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No safe place except hope: The Anthropocene epoch

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series. The second part, “A scriptural response to the Anthropocene,” will appear on Friday. The third part, “Global struggles and the Anglican vocation,” will appear on Saturday.

I am an American Episcopalian who works within the Anglican Church of Canada. These two churches have now converged in their acceptance of same-sex marriage, although Canada’s proposed canon change must pass a second reading in three years. With many of my more traditional colleagues, I am deeply disappointed. I have ended up, quite against my natural desires, devoting much energy to these debates in the past 25 years. Most of my argument has failed to convince, and from one perspective, these efforts now seem wasted.

I am also deeply committed to the life of the wider Anglican Communion, which formed my faith and ministry and for which I am profoundly grateful to God. Responsibility for the health and witness of this Communion continues to weigh on me, and, again with others, I must discern what this means for my ministry.

Disappointed and confused as I am, I do not believe the current developments over same-sex marriage in our churches represent a critical threshold moment. That moment, as I will point out, passed long ago in some sense. America, Canada, and much of Europe have civil laws keeping same-sex marriage solidly in place, and these have preceded the churches’ decisions. (I predict other parts of the world will follow soon.) It is these civil laws and their genesis and meaning that deserve more scrutiny right now than the vagaries of a few misguided and ecclesially isolated Christian leaders, such as the majority of our American and Canadian bishops.

A major part of my scholarly work as a theologian has focused on pneumatology and history, along with the Church’s place within history. This study has led me, in part, to look for broader meanings and trends in the Church’s life within the world and God’s providence, providential movements that go beyond this or that individual decision and error. Same-sex marriage, and the churches’ embrace of it here and there, needs to be examined in this context. Without looking at the bigger picture here, Christians risk losing the plot altogether. Indeed, we have already done that to a large and unfortunate degree.

In light of such a “bigger picture,” I believe that the recent debate in our churches over same-sex marriage has been a distraction from a more fundamental challenge Christians must face. Not that same-sex marriage is unimportant, or should not be opposed. But it is hardly an anti-evangelical Rubicon. At worst, same-sex marriage is a late-stage sign of a far deeper, wider, and long-rooted set of cultural and social changes that have completely reoriented human existence away from its prior and universal understanding of purpose. These changes have engulfed almost all Christians in the world, largely because they are global changes, systemic in every respect, complex, and voracious.

Aspects of these changes have, in themselves, little moral character. Others are intrinsically repugnant. Taken together, however, they constitute an attempt at reinventing what it means to be human. They thereby profoundly obscure our true human character as creatures of God; indeed, they have obscured from our eyes God himself. Since Christians are also bound up in these vast socio-cultural changes, our calling to clarify the truth in their face has been made very difficult indeed: in speaking the truth, we are criticizing ourselves. We are all caught up in the dynamics of the anti-human in major and profound ways, whatever stand we take on individual issues. There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian. It is a new epoch.

The Anthropocene

Since the 1980s, some scientists have said that the earth has entered a new geological epoch, beginning perhaps in the late 18th century. The previous epoch, known as the “Holocene,” began 13,000 years ago. These two epochs are the most recent slices of the Cenozoic era, which started over 60 million years ago, and saw the rise of mammals and birds. The newest epoch, dubbed the “Anthropocene,” involves major changes in the earth’s life forms, mainly the explosive increase of the human population and the radical contraction of non-human forms of life (the loss of “biodiversity”).

Scientists who have followed this framework are interested in broader geological changes that have taken place in the last 200 years, almost all human-influenced: changes to the earth’s atmosphere, the distribution of water on the surface of the earth, chemical compositions of water and soil, structures of subsoil layers, and so on. These changes correlate with the shifting distribution of life on the earth, and the expansion and activities of human beings have caused them.

Most of us are familiar with aspects of these discussions, which have entered into popular ecological and environmental debate. What has been far less discussed are the socio-cultural aspects of the Anthropocene revolution. We are familiar with individual items, but are unaccustomed and in fact uncomfortable in seeing their coherent linkage. These socio-cultural aspects tend to fall into three main areas: geography, health and lifespan, and social identity. This is the big picture.

The geographical element involves what is today the complete intermixing of peoples around the world. It includes transportation, communication, mobility in work, immigration, religious encounter and interrelations, and the disappearance of group isolation.

The health/lifespan element includes the general doubling of the human lifespan in the last century, and a range of medical responses to human disease, accident, and frailty. Within this category are also a host of other revolutionary changes: fertility rates, child-rearing, sexuality, family order, gender character, and the nature of work. So too is included the paradoxically deliberate rejection of life, through the veiling of death and the embrace of suicide and euthanasia as morally neutral or even affirmative human choices.

The third cultural category of the Anthropocene revolution involves social identity, and is obviously related to changes in the other two categories. This category is overtly political, but also involves how individual persons relate to others. What is a nation? To whom do we bear allegiance, and hence what constitutes “loyalty” or social “commitment” even among smaller collectivities? What does it mean to educate a person, and to what end? The social identity category also includes basic aspects of social ordering: the vast urbanization of the world’s population and the changes in the way people relate to neighbors (if they are viewed as such), to work, and to the earth and sky that are increasingly difficult to touch, see, and hear. The economies, in the technical sense, that maintain these shifting orderings have been the subject of much debate and conflict; but their relationship with other aspects of our changed circumstances is rarely confronted. What we see in our polities instead are inarticulate surges of popular and fractured discontent that horrify in their sudden manifestations of violence, and that baffle political commentators who try to explain neatly the sources of polarizations and dissatisfactions within societies.

