A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded upon trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand.

- Dorothy Sayers

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Anniversary of the Exxon Valdez: Twenty-Five Years and No Wiser.

It is the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, and funnily enough, not many people seem to be wearing black arm bands.  Twenty-five years ago more than 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Alaska's Prince William Sound, destroying a priceless ecosystem.  Only 13 of the 32 monitored wildlife populations, habitats and resource services that were injured in the spill have been described, even by the government monitors, as having "recovered" or even "very likely recovered", and most of the local environmentalist watchdog groups are even more pessimistic about the regions recovery.  The economically vital pacific herring fisheries are gone forever, along with the fish.  The native orca pod is dying and past any hope of saving - like many of the other natural wonders of the Sound's once pristine waters. Oil is, after all, toxic, something we tend to forget at the gas pump after our purchase has underwritten the risky transport of the stuff half-way around the world through a great many ecologically fragile by-ways.

So have we learned anything?  To all intents and purposes - apparently not.  Not  a damned thing - and I use the word "damned" in accordance with its richest and most complete theological implications.  We are still addicted to the stuff - and we still want more - no matter what the cost, no matter what good and beautiful things get destroyed by our addiction, and no matter whom we have to cheat, bully, steal from, or outright invade, to get our national fix.  We hide our addiction under the banner of progress, but this is little more than to say that we are addicted to technology, to convenience, to things that glitter, whir, beep, buzz, entertain, and amuse us.  We have come to believe that we need, indeed, simply must have (or our lives will be miserable and without meaning), all the gadgets and devices that transport us quickly and individually from place to place, that cook our food in seconds, that clean our homes, our food, and our bodies swiftly and efficiently,  and that make and carry things, including all of our food and all of our many gadgets, as fast as possible - and all of that technology, to one degree or another depends almost entirely on what one of OPEC's founders, the Venezualan Oil Minister Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, used to describe as as "el excremento del diablo."  He was wrong about the source, of course.  But he was right about a great many of the effects  of the nasty, sticky, poisonous glop.  Mind you, it is a precious energy rich resource.  But cookies are a priceless source of high energy carbohydrates too, and one still shouldn't eat too many of them, as we regularly, and rather hypocritically, tell small children. 

Look, let's admit it.  I'm part of the problem, and you are too - even if you are an environmentalist.  Pretty much all of us dwelling in the industrial and post-industrial world are, to one degree or another.  Might I suggest, though, as a Christian priest to my fellow Christians, that those of us who love God's world, and who publicly claim that this world is His, and not ours - that we are answerable before Him, as stewards, for what we do to the things he has put into our care, might want to try, as hard as possible, to reduce our participation in this problem during the next 25 years.  It is, after all, at least conceivable that some of God's children facing the many ecological problems of the next generation or two might need some of those energy rich resources to fix the messes that we will have left them.  It might be nice to be able to say that we did our part on their behalf.

(Here's an article on the subject, from which I have shamelessly cribbed and quoted at length without providing exacting attribution,  either for those who are young enough to have no idea what I am talking about, and need some more information, or for those who want to check my sources:  http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/23/opinion/holleman-exxon-valdez-anniversary/index.html?hpt=hp_t4

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Eastern Orthodoxy and Technology: A Talk Given at a Colloquium on Religion and Technology at the Bryan Turkish Cultural Center

In considering the question of the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and technology, or more generally, the question of the relationship between Christian spirituality and modern material culture, I have been moved to reflect upon certain similarities between the modern situation of the Christian Church, and the circumstances of Balaam the prophet, as these circumstances are recorded in the book of Deuteronomy. For those who do not know the story well, Balaam is a prophet, a man of great spiritual power who serves the true God. His effectual blessings and curses are sought out by many, and at the opening of the biblical story, Balaam has been invited by the King of Moab to bless his kingdom, and to curse the invading people of Israel who are in the midst of their exodus from Egypt to Canaan. God forbids Balaam to do this, since the blessing and curse requested were not in accordance with God's will. Balaam obeys, but upset at having lost such a lucrative financial opportunity, decides to travel to Moab in any case, more or less in the explicit hope that God will change his mind. God is not pleased, and sends the angel of death to bar Balaam's way.

On the way, Balaam begins to have some trouble with his normally reliable donkey, who first runs off the road and into a field, and then presses herself against a stone wall, crushing Balaam’s foot. In each case, Balaam exercises his mastery over the animal by force, beating the donkey to get her moving again. Finally, when, in a narrow pass, the donkey proceeds to collapse underneath him entirely, Balaam’s anger knows no bounds; he proceeds to beat his donkey savagely with a stick.

