Thursday, March 21, 2019

 Theological Reconstruction of Human "Domination" of Nature in Genesis 1
Rev. Douglas Olds
21 March 2019

What Reist (1991,167-171) calls the “heuristic” function of theology to address social and human problems is a reconstructive task that revisits traditional Biblical doctrines and readings that have ceased being useful or helpful to contemporary human challenges.  Examples given by Reist include McFague’s (1993) proposal that feminizes the divine and discerns the natural world as God’s “body.” By this reading, Reist and McFague intend to bypass a problematic patriarchy and focus on divine transcendence that gives rise to hierarchical cultures that too readily exploit nature for humanity’s material desires and refuse to engage with the enchantment of our non-human surroundings.
          The primary reconstructive task, therefore, is heuristic: it is to find an alternate reading of texts and traditions that answer urgent contemporary problems. Jenkins (2013, preface) describes the process this way:
Religious creativity is always particular and contextual, so throughout the book I work with Christian projects and make constructive theological arguments. I do so in order to depict one moral tradition undergoing change as it is variously redeployed and renegotiated, and for the wider freedom one has to make constructive proposals as a participant within one’s own tradition.
We understand we are engaging in heuristic hermeneutics when we read the Bible with “contrition” (Reist 1991, 170), lamenting how prior readings of the Bible have caused pain, suffering, injustice and degradation. Today, that may include as most paramount Global Warming and the Crisis of Atmospheric and Climate Disruption. Reading the Bible heuristically as with a sense of contrition enhances the reconstruction of an appropriate Atmospheric Care ethic—Trusteeship—and a reconsideration of the disruption of human moral agency that leads societies to treat the atmosphere as a cost-free carbon dump.  Reconstructing the theology of Genesis 1 is designed to re-read its supposed “domination” by the divine over the disorder of nature, and its supposed grant of “dominion” qua “domination” to humanity by God. Heuristically—from the vantage of contrition--I recover a more appropriate reading that is gentler and harmonizes with God’s task to humanity given in Genesis 2.15.
      Genesis 1 has been a problematic reading for environmental ethics since the advent of European monarchy and the imposition of Roman Catholic imperium.  As White (1967) famously publicized during the awakening of the Ecology Movement in Western societies, the presuppositions of Western humanity’s relationship with the natural world that surrounds it were shaped by its formative intellectual traditions—in our case, Christianity as it moved from considering nature as heuristics of the divine to a more utilitarian and anthropocentric material substrate:
 [S]lightly before A.D. 830 … Western illustrated' calendars [changed]. In older calendars the' months were shown as passive personifications. The new Frankish calendars, which set the style for the Middle Ages, are very different: they show men coercing the world around them-plowing, harvesting, chopping trees, butchering pigs. Man and nature are two things, and man is master… Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian teleology.…Especially in its Western form, Christianity [became] the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. (White 1967, 1205).
White’s use of words such as “coercing,” “master,” “teleology,” and “anthropocentric” demonstrate the medieval cognitive presuppositions regarding Creation and humanity’s placement in and struggle with it derived from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. 
          I am convinced that Genesis 1 has been misread since the time that White describes, up to (and in part including) post-modern Christianity.  I propose a reconstruction of Biblical theology regarding human “dominion” and “coercion/subuing” of nature.  This hierarchical epistemology was associated with and influenced by medieval social structures (Glacken 1967, 293; 312-4).
          Others have proposed this reconstruction to a more biocentric, less hierarchical and anthropocentric placement of humanity within the scheme of God’s creation (Reist 1991, McFague 1993, Tinker 2008).  I will attempt to justify my reconstruction not by transcendentalizing immanence and sexuality (McFague 1993) nor by resort to non-Christian spiritual traditions (Tinker 2008).  Instead, I will engage in a close reading of the Hebrew of the Creation accounts in Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and Deutero-Isaiah (specifically Is. 45).  As will be discussed toward the end of this chapter, Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-48) contains a neglected but supplementary account of Creation.
          Rather than beginning with Paul’s gospel--as is often the case with Christian theology--of the need of humanity for a restored relationship with God through Christ’s redeeming work,[1] I start (with Tinker 2008) with a reconsideration of the Christian doctrine of Creation as found in the first statement of the Creeds professed by many Christians over the centuries.  I begin by unpacking God’s creation of the earth and the Spiritual wind hovering over the waters, then I move into a harmonization of the prior vision with the latter directives to humanity to take “dominion” over nature.
          It is often claimed that the Genesis 1 account of Creation inhabits the Ancient Near Eastern worldview of the divine ordering of pre-existent chaos as exemplified in the Mesopotamian epic, Enuma elish.  Herman Gunkel in the 1890s proposed that “Chaoskampf” (struggle with chaos) and the larger motif of "Theomachy"—divine conflict—is a thematic constant of ANE creation accounts (Walton 2008, 48-9).   The vanquishing of a personified chaos-monster by the divine is indeed part of Enuma elish. However, with Walton (2008), I find no evidence of this conflict—or violent force of any kind--in Genesis 1:1–4 (NRSV)
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept [hovered][2] over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
          There are allusions to theomachy in other ANE myths and Biblical texts outside Genesis:
