Happy Birthday, Erasmus! You’re 550!

I could say with Roland Bainton:

I have long been drawn to Erasmus on a number of counts. I share his aversion to contention, his abhorrence of war, his wistful skepticism with respect to that which transcends the verifiable; at the same time I am warmed by the glow of his piety… I relish his whimsicality and satire. I endorse his conviction that language is still the best medium for the transmission of thought, language not merely read but heard with cadence and rhythm as well as clarity and precision.

Like generations of schoolboys, I first met Erasmus in Latin class (reading “The Shipwreck”), where I was delighted with a living Latin, as conversation and repartee.   Who was this guy? I soon found that he was more than a schoolmaster — as I was coming to terms with the draft, he was the first person to speak to me in spiritual terms about war, and helped me see that war among other things is a symptom, and part of a larger system of interests, motives, and values.  It sharpened my ear for the 20th century voices that were telling the same story about my times, my world.

It took a few years more for me to hear what Erasmus had to say to me about the gospel.  By then I’d found Friends, and was reading Fox and Woolman and other guides to that path.   The battles that Erasmus fought for freedom of conscience, and (beneath all his passionate erudition) a “philosophy of Christ” that transcended party and forms, in a time of sectarian conflict, helped me think about ecumenism (Quaker and beyond).  I was moved and inspired by his committed if sometimes petulant moderation, and his willingness not to know, not to rush to certainty.  I came to treasure and learn from his trust in the divine wisdom, and in the knowledge that those who in some measure incarnate that living Wisdom will surely appear foolish and weak in the eyes of most people.

All this has been put in the past tense– but I keep learning from Erasmus, and from the many others who learn from him, and are stimulated by his example and his writings to look on their own times, tasks, and lives with fresh eyes.

On the occasion of his birthday, I re-read the “Paraclesis,” the introduction to his epochal edition of the Greek New Testament.   Here is a snippet that I love, in which he invites the reader to learn the “philosophy of Christ” (I slightly modify John Olin’s translation). There is much Erasmus in this!

The journey is simple, and it is accessible for anyone….Only be teachable, and you have advanced far in this philosophy. It itself supplies inspiration, as a teacher which communicates itself to no one more gladly than to minds that are without guile. This doctrine in an equal degree accommodates itself to all, lowers itself to the little ones, adjusts itself to their measure, nourishing them with milk, bearing, fostering, sustaining them, doing everything until we grow in Christ. Again, not only does it serve the lowliest, but it is also an object of wonder to those at the top. The sun itself is not as common and accessible to all as is Christ’s teaching.

Teaching our children about climate change, Pt2: Why climate change is hard

Climate change is hard to learn, and therefore hard to teach. It’s useful to know some of the main barriers to understanding that have been documented in research on climate change attitudes in the US over the pat 15 years or so (and I am focusing on the United States here). These barriers have been remarkably durable, so anyone seeking to educate about the issue should consider them as they think about how to go about it.

