Blog Archives

Flotsam and jetsam (12/28)

It’s all a snow job by nature. The reality is, we’re freezing not in spite of climate change but because of it.

It is unfortunate that we divide action and contemplation. It is unfortunate that we sometimes suspect those who pursue a robust inner life.

In short, both Jewish and Christian traditions treat him as Herod the Terrible. The historian, however, is fully aware, despite Herod’s grave shortcomings, of his unparalleled political and cultural accomplishments….All in all, in view of these unquestionable achievements Herod deserves to be known as the one and only Herod the Great.

A Tel Aviv University team excavating a cave in central Israel said teeth found in the cave are about 400,000 years old and resemble those of other remains of modern man, known scientifically as Homo sapiens, found in Israel. The earliest Homo sapiens remains found until now are half as old.

  • Jason Goroncy offers a very helpful summary of 12 ways to prematurely write off Yoder. If you’re interested in John Howard Yoder, anabaptism, or “constantinianism”, you should check it out.

Miroslav Volf on the eschatological significance of human work

I was recently re-reading portions of Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, and I was struck again with his vision for relating human work in creation with the eschatological new creation. Volf devotes considerable attention to rejecting the idea that there will be an eventual “annihilation” of this world following by an entirely new creation. Instead, he contends that a more faithful interpretation of the biblical narrative would be to affirm that this present creation will be renewed and transformed in the eschaton. Thus, the new creation flows from the current creation, rather than being entirely discontinuous with it.

One of his concerns with the annihilation/new creation framework is that it threatens to rob human work of its intrinsic significance. On that framework, any work that we perform with respect to this creation has only an instrumental value insofar as it improves me as an individual or the believing community as a whole. The effect on creation itself has no lasting significance.

In a renewal/transformation framework, though, he contends that we can understand human work has having eschatological significance in that it participates in the transformatio mundi.

The picture changes radically with the assumption that the world will end not in apocalyptic destruction but in eschatological transformation. Then the results of the cumulative work of human beings have intrinsic value and gain ultimate significance, for they are related to the eschatological new creation, not only indirectly through the faith and service they enable or sanctification they further, but also directly: the noble products of human ingenuity….will form the ‘building materials’ from which (after they are transfigured) ‘the glorified world’ will be made. (91)

Thus, human work has eschatological significance even beyond its instrumental effect on the person performing the work. Indeed, Volf argues that this gives us grounds for affirming that even the work of non-believers might transformatively carried over into the new creation. Any “noble result” of human endeavor may be judged by God as having value for new creation.

Volf wants to be careful, though, to make sure that we don’t begin to think that we are actually the ones who bring the new creation into being. For Volf, new creation is clearly a work of God, but in a way that retains the significance of human work.

Through the Spirit, God is already working in history, using human actions to create provisional states of affairs that anticipate the new creation in a real way. These historical anticipations are, however, as far from the consummation of the new creation as earth is from heaven. The consummation is a work of God alone. But since this solitary divine work does not obliterate but transforms the historical anticipations…one can say, without being involved in a contradiction, that human work is an aspect of active anticipation of the exclusively divine transformatio mundi. (100)

Drawing largely on the resources of eschatology and pneumatology, Volf presents a compelling vision for the significance of human work and how it contributes to the transformatio mundi, while retaining a clear sense of the divine prerogative in new creation.

To that extent, it reminded me of the semi-apocryphal quote attributed to Martin Luther (at least I can’t find where he said it): “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Given Volf’s framework, this becomes more than rhetorical flourish. Planting an apple tree just might have eschatological significance in its own right. Johnny Appleseed would be so proud.

Best video of the day: mockumentary of “The Majestic Plastic Bag”

Here’s an extremely well done mockumentary, narrated by Jeremy Irons, depicting the “majestic plastic bag” as it makes its way across California and to its home in the Pacific Ocean. It’s part of an effort to pass a bill that deals with pollution in California. But, regardless of your take on this bill, this is worth watching. Very well done.

Sustainable stewardship (Acton 6)

The discussions surrounding ecology and economy at the Acton conference raised two sets of questions: (1) the relationship between creation and human flourishing; and (2) the relationship between free markets economics and the growing ecological crisis. I talked about the first of those questions yesterday, so today we’ll move on to the second question.

