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Quaker Theology #13 Winter 2007

Melting icebergs Don’t Scream: A Response to
Keith Helmuth’s: "The Angel of History, the Storm of Progress,
And the Order of the Soul"

By Chuck Fager

In Quaker Theology #12, we published an essay by Keith Helmuth, which offered a theological interpretation of our environmental plight, its associated crises and very uncertain outlook. Your editor praised the piece highly, as offering a superior quality of analysis and articulation of this very difficult situation.

We stand by that praise; but high regard for the essay and its author does not mean we are without comments and even criticism of his thesis and arguments. Such a critical commentary is offered below, in hopes of advancing the conversation, and perhaps broadening its scope. Too much is at stake for even the best reflections on our very grave situation to pass unexamined.

We’ll begin with a summary: Keith Helmuth (hereafter KH for short) argues that at the root of our environmental and related social crises is a "story," an image of how life and the world works which is at the heart of European (and Islamic) history and culture. In his words,

We are here dealing with one of the master narratives of the Western tradition – the story of the "will of God."

And where does this "master narrative" come from? KH finds it in the Bible:

If we turn to the Hebrew scripture and the story of the Israelites’ invasion of Canaan, we can see very clearly where it comes from, and how it began the journey which led it to become one of the master narratives of Western civilization.

Following a model set out by theologian Gordon Kaufman, KH traces this narrative to the monotheistic impulses that the Israelites brought from Egypt to their conquest of Canaan. The struggle for conquest was at once political, social, and religious – and it reached a climax in the story of Elijah’s battle with the priests of the rival local gods known as Baalim, as recounted in First Kings 18. In this confrontation, Elijah (with God’s help) first discredits the rituals of the priests of the Baalim, then orders all these priests (450 in the story) massacred as a way of establishing his god’s supremacy.

The significance of this story, according to Kaufman and KH, is that

Moral will, as personified in and derived from Yahweh, came to be seen as the only significant metaphysical reality. The powers and processes of earth that were symbolized in the god Baal, and in a variety of other local deities, came to be seen as without any significant metaphysical reality. Guidance became located within a structure of stories about the will of a supreme god, and human agency on behalf of this will became one of the master narratives that gave Western civilization its distinct character, motivation, and energy.

This "master narrative" not only explains, it also justifies and essentially drives the forces behind much of the world’s key conflicts:

From that time on in Hebrew culture, and eventually in Christian and Islamic cultures, all the models of metaphysical understanding and religious behavior are framed within the supremacy of personal moral will. From the stories of Yahweh and his intervening behavior on behalf of his devotees, through the religious warrant under which Christian Europe carried out its modern global colonization project, the imposition of personal moral will over all other sources of power, and over earth processes in general, has been the main story line of the Western tradition . . . . This is, essentially, a family fight – the worst kind – over resources, territorial dominance, and cultural influence. This situation comes right out of the victory of Israel over Canaan and the world view that was carried into the sibling civilizations of Christendom and Islam.

KH is not moved by those who insist that the fundamentalists who destroy in the name of God have perverted this tradition:

We can object as much as we want, we can tell the fundamentalists they have it all wrong about the will of God, but logically it won’t wash. Their case is perfectly consistent with the deepest roots of the tradition. Violence, war, and even genocide are incidental matters within the scope of this history.

The destructive effects of this "master narrative" are cumulative, and have accelerated since the 16th century, when the "storm of progress" that is industrialism and modernity began. They are now close to the point of no return, pushing our worldwide social order to the brink of collapse.

One response to this looming catastrophe could be fatalistic paralysis; but KH counsels against that. Instead, he urges friends to recognize and join a transitional process of replacing this old "master narrative" or story with a new (or renewed) story, one with roots in the nature-centered religions of the baalim that lost the struggle with Elijah.

It is not, strictly speaking, a new story. For a very long time the so-called, non-historic indigenous peoples of the world have been telling metaphysical stories about the powers and process of earth, and about the human-earth relationship, based on the experience, understanding and practice of reciprocity. This world view, once condemned by monotheism as superstition, can now be understood in scientific terms as a reasonable representation of the reality of earth process. . . .

My sense of the transition in which we are engaged involves a move from the old worldview based on the metaphysical supremacy of personal moral will, and the endless theological struggle to rearrange this heritage in a credible way, to an ecological world view in which emergence, presence, interdependence, reciprocity and learning guide and inform both the human-earth relationship and human relationships in general . . . .

I previously suggested that we are likely in a time of transition comparable to the one early Friends engaged when they moved the focus of spiritual life from a concern for personal security after death to a concern for communal learning in the present. That shift has given Quakerism its distinct character and has been the foundation of its efficacy in human betterment work . . . .

This leads KH to his "punch line" so to speak, a revised list of testimonies to guide Friends’ thought and work in this grand process of change.

Friends’ testimonies codify this heritage of learning and, I believe, provide a context for understanding and implementing the transition for which we now must work . . . .

As I have lived with, studied, and pondered Friends testimonies, I have often found them naturally translating into the language of ecological consciousness . . . . The outline that follows is the result. I hope this final probe will turn into an agenda of faith, supporting both good work and spiritual survival.

. . . .To the usual five testimonies – simplicity, peace, equality, integrity, and community – I have taken the liberty of adding a sixth – service.

His revised list, in sum is a set of pairs, with an "old" testimony matched with or supplemented by a "new"one:

Simplicity – Localization
Peace – Mutually Enhancing Human-Earth Relationship
Equality –Ecological Footprint
Integrity –Ecological Sound Adaptation
Community – Social Ecology
Service – Stewardship

KH concludes with a high estimate of the stakes:

Our religious life, our spiritual survival, and the fate of the human, now hang on our engagement with this encompassing task . . . . We are, perhaps, in a situation that both mirrors and reverses the experience of ancient Israel. We are looking again into the land of Canaan, the landscape of earth’s biotic integrity. A new sense of the Divine is emerging that will enable us to become useful and contributing citizens within the whole community of life in this land, rather than invaders, displacers, exploiters, and destroyers, as in the past.

A Critical response:

There is much insight and food for thought in this presentation, and it is well worth reading. Yet as I pondered it, doubts soon emerged about a number of its key points, which I want to lay out here under three headings.

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