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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sustainability and the Church

In my work as a campus planner, the issue of sustainability has gained considerable momentum as the hot-button topic of this decade. According to the United Nations General Assembly 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainability is defined as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Sustainability has taken on an air of urgency in recent years as many in the scientific and political communities have come to view the growing human population, with its associated social, environmental, and economic impacts, as being almost certainly unsustainable.

The Society for College and University Planning (or SCUP) annual international conference now includes many sustainability sessions for campus planners, architects, and consultants, and is never lacking of advice on how to go "green". As of this date, 650 university presidents in the United States have signed the President's Climate Commitment, committing to model "ways to eliminate global warming emissions, and by providing the knowledge and the educated graduates to achieve climate neutrality." In the evangelical Christian community, college students and churches are increasingly introducing Creation Care programs, and Christian leaders across the country are signing the Evangelical Climate Initiative. The elephant in the room, of course, is the strained relationship between the largely conservative evangelical movement and the environmental movement, frequently cited as being on the "liberal" agenda. As a result, many Christian leaders in higher education, such as this author, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being convinced of the urgency of the sustainability issue, while at the same time trying to avoid any association with the left. This is a false controversy, and easily overcome through reframing of the questions to arrive at a more balanced approach.

In order to gain a more balanced perspective, the evangelical community (particularly the American community) must start at the local level to develop sustainable mindsets. This would require a wholesale change at many levels in each individual church community, followed by a network of communities into a sort of macro-community. Each community could begin be asking itself questions related to social, environmental, and economic sustainability. Some of these questions are admittedly very difficult and strike at the core of theology and church organization:
  • Social: Is the way we structure our churches (i.e. church growth resulting in mega-churches) a sustainable model? Does our theology lend itself to large families which contribute to population growth?
  • Environmental: Are our church buildings sustainable? Can we reduce church commutes through a different congregational model? Are we mistaking social structures (e.g. driving to church and eating out afterwards) for spiritual virtues ("fellowship") without considering other means to achieve the same end? Are we using local resources whenever possible? Does our eschatology promote an uncaring attitude toward our planet?
  • Economic: Are we locally committing our own resources? Are we constructing buildings/programs which are financially dependent on (unsustainable) future growth?
In his post "A church In the Green", Ooze contributor Chris Cocca imagines what a sustainable church would look like:
People get together each week in some reclaimed space or free space in their neighborhood. There is no pastor. There is some kind of “Admin” or some similar open source analogue. Each week, the liturgy (literally, “the work of the people”), the readings, the music, the things that are shared and said, the prayers…each week these emerge from whatever is brought by the gathered. Some people bring things intentionally, things they’ve written beforehand or worked on for a while. Other people write poems and prayers or make art or music that is shared in response to what’s been going on in real time. The music is done by whoever brings instruments. Communion is shared every week, and the elements are whatever people bring (out of respect for the recovery community, maybe we nix alcohol). You don’t come expecting to be talked to but to converse. You don’t come to hear one or two people’s opinions but to build an offering. You come to hang out and live.
One could wish that this scripture from Genesis 1:28 (KJV) could be interepted differently than it often is:
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
It seems that the age of subduing and dominating the earth expired long ago. Of course, the authors of the Books of Moses could not have conceived of a spherical, fragile planet teeming with seven billion human beings in a mere 3,500 years. Does the church have the courage to admit that old ideas have passed away, and it's time to make all things new?

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

On Poker and Freethought

slacktivist: Weak

"A vast number of my fellow evangelicals and my fellow Americans have come to define themselves primarily by what they are against, by that which offends them. I'm sure that many of them are, indeed, sincerely offended and sincerely opposed to the many things at which they take offense. But I am equally certain that many are less sincere and that some are wholly insincere, and I fear that the least sincere among them have taken charge."

The Slacktivist here discusses a behavior I have experienced firsthand, and which the InternetMonk has referred to as the "Tyranny of the Offended". Happily, in my own denomination, I have witnessed a deliberate move away from from the posture of being "against" and toward a more gentle attitude. But the question becomes this: for the broader American evangelical community, how much identity is invested in what we are against, and would the church even be recognizable if we let these labels fall away? For many some people I know have known, the lines they have drawn in the sand define them as Christians and serve as a very effective wall to keep outsiders out. Indeed, for peitist and holiness movements, this kind of understanding is the very foundation of the faith (notwithstanding, of course, their salvific doctrines).

It's interesting to me that the people in my circle of influence worry less about offending the weak in faith than they do about offending the powerful; people who would otherwise step outside the boundary of sanctioned behaviors and actions (for which they hold little personal conviction) most often do not out of deference to offended "powerful". Shouldn't the powerful, the best-gounded in the faith, be the most tolerant and understanding of all? Ultimately, could our separatist attitude end up actually offending the weak (whose definition?) when well-meaning Christians hesitate, or even refuse to meet them on their own terms? It seems to me to be an upside-down system.

A few of my friends in our faith comunity have joined me in living on the fringe in a number of ways. You will never find me engaged in active evangelism, but you will find me shoulder to shoulder at a poker table with people who are very different from those I work and attend church with. You will find me in freethinkers meeting, having a candid conversaton with an atheist and learning something profound in the process. You might occasionally see me reading Darwin's "Origin of Species", or Dawkin's "God Delusion". I have set aside any fear of offending the powerful, and instead choose to accept and engage "the least of these", who may actually have something to teach me after all. Humanity is a two-way street.
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Saturday, February 21, 2009

25 Random Things You Wish You Didn't Know About Me

1. I have never, ever eaten at Taco Bell.
2. I once played Bach's Inventio 11 while single handedly chalking a pool cue.
3. I often frolic.
4. I once led a large troupe of amazonian refugee children safely through a hoard of poisonous frogs.
5. I aspire to be the first person to read the entire published works of Hilaire Belloc while unicycling through the canadian rockies.
6. I have a patent pending for a more energy efficient grandfather clock.
7. I am an abstract jazz pianist and an expert asbestos inspector.
8. I can hurl jello at non-moving objects with uncanny precision.
9. I have three times escaped the clutches of evil pastafarians.
10. On Tuesday evenings, after work, I repair large hadron colliders.
11. Buddhist monks resent me.
12. I once escaped from the creation museum using only a food processer and six pages from 'Origin of the Species'.
13. I frequently beat Tiger Woods golf score, and in far fewer holes.
14. I have been known to inspire widespread gloom.
15. I prefer solving Soduko puzzles using roman numerals.
16. I have performed covert operations for the United States Chess Federation.
17. When bored, I dabble in quantum chromodynamics.
18. I am the subject of numerous autobiographies.
19. When I do eat, I eat in a hammock.
20. I can do seven minute abs in under four minutes.
21. I have 27 facebook accounts, but only 23 friends.
22. Fashion critics swoon over my latest line of academic regalia evening wear.
23. I do macrame, I drivel, I have poor circulation in my feet.
24. The laws of physics do not apply to me.
25. I resent the implication, Mr. Attorney General.