By Derek Olsen
Recently I've found myself caught up in the question: "what is saving what from what for what?" I know—it seems a little strange so allow me to explain where my mind has been wandering."
A story from TheOilDrum has been nagging at my brain for the last few days. It described the steps that one family was taking to meet the perils of peak oil/environmental troubles/social collapse, etc. and included what I consider a "typical" homesteading plan: a passive solar-enabled house with solar panels around, wells, cisterns, several acres under cultivation—you get the picture. Essentially they had created the kind of homesteading setup I used to dream about as a kid flipping through the Back to Basics book. But several things came out in the article and subsequent comments that gave me significant pause.
The couple was childless (by choice). They were isolated. They were heading into their 70's.
Two thoughts popped into my head with these revelations. The first from Ecclesiastes:
Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun. There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail. Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Eccl 4:7-12)
The second thought was: And you consider this sustainable?!
Who will care for them in their old age? What happens when they can no longer maintain a small veggie plot, let alone several acres? If one gets sick, injured, or dies—what then?
Thinking more broadly, the mindset that this couple has embraced strikes me as one rooted deep in the American psyche. It's literally the rugged individual striking out on his own to carve his own destiny by the strength of his hand. The writer prefers the term "self-reliant" and does note a number of things that he can't do on his own—create metal tools, etc.—but at the heart of it lies the notion of the individual.
Looking to my initial rumination, under this paradigm, these individuals are saving themselves (or their immediate family) from just about everything for the sake of themselves.
Again—is this paradigm fundamentally sustainable? I don't think so...
Doesn't this rugged individualist paradigm of survival have strong roots within American expressions of Christianity? I'll say it does!
Thus I'm naturally reminded of Noah for in some sense he's the spiritual father of this model: just God and me (and my household and whatever I can get on my boat). We don’t hear a whole lot about Noah before the flood and that’s a shame because later interpreters therefore have to assess Noah on the basis of no data. All that we’re told is that he was “a just [or righteous (tsadiq)] man; perfect in his generation” (Gen 6:9) and that God tells him “for thee have I seen righteous (tsadiq) before me in this generation” (Gen 7:1). As a result, Jewish and Christian interpreters through the ages have tried to weigh the proper valence of two bits of evidence: “righteous” and “in his generation”. Indeed, ancient opinion was pretty well split on Noah. A number of New Testament and post-biblical texts focus on the “righteous” bit and assert that Noah preached salvation and repentance to all who would listen—and therefore suggest that no one did. Others suggest that Noah wasn't actually so great, emphasizing the "in his generation" bit. They see Noah as the best there was at the time, and that he doesn't quite measure up to later, better, standards precisely because we don’t hear of him reaching out to others.
The Zohar, a mystical Jewish treatise from the thirteenth century, states:
When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said, "Master of the World! If You destroyed Your world because of human sins or human fools, why did You create them? One or the other you should do: either do not create the human being, or do not destroy the world!"
The Blessed Holy One answered him, "Foolish shepherd! I lingered with you [before the flood] and spoke to you at length so that you would ask mercy for the world! But as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved yourself. Now that the world has been destroyed you open your mouth to utter questions and pleas."
This tradition, then, (and others recorded in the Talmud and elsewhere) regards Noah as the least of the patriarchs for while Abraham, Moses and others argued for God on behalf of the others, it is not recorded that Noah did likewise.
Are we Noah?
Either in our theological thinking or our secular scheming—do we hearken after Noah more than the other patriarchs?
In looking for other paradigms I still think that the secular environmental paradigm of the Transition Town movement presents a better way forward. For its suggestion is that local communities should be addressing energy and climate issues as a whole for the sake of the whole. Nobody's retreating into a canyon in the California hills here; rather, neighbors are meeting one another and talking through plans. There's a part of me that's suspicious of this, because it means entrusting potentially crucial matters to other people—who knows if they can be trusted to come through? But then, come to think of it, that's how our world functions now anyway.
Realistic thinking about a lower-energy, non-fossil fueled world means a recognition of our interconnectedness. A recent group that participates in replicating a functioning Victorian community with an eye to a non-fossil-fuel world suggests that no less than 200 separate specializations are required to keep it functioning.
Checking back to the theological side, it seems that this sort of endeavor is far more in line with the heart of the Christian tradition, the one with baptism at its center. In the ancient world, even the notion of "individual salvation" wasn't constructed in the way we build it now. Yes, individuals (and households) were baptized but that was the start, not the end. Individuals were baptized into a community, into a family, into a Body. This family, in turn, created a new community that transcended the old—sometimes bitter—divisions:
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-11)
Communities are harder to live with. They have disagreements, arguments, all sorts of unpleasantness. And yet they're workable—sustainable—in a way that individualism just isn't. Too, it is in the pushing, prodding, give and take of community life that we get pushed to make choices that give life for those beyond our selves and our little circles.
Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.