March is a month when we consider the role of legacy in our lives: the legacies we have received and those we pass on.
Last Sunday, March 10th, our congregation welcomed back our ministers emeriti, David and Beverly Bumbaugh who shared their faith statement as we enter the time of the Great Disruption. “The world as we know it has passed.” They spoke of the environmental crisis facing our planet and how will we respond.
At our Afternoon Tea later that day, the Bumbaughs asked us to consider the whole problem before we begin problem-solving. “The time has come,” they said, “when a new religious response must be formulated–one which acknowledges the true depth of the catastrophe we face, which accepts our inescapable rootedness in natural process, and understands there will be consequences for the history we have lived and our foolish failure to heed the warnings.” They shared that they intentionally did not offer solutions in their sermon because they wanted us to grapple with the problem. Instead the Bumbaughs offered a faith statement – a new religious response – for how to live into the Great Disruption.
Their full sermon, as well as their faith statement, is published below.
The Bumbaughs also offered great resources. Here are their suggestions:
- The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World by Paul Gilding (nonfiction)
- Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben (nonfiction)
- The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg (nonfiction)
- Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (fiction)
Click here to download a PDF of the sermon.
The Unitarian Church
Summit, New Jersey
May 10, 2013
FAITH AMIDST THE GREAT DISRUPTION
“The world we knew is passing; all things grow strange,” said A. Powell Davies over half a century ago. We have come to the place where the roads have raveled out into ruts and the ruts into blowing dust, chanted Archibold MacLeish over half a century ago. Weʼve heard these words and similar warnings for decades, but somehow, they have not fully registered–perhaps because we cling to an unexamined article of faith: That history is continuous, that the thread running from past through the present and on into the future is unbreakable; that past experience is relevant to this moment in history. Indeed, someone has suggested that we have been conditioned to believe that the future will be very like the past, with only minor tweaking.
But what if that fundamental assumption is wrong? What if a chasm has opened between past and future? What if the old rules and assumptions that have guided us for so long no longer apply? What if “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present” or to the turbulent future? There is a growing chorus of voices suggesting that is precisely the situation in which we ﬁnd ourselves–that the road maps upon which we have relied are no longer able to describe the territory into which we have wandered.
In his book, EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben ampliﬁes the reality to which others have been pointing for decades now. McKibben says:
(W)e’ve lost the ﬁght, insofar as our goal was to preserve the world we were born into. That’s not the world we live on any longer, and there’s no use pretending otherwise.
The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has–even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet and the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they are not. Its a
different place. A different planet.
We have traveled to a new planet, propelled on a burst of carbon dioxide. That new planet, as is often the case in science ﬁction, looks more or less like our own, but clearly isn’t….This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened. And the attempt to make it right usually makes things worse.
We simply can’t live on the new earth as if it were the old earth; weʼve foreclosed that option.
In his book, The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding argues that we have entered upon the great crisis of our times, perhaps of our entire history–the ecological disruption that is deﬁned by the end of growth and the consequent confounding of all our cultural, political, religious assumptions.
We would argue that at their heart, all our religious, political, ethical concerns assume a world of abundance, powered by ongoing and unending growth. Civilization, itself, is the result of the accumulation of surpluses and the need to manage the surplus that is fueled by endless growth. Prophetic religion is concerned with what constitutes a moral
and ethical division of that growth generated surplus. Democracy is, among other things, the assertion that the people have the right and the ability to create a society in which growth is managed and surpluses are appropriately distributed. Capitalism is unthinkable without an assumption of ongoing and unlimited growth.
Certainly Unitarian Universalism is the child of an optimistic faith in the endless, limitless bounty of the universe. From the beginning, we have assumed a world of endless growth and progress. From Channing and his generation on to A. Powell Davies we have asserted that the goal of human existence is self-culture–the endless growth of the human soul through time and eternity, supported by the inﬁnite bounty of an abundant universe. Universalists from Ballou to Barnum believed in constant growth and improvement in a world presided over by a generous God. Modern Unitarian
Universalists continue that unexamined assumption with our persistent talk of spiritual growth and transformation, along with our constant schemes to enlarge our churches and grow our movement.
