Carbon offsets and indulgences

An indulgence? Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

History recurs as farce. I was thinking today of how offsetting your carbon is like the medieval practice of buying indulgences. With indulgences, a bit of money handed over bought you some excess righteousness- credit from someone who had plenty, a saint say – and used it to redeem souls from bad places. Carbon offsets are 21st century indulgences, spending money in one area in order to redeem transgression in another.

My wife and I, for example, pay extra for zero-carbon electricity and suitably offsetted gas, and we’ve cut a lot of meat out of our diets, in order to generate some indulgence for our flights to Spain (which we also offset) to where both our brothers have flats that need occupying. (I have tried renaming these holidays ‘retreats’, which appears to justify them at a certain level, though I don’t believe it reduces the carbon dioxide emissions.)

Of course indulgences were made up, a theological convenience, and perhaps there is an argument that carbon credits are the same. Just as sin continued to build up on medieval Earth, so carbon dioxide builds up on 21st century Earth.

Indulgences meanwhile deluded and defrauded thousands of peasants, turned grace into mercantilism, and debased the church. What did the human species get in return? St Peter’s in Rome. Nice though St Peter’s is, surely that was not a net gain.

Carbon offsets, on the other hand, go towards replacing all the forest our species has cleared over the years. All those tonnes of growing trees are made up of tonnes of atmospheric carbon, so we’re (eventually) just putting back what our ancestors took out.

But maybe the earth would happily re-wild itself just if it were left alone, without us setting up an industrial-scale tree-planting operation, complete with fossil-fuel powered earth-moving equipment and unbiogdegradable plastic collars round all the little saplings?

Is offsetting a net gain for the human species? A blundering, flawed first attempt to repair damage? Or a convenient cover for sucking out more fossil carbon from under the earth? Be good to know.

My personal guess is that you’ve got to start somewhere. Down the line are ways to replace kerosene with sustainable jet fuel, and petrol with batteries, and natural gas with all the net-zero electric generation tech. Hopefully offsetting is not just a cover for further climate sin, but a small net gain for us and the planet. A slow start is better than no start. In that way they are unlike medieval indulgences.

We can hope.

2023 – The AI spring?

I wonder if this will be the year that stories about AI start to pop up everywhere, a bit like, years ago, everyone suddenly started talking about ‘The information superhighway’ (as it was called back then). I had a lot of fun a couple of months ago supplying Stable Diffusion with text descriptions of the characters in my novels, and being amazed at the pictures it came up with.

Here are my two much-loved protaganists, Jamie the complacent, chauvinistic conflict-avoider:

and Keziah the angry, abused, punk lawyer:

I wonder if I’ll see the day when you can shove in the text of a whole novel and get some AI to make a movie? That would be fun.

Then just the other day my friend Jason Mandryk, one of my senior colleagues on the prayer handbook Operation World, asked ChatGPT ‘How do I pray for Eritrea’ and it replied thus:

  • Pray for peace and stability in the country, for an end to conflict and violence, and for the protection of the people from harm
  • Pray for the government and leaders of Eritrea, that they will be guided by wisdom and justice, and that they will work for the good of the people.
  • Pray for the economic and social well-being of the people of Eritrea, for prosperity and opportunity for all, and for the resources and infrastructure needed for development.
  • Pray for the health and welfare of the people of Eritrea, for access to quality medical care, clean water, and nutritious food.
  • Pray for the spiritual needs of the people of Eritrea, that they may come to know and follow Jesus, and that the church will be a beacon of hope and love in the country.

These AIs are just mushing together loads of public domain stuff that they have eaten; interesting though.

