This year Catholics enter the most important week of their religious calendar with a new pope, and if you’re like many of my colleagues, this doesn’t mean much to you. I don’t see much writing about religion among the ecologically-minded, perhaps because many are not very religious themselves, or perhaps they are avoiding that most delicate of subjects. I want to make a case, though, that you should care – perhaps about the new pope, and definitely about religion in general – as you make plans for the future.
As a bit of background, you might have heard that the last pope took the unusual step of resigning a few weeks ago; popes usually hold the office until they die, and the last one to willingly step down was more than 700 years ago. The new pope, Francis I, is all kinds of other firsts – the first from the Western Hemisphere, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, the first from outside Europe in 1,300 years, the first from the church’s 500-year-old Jesuit order, and the first to be visited on their inauguration by the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost a thousand years. Unlike some of his predecessors he has been deeply critical of the global financial system that has left so many Third-World countries poor and indebted, and he has impressed observers with many small gestures toward simplicity.
He now heads a church devastated by massive sexual abuse scandals in several countries, and will have little credibility unless he starts sacking people left and right for covering up those horrific crimes. They were just the most recent blows, however, to an already weakened religious empire.
Most people know something about our clergy and rituals from mass media, for when Central Casting needs someone to be demonically possessed or Whoopi Goldberg to wear a disguise, the Hawaiian shirts of feel-good mega-church pastors just don’t cut it. We represent all things arcane and traditional in Hollywood pop culture, yet that same culture has made those traditions difficult to maintain. Our deliberately paced rituals were not made for a world of ubiquitous iDistractions, or our austere teachings for a world with the comforts and sexual freedom of Egyptian pharaohs.
Recent popes made some small concessions to a rapidly changing world – allowing the Mass to be said in local languages rather than in Latin, for example – but they often just alienated traditionalists, while not making the meaty concessions that many modern Catholics want. If anything the Church has responded to the modern world by forbidding more and more of it; formally opposing abortion in 1869, and contraception from 1930. Pulled and pushed from many directions, a growing number of the world’s billion-or-so Catholics silently question how many catechism points they can disagree with before they need to start calling themselves something else.
Today the world’s largest denomination of the world’s largest religion is undergoing its own kind of slow collapse – not vanishing, but shrinking rapidly in the First World. To use one small but typical statistic, the seminary (school for future priests) near where we live in Ireland ordained 558 priests in 1963 -- a mere 12 entered last year. Catholics in the USA are melting away from the Church en masse, their numbers only partly obscured by a flood of Hispanic immigrants. When I returned to my hometown last year, where I attended junior seminary myself once, I discovered almost all the Catholic schools had closed, and my old church had taken out its cry room for mothers with babies – there hadn’t been any in a long time.
Some former Catholics I know have become militant atheists of the new breed, who embrace nihilism not with mourning, as Nietzsche or Camus did, but with glee. Others have been caught in the gravitational pull of the USA’s fundamentalist movement, which has spent the last few decades building an extraordinary media empire and absorbing more and more American Christians into its cultural bubble.
Perhaps the oldest surviving organisation on the planet, one that survived the rise and fall of several empires and centuries of hardship, is failing in an age of overabundance, most in the most abundant parts of the world. It needs to decide what kind of church it wants to be as we pass into the next and particularly difficult era ahead. So for Catholics, this is kind of a big deal.
I know, the Church has a lot of shameful history – so does my native USA, or Britain, or France, any other country or organization with a bit of history behind it. Point to the Inquisition and I’ll point to one of your group’s original sins, because there will be some. In each case, though, the past doesn’t necessarily represent the present, nor do the shameful parts negate the brilliant parts, nor do some decisions by a government represent all actions of a people. I’m embarrassed by some of my countrymen but not ashamed of my country; it’s home to me, and I’m proud of its better angels. Perhaps you have your own example.
To extend the metaphor, Francis is being greeted by Catholics as Obama was in the USA. He’s a demographic first that seems to reconcile a painful history, made in a time of crisis and potential. As with Obama, however, people are projecting all kinds of hopes and fantasies upon him, and some will inevitably be disappointed when he does not walk on water.
As I said, if you’re not religious, none of this seems very important compared to the years of global crisis we anticipate. We all know that our species is burning away the world’s supply of fossil fuels upon which our economy depends, and disrupting the weather in the process. We know that the living systems that keep the Earth running are seeing one of their periodic mass extinctions – not an asteroid or super-volcano this time, but a single ape species – and we know that past crises didn’t heal on a human timescale. I’m right there with you.