At this point, both God and the donkey have had enough, and God in his compassion provides the donkey with the gift of speech, a gift with which she querulously reproves Balaam: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam’s response says much about the manner of human existence expressed solely in terms of dominion, and about the pride that so frequently accompanies our hubristic obsession with our own desires: “Because you have made sport of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you”

Here, bluntly expressed, is one of the deep errors and misjudgments of our technological and industrial culture. The donkey is no longer a fellow creature—however subservient—but has become mere techné, a “being-at-hand” solely instrumental to the fulfilment of Balaam’s narrowly human project. As such, Balaam believes that his donkey no longer has any independent right to its own existence. If it serves, well and good. It is a resource. If it does not, then it may be destroyed as an obstacle to progress. The recalcitrance of natural things, once they are misconceived solely as an affront to our own meaningful existence, is transformed into nothing more than a problem to be overcome, whether by brute force or clever stratagem. This is, I suggest, the essence of the technological, as opposed to a religious, view of the world.

Balaam's outburst is hardly a promising start to an interspecies dialogue, but to her credit, the donkey seeks to reason with Balaam: “Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?” The contrast thus highlighted between the beast’s normally helpful, reliable and inarticulate assistance, and the strange and contrary way in which she is currently behaving, finally begins to puncture Balaam’s self-preoccupation, permitting him to at last see what the donkey has seen all along – death, destruction, and the terrible judgement of God standing before him. Restored to his senses, Balaam finds the grace to repent: “I have sinned, for I did not know that Thou didst stand in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in thy sight, I will go back again.”

It is only now that Balaam is able to fulfil his true calling. Freed from the siren song of wealth and acquisition, and freed from the solipsism of believing that his plans are the only plans worthy of consideration, Balaam becomes a participant in the mystery of God and a conduit of grace for others, becoming an instrument of blessing for God’s people.

It seems to me that the Christian Church, like Balaam, believes in and bears witness to mankind’s special calling as a mediator between God and his creation, and this has frequently led to a recognition, even by those who do not fully share in its beliefs, of a kind of vestigial moral and religious authority not unlike that of Balaam’s; a perceived ability to make things stronger and more acceptable by blessing them, and to make things weaker and less acceptable by cursing them. That even this vestigial power is very much attenuated in the modern situation goes without saying, but that it has ceased to exist at all is equally false. The power of the Christian faith to recognize and to motivate human beings in behalf of a cause remains significant even at the present, and during the last twenty centuries this power has, at times, been enormous.

Recognition of this influence this has led others, both inside the Church and out, to try and co-opt Christianity as a hireling, appealing to Christian greed, fear, avarice, and pride, as a lever with which to obtain the Christian Church's support for a motley assortment of factions, practices, or ways of life that are often alien or inimical to the revealed will of God, and contradictory to the deepest instincts of our faith. Any blessing thus obtained is, of course, ontologically worthless, since the blessings of the Church have as their only source the antecedent creative will and power of the Holy Trinity. It is not generally, however, for the salvific or sacramental effects of such blessings that those who try to co-opt the Church have sought them out. On the contrary, the Church’s blessing is generally sought for more practical, political, and economic effects. A false blessing, like a false dogma is, from a theological perspective, a meaningless travesty. Like heresy, however, its parasitic relationship upon the good provides it with a kind of borrowed power that is far from insignificant, in that it can destroy the souls of men and women with a lie.

Christian history is a thrice told tale replete with such mistaken alliances and dubious encouragements. One need but mention the crusades, anti-Semitism, and the persecution of religious minorities, to recognize that Christianity has at times provided fertile soil for projects and attitudes of great evil. More insidious than these blatant evils, and more difficult to assess, is the Christian Church’s historical propensity for snuggling up to political power and wealth, from the time of St. Constantine onward. The blessing that the Orthodox Church bestowed upon Roman, and later upon Russian Imperialism, explicable as it is in human terms, and possibly even in its historical unavoidability, should not, however, blind us to the fact that these alliances did not generally represent a high-water mark for the integrity and faithfulness of the Church to Christ himself, who, after all, solemnly declared that it was the faithful poor who were to be blessed, and that the rich could enter the Kingdom of God only as if “through the eye of the needle.” The beggar Lazarus, rather than the Rich Man, would rest in the bosom of Abraham.