Healing, brokenness, and the mental health industrial complex

Photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash

It’s interesting to watch — from the safe vantage point of vast ignorance — cracks in the gleaming exterior of Western mental health care. To say the least, it’s not like flying a plane, where highly trained people, following international standards of safety and expertise, successfully take people to places they want to go. Psychiatry and psychology are not like that. They may want to look like that, but they are not like that. 1 Here are some of the cracks:

  1. The standards aren’t, well, standard. The American Psychiatric Association publishes a thing called the DSM (the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders), currently on its fifth edition, DSM-5. It’s widely referred and accepted and is the product of much scholarly endeavour. But it changes, and practice changes with it. After DSM-4 was published, ADHD diagnoses tripled, autism diagnoses increased 20-fold and bipolar diagnoses 40-fold. 2 This was not a sudden epidemic of mental illness, it was a consequence of widening the categories. So, beware, with the next edition of the book, your illness could become a variant of normalcy, or your normalcy be re-categorized as illness.
  2. It’s subjective, not objective. Physical medicine is at least a mixture of both, blood tests and MRI scans complementing the doctor’s own judgement. Mental illness appears not to be independently testable. This subjectivity on the part of mental health professionals has consequences: I have seen people bounced between diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder, PTSD, Bipolar, and schizophrenia in a process that seems a bit like different practitioners sticking random Post-It stickers on people’s heads. (Though it’s worth remembering that people who practice mental health care all are there to do something good for the broken and damaged people whom they meet every day and they want to help them thrive. They are not dabbling with words; getting it right matters. The bitterness of the debate is because everyone cares, not because no-one does.)
  3. Commercial interests are involved. As one kept alive by various drugs, I am very fond of big pharma, but I do acknowledge that they have a commercial interest in selling drugs for mental health, and that must influence their own influence in this subjective area. Certainly different groups of all stripes campaign to change the DSM in their favour, which must mean each DSM is a product of power struggles as well as pure evidence.
  4. It victimizes people. Telling my liver that it is abnormally swollen does not upset my liver too much; telling my head I have a personality disorder, and that, no, they haven’t really found a cure, affects my whole sense of who I am and what I am to do about it.
  5. It oversimplifies, or at least wrongly frames, the problem. Have mental health problems rocketed, powered by social media, relationship breakdown, unwise romantic choices, and covid-19 exclusions? Or have otherwise normal people across our communities been battered by exceptional stresses? Are they, at root, diseased or injured? That matters a great deal for how, and if, you can get well again.
  6. It’s not been great for children. Apparently (according to my source article again) as late as the 1990s it was ‘unusual to prescribe medication or give diagnostic labels to under-18s.’ That is no longer the case. It would be good to know what the evidence is for this change. I hope it’s solid. I can’t help thinking that diagnosing children -a subjective process and one that is inconsistent across practitioners- on the basis of the child’s own grasp of the problem, is a shaky place from which to start chemical intervention or medical labelling.
  7. Can it mean that problems are treated here in the West as primarily medical, rather than, say, primarily to do with relationships, poverty, trauma, abuse, poor choices, or just the kind of ennui that doesn’t know what to aim for or what to aspire to be, or what the point of living is; that we are attempting to treat medically a kind of lostness?
  8. Can it be that we are underplaying the social, the relational, the physical, and the spiritual and overemphasising the medical? This I find really intriguing because I think I have learnt that healing in any sphere is basically about shalom, peace and contentment; that’s the mark of the healed, even if those same healed ones limp around in broken bodies and perhaps with damaged minds. To thrive before God and people, in all circumstances, that’s healing.

So much to learn!

My books of the year

Yet again it’s been an utterly absorbing and fascinating year for reading books. So enjoyable to climb into people’s heads and the book – long, processed, considered, skippable, re-readable, sumarizable and quotable – is still the best format I know for deep and prolonged happiness. So here’s a few of the most enjoyable.

BTW – I never read books because they are ‘important’ or ‘significant’ but only because they give joy. Most of them were found by wandering randomly in our branch of Waterstones, still the best way to find a book that no algorithm would send you. I read plenty of other books too, but these stick out.

They aren’t in any order.