  1.  Information is not enough. This is the most important thing to remember.  Attitudes and beliefs, and even more so behaviors, are little affected by knowledge.  The world has been awash with effective, compelling presentations of climate change science for years, but public attitudes have changed very slowly indeed. Personal engagement together with good information is the way to go — and talking with others is critical as a way to help people make sense of the confusing new world whose threshold we are crossing.
  2.   Some other time, some other place. Data suggest that a majority of Americans see climate change having its effects in the future, 10 or more years away, and on people in developing countries.
  3. Climate vs weather, and personal experience.    Many studies have shown that people’s feeling about trends in climate are very much influenced by recent personal experience.  To take an example from my own work:  When we asked students in several Massachusetts schools if they thought the climate was changing, the majority said Yes. When they were asked how it was changing, the majority said it was getting colder and snowier — this in the wake of some unusually tough winters.  Anomalous weather events such as record heat, mega-storms, or unusually intense rainstorms, have some impact on people’s perceptions—but only temporarily
  4. The unseen world around us. The majority of people have little knowledge of their landscape and its behaviors, much less the organisms that live upon it.  Aside from major holidays, we tend not to be aware of seasonal rhythms — and therefore are not attuned to subtle changes that are happening.  The more acquainted people are with nature around them — their personal landscape — the more they are likely to notice trends, and care about them.
  5. Abstractness and complexity. The climate system is complicated.  While scientists are pretty certain about the major points (the greenhouse effect, the causes of especially rapid Arctic warming, the increase of water vapor in the atmosphere as the climate warms), there are many things yet to understand.  Currently, for example, there is active debate about whether and how Arctic warming is changing the behavior of the jet streams, on which a lot of our weather “rides”.  Another big question is, Are the massive deposits of sea-floor methane ice about to melt and release vast amounts of heat-trapping methane gas?  And of course there are many lively debates about different ways to reduce greenhouse gasses, and how quickly this can and must be done
    Such questions matter a lot, but they often turn upon scientific or engineering questions that most of us don’t understand very well.  In any case, the most important climate science rests upon well-known physics and chemistry, much of it dating back decades or even a century or more.
  6. Regional and local responses less well understood. Our lives are affected by local weather, by the trees and organisms around us, by the farms and watersheds we depend upon for nourishment and refreshment.  How they will respond (are responding!) to the “new normal” of 21st century climate is still largely unknown.  One hunch is that, just as climate warming started slow and is now speeding up, so also changes in the forests, fields, and waters of your neighborhood have been going on, slowly and mostly unseen, for decades now — but things will start speeding up.
  7. Finally, people’s beliefs about other things affect their attitudes about climate change.  People don’t want to hear bad news, of course.  People want to trust the authorities they respect, and be in harmony with their friends and neighbors.  According to good research, people mostly don’t understand, for example, that the vast majority of climate scientists accept the facts of human-caused climate change (and are worried about it)<  When they are given evidence that this is the case, however, they tend to be open to changing their own beliefs.
    Another study has shown that in good economic times, people are  more willing to acknowledge the facts about climate change;  in tougher time, they tend to turn away from the science, under the weight of more pressing personal concerns.
    Moreover, the majority of people don’t talk to anyone else about climate change more than a few times a year at most.  So in many settings in which we live our lives, we and our friends, family, colleagues, neighbors “manufacture silence,”  so that the scary and complicated issues can be ignored for a while longer, and hard choices can be avoided.

In the next few posts, as I turn to climate change education for different age groups, you will see that this list of barriers is not a curriculum for children.  Good teaching is informed by this kind of information — but the child’s experience must be on a very different level.

One last note:  I have not written about the psychological/emotional/spiritual costs of climate change. These are very real, and pervasive, and they should also shape how we work with children (or others).  Aldo Leopold said it powerfully, in words that I often quote because they reflect my own experience over many years:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

We will come back to this dimension of climate change education in a later post.

“Wisdom! cries the dawn deacon”: listening in a different key

Dear Friends
Once again, I am delaying Part 2 of “Teaching our children about climate change” because something has arisen with some urgency in my mind. The next Climate Change post will be coming tomorrow! I think, however, that this post is closely akin to the climate theme, so I merely explain, not apologize!

I have long meditated on the following passage from Isaac Penington, in which he talks about why Friends refer to the liberating Spirit of Christ as “light”:

we call him light, because the Father of lights hath peculiarly chosen this name for him, to make him known to his people in this age by, and hath thus made him manifest to us. And by thus receiving him under this name, we come to know his other names. He is the life, the righteousness, the power, the wisdom, the peace, &c., but he is all these in the light, and in the light we learn and receive them all; and they are none of them to be known in spirit, but in and by the light. Pennington Works 1: 124

Reflecting on this passage, I have been led to raise the following question:
The experience of Light is central to our spirit language, and we know that the life that is in Christ is the light of the world.But is there another manifestation of that life for our time, which is being offered to us, in the needs and troubles of our times, for insight, for comfort, for challenge, for nourishment? Not to replace “light” but something that might be particularly important and tuned to our condition now?