To its credit, the Church has never lacked lives lived and voices raised in opposition to this all too comfortable alliance. And while St. John Chrysostom’s oft quoted judgement that “a man with two cloaks is a thief” has seldom been very liberally or too personally applied, its fundamental truth has never, in the Eastern Christian tradition, been subjected to any serious rebuttal on theological grounds. Neither has the Orthodox Church ever affirmed, as have some Protestant sects, that holiness and wealth are positively related. A life of asceticism, fasting, privation, and self-denial has always been regarded as the material corollary of Orthodox sanctity, and the vital and central role of monasticism in Eastern Orthodoxy has generally served to cement this idea in the popular imagination of the faithful. If it has often been a conclusion of Orthodox Christian prudence that it was better for the Church if the rich, the powerful, and the violent were well disposed towards Christianity than otherwise, it has nevertheless also been the Orthodox Church’s solemn judgement that wealth, power, and violence are in no way conducive to human salvation. It is better for a Russian gangster turned oligarch to restore Churches or support orphanages with his ill-gotten gains than for him to build brothels and casinos—and it is certainly it is better for the rest of us—but salvation, as Jesus once told a rich young ruler with considerably better credentials, comes at a far higher price.

Nor, historically speaking, have the Orthodox Church and the cultures for which it has played a formative role been all that assiduous in modifying and remaking the world by technological and industrial means for the fulfilment of purely temporal, hedonistic, and material goals. The highest type of activity in the medieval Christian world (both East and West) was contemplative, and had nothing to do with what is practical, productive, or efficient as we understand these terms today. The scientific practices and technological methods of the Christian world were deliberately never developed in such a way that they would impede the realization of more basic and primary religious and social values. As a consequence, any practices or methods that upset the more basic social dedication to harmony, beauty, and balance remained dormant and undeveloped.

This apparent lack of technical genius in Christian Europe was, as the Orthodox writer Philip Sherrard has commented, “emphasized, not counteracted, by the spirit of Christianity” - and I quote:
The period from the second century A.D. to the fifth century A.D. which saw the rise of Christianity, and which in Buddhist India was marked by astonishing developments in many fields, was marked in the West by a technical decline so great that the Emperor Julian the Apostate could fairly accuse the Christians of ruining the Empire’s industry. One of the architects of Hagia Sophia at Constantinople was quite capable of making a steam-engine (some 1200 years before James Watt ‘invented’ it), but he used his skill only to make the house he was living in shake as though there was an earthquake in order to get rid of an unpleasant neighbour living on the top floor. Except indeed for architecture – and nearly all large-scale architecture had a religious motive – Christian nations in the medieval Christian period demonstrated a singular lack of technical will or mentality.
Industrialism and technology in the West, then, have developed in a direct relationship to the decline in Christian consciousness, and this for the simple reason that the secularization of the natural world that permitted men to treat it as mere object devoid of intrinsic value and exploit it accordingly is in flat contradiction to the sacramental spirit of historical Christianity. It is a simple statement of historical fact that the industrial revolution was not an indigenous product of any Orthodox or Roman Catholic nation, and this is not, as certain colonial English writers were wont to believe, because the inhabitants of Southern and Eastern Europe were lazy and undisciplined. It was rather because these societies preserved a sacramental understanding of nature that was rooted in the unitary cosmological consciousness of ancient Christianity. It was not until the wholesale abandonment of this underlying sacramentalism during the Protestant Reformation that the widespread manipulation and exploitation of nature for more than limited human needs was generally regarded as morally acceptable.

In spite of all of this, it must be admitted that in recent times (the last 100 years or so), the Orthodox, particularly those of us dwelling in the Western industrialized nations, appear to have had precious little difficulty in adjusting to a society and to an economy in which greed and ambition function less as sins than as regulative principles and economic virtues. In spite of the raised voices of such figures as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Philip Sherrard, Patriarch Bartholomew, the Elders of Mount Athos, and virtually every spiritual father and mother of any significance in the monastic tonsure, we have often become uncomplaining participants, and have thereby given our blessing, to a system of excessive production and consumption whose rationale has become ever less apparent even as its ecological consequences have become disastrously evident. The productive activity of human beings, so readily justifiable in terms of human need during the long ages of humanity’s precarious survival upon the Earth, has long since lost its ethical mooring. Indeed, largely ignoring the human need of those who live beyond the pale of our consumer societies, the purpose of our civilization’s hyper-productivity and ingenuity is no longer that of genuine human need at all, but mere affluence; and affluence, as I have already suggested, is very difficult to justify in the Christian theological tradition. It can only be justified by an appeal to some higher good, whether it be the good of charitably caring for others, caring for the natural world, or creating higher values of an enduring and sustainable culture. Indeed, it is only culture, in its highest, widest, and most religiously significant sense as cultus that can begin to rationally justify surplus consumption and production.

