Let Us Be Human: Christianity for a Collapsing Culture – review
Let Us Be Human: Christianity for a Collapsing Culture; by Sam Charles Norton, January 2012, Xlibris Corporation, ISBN 978-1-4691-4929-5 (paperback), RRP £13.99 (paperback), £2.63 (digital edition), 139 pages
This book is a call for wisdom set against a background of a global culture crisis precipitated by serious abuse of the environment – God’s bounty being squandered without care and consideration of the needs of the majority in God’s Creation. Books on this subject are welcome to stimulate awareness of the practical issues and theological concerns relating to the lifestyle changes that will be thrust upon us.
The book is roughly divided into two parts – chapters 1 to 4 entitled “When we were afar off”, and chapters 5 to 8 entitled “You met us in your Son”, with an introduction and conclusion.
The introduction likens the cultural crisis to the Babylonian invasion of Judah in C6th BC where Jeremiah was opposed by the “all will be well” Hananiah, the latter’s ascendance being fateful to the Jerusalem inhabitants. Spiritual insight was needed to discern the best path to follow.
Chapter 1 introduces the crisis through the vehicle of “Peak Oil”. The unsustainable growth in the consumption of oil entails an increasing price as the supply of oil peaks due to the finite nature of the commodity which now has scarcity value. Even though the details of Peak Oil are much disputed it is difficult to avoid the fact that Oil is a finite resource, substitutes are not easy to find, cost of extraction will increase and may yield less energy than used in extraction. Above all, the refusal to confront the situation and make plans to carry on as normal are indications of a pathway to disaster.
Chapter 2 is about Growth. Following the lead given in the 1970s report ‘The Limits to Growth’ commissioned by the Club of Rome, Sam Norton has much to say about how unsustainable growth can lead to overshoot and this can be the precursor to the collapse of whole communities. What’s more it doesn’t have to be energy that produces the crisis, any of a large number of stretched resources can lead to a large scale catastrophe. It is unfortunate that the standard issue growth model with constant rate is used because this inevitably gives scary results, the growth indicator increases with increasing gradient over time. In practice growth rates vary and mostly they reduce so that the growth curve reaches a peak followed by a decline even though much damage can have been experienced by this time. Exponential growth as described usually only applies to situations where there is no negative feedback, as explained in ‘Limits to Growth’. (The plot shows five examples of the exponential growth of a population, four of them with a fixed rate of growth, the other has a decreasing rate of growth. This latter growth is more typical of observed growth patterns.)
Chapter 3 concerns our ‘Asophic’ Society. ‘Asophic’ has been coined to describe societies’ unwillingness to see sense – we are disconnected from wisdom. We have lost Virtue and lost the ability to discern the difference between scientia (=knowledge) and sapienta (=wisdom). Sam Norton likens this loss to the impaired decision making of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who suffered serious brain damage and didn’t die. Science has become predominant and because its practitioners would like to be objective they have acquired an ‘Apathistic Stance’ which squeezes out emotions from their considerations leading to bias in knowledge that puts them at odds with the workings of the brain where reason and emotion interact continuously. He also highlights the positivism argument where only reason and empirical data are allowed. The status given to scientific arguments is damaging to arguments brought from other sources including literature and scripture. It would appear that Sam Norton has a love-hate relationship with science. Most of the arguments have been aired over several centuries. I would prefer not to discard the enlightenment thinkers and their contributions to science, which has made it so much easier for us to read God’s book of nature. I belong to a group that seeks to harmonise science and religion and I wish others would join in without reservation. Despite repeated campaigns for the public communication of science most people just don’t appreciate the methods of science or understand concepts of inference when the subject is uncertain. I regard Sam Norton’s ‘Apathistic Stance’ a distortion of scientific method and a serious injustice to many scientists who have struggled against opposition in their pursuit of truths to add to the book of nature. For example, obituaries of the late Sir Bernard Lovell have brought to light his passion and determination, in an age of austerity, to complete the project of the Joddrell Bank radio telescope. We need more science, not less, as well as a return to our spiritual roots.
Chapter 4 tells us why we should put God first in our cultural lives. Not to do so would be idolatry and we would be inviting an encounter with the Wrath of God. Using the example of the Jewish ritual of the day of atonement we would get insight into the significance of the wrath: the consequences of sinful action, covering of sin by forgiveness and driving out the sin from the community. The positive inference is that the community and the environment are fixed by the spiritual activity. This contrasts with the extreme propitiation required in some pagan religions. Traditionally idols in the prophetic literature are banned because of their impotence. Drug addicts and brain damaged folk do need help to restructure their decision making. Drug rehab clients really learn that their idol does not deliver in the medium term. These can be discriminated from those who are well able to decide and choose to put God in second place.