[T]here is no doubt that Yam-Nahar was the chief Ugaritic counterpart of the Babylonian Tiamat, defeated by Marduk [in the Babylonian myth Enuma elish] and (from a more adjacent cultural milieu) of the biblical monster defeated by Yahweh, who is variously called Yam (Ps. 74:13 Job 3:8(?) 7:12 26:12), Rahab (Ps. 89:11 Job 9:13 26:12 Isa. 51:9), Leviathan (Ps. 74:14 Job 3:8 40:25ff. Isa. 27:14) or simply ‘dragon’ (tannîn Ps. 74:13 Job 7:12 Isa. 27:14 51:9) or ‘serpent’ (nāḥāš Job 26:13 Isa. 27:14; bāšān Ps. 68:23)… In the Babylonian myth it is related how Marduk after the death of the monster created the firmament out of its [Tiamat’s] carcass.[3]
In contrast to these examples of Chaoskampf, Exodus 15 (The Song of Moses) demonstrates God’s power that lures a martial force toward its destiny with the sea, which may be consequential but is not directed violently.  The Song of Moses is an ancient vignette of the Hebrew Bible:
Ex. 15.1 Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD:
    “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
    horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
The writer of Exodus contrasts the frantic activity of warhorses in this scene with what Boyd (2017, vol. 2) exegetes as the paradigmatic illustration of “God’s Aikido-like way of overcoming” Pharaoh’s martial forces with non-violence. This redirection of an enemy’s energy against him is active but not violent; hence it’s characterization as “Aikido-like.” This aspect of God’s activity coheres with the non-violent method of God heuristically discovered in the Genesis 1.1-4 Creation account.  Should the surface of the “deep” in Gen. 1.2 rear up like a horse, God’s ruach likely responds with a “gentling,” such as detailed in the verbal aspects detailed in footnote 3.
As noted above, theomachy may appear as a scriptural theme in the Psalms, Job, and Isaiah, but this comes later in the Biblical narrative than the foundation of the Genesis 1 Creation account. Yet it is my contention (along with Walton 2008) that Genesis 1 does not demonstrate divine conflict with chaotic forces bound up with nature. Instead, the spirit/wind from Elohim “hovers” above תְּהוֹם, the deep waters.  I am not persuaded by the claim that the name of the chaos-god-monster “Tiamat” is linguistically or metaphorically related to תְּהוֹם found in the Hebrew of Gen 1.1. God’s creative activity is akin to “gentling” rather than “breaking” a horse, if the metaphor holds that the sea gallops absent the ruach from God hovering over it (Gen 1.2 וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת). 
Moreover, as I will demonstrate more fully in my discussion of Deutero-Isaiah later in this chapter, the Genesis 1 creation account is an innovation of cosmogonic non-violence inside the ANE cognitive environment of violent human ordering of natural chaos. This Hebrew innovation is consistent with creatio ex nihilo, with Gen. 1.2 וָבֹ֔הוּ  תֹ֙הוּ֙ [“void and emptiness”] a hendiadys for “nothingness.”  There is no reason to read into tohu v’bohu any chaotic enemy of the divine.  That pair harmonizes in this Creation account with the hovering wind from God to suggest a verbal aspect exemplifying non-violent physicality, Aikido resistance, and gentling.
It is therefore important to re-read closely the imagery of creation that is involved in the opening paragraph of Genesis 1. With the non-violence of the verbal aspects discussed, I conclude that the foundation of the Gen 1. 1-4 creation account is non-violent and does not presuppose theomachy between the Creator and pre-existent or natural chaos.  The latter myth arises in Mesopotamian accounts where a “strong man” (Marduk in Enuma elish) as proxy for a later monarch exerts his violent will to organize and introduce order, hierarchy, and peace in his society.  The possible priestly writers of Genesis 1 are reacting against this domination and are innovating a different type of foundation myth that, as I will argue below, presupposes a Hebrew ideology of servant-monarchy that contrasts with monarchical dominion inside other ANE cultures. This distinction of monarchical ideology is reflected in the contrasting and distinct foundation cosmogonies of Babylon and exilic Judah.
Contemporaneous with the Babylonian exile, the prophet in Deutero-Isaiah (“First Persian Isaiah” [Coote 2004]) weighs in with a distinction between the Mesopotamian and Judahite Creation accounts:
Is 45:18–19 (emph. Added):
18 For thus says the LORD,
    who created the heavens
    (he is God!),
    who formed the earth and made it
    (he established it;
    he did not create it a chaos,
    he formed it to be inhabited!):
    I am the LORD, and there is no other.
    19 I did not speak in secret,
    in a land of darkness;
    I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
    “Seek me in chaos.”
    I the LORD speak the truth,
    I declare what is right.
This prophet from the Isaianic school seemingly recognizes Exilic Judah contemplating Mesopotamian cosmogonic foundations and warning against them. It is during or soon after this time that the Priestly writer(s) of Genesis 1 integrated a novel cosmogony absent hostile chaotic forces.
At the end of the sixth day of Creation, God pronounces the integrated whole “very good.”  The penultimate act of the 6th day of Creation is portrayed as the divine instruction to humanity:  
Gen. 1. 27 So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
With the use of the imperative verbs for “subdue” ( כָּבַשׁ kāḇaš) and “have dominion” ( רָדָה rāḏâ) we seem to re-enter the ANE cognitive environment of forceful monarchical power granted to divine agents, standing for an historical relation between human groups. However,
Gen. 1:28 (like the entire text of vv. 26–28) does not envision [the] dominion [of humans over others]. Instead, it supports the utopian anthropological maxim that every human individual is a “ruler” of the world.
 [T]he “land” is not to be thought of in literal (e.g., agrarian) terms, but as the whole territory shaped by human habitation, as an historical entity…The Hebrew verb kāḇaš …always presupposes a stronger [human] party as subject and a weaker [human] party as object (Wagner 1995, TDOT VII, 54-56).
With the contemporary attitude of contrition for the manner in which this hierarchical consideration of coercive force has been applied against weaker force, it is my reconstructive intention to propose that this verse is NOT to be applied to humanity’s ecological surroundings (as a modern person might read “land”) but instead characterizes the reality of human political history (with “the land” standing as a proxy for sovereignty considerations).  “Subduing” in Gen. 1.28 is a consideration for political history and not necessarily part of an environmental ethic. As discussed above, it coheres with the negative application of divine force as “resistance” (Aikido) and not the positive force of coercion or domination.
