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Failing Nature's Trust

Updated: Dec 31, 2018

Failing Nature’s Trust

December 30, 2018

First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo

Rev. Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)


Readings: 1 Samuel 2.22-26

Psalm 148


Fifty years ago this past Christmas Eve, Apollo 8 circled the moon and took a series of awe-inspiring images. Its “astronauts expressed their amazement at the natural beauty of the planet earth floating in space by reading the biblical story of creation.”[1] Uttered a day before Christendom’s most holy worship, the words from Genesis 1 dramatized the uniqueness and solitude of living nature against the encompassing blackness of space. Both the religious and the non-religious watching on television were moved to reflect on our fragility, placement, and dependence on this blue ball of earth.

In the history of Western religion, however, earth and nature have more commonly been subordinated to the centrality of the drama between humanity and its God. The Bible “presumes a sharp dichotomy between redemption and creation.… Thus nature [in the Old Testament and the historical Church] is not only separated from human culture, but it is regarded as subservient to it.”[2]


This decentering by Biblical religion of the world of nature became the organizing environmental ideology of the European church age. Human existence came to be justified solely in the marketplace, situating the breakneck pursuit of accelerating material growth in the exploitative intensity of hydrocarbon combustion as the source of economic power. Fossil fuels and their unsustainable use have given rise to catastrophic problems of Global Warming and Climate Injustice. The extractive economy of fossil fuels and their combustion exemplifies humanity’s broken relations with nature and neighbor. Nature is obscured when refabricated into the showy baubles and moral gout of consumerism.


With Christendom’s ideology of separation of humanity from nature, alienation sets in. Alienation is humankind’s greatest psychological hang-up--alienation from God, alienation from nature, alienation from neighbor, alienation from self. Because of this alienation, humankind struggles with unbearable feelings of insecurity and insufficiency. This struggle leads Americans to overburden nature with vast demand for consumption while stockpiling commodities. The byproduct ashes of its economic processes--and the unjust distribution of greenhouse gas emissions in the common atmosphere--brings the “whole Creation [to] groaning” (as Paul writes in Ro. 8.22). We know the staggering dimensions of this alienation: Our fossil-fueled lives burn rapid and hot in almost complete experiential detachment from the rest of the earth’s natural biosphere. “Climate change is not just a pollution problem, but an indicator of how our human psyche and culture became divorced from our natural habitat.”[3] “We are ‘losing track of nature’ in [our obsessions with] ever-thickening layers of technology, video screens, virtuality, robotics,”[4] Hollywood portrayals of industrialized space colonization, unhindered jet travel, economic perpetual motion machines, etc. All these require ever more combustion of carbon compounds to power our escapist diversions from the reality of ecological limits.


As global society continues its descent into climate change, the Church is tasked with discerning God’s will with regards to an appropriate relationship with nature and with the victims of climate injustice. Psalm 148 pictures harmonious worship of all creatures. In Psalms like these, Creation is a circle with hands joined, not a ladder nor a pinnacle to climb. Our human station is as God’s trustees inside the natural world, not at its apex. Trusteeship, which I believe better conveys the Hebrew idea of radah in Gen. 1.28 traditionally translated as “dominion”—trusteeship incorporates ideas found in Jesus’ parables’; creation care in Gen. 2; and a mutual relationship between God and humanity that requires human “faith keeping” for the sake of the poor and the unborn. Trusteeship is human faith’s reciprocal responsibility to keep God’s faith in us as we abide in nature and take only a justifiable portion of its fruits, sharing the yearly fruits with the poor and sustaining nature’s productive base for future generations. Christian society is grossly failing in its trusteeship designated by God inside our household in nature. The most apparent husks of nature being abused and over-extracted are the depletion and dirtying of water and air, the primary bases of life.


In stark contrast to creation’s trustees bringing in the Kingdom of God, fracking is the brutal epitome of the gushing forth of the Kingdom of Oil. Fracking pulverizes landforms containing petroleum and natural gas, often bound in shale, injecting large amounts of water at high pressure to separate the methane and oil from the fractured rubble, then sequestering the now-poisonous water runoff underground or in surface ditches. Hilda Koster links the impetus for this violence against nature to the epidemic of sex trafficking and rape that is engaged by the fracking field workers of North Dakota.[5] A deformed human agency intended by God for loving relationships pervertedly carries off Native American young women into sexual servitude. Correspondingly, the human soul’s agency intended by God for trusteeship of nature is deformed by the mania of ruinous extraction and destruction of natural landforms, leaving behind a desert of poisoned aquifers, sooty air, methane emissions, and compacted and nutrient-depleted soils. In the North Dakota oil patch as elsewhere in the extractive economy, these deformations of moral agency violate the image of God in vulnerable women and the image of God in nature’s life-sustaining features. These linked violations of sexual and ecological integrity are human sinfulness run amok, a geography of violence, a domination feedback loop that raises social temper and global temperature. [6] The fossil fuel industry’s environmental and social pathologies exemplify systemic evil--what our reading from 1st Samuel categorizes as the “sin against God.”