In our own nation, however, culture itself has largely been debased. It is no longer a vehicle of the ideals and beliefs that we acknowledge and honour, but simply another component of a vast surplus of consumer products designed to satisfy our passions. Indeed, any attempt to justify the surplus of American production and consumption on the basis of the quality and significance of what is traditionally thought of as “high” culture—in the opera, ballet, painting, drama, and poetry of our nation—would simply inspire derision. And I trust that one does not need to be a snob to recognize that the inclusion of low culture, the popular music, movies, computer games, television sitcoms, reality shows, and professional sporting events of our society, does little to alter the fundamental absurdity of such an appeal. But what else can justify the surplus production and consumption of our civilization, and the ecological destruction that it engenders? Not religion, as we have seen, since in terms of Orthodox Christianity at least, wealth and religious sincerity are virtually incompatible. Nor can it be justified more generally in terms of the diverse and heterodox religious beliefs and aspirations of our technological civilization taken as a whole. After all, ours is not a significantly religious culture in the first place, and equally obviously, little if any of the surplus product of our civilization is being directed to religiously significant or religiously meaningful projects. Nor can it in any sense be justified by need—what conceivable need could we have for annually redesigned cellphones, electric towel warmers, ever more complicated remote control devices, an infinitely expanding redesign of computer shooting galleries, and the almost daily re-engineering of athletic shoes?

Justified or not, however, individually and collectively we sacrifice precious time, life, and natural resources producing and paying for just such stuff, and we are constantly assured by intellectual pundits, economists, and government officials that we must continue doing so, either in order (vacuously) to keep up with the Jones’s, or (circularly) to stimulate the economy and stave off destruction. More and more absurdly, increased production itself has become the sole justification for the consumption that feeds it, and this, as Dorothy Sayers pointed out to her contemporaries almost sixty years ago, is unacceptable: “A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded upon trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand."

So it is, but it is precisely this sort of “house built on sand” in which a great many of my co-religionists and I live, and our society has scarcely heard a peep out of us on the subject. Encouraged by our contemporaries to bless an insane economic system and lifestyle that cannot be blessed, and to curse and despise a simpler, gentler, and more sustainable manner of living (with such epithets as “primitive”, “counter-cultural”, “romantic”, and “naïve”), countless Christians have either quietly acquiesced in this market driven reassignment of values, or made pro forma protests while generally behaving very little differently from those around us. In return for this “going along and waiting to see what we shall see,” we have been offered heretical myths of progress, specious promises of ever brighter tomorrows, and the present assurance of lives of ease, sophistication, and constant sensual gratification, replete with ready made entertainments that cater to our every vice and permeate our every waking moment. Living in this way, however, saps our moral energy and scatters our consciousness. We are, for all of what we have been promised, mostly bored, exhausted, depressed, indebted and lonely.

Religiously speaking, of course, this is predictable. Most of these unexpected consequences are a result of our growing estrangement from nature, and from nature’s God. For while it may still be true, as the psalmist insists, that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” it is also true that we are in a poor position to notice this proclamation. Our estrangement from nature, the green and lovely environment into which we were created and from which we have evolved, has become nearly total. Surrounding ourselves with the surplus products of our technological society, we live out our lives in climate controlled boxes filled with plastic junk that we do not need, cannot love, and for which we lack even the most basic understanding of how to care for, repair, or alter to fit. We purchase electronic gadgets that jabber to us inanely like demons, inciting our passions and alienating us from our friends, families and neighbours even as they smother us with mountains of data to which we cannot hope to respond intelligently, reducing our intellectual powers to little more than the behavioral stimulus and response of “like” buttons and “smiley-faces.” In our isolation we travel from place to place in gas guzzling automobiles and SUVs on proscribed pathways covered with impermeable asphalt through neighbourhoods in which nature has been abolished as all but a window dressing of lawns and pocket parks. Our nights are filled with garish lights, our days are filled with frenetic activity, and the brief space between the two is filled with canned entertainment and pre-packaged meals. In such a manner we are increasingly distracted from the still small voice that says that we have, like Esau of old, sold our birthright as God's children for a mess of pottage.