          Regarding the divine grant to humanity to “have dominion” over the land as political rather than ecological construct (employing the imperative of רָדָה rāḏâ), two further heuristic thoughts may be ventured:
1) There is a second trigeminal Hebrew root רָדָה rāḏâ, which means to “scrape or draw off, out (bread from oven)” (Brown, Driver, & Briggs 1977, 922). Translating the Hebrew verb with this meaning changes the implication of this verse from one of domination to one of eking out a living—the allusion of this verse changes in agency from monarchy to householding. The environmental ethics that flow from a monarchical foundation compared to a householding basis and need are quite distinct.  The latter may require determined human effort inside nature but not necessarily a divine directive to human domination of nature.  Moreover, the literary context of this verb is the succeeding announcement that humanity’s ecological base is given for its food.  There is no utilitarian foundation for economic extraction and exploitation for other material wants and needs, such as the manufacture luxury goods and services fueled by hydrocarbon combustion (see also below).
2) Most significantly, the idea of “dominion” requires its meaning be established by determining how monarchy functioned in the Hebrew scriptures and what monarchical dominion entailed.[4]  There are two foundational textual strands germane to these determinations: first, there is the critique of kingship theme in the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH) and second, the precepts in the Law of the King (Dt 17. 14-20) limiting his autonomy and prerogative.  Both theme and precept involved in these textual strands fit in with a more general theme of Israel’s adaptation to vassalage in the Hebrew Bible than with hierarchy and domination (Wright 2014). This critique of kingship is one of the most important themes of the Deuteronomic scriptures. From the foundation of the institution of kingship in Biblical Israel, kings were judged for their failure to bring in God’s blessings of security and righteousness.  And the consequence for that failure was the loss of “the land” (=loss of sovereignty) (Campbell and O’Brien 2000, 18-19).
 A steady drumbeat of acrimony to the institution of monarchy was kept up by keepers of the Deuteronomic scrolls.  This acrimony was remarkable because the monarchic court funded the production of the very rhetoric that limited its own power. The court funded the storage and dissemination of that anti-court rhetoric during the half millennium of kings from Josiah to Herod.
To bring about wise rule in the conditions of vassalage under the rule of dangerous superpowers—first of Philistia, then of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon—the temple elite subordinated the House of David as the glorified servant of the Torah. This process begins with prophetic legitimation of the monarch.  As the Deuteronomic Torah is written, the subordination of the king progresses, so in Dt. 17: 14-20 (known as the “The Law of the King”), the king is humbled by compulsory Torah performances, limitation on his appetites, and humility with regard to his kinsfolk. It is in this context of monarchical limitations and piety that the Hebrew concept of “dominion” needs to adhere. Dt. 17.18-20 describes how the ideal monarch may become a long-term trustee of his domain:
Dt. 17.18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. 19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.
Yet is the failure of dominion to adhere to this humility and trust that leads to the alienation and estrangement of God’s people from their historical construct labeled “the land.”
If we agree that reconstructing רָדָה rāḏâ, indicates the pre-modern economic process of householding (Polanyi 1944)--scraping out—rather than a monarchical hierarchy of humanity over AND dominating nature for its provision of non-subsistence hedonic desires, then we can resume the theological and ethical reconstruction of Gen. 1.28 by going deeper into the allusions and symbolic nature of the directives from God to humanity delineated by the Hebrew imperatives of  כָּבַשׁ kāḇaš and רָדָה rāḏâ.
רָדָה rāḏâ is cognate of יָרַד yāra, so that repeatable internal movement is involved (Zobel 2004, TDOT XIII, 31ff). Implicated in the search for the verbal meaning of כָּבַשׁ kāḇaš:
The derived noun keeš appears [as the] description of the precious throne that Solomon made of ivory overlaid with gold. This throne also had a footstool “in gold” (weeeš bazzāhāḇ lakkissēʾ). The meaning is easily derived from the basic meaning of the root, with emphasis on the concrete notion of treading underfoot. The other derivative, kišān, (smelting) furnace,is hard to associate with the meaning of kāḇaš; at best, one must appeal to the association with metallurgy,[5] in which the metal is “subdued” and “trodden.” (Wagner 1995, TDOT VII, 57 emph. added)
Symbolically, the movement engaged by Jesus walking on the water has some aspectual analogy to these verbal aspects in the Gen. 1 account, which has verbs indicating “treading” as subjection.  In the Jesus vignette, however, the treading is not an application of domination over the Sea of Galilee upon which he treads, just as the “hovering” by God’s ruach over the deep waters is not a domination of those waters.  Contrary to Peterson’s (1999, 137ff) universalizing Chaoskampf, the Jesus divine force does not wrestle with watery chaos in order to impose order and dominance hierarchies.  The symbolic nature of Jesus treading on the Sea of Galilee is equivalent with the presence of the divine ruach over the deep of Creation.  As Jesus walks on water, he symbolically “hovers” (Gen 1.2) above it, and in horizontal movement he “subdues it” by establishing a flattening hierarchical relationship with it that does not imply the application of force, just his “presence.” Reading Gen. 1 inside the canonical narrative that culminates with Jesus’s walking on water demonstrates that God’s imperative to humanity to “subdue and have dominion” in Gen 1.28 is not a domineering and coercive or violent application for humanity towards the rest of creation. Humanity is to “subdue” the land through its Christ-like presence.  Gen. 1 should be harmonized into an Atmospheric Care ethic--with רָדָה rāḏâ in Gen. 1. 28 heuristically translated for humanity to “have trusteeship” for rather than “have dominion” over “the land.”