This is not a matter of just finding an additional ‘metaphor’ for talking about or thinking about the divine life at work. It is, rather, enriching what we listen for, where and how we listen for it, as we seek to know and (in our measure) incarnate the life of God.

What kind of thing am I looking for? Well:  “Light” is something that we have a visceral, personal, sensual experience of, and connects effortlessly and naturally with experiences like heat, fire, vision, color, clarity, and so on. Drawing power from this experiential root, “light” is also expressive of many kinds of spiritual and emotional conditions. Finally, quite aside from other cultural and historical associations, “light” is associated with the Divine Life, and with the person and work of Christ, throughout Scripture. Friends first called themselves the “Children of the Light.” What else has comparable resonances?

In pondering this, I have been led to meditate on Sophia, the Wisdom of God.

Learning from Sophia

from Proverbs:

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.
23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth;
26 before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men.
32 And now, my sons, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.
33 Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.
34 Happy is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.
35 For he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD;
36 but he who misses me injures himself; all who hate me love death.

Sophia. permeating the whole of creation, the delight of God, the comforter and companion of humanity, sounds a lot like Logos, the sense at the heart of the world. Indeed, it feels even more closely aligned with Christ as I have come to understand him, from the gospels, from Paul (that indispensable, irritating, mystical brother), from my own measure of experience, from you — from everything! It connects directly with the visceral, primeval experience of joy, such as children and aging children can feel in nature (and in some art): God’s creation still abounding, still at work in and through everything, delighting in us and in all. Thus it is a way to relate God’s many channels of revelation — nature (Creation), science, tradition, Scripture, personal experience— each enriching and hallowing the others.
Sophia has been often been used as a way to speak about the feminine “principle” in God, and that is an important viewpoint, because it allows many personal, human resonances. In addition, however, one can also feel Sophia/Wisdom in un-personated terms, as God’s active, energetic, creative, loving, yearning presence in His creation (including us) — God’s eros.

What are some of the lessons of Sophia that seem important for our present time?
• God loves diversity, This the astonishing, delightful, overwhelming message of life and the universe. God’s unity, embodied in Sophia, pervades and is expressed in this diversity. We love diversity, texture, novelty– this is the ground inside our love of the new and different.
• God loves growth and transformation;
• God sets us among the creatures, the earth, the seas, and the heavens, and it is in that system that our growth and transformation happens, including our spiritual growth. If we were not in this body, in this system, we could not grow towards the Light, nurtured and accompanied by (as Friends used to say) “adorable wisdom”;
• God loves the little things: Among all the great and astounding and heart-piercing things in this world, there are also as many or more small, simple, transitory creatures, objects, and events, and just as God is present in fullness no matter how small may seem his manifestation to us, so also the loving, appreciative wisdom of God is found in the mean and low as well as the high and impressive — and most of the essential processes of life are rooted in the little, the humdrum, the quickly ending things.
• God’s delight is in service and creation, and so Sophia is to be found at work there. This is the power of the Gardener of Eden, not the Commander of Hosts; Wisdom and Christ both teach us that this is where God’s heart resides.
• Transformation may require a loss, a dissolution of beloved forms, and the experience of crucifixion is part of the experience of transfiguration.
• Sophia teaches us about the play of creation.
The more I meditate on these things, the more challenging, scary, and exhilarating they seem. I exult at the realization that this is really the same message that the prophets taught, that the Light has taught, that the apostles of truth-force, and the eightfold path, have taught. I can see how the wisdom of God is indeed folly to the world, though it is the substance of the world as we know it — but not as humans want to see it. And Christians are called, like Jesus, to be fools in the world’s eyes, loving creation, loving diversity, loving the little things, loving service, called to accept the messages of Wisdom (which so much of our culture is designed to deny), and to walk more and more in the perfect freedom of the Light.  In that wisdom, this vision of the divine is understandable, and even unbearably sweet:

