Listen To Article
A response to Syd Hielema’s The Church of Jesus in 2047: Life After the Decade from Hell, posted on the Reformed Journal on December 12.
My friend doesn’t like me telling this story, but my post is going to provoke people, so I might as well get started.
My botanist friend has the soul and demeanor of a quiet servant-leader. I admire him and his wisdom. Despite pain of age and injury, he makes a habit of pulling up noxious invasive plants. Wherever he goes, he trails dry corpses of spotted knapweed, garlic mustard, purple loosestrife and the like, roots shaken free of nourishing soil and left on hard surfaces to dry and die in the sun. He knows as well as anybody that one person’s effort is vanishingly trivial in the face of the ubiquity and damage done by just these three examples.
I asked him one time whether his habit was an expression of hope and I assumed, seeking affirmation I suppose, that I knew what his answer would be. But he surprised me. “I’m not sure there’s much to be hopeful about. It’s faithfulness, I guess.”
I return to that moment again and again.
At the outset, I admire that Syd Hielema shouldered the challenge of imaging the church 25 years hence. He’s leading with his chin by necessity, speculating on an uncertain future where the politically fraught topics of religion and climate chaos converge.
Syd imagines “a decade from hell” wherein he ticks off chaoses that one would read from an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) summary: weather instabilities, disease, water scarcity, break-down in civil society. And three billion fewer people (a 38% decline!!) from “disasters, wars, pandemics, hunger, disaster-evoked diseases, and mental health related causes.” We toss around numbers in these discussions, but we should resist the tendency to let big numbers slide into benign abstraction.
I’ve been re-reading Syd’s essay and letting it marinate in my own prejudices and anxieties and I am left with two related impressions.
The first is the “decade of hell” itself. It’s only a decade. Syd imagines that emergent from the climate chaos some happy combination of United Nations’ leadership, new technology, and miraculous enlightenment among rogue states and near-failed governments will combine to recreate a new (presumably stable and sustainable) world.
Apologies to Syd, but this feels to me like a rhetorical flourish employed to wipe away the magnitude of a looming climate crisis so that he can get to a certain vision of the church in 2047. He imagines that by 2047, Iowa farmland will feed ten times as many people with diversified crops and plant-based meat. I think that’s unlikely.
IPCC science aggregators project that our climate will continue to warm through the end of the century, even under optimistic assumptions – taking us into global temperatures and effects that no civilization has experienced. This will drive profound changes in weather, water cycling, vegetation patterns and ecosystem dynamics. Millions, maybe billions of climate refugees will struggle for food and water and compassion.
Even if we find the will to end fossil fuel emissions tomorrow, we will not turn this battleship around in the space of a decade. The church of 2047 will not be enjoying the recovery. It will be in the thick of the battle.
The second is the framing of privilege that the vision inhabits. The essay’s archetype church-members (Alejandro and Jolene) enjoy the privilege of extended family, social networks (implying a certain social stability), living in a climate refuge (Great Lakes region), and a private Toyota in which to deliver their casserole (food security, plant-based meat?). They are educated and meet with a sister congregation using their large-screened TV (wealth and reliable power on both ends). And in the aftermath, they enjoy a faith that is “winsome” and “playful” — evidently unburdened by humanitarian disaster, ecosystem breakdown, and the pain of creaturely extinction.
Syd imagines that some new scientific discovery will be the wonder-provoking tipping-point that “unlocked secrets of the universe that displayed its inter-creaturely reciprocity in ways that evoked awe, wonder, mystery, and praise.” And that this becomes some sort of a catalyst for change.
The biologist/creek wading/prairie wandering/oak conversing/deer nerd in me wonders “Really? We don’t already have access to enough wonder to move our souls?” That’s not a problem of science. That’s a failure to look.
But this, to me, seems like the key failure of imagination we wealthy western Christian types cannot overcome. We can’t imagine a future apart from the privileges we have enjoyed in the past century or so. Consequently, we consider the climate crisis with the implied hope that we will navigate the chaos and come out minorly affected on the other end.
There are things about the essay that I like and think are vital. The first is the dying of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). Good. Drive a stake through its heart and bury it deep. Salt the earth over it. If you need help, you know where to find me.
Another is the recognition of the importance of connection — to creation, to each other (same thing really) and the wisdom on this point that we find outside of Western Christianity (Yay, Kimmerer!). Syd and Wes Granberg-Michaelson (in his commentary) both envision a 2047 church that is more ecumenical, less interested in dogma and structure, eagerly leaning into experience and communion (in all dimensions).
I’ll largely leave imaging the fine details of the church in 2047 to experts like Syd and Wes except to say that I live among the “nones” and soon to be “nones” with one foot here a cosmopolitan secular university and another in the universe of environmental seekers sourced from conservative Christian schools at the Au Sable institute. Those two pools of students are more alike than you might imagine, and their defining feature is their finely tuned bullsh*t detectors. They are not areligious or nonspiritual. They are leaving the Western church to the degree to which it is making itself irrelevant to the challenges they face, the climate crisis chief among them.
But they also carry the latent seeds of Christianity’s next (and overdue) reformation.
Hope is not cheap. Indeed, seems to me, the cheap hope that we piously pass to one another is an emergent property of the MTD that Syd buries in his essay.
Hope for a vibrant church in 2047 will depend on the groundwork laid by mature Christians right now. Hope is hammered out in dogged stubborn blows on an anvil of faithfulness. Hope isn’t hope until it wrestles with the realities and continues anyway. If you want those nones back, show them that you care for their future.
If a meaningful North American Christianity still exists in 2047 it will because the church has stripped itself of the trappings of empire and stood naked in the mirror – free of colonizer presumption, free of the privilege of wealth and convenience; free from bonds of patriarchy, white supremacy, and exclusion woven into the Western intellectual tradition; free from the deep soul-loneliness it created for itself when it stood apart from the rest of creation.
In the mirror, it will re-find the elemental: Love of the divine, love of humanity, love of creation.
Aldo Leopold, the secular saint of conservation famously said that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
Humanity in 2022 is beginning its ecological education as a crash course and the church in 2047 will exist in a deeply wounded world. Its role will be to be a guide, to help humanity navigate the loneliness and restore connection.
My thanks to Syd for sticking his neck out with the initial essay. I’ve now given up a significant part of my advent and my end-of-semester productivity brooding over this stuff and I hate it.
Every time I sit at my keyboard to write about climate, I want to be wrong. I have kids. I am deeply invested in the lives of wonderful young people.
You will read this on the 22nd of December, the day after winter solstice, when the light begins to return in reality and in our Christian tradition. That seems significant somehow.