Note: in the Creation Time resource for Week 4 written by our friend Rev Dr Tamás Kodácsy of the Hungarian Eco-Congregation ( Ökogyülekezet )you will find a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reminding us powerfully that human relationships can be a “Yes to the Earth”.
There are many ways in which you can use the material we have gathered and presented: for personal devotion, small group work, and to enrich congregational life and worship.
Summer reading….sort of.
In line with my belief that it is in our reading of mainstream Christianity that the most compelling environmental arguments will be found, I’m trying to look at some few things which might have been referred to in theology books and courses, but which I otherwise never got round to inspecting first hand in the whirl of everyday ministry, or the unseemly haste of university study.
A case in point are the “Prison Letters” of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, as a ‘martyr’ pastor of the Confessing Church in Hitler’s Third Reich, is almost always referred to in hushed tones. The translations we have ‘grown up with’ of course, like the Bibles we live with, reflect the times in which they were made.
So, for instance, Bonhoeffer’s scathing attacks on, lukewarm and pliable ‘religion’ (= lacking in integrity, and more concerned with heaven than love for the Earth) which were used in the sixties to support a damaging attack on spirituality altogether in (British) churches, really don’t seem to lend themselves to this use. The (mixed) comfort he found in the resources of traditional devotionalism is also instructive.
Reading in German, I’m finding a picture of a deeply conventional citizen and committed, even patriotic German Christian under impossible, intractable pressure and threat, confronted by his own flaws (not least, a somewhat belligerent nature).
It’s comparable, in that sense, to the wilder apocalyptic literature of the New Testament: what happens to your faith when the pips squeak? What of hope, when each day brings reason to abandon it? Though hope is more meaningful when your faith is characterised by “this-sidedness” [Diesseitigkeit] rather than an anaesthetic longing for the Other Side/World Beyond, which to the great credit of Bonhoeffer, he sees as appropriate, if at all, only to the moment of death.
Like some Christian writers of our day, reflecting on a damaged climate, Bonhoeffer is drawn to a more radical incarnationalism, an appreciation of the underlying reality of the goodness of Creation and the relationships it offers, which are to be savoured and celebrated.
““dass ein Mensch in den Armen seiner Frau sich nach dem Jenseits sehnen soll, das ist, milde gesagt eine Geschmacklosigkeit und jedenfalls nicht Gottes Wille”
[The idea that someone might, in the loving arms of their [partner] be longing instead for the World Beyond, is, to put it mildly, lacking in taste, and in any case, not the ‘Will of God’]
Thus, the value of the letters from prison, remembering too, the letter of Paul from prison (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) is as a window onto faith under desperate pressure. More pressure, admittedly, than pressures under which I labour, though in some ways, well-nigh as ‘global’ in their impact on everyday life.
So given the threats we (and the world) face, which few of us can fully take in, then, in order to act and pray appropriately what can we really learn from such Writings of Crisis?
In one letter to a theological soul-friend, Bonhoeffer raises the squeamishly uncomfortable subject of ‘pudenda’ : the parts of what we are that we tend, for decency’s sake, to cover up. He suggests that fear may have become part of this: we are ashamed of our fears, as if they were in some sense an improper reaction to threat.
As I’ve noted before, fear is a gift: there are times when it’s right to be afraid, even if only because it opens our ears to the angelic message not to be!
We should probably also understand, in perspective, Bonhoeffer’s tendency to be comforted by a hierarchy of suffering, which disrupts many of our own discussions of sensitive issues.
People who are ‘up against it’ may well see everything more sharply, though, first of all, that doesn’t actually make them right. (And I realise I’m stepping outside some over-easy conventional wisdom in saying this.)
The folk reading of the ‘IHS’ on the pulpit drop as “I have suffered” does not necessarily lend authority. Suffering may lead to bitterness, vengefulness and damaged ability to make decisions – as well as insights not previously accessible. But you can understand how Bonhoeffer felt that
“Nur, wenn Man das Leben und die Erde so liebt, dass mit ihr alles verloren und zu ende zu sein scheint, darf man an die Auferstehung der Toten und eine neue Welt glauben”
[“Only if you have come to love both life and the Earth [as you know it] to such an extent, that with their passing, everything seems lost and at an end, are you permitted to believe in the Resurrection of the Dead and a New [Heaven and Earth]]
…but I beg to differ. Christian faith is not restricted to the pioneers of suffering. The hierarchical exclusivity of suffering should be resisted, even as its insights are respected. Because, secondly, even if they are right, the gift of their witness may need the spiritual interpretation (strengthening as well as, more usually, softening) of a community’s contextual interpretation. This was understood in the congregations of the Earliest Church. (cf 1 John: 4).
