Faith When it Counts

Matters of faith are becoming more important to me as I get older. This isn’t the case for everyone of course, but it is happening to me. I was raised in a pretty liberal mainline denomination, drifted away in my later teenage years, spent most of my twenties either not thinking about such things at all, and only getting re-interested in the subject once I had small children and entered the ‘is this really all there is?’ phase of my life. I’m still investigating things and, being an compulsive reader, will probably continue to do so for quite a while. As we enter the Long Emergency, I think religion and spiritual matters in general will become more important in many people’s lives.

My church installed a new head pastor about 18 months ago. He’s a little older than me, personable, fairly charismatic, and quietly ambitious. Coming from a family of pastors, I believe he’s trying to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak, and seems to be focused on growing our congregation as fast as he can. This is my wife’s family church; she grew up attending there and we would prefer to stay as members, but at the same time we aren’t thrilled with the mega-church format. In his sermon subjects, our new pastor so far has stayed within the safe bounds of suburban Christianity. It’s what I refer to as ‘Bill & Ted Christianity,’ for the main themes usually revolve around variations of ‘be excellent to each other.’ Sometimes it’s tied to current events, other times he links it to the flavor-of-the-month devotional book, but it doesn’t stray to far from pretty safe and simple topics most of the time. Plenty of talk about deepening our relationship with God, or moving outside one’s comfort zone to live a more Christian life, but never a mention about those parts of the bible dealing with social justice or the poor, for example.

This isn’t surprising, for he’s ministering to a solidly middle class congregation that isn’t feeling too much pain at the moment. How long things will stay that way is an open question, for we are overdue for a major economic crisis (think Great Depression) that always occurs in any financial system based on fiat currencies. There are many possible causes of a meltdown, including peak oil, climate change, an expanded war in the Middle East, a trade war with China, the final death of the subprime mortgage market, or a major hedge fund or two collapsing. The outcomes from such a crisis are unknowable, but odds are good that a lot of people who are currently operating on the assumption that they are living secure, middle class lives may find out that they have suddenly fallen back into a situation where acquiring the basics of survival like food & shelter are tenuous. This will be the time when holy men and women, regardless of their religion, will start earning their combat pay.

Times of trouble seem to push people back to God. Christianity, for example, got it’s start when the Jewish nation was subjugated under the Roman boot. I would expect this time to be no different. In the short term, the fundamentalists will have a field day, especially if a wider war breaks out in the Middle East, with visions of the rapture dancing in their heads. After a while, once it’s clear that the the end times are not here and that the world is simply slipping into a time of scarcity, many of the world’s major religions will have to re-examine and re-invent themselves. Hopefully the various branches of Christianity will spend less time engaging in theological pissing contests and get back to the basics of the message, taking care of the flock that they have instead of constantly trying to add members.

There will be plenty of ethical and moral questions that will need to be looked at with greater scrutiny than most religious groups have for a long while. One pressing question that needs to be addressed comes from the core of modern civilization. As the novel “Ishmael” points out, the moment man left the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and adopted agricultural civilization, they grabbed the power of life away from the gods. By being able to control the amount of food they produced, mankind was able to move past the natural population limits that the world imposed on them, and the ranks of humanity exploded. It can be argued that we became like God at that point, putting more and more land under cultivation to feed an ever-increasing population and taking control of the destiny of both our species and that of the planet.

There is a problem with this, of course, for we have reached the point where there is no more arable land to put under the plow to feed the world, and famine starts to grip more and more people around the world. Scrambling to stave off mass starvation, the first world organizes food shipments, which leads to Peter Farb’s classic paradox:

‘intensification of production to feed an increased population leads to a still greater increase in population.’

We have become like God to take control of the power of life and death. It’s an easy moral decision to grant life, but not such an easy one to take it away. By continuing to send food to the starving peoples of the world, we are simply keeping them alive long enough to breed another, larger generation of people who will need similar help. What is the right thing to do? Stop sending them food? Tie food shipments to stringent birth-control policies? Keep doing what we’re doing and hope for the best? There are no easy answers that I can see, and we all will need a lot of moral support in coming years to make these decisions.

Times of chaos are the crucible in which one’s sense of ethics are either strengthened or fail completely. For everyone’s sake I hope all of us, people of religion or otherwise, are up to the task.


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