Beneath all this talk is that unexamined assumption, that implicit faith that we live in a limitless context. What happens now that we are moving abruptly into an epoch of limits, a world in which not only has the surplus disappeared, but sustainability is problematic? What do we have to say to the world, what is our message in a time when it is too late
to prevent the catastrophe and we must ﬁnd ways to manage the catastrophe?
I fear that, as a people, we have misread the times. As a consequence, most of our current social justice concerns are little more than playing around the edges of this black hole. We allow ourselves to believe that the problems we confront are manageable and that we can respond to them in ways that will not demand signiﬁcant changes in the way we live. Much of our theorizing feels like building castles in the air–beautiful castles that never touch the ground at any point.
Because we misread the times, we have a tendency to understand the challenges we face in terms of their surface appearance, rather than as symptoms of larger, deeper problems. For example, when the Arab world erupted in revolution we choose to interpret that event as a pro-democracy movement. The riots that occurred in England
around the same time and the Occupy Wall Street movement we saw as completely separate phenomena. We treat issues of immigration not only in the US, but in Europe as well, as a separate justice issue. We fail to see that they have a common root. They all have been driven by young people who are the ﬁrst victims of the end of growth, young people who are largely unemployed, who have no hope for the future, who ﬁnd the basic essentials of life–food and shelter–priced out of reach, young people who are grasping desperately for some viable future.
We treat the ongoing economic upheavals of the past few years as if they were solely the result of human mendacity, the mismanagement of economic resources coupled with pervasive political paralysis. Without a doubt there are those who seek personal gain from the turmoil of our times. However, the larger truth is that the economic disaster gathering around the globe is rooted in the disruptive reality that shapes the inescapable context of our lives. All our systems have come up hard against a concatenation of implacable limits. Globally, we are beyond the point of peak oil production, peak gas production, peak coal production, peak uranium production, peak phosphate production, and peak production of a vast catalogue of rare, but essential minerals. The resources to fuel ongoing growth are no longer there.
We still talk about sustainability, when it is clear our processes can no longer be sustained. Sustaining our current existence–without any larger population or any increased patterns of consumption–would require the resources of 1.4 earth-planets. As you may have noticed, we have been graced with only one planet earth. With a population of over 7 billion and reaching for 9 billion, we deplete our capitol at an alarming rate and there is no additional source of capital. We have entered a time when we must either retrench, pull back, or planetary processes will reduce our impact in
more draconian ways. What happens when a culture, a religious system built upon unexamined visions of unlimited growth confronts the reality not of stasis, but of retraction and enforced limitations?
We choose to believe that there is a moral response that will not demand deep changes in our lives. We suggest there is a way for good people to achieve justice without signiﬁcantly altering the way they live. We choose to assume that somehow we can escape the judgement of history, that history–for us–is continuous, that the signs and alarms do not mean what they seem to mean and that we can ﬁnd a way around the barriers and the warning to turn.
Expanding on the despairing language of James Lovelock: We tool around in our hybrid cars; we recycle and reuse and compost; we swap out our, incandescent light bulbs for the energy saving alternative; Al Gore wins a Nobel prize; we congratulate ourselves that there are now some ﬁsh in Lake Erie, that one can no longer say the Potomac River is too thick to swim and too thin to plough, and the Cuyahoga River is no longer a ﬁre hazard; we jet off to conferences and General Assemblies where we hold serious and intense discussions about the state of the world and how we might slow various oncoming disasters. But does anyone really believe things are getting better?
Polar ice caps and mountain glaciers are melting; species are disappearing; the thawing arctic tundra is emitting tons of methane into the atmosphere; desertiﬁcation is expanding; rogue weather sweeps the globe, creating billion dollar disasters that further deplete the ﬁnancial resources of bankrupt governments; famine stalks Africa and food shortages provoke riots around the globe; precious, irreplaceable aquifers dry up and dust storms blow away precious top soil; the specter of poverty stalks the globe. And we respond with ever more frantic efforts to squeeze more out of less, to corporatize the world, to transform its remaining resources into commodities and its citizens into ever more avid consumers.