How, though, do we, like the prosperous status quo of Nineveh, (cf Book of Jonah) act right now on the warnings of the climate prophets and suffering sisters and brothers of our day; how do we act on the prophetic messages of the Earth itself , before they reach disastrous fulfilment?
Green Christian concern is not a minority or marginal calling, nor one to be shuffled off onto the annoying enthusiast in the congregation with an environmental conscience. On the contrary, look with genuine pride on your own fellowship if they find room for such a Green Thorn in the side of church life. And if you’re the thorn yourself, remember you have grown from the stem.
In passing, this is a story I hear very frequently, and not just in churches: the burden of ostracism (whether overt or unspoken) carried by those who insist on talking about climate issues on “inappropriate” occasions (Christmas, family parties etc). I usually congratulate such offenders. We should also congratulate the churches that, even if they don’t move ‘fast enough’, find room for, or even welcome these irritating people.
In the Early Church, ‘awkward bastards’ were known as ‘prophets’. Respected advocates of change for the benefit of others. Though not ruling out their own welfare: we are all of us enmeshed in communities of one sort or another. The possibility, that helping others helps you, is no cause to hesitate. We’re back with the inhibiting force of inappropriate shame here:
Theres’s always a danger that promoting something, that might benefit you personally, undermines what you’re about. This goes back a long way, not least to the document known as the ‘Didache’ or ‘the teaching of the Apostles’,
“no prophet who orders a meal in a spirit shall eat of it: otherwise he is a false prophet.
12 …. whosoever shall say in a spirit `Give me money, or something else,’ you shall not listen to him; but if he tell you to give on behalf of others in want, let none judge him.
The Didache comes from the first century, earlier than some parts of the Bible.
This was a time when the emerging culture of the church, a grudgingly tolerated and sometimes persecuted faith group, liked to welcome visiting ‘prophets’ who came with a touch of spiritual theatre about them, perhaps comparable to the “hwyl” of a Welsh preacher, getting carried away.
Not just the preacher, of course: congregations are allowed to be passionate. When I preached in Jamaica some years ago, it was amazingly affirming to hear ‘amen’s and the odd ‘hallelujah!’ coming from the congregation.
Passionate spiritual enthusiasm, however expressed, (and there are infinite varieties of expression) is a life-saving expression of a church with an awareness ( or a remembered tradition) – or a myth – of threat. From which might follow a questioning of the calm acceptance of the status quo (which is now, de facto, a slippery slope to climate catastrophe).
But passion and enthusiasm too, suffer under the barrier of shame.
How did I arrive at these thoughts?
I attended the Climate Challenge Fund’s Transport Gathering, and, to get there, travelled the narrow canal toe-path cycle route. It’s lovely, though when it gets busy, you’re in some danger of ending up in the canal. I could not but be impressed at how it is taken for granted that passive (conventional motor vehicle) rather than “active transport” (walking, cycling, public transport) has dominated most of our lifetime decisions about infrastructure, and indeed finance. The cycle route is hidden away, shoved in a second-hand space, or acknowledge with an intermittent white line. I recall one in North Wales which was barely the length of a bus.
The “real road” is still the one for cars. It’s a mindset in stone, asphalt steel and space. Anything else is a ‘less worthy member’. Clear, in a language we understand, even if unstated in words.
And it isn’t just infrastructure. Throughout the whole of my ministry, the expenses acknowledgment of cycle mileage has been exactly the same, whilst car claims have risen. Brake-pads, tyres, chains, gears are a cost that cyclists have, on the whole, gladly carried.
What if churches and businesses could offer the same mileage for bikes as for cars (which might actually be realistic, for quality or e-bikes). And yes though , I’d benefit from that myself. (£4 from yesterday’s outing) would that be another aspect of the change of mind we need to embrace, the shame we need to put behind us? The HMRC hasn’t got there yet, so employers can still shift the blame.
There was more carrot-rather-than stick wisdom too at the gathering: from those working with hard-pressed communities whose immediate and over-riding concern is to feed their families: you don’t start your conversation with climate change and carbon footprint, but rather with the tangible benefits of the small changes that EcoCongregation Scotland also encourages: saving money, feeling cosy in your home, and so on.
On a broader scale, remember, if you’re feeling prophetic, the real good-life benefits of cleaner air, exercise, more jobs for a given investment. In the midst of all the bad news, remember the good.
That’s the way God made it.