdom of God is precisely that which is expressed in and through the structural realities of human endeavor.

I have simply argued that the agents of the kingdom of God must act within the ecological realm as surely as they must act in the political, economic, and ecclesial ones and that the kingdom of God includes all of these. It is not that the kingdom of God is a healthy ecology free of climate crises but only that there surely cannot be a kingdom of God without one. It is only another area of the stage, another act written into the script and only recently re-imagined.

But it is a crucial one. Certainly no honest Christian could contemplate clouds of pollution and claim that they manifest the glory of God, or understand the greed that strips the land of irreplaceable resources to be humanity manifesting Christ in loving liberty. And certainly no Christian would suggest that the unending desertification of Africa and the despoiling of American topsoil through petroleum-fueled monoculture is sanctification written large across the land. Through these no more souls are gained, and many more will be lost as the world’s supply of fresh water and arable land decreases.

Rather, it is to the overwhelming and intractable nature of these problems that the cynics among us will appeal. They will say that the problems are so pervasive and complex that surely there can be no substantial change and that we will either continue or we will not, independent of our efforts.

But I have deliberately written the problem of global climate change in very broad terms precisely because its nature is so systemic, so all-embracing and so much intrinsically about the human heart. It is only as humanity as touched all things that our sins have corrupted vast amounts of the creation. And it is only as our technological power of alienation has increased that we have forsaken our theological power to work within creation for the common good.

But it is precisely that theological ability that Christianity can convey, and it is precisely the transformation of hearts and minds that Christianity has perpetually addressed. The hope that a Christian narrative of climate change can convey is the hope that all of this is absolutely new, and that the solution is always and already at hand. Such hope must be even more urgent than our crisis, and its delivery is precisely that which we are loved and empowered to impart.