Unfortunately, the sessions that I attended did not really address this question directly. The best that I got from most seminars were various comments leading me to believe that most thought that market forces themselves would eventually address the ecological concerns. For example, one person argued that market forces would never allow us to exhaust completely a natural resource because it would eventually become too scarce, and consequently too expensive, to continue pursuing. Others seemed to think that the market would eventually come to see environmentalism as good business and develop adaptive technologies that would address ongoing environmental concerns. And, most seemed to think that the real solution was to develop more virtuous societies who would not pursue market economics in such abusive ways. Overall though, very few people offered a cohesive argument for how free market economics could be expanded globally, along with the corresponding rise in the consumption of natural resources, without have a correspondingly deleterious effect on creation.  (Did you like my use of “deleterious”? I thought it made this paragraph sound much more intellectual.)

One exception to that was a seminar I attended on the last day arguing that consumption was not the problem at all. This lecture specifically criticized any “stewardship” model for creation ethics because such models are unable to provide specific direction for concrete action (precisely the problem we discussed in yesterday’s post). According to this lecturer, stewardship models can give us the environmental “why” (it’s God’s creation), and the environmental “what” (take care of it), but they are fundamental incapable of providing any concrete “how” (how exactly do you do this?). In its place, he offered the principle of “environmental sustainability.” Throughout the lecture, he argued that the ecological problem does not result from over-consumption, but from faulty design. The production and consumption of products harmful to the environment, he argued, is necessarily wrong-headed. And, it doesn’t help for us to do less of it (reduce consumption and/or recycle), because that just succeeds in destroying the environment more slowly. As he commented frequently, “Being less bad is not good.” (His biggest target here was the idea that we can save the world through recycling. He pointed to recent research suggesting that the recycling process itself is harmful to the environment and, thus, can’t be part of the solution).

Instead, he argued that we need to look more closely at how we are designing the products that we use. Rather than creating cradle-to-grave products that are designed to end up in a landfill some day (he pointed out that very few things are 100% recyclable), we should design cradle-to-cradle products that are fully recyclable and, thus, fully sustainable. And, he argued that the best way to find ideas for such products is to look at creation itself. He claimed that the natural world is replete with products that could be used for industrial purposes, but are not harmful to the natural world itself (e.g. the protein-based adhesives produced by mussels). (Interestingly, he did not consider the harmful consequences that could result if we began replicating such “natural” products on a scale never seen before in nature.)

Unfortunately, this approach also remained almost entirely theoretical. Very little of this is actually being done today and it seem highly questionable that such products and processes could be done on the scale necessary to sustain modern markets and industry. (Since he suggested throughout that cutting consumption was not necessary, he presumably believed that his proposals could at least sustain current levels of consumption.) To believe that we should just sustain current levels of consumption in the hope that someday we will have a solution to the problem, given the widespread destruction we’ve already caused and the potential for future destruction caused by growing majority world economies, is simply inadequate.

In the beginning, there was work. And it was good?

What are these goofy human creatures that God made? What does it mean to live a truly human life? How do human communities flourish and what does that look like? These are some of the questions that got me interested in studying theological anthropology in the first place. Along the way, I’ve looked at the significance of Jesus Christ for understanding true humanity, the nature of the mind/body relationship, free will, gender/sexuality, eschatology, and I’ve started looking at the ecclesial nature of humanity. Among the glaring absences in this sadly incomplete list is the nature of work. God gave us work to do in the Garden and he has work for us to do in the eschaton. Beyond teling us that eternity won’t be just harp solos and cloud sculpting competitions, what significance does this have for understanding humanity as God intended it?

That’s what I’m off to explore tomorrow. I’ll be attending the Acton University conference in Grand Rapids for the rest of the week. Although Acton tends to focus more on issues of economics and politics, there will be plenty to explore in my own areas of interest. Mostly I’ll be focusing on understanding economics, social justice, and environmental stewardship, hoping that they will all contribute to a better understanding of work and human flourishing in the world.

Here are the seminars that I’m considering at the moment. If I’m feeling really energetic, I’ll try to post some thoughts on the more interesting ones as the conference progresses. We’ll see how that goes.

  • Thoughts on Human Dignity
  • Christian Anthropology
  • Christianity and the Idea of Limited Government (not sure why this is on my list)
  • Economic Way of Thinking
  • Foundations of a Free and Virtuous Society (hoping for some thoughts on human flourishing here)
  • Evangelical Social Thought: Justice Grounded in Love
  • Social Justice: Fair and Victimless vs. Free and Virtuous
  • Biblical Theology and Environmental Ethics
  • Bonhoeffer’s Social Ethics
  • Environmental Sustainability: Creature Care beyond Stewardship

Amazing but disturbing oil spill pictures

The Boston Globe has posted some amazing but disturbing pictures of birds covered in oil from the oil spill in the gulf. Most of the pictures that I’ve seen until now have focused more on the macro-level impact. These are the “best” I’ve seen so far for communicating the impact of the spill on wildlife.