14 May 2013

Bishop Kenneth Cragg & Creation Gone Awry

“The Rt Rev Kenneth Cragg” “The Rt Rev Kenneth Cragg” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/9678724/The-Rt-Rev-Kenneth-Cragg.mwo4ml

This past week we humans crossed an ominous threshold. The concentration of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere reached a level considered dangerous only twenty years ago – 400 parts per million. Caleb Sharf, Director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, represents the scientific consensus when stating that this increase in CO2 emissions is man-made:


This is seen most starkly if we take a look at a rather longer timeline – made using ice-core measurements of atmospheric CO2 (since our ancestors weren’t monitoring the atmosphere for us). It begins going uphill just around 1760 – the start of the Industrial Revolution . . . Although CO2 concentrations have been far from stable over the past 800,000 years, they take a sharp upward turn right in line with the rise of industrialized human civilization.”


Still, Sharf continues, you’d have to go back at least 3 million years. Before that, CO2 concentrations were likely 5 to 20 times higher than now. But remember, there were no humans then either! The last million years or so with its low concentrations of CO2 were the ideal window for our species to develop. That’s a bit scary, when you think about it:


The fascinating but rather terrifying thing is that we’ve now gone global, and we’ve learned how to extract vast amounts of energy from our environment, driven by an extraordinary ability to innovate and survive. By doing so we’ve altered that window, significantly changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere. And although I’m not going to discuss it in detail here, simple physics tells us what’s going to happen next . You cannot deny basic thermodynamics.”


Five years in the making, the findings of one particular study  of global temperatures over the last two millennia was released last month. The International Geosphere-Biosphere Program had 87 scientists from 24 countries closely monitored the temperature trends, continent by continent. They discovered that despite regional differences all the factors driving a general cooling suddenly lost their power to cool the Earth around 1900. Why? I quote from my source in the Christian Science Monitor:


“The research wasn't designed to identify the cause of the warming trend, which climate researchers say has been triggered by a buildup of greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide – as humans burned increasing amounts of fossil fuel and altered the landscape in ways that released CO2.

Still, it's hard to explain 20th-century warming without including the influence of rising CO2 levels, because the factors driving the cooling were still present, notes Darrell Kaufman, a researcher at Northern Arizona University and one of the lead authors on the paper formally reporting the results in the journal Nature Geoscience.”


The 400-parts-per-million milestone is, in any case, an ominous one. The New York Times article that day had more details than Sharf’s, and was, as you might expect, more dramatic: “Carbon Dioxide Level Passes Long-Feared Milestone.” It quotes Columbia University Earth scientist Maureen E. Raymo who quipped, “It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster.”

Some of the angst, understandably, comes from the fact that the oceans back in the Pliocene (over 3 million years ago) were 60 to 80 feet higher than today! Most scientists try not to sound too strident, however. Ralph Keeting, who heads up the climate change program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, put it cautiously that day: “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds.”

The point is, humans have put their intelligence and ingenuity to use with great gusto – without expending much wisdom in the process – and are tampering with the intricate ecological balance the Creator himself engineered for his creatures. Human beings, God’s designated representatives of his honor and purposes on Earth, have obviously lost their way. Images of the sorcerer’s apprentice come to mind. As Jeffrey D. Sachs, Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals, puts it, 


“Dangerous changes in climate have already begun. If the world continues on its current trajectory, global temperatures will eventually rise by several degrees centigrade, causing higher sea levels, mega-storms, severe heat waves, massive crop failures, extreme droughts, heavy flooding, and a sharp loss of biodiversity.”


Bishop Kenneth Cragg, who died at age 99 last November, is the theologian and author who first taught me about the trusteeship of creation. I noticed again and again that this theme ran throughout his many books. I really did my best to return the favor in my own book on this topic, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. He then graciously accepted to write a Preface to it.

I fondly remember visiting him in his Oxford apartment in 2008. He insisted (as was his habit) on cooking dinner for me that evening. I came back for what was to be a lovely visit full of stimulating discussion. I noticed as well that his typewriter had a page half typed in it (no computers, please!). “Oh, that’s my latest project,” he said humbly. As it turned out, he had at least eight books published in his nineties!

Christopher Lamb, another Anglican academic, who has written the most about Cragg over the years, fittingly said this about him in his eulogy:


“Kenneth Cragg’s life work was summed up in the title of his best-known book, The Call of the Minaret, first published in 1956 and still in print.  In it he not only opened up for Christians a deeper understanding of the world of Islam, but summoned them to hear the implications of that call for themselves.  In an engagement with Islam extending over 70 years as missionary, scholar, bishop and friend, he earned the respect of Muslims for his knowledge of the Qur’an and the gratitude of Christians for showing how a deep familiarity with things Islamic can go hand in hand with unabashed witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  His conviction was that the logic of all that was true and honourable in Islam should lead Muslims to Christ.”


I have in many places commented on the stunning parallels in Bible and Qur’an on the issue of the human trusteeship, and most recently in a glossy journal issue on religion and ecology published in Qatar by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue. I will only echo three of his points from the Qur’an as I close this blog.

Adam and Eve have just disobeyed God and eaten from the forbidden tree. Both are equally guilty in the Qur’anic narrative. Both are equally forgiven – but both are still expelled from the heavenly garden and sent to earth. As Q. 2:36 puts it, “on earth will be your dwelling place.” Yet before the disobedience story, verse 30 had God announcing to the angels that he was sending Adam on earth as his khalifa – his “caliph,” his representative, his trustee. Cragg, then, is right to connect this mission to “colonize” the earth (literally, in Q. 11:61) with the couple’s mandate to do so as God’s trustees.

The first point Cragg makes is that humans can only fulfill this calling as worshippers of God – his servants (‘abid, plural of ‘abd). So a trustee is first and foremost one who submits to God in reverence and obedience. His imperium, as Cragg has it, or his mandate to rule the Earth (using the gifts God gave him in the first place) should be carried out as an act of worship:

The role of man as khalïfa both validates his empire and expects his empire and expects his hallowing, and both in essential unity. For if he wielded no mastery he could bring no submission. He would have nothing to offer or to consecrate. His very culture and all his works are the substance of his Godward obligation” (The Mind of the Qur’an: Chapters in Reflection, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1973, p. 141).

The second point is that being sent to manage the earth is to fulfill the role of tenants. The Arabic root of the verb ista’mara “combines the same twin ideas of time-occupancy and place tenancy and yields terms for a span of years and for an abode, a dwelling, an establishment . . . Men in this sense are all empire builders, exploiting the occasions of the years and of the lands, and all by the Divine design and leave” (The Privilege of Man: A Theme in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, London: The Athlone Press, 1968, p. 32).

Finally, says Cragg, this temporary residency on earth according to the Qur’an has a built-in accountability factor. Writing this in 1973, there wasn’t the same urgency as now, but God’s judgment is there, waiting in the wings: “Nature offers both delight and duty but only in unison. Economy and ecology, wealth and habitation, are as it were a constant interrogation of his environment by the mind of man. The questioner is himself questioned” (The Mind of the Qur’an, p. 153).

What is clear for us now is that human arrogance, greed and selfishness has brought us to the brink of ecological doom. We are passing on a planet to our children that will be more and more unfit to inhabit. It’s the only one we have.

Next time I will explain, as I’m sure many of you know already, what are some of the steps we can take to mitigate the crisis before us. So far the French and Germans are ahead of the curve. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .