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Faith in a time of collapse

by
04 November 2022

A body of thinkers have started planning faith for an age of catastrophic climate change. Cat Jenkins and Stephen Wright report

Alamy

Dhaka, Bangladesh. 25th Oct, 2022. A man moves through a waterlogged street following heavy rains in Dhaka last week, after Cyclone Sitrang hit Bangladesh, snapping communications and power links, flooding streets bringing life to a standstill

Dhaka, Bangladesh. 25th Oct, 2022. A man moves through a waterlogged street following heavy rains in Dhaka last week, after Cyclone Sitrang hit Bangla...

“We humans have already gone too far, and momentum is too great, to avoid breakdown and collapse. We are already in profound overshoot — stealing from future generations and disrupting wellbeing for all life. We can continue this way for only a short while longer. If we continue robbing from the future, the collapse of human systems and eco-systems is our inescapable destiny. However, if we collectively witness the world of devastation that is growing exponentially, we can choose together a more favourable future for all life. The alternative is devastating ruin and the functional extinction of humans on Earth.”

Duane Elgin in Choosing Earth: Humanity’s journey of initiation through breakdown and collapse to mature planetary community (2020)

 

HUMAN society is at an evolutionary crossroads. The way we have been living, particularly during the past century, has been destroying the intricate harmony of the planet. Because of it, we risk facing the next mass extinction of species — including our own.

In the past few years, a growing body of people have been exploring the possibility that humanity has left it too late to “solve” the problem of climate change timeously and, with that, considering possible responses to the potential for ecological and societal collapse.

This movement has grown out of the work of Dr Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, founder of the Initiative for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) and of the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF), out of which has developed the DAF Interfaith Circle.

Members of the DAF Interfaith Circle, including a number of Christian faith leaders, recognise a need to share with congregations the above-mentioned possibility.

We accept that the delicate balance of the world’s ecosystem has been changed adversely by human activity in recent centuries. Planetary processes are now under way, which, despite optimistic voices that we might change things or invent rescuing devices, are unstoppable. This does not mean that we should give up and abandon the prevention of environmental pollution and the consumption of fossil fuels.

There are good reasons for continuing to care for the world around us, but the future looks fierce for all of life, including ourselves, and we do our congregations a disservice if we don’t talk about the possibility of serious consequences, and about how people might respond — emotionally and spiritually, as well as practically.

 

THE concept of the need for “Deep Adaptation” developed out of a paper by Dr Bendell in 2018 (updated in 2020), and in a co-authored work of the same title with Rupert Read. In it, he assesses the peer-reviewed climate science of the time. He concludes that ecological, and consequently societal, collapse is likely as a result of climate change.

DAF’s website states that, when “using the term social or societal collapse, we are referring to the uneven ending to our current means of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning. Others may prefer the term societal breakdown when referring to the same process. People who consider that societal collapse or breakdown is either inevitable, likely or already unfolding, are using the term ‘deep adaptation’ to explore responses.”

In addition to Bendell’s seminal work, a considerable body of evidence-based literature and other sources of information is now available discussing “collapsology”, and how best to respond to it.

 

THE possibility of environmental and social collapse is a fearful prospect. It touches into the deepest fears of being human — of loss, grief, and death. What we have done to our world, the creation, is to fail life, to fail the Divine. Sorrow, guilt, shame, and anger pile into this emotional tornado we have created, affecting all generations.

Embracing Deep Adaptation and its consequences plunges us into a crisis of meaning — of who we are and why we are here, our connection to life and its purpose, our relationship to the source of all, whoever or whatever that is to us. This is the very stuff of spirituality, and a spiritual crisis needs spiritual solutions as well as social, economic, emotional, and ecological ones.

Faith traditions, with all their strengths and weaknesses, have rich histories of understanding and practice in the art of spiritual support. There is a part to be played.

The need for an army of therapists, counsellors, and spiritual guides of all sorts in the future is going to be enormous. We have lots of ways of avoiding bad news, not all of them healthy ones. We are going to need a lot of help if we are to face the future and choose healthier options rather than others, such as denial, depression, or a lurch into simplistic solutions.

 

WHAT IS the approach that DAF encourages and cultivates? DAF proposes responses to this predicament that are compassionate, respectful, and curious. While it is a secular organisation, its nearly 15,000 members include many Christians of various denominations, as well as those of other faiths and none. Many of the responses it encourages are consistent with Christian values — even Christlike. Compassion and loving responses are central, and all other responses flow from this: curiosity, respect, mutual care, and the building of relationships and community.