A vagrant, a destitute wanderer with dusty feet, finds his way down a new road. A homeless God, lost in the night, without papers, without identification, without even a number, a frail expendable exile lies down in desolation under the sweet stars of the world and entrusts Himself to sleep. (Merton, Hagia Sophia)

Teaching our children about climate change: Pt 1, Appendix– a climate science primer


Before I get on with the main focus of this series of posts,  I thought maybe it might be helpful to some readers if I set the stage with a short overview of what climate science is telling us.  I know this is partial!  It is meant to just help someone get oriented, and suggest where to go next. There are many excellent books and websites that provide information on the nature of human-induced climate change. At the end of this appendix, I list a few, with comments about each.  Add
1. Already by the 1890s, scientists had understood the physical mechanisms by which an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would lead to climatic warming. The “insulating” effects of the small amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere are what keeps the earth’s climate hospitable for life as we know it. A surprisingly small increase, however, significantly slows earth’s loss of heat, so that the average temperature rises. The earth’s geography and its dynamic nature mean that this average temperature will be reflected in complicated ways, both directly and indirectly. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, which is also the beginning of significant and sustained use of fossil fuels, CO2 constituted about 280 parts per million (ppm) of the atmosphere. The present levels are just over 400 ppm.
2. There is a time-lag in the effects that come from thickening the atmospheric “blanket” with more CO2. The global temperature has risen perhaps as much as 1.3°C (2.3°F) above “pre-industrial levels” so far. (Note that the recent Paris Climate accord committed to limiting this increase to 1.5°C in order to avoid the worst predicted effects.)There have been exponential increases in CO2 emissions since that time, and because of the time-lag, we are therefore already committed to at least 1-2 degrees’ more warming, even if we ceased all CO2 emissions right now. It is very likely, given the slow pace of political and economic action, that we cannot avoid reaching 450 ppm, or even higher. This might commit us to an increase of at least 6° F (3° C) by the end of this century; the difference between our current climate and the last glacial period is about 9°F.
3. The 11 months ending August 2016 were each the hottest in the temperature record, and July 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded (not just the hottest July), and 2016 will be the hottest year. Over the last several decades, each 10 year period has been hotter than any decade in the prior weather record. The 1980s were hotter than the 1970s; the 1990s were hotter than the 1980s; the decade from 2000-2009 was hotter still. The current decade will be the hottest so far.
3. Because of how the weather system distributes heat, the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else. While New England has warmed about 2°F in the past 40 years, the Arctic has warmed 8-10°F. Summer sea-ice in the Arctic is shrinking at a dramatic rate. As the ice has melted, the ground and sea, darker than ice, have absorbed more heat, thus speeding the melt. The melting permafrost has started releasing its vast reserves of frozen plant matter as CO2 and methane, another very powerful greenhouse gas. This is speeding the warming. If we do not dramatically decrease human-caused CO2 emissions, the natural emissions from these and other sources will soon increase so swiftly that they will become the most important factor in the CO2 imbalance, and human activity will not be able to prevent the earth’s tipping into a new, stable operating condition, dramatically warmer than anything humans have ever had to deal with.
4. Ocean levels are rising at increasingly rapid rates as the water warms, and as ice-caps melt (the West Antarctic ice-sheet has entered an irreversible melt, and Greenland is shedding hundreds of cubic kilometers of ice a year). The seas are absorbing CO2 and becoming more acidic at a rate that is astonishing researchers. Plants and animals are changing their ranges, or altering behavior, or going extinct, depending on conditions where they are, and their own physical constraints. Deserts are spreading in Africa and Asia. The great ice cap of central Asia is melting fast; this is serious because it supplies the Ganges and many other major rivers supplying water to China and south Asia. Similar effects on ice-fed watersheds are being felt already in South America and elsewhere.
5. Weather patterns are becoming more variable, with dry places mostly getting drier, and moist places (with important exceptions like Amazonia) getting wetter. Both precipitation events and droughts are becoming more extreme. Indeed, increased variability is a central expected outcome of global “warming,” because the increasing heat intensifies important weather processes like evaporation and cyclone formation. This is why the New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, no radical, likes to refer to “global weirding” instead of “global warming.”
6. There is increasing evidence from around the world about climate change impacts on organisms and ecosystems— species moving their ranges (where the human-altered landscape permits), becoming more or less abundant, evolving in response to the climate signal, changing their seasonal behavior (sometimes getting out of synch with other species they interact with)… the list goes on and on.  Since we have such an inadequate  understanding our fantastically complex and diverse biosphere, we are encountering many surprises and new puzzles.