Idolatry is the sin against God for which no one can make human intercession, as Eli in this morning’s first reading points to. I not only invite you but urge you to read and meditate on the first commandment of the ten in Ex. 20.3. Less preached is the lead curse against idolatry in Deuteronomy 27.15 leading a long list of curses. In both passages, the avoidance of idolatry is framed as the foundational human duty toward God. Idolatry in the Bible names the fundamental human disloyalty against God—often framed by the prophets as “adulterous” worship of a fabricated demon/idol.


Moloch was the demon/idol to which the Israelites’ neighbors sacrificed children by fire. The Church commemorates December 27 in the Feast of the Slaughter of the Innocents, recalling Herod’s evil decree putting children to death in his lust to retain power. Herod was under the sway of this demon/idol. A contemporary slaughter of innocents is ongoing with Global Warming: 60% of animal, reptile, fish, and bird species have gone extinct since 1970,[7] while “more than 88 percent of the existing burden of disease attributable to climate change occurs in children younger than five years old…Children are uniquely at risk to the direct impacts of climate changes like a climate-related disaster—including floods and storms—where they are exposed to increased risk of injury, death, loss of or separation from caregivers, disease, and mental health consequences.”[8] It is appalling that entrenched economic interests are so under the sway of the idol Moloch that they stand unmoved by the carnage of children. The Moloch of Oil robs opportunity for environmental flourishing from the young and the unborn, and other species.


The Union of Concerned Scientists has petitioned the Church to begin to lead on the issue of Climate Injustice. As some of you know, I am developing church practices for a community of Marin congregations to reduce their carbon emissions and take more of a leadership role in resisting Climate Change and Injustice. I feel deeply the urgency for the planet, for my children, and for all children and future generations. In the 1990s, I worked to develop an alternative form of economics called “ecological economics” designed to take into account the material limits nature imposes on the human production process.


In 2008 I audited the carbon footprints of this church and St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. The latter I led toward zeroing out its carbon emissions, known as carbon neutrality, the first church to go carbon neutral in San Francisco. The following year, I led the carbon audit of San Francisco Theological Seminary. That may have been the first carbon audit of any seminary in the United States. I’ve been studying the intersection of carbon emissions and theology and church practice for over 10 years. And I strongly believe the church needs to step up and lead in this ecological crisis.


So what are we to do in this atmospheric crisis--this frightfully urgent, existential crisis for humanity? 1) without waiting for others or society to act, we must hasten to stimulate individual lifestyle changes that reduce hydrocarbon combustion and promote more focused human trusteeship of nature. Trusteeship situated inside the ethic of the Golden Rule subordinates self-interest to the rights and floushing of others, especially other creatures, future generations, and the vulnerable. 2) We must name the combustion-powered extractive economy as a human-fabricated idol and frame it as systemic evil--the primary example of the broken human relationship with God and God’s creation. And 3) we must transition from subordinating nature to human utilitarian and economic interests to instead affirm and value all natural creatures as bearers of God’s love and agents of God’s praise—they no less than humanity. Nature is intrinsically valuable as God’s creation, and its species have a right to flourish beyond their use to humankind.


We in the church can also witness to our decarbonizing lifestyles and carbon thrift. Lifestyle witnessing has been shown to be effective in persuading others to link with us.[9] Without trying to be self-righteous, we can testify to our practices and spur our neighbors to mirror them. To that end, I recently audited my 2018 carbon footprint and discovered that one-half of neutralizing that footprint could be accomplished by personal lifestyle changes, and 1/4 by the realization of 80% gains in the energy grid’s efficiency possible with current technologies. The final ¼ can be addressed by the purchase of legitimate carbon offsets. My current personal lifestyle choices can bring about twice the decarbonization that social and technological change can!


My New Year’s resolutions this upcoming year are to increase my carbon thrift--and to share with others a Gospel witness of trusteeship inside God’s created natural commonwealth. I have reduced my rate of laundering by half, and I have reduced my weekly duration in hot showers by 60%. Previously, I halved my jet travel, and I’ve been cutting down on beef. In 2019, I will halve both again. I will cut my purchases of technology and material goods by 30% in 2019. I will relocalize: buying more locally-produced foods. Relocalizing cuts embedded supply-chain and transportation energy inputs dramatically. While many have already divested investments from fossil fuel corporations and assets, index funds as an alternative also partially incorporate dirty industries, so we might also resolve in 2019 to reinvest in fossil fuel-free capital funds. Both personal lifestyle change and social action are necessary, but neither is sufficient alone. It’s BOTH AND. I will preach in June on some ways collective action and reform of economics can address this Global Warming crisis.


It’s important to note that catastrophic climate change and global warming will worsen faster and more furious over the next 30 years[10] even if nations immediately implement the Paris Agreement reductions of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. If we can break the systemic intransigence on this issue, humanity might stop global warming at 2 degrees C-- IF we act drastically right now. But further adverse global and local catastrophes are baked into the momentum of the greenhouse effect even in this best case.


