During the early morning hours of August 25, 2008, I received the call every son dreads. My aunt was on the line and she told me that family members had been trying to contact me. My mom had attempted to call me while the paramedics were working on my dad, but I slept through her attempts to reach me. But by the time I received my aunt’s call my dad was gone, and I was needed at my mom’s side.
Rev. Matthew Fox begins his 1988 work, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, with a dream. In his dream he is told, “Your mother is dying.” Fox interprets the word “mother” to signify several different things including the ongoing pillage of Mother Earth and the slow, spasmodic death of the Church.[i] Blogger Scott Winter has already written superbly about the significance of Mother, “the pale blue dot”, and about our responsibility to cherish her and those precious others who inhabit her.[ii] Also, blogger Heath Skaggs has shared his thoughts on the decline of religion, especially the Church that has failed to provide many of us a compelling reason to sit in her pews Sunday after Sunday.[iii] Therefore, it seems as though we have seen the signs of death around us, but have we comprehended the immediacy of the situation? Have we missed the “phone calls”?
As you may be able to tell, it takes some time for messages to sink through to me before the light bulb goes on. Last week I received more than enough voltage, in the form of a web article, to knock me on my ass. David Hilfiker’s article, “Hope in an Environmental Wasteland”, is one of the features of the current edition of Conspire magazine. He opens with the following: “It’s too late to prevent climate change; it [sic] already happening, and much worse is coming. The powerful forces of consumerism, a capitalist economic system, government, the power of corporations, and the influence of the media create a web that we will not untangle without profound changes in our society. If we can’t actually solve the problems of global warming and climate change, if the results are going to be tragic, where do we find hope? How do we respond?”[iv] I hope that you’re already thinking about the words “it’s too late.” Otherwise, you have missed the point.
What on this pale blue dot could Hilfiker be doing here? Why is he so damn pessimistic? Perhaps one of Hilfiker’s most profound contributions, the one I wish to emphasize here, is his insistence that our tendency towards optimism is not always particularly beneficial. According to Hilfiker, our optimism is shrouding us from what is really happening and diverting us from our important work.
Before we go further I’d like to refer back to Rev. Matthew Fox for a moment. Fox has identified four pathways to what he calls “Creation Spirituality.” For more information on these pathways, I’d encourage readers to check out his book, Original Blessing, where Fox lays out his framework. But for now I’d like to focus on two paths that are immediately relevant to our current discussion. The first pathway is the “Via Positiva”, and it is the pathway of celebration and awe.[v] Walking this pathway involves a deep reverence and appreciation of our cosmos with an emphasis on ecology and inter-connectedness. This pathway will resonate with those who are energized by hiking through craggy pathways on a mountain trail or who become absorbed in the verse of nature writers like Mary Oliver and Thoreau. The second pathway, which is a necessary connection to the first, is the “Via Negativa.” It is the path of shadow, mystery, and silence.[vi] It is the also the path whereby one experiences grief. It acknowledges that “life is suffering.”
I’d like to suggest that Hilfiker’s emphasis on realism is an important step because it helps us experience the grief of our current situation. When was the last time you allowed yourself to sit with and become sickened by the experience of injustice and environmental violence without immediately reaching for relief? I ask this question NOT because I believe that one must flagellate oneself in order to atone for sins against an angry deity. I ask the question because I want to suggest that we have arrived at a time when we must contemplate our own complicity in the unchangeable (if you buy into Hilfiker’s argument) reality of climate change and the consequences that will inevitably follow).
There are hidden gifts in this process of collective grief, far too many to elaborate on here. One of these gifts is addressed in the stated purpose of this blog, and that is the possibility of collaboration between theists and non-theists, religious and the non-religious, and all those who defy labels. If the blue planet cannot bring us together, surely nothing can! As Hilfiker says in his article, we have the distinction of living at the most important junction in the history of our beloved Earth. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. “We cannot hope to get the same Earth back, but we can hope to soften what’s coming. We can find hope in the process, in the community, in our work together. These are hopes we can count on.”[vii]
Hilfiker lays out some suggestions on how we can work together to “soften what is coming.” His ideas are fascinating indeed, but I wonder what you all are thinking. So what I’d like to suggest is the opening of an ongoing conversation. In particular, here’s what I’d like to offer up to the community:
1. Take time to enter into silence to consider the world that we’ve created. Try to remain open to this as long as you are able.
2. Share what you are feeling and what you are thinking with this community or with other friends. Do you buy into Hilfiker’s claim?
3. Finally, after baptising yourself into grief, begin to think about what it will take to “soften what is coming.” Are there practices and commitments in your world-view that can help?
In my upcoming blog post I’ll be sharing a project that I’m thinking through regarding the connection between the environment, compassion, and food. Thanks for your time, and I look forward to a continued discussion with you all!
[i] Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, 13-33
[ii] Scott Winter, “Belief in the Pale Blue Dot”, May 11, 2013.
[iii] Heath Skaggs, “Christianity’s Future?”, May 8, 2013
[v] Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 35-117.
[vi] Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 132-157.
[vii] David Hilfiker, “Hope in an Environmental Wasteland” (see footnote 4 for link).
Bryan Gillette lives with his husband, three rescue dogs, one crafty kitty, and his mom in the mountains just outside of Asheville, NC. When he’s not situated in the midst of frequent awkward social scenarios, he takes great pleasure reading Merton, spending time with family (both two and four legged), British comedy, and in the contemplation of nature. Although he has always felt like a religious “outsider”, he will soon be trying his hand at Chicago Theological Seminary. (“May God bless her and all who sail in her.”)