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The Crises We Don’t See

Climate change, ISIS, and the West's civilizational crisis

I read a couple of long pieces last night at bedtime that were scary but illuminating, and cast reflections on our own chief cultural crisis in the West. This requires some unpacking.

First, John H. Richardson’s piece in Esquire about trauma and depression among climate scientists is a must-read. It profiles top scientists working on the global warming issue, and how they deal with their intense depression over what they believe is coming, and the world’s failure to take their warnings seriously. The sub-headline sums it up: “Things are worse than we think, but they can’t really talk about it.” Look:

For more than thirty years, climate scientists have been living a surreal existence. A vast and ever-growing body of research shows that warming is tracking the rise of greenhouse gases exactly as their models predicted. The physical evidence becomes more dramatic every year: forests retreating, animals moving north, glaciers melting, wildfire seasons getting longer, higher rates of droughts, floods, and storms—five times as many in the 2000s as in the 1970s. In the blunt words of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, conducted by three hundred of America’s most distinguished experts at the request of the U. S. government, human-induced climate change is real—U. S. temperatures have gone up between 1.3 and 1.9 degrees, mostly since 1970—and the change is already affecting “agriculture, water, human health, energy, transportation, forests, and ecosystems.” But that’s not the worst of it. Arctic air temperatures are increasing at twice the rate of the rest of the world—a study by the U. S. Navy says that the Arctic could lose its summer sea ice by next year, eighty-four years ahead of the models—and evidence little more than a year old suggests the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is doomed, which will add between twenty and twenty-five feet to ocean levels. The one hundred million people in Bangladesh will need another place to live and coastal cities globally will be forced to relocate, a task complicated by economic crisis and famine—with continental interiors drying out, the chief scientist at the U. S. State Department in 2009 predicted a billion people will suffer famine within twenty or thirty years. And yet, despite some encouraging developments in renewable energy and some breakthroughs in international leadership, carbon emissions continue to rise at a steady rate, and for their pains the scientists themselves—the cruelest blow of all—have been the targets of an unrelenting and well-organized attack that includes death threats, summonses from a hostile Congress, attempts to get them fired, legal harassment, and intrusive discovery demands so severe they had to start their own legal-defense fund, all amplified by a relentless propaganda campaign nakedly financed by the fossil-fuel companies. Shortly before a pivotal climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, thousands of their e-mail streams were hacked in a sophisticated espionage operation that has never been solved—although the official police investigation revealed nothing, an analysis by forensics experts traced its path through servers in Turkey and two of the world’s largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia and Russia.


Among climate activists, gloom is building. Jim Driscoll of the National Institute for Peer Support just finished a study of a group of longtime activists whose most frequently reported feeling was sadness, followed by fear and anger. Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a practicing psychiatrist and graduate of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slide-show training, calls this “pretraumatic” stress. “So many of us are exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of posttraumatic disorder—the anger, the panic, the obsessive intrusive thoughts.” Leading activist Gillian Caldwell went public with her “climate trauma,” as she called it, quitting the group she helped build and posting an article called “16 Tips for Avoiding Climate Burnout,” in which she suggests compartmentalization: “Reinforce boundaries between professional work and personal life. It is very hard to switch from the riveting force of apocalyptic predictions at work to home, where the problems are petty by comparison.”


But climate change happens gradually and we’ve already gone up almost 1 degree centigrade and seen eight inches of ocean rise. Barring unthinkably radical change, we’ll hit 2 degrees in thirty or forty years and that’s been described as a catastrophe—melting ice, rising waters, drought, famine, and massive economic turmoil. And many scientists now think we’re on track to 4 or 5 degrees—even Shell oil said that it anticipates a world 4 degrees hotter because it doesn’t see “governments taking the steps now that are consistent with the 2 degrees C scenario.” That would mean a world racked by economic and social and environmental collapse.

“Oh yeah,” Schmidt says, almost casually. “The business-as-usual world that we project is really a totally different planet. There’s going to be huge dislocations if that comes about.”

But things can change much quicker than people think, he says. Look at attitudes on gay marriage.

And the glaciers?

“The glaciers are going to melt, they’re all going to melt,” he says. “But my reaction to Jason Box’s comments is—what is the point of saying that? It doesn’t help anybody.”