Think about this, though: What if you are trying to work against these trends, and rally others to your cause? What if you are trying to build communities, or change the way people vote, or organise protests? What if you want to assemble communities in the country to become self-sufficient? And what if, hypothetically, your allies hail disproportionately from specific subcultures – tech-savvy,
upper-class, coastal, countercultural, socially libertine and irreligious?
We tend to live in bubbles of people like us, and while social media has made it easy for people to have geographically disparate “communities,” I find that most people still communicate mainly with others of the same generation, education, religious and political attitudes. If no one you know goes to church, for example, you might forget that 40 per cent of Americans do, and forget to factor that into your community-building.
Not all people who don’t talk about their faith are nihilists, of course – some just walk rather than talk, and I wish more people did. I’m not a fan of the current fashion in the USA, where oversharing about faith became popular around the same time as oversharing about sex and other private matters. If you want to deal with others in creating a future, however, you must be prepared to deal with the fact that most people believe in something, and that it will not and should not remain tucked away under a basket.
For one thing, religion often deals with the most basic assumptions of one’s life -- the visceral and magical attitudes that underlie our political and religious affiliations. Since we so often refuse to even examine, much less talk about, such attitudes, we often engage in culture wars without talking about the thing we’re really talking about. When an acquaintance of mine said he disagreed with evolution, for example, I politely asked probing questions, and with each answer I was more confused than before. He was intelligent and well-educated, and each sentence was cogent and eloquent – but I didn’t see their relationship to the subject or each other.
The problem was that he began from the assumption that evolution was what some atheists think it is, an anti-religion religion that evangelises a meaningless existence. I, however, was referring to the evolution that scientists study -- the way that living things change over time. (I know Richard Dawkins falls into both camps, but most scientists I know don’t.) You could replace the word “evolution” with “existentialism” and his answers would be much the same: Evolution can’t explain everything. Evolution doesn’t comfort you in grief. Evolution won’t save you when you die.
You could replace “evolution” with “digestion” or “precipitation,” however, and they would have made about as much sense to me. Does digestion explain everything? Does precipitation comfort us in grief? Or, if we’re talking more about the history than the process, replace the word with any historical event: does the Moon landing address the problem of evil? Can the Civil War explain everything?
Religious beliefs include, or are influenced by, such baseline assumptions, and much of their jargon exists to separate people inside the group from outside. When someone asks me if I’ve accepted Jesus as my “personal saviour,” or insists they are “just Christian” of no particular type, it gives me a clear idea what type of Christian they are.
Neglecting such a powerful force in our lives, or its absence, prevents us from seeing their effect on the political and social landscape – and how they are affected by it. Take, as an example, the early 20th-century debate between pre-millennials and post-millennials – which has nothing to do with people born around the year 2000, and everything to do with how we think of the future. To oversimplify, post-millennials believe humans could and should make the world suitable for Christ before he returns, whether it be the Puritans’ idea of suitable or Martin Luther King’s. Either way they tend to be optimistic and ambitious in creating social change – in King’s words, “the arc of the universe … bends toward justice.”
Pre-millennials, on the other hand, believe that the world will get worse and worse before the Second Coming, and their visions lean toward fatalistic, Zombie Apocalypse territory – when you hear about “The Tribulation” and “The Rapture,” it’s probably from a pre-millennial.
It might not be a coincidence that the two seem to rise and fall with the fortunes of a country. In the early 19th century, as the USA headed closer to civil war, pre-millennial movements like the Millerites spread across the then-frontier, hailing the end of the world until the “Great Disappointment” of 1844. As the Millerites fragmented into many other groups – that’s where Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses come from – post-millennialism seemed to gain steam, and their idealistic movements helped abolish slavery, invent labour rights and give women the vote.
As the USA became the dominant global power, post-millennial churches remained powerful through the civil rights movement. Then, as the country passed its domestic oil peak and the public grew aware of ecological dangers ahead, an ecological-sounding book called The Late Great Planet Earth became a runaway hit – it’s often claimed to be the best-selling book of the decade. That book inspired a growing pre-millennial movement among the young and countercultural, which evolved into the nationalistic and somewhat paranoid fundamentalism so influential in the USA now.
You’ll notice, though, that both of these strains of Christianity pretty well parallel the two visions of the future popular in the fossil-fuel era. In the mid-20th century, when Westerners saw rapid technological and social progress, the gospel of progress affected not just religion, but politics and science. Evolution was reframed as the ascent of Man, my country’s expansion reframed as Manifest Destiny, history as the March of Progress. When my country’s tables turned in the 1970s, not only did the religion get apocalyptic, but politics and popular culture did too.
