Unthinking the way we think about saving the earth

Climate activist Bill McKibben was right when he said at the conclusion of COP21, the United Nations climate summit in Paris, that it did not save the earth but instead saved the chance to save the earth. He also quipped that what we did there might have been great if we had done the same thing in 1995.

When not frightened, I am glad for his measured hope.

Now we have to figure out what it means to "save" the earth. Surely it doesn’t mean keeping the earth the same as it was in our ideal year or our birth year or will be in our death year. We environmentalists really have to watch that language of saving because it too often means pouring concrete over the present and hanging on for life to the way things never were.

Things always change. They are always evolving. That is a good thing, not a bad thing.

So first I quibble with McKibben’s use of the word "save." It is sneakily anti-Darwinian. If saving means saving the natural evolutionary cycling of change without excessive human intervention, count me in. If it means some kind of keeping things the way they are right now, count me out.

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Instead, I want to imagine the way we "save" the earth as more like a miracle. Not a deus ex machina kind of miracle, but instead a deus en machina, one awakened in all of us. Author/activist Naomi Klein puts it so well -- "Everything must Change" -- and that means everyone must change.

A common saying suggests there are two kinds of people: those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. A variation says there were two kinds of people, those who don’t believe in miracles and those who think everything is a miracle. I am part of the larger tribe.

Sometimes I can’t believe I can talk to a friend in Australia and get a response in real time -- Skype is a miracle (plus, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg). Other times I marvel at the High Line, an old rail line converted into a garden walk in New York City and at the smarts of the tourist industry. Or I think about that rare purple bunting that showed up in Brooklyn looking for a good cup of coffee. 

Jesus turned water into wine. He turned a social nightmare into a social dream. He concentrated his power and turned scarcity into feast. He did what his mother told him to do. Is it just my fantasy or did Jesus have a mind free of congestion? Was he trying to define a miracle for us? I’m not sure. He may just have been showing off.  

But he helped me inch toward a definition of a miracle. It is something for which we don’t have to pay. Miracles give us things beyond the reach of our payments. They are acts of grace for which we don’t have to work. They involve our turning a corner, reversing field, tilting our mind’s head in a different direction -- returning home by a different path.

Money is a metaphor for many things. Sometimes we work for money so people will think we are good, or so people will think we are right, or because money rules us. Being good, being right and getting money are basically the traffic jams in our brains. They clog our minds. Our motivations are rarely to prepare for the concentration of grace because we are so busy preparing for the concentration of works. Being good, being right, getting money, avoiding shame or blame are our major activities.

The rate of miracles (payment-free activities) has been decreasing as the rate of commodification has increased. Health care comes to mind. First, you get a diagnosis, then you wonder what it will cost you, then you wonder what you did bad to get sick, then you think about what it means to be sick. Or take water, brought from Maine by trucks in small bottles, right when we have perfectly good water right here in New York City. I know I have a price, too. I am not happy about that fact but I know it is true.

This permission to the commodity, the thing, the price tag, is sinful. By sin I mean the avoidance of the miracle of grace. It turns out that even this late in the history of Christendom that most of us are spiritually dumb, even idiotic or moronic. We say we don’t believe in miracles, meaning we don’t believe in what we are given. Instead, we believe in what we can get.

The words "moron," "imbecile" and "idiot" have changed in meaning over time. At one point, they were clinical terms concerning intelligence and "mental age": those with IQs between 0 and 25 are idiots, between 26 and 50 imbeciles, and between 51 and 70 morons. These terms were popular in psychology until the 1960s and '70s, when they were replaced with variations of the term retardation. When we can’t fathom a miracle, or something for which we need not pay or earn, we are spiritually retarded. We resist the very thought, the thought of grace and miracle, which could save our evolutionary cycle. 

They say as many as half of Icelanders believe in elves. We probably find that charming or in some other way condescend to the people who only know what they can see.

For everything to change, we need a miracle. We need the miracle of the uncongested mind, the one that can concentrate on grace and not works, the one that can be ready to receive that which can’t be bought.

Then we can “go to work” in “saving” the environment while not destroying it by the sly fantasy that we are the ones saving it.

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]

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