7. While the most important variable under human control is CO2 emissions from carbon combustion and deforestation, there is at present no evidence that humans are responding at the necessary speed and scale to prevent dramatic and indeed catastrophic changes in our climate which will last for at least a thousand years, affecting food supplies, biological diversity, and many other “ecosystem functions” which we take for granted and which are essential to our human systems. The best scientific analysis suggests that the worst case can still be avoided, if we take concerted action within the next 5-10 years. Energy conservation is a top priority (lowering the use), as is total and prompt conversation from fossil fuels to non-emitting sources of electricity. Social change is required both to take these and other radical steps — and social and spiritual work will be required within all communities to adapt constructively and justly to the hotter, stormier and more uncertain world that is now emerging.

For further reading
Here are three blogs which are good sources of reliable information, and also serve as gateways to many other sources of information, both more technical and less. There is a lot of good science writing in the blogosphere; as with other subjects, of course, there is also a lot that is less good. Start here, and follow their links.
Skeptical science. Provides excellent scientific explanations, and up-to-date science news. Provides a very accessible and reliable discussion of “most used climate myths.”
Climate Progress. This is run by Joe Romm, a physicist with a long career in energy policy. Lots of current science news, and Romm and guest bloggers analyze new research findings as well as policy proposals, climate politics, and many other related topics.
The Guardian newspaper has a strong climate change section, including a regular blog by Dana Nuccitelli, who also blogs for Skeptical Science.
Also check out Biosphere and Climate, a website that focuses on the biosphere’s reaction to climate change in New England, with links to many other resources and organizations.
Again, the number of powerful and useful new books on different aspects of climate change is exploding. Here are some to get started.
Climate Central (2012) Global Weirdness: Severe Storms, Deadly Heat Waves, Relentless Drought, Rising Seas and the Weather of the Future. This new book is an excellent, step-by-step primer on the basic science and some of the possible solutions for climate change.
Hanson, James (2010) Storms of my grandchildren. Hanson was the first prominent climate scientist to sound the alarm about the reality of climate change. Very solid science, and interesting if controversial suggestions for policies that can minimize the potential harm of climate change.
Kolbert, Elizabeth (2006) Field notes from a catastrophe. Lucid, challenging, and engaging science writing about the science and impacts of climate change. Originally a series for the New Yorker. Though 10 years old, still a great introduction.
Macy, Joanna and Chris Johnstone (2012) Active hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy. Not about science, but about coping. A powerful guide for engaging with “the Work That Reconnects” : Coming from gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth. Very much in harmony with the spirit of my own concern. Draws on the authors’ years of “despair work” and other faces of the spirituality of healing wounded spirits.
McKibbin, Bill (2010) Eaarth: Making a life on a tough new planet. Speaks in concrete and passionate terms about our present situation, and the challenge of responding constructively to the changes that are our present and future reality.
Pope Francis (2015) Laudato Si’: On care for our common home. This encyclical is available in a lot of editions. You may not be interested in Catholic teaching but this is one of the best attempts to explicate the interweaving of morality, science, economics, and social justice. Thought provoking.
Seidl, Amy (2009) Early Spring. A moving and well-informed exploration by an ecologist living in Vermont of the way that climate change affects the life and culture of New England.
Seidel, Amy (2011) Finding Higher Ground. Another lucid book from Amy Seidl, this time on how human and non-human organisms can adapt to the new world that is taking shape.