[1] In the history of Western religion, however, earth and nature have commonly been subordinated to the centrality of the drama between humanity and its God. The Bible “presumes a sharp dichotomy between redemption and creation.… Thus nature [in the Old Testament and the historical Church] is not only separated from human culture, but it is regarded as subservient to it.” (Hiebert 1996, 3-6).
This decentering by Biblical religion of the world of nature became the organizing environmental ideology of the European church age.

[2] NRSV confusingly translates the Piel participle of רחף as "swept" when lexicons translate the Piel of רחף as “quivering, meaning to hover with fluttering wings, characteristic flying behavior.” Koehler, Baumgartner, et al . 2000, 1220)..
While Piel Hebrew verbs were thought to intensify the Aktionsart of the Qal verbal stem, “Piel tends to signify causation with a patiency nuance.”  (Waltke and O’Connor 1990, 355.
 The Piel stem of רחף  applied in Gen 1.2 “represents God as the agent and the [wind] as having been caused to be put into the state of” trembling or fluttering. (Ibid., 363). The English translation of “swept” neither adequately conveys the causative aspect of agency (divine medio-passivity) nor the “patiency nuance” applied to the verbal stem. (Ibid).
See also: “PIEL, to brood over young ones, to cherish young (as an eagle), Deut. 32:11; figuratively used of the Spirit of God, who brooded over the shapeless mass of the earth, cherishing and vivifying.” –(Gesenius 2003, 766).

 [3] Gibson & Driver (2004, 7). See also Walton (2008).
Also see these ANE parallels of Chaoskampf:
1)       “The conflict between the Storm-god and the forces of chaos represented by the serpent (illuyanka- in Hittite) was the focus of two different tales known in second-millennium Anatolia, both of which served as etiological cult myths of the important Hittite festival.” Hallo & Younger (1997, 150).
2)       Merikare (Egyptian Instruction), Hallo & Younger (1997, 64):
 Well tended is mankind — god’s cattle,
  He made sky and earth for their sake,
  He subdued the water monster,
  He made breath for their noses to live.
  They are his images, who came from his body,
  He shines in the sky for their sake;
  He made for them plants and cattle,
  Fowl and fish to feed them.
[4] As footnote 6 details, I am presuming that the Deuteronomic scriptures were formalized prior to the Priestly.  Thus reading Genesis, primarily a priestly source (Carr 2015), hermeneutically within the strictures of the Deuteronomic is neither anachronistic nor unwarranted.  Understanding what “dominion” means to the Priestly writer builds upon what P knows of the critique of Kingship in the Deuteronomic scrolls.  The idea of “dominion” to P is founded on what monarchy’s limited and humbling prerogative is in D.  Add this to the exemplar of Kingship demonstrated by Jesus, and a Biblical theology of “dominion” must dispense with the aspect of “domination.” As Carr (2015, 465-6) notes, “the D/Deuteronomistic tradition remained an important source of pentateuchal conceptuality and phraseology.”
[5] A parallel may exist in the reference to “smelting” in the Egyptian Creation myth, “Hymn to Ptah” (4, 3–5, 1; Hallo & Younger (1997, 21):
  PHARAOH has come before you, Ptah:
  he has come before you, god distinguished of form.
  Greetings before your originals,
  whom you made after you evolved in the god’s body,
  (you) who built his body by himself,
  without the earth having evolved, without the sky having evolved,
  without the waters having been introduced.

