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 layout here under three headings.

Master Narratives?

First, about the “master narrative” notion. Count me as a skeptic about the 18th chapter of first Kings providing the key to all of Western and Middle Eastern history.

Having read several thousand pages of theologies over the past couple years, I am very familiar with these thinkers’ ability to find a key idea, motif, passage or image that is presented as if it explains everything, and just happens to fit their particular agendas. Whether it be the “canon within the canon,” or the “kerygma” (the “preached message”), a central “doctrine” (“By grace are ye saved through faith”), or the cornerstone of popery (“Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”) etc. Quakers are not exempt from this practice: (“I have called you Friends.”)

To be sure, I affirm the influence of biblical ideas and images on Western history: from “Let women be silent in the churches,” to “Let everyone be subject to the powers that be,” and many more, one can find biblical thumbprints, often bloody, all over our past and present.

But the very profusion of these thumbprints makes me skeptical about picking out one that is central to all of it. Certainly the ideas of obliterating false gods and their followers is prominent among them; but whether Elijah is the formative example of this is quite arguable, as is the notion that such an impulse can account for, say, destruction of the rain forests.

So on the one hand, I fear that KH’s Elijah-centered “master narrative” notion explains too much. And on the other hand, I suggest it explains too little.

Why? Because, to take the most important contrary example, the world’s largest nation, which has become second to none in the rapacity of its environmental despoliation, is China. And whatever else one can say about China, one cannot plausibly claim its “master narrative” derives from the scriptures of Judaism. China is proof that all the terrible things KH points to can be produced outside his chosen story, and in more or less complete ignorance thereof.

Thus, while not dismissing the “God’s will” theme, in my own reflection it slides back onto a shelf with a number of other biblical motifs and images, which I believe deserve more prominence in an effort to understand our plight, and to descry useful Quaker responses.

Principalities At War

Among these other motifs is one whose complete absence from KH’s essay is surprising: that of “principalities and powers.” This idea, expressed most specifically by Paul, but integral to other texts such as Daniel and much of the gospels, suggests that visible grous and institutions can be influenced and even controlled by invisible, “supernatural” forces or beings, which have their own, usually malign, intentions.

This notion can be translated into secular language in two ways. The first involves an image, of the playground merry-go-rounds that many of us remember from childhood. If several kids grab and push on its bars, it begins to turn faster and faster, developing enough momentum that one can jump on and ride it. In sociological terms, this image can also be applied to social, economic and political institutions: they too are “pushed” by many “hands,” and likewise develop a momentum that can become awesome to behold, and very difficult to slow.

The prime example of this “power and principality” in our time is the one Dwight Eisenhower warned us about almost fifty years ago: the “military-industrial complex.” Today, it would be better identified as the “military-industrial-congressional-university-think-tank-media-religious complex”: the “hands” of all these sub-powers push on it endlessly, increase its momentum and make it ever more self-sustaining; they ride on it as well. Its impact has accordingly become pervasive, reaching into every state and every sizeable city. This “complex” is truly a vast “power and principality” whose grip on our society is so total as to be almost invisible.

Indeed, if we must have a biblical “master narrative” in which to frame discussion of the environmental crises we face, I suggest we will do better to move from Elijah and First Kings to the Book of Revelation, especially Chapter 13, in which the great Beast trains a subject population to worship an infernal Dragon. That story, I submit, illuminates our plight better, at least in the U.S.

It is the near invisibility of the “Beast” that is the war machine in discussions of the environment, including that of KH, which troubles me. There are many reasons why it troubles me, and here is one: if our concern is with environmental degradation, and energy consumption, how can we discuss this without noting that the US war machine is by far the largest consumer of energy in our society, and the world? It buys and uses more oil than anyone else, and that’s just for starters. (A good summary is here: And, of course, it is this war machine that is principally engaged in violently maintaining a stranglehold on the major sources of its fuels. The fact that it is currently failing in that task does not make the effort any less destructive.

Another reason its absence troubles me is because whenever I try to find my way conceptually from where we are to where KH would like us to be, on every path toward the Grand Greenway I find a Humvee, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, or a stealth bomber blocking the way.

So in my view KH’s notion of a “master narrative” needs work, both to explain such areas of the world (e.g., China) which are outside its purview, and to deal with the presence and impact of the war machine at its center.

This image of the Greenway blocked by an armored vehicle, is what I would offer as a more useful frame. At least, it is for me. Until we get around that archetypal Humvee – or to mix the metaphor, until we figure out how to slow the careening, deathly cycle of the energy-gulping war machine merry-go-round on which we’re all trapped, the discussions seem to me superficial and self-marginalizing.

Testifying About Testimonies

I’m afraid this sense was reinforced by the list of testimonies which capped the essay. My uneasiness here has a double aspect, both theological-historical and practical.

