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The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Bury our Gods
It is an obscure little story, an archeological mystery, and I am haunted by the spin put on it by climate activist Tim DeChristopher.
A long time ago, on an island far, far away -- Crete, to be specific -- the Minoan culture thrived, and then suffered several catastrophes. At an isolated corner of the island, a small community continued around a religious shrine. Tim writes:
The important part of their story is what the people of Karphi did when they realized that life in their community had become environmentally unsustainable: they buried their gods and walked away. ... the gods whom they had so carefully worshipped were placed in stone coffins, and the people walked off into the lineage of Mediterranean cultures.
The important part of Tim's telling of the story brings it much closer to home.
At this point of climate crisis when our civilization is no longer sustainable, what are the gods we are called to bury in order to move forward? What are the idols through which we understand our purpose and our relationships -- particularly those idols that have brought us to this brink of climate and ecological catastrophe?
DeChristopher's questions make it very clear that the ecological crisis -- of climate, species extinction, plastics and toxic chemicals -- is a religious crisis. Collectively, we've placed our faith in values and technologies and economic systems that are not true, and that can never work correctly on this limited and crowded planet. We've been worshipping false gods.
As a Christian minister, it seems to me that if we can bury some of our small-g gods, we in the church may be able to rediscover truth and meaning from the big-g God that we claim to worship.
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Tim DeChristopher's short essay is found in the new book, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis. His reference to the buried gods of Karphi draws on a detailed sermon by Unitiarian minister, Liz Lerner Maclay. The ancient history is intriguing to me, but Minoan statues are not the point of the telling for Liz, Tim or me.
The pertinent question for today is whether we can name the contemporary gods that need to be buried. That's not a metaphorical question. There are gods and a powerful religion around us that we generally don't name or acknowledge.
I often return to an article, "Religion and the Market", by Buddhist philosopher David Loy. He wrote in 1997, "The collapse of communism makes it more apparent that the Market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe into a world-view and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as 'secular'." He adds that market capitalism "has already become the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief system or value-system in human history."
Tim DeChristopher follows the same path of naming economic values as actual religious norms which shape our identities and behaviors. "The god of capitalism, and its attendant demigods of rampant individualism, consumerism, and perpetual growth, is the central structure of American civil religion."
If we are immersed in the religion of the market -- a false religion based in lies about the world, and peddling lies about the nature of the good life -- then we need to seek conversion. We need to actively renounce the false beliefs, to bury those gods, and to commit ourselves to what is true.
I'm not suggesting that the option to the religion of the market if for all people to convert to Christianity. In our religiously pluralistic world, that's not appropriate or realistic. We can recognize, as Loy does, that most of the traditional religions of the world "are natural allies against what amounts to an idolatry that undermines their most important teachings." Among those "genuine religions" there are shared principles of community, justice, sufficiency, respect for the natural world, and intergenerational responsibility which contradict the religion of the market.
An interfaith coalition can call out the lies of the market and consumer culture, but only when we are able to lift up the strong and rich truths within our traditions. When faith communities are deeply acculturated, they bless consumer culture instead of challenging it. If our churches celebrate individualism, wealth, and living beyond Earth's limits, then we don't have an alternative good news to offer.
DeChristopher says, "While liberating ourselves from harmful consumption can be a valuable part of self-purification, if we are not liberating ourselves to our other roles as citizens, community members, and children of God, we remain stuck in the isolated and disempowered identity of consumer."
Conversion is not just a rejection of something we see as wrong, but an active and committed choice of something different. Conversion is life-changing, because is re-orients what we see as good and right. We need conversion from the market, and to worldviews and values that are Earth-affirming and justice-seeking.
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For many years, Eco-Justice Ministries has been an advocate for "transformational ministry." We've said that our modern culture is based on values and beliefs that are deeply flawed. We've lifted up the hope that religious communities -- and especially churches -- can offer a profoundly different vision of Earth community, sufficiency, relationship and joy.
Transformational ministry requires conversion, individually and of society. It is not just about education, or technology change. We have to tell a different story about who we are and where we're going. We need to grow into those new identities, and that's a process which requires conversion, strong community, and immersion in other ways of viewing the world. It requires us to get to work building the different society that we hope for.
DeChristopher has a lovely expression about doing that work of transformation.
Like faith, hope is inseparable from our own actions. It isn't given; it is grown. Waiting to act on climate change until we have hope is like waiting to pick up a shovel until we build calluses on our hands. The hope never arrives until we get to work.
Conversion and transformation are not one-time things. They're ongoing processes that require decisions, work, commitment and persistence. Over and over again, we need to choose which god we will serve.
DeChristopher asks, "what are the gods we are called to bury in order to move forward?" The flip side of the question asks us to make a positive choice. What God will we choose, and to what worldview and values will we commit ourselves?
The market and consumerism are destroying Earth, not saving it. I believe that churches and other faith communities can proclaim good news about other ways of living in Earth community that are true, just and joyous. But we need to get to work right away.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org