We are all familiar with individual issues in this collection; they are part of what we debate in newspapers, political campaigns, and church synods. But we miss the point in taking them individually. What needs to be stressed about these changes is that they are global, and this is why they can be labeled together as a single phenomenon. Linked to the “geological” transformations of the earth, the socio-cultural changes of the Anthropocene revolution touch everyone, indeed grasp everyone: African to Inuit, Chinese to Amazonian, Christian to Muslim to atheist. The changes are inescapable; there is no safe place. Sects, homeschooling, madrassas, farming communes — no single order will spare you.

It is not clear what Christians should make of all this, and our failure to come to grips with what we are living through is tied to our distractions over individual elements of the bigger picture. There are several broad things I would point out with respect to the character of the Anthropocene:

First, the moral character of its various elements is mixed. Few people would argue that a range of medical and technological discoveries are bad: safe childbirth, antibiotics, and surgery are in fact all decidedly good. One might have more debate over the telephone, camera or television, and the Internet, even if no one dare throw these overboard. More debate still might surge over the automobile and airplane. Few would defend guns and bombs as inherently beneficial. Politically, the issues over the economies of production and distribution, including capitalism in its various guises, are hardly morally neutral, but no one really knows how to resolve them well. The wide acceptance of “human rights” and forms of democratic decision-making, while briefly understood as a great advance for world polities, is now showing signs of cracking. One could go down the list: we are paralyzed in our evaluations and responses both.

Taken together, however, there are several common features tied to this huge Anthropocene shift, of which I will note only three: no one in the history of the world has ever lived the way we now live together; there is little evidence that human beings are happier than they once were, and violence and death are unabated; finally, almost every stable form for ordering the “arc” of the human lifespan that societies in the past have followed — including the Christian Church — has dissolved.

Second, there is a unique religious aspect to this new period of history. I am unqualified to say if in fact we have entered a new geological epoch. Scripture suggests, nonetheless, that periods of human history are divinely ordered (e.g., Daniel). These periods probably should not be seen as exclusively fixed chronological frameworks, but as descriptors of the ways that the Word of God relates to specific human collectivities and the ways these in turn respond. To understand our “time” in history, then, we discern something of its scriptural location, even if that location might apply to a range of “times.”

Anthropocene is a secular term. Yet it seems to stand in for such a scripturally explained period (one thinks of Hosea 10-13, along Isaiah 14, where Israel and Babylon have become one in their pride): we live in the epoch of the Anthropos, where everything has been excluded except the human.

No one sat around and planned this. But this is where we have ended up, and because of this I believe it is possible and correct in the end to evaluate our new global epoch negatively. Human life in the Anthropocene epoch has exclusively turned in on itself, in a way that is frenzied in its search for stability and meaning, even as it consumes all the sources of wisdom that millennia of human life has provided. The result is that the human race has almost completely lost sight of the two great truths of human life itself, creature and Creator. It is fundamentally the case, although it is now socially forgotten, that we are frail and mortal creatures of a God who created us in grace and relates to us in a subsuming power and love that does not override our creaturely frailty, but that somehow underscores it as a gift. In brief, the Anthropocene epoch utterly obscures God and our relation to God.

Finally, in discussing the nature of our new human context, we must acknowledge the sheer voraciousness of the Anthropocene reality. Everything about the way we order our lives — from iPhones to supermarkets to contraception to PowerPoints to political campaigns and the publishing of books and playing of music, from how we study or spend our vacations or exercise to how we have children and talk to our children or talk about other people close or far away — all of this is caught up in dynamics of expectation and interaction that are a part of the obscuring character of our era. Because our churches are made up of the people of this era who live in this now transformed globalized culture, they are part and parcel of almost all of the dynamics of the Anthropocene: individualized, grasping, superficially attuned to their being, unstable and unaware, drifting, inarticulately anxious.

To address these realities, church leaders simply take hold of the very tools that the Anthropocene has bequeathed them: productivity, organizing limited antipathies, advertising, manipulation, self-promotion. Those who take stands against same-sex marriage — rightly — are still fully part of an intricate culture of divine disregard, whose tentacles order the lives of their children as much as themselves.

The generational divide on these matters is not a surprise: younger Christians mostly accept same-sex marriage. After all, the young are fully formed in the culture their parents have raised them in. And it remains the case that most traditional Christians simply live and accept the alternative views of their offspring. Hypocrisy is not the issue here – although it is sometimes that. Traditional Christians are mostly living with a false sense of purpose, as if saying “no” to the Anthropocene in this one place — sex — will turn the tide. It won’t.

There is no safe place. “The whole world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian,” St. Jerome once wrote about the strange ways that the Church in the fourth century almost wholly lost its way on a fundamental truth about Jesus. We are now, arguably, in a worse place: we have woken up — or have we? — to find the whole world (read Church) become idolators. The words of Isaiah and Amos have come together, as Israel and the nations are now joined in a single epoch of sifting:

For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel among all nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth. (Amos 9:9 KJV)

Behold, the name of the Lord cometh from far, burning with his anger, and the burden thereof is heavy: his lips are full of indignation, and his tongue as a devouring fire: And his breath, as an overflowing stream, shall reach to the midst of the neck, to sift the nations with the sieve of vanity: and there shall be a bridle in the jaws of the people, causing them to err. (Isa. 30:27-28 KJV)

Both Amos and Isaiah will have words of hope that follow these warnings. This hope, however, is not given in a way that bypasses this universal sifting. In such a time, there is no safe place; the mountains and the hills cannot even cover us, for they too cannot hold firm (Luke 23;30; Rev. 9:6).



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