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Celebrating Life in a Post Party World March 2020

This piece was written just after the Australian bushfires at the end of February 2020, and before the Covid-19 world crisis. It was to be published in the Easter Edition of St Peter's Eastern Hill Apostrophe which has now been held over.

‘Communities are an essential part of our collective well being. They bridge the gap between family and society. They are large enough to extend our sympathies but small enough to be intelligible. They are the human face of the common good, which would otherwise remain as an abstraction.’ Celebrating Life (Jonathan Sacks: p 143).

Have you heard the enigma about the fly and the fly-bottle? The new edition of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ work: Celebrating Life offers many stories and personal insights into the human condition that had me pause, ponder, re-frame my thinking this summer passed. A fly is trapped and caught in a bottle. She buzzes loudly, vibrates her wings frantically, hurtling her tiny body from side to side inside the glass. But she can’t get out. Why? What is she to do?

We’ll leave her there for a moment, with Wittgenstein for company who first thought up her plight. Leave her, though hopefully not so long that she passes out; but sometimes such despair precedes a new beginning. Hers is, after all, a human predicament.

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem houses a small parchment dating from the First Temple, over 2 500 years ago. It is the oldest surviving fragment of a biblical text and its 15 Hebrew words is the blessing from the Book of Numbers, in English - ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.’ Imagine, someone from the time of King Solomon’s Temple actually held this parchment and prayed these words.

But what does it mean to have God shine upon you? To have God’s face turn to you and give you peace?

We have just passed through a summer of unprecedented bushfires down the South West Coast of Australia. ‘Unprecedented’ was a word that was used often to describe these events. Some have coined the term: Black Summer. But for others it has been a Predicted Summer. I’m on Facebook. Which is a mixed blessing and can sometimes feel a little like being a fly trapped in a fly-bottle. But on January 4th this year, Fr Andrew Eaton (Rector, St Luke’s Wallsend, NSW) posted a photo of a page from a report on Climate Change in 2008.

Commissioned by the government at that time, it predicted that in Australia ‘fire seasons (would) start earlier, end slightly later and be more intense.’ The effects of Climate Change, it noted, ‘would also …. be directly observable by 2020.’ (Acknowledgement to @courtOTGC on Twitter)

The Fire Weather Index is a much more recent computer metric run by a team of international scientists. They have found that the probability of even more intense fire activity levels than we experienced this year has increased by 30% in future years. This is directly due to human-caused climate change.

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The climate emergency is real. God’s face didn’t appear to be shining graciously upon the Australian landscape as more than a hundred fires creating their own climate systems devastated it within such a short span of time. In fact, at the turn of the year, as the fires approached towns like Mallacoota no light shone there at all in the morning’s thick hot blackness. Thirty four people died fighting the fires this season. Ecologist Chris Dickman estimated more than a billion animals died in the fires. This figure excludes fish, frogs, bats and insects. Our koala species has already declined by two thirds in the past 20 years. Nearly 3 000 homes and several thousand buildings were destroyed. Greg Mullins retired fire chief, and volunteer spoke for many fire fighters when he said:

Like countless other men and women on the front line, I have faced off against 30 m walls of flame, seen many homes burned to the ground, tried to console inconsolable residents, been forced to run for safety and seen native animals bounding out of the burning bush to collapse and die.

It was challenging for us in the cities from late spring 2019 onwards to get our heads around the increasing scale and intensity of what was happening. Like many I read online threads from the Guardian or Age, followed the CFA incidents and warnings, contacted friends and family in different parts of the state. The heavy smoke that hung around Melbourne for days seemed a small price to pay, despite the hazardous health conditions it created, for fires creating their own unpredictable and volatile weather patterns happening elsewhere. Army Reserves were called up - Fr John Raike (Vicar St Phillips Collingwood) and Fr John Sanderson (Vicar, St Georges East Ivanhoe) briefly retired from their parishes and were set to alternate work with their skilled training for such a crisis. In Wangaratta, Frs John Davis and Rob Whalley worked with many others in the Performing Arts Centre makeshift relief centre. Many more relief centres opened in fire affected areas; people offered the hospitality of their residences to strangers. By mid-January everyone knew someone, directly or indirectly being impacted. Fr Chris Mulherin, Melbourne Anglican priest who has spoken here at St Peter’s for the Institute of Spiritual Studies in recent times, was trapped in Mallacoota over the New Year period with his wife, children and a youth group from Scripture Union. It was a surreal time for all of us.

Without the easy reaching for apocalyptic imagery or armageddon discourse, how do we talk theologically about this? What words do we use, language to appropriate, what biblical texts to choose to draw on? There has been something about the new scale of bush fire this past summer that calls our spiritual attention. Where is the compass to help us?

There is a system of dating the earth called Geologic Time Scale. It is used by scientists to describe timing and events in the whole of earth’s history. There are broadly in ascending time scale: age, epoch, period, era and eons. It’s chartered nicely with different coloured columns online on Wiki. Many climate scientists have named the last 100 years or so as the Anthropocene Epoch. The word, as it suggests, puts we humans at the centre of the earth’s picture. We’ve made a huge detrimental impact on the environment, partied ourselves out, now it’s well past time to clean up and take stock of what we’ve done. The late Thomas Berry had the wit to point out that the impact of our handiwork in just the past 100 years will not only affect the Holcene Epoch (which began some 11,700 years ago), or even the end of the Quarternary Period (which began 2.588 million years ago). Rather, Berry contends that we are witnessing, and bringing about, the end of the Cenozoic Era (which began 65.5 million years ago).

