Monday, July 24, 2023

Does it take a cataclysm to foster unity?

We are entering a dangerous phase for the world. It has been very hot in many places (not NZ). People are dying in extra-hot parts of the world. Average temperatures are shockingly high (here and here). Even our cold winter is not as cold as once was upon a time. One sign of global warming here is the state of the Franz Josef glacier. That’s the glacier at the left of centre in the photo below (snapped by me on my phone on a plane, returning from Oz, a few days ago). It looks like an extracted tooth!

The point is, the glacier once used to fill most of the valley as it snakes down the left hand corner of the photo. It is melting away as the world heats up. 

Sure there is a lot of snow in this photo, but these are our highest mountains (including Aoraki (Mt Cook) the highest peak in the upper right hand corner of the photo). Generally (until a storm this past weekend) our skifields have been unusually short of snow through June and early July.

Some reading on the plane as we crossed the Tasman alerted me to the scenario we Christians do not always want to contemplate, that unity may be forced on us (speaking of humanity generally) by calamity.

So far the world is not particularly united on anything, and definitely not on collective action to mitigate climate change. (Including, I acknowledge, as a recent flyer, action to stop air travel).

But, do recent heatwaves and high average temperatures mean we are closer than ever to climate change calamity and thus nearer to the possibility of humanity being pressed to unify on what we will do?

If the gospel is as Masure says (on my sidebar), that is, "Fundamentally the Gospel is obsessed with the idea of the unity of human society.", then Christians are always keen on unity - our common mindedness, our fellowship, our common life - and must reckon that a wake up call sounded by cataclysm does have at least one benefit, pressing humanity to set aside differences and work for the common good.

Speaking of such unity, I noticed a Tweet by Australian biblical scholar Michael Bird this week which fits the theme of this post:

"Just realized that Rom 15:5-6 is a perfect summary of Phil 2:1-11.
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom 15:5-6)."

Romans 15:5-6 comes at the end of Paul's great passage through Romans 14 on how his readers might unite despite strong differences over eating food offered to idols. That is, Paul is not setting out an ideal unity in Christ without reference to the reality of sharp division. 

Having engaged with the sharp division, offered a way forward out of it, he prays for the Roman Christians for that which he also seeks for the Christians in Philippi, a unity of attitude to one another and of shared Christ-mindedness among the body of Christ which draws on the example of Christ himself.

If the chief end of humankind is the glory of God, then the implication of the last part of 15:6 is that we may not have capacity to glorify God when we have not unity!

None of us wishes the world to reach cataclysm, yet that is where we are heading, ironically because we cannot and will not motivate ourselves to find common cause on a means of avoiding cataclysm.

Of course, implicit in Romans 15:5-6 and Philippians 2:1-11, is the sobering point that if the world is to be unified, the church is to be a signpost and a model of that unity.

I need say nothing further about whether the signpost points in the right direction or the model is functioning well.


  1. Thanks +Peter, great post. It's crazy we humans are leaning so hard into division. The church should be different. (You've given me much to ponder).

    "We need plants to make oxygen, microbes for fertile soil, pollinators for our crops, fish from the oceans, and all of it – every last wild plant and animal – to store carbon and reduce the effects of climate change. And while we can no longer save every species, we certainly can maintain functioning ecosystems if we start addressing the twin climate and ecological crises as the emergencies they are. If we succeed in that, we will have taken a giant stride to ensuring the persistence of the one species that really does matter to most of us – ourselves." ~

  2. A paradox of faith.

    Action undertaken to achieve the ends of faithful people is slightly less effective than that of others who think instrumentally. So the idea of the Body as some great reservoir of earthly power that can be channeled to do big things is not sound.

    But non-instrumental actions undertaken simply to be faithful in the place and time that we are given sometimes spreads like a meme with good results among people who do not share the originating faith. So far, only the Body has been able to muster the critical mass to do this in peacetime.

    For one simple example of many, Mark's beloved Quakers decided that it was *dishonest* to dicker over prices and so they took the considerable risk of setting fixed prices. That cut their customers off from the *relationship pricing* to which they had been entitled. Today, that is the default practice nearly everywhere, and the downstream effects of that have been vast and excellent. But that is not why Quakers did it.