In this kind of world, when the assumption of eternal growth no longer applies, when the injunction to grow or die is more threat than promise, what myth do we embrace, what songs do we sing, what story do we tell ourselves and our children and our children’s children. How do we formulate a moral stance that makes it possible to function in any
creative way in the face of this great disruption in our history? In the midst of the great disruption, what do we believe, whom do we serve, to whom or to what are we responsible?
We have been struggling to answer those questions through most of our time in ministry. For years we have been warning that we can no longer afford to rest comfortably with the old religious categories, the tired old deﬁnitions. The time has come when a new religious response must be formulated–one which acknowledges the true depth of the catastrophe we face, which accepts our inescapable rootedness in natural process, and understands there will be consequences for the history we have lived and our foolish failure to heed the warnings. With a sense of humility overridden by a conviction that the times demand a response, we offer the following faith statement for Unitarian Universalists facing the great disruption that is our destiny for the foreseeable future.
We believe that the universe in which we live and move and have our being is the expression of an inexorable process that began in eons past, ages beyond our comprehension, and has evolved from singularity to multiplicity, from simplicity to complexity, from disorder to order.
We believe that the earth and all who live upon the earth are products of the same process that swirled the galaxies into being, that ignited the stars and orbited the planets through the night sky, that we are expressions of that universal process which has created and formed us out of recycled stardust.
We believe that all living things are members of a single community, all expressions of a planetary process that produced life and sustains it in intricate ways beyond our knowing. We hold the life process itself to be sacred.
We believe that the health of the human venture is inextricably dependent upon the integrity of the rest of the community of living things and upon the integrity of those processes by which life is bodied forth and sustained. Therefore we afﬁrm that we are called to serve the planetary process upon which all life depends.
We believe that in this interconnected existence the well-being of one cannot be separated from the well-being of the whole, that ultimately we all spring from the same source and all journey to the same ﬁnal destiny.
We believe that the universe outside of us and the universe within us is one universe. Because that is so, our efforts, our dreams, our hopes, our ambitions are the dreams, hopes, and ambitions of the universe itself. In us, and perhaps
elsewhere, the Universe is reaching toward self-awareness, toward self-consciousness.
We believe that our efforts to understand the world and our place within it are an expression of the Universe’s deep drive toward meaning. In us, and perhaps elsewhere, the Universe dreams dreams and reaches toward unknown possibilities. We hold as sacred the unquenchable drive to know and to understand.
We believe that the moral impulse that weaves its way through our lives, luring us to practices of justice and mercy and compassion, is threaded through the universe itself and it is this universal longing that ﬁnds outlet in our best moments.
We believe that our location within the community of living things places upon us inescapable responsibilities. Life is more than our understanding of it, but the level of our comprehension demands that we act out of conscious concern for the broadest vision of community we can command and that we seek not our welfare alone, but the welfare of the whole. We are commanded to serve life and serve it to the seven times seventieth generation.
We believe that those least like us, those located on the margins have important contributions to make to the rest of the community of life and that in some curious way, every living thing is located on some margin.
We believe that all that functions to divide us from each other and from the community of living things is to be resisted in the name of that larger vision of a world everywhere alive, everywhere seeking to incarnate a deep, implicit process
that called us into being, that sustains us in being, that transforms us as we cannot transform ourselves, that receives us back to itself when life has used us up.
Not knowing the end of that process, nonetheless we trust it, we rest in it, and we serve it.
Our lives have spanned the years from the Great Depression to the Great Disruption. Now, as we approach the end of our lives, we are increasingly convinced that we can no longer afford a religion that serves to distract us from the enormity, the dire nature of the disruption we are facing. The faith statement we offer is not a road map to a new world. Our hope is that it might provide a framework that grounds us in the midst of disruption, allowing us to seek out ways to live richly with dark reality.
A. Powell Davies suggested that when the world we have known is passing, when all things grow strange, our primary resource is the “stout heart’s courage.” MacLeish warns:
“What is required of us, Companions, is the recognition of the frontiers across
this history, and to take heart: to cross over–to persist and to cross over and
survive–but to survive to cross over.”
Revs. David and Beverly Bumbaugh
The Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