Is not Berry’s contention that we are at such a critical point in the history of the world simply a swap for the troublesome apocalyptic language of the Bible?

Berry suggests a way forward. He has proposed that we must recognise ourselves as part of a much wider network of inter-relationships where we are neither masters over the environment, nor apart from it. He has put forward that it is necessary for human kind to transition into what he calls the Ecozoic epoch. ‘Eco-‘ derives from the Greek word ‘oikos’ meaning household or home, ‘-zoic’ comes from ‘zoikos’ meaning something that pertains to living beings. Thus the Ecozoic era is defined as the era of the house of living beings. It asks: “How shall we live?” and “How shall we live so that others may live?”

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And here we find resonance. These two questions are scientific and philosophical, but they are also theological. ‘The Hebrew bible is the answer to the question, not “What happened?” but “How shall we live?” Celebrating Life p110 writes Jonathan Sacks. Christ too, revealed and continues to reveal, a new way to live.

For Thomas Berry, the Ecozoic era is to be constructed on a new narrative. We are asked to reimagine who we are and that we exist inter-relationship with the world and with the cosmos. (Berry 2015, 60) As in the Anthropocene epoch human impact on the environment will still be a major contributing factor, but what is different is how we understand our relationship with the earth, inside the web of life, the cosmos. No community at any level can survive that is not founded in the unity of the universe. Thus the human aim is not to become more benevolent “stewards” of nature. We are not here to manage, control, or fix nature, but to become “integral with the larger Earth community.”(Berry 2015, 83)18 So change must come in terms of how we envision ourselves in context with the world, the universe.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has also had his third antennae out. Like Berry he urges us to become aware of right relationship. Of a realignment of ourselves within our environment, individually and collectively. But Sacks places this re-alignment in terms of our inner human need to connect with the Divine. This is found within community. He tells us:

‘The synagogue, like other places of worship in other places, is about the ‘we’ and not the ‘I’. It is the human face of the Divine presence.’ (p145)

Communities, he writes:

‘are where we gain our identity, preserve our traditions, establish friendships and develop reciprocity, the give and take on which social life depends. They are where we learn to speak the ‘we’ as against the ‘I’-inflected language of consumerism and a rights-based political culture. A community is like the ark of the ancient Israelites, about which Jewish tradition said: “Those who were carrying it, discovered it was carrying them.” Community is in short supply in the modern world.’ (p142)

Communities of faith cut across boundaries and gathers in what many institutions separate. They ask us to take responsibility for one another. They are counter cultural because, as challenging as it may be for them, they resist the urge of transactional interaction, dehumanisation and objectification. When we put Christ at the centre the compulsive patterns of thought in our mind no longer have any hold on us; the chains of fantasy that we need to be in control or that others are hostile to us are let go.

Communities of faith ‘are the third domain: a place where we give expression to the fact that not every relationship is built on power or market exchange. Some, at least are built on giving, respect and love. These too, no less than the state and the market, need a home, place to grow.’ (p55)

To face any major transition without panic or knee jerk reaction or debilitating anxiety - such as bushfires or a deadly virus that spreads across continents presents - something else has to break through our obsessive habits of thought based on fear or self interest. It is only when we place Divine presence at the centre, and not ourselves, that we are released into a broader vision of interconnection, inter-relationship. This alignment in God and growing in relationship with the Divine, offers new, far more hopeful and creative patterns of behaviour because the life giving source of our Maker is endless. The judgements of others based on sexuality, race, or gender become vacuous when God is at the centre. Even if we seek to wreck the lives of others or destroy our home the earth, our source, the Divine would still be there. But humanly we would be much diminished, even ruined. If we recognise our interconnectedness at all levels in the household of God, then we become responsible not only for each other, the planet, but the cosmos itself.

So back to our dear fly in the bottle about to give up the ghost for the battering of her frail body against the glass.

This plight of mine to find a theological language to speak truthfully about critical events, and that of the fly in the bottle is the same. To begin to go those chains of fantasy that keep us locked into feelings of panic and anxiety, or living out patterns of behaviour that exploit the earth, are self-serving, and objectify others to our own judgements, we don’t need a new language, but a different way of seeing. Take ourselves out of the centre and look around. Dear fly, hear me, only look up! See the light streaming in from the top of the bottle. See freedom.

There have been times when, as fly in the bottle, I have been so grateful for persons in my faith community who have helped me re-see in this way. When God, the priestly God hidden within each human heart, is at the centre of your life then everything changes. Something bigger frees the human spirit and beckons the self toward true freedom. Upwards into the amazing new understanding of the narrative which a faith community can offer. We are each integral with the earth community. Jonathan Sacks and the late Thomas Berry both know the truth inherent in this ancient blessing:

‘May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.’