Can you think of a moment in your life when you were poised between two worlds? These are moments when the world you have lived in begins to crumble and a new one begins. Sometimes these moments are forced upon us, like a childhood move or an unexpected job change. Sometimes we have a measure of control, like responding to a marriage proposal or deciding whether or not to continue in the faith of our childhood. Whatever the circumstances may be, the new world arrives, and the old world is gone. There is no going back.
Sometimes world-changing moments like this come to us because we are part of something bigger than just our personal world - the complex social, cultural, political, and ecological systems that shape who we are and how we live in profound and often unseen ways. When just one of these systems crumbles, the world changes, at least a little bit, for everyone. But every so often these systems are shaken together at the same time, and the foundations of life as we know it - the world that everyone inhabits - begins to crumble, and a new world begins to appear.
We are living in one of these moments right now.
The World The West Has Made
For the past 500 years, Western culture has built a world that exerts human power over the earth in previously unimaginable ways. This culture was formed from the intellectual, social, and political life of Europe over many centuries, but took on new power in the late 1400's when explorers "discovered" new worlds across the ocean. European powers began to colonize these lands - and the native people who lived there - importing the Western worldview of dominion while exporting vast amounts of native wealth. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century pushed this worldview further along, enabling people to extract, process, use, and discard Earth’s natural materials exponentially faster than previous ages. The twentieth century introduced other technologies, such as nuclear fission and computing, which only increased human power to manipulate the world (and distance ourselves from it). And in the twenty-first century, globalization has spread this worldview and way of life to almost every nation and people group.
This is the world the West has made, a cultural construction that has been justified by several bedrock beliefs:
- That humans are, by right and by might, at the top of the planetary hierarchy.
- That some humans are, by right and by might, at the top of the social hierarchy.
- That it is good and right to reshape the world to meet human needs and desires.
- That we can wield such tremendous power without significant consequences.
For the most part, the Western Church has blessed, adopted, and contributed to this cultural project, providing theological justification for its beliefs and practical support for its advance as it has enjoyed its own tremendous growth and expansion alongside that of the wider Western world.
There is no doubt that Western culture has brought us many gifts – advances in science, education, technology, and economics have enhanced human life and understanding in many ways. In the midst of much injustice there has been a persistent strain of humanism that has sought to elevate the virtues of compassion and mercy and to alleviate human suffering. There has also been a vision of human freedom, though selectively practiced and painfully restrictive, that has challenged rigid human hierarchies and sought justice for the poor and oppressed. And for people of faith, the fact that followers of Jesus can now be found in almost every culture on Earth is something to celebrate. But as the great Teacher once said,
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole word, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36).
The Great Unraveling
For a long time, the apparent benefits of this way of life have blinded beneficiaries to its inevitable bankruptcy. Simply put, too many people are asking too much of the earth, and the costs are mounting. The influence of humanity on the earth has become so pervasive that many scientists believe we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene (the Age of Humans). We have answered the Genesis call to “fill the earth,” but have twisted the additional mandates – to “subdue” the earth and exercise “dominion” – upside down. Instead of working alongside God to cultivate Earth’s beauty and enhance its capacity to support diverse forms of life, we have wreaked havoc on essential ecosystems and now face the real possibility of planetary catastrophe. We have enshrined the temptation of Eden – to “become like God” – as our mission, and created idols in our own image. Once again we face Eden’s consequences, but on a planetary scale - eviction from a world that has been finely tuned for human flourishing.
The warning signs are now so pervasive – climate change, ocean acidification, topsoil erosion, biodiversity loss – that ignoring, dismissing, or challenging them requires hard work (though many remain willing to put in the effort). The hard truth is that we have reached the point where we can no longer talk about how to prevent future crises – the focus must now be on mitigating their consequences, building resiliency, and radically reforming the way we live. The costs of the last 500 years can no longer be ignored; our ecological, cultural, and ecclesial bills are coming due.
A different future is possible, but it will not come easy.
The Changes We Need
To change the course we are on and create a new path, we need to recognize the pivotal moment we are in and make some difficult choices. I don't know everything that is necessary to make this possible, but here are some good places to start.
Those who have lived within a Western cultural framework (like me) need to acknowledge the damage that has been done to the earth, to people groups around the globe - especially indigenous cultures, and to ourselves. We must be changed, and we must commit to making change.
We need industrial systems and products that preserve, protect, and restore ecosystems. We need to make science and technology servants of the planet’s ecology rather than masters of it. We need to inhabit our places as creatures embedded in webs of life rather than demi-gods free from relationship and responsibility. We need economies that are planetary in scope and localized in practice. We need to learn from those who have lived in sustainable realtionship to the earth for thousands of years. Perhaps most radical of all, we need to elevate and embrace the virtues of humility, restraint, care, and contentment.
What we need is nothing less than cultural reformation. To truly take hold, this kind of transformation needs deep roots of purpose, meaning and connection. This calls for religion that remembers its most sacred purpose: to reconnect that which has been separated (“re-ligio” literally means “re-bind”). This is religion that is rooted in dynamic and loving relationship with creation and Creator, religion that brims with a spirituality that unites the physical and spiritual dimensions of life together in a unified whole. This is religion centered around a vision of shalom – the Hebrew word that envisions a reality in which everything and everyone is thriving together. This is religion that captivates and converts the head, heart, and hands. This is religion that forms communities of faith to bear witness to shalom with open-hearted courage and grace. And for followers of Jesus, this is religion that needs ecological disciples willing to learn and grow and risk together.
Ecological disciples just like you.
The Growing Good News
Despite the daunting challenge we face, there is good news. Around the world, growing numbers of people are bringing the changes we need. The destructive aspects of Western culture are being challenged, and many are crumbling down piece by piece. People are questioning the excesses of western philosophy that have privileged the mind over the body, the spiritual over the physical, and the human over the non-human. People are rejecting the colonial project of conquering lands and peoples in the name of “civilization.” People are unpacking racist worldviews that have legitimated and perpetuated colonial oppression. And people are leaving behind faith that has ignored the place and role of creation in God’s work of redemption and renewal.
This deconstruction is happening in real time, often without a clear picture of what the new world will look and feel like. We are living between two worlds, the old one crumbling around us as the new one takes shape. To those who recognize and feel these changes, it can feel overwhelming and unsettling. Many of those who have been at the center of the old world are desperately, sometimes violently, trying to hold on to the old world. We can see this in the social and political polorization and violence happening in my home country, the United States. For those who have been outside the center of the old world, who have been living in perpetual insecurity and powerlessness – poor and oppressed people groups, the multitude of other creatures suffering decline, death, and extinction – this moment, while still unsettling, is charged with hope. The future is open; a new world awaits.
Ecological disciples are well suited to help bring this new world into being. We know, first of all, that God’s new world has already begun in Jesus Christ. We know that, while our current reality may be dark, our hope burns bright. We know that the same Spirit who hovered over the unformed world and breathed divine life into the first human being is still hovering and breathing new life into the world.
At the moment, however, we stand between two worlds. It is a scary place to be. It can be tempting to hold onto the old world. But it gets easier to let go when we stand together.
With you on the Way,
*Next week, I'll start to explore in more depth what it means to be an ecological disciple in a time such as this.
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