  You tied together the world, you totalled your flesh,
  you took account of your parts and found yourself alone,
  place-maker, god who smelted the Two Lands.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

 U Tun Aung "Ko Tu"
 September 16, 1937 - March 11, 2019
h 11, 2019
A remembrance
Rev. Douglas Olds

My mother met Tun Aung at a Christmas party given by her boss in 1973. Tun was staying there. I was 15 at the time, my brothers Todd, 12-1/2 and Mike, 10-1/2 had moved from Michigan to Bethesda Maryland in September 1973 so that my mother could work at a firm there. My father spent only a couple of weekends a month in Maryland for several months because he was selling his business.

At the party, Tun spoke about his previous life in Burma, his wife and two daughters still there, his escape from personal harm through the jungle to Thailand, his present work, his tennis prowess, his Buddhist religion. We were struck by this very special man. He was sensitive, smart, courageous, and fearless. When he told her he had to find a place to live, my mother asked if he would like to live with us. We had a spare room and a family who would love him. He immediately agreed to the offer. He had a full-time job but would clean and even cook for us at times. We loved the soul and generosity of this very special man.

I remember Tun Aung as a man given easily to laughter. He giggled so easily!  I thought it was a cultural thing, but when I visited Burma for the first time in 1984—when Ko Tu’s sister Cho Cho, mother, and brother-in-law Win Kyi took care of me and my girlfriend “Miss Nancy”—when I visited, I learned that Ko Tu’s laughter was particular to him. He was a genuinely delighted fellow, kind of like his Buddhist brother, the Dalai Lama.  Both laugh easily, even when there is so much tragedy.  They won’t give up on the comedy that is life, a perspective which I also endorse as a Christian.

Tun Aung moved into the bedroom across the hall from mine back in 1974. We both had bedrooms in the “servants’ quarters” of a big house that allowed each of to have our own separate bathrooms and showers.  I joked with my high school classmates that my alarm clock was “nasal.”  Tun would rise in the morning before me and proceed to cook spicy sausages doused in fish sauce in the basement kitchenette down the hall.  The pungent smell would wake me.

Tun could not get a job in the U.S. in his trained profession of lawyer, so he first took a job in a Tennis Shop owned by the Sports Agent Donald Dell. In that capacity, he would mingle with tennis stars.  He told me that during the summer of 1975, when our family was away in Michigan, that the tennis ace Roscoe Tanner slept in my bed after being brought back to our house by Tun.  I was thrilled.

Tun drove an ecru VW Beetle during those years.  I practiced driving some in that car after getting my driver’s license in 1974.  It was hard to put into reverse, I recall.  But Tun Aung moved forward and backward with ease, his body supple and trained by expertise on the tennis courts. He regularly teamed in doubles with Maxwell Taylor, the U.S. military’s Chief of Staff during JFK’s administration.  Taylor liked playing with Tun, as did I, though his skills on the court were so beyond my own.

Tun Aung's father had been police chief of Rangoon after WWII. It was a prominent and dangerous position.  Tun Aung chose to pursue jurisprudence as a defense lawyer, but the American bar would not accept his training or experience upon his escape to this country.  But Tun Aung embodied the wisdom borne from a life lived at risk for the betterment of his countrymen.

An African Proverb holds, “When an elder dies, it is the same as if a library has burned to the ground.”  The library of my wisdom is enhanced by knowing Tun Aung. Ko Tu: here’s to your infectious generosity and grace, your spiritual deftness, and may you rest with your ancestors in glory!

Read his obituary, here.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Failing Nature’s Trust
December 30, 2018
First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo
Rev. Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)
Readings: 1 Samuel 2.22-26
Psalm 148

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Church at the Crossroads of
Climate Catastrophe: A Pastoral Approach for 
Presentations of Despair

9 February 2019
Rev. Douglas Olds

In 2017, the Union of Concerned Scientists profiled the Church signaling a petition for it to take on an increasing role in leading against Global Warming and Climate Injustice.  I began this work of ministry in 2008 and have intensified my efforts in my current Doctoral project of developing a "decarbonizing ecclesiology."

Cropping up in my recent research of adapting ministry toward Atmospheric Care and trusteeship of nature is a split between the faithful who believe that the Church needs to develop a pastoral program of "hospice for a dying planet" versus those who call for the invigoration of congregational praxis of lifestyle virtues and collective action. Ought the Church lead towards an acceptance of the inevitability of ecological collapse and extinction--comforting all who are soon to die--or does it move to inspire people to awaken to the issue and practice carbon thrift, the privileged to practice asceticism when they otherwise could afford a high-carbon-footprint lifestyle, and our elites to institute loyalty to place and planet as the just transition toward a decarbonized and renewable economic system?