    So disciples should and do pay attention to climate change as a clue to how they might concretely live their faith differently. As experimenters among them find less earth-stressing ways to live, some of these will catch on so that the frozen lumpenmass of society at large can thaw and move.

    Churchgoers, on the other hand, face a natural temptation to instrumentalize their religion to get quick shallow feel-good results. The whole idea of mere churchgoing is to get the benefits of religion without the personal transformation in Christ of actual discipleship. So churchgoers conform rather than experiment, which is the essence of their creative impotence.

    Bad faith motivating ineffectual virtue-signaling promotes cynicism about the churches and their faith without informing or changing life on the ground. This should just stop, and the merciful Holy Spirit is indeed closing this kind of church all over the West.

    So the question that climate change poses is not, at least not at first, what will we all hold hands and do about it? Rather -- how do we pray about it in Christ? Prayer opens the Way. As so often, it is not opinions that we need but saints.


  3. Two views--

    Russell Moore. “Losing My Religion” The Bulwark. 28 July 2023 The interview begins at 8:30.

    Jake Meador. "Why Did So Many People Stop Going to Church?" The Atlantic. 29 July 2023.

    Two more views—


  4. Postscript

    Although my comments on disciples and churchgoers are usually more evenhanded, 1:48 can be read as flatly disparaging churchgoers. That results more from typing on the fly into a small screen on a phone than from the nature of churchgoing in the West in the third millennium.

    The distinction is broad but concrete and empirical. In any given church on any given Sunday, all in the room will presumably enjoy the hymns and prayers, reading and preaching, rituals and company. Kindly note, dear reader, that every person in the room is having a religious experience from God. Whether understood or not, God is faithful.

    Most enjoy church as members of a family and class or as dwellers of a place or possibly as partisans for a sort of politics. To them, all that is said and sung is to them an enactment of those affiliations at their best. The death of a pious grandparent say or a move to another city or a new civic purpose could challenge their motivation for going to church. In the course of life, many lose that and some of those rediscover it several times. Whenever they do have it, they are being bound, loosely or otherwise, into the unity that the Son is creating for humanity.

    Others enjoy worship as persons whose identities are bound to Jesus. Changes in their knowledge of him promote godward changes in their selves, and so they value things said or sung on Sunday morning insofar as they do this in him. If this pleasure is marred, it is by one of three objective faults: the rites dissolve participation in Jesus in worldly affiliation, they frustrate godward personal change, or another rite is more conducive to holiness. Disciples like these vary across a broad range of temperament, belief, and practice from say monks on Athos doing ritual prostrations to volunteers in homeless shelters to serious students of the scriptures. They are unified in the Son, not in shared opinions or institutions, and their sheer diversity glorifies their Creator.

    Now is better to be a disciple than not. But saying that those personally in Christ are wheat is not disparaging the rest as tares. It may be saying that the fullest uptake of all that the Holy Spirit teaches requires a self-awareness in the Son that comes earlier for some than for others but will come to all who are "changed from glory into glory." None of the lost sheep are home, and some are farther away from it than others, but the providence of God gives to each the place and the path that it needs to come home.

    Again, the sheer diversity of these lambs and their journeys over rocks, past wolves, and through storms glorifies the incomparably majestic creativity of the "Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth." Those with less of that self-awareness in the Son do not fully know the Father and so do not yet behold or understand this glory. When they speak ill of those lambs and their paths, they blaspheme the providence of the Almighty.

    Now then, when + Peter laments that churches are not stopping the shrinking of glaciers, this can be read in not fewer than two ways. One could read this as regret that those Sunday churchgoers had not yet done the engineering, mobilization, politics, etc required to slow or even reverse the retreat. Or one could read this as regret that the disciples had not yet been mindful enough of our peril to just live their material lives differently thereby setting a courageous but contagious example that others can follow.

    In some places-- I inhabit one of them-- those who would prefer the first reading would neglect, or would in practice oppose, the second. Why? Because they see disciples as intrinsically marginal to church as they know and like it. They mute expression of God's transformative love to shout his accepting love from the rooftop to passersby. Like many good intentions taken to excess, this is intolerance of what God himself is doing. For churches that only "cater" to worldly affiliations, the Holy Spirit is coming with a torch.