On the theological-historical side, KH speaks of the “usual five testimonies” which my home Meeting has put on a tee shirt under the acronym “SPICE: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality. He also says that “Friends’ testimonies codify the spiritual learning that blossomed with such authenticity in the 16th Century, and has continued to shape the values, behavior, and activities of Friends to the present day.”

But is this correct? Consider: while I know the source of the SPICE tee shirt, where did the “usual list” that adorns it come from? KH does not tell us, but the answer is: it is a very recent invention – one could even say it is still being invented.

A great many Friends are almost completely innocent of the history of the Society, and the place of “testimonies” within it. This is unfortunate, because a review of the Indexes of the old Disciplines (a compilation of those through most of nineteenth century, from when they first appeared in print, is online at: ) will show none of these topics listed as such. Indeed, there were no such discrete items as a list of “testimonies,” never mind the neat pentagonal tally.

Does this mean Friends had no “testimonies”? Not at all; but their number, variety, and weight were very different from the “codification” model suggested by KH, echoing the current, and mainly erroneous, conventional wisdom on the topic. (For instance, how many Friends today have recently sat through a sober discussion of the need to avoid smuggling, or dealing in prize goods – both of which were longtime specifics in these venerable documents?)

For that matter, the evolution of such testimonies as there were into the current SPICE list was by no means inevitable, nor is it easy to trace, and it is for sure not universally accepted. In fact, rather than codifying anything, I suggest that the issues of what constitutes a Quaker “testimony,” which items ought to make up their number, and what weight, if any they should carry among us are all wide open today, and in very much of a muddle (as is just about everything else of theological import among us).

Thus, it is legitimate to wonder just what, if anything, Friends are supposed to do with the list of testimonies KH presents. Are they an agenda for us? The basis for a new set of behavioral rules, like the one-time prescriptions about “plain” dress or proscribing music and plays? Proposals for a new set of hortatory minutes, to be haggled over, edited and re-edited, finally adopted and then, like so many others, promptly forgotten? For this list to be useful, I need to hear more from KH about what the point of it all is.

On the practical side, the list as presented also seems to me to display some of the same lacunae as the text from which it emerged: Where is the recognition of the power and principality of the war machine, and its central role in keeping the engine of environmental destruction going? Except for a passing and oblique reference to “work to reduce and eliminate the causes of war” it is entirely absent.

Sorry, but this simply will not do. And I note parenthetially here how rare it is to find any such informed or probing discussion of the central role of militarism and the war machine in discussions about the reality and course of environmental destruction. As time passes, this silence grows louder in my ears, as does my discomfort with the neglect of what I see as the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

Moreover, I can’t help but note that the environmentalist focus is one that does little to take American Friends outside our middle class comfort zone. By contrast, consideration of the 650,000 Iraqis who have died unnecessarily in our current war, or our rulers’ legitimation of torture as state policy leads toward facing distinctly uncomfortable and even painful sets of data. This I know experimentally.

But as the title of this reflection suggests, melting icebergs don’t scream; their breakup even makes for magnificent, National Geographic–style nature videos. To the extent that focusing our attention on the fate of old ice permits us to escape contemplation of the grisly fate of to many humans at the hands of “our” war machine, I say it is a snare and a trap.

Moreover, I contend that an environmental analysis that took the fact of the war power adequately into account would produce a set of “advices” rather different from the list KH offers. There is not space here to lay these out in detail, but here is a preliminary sketch: In the face of being “occupied” by the principalities and powers, the biblical writers called for a course of “spiritual warfare.”

I believe that the call to such struggle is much more true to our condition today than the direction KH proposes. Such spiritual warfare is not only an internal matter, but would entail figuring out how to begin countering, evading and turning back the war machine, in ways that fit our condition and resources. (See my essay, “A Quaker Declaration of War” for more on this.) It would also likely entail some risk sooner or later.

Indeed, it might even require something that is completely unmentioned by KH, namely carrying the cross. One would have thought this motif, and its protagonist, would be somewhere near the center of any “master narrative” drawn at least from the New Testament section of the Bible. But not here.

I don’t consider the alternate line of thought mentioned here as being in contradiction to the thrust of KH’s essay. Dealing with the environment and dealing with the war machine, while seldom mentioned in the same breath, or the same essay, are not unconnected. Thus, while I stand by my overall judgment that the essay by KH makes one of the best presentations of the case for an environmentalist re-orientation of Quakerism, I believe it leaves some of the most crucial issues involved in the matter unaddressed, and all but unspoken. These serious shortcomings call out to be remedied as this discussion continues, if it is to be as productive as our dangerous times demand for it to be.

Leave a comment