While ministering to those grieving over the destruction of earth's ecosystems is appropriate and makes space for hearing, uttering, and responding to lament for what is being extinguished, I am choosing to focus my project on pastoral praxis that promotes individual responsibility and commitment rather than pastoral hospice. The Bible has repeated messages not to despair at calamity (Jeremiah 29.4-6; Psalm 23.4) or hypothesize a timetable for the end of the world (Matthew 24.36). I am choosing to minister for and from my active faith that, though the facts of climate science are dire, insists that God has powers over hearts and minds that can awaken humanity from its slumber, denial, and paralyzed indecision regarding Global Warming.  God has historically acted by implanting innovative consciousness and inspiration of the human heart by the actions of the Holy Spirit.  If we can continue to recognize that the Holy Spirit is intimately involved with atmospheric integrity--and that we can cooperate with the Holy Spirit in remedying and healing ecological imbalances--we can act as God's partners and trustees that might move God to endorse our repentance on this issue and  intervene through God's incumbent and caring powers.

If, however, privileged humanity continues its hardness of heart, practicing business as usual and makes no effort to demonstrate that our living values include a respect for and trusteeship of nature, I see no reason why God would intervene for our benefit other than pure grace, which humanity may not presume. Yet even in the case of God turning away from privileged humanity, I acknowledge that God could and would bring about the just recompense of the vulnerable and those oppressed from Climate Injustice.

Because we have a final judgment to anticipate, I entreat all to intensify their efforts on the issue of combating profligacy in their hydrocarbon-producing lifestyle choices and to work politically and collectively to rein in the systemic greed, intransigence, and denial of dirty-industry elites.  To that latter end, it matters if your preferred candidates for elective office take fossil-fuel industry money.  To the former end, it matters in God's judgment whether our consumer choices deconstruct nature and the flourishing of the vulnerable of humanity including of future generations and of other species.  If our values predominantly involve computer screens and human technological diversions like rocketry and Bitcoin at the expense of natural integrity and balance, I suspect our destiny will not include companionship with nature as part of its ambiance and/or reward.  In such a case, I fear that my eternal destiny could involve no more than adumbrations of human ingenuity without the input of God's ongoing dynamism inside natural beauty. My destiny in such a case might involve the profanity of technology rather than the holiness of trees because my values and choices in this life promoted the former and extinguished the latter.

Previously, I proposed Isaiah 44.9-20 as a theological resource for evaluating run-away hydrocarbon combustion and linked it with the material economy devoted to luxury production condemned in Rev. 18 as Babylon's "adultery" (=idolatry).  I note that in the Reform Judaism cycle of yearly readings of Torah and haftarot, this passage from Isaiah is regularly, but not always, included in the week prior to the Torah's presentation of the theme of the Approach of the Day of Judgment.  I think this sequence of idolatry followed by judgment is illustrative of the Jewish tradition of proclaiming against idolatry as a fundamental responsibility of religious humanity to God, and that such idolatry (and systemic participation in the luxury economy) may be a first-order determinant in God's final judgment of us as individuals.

This essay has been intended to outline a favored pastoral alternative for the contemporary Church involved inside a society of systemic Climate injustice and ongoing ecological catastrophe.  I have argued that the Church functions pastorally in such a society by refocusing its faithful on the Ever-Approaching of our individual Final Judgments from God rather than on acceptance of the inevitability of ecological or civilizational collapse.  I do not propose this as a psychological denial or defiance mechanism, but rather from my faith that faith requires continuing trust in the miracle-working God as well as the necessity to continually prepare for a Final Judgment which will take into account our values and our commitments in this life.  That Judgment by God will deliver us into an unchangeable destiny in the life to come.  I believe that recalling us to the warning (and the Good News) of the Final Judgment is pastorally more responsible even if the planet is inevitably dying.  Our values, commitments, and actions even in a lost cause will provide (part of) the basis of our destiny in the life to come, more than any pastoral hospice program that encourages quietism and acceptance of inevitable extinction.

Continuing to practice virtue in the prospect of looming catastrophe is keeping faith.  It demonstrates to oneself and to others an appreciation of God's continuing presence and potential for miracle. By all means, the Church should allow for expressions of grief and lament.  But I believe our experiences and expressions of those may only be assuaged and potentially healed by an active trust in God in which we involve God in our prayers and continue in our virtues that keep faith with God. As our virtues demonstrate our trustworthiness, God may keep faith with (trust in) us.  There may be no escape from suffering in this life, but repentance and trust in God is the foundation of virtue which demonstrates to God that we take God's presence and power with utmost existential seriousness.  We need to remain practicing the virtues of thrift, asceticism, and loyalty, cultivating the habits that will serve us in eternity even if we currently live in a temporally-limited and -concluding natural world.

