What must change first, our lifestyle or our belief system?

Polar Bears Across the Arctic Face Shorter Sea Ice Season by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Someone dear to me has been feeding from a trough of environmental despair. S/he knows the science rather too well- the degrees of warming, the predicted tipping points, the posisbilities (or probabilities) of ecosystem collapse. At times this knowledge becomes a clarion call for action, but faced with something so huge, so seemingly unassailable, it also leads them down towards a place where everything seems pointless.

This eperience is far from unique. There is even a name for it – climate trauma.

“I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,” said award-winning biologist Camille Parmesan in a National Wildlife Federation report. “Some of these people have been studying a particular reef or a particular bird or a particular mammal for 40 to 50 years and to start seeing it die off is a very hard thing.”

From here.

For people like me – non scientists whose thinking about climate change is driven most commonly by guilt and distraction – the whole debate can be so confusing and troubling as to be best ignored. What else can we do anyway?

Also, old lefties like me can struggle to fit climate change in to our old left/right dichotomies. Sure, the right wing tend towards sceptisim on this issue, but the dualistic right and wrong is harder to chart because human-scale victim and oppressors are harder to identify. Climate justice has been a harder concept to champion, or at least it seems so to me.

At times, it seems that the only actions we can take – and any relevant choices we can make – are all consumer driven. We choose to buy a different kind of car, or a tin of salmon with an impressive-sounding label, or refuse a plastic wrapped fruit in favour of one without. But we still consume. Our lifestyle makes at best only very small adjustments to the overconsumption that characterises the western world, and drives the very change we are trying to buy our way out of. No amount of beach cleaning or community gardening is going to change that, right?

So what can I say to my friend to encourage him to keep going?

What can I do myself that will make any difference whatsoever?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

It seems to me that activism is one route open to us. Get involved in direct protest action or awareness raising of some kind. Shout loud and make people in power sit up and notice. Chain yourself to petrol pumps and handcuff yourself to trees.

But this kind of direct action may at best be something possible to you for only a season in your life, even when given the priority it deserves. Activists burn out, have families and need to make a living. Some kind of post-activist normality will eventually have assert itself, and if we are to hold on to any integrity, this new normality cannot be like the old one.

So how do we seek to live with passion, love and integrity? What does a good life look like in our present broken context? What needs to change, and where do I start?

Photo by David Selbert on Pexels.com

All of which brings me back to the title of this piece. Lifestyle or beliefs.

Many of us have been making changes to our lifestyles for years. Often these micro-changes seem tokenistic in the way described above. It is easy (perhaps too easy) to dismiss them as the conscience-easing activities of the comfortable middle classes. We all know that the transformative changes necessary in our lifestyles require far more radical action. That is not to say that our efforts mean nothing however. Even knowing that an individual choice to eat less meat (for example) will make no difference to a global phenomenon, it is an individual step worth taking. More than this, our individual actions might connect with others to form chains of influence. This is not nothing, but neither is it enough.

Jain temple in Anekere lake, Karnataka, India

The ancient Jain religion teaches a version of ahisma (or harmlessness) in which it is not just people who have souls, but also animals, trees, plants and even rocks. Out of this should then flow a radical empathy with all things, to which are owed the same respect that we might give to fellow humans. This is one of the stories told in Karen Armstrong’s new book ‘Sacred Nature’, in which she says that ‘recycling and political protests are not enough. Her call is towards a new world view – one that learns from the ancient spiritual traditions and practices that we have largely forgotten.

This from here.

Much has been written on the scientific and technological aspects of climate change, explaining the impacts on our world and the measures we need to take to avert catastrophe. But Armstrong’s book is both more personal and more profound. Its urgent message is that hearts and minds need to change if we are to once more learn to revere our beautiful and fragile planet, and to stop polluting it. For this to happen we need to reconnect with the myths and even the rituals of ancient spiritual traditions that have the power to awaken our primal emotional bonds to nature and reveal our “utter dependence” on it.

The spiritual tradition I grew from has much to learn. We have been slow indeed to grasp the spiritual aspects of climate change – in fact, climate change skeptisim has often been heard from Christian pulpits.

However, there are many rich strands of Christianity that have direct relevance. I can give no greater recommendation than to point you towards Richard Rohr’s book The Universal Christ. Drawing from his own Fransiscan roots, Rohr paints a picture of the Christ as ‘another name for everything’. In a previous post, I tried to describe this in this way;

Jesus stepped into human history, but he was always the Christ.

Through him, all things were made, and have their being. He is both beginning and end. Through him all things are held together. He is the essence that lives in all creatures.

He is the unity of all things that we partially sense when the sunset fades into starlight.

He is love, light.

Through him all things are being made new, always, for all time.

And what of us? We are like him because he is the life within us. ALL of us, not just the chosen frozen few. Even the most dissolute, hardened, poisoned and venomous specimens of humanity, because even though we are like tombs in which the Christ is dead, he has this trick of coming back from the dead, remember.

The Christ, in the human form of Jesus, gave us the Sermon on the mount, in which he told us over and over again to love one another, particularly the poor and the broken, the weak and the stumbling. The Christ, in the human form of Jesus, excluded no one from his love. He became angry at those who sought to do so in the name of religion and he said ‘Follow me.”

The eternal, cosmic Christ, loves things by becoming them.

In this way, everything that we see and touch – everything of rock or fur or feathers; everything that smiles or weeps; everything that grows leaves or feathers; everything that hides in pools or in a twist in the stream or the tide – all these things are by their very nature, the Christ.

If we look, we will see him. That is what he longs for us to do. If we see him then everything changes, right? That climate change thing? The mass extinctions? The poverty? The racism? The sexism? The exclusion and dividing up into good and bad, in and out, saved and unsaved?

Remember that trick he does in making things new, even when everything seems too late? Even when the tomb is closed and the funeral party has ended?

Far from being subject to logical legalism, the Christ is much more interested in restoration- you could say, restorative justice. He seeks to connect us again to our own deep humanity, which is where he waits for us, at the core of our being.

Christ-who-was-also-Jesus calls us to participate with him in the great divide dance. It is remarkably close and remarkably ordinary.

What might this do to what I beleive? What statements can I make about this belief? Why does it matter?

Back in 2019 I wrote this as my own statement of beleif. I think I still stand on it. I hope it is shaping my lifestyle in both big and small ways. It is all I am, and all I can do.

I believe in the Christ, through whom all things have their being. He came into history as a brown-skinned man with the heart of a woman, but he is so much more than that; he is the very essence of all things and the glue that holds it all together.

Other cultures know him by other names.

He calls us to follow the way of love, which means looking for him in the most unlikely places; in the eyes of our enemies for example, or in a tangle of endangered forest.

He is particularly to be found in all that is beautiful and all that is broken.

He is also to be found in ourselves.

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