The Third Way 13: Points of No Return

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Common cliché: There are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Modified common cliché: The only certainties in life (after birth) are change, taxes, and death.

Points of no return abound in life.  Every choice is made at the expense of some other possible choice.  In the case of most everyday choices, the consequences of one choice over another are almost always trivial, but occasionally even a trivial, almost unconscious choice may have drastic, even life or death, consequences.  Everyone who has lived for some time discovers this.   My wife’s life was once saved by turning her head to talk to me a split second before an exploding aerosol can struck her a glancing blow in the lower jaw.  If she had not turned her head, the projectile would have ripped out the left side of her throat, and nothing could have saved her from rapidly bleeding out.  She still bears the scar.  Soldiers tell of deciding to step one place instead of another, and an instant later a comrade was killed by a chance bullet, an explosion, or a fragment of shell when he stepped where they had been.  You undoubtedly can supply your own accounts of such decisions you or a loved one experienced.

Lately we have been hearing a chorus of increasingly alarmed voices decrying the whole world’s looming point of no return, prophesied within the next fifteen years or two decades at most.  Impressive statistics compiled by impressive phalanxes of climatologists and environmental experts have been assembled in intimidating array to back up this disquieting new eschatology.[i]

I am not a climate-change sceptic; I believe in it absolutely.  Climate change has existed since the earth began, whether mere thousands of years ago as the strictest Bible Creationists would have it, or billions of years ago, as the now generally accepted orthodoxy would have it.  And, once more as both stories (and all those in between) would have it, climate change has sometimes been rapid and catastrophic.  Just recently, convincing evidence for the Yucatan Comet strike that, we are told, brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, has been found.  Such a massive strike certainly brought about shattering climate change in a hurry, with mass extinctions and changes in both flora and fauna in the seas and on land.  Or, if we take the story of the Noahic Deluge as a catastrophic alternative agent, the changes it wrought would be at least equal in permanent, devastating results.

What I have difficulty with is the eschatological hyperbole we are being subjected to, or rather bombarded with, in regard to the degree of climate change we have seen over the last two centuries and the human causality of whatever these changes have been and may yet be.

In the post previous to the present one, I referred to a much more subtle but significant “point of no return” which we have perhaps already reached, or, more probably, are on the cusp of reaching.  It involves the looming demise of the West as a culture, civilization, and society.  Many have predicted this demise and if it becomes an historical fact, some centuries later historians will strive to decipher the causes of the collapse.  Meanwhile, we who live in the midst of the West’s increasingly decadent cultural semi-chaos and political malaise and disease thrash about looking for sense, answers, and blameworthy villains.  As Toynbee would ask, “Just who are the barbarians about to kick in the door and knock out the main support beams?”

As Toynbee and others have told us, if only we could hear them, we might just gain some more reasonable perspective by looking backwards.  Instead we resort to ranting and raving about the latest interpretations of instrument readings from select times, places, and dates over the last two centuries while having no wider perspective (or choosing to ignore any that might be on offer) in which to assay them.

The real truth about points of no return is that they are also turning points and, in that sense, no different than so many other decisions, or non-decisions, which we miss by ignorance or choose to make, avoid, or ignore.  Many decisions have led us to this sense of crisis, which is indeed based on a real crisis in our relationship to our planet’s physical environment.

We do have to choose, but if our choice to reform our approach to our planet’s global ecosystem is isolated from the even greater need to make better choices in even more critical domains, we are merely delaying the final ‘point of no return’.  Ultimately, it not’s just “about the environment, stupid.”  It’s about who and what we are, and why we are who and what we are.

It’s about facing the truth that it is not just ‘all about me/us’.  Groping towards that truth, a growing movement is adopting a sort of mystical, spiritualized view of nature and the cosmos.  But this still leads us into a blind alley, however titillated and tingling we may feel when we ‘get the vibes’.  Deifying the cosmos, whether by pantheism or panentheism or even a sort of quasi-polytheism, still leaves us empty at the core.  We’ve been there and done that.  People still pursue this and get some spiritual ‘buzzes’ from doing it.  But it does not really tell them who they are or why they are here in the first place.  It just removes the critical issue by another layer, to another level.  It may even enable the practitioner of that kind of spirituality to find some occasional sense of ‘connection’ to the core ‘energy of the universe’ or the universal soul, so to speak. 