I have two pastoral recommendations for dealing with the certainty of worsening climate news: hope, like thrift, is a virtue, and as such must be consciously cultivated so we can keep active and diligent—combatting the kind of sustained despair for which our children and grandchildren have no use.[11] Make a regular inventory of your thankfulness and blessings, count off your appreciations of natural beauty and ecological harmonies, develop an increasing loyalty to our earthly home. Second: feel yourself connected to the massed global awakening and social movements on this issue of combating climate injustice. If we try to face global warming stoically and alone, we will be overwhelmed by the accruing awful news. Cultivate the virtues of hope, thrift, loyalty to place, and social connection as you fight the good and urgent fight against climate injustice. For strength, guidance, and atmospheric healing, pray to the Holy Spirit.


For ancient Israel conceived of the Holy Spirit’s habitation in the atmosphere above the churning waters at creation. Solidarity with the Holy Spirit’s work to foster life and justice, to stand with the vulnerable, poor, and oppressed—means to stand inside the wind-forming home of the Spirit, the air from God, the ruach. Fellowship with the Holy Spirit includes Fellowship with the atmosphere—its balances, health-giving integrity, and life-sustaining foundation. These are nature’s salvation processes—its saving and sustaining functions. The earth’s atmosphere, like the Holy Spirit, permeates God’s very good creation of our earth home.


When we develop the appropriate individual virtues and practices, the holy, whirling air known to the ancient Israelites as ruach will howl politically to blow apart the “closed-loop discourse” that human society is engaging on the issue of Climate Injustice. Our economic ash heaps and airless discourse need the fresh and dazzling sunlight cascading through God’s Holy Spirit atmosphere. Out here on the edge of our galaxy, in the dark, on the far edge of the airless vacuum of space, our home is the radiant miracle of a tree-filled landscape and shimmering blue waters powered by the Sun. Here the “Creator’s beauty and wisdom and logic filamented [through the vapor of clouds and air] sustain[s] every cell[,] membrane and muscle, every stem[,] fruit and feather.”[12] Let our worship of God ring out in our praise of the Holy Spirit’s infusion of nature, and its atmospheric cycles and balances that God gives for life-sustenance. Let us praise also our neighbors-- the reverent silence of animals that adds its witness to our prayerful awe. Let our adoration prepare us with the skills and strength to fiercely resist and change entrenched systems of economic and climatological injustice. AMEN.

[1] Theodore Hiebert, The Yahwist's Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel. Oxford, 1996, pp.3-7


[2] Ibid.


[3] Bendell, Jem. Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. Manuscript. 2018.

Available at http://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf


[4] Lisa E. Dahill. “Rewilding Christian Spirituality: Outdoor Sacraments and the Life of the World.” Manuscript. 2015 presidential address to the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality, titled “Into Local Waters: Rewilding the Study of Christian Spirituality,” and forthcoming in Fall 2016 in Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality


[5] Koster, Hilda P. “Trafficked Lands: Sexual Violence, Oil, and Structural Evil in the Dakotas.” In Planetary Solidarity: Global Women’s Voices on Christian Doctrine and Climate Justice, edited by Kim, Grace Ji-Sun and Koster, Hilda P., 155–178. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017.


[6] global temperature rise of just 2 degrees Celsius could increase intergroup conflicts (such as civil wars) by over 50 percent. See also https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/01/climate-change-and-violence_n_3692023.html?ir=Green&utm_campaign=080213&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Alert-green&utm_content=Title#slide=2364899


[7] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/30/humanity-wiped-out-animals-since-1970-major-report-finds


[8] https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/Global-Warming-Childrens-Health.aspx


[9] Teresa A. Myers et. al. “A Public Health Frame Arouses Hopeful Emotions About Climate Change.” Climatic Change 113, 2013.


[10] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07586-5?fbclid=IwAR0F2U7ExYdvtX1YR-Erhz-2RQjSXs7aJIHXVgg_ingR69MOF5WvqRJ6dok


[11] “’Hopelessness’ and its related emotions of dismay and despair are understandably feared but wrongly assumed to be entirely negative and to be avoided whatever the situation. Alex Steffen warned that ‘Despair is never helpful’ (2017). However, the range of ancient wisdom traditions see a significant place for hopelessness and despair. Contemporary reflections on people’s emotional and even spiritual growth as a result of their hopelessness and despair align with these ancient ideas. The loss of a capability, a loved one or a way of life, or the receipt of a terminal diagnosis have all been reported, or personally experienced, as a trigger for a new way of perceiving self and world, with hopelessness and despair being a necessary step in the process (Matousek, 2008). In such contexts ‘hope’ is not a good thing to maintain, as it depends on what one is hoping for. When the debate raged about the value of the New York Magazine article, some commentators picked up on this theme. “In abandoning hope that one way of life will continue, we open up a space for alternative hopes,” wrote Tommy Lynch (2017).” -Bendel 2018


[12] Dahill 2015.

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