Chapter 5 is mainly about the Christian Eucharist, its origins in the Jewish festivals of Passover and Atonement. The Eucharist being at the core of Christian Worship is a vehicle for instruction and a school for personal development where we can learn the wisdom needed for ‘healing the world’.
Chapter 6 is intriguingly entitled ‘Hocus Pocus’ where we are led to trace the origin of the Church’s wrong thinking leading to our loss of Wisdom. The scene is focused on the feast of Corpus Christi and the invention of the monstrous ‘Monstrance’, brought about by the Church’s failure to keep theology out of academia. Sam Norton also sees the ‘magic’ of the Monstrance as indicative of the view of modern secular view of Science. The book of nature is no longer seen as God’s creation but answerable to Science only. He is also concerned about the loss of loyalty within the Body of Christ. The church can reject the individual without sense of loss. The rational mind in an academic environment has no place for the emotional and leads to a distorted view of life and meaning. Clearly we need to get back to the understandings of the Early Christians.
The Parable of Lazarus and Dives introduces the theme of Chapter 7 entitled ‘Therefore the land mourns’: the lack of concern for poverty close to home. Even though absolute poverty has been reduced there are sharp divisions between the poorest and wealthy causing considerable unrest and injustice. Wisdom is not always consulted when legislating for those affected by economic change. Companies managed for the benefit of shareholders distort the livelihoods of other stakeholders. Going for growth – on the grounds that this strategy was successful in the 1930s depression – might be obscuring the benefits that might be discovered if an objective linked to human well being were used instead. We need to rediscover our role as stewards of God’s Earth and as farmers working in God’s Garden. We will not find it easy but the presence of the incarnational Christ will stimulate the momentum. Leviticus gives detailed guidelines for the managing of the harvest with regard to the poor, the livestock and land. These may seem a little idealistic or even impractical, but they do give a sense of direction to be followed by God’s farmers. The Baal Cult – Israel’s chief idolatrous distraction – is seen as an example of optimising on a narrow base – every activity based on the promotion of fertility at the expense of other social values.
Chapter 8 re-emphasises the main theme of the book: the loss of wisdom and how we might regain it. The discussion centres on two biblical and often interlinked topics of ‘apocalypse’ and ‘eschatology’. The first is seen as tales of destruction and retribution and the second in the hands of Jesus being inclusive: bringing together the righteous and the unrighteous, linking heaven and earth and seeing the future as part of our lives now. Our society needs a conversion experience and learn to walk in new light. We will need to sharpen our discrimination of what is appropriate. Hard choices will need to be made about many parts of our lives. We will need to piece together useful knowledge thrown out over the recent centuries as we get on with the task of “building our cathedrals of justice, forgiveness and kindness in our communities and walking humbly alongside the Lord”.
The postscript is a challenge to church leaders to deal with issues that refuse to go away – like the Baal cult that the Israelites struggled with in biblical times. Finding the wisdom to deal with this is another story.
It may be true that the majority of secular leaders in our society are keen to cut out the ‘book of revelation’ in their search for wisdom. It is also true that the ‘book of Nature’ is considered highly suspect by a good proportion of church leaders. We need both. How do we persuade our communities to get the full coverage? Oliver Cromwell wanted his son to be taught a little history. I would argue that he should also be taught about probability. My suggestion is that we encourage both church folk and secular to take more account of uncertainty in their lives and to apply that knowledge to the process of making decisions. The sharp divide between wisdom and science is dissolved on the issue of making decisions. Studying decision making in the context of uncertainty not only will help individuals bring wisdom into their personal lives but also give understanding into community decisions. Historical resources will become richer and, perhaps paradoxically, greater confidence will gained in our spiritual understandings. One by- product of such studies will be the realisation of how our western civilisation is dominated by accumulated wealth allowing rich people to take risks that less wealthy people would not consider. The idolatry resulting from putting wealth before God’s priorities must be a factor in the decline of interest in God’s economy. When the culture collapses as Sam Norton has predicted wealth will be scarce and wisdom will be in short supply.
Sam Norton’s book is a good read, has admirable objectives and is written with conviction. I do not like his ambivalence to science, taking the products but distrusting the method, but perhaps I can learn to live with that. We need to find a way of bringing together all those isolated folk he highlights in his Conclusion and rebuild the Body of Christ as a unity where the loss of any one is a loss to the whole.