AlamyA medic measures the arm of a Somali baby at a clinic in Baidoa in June. The red indicates that the child is severely malnourished. Four rainy seasons have failed in the Horn of Africa

DAF’s charter, to which community members agree to adhere, captures all of these, and is supplemented by a commitment to non-violence. DAF community members are not the same as “preppers”, who many see (rightly or wrongly) as people fixated on preparing for disaster with an eye only to their, and their family’s, survival and well-being.

The Church has the potential to play an enormous part in the building resilience in the face of collapse in the current globalised system. The rich tradition of mutual support, providing hope, meaning, and purpose in the face of adversity, established networks of communication, land, and resources, being already embedded in communities — these, and other factors, mean that the Church is already well placed to play a leading part in holding community together, and fulfilling its prophetic and community sustaining position.

Look how good we have been at providing homes for Ukranian refugees, stocks for foodbanks, money for the needy. The Church can bring people together to help solve local needs — growing food, dealing with pollution and so forth — so that local communities can be more and more self-sustaining.

The Church doesn’t have to have all the answers, but when people are encouraged to come together, and leadership is provided, then the evidence suggests that people will solve problems together.

 

IS Deep Adaptation’s vision of collapse the same as “end times”? The effects on our planet and its consequences for all of life are seen by some as signs of predicted end times. This is not the view of DAF. The fierce challenges that now face us have arisen because of human choices down the centuries, and our loss of respect for the web of life. Christians involved in DAF tend not to subscribe to views of a Divine who is punishing or wantonly cruel, but, rather, one who is compassionately engaged with and in the world — and that includes efforts to bring about the best in our responses to what lies ahead.

We are given some clues as to what the run-up to end times might look like. It can be tempting to think those signs are all around us. DAF is not inclined to such conclusions, and directs its energy to seeking practical solutions: community engagement and individual and collective support of all kinds, rooted in the love of life, each other, and the Absolute.

Drawing on scripture, we are not asked by the Divine to be sure of the times around us, rather to simply follow given commandments, and, chiefly, the greatest of them all: that we love the Beloved completely, and one another — everyone, no matter our differences — as we love ourselves.

And there is comfort in this. Rather than tying ourselves in knots, contemplating what we should be doing to prepare for the second coming, we can trust in the Divine and keep doing the next right thing, and the next one, and the next — and maybe that’s as good a preparation as any for which we can wish.

 

WON’T God save us from collapse? Perhaps: again, it may not be for us to know, although the age of prophecy isn’t necessarily dead, and there may be those who do hear God’s guidance on the subject. What is for sure is that we are given free will — and with it, come consequences.

Christ’s suffering for us does not automatically bring us freedom from the results of our actions. What we’re seeing in the world, which sometimes feels like trouble everywhere we look, can often be traced back to our misuse of that free will (and, as the Bible illustrates in various books, it’s often others who suffer the worst consequences of our misbehaviour; so it is that those in the majority world — the global South — already suffer the consequences of climate change, largely brought on by the lifestyles of many of us in the global North).

The Bible also tells us that, besides having faith, we need to take right action; we can’t just sit back and wait — no matter how fervently we pray while doing so — for God to sort out our mess (though, of course, we would not rule this out. Amazing and improbable things do emerge out of divine will). Perhaps the words attributed to St Augustine are apposite here: “Pray as if everything depended on God, work as if everything depended on you.”

 

IS Deep Adaptation’s approach “doomerism”? Absolutely not. In fact, some members of the community have said that as we learn to “be” with the difficult idea of collapse, and to accept the likely transience of our current way of life, we learn a more immediate appreciation of divine abundant grace.

It is possible that, through these challenging times, some will re-learn ways of caring for one another and the world that make us into the best people we are meant to be: in the image of God.

And, moreover, we know we’re called to do what we can in the service of others. Every step we take to mitigate or help others to adapt to climate change, lessens the harms that others (and we) will suffer; so it’s more than worthwhile.

Our stewarding of the creation has never been more needed, both for the sake of our fellow co-habitants on earth, and for the love of that creation itself.

Finally, it is worth noting that a courageous acceptance of the possibility of collapse is not “negative”: it’s realism. Without an acknowledgement of our problems, we cannot hope to address them.