This kind of projection of inner hunger onto nature, however conceived, demonstrates that we cannot avoid searching for the deeper meaning of life and existence.  But, in the final analysis, we can only search according to how we as beings experience the reality of the cosmos.  We experience it as personal beings with individual consciousness—that is how we search and how we relate to it.  It is always a person conducting the search, hungering for personal connection.  It comes with an accompanying awareness that others are also searching, giving a sense of community and belonging which brings comfort and relieves the loneliness and aloneness.

In our normal experience of life and reality from birth to death, this sense of wanting and needing connection and communion never leaves us.  Besides nourishment and shelter, there is nothing more essential to a newborn than being loved, being connected, belonging—first to mother, then to a family, then to a community.  That is how everyone comes to know and be known, to become validated and valued, by knowing one is loved, wanted, needed, and valued as a person.  It is so from the first breath of life.  It is as great a need, even greater than physical food and drink.  No one can flourish or become fully human without it.

Our climate ‘Point of No Return’ may be as serious as the propaganda is claiming.  It’s hard to tell when all dissent is being shouted down and demonized.  But the real turning point masqued by it, which may well be a real point of no return, is a moral, ethical, and spiritual crisis of the first magnitude. 

It is about the spiritual destitution and void lying at the heart of the West and, ultimately, the whole human race.

TO BE CONTINUED


[i]  Eschatology – the study of the end times; “a branch of theology concerned with last things, e.g. death, judgment, heaven, hell.” Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002.  I deliberately use the term “eschatology” to refer to the current mounting alarmist crescendo regarding our planet’s fate.  It is really a kind of ‘theology’ about creation without admitting its faith foundation in a sort of ‘Gaia’ connection with ‘Mother Earth.’  Earth is not about to explode, implode, or disappear, and life is not about to be driven to utter extinction by human action in burning fossil fuels, although the rhetoric increasingly being used, even by many serious academics who should know better, is creating this impression.  There is a very real threat of the collapse of the present human civilization based on massive exploitation of certain of the planet’s resources.  But that is a different issue.  Unfortunately, the human capacity to overpower other species is creating a crisis of survival for them far beyond that of our own selfish wish to continue living like royalty with unlimited resources and no one to hold them responsible.  But hyperbolic doomsdayism is not a helpful manner of dealing with this need to turn away from our terrible, immoral behaviour.

The Third Way, 12: Comedy of Errors

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The Third Way, 12: Comedy of Errors“God writes a lot of comedy, it’s just that he has so many bad actors.”  Garrison Keillor, American comedian quoted in Common Prayer, (Zondervan, 2010), p. 222

            By all appearances, we have painted ourselves into a corner.  There have been many bad actors involved in this self-inflicted crisis.  Perhaps the Divine perspective on this ‘comedy’ is a sort of irony that the Creator can see but seems lost on us poor wayward mortals.  We typically blame Him/Her for the tragedy of what we mostly do to ourselves and one another.  But, comedy, irony, or whatever we want to call it aside, I doubt that the Creator is laughing.

I suspect that we will only be able to see the ‘joke’ quite a bit farther down the road.  I am reminded of the catastrophic predictions of the famous “Club of Rome” in the early 1970s.  Mass famines and plagues as per Malthus anyone?  Then there was the Far-Right panic about a global Masonic takeover and One-World Government in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  And then there was the worldwide Y2K apocalypse panic which made billions for techies but was no more than a hyper-inflated burp.  And let us not forget the various 9/11 conspiracies (it wasn’t really Al-Qaeda, eh).  Finally, for Bible-thumpers, there is the perennial “Jesus is returning on Day X at 12 noon” and for Koran thumpers, the Mahdi is about to emerge any day. 