Powers and thrones – a new history of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones, rollicking, thousand-year European centred history.

Just my type, a book about fonts by Simon Garfield. Geekish, obsessive and very enjoyable book about fonts and font choices. A book I’ve wanted to give to the literary obsessives in my life, and a book that makes you look at every street sign, shopfront, advert, book and newspaper differently. Now I know, for example, why hospital corridors are such unsettling places: they are font chaos.

When the dust settles: stories of love, loss and hope from an expert in disaster, by Lucy Easthope. The story of people who prepare for, and mop up after, disasters. A very moving account of how people do, don’t, can, and can’t help when catastrophe strikes, and how much better things would be if we prepared for them (as we could’ve) rather than paring away the budgets of the planners. An unusual paeon to local councils who often have to clear up the messes. A really fine read that tugs suprisingly hard at the heart.

Are we having fun yet by Lucy Mangan, a book about family life, her husband, child-rearing, friendship, haircuts, pink-on-pink warfare and playdate power struggles by a person who is these days the most consistently, riotously funny and joyful columnist on the Guardian newspaper. Also the second book by someone called ‘Lucy’ that I have read this year. Perhaps I should devote a whole year to reading books written by people called Lucy; the two I landed on this year were in different ways, objects of wonder.

If these stones could talk: the history of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through twenty buildings by Peter Stanford. Does what it says on the tin, but is beautifully but unobtrusively researched and written. Lovely, gorgeous, thoughtful book.

I’ve also, courtesy of my subscription to Audible, been listening to lecture courses from the Great Courses series which those all-engulfing types at Amazon have brought into the Audible list. Here are three that had me gripped while I did my cardio physio.

Classics of British Literature by John Sutherland. A mind-expanding summary of the long history of great books and poems written by British authors, starting way back with Beowolf and ending in the 21st century, and nicely meshed with summaries of the cultural history that surrounded them and gave them birth. Failed to mention Anthony Trollope except perhaps in passing, but nobody’s perfect.

Augustine: Philosopher and saint by Philip Cary, an introduction to the thought of St Augustine, who is this great unavoidable massif in the Western theological tradition, standing, alone, between us and the apostles and prophets. Sufficiently simple for me to understand and enjoy.

London: A short history of the greatest city in the Western World by Robert Buchloz. 24 or so lectures from someone based, I think, at Loyola university in Chicago, but which in my listening did not skip a beat in its accuracy, presentation or overall fascination.

That surprising Mr Warnock

Just read a fascinating article about Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s freshly elected Democratic Senator.1

Mr Warnock is still a pastor, of Martin Luther King’s old church in Atlanta. He has, it seems, a fresh take on the tired left/right, liberal/conservative tropes that like leaden wordclouds, rain down on our politics both in the UK and the US. There’s just a sniff of Advent hope about him. Here are a few quotes:

‘Democracy is the political enactment ofa spiritual idea, the sacred worth of all human beings.’

‘A vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire.’

Martin Luther King, he says, ‘Used his faith not as a weapon to crush other people, but as a bridge to bring us together.’ Now there’s an idea.

He is a kinder sort than is typical among democrats, seeing the Jan 6th sackers of the Capitol as people who had suffered the ‘violence’ of poverty, ‘a kind of violence that crushes all the humanity of poor people,’ but who retaliated badly and mistakenly. I’m not myself a massive fan of stretching the word ‘violence’ to mean ‘any bad stuff that happens to people’, but still, this reaching out in sympathy to the illiberal is notable if only because it doesn’t represent a default setting for Democrats in my observation. It’s something a little new, loving his enemies. He reiterates:

‘There’s a kind of violence of poverty, a failure to recognise that there is enough in God’s world for all God’s children. There’s no poverty of possibility. There is a poverty of moral imagination.’

Interesting.