Whether the religion led or followed the other trends is difficult to say, and of course not everything falls into these neat categories – apocalyptic thinking was around long before the first oil well – but their popularity does seem to rise and fall with energy inputs. If this pattern holds, we might expect to see pre-millennialism – what I’m calling “fundamentalism” - continue to be one of the few things that boom as fossil fuels decline.
That could be very bad news for the rest of us if they persist in attacking basic science education in my own country, because of their aforementioned ideas about evolution. People can have their own opinions about gay marriage or abortion – there are good people on all sides of these issues, and we can sort out our differences democratically. We can also have respectful differences about our faith in the unproven. We do not, however, have to respect someone’s faith in the disproven, and a generation without science education is the last thing we need as we enter an ecological crisis.
On the other hand, I’m throwing around terms like fundamentalist, evangelical and mega-church as though they were interchangeable, and of course there are many divisions and nuances. I know many fundamentalists who would make bitter flame-war enemies online but great neighbours in a real-world crisis. I also know others whose faith has inspired them to adopt a more traditional way of life – and in doing so pave the way for the rest of us. Also, many groups settle down over time, or we soften toward them; we don’t think of the “Salvation Army” as being a genuine army, say, getting into shooting wars with gangs, but once they were and did.
None of those religious groups, though, completely abandoned their belief in progress, and these days most people across the political and religious map tend to celebrate progress in some area – whether it be newly broken cultural taboos or newly vaulted Dow numbers. Most people I know, of any political or religious group, feel perfectly comfortable questioning their opponents’ version of progress, but respond indignantly to any questioning of their own version.
Of course we have progressed -- few humans have experienced our level of comfort and freedom, our health or literacy. We live in an age when humans live eight decades, and with a few touches of a finger can connect to the wisdom of the world. Yet most of those changes exist because of fossil fuels and the technology they allow; that cheap-energy window appears like a needle along the timeline of humanity, and as we pass over one peak after another we need to think about what parts of progress are objectively right and necessary for our descendants. Nor has the freedom to choose every aspect of our lives necessarily made us happier, as far as such things can be measured, than people who did not have such choices.
The myth of progress also doesn’t allow us to say no. It assumes that if a little of something was a relief to oppressed or impoverished ancestors -- wealth, choices, entertainment, anything – that we have to keep following that trend forever. It doesn’t allow us to stand astride history yelling “Stop!” It doesn’t let us say when we’ve had enough, even when the enough we have is temporary. That’s what religions are supposed to do.
Religions done rightly – which usually means traditions that pre-date the cheap energy window –go against today’s left and right alike, and violate every value we learned from generations of stump speeches, motivational seminars and Disney movies. They don’t tell you that you should always follow your heart, or that you are destined for greatness, or have a right to choose whatever path you
want, or that everything will work out all right in the end.
It tells you that you are frail and flawed, here only briefly, that your problems are not very different than everyone else’s, and that we are all in this together. They give our mayfly lives an umbilical cord to eternity – and even if you don’t believe that happens on a spiritual level, the tradition does in this world. There aren’t many institutions that allow us to cite the centuries of the second paragraph, or whose still-standing monasteries kept learning alive through the end of the Roman Empire.
Now another empire is declining – the USA specifically, and the globalised consumer culture in general. In Walter Miller’s novel A Canticle for Liebowitz, a group of Catholic monks preserve the bits of Western Civilisation after a nuclear war, sometimes without understanding it, until the world is ready for it again. The real collapse will probably not be as dramatic as a thermonuclear exchange that seemed so imminent when it was written five decades ago, of course. It will likely be more of the small crashes and crises we have seen in the last decade, giving us a bit of space to do something like the monks of the novel – or the real ones fifteen centuries ago, whose ruins dot the fields around us.
So let’s say you want to help your descendants transition into as humane and civilised an existence as possible, even though you won’t be around to see it. You want to teach children to live a more sustainable life of less consumption and energy use, even when a million distractions around them tell them to do otherwise. To live out this vow of poverty you might need to encourage them to withdraw from the world, as St. Benedict did long ago, and build a community of people who believe the same. You will need to inculcate strict code of restraint in your congregation, and teach a set of rituals that will help people succeed at this new life.
There – you’ve just become religious. Whatever your opinions about the supernatural, you have a set of traditions, rituals and values that sustain you through hardship. There are many traditions you can draw from, of course – I have mine.
Perhaps you have your own example.
Top photo: Window of Chartres, courtesy of Wikicommons.
Second photo: Priests emerging from the seminary at Maynooth near our home.
Third photo: Priest blessing a gardai (policeman) in Ireland. Both these photos seem to be from around the 1930s and are used with permission from Irishhistorylinks.com.
Fourth photo: The graveyard at Glendalough, a monastery built in the 500s.
Final photo: The stream at Glendalough.