There are quite a few of us who would like to blame the Supreme Tragic-comedy Writer for the whole mess.  But then we would have to accept there is a Creator to blame.  Instead, it is more expedient (and atheistically consistent) to blame, at least in part, the poor, ignorant and benighted souls who still believe there is a Creator.  On the other side of that coin, believers in that mythical being can blame the fools who don’t believe there is a Creator, or the ones who do but believe in Him/Her the wrong way.  Whoever there is to blame, it is their fault because they have stubbornly opposed and resisted, and continue to oppose and resist (circle the correct answer, as per your chosen villain): (a) the kind of progressive measures that would save Planet Earth from the immediately looming climate change apocalypse, (b) acknowledging and submitting their lives to the Creator, or (c) getting themselves lined up with the real truth about the Creator and abandoning their errors.

Admittedly and regrettably, more than a few very conservative religious types, Christian and other, can be identified among the groups that latch most fervently onto the kinds of scenarios mentioned above (Y2K, etc.).  Too often and sadly, those boldly wearing the label “Christian” seem to be over-represented, but they are not the only ones to shouting, “The Barbarians are at the gates!”

Our latest doomsday prophecy is the Climate Apocalypse, impressively supported by the now official ideology of “climate change science”.  We have just been told that the world has twelve to fifteen years at most to turn things around and that in many respects we have already passed “the point of no return.”  We can all plead guilty to pillaging the planet’s hydrocarbon and forestry resources at a rate that cannot be sustained.  We are told that it is indubitably human action that is irreversibly desertizing enormous swaths of once-fertile land as we burn up the stored energy of the sun and emit enormous clouds of Green-House Gases which the earth’s forests, atmosphere, and oceans cannot cleanse fast enough.  We have been doing this recklessly and without forethought for the last 200 years, at least in that ‘land of the usual suspects,’ the West.

The ultra-alarmists on this one are not, this time, the neo-Fascist Neanderthals on the Far Right.  (Incidentally, we should stop slandering the poor Neanderthals, who, anthropologists now tell us, had larger brains than we do and were just as intelligent, did not drag their knuckles, and did not talk in inarticulate grunts, having fully evolved vocal capacity.)    To undo our Neanderthal slander, we should have our Parliaments and Congresses, and perhaps the UN, move official apologies to them and all their descendants, along with legislation for appropriate compensation.

The UN’s science directorate and various other official and semi-official organisms (a long list that continues to proliferate and clamor for funding) have reached the conclusion that whole small nations, and coastal regions of larger ones, are about to be flooded by torrents of glacier-melt-water causing rising sea-levels, while in the interior of the continents, heat-waves will wither and kill the vegetation, or burn it all because of uncontrollable wildfires.  Lakes and rivers will dry up by the thousands as ground water sinks in depth and quality.  Meanwhile, buried nuclear waste is a ticking time-bomb poisoning the substrata so that monstrous mutations will someday emerge and destroy whatever remains of ‘normal’ life.

Is there any way to gain a bit more objective perspective in the midst of this near-hysteria?  Between 1934 and ‘61, the brilliant British meta-historian Arnold Toynbee wrote A Study of History,an immense analysis of the patterns of history.  As a minor historian of sorts, I found and still find Toynbee’s attempt to synthesize and make sense of the whole human saga fascinating.  Toynbee exhaustively recounts the rise and fall of all the major civilizations throughout recorded history, beginning with the first empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India, down to the modern day.  As he was completing his massive survey and synthesis, he was witnessing firsthand the final collapse of the European colonial empires, uncannily conforming to his observed pattern.

Toynbee proposes that one can only really get a grip on what is occurring in one’s own time, society, and culture by having a deep understanding of the repeated cycles of the rise and fall of kingdoms, empires, and civilizations through centuries and millennia.  Unfortunately in the 21st Century West, we have become blind and deaf to, and abysmally ignorant of, who and what we are and where we have come from.  Long-sighted historians have often said that the key to understanding the present is knowing the past.  Likewise, the key to forecasting the future is in knowing what people have typically done in response to similar circumstances in the past.  This procedure works pretty well overall because the constants in all such studies are human nature and human behaviour, neither of which have changed in any essential throughout recorded history.