Read the whole thing. To repeat, the gist of it is that the disasters that will be upon us all in the lifetimes of many people alive today are well nigh apocalyptic, and most of us are behaving like the Mayor of Amity:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGoekw7e-3U?rel=0]

We just came off a month of record-breaking heat and rainfall in the US, which is the kind of thing scientists predicted would happen as the planet warms. Much of Europe just endured a record-breaking heat wave. This past weekend, it was hotter in Lyon, and in rural Burgundy, than it was in south Louisiana. My friends and I sat in a non-air-conditioned Lyon cafe — few of them are air-conditioned, because they’ve never really had to be — and ate our desserts at 10pm in 91-degree heat. I don’t recall ever enduring 91-degree heat at 10pm here in Louisiana, or in south Florida, where I lived for three sweltering years a couple of decades ago.

When we visited a vineyard in Burgundy, one of the winemakers says they worry that climate change is going to destroy winemaking there, and are seeing evidence of this happening now. People have been making wine in Burgundy at least since Roman times. It is conceivable that many of us alive today will be around to see it all but cease. Global warming is a serious problem for the entire French wine industry.  You may think, well, I don’t drink wine, so what? Aside from the massive impact collapse of Europe’s wine industries (France isn’t the only one suffering) would have, even worse, in my view, is the end of a millenia-old culture. That is catastrophic.

Humankind can live without wine. We can’t live without grain. Everything will be harder to grow. And that will mean war:

The other topic he is obsessed with is the human suffering to come. Long before the rising waters from Greenland’s glaciers displace the desperate millions, he says more than once, we will face drought-triggered agricultural failures and water-security issues—in fact, it’s already happening. Think back to the 2010 Russian heat wave. Moscow halted grain exports. At the peak of the Australian drought, food prices spiked. The Arab Spring started with food protests, the self-immolation of the vegetable vendor in Tunisia. The Syrian conflict was preceded by four years of drought. Same with Darfur. The migrants are already starting to stream north across the sea—just yesterday, eight hundred of them died when their boat capsized—and the Europeans are arguing about what to do with them. “As the Pentagon says, climate change is a conflict multiplier.”

To refocus: the Esquire piece is not really about what will happen; it’s about what climate scientists believe will happen, and how hard it is on them to cope psychologically with the unwillingness of governments and the general public to take them seriously. Very few of us get off the hook here. For example, if pressed, I would say that I think the scientists are probably correct … but how does that affect the way I live right now? Not at all. The scope of the problem is so vast and complex that I feel that doing anything to change my own life to mitigate the oncoming disaster is pointless. I suspect most people who are not global warming deniers live the same way.

If the scientists are right, then the apocalypse they foresee coming upon us is incomparably worse than the religious and cultural disaster I see overtaking the West. Let me make that clear. That said, I do see a parallel between the climate Cassandra phenomenon and the Benedict Option phenomenon.

At this point, I see the secular world treating the demise of Christianity, or its evolution into something unrecognizable from its roots in Scripture and Tradition (which is the same thing as demise, from an orthodox point of view), as unproblematic. It’s like treating a warming world as good news, or at least not bad news, e.g., “Woo-hoo! No more harsh winters!” They don’t see the downside at all. Glenn Tinder’s 1989 essay in The Atlantic explores how so many Christian assumptions are baked into the cake of Western culture and society, and how the absence of Christianity could diminish things we all consider to be goods. Excerpt:

Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud represent a movement by no means restricted to those who consciously follow any one of them or even to those familiar with their writings. Not only are we “all Marxists now”; it could be said with nearly equal justification that we are all Nietzscheans and Freudians. Most of us have come to assume that we ourselves are the authors of human destiny. The term “man-god” may seem extreme, but I believe that our situation is extreme. Christianity poses sweeping alternatives—destiny and fate, redemption and eternal loss, the Kingdom of God and the void of Hell. From centuries of Christian culture and education we have come habitually to think of life as structured by such extremes. Hence Christian faith may fade, but we still want to live a destiny rather than a mere life, to transform the conditions of human existence and not merely to effect improvements, to establish a perfect community and not simply a better society. Losing faith in the God-man, we inevitably begin to dream of the man-god, even though we often think of the object of our new faith as something impersonal and innocuous, like science, thus concealing from ourselves the radical nature of our dreams.

The political repercussions are profound. Most important is that all logical grounds for attributing an ultimate and immeasurable dignity to every person, regardless of outward character, disappear. Some people may gain dignity from their achievements in art, literature, or politics, but the notion that all people without exception—the most base, the most destructive, the most repellent—have equal claims on our respect becomes as absurd as would be the claim that all automobiles or all horses are of equal excellence. The standard of agape collapses. It becomes explicable only on Nietzsche’s terms: as a device by which the weak and failing exact from the strong and distinguished a deference they do not deserve. Thus the spiritual center of Western politics fades and vanishes. If the principle of personal dignity disappears, the kind of political order we are used to—one structured by standards such as liberty for all human beings and equality under the law—becomes indefensible.