As I write these words at 3:30pm on a rainy Saturday in Northern California, I look out my window to see the partial but thick arc of a rainbow.  Its thickness indicates proximity. I recall God's covenant with Noah and hope this appearance reconfirms for us that God will not again extinguish the totality of humanity from the earth.  This is where I move from hope to faith. Not faith in a doctrinal sense.  My hope doesn't allow for the recovery of the pristine nature of my youthful explorations in the woods in Northern Michigan.  The facts of ecological catastrophe and Climate Injustice are too pessimistic in aggregate.  But faith over hope suggests another message: an optimistic one.  Faith trusts God even when hope is fleeting and despair looms.  I know there's a God--one who can and does love humanity and who can and does work miracle for its benefit.  Keeping faith with God is an active requirement that requires the additional virtue of recollection--our practices of recalling when hope was extinguished, but then our dawning awareness comes of renewal.  With recollection, there seems no precedent that sin and systemic evil have the last word.  God and God's word is the beginning AND the end (Revelation 21.6).  Our faithful actions are intermediary--a bridge between freedom and destiny.  God, and God alone, will determine our conclusion.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

At A Loss for Words

Rev. Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)

Advent 2018

 Isaiah 6:1-8 (NRSV)

1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:
     “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
     the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Luke 1:8–25 (NRSV)
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”  


I met Jan Karski in the early 1980s.

He was a neighbor of mine, an old-world, courtly figure who taught history at Georgetown University.

In middle age, he had married the renowned modern dancer Pola Niresnka, a Polish Jew who had escaped the Holocaust yet whose entire family disappeared in the prison camps.
Now an older man, Jan told me of his and Pola’s past.
In…1940 Karski[, a Pole], began [as] a courier … [between] … the Polish underground [and] the Polish Government in Exile …
During one such mission in July 1940 he was arrested by the Gestapo in Slovakia [and s]everely tortured. He managed to escape.
In 1942 Karski was…twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of directly observing what was happening to Polish Jews.
Also, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he visited a sorting and transit point for the Bełżec death camp.
Karski then met with Polish politicians in exile and the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, giving a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec.
In 1943 he traveled to the United States, meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust.
He also described the Holocaust to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Frankfurter, [a Jew himself, sat politely through] Karski's report. [1]

Recollecting, Karski told me that Frankfurter told him, "I cannot believe you of what’s happening to the Jews in Poland. I do not say that you are lying, I am saying that I CAN NOT believe you.”[2]

If FDR had acted immediately to stem the atrocity by bombing the gas and incineration complexes in the death camps, perhaps 2 Million Jews could have been saved from destruction. 
By the time Allies did act against the camps, Karski’s efforts were estimated to have saved ¼ million Jews, making Karski the most effective savior of European Jewry during the war.
Yet Karski lived with the knowledge that perhaps 10 times more could have been saved, IF ONLY. If only FDR had acted immediately.

While he acknowledged that perhaps deeper levels of military strategy may have prevailed upon FDR, Karski told me that he regretted that he had failed to find the right words in his efforts to convince FDR and the other Allied leaders of the necessity to act. Karski, who had trained for the diplomatic corps, strained every diplomatic muscle he had in trying to persuade the Brits and Americans. In his appeal, he even extravagantly addressed FDR as, “Lord of Humanity.”

Karski also struggled with words around the prisoners: their condition almost rendered him silent. He recognized he was in the midst of the struggle of good and evil.  In that struggle, there were moments of irrepressible holiness by the prisoners straining every sinew of their being to help each other stay alive.

Karski recognized these were stories of struggle, stories of fierce love inside inexpressible trauma and horror.

         Later, Karski volunteered to sneak into the darkness of the Warsaw ghetto and Bełżec death camp to bring the news of Allied efforts to the prisoners.

He brought hope. He was an example of the volunteering saint, representing Isaiah's "send me" attitude.  Karski felt the call of his Christian upbringing to make a prophetic difference to people who were enslaved, oppressed, and daily murdered.

I place this man’s episodic struggle to find compelling and suitable words into the context of Zechariah's being struck dumb by the angel's announcement of the impending birth of his son who would become John the Baptist. Sometimes, the irrepressible call of God works by the suppression and reconstruction of voice such as we discern in the calls of the prophets--Jeremiah (1.6-9) as well as Isaiah. We see this in the call of Moses, who develops a stutter and bashfulness when confronted with God’s call—and in the New Testament, with the progressive muting of Nicodemus by Jesus when he tries to interrogate the latter on his messianic bona fides (John 3:1-17).
The Old Testament examples of call narratives of Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Moses report that the silencing of the called prophet presupposes a kind of human unworthiness in the face of approaching holiness. Their silences are like an involuntary imposition of Sabbath.
It is as if the human need and gift for communication is suspended because of the necessity to observe and honor the holy inbreaking of God’s activity.  From the vocal nothingness of silence, a kind of death of a uniquely human capacity, the person’s human ability to speak may be created anew by God’s Holy Spirit.  A voice may be reborn for a holy service. 