It may be, however, that nature, prefigured in our biblical story as Balaam’s Ass, will come to our rescue yet, by violently startling us out of our moral complacency and reminding us of our responsibilities. She is, after all, starting to behave erratically, and is becoming ever more belligerent in her wordless protests. Our arable land, artificially saturated with petrochemical fertilizers, and cultivated unwisely for short-term profits, is losing its fertility at a terrifying rate. Our remaining forests, weakened by clear cutting and rendered unproductive, are left to fallow undergrowth and are burning down around us. The air of our cities, saturated with the wastes generated by our automobiles, industry, chemical ingenuity, and by the ever growing numbers of generator plants taxed with meeting our outrageous demands for more electrical power, grows more and more poisoned, and smog alerts regularly greet us on the morning news programs. Our fresh water supplies grow ever more dubious in quality and uncertain in quantity, and the toxins with which our industry, mining, agriculture, and pharmacology permeate the water table enter into our bodies, taking their vengeance in the form of cancer and a host of other allergies and environmental syndromes. The once vast oceans have been over-exploited, and fisheries are collapsing worldwide, while the effluvia of our civilization that runs off into the rivers and oceans results in the contamination of the very food we eat.

Over all this loom the continuing dangers of ozone depletion, the now certain specter of declining oil production, the climatological disaster of global warming, the cascading consequences of our genetic tampering with foodstuffs, the residual and unresolved dangers of nuclear waste and the toxic environmental effects of modern military warfare. In the road ahead lies a disaster, genuinely apocalyptic in both its spiritual and material implications for mankind. Whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, when our land, our water, and our air have been sufficiently despoiled, and our climate becomes sufficiently irregular, it will not be only polar bears and spotted owls that will suffer. Modern civilization and the global economy are no less fundamentally dependent upon the land-base than were the most primitive of ancient subsistence civilizations. Indeed, to the extent that our civilization is now genuinely global, it is far more so, since we can no longer evade or defer the consequences of our environmental degradations by means of migration. At this point in our history, any widespread collapse of our ecosystem tolls the death of untold millions; for all of our technological sophistication and economic power, we cannot eat, drink, or breathe GNP. If we do not find a more responsible, grateful, and sustainable way in which to live, our civilization will, sooner rather than later, collapse into anarchy, war, and penury, and those who survive such times will look back upon our civilization with horror and loathing.

In the face of all this – what resources does the Orthodox Christian tradition offer us as a community of resistance? I would argue that the Orthodox Church, in its emphasis upon transcendence, corporate responsibility, repentance, and its insistence upon the necessity of personal asceticism for achieving salvation and theosis, has much to offer to the world in the ecological struggle that is to come. At our best, for instance, we Orthodox have always known that all efforts to establish heaven on earth are doomed. This recognition has, from the first, unmasked the theological parody that has underlain our industrial and technological society since its inception, in both its capitalist and communist guises.

Furthermore, the Orthodox know that we are saved corporately, as a Church, or not at all, and that we thus have a shared responsibility for the actions of others, both the living, the dead, and the yet to be born, a conviction that, if consistently acted upon, would save us from the rampant individualism that so afflicts our current civilization and that has so materially contributed to the ecological ravages of our time. The Orthodox also know, in our bones, as it were, that we are sinners, so much so that the most basic and fundamental prayer of the Orthodox throughout the ages is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As a consequence, the idea that we might be called upon to repent for our misdeeds and make amends to others certainly should not come as a surprise to any of my co-religionists. After all, our entire religious life is built upon the principle of continuous and unremitting repentance before God. It is our very raison d’etre.

Related to this recognition of human sinfulness and need for repentance, the Orthodox have also always stressed that the way of the cross is not easy; that grace, while free, is never cheap; and that the transformative power of God demands our cooperation in a difficult but richly rewarding life of asceticism, in which our bodies, no less an intrinsic part of our psychosomatic personhood than our minds and spirits, must be transformed by struggle into fit receptacles for God’s deifying grace. This path of divinization is hard work, and holiness is a result of freely cooperating with a deifying grace that departs from those who are not willing to live in accordance with God’s holy demands. Thus the demand to live simply, as free from material encumbrances as we can, while sharing such resources as we have with those who have none is, for us, as old and as basic a feature of Christianity as Christ’s observation that it is as hard “for a rich man to enter the kingdom as it is for a camel to enter the eye of a needle.”

In short, as Orthodox Christians, we have the motive to change, and we have the resources to do so as a religious community. All that is lacking is an act of will. Religiously speaking, this is not an unfamiliar situation. At a similar fateful turning point in the wanderings of the Israelites, the Scriptures tell us that the prophet Moses set forth the situation that faced God’s people starkly, and his words apply to our own situation with equivalent force. “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live.”