Nietzsche’s stature is owing to the courage and profundity that enabled him to make this all unmistakably clear. He delineated with overpowering eloquence the consequences of giving up Christianity and every like view of the universe and humanity. His approval of those consequences and his hatred of Christianity give force to his argument. Many would like to think that there are no consequences—that we can continue treasuring the life and welfare, the civil rights and political authority, of every person without believing in a God who renders such attitudes and conduct compelling. Nietzsche shows that we cannot. We cannot give up the Christian God—and the transcendence given other names in other faiths- and go on as before. We must give up Christian morality too. If the God man is nothing more than an illusion, the same thing is true of the idea that every individual possesses incalculable worth.

Now, within orthodox/conservative Christianity itself are a group of people I take to be rather large, who believe that something serious and challenging is happening now regarding the decline of Christianity in the West, but who believe that the crisis is not critical. Yes, we’ve suffered some big setbacks, but we are still living in a business-as-usual world. Things can be turned around if we do what we’ve been doing, only do it with greater commitment. I see these people — whose number includes many of my friends — as being not like climate-change deniers, really, but more like people who agree that something screwy and unsettling is going on with the global climate, but who feel that it’s all going to work out in the end. We will discover some day that our future wasn’t as dire as the Cassandras said, or somebody will pull a technological rabbit out of the hat, and solve the problem. There are a lot of folks like this around the climate issue; I’m one of them, I guess. I’m like this not because I really think it’s going to happen, but because the stakes of being wrong are so overwhelming that I can’t think about it. Besides, if I did believe the worst, as the climate scientists do, what could I do about it?

I find this position impossible to defend, frankly. But it’s the one I hold, because the radicalism of the bleaker one is too hard to accept. It makes one feel like that poor man who stood in the surf as the Thai tsunami approached, and let it overtake him because there was nothing else to be done. And this gets back to the main point of this post: that we often come to certain conclusions not because the facts and reason support them, but because we can only stand so much truth.

The Benedict Option, in my view, is for Christians who accept that we have entered into a period that is probably irreversible for the next couple of centuries, and maybe longer, barring an unforeseen catastrophe, and who believe that Christians have to take somewhat radical steps to adapt to the new conditions, so that we might survive them. By that I mean to hold on to our faith resiliently, and pass it down the generations, despite highly adverse conditions in the cultural climate. The Benedict Option is a reasonable response, not a hopeless one. It is about adaptation, not surrender. And it does not mean that one gives up ordinary political action, any more than someone who accepts that global temperatures are going to keep rising, and that governments aren’t going to do anything meaningful about it, gives up trying to change that outcome through political action. It only means that they have become a lot more realistic about the likelihood of change, and are putting most of their energy into preparing to survive what they regard as more or less inevitable.

There are lots of global warming adapters now. Think of the Benedict Option folks as being a version of them, responding to a religious and cultural crisis (which, granted, is not a crisis at all to liberal Christians or secular folks). From New Scientist:

It is hard to prepare for a disaster, but harder still to prepare for a disaster that you can’t identify. Yet that is the quandary facing many nations, which still don’t know how climate change will affect them – even though it is already happening. That means many communities must prepare for the unknown.

We are running out of time to gather scientific evidence, says Koko Warner of the United Nations University (UNU) in Bonn, Germany. It is clear that climate change is happening, driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and its impacts will be felt around the world. But it has proved difficult to predict how events like floods and droughts will change in specific areas over the coming decades.

The second instalment of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report came out on Monday (see “World must adapt to unknown climate future, says IPCC“). In earlier IPCC reports, part two made regional predictions, to tell communities what will happen around them. But this year’s report instead focuses on how people are, and should be, adapting to climate change.

“We cannot wait for climatologists to establish exactly what role climate change played in different events,” says Kees van der Geest, also at UNU. “We want to build societies that are more protected against possible deterioration. We want to know why some things work, what doesn’t work well, how we can improve, how we can make our society better prepared.”

My argument is simply this: we cannot predict precisely how the post-Christian world will play out for Christians in the West, but we can accept that we are in it, and start making plans to prepare for resilience in the face of it. And we must. There won’t be one single way of doing this; much will depend on local conditions. Now is the time to begin the adaptations. The fact that doing so will require small-o orthodox Christians to change our individual and communal ways of life, and to psychologically accept that we have crossed a civilizational threshold, is the chief obstacle to preventing many of us from undertaking this project.