          In 1985, the French Film Director Claude Lanzmann released a 9-1/2 hour documentary series Shoah which documented the living witnesses of the Holocaust.  I committed 4 afternoons of a winter week in early 1986 to seeing Shoah at the Key Theater in Georgetown of Washington, DC. During the second installment, Jan Karski appeared on screen discussing the conditions he had found of the Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and he wept. Then I was moved to tears in the dark and flickering theater by his descriptions of what he saw and what he experienced in the conditions at Bełżec.  

I left the theater that gloomy Tuesday emotionally spent and got on the bus. It was raining. I sat down and focused internally on my memories of the moving witness to the Holocaust in the documentary. I then became aware of a disturbance at the front of the bus.

It was my friend Jan Karski, whom I had just seen on screen, off from his shift as professor at Georgetown University. He was having difficulty putting away his umbrella while trying, in flustered English, to secure his senior citizen bus discount. The bus passengers were surly at the delay and, hearing his accent, cast their anger frontward at him:

some shouted, “Down in Front!” and “Go Back to where you came from!”

Carried by instinct, I got up from my seat and went to the front and embraced Karski,giving him my arm for support as I almost carried him to a seat. At our seat, I told him of my emotion at having just then seeing him in Shoah.

 “Yes,” he said, “Lanzmann has made an important document of the time. Pola can’t watch it, it’s too painful for her.” 

Since that bus ride, I’ve often wondered if I should have addressed the surly passengers on the bus—shamed them, perhaps with the words, “this is a great man, people!” 

But in the presence of holiness I was silenced. 

I sat a mostly silent vigil with Karski during the bus ride back to the Maryland suburbs. I had nothing profound to say, and the moment seem to require something moving and deep and profound that I couldn’t utter.

For me, like Zechariah, Nicodemus, and  the prophet Isaiah, there is the season of speaking out—a time of moral revival and assertion. 
For us in the church confronted with the ugliness of depression, oppression, and violence in our fellows, there may come a season when we can find no words. In those times, connection isn’t in the thundering eloquence of the pulpit or in the rebukes of the crowd we offer, but in the soft companionship of standing firm next to someone until they are ready to go their own way.

There may be in our recollections times when we were silenced—when our common human inheritance for communication was brought up short.  These times should be approached with great tenderness and discernment of recollection, because I believe our souls have at those times been confronted with something intended and sent from God. Something of holiness. 

Practicing the virtue of recollection, we might gather a spiritual truth from these times when our voices failed.

For at the risk of his life Karski took forth into history’s deepest darkness a message of hope, compassion, and concern. Risk is the price for the companionship with the Holy and the vigil with the Divine that we all crave.

My silence on that bus, I later recollected, inadvertently had discovered that holiness—that common, unobtrusive love-- is not found in rebuking the mob, but rather in companionship and chaplaincy with an elderly and struggling man on a rainy evening as he struggled with his umbrella.

Sometimes, we are not called for the glamour positions—
the shiny speaking positions, the apostleships and prophecies—
but rather to fulfill our role companionably in the local milieu in which we are called—to a witness of presence—
a witness of presence for rightness and compassion through silent accompaniment.
We may often experience ourselves as bursting with expression which threatens to overwhelm others’ capacity for listening.  Especially when events and personalities make a mockery of our deepest, shared morality. At those times, being given to silent companionship can provide the ailing and the onlookers a sign of our trust in goodness when the world is hostile and collapsing. 

Ours is to companion and bring stories of enduring wonder with the mystery of God and the enigma of faith, speaking and living life to the fullest.  In this, we risk that even our words and stories will for a season fail.  Holiness—God’s humble love--demands it. 

         Yet God can bring even out of our silence—our communicative nothingness--a new narrative, a new history, a new world, a new virtue, and a new collective commitment to goodness that sweeps over God’s eternal world like the tide.  Our acts of love live eternally in God’s cosmos, even if we can’t see their immediate impact. Our task as disciples is to fearlessly model authentic humanity as a sign and invitation to others. That is evangelism without words, a song of the heart visible in actions. It is holy, and it pleases God.

As we develop the appropriate individual virtues and practices, the holy, whirling air known to the ancient Israelites as ruach will howl politically to blow apart the “closed-loop discourse” that human society interminably engages on its solipsistic issues. The economic ash heaps and airless discourse of humanity need the fresh and dazzling sunlight cascading through God’s Holy Spirit atmosphere. The Holy Spirit can and will renew our voice.

Go forth from here, with the militancy of the Holy Spirit—with the intention to resist dehumanization in the world—
in Gaza, in Sudan, in Central Los Angeles and in the police districts of St. Louis and fracking fields of North Dakota—go forth evangelizing by your actions the goodness of God’s intended humanity, risking that your words may fail for a season, but that God does not. If your voice falters, sit with it for a season, then recover it for justice. Your silence prepares you for tending God's Kingdom justice. Your silence prepares you for Christmas--its glorious, inbreaking incarnation of humanity's model for holiness who brings God's definitive message of the triumph of love and life.

May your voice be for God’s kingdom in all of its peace, humanity, and justice. May it be so for you and me. AMEN.

[1] accessed on 6 August 2015.
[2] Pers. Comm.