There is an opportunity for the Church here to provide leadership, spiritual leadership in a time of spiritual collapse.

 

What might this mean for Christians?

For those with whom these issues resonate, there are a number of possibilities:

  1. Consider how to introduce the frightening but real possibility of collapse with others. It may be important to ensure that those others are in reasonably robust mental health, and also that they have support when processing these ideas.
  2. Include an element of lament in spiritual practices; we have not cared for the creation as we ought, and there has been and will be more loss and damage.
  3. Look at what can be done to decarbonise and simplify our lifestyles, taking into account both local impacts, and the impact that our lifestyles have on the rest of the world. Take action where possible.
  4. Appreciate and give thanks for the beauty and abundance that remains: its transience may lend it an especial sweetness.
  5. Pray. In difficult times it can be tempting to prioritise action, but prayer is not “doing nothing”; bringing our sadness, fears, and admissions of failure to our experience of the absolute can help us to navigate really difficult emotions, draw on the comfort and encouragement that comes from a sense of connection to All-that-is, and gain the strength to respond with practical action.
  6. Live in hope in the face of despair, remembering that, down the ages, spiritual teachings have been filled with stories of profound loss, and yet, out of death, life, redemption, and transformation can be born; and that life has gone on for aeons and is more than what we know in temporal reality.
  7. Provide pastoral care, counselling, therapeutic support and spiritual direction to those embracing the fierce realities of Deep Adaptation, so that healthy rather than destructive responses may emerge.
  8. Support with compassionate expertise and personal, spiritual, and material resources to help individuals and communities start working now to adapt and nurture each other through potential fierce changes and disruption ahead — to weather patterns, supply systems, resources, local and national support structures, and social cohesion.
  9. Work to create and support resilient communities at personal and group level, and in how resources and the necessities of life are prioritised, sustained, maintained, and shared.
  10. We do not have to start with a blank sheet; resources from the wisdom of eldership, those nations who have learned to live lightly on the earth, the gifts of faith and wisdom teachings down the ages, ways of organising and decision-making that bring nurturing forms of governance and avoid old systems of power and control — these and more are still readily available to us.

 

FACING the possibility of the collapse is a fierce thing to do. We are challenged at every level. It does not mean that we just give up in the face of impossible odds. We don’t have to cease protesting, raising awareness, recycling, working, contributing, or any of the other ways we seek to live lightly and respect the planet, each other, and all of life.

It does mean that we have to look deeply at the way we are with one another, how we offer support and cultivate resilient communities.

Some might argue that it’s best not to tell people bad news, for fear of the reaction. The work of the Church rests on truth-speaking, without it, people cannot make the best choices. The long history of humanity shows that we are at our best and most successful when we work together and do not fly off into individualist survivalism.

The very essence of Church is to bring people together. Communities know how to find ways to make sure needs are met, the sick are cared for, the needy helped.

Thinking and acting local works, and the Church can help to birth more of this localising of meeting needs: for example, in ensuring communications are maintained, supporting group efforts to solve technical problems to ensure supplies of food, water, and medicines, and maintain services — not just if or when systems fail, but also to reduce further exploitation of the earth’s resources, pollution, and carbon production.

It does mean that we have to be grown up and face the reality of what is ahead of us and the next generations in the not-too-distant future. It means we have to find the most healthy and compassionate responses.

Christians may recall that, in the face of the collapse of their hopes, the disciples ran from the scene of the death of Jesus. Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, stayed, faced the grief, did what was necessary to care for Jesus’s body. The Church can hold that same message in the time of collapse: that all is not lost, that we can birth new ways of being.

Deep Adaptation is not a summons to despair or denial, but a call to be the best persons we can be. Here. Now.
 

Cat Jenkins is programme manager of Church Action for Tax Justice, a director of www.Positive.News, and communications co-ordinator of the Deep Adaptation Forum. The Revd Professor Stephen Wright is a spiritual director at the Sacred Space Foundation (www.sacredspace.org.uk), Hon. Fellow at the University of Cumbria, and a member of the Deep Adaptation Holding Group 

Members of the Deep Adaptation Forum, and in particular its Interfaith Circle, would be glad to talk about this with those in the Christian community, to answer questions and share ideas, or perhaps to collaborate on developing discussion materials, prayers, and more which can be used in worship and Bible study settings. Find out more at www.deepadaptation.info, or by emailing Cat Jenkins at manxcat@deepadaptation.info

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