Now, the second article I read was a fascinating analysis of the ISIS phenomenon, one that says it is a crisis within Sunni Islam. It’s not a long read, but boy, is it fascinating. This part of it strikes me as relevant to our situation:

We do not speak much of metaphysics today, but nonetheless, the metaphysical assumptions (which we all have, whether consciously, or not), are the cornerstone or foundation stone on which all our subsequent intellectual ideation is founded.  Many Muslims, both secular and practicing, feel caught between two opposing metaphysics – quite literally, they feel pulled apart: culturally schizophrenic, in a way.

The metaphysics of Islam is founded in the understanding of the paradox of ‘Oneness’ within diversity: that despite the apparent multiplicity of life, we nonetheless all share this one thing – the creative life-energy which suffuses everything in one way or another, and surrounds us with daily evidence of its creative power.  We are part of a matrix of throbbing life; a pixel of consciousness, if you like, within the bigger picture of cosmic consciousness.  In this view, life as a whole, has directionality and is purposeful (if not disrupted from unfolding in its own ‘way’).  In brief, our human meaning derives from the whole: the microcosm gains its meaning from the macrocosm.

This was the metaphysics shared also by Europeans up until the European Renaissance, but which has been (almost totally) displaced by the Scientific Enlightenment’s metaphysics: that the ‘world about us’ is dead and inert – and that our cosmos lacks any meaning or purpose other than that which humans give it through the reasoning ability of our minds and which they project onto the ‘objects’ around them. It is our mental conceptual capacities therefore that give the world its meaning, rather the other way around – and our very existence in this cosmos is held to be but a freak (unmeaning) accident of chemistry.

In fact, the original ‘move’ from one metaphysics to the other was more an intentional decision made about what comprised the assumptions suitable to an empirical methodology (or science), than a conclusion about which of the two was truer.  The early Enlightenment physicist and mathematician, Isaac Newton, for example, pursued an empirical methodology, but held to a meaning-giving cosmology as the context to his science (as early Muslim scientists did too).

Re-read that section. It’s critical for us Christians in the West to understand about ourselves. We abandoned the old metaphysics — the metaphysics of classical Christianity, of the Church Fathers, of Aquinas, of Dante — in favor of a metaphysics that arose in the Renaissance. Note well the claim that we didn’t do it because we thought one was more true than the other; we did it because one was more useful to doing science than the other. But in time, that metaphysics drove the other one out, because it proved to be useful in doing a lot more than science. It proved useful in the broader cultural realm, by “liberating” man from natural limits.


Many Muslims today, live caught between these two systems which have become progressively more polarised, and ideological: forced to study the practical sciences on the assumptions of modern scientific metaphysics (and perhaps live their working lives under these secular assumptions), whilst, on the other hand, trying to live their family life with values built upon the ‘other’ metaphysics, by which they are called to harmonise with a value-giving, living, world about them – of which they are but one contingent cell, in a continually interacting, shifting, network system.

The invasion of ideological secularism (which derives from this Enlightenment metaphysics) into the Middle East over the last centuries, began the crisis. Just to be clear: it was forced secularism (especially in Turkey and what was then Persia). And it was pursued destructively. But the consequences today, are that some Muslims have become wholly secular; some exist with one foot in each metaphysical camp; and some adamantly insist on reviving the early Islamic cosmology – as the basis for science, and as a way of being. What has been less noticed is how parts of wider Sunni Islam itself effectively have come closer to – if not actually adopting European Enlightenment metaphysics (Turkish Islamism is an example) – whilst other elements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, consciously pursue very ‘secular’ socio-economic programmes to widen their appeal to their constituencies (whilst downplaying Islamic doctrine).  The West naturally finds ‘secular-Islamists’ appealing, but they should understand too why other Muslims see this trend as endangering the very essence of Islam.


What then is the import of all this? Firstly, the ambivalence that now presents in parts of Sunni Islam between these two metaphysics (living a part of your life by one, and another part of life by the other), means that the dividing line between the two worldviews is not so difficult to cross (i.e. for a secular European Muslim suddenly to emerge as a bearded takfiri – a personal crisis may be sufficient to be the driver). 

Westerners always profess bafflement at how a Muslim brought up in a secular society can suddenly turn into an Islamist radical. Well, unlike the West, where the so-called Enlightenment absolutely crushed the early Renaissance cosmology (i.e. Newtonian ambiguity was driven out) – in Islam, it was never the case. It came close (in the 1920s) but there remains an on-going, personal, metaphysical struggle in the individual minds of many Muslims – even many ostensibly secular Muslims.  And this this crossover potential is heightened, of course, when secular ‘values’ are shown to be wanting (as is the case today).

