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Toward a New Manner of Thinking

“We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if [human]kind is to survive.”—Albert Einstein (1949).

Before even starting seminary, I was given a copy of a book titled The Romance of the Ministry, published in 1944 and written by Raymond Calkins (1869-1967). I have a vague sense of having read the book but what has stayed with me all these years is the title, for I have not found parish ministry particularly romantic. That’s not to deny or minimize in any way how I have lived an enormously privileged life both personally and professionally: transplanted to Los Angeles as a child, itself the Promised Land at the time; coming of age in the 1960s, on balance a time of promise and possibility; the beneficiary of a university and graduate school education; a long career in a parish setting, a demanding, challenging, and satisfying opportunity to connect the human odyssey week by week with the Creator’s intentions and possibilities and summons—immense privilege and good fortune, indeed.

At the same time, perhaps because my own high (and frankly unrealistic) expectations got in the way, I have found much about the church not infrequently frustrating and disappointing. Ambiguous is my preferred word to describe the fruit of my labor, although as Adam himself learned early on (Gen. 3.17-19a), is that not the nature of work generally.

Really, though, at a deeper level, what often haunts me about life in the church is less its frustrations and disappointments and even its perplexing ambiguities and more the nagging feeling that after 2,000 years we (we, the church; we, society; and we, humankind collectively) should just be further along, a more highly developed species, than we are. We have immense intellectual capacity; we can catalog profound literary, scientific, and technological achievements; an incurably religious race, we have infused our human odyssey with all manner of religious—and I will add here—philosophical contemplation. Might we not have expected a more evolved social compact than the frayed and tattered version that is the state of things early in the 21st century.

Consider that in 1945 the nuclear genie was released from its bottle and unleashed upon the world where it quickly proliferated to the point where nuclear annihilation many times over awaited a single instance of crazed human miscalculation or system failure. Surely, threatened with nuclear extinction, some portion of humankind might have felt some faint impetus to match scientific prowess and technological progress with an evolving ethic somewhat equal to the task of handling the vastly expanded horsepower of a decidedly new age. Might the church (my focus here is purposefully parochial but the question could be posed to religious persons generally) have connected the vision of swords transformed into plowshares and all that with the invitation to “think as Christ Jesus did” (Phil. 2.5, Cotton Patch Version) and apply the results to a different resolution of the nuclear nightmare, hanging as it does like the Sword of Damocles over the planet? Apparently not.

In 1957, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach painted a stark, horrifying picture of a world that very definitely had not so thought. Set a scant six years in the future, 1963, a cloud of nuclear fallout slowly engulfs the entire world following World War III; as it does, all human and animal life succumbs to radiation poisoning. Printings of the novel included these words and its concluding lines from the T.S. Eliot poem, The Hollow Men, on the title page: In this last of meeting places/We grope together/And avoid speech/Gathered on this beach of the tumid river. 

The closing lines bring down the final curtain: This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.

Nearly three-quarters of a century following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has grown complacent with regard to the collective capacity of the Nuclear Club (currently nine countries, including Israel, an undeclared nuclear power but believed to possess the weapons, although another five nations “host” nuclear weapons). As of this writing, yet another crisis brewing in the Middle East, it appears inevitable that Iran will join the Club sooner than later.

These days, with nearly the same degree of public complacency and political negligence, a coalition of climate scientists and environmentalists are the voices crying in the wilderness. As they remind us, as they have been reminding us for more than forty years, instead of a few with access to the launch codes extinguishing life on this planet, we all have our hands on the “button,” in this case the fossil fuel economy burning vast quantities of oil, gas, and coal and spewing countless tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which might well extinguish life on this planet. Change the physics and chemistry governing the delicate balance of interrelated eco-systems that sustain all life forms, they point out, and predictable consequences result, including the unthinkable.

Unthinkable or not, we have known all this and projected the consequences for decades and for decades we have dismissed the economically inconvenient fundamentals of physics and chemistry and only now seemingly realize that mere human beings do not negotiate with physics and chemistry. In the concluding chapter of her book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, for example, Elizabeth Kolbert quotes two scientists whose environmental observations parallel their nuclear counterparts a half-century prior. One is anthropologist Richard Leakey who said, “Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.” The other, ecologist Paul Ehrlich, puts it even more graphically, “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

A higher order being?  A more evolved social compact? Talk about ambiguity!

Coming up next: A new manner of thinking … narrowly conceived.