But the West as a society and civilization no longer knows or values its past, let alone appreciates the values and beliefs that used to underpin its life.  Socrates once said that the key to living a good life was to “Know thyself.”  We no longer do and are close to reaching another “point of no return” from the one that our climatic eschatologists tell us we are swiftly approaching. 

This other point of no return is that of the wayward child who has repeatedly refused to come home, choosing to spend all his/her capital on false promises and hopes proffered by countercultural snake-oil salesmen and ideological Newthink, Newspeak, Soma.  It is a familiar story whose archetype can be found in Luke’s Gospel in chapter 15 of the New Testament.  If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so, as it has been called the most effective short story every composed.  It is also a story offering hope when all seems lost.

Meanwhile, at this juncture of human history, we are on the cusp of a true, classic paradox.  The West’s leading ideological elite blame all the old ways and ideals and declare ‘all of THAT’ false and, worse still, the root cause of our ruthless pillaging of the planet.  But the irony is that, in more and more pockets coalescing below the materialist veneer of the dying civilization of the West, spiritual hunger and awareness is bubbling up and resurfacing.  There is a gut-hunger for reconnection with reality beyond the mere “quantum, random order-out-of-chaos somehow but for no reason we can discern” worldview that leaves us desperate to try anything.  A huge irony in it all which borders on comedy is that the West has lost control of reason, its most sacred, valued, and vaunted tool and bequest to the human tribe.

Arnold Toynbee diagnosed precisely where we were going sixty  and even seventy years ago.  There were others too, if any had really been listening—C.S. Lewis and even Winston Churchill among them.  For his part, Toynbee was clearly and accurately defining the stage our civilization and culture had reached—the evening shadows of a lingering empire that still had outward form and clung to the shadow of what it had once been.  But it was tottering on the brink, even then.

Toynbee says that civilizations finally collapse in one of two ways, both involving “barbarians”, “barbarians” being a term he deliberately chose to typify what happens at the end, and the ‘end’ is always humanly enacted.  The ‘end’ may appear to be sudden and swift, but it has almost always been slowly and gradually coming on, with a final kick administered by violent agents.  The barbarians may come from the outside or the inside, but they are barbarians nonetheless even if they are internally generated.  (Think French and Russian Revolutions for internal, and Goths and Huns for external.)

As a final thought today, it has become completely silly to blame God for our sorry pickle.  We virtually booted God out of the house after World War 2, yet we have the nerve to continue to revile Him/Her for what has happened.  Of course, God’s detractors had been reviling the Creator long before that horrific bloodletting.

It really is high time that those who decry where we are and what we have become stop blaming the non-existent and therefore, to their mind, impotent Deity, and also stop blaming those who still insist on remaining attached to the Creator, but who have been relegated to irrelevancy in their economy.  The anti-Creator faction has been in control now for long enough for Truman’s ‘buck’ to sit firmly on their desk.  In reality, no one wins the blame game.  As a Bible passage puts it in old language: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “Sin”, in New Testament Greek, is a word which means “missing the mark or target; falling short”.

It matters not whether you are a Theist, Desist, Agnostic, Polytheist, Pantheist, or Atheist.  All of us are guilty of “missing it, falling short”.  If we listen to our consciences, they condemn us, every one of us, regardless of our starting presuppositions about the nature of reality.

The complete picture of our apocalypse is not merely about climate change’s “point of no return,” as dire as that may be.  Regardless, Planet Earth will survive humanity’s rape of its hydrocarbon resources.  Over time, it will regenerate if we eliminate ourselves in the ultimate tragicomic dénouement, or if we succeed in stopping our environmental barbarism.  But we need to read the real road-signs as we approach an even more critical junction.  To rightly read our trajectory into the future, we have to go much deeper into the heart and soul of the matter.  Which is where old-style sages like Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, C.S. Lewis, and Arnold Toynbee can still help us.