Seriously, read the whole thing. 

What does this have to do with us Christians in the West? Well, for starters, we should face how deeply modernist metaphysics (that is, the basic view we have of how the universe works) has informed our view of Christianity. The first 1,300 years of Christianity saw things very differently. Orthodox Christianity, and to a great extent Catholic Christianity, still does. Some Protestants do, I think, though I’m not well informed enough to say for sure; it would not be surprising if they did not, though, because Protestantism is a modern phenomenon. And as a practical matter, nearly all Christians in the West unthinkingly adopt the modernist metaphysics as a guide to conducting daily life.

But most of us who call ourselves small-o orthodox Christians live with some degree of the same metaphysically-grounded tension that Muslims do, though not felt as acutely. Let me rewrite a paragraph from that piece to show you what I’m getting at:

Many Western Christians today, live caught between these two systems which have become progressively more polarised, and ideological: forced to live nearly all of thier lives on the assumptions of modern scientific metaphysics (and its secular assumptions), whilst, on the other hand, trying to live their family life with values built upon the ‘other’ metaphysics, by which they are called to harmonise with a value-giving, living, world about them – of which they are but one contingent cell, in a continually interacting, shifting, network system.

We don’t sense the tension so much because we have lived with secularism and the modern metaphysics for so long that it is natural to us. But for any orthodox Christian who is serious about his faith, it’s there as a thorn in the side. The same-sex marriage issue drives to the heart of the metaphysical crisis. If the male-female complementarity of marriage is a given — as any reading of Genesis 1 teaches — then to diverge from that is to live in disharmony, in falsehood, because we deny the meaning the Creator built into creation. Same-sex marriage is a negation of Genesis 1. For believing Christians, this is no small thing. If you accept same-sex marriage, you give away far more than you may think. I believe that the shock many Christians felt over Indiana, over Ireland, and at last over the Obergefell ruling, comes in part from a profound intuition that something has gone wrong at the metaphysical level, but they lack the conceptual vocabulary to articulate it.

If God exists, and He has created a universe filled with order and meaning — a cosmos — then we are not free to do with it, and with ourselves, what we like. If life “has directionality” and “is purposeful” — as those who believe in the Logos must accept — then we must strive to live in complete harmony with that directionality and purpose, which is to say, within the will of God.

This is the great lesson of Dante’s Divine Comedy: that any attempt to assert our own will over and against God’s is doomed to end in failure. And, for Dante, the entire cosmos is shot through with the presence of God. It is not inert, it is not mere matter, with which we can do whatever we like. And neither are ourselves.

I don’t expect the secular world to believe that. I don’t expect liberal Christians to believe that, though it ought to be perfectly clear by now that if those individual Christians and churches that accept that metaphysic are in time going to cease to be Christians in any meaningful sense. I do expect orthodox Christians to believe it, because Scripture teaches it. The extent to which the world has become disenchanted is the extent to which we have allowed modernist, Enlightenment metaphysics to condition our thinking about matters of faith and morality.

I refer you to a recent post I put up about the thought of the Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, in which he said it is necessary for we living in the ruins of Enlightenment culture to regain a medieval metaphysics. Excerpt from Berdyaev:

We have reached settlement-day after a series of centuries during which movement was from the centre, the spiritual core of life, to the periphery, its surface and social exterior. And the more empty of religious significance social life has become, the more it has tyrannized over the general life of man.  … The world needs a strong reaction from this domination by exterior things, a change back in favour of interior spiritual life, not only for the sake of individuals but for the sake of real metaphysical life itself. To many who are caught up in the web of modern activities this must sound like an invitation to suicide. But we have got to choose. The life of the spirit is either a sublime reality or an illusion: accordingly we have either to look for salvation in it rather than in the fuss of politics, or else dismiss it altogether as false. When it seems that everything is over and finished, when the earth crumbles away under our feet as it does today, when there is neither hope nor illusion, when we can see all things naked and undeceiving, then is the acceptable time for a religious quickening in the world. We are at that time… .

The Benedict Option is, among other things, an invitation to Christians to consider the extent to which their own spirituality, their own thought, their own way of life, is built on a disharmony with things As They Really Are, and to recover an older, more authentically Christian vision — and, in turn, build “monasteries” (I’m speaking figuratively here) as bulwarks within which that vision can be grasped in the chaos and cultural night that has overtaken us.

So: an article about global warming and an article about ISIS and Islam both have deep lessons to teach us about the crisis of Christianity in the post-Christian West, and how we can and should adapt to it — if we are wise enough to read the signs of the times.