Everything we touch

Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash

We’ve noted before in this blog that we humans are all spliced together: what we do, even what we believe, is steered by the people around us. It’s been measured and proven to crazy extents: if you are slim, or self-harming, or right-wing there is a measurable effect on the slimness, self-harming tendencies or right-wing views of your friends’ friends’ friends.

And none of this is static. As we go about our days, all of us are processing the views of everyone else. The whole human network is humming to itself, tossing thoughts around.

If we had clever software, or a suitable imagination (another novel, anyone?), we could watch opinions flood through the human network like the networked pulses of neurons they are. Surveys catch some of it: see how cultures change their views on marriage, divorce, violence. Flowing through the human network are endless upgrades to human cultures. Like software upgrades, some of them are even worth having.

Who changes the network? We all do. We all do. Everything we touch, every word we speak, every response we make, filters into the humming background of inter-human processing.

The implications of this for those of us who seek to be shepherded by Jesus Christ are enormous. I have just finished reading the Letter to the Philippians in the Bible, in my attempt to read the whole NT in Greek, and I noticed that the apostle Paul got this. He thought like a networked being. My imprisonment makes other people bold, he says. What’s happened to me has stiffened the spines of others. And later on he sails into that magnificient passage: whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put it into practice. 1 He was encouraging his hearers to bear the image of Christ themselves, and to praise it in whatever unlikely spots they saw it.

The sticky, fluid culture

A hugely cool thing about influencing networks is that things can stay set up for generations. Our imprint on the culture outlives us. What we are and how we believe and behave, as a nation for example, bears the imprint of culture-changers long-departed. As one of the 16th century Protestant martyrs said to another, as the barbecue underneath him was being lit: ‘we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out’ 2 –and nor has it.

I recently read the resignation letter of the UK’s Lord Chief Justice. He said this: ‘I have been honoured to lead a wholly independent judiciary dedicated to the rule of law, the administration of justice and public service which confidently celebrates its traditions yet has quietly assimilated very many modern working practices.‘ Having worked in bits of the justice system over the years, I tend to agree with him. The judicial types I work with are passionate about justice, rather than, for example, using their position to leverage money from claimants. Who set that culture up? Who maintained and refined it? Generations before us, I suppose, and (while it can be corrupted) it has been embedded and passed down to the current lot of wig-wearers.

The great subversive

Everything we touch or talk about. It’s Advent as I write this 3, and so we’re thinking about the Incarnation, and it makes a lot of sense that God, wanting to reclaim the human species to himself, should deploy the tactic of becoming a single fertilized cell– undermining the whole human network by being born to a teenage mum and raised in a peasant village; embedding himself in the network. As we see churches spreading or having spread through the Mediterranean, through Europe, through all the Americas, through sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific, across the Philippines and China and Indonesia, and now in various irruptions across the Islamic world, and with Christ now standing as a kind of Morning Star for a third of the earth’s inhabitants–his subversive scheme seems to be working.

The heartbeat that changed the universe

So at the same time as Advent has suddenly and unexpectedly arrived, I have been fascinated by two books, The Powers that Be by Walter Wink and How to Stand up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa. The first I found in the Operation World book-lined office; the second as I took my November trip to a physical bookshop to buy a book and thus cash in on my wife’s enlightened Christmas present from last year, a serendiptious book purchase each month, driven not by algorithm but by human browsing.

These books are fascinating because because they confront the problem that affects so many people, from China and India and Hungary and many countries of West Africa and Nicaragua and the Philippines and on and on: the power of autocrats, who control armies, courts, police, laws and even truth itself and try to turn these powers on people they don’t like.

It is much worse than being mugged in the street, I imagine, because it is the government that is doing it to you. If the laws are oppressive, and the police enforce the law, and the courts apply its punishments, who is there left to save you?

And if, as Walter Wink insists, these forces are not merely human and cultural but also in a sense spiritual or backed by spiritual powers, what recourse do you have?

And yet it’s Advent. Here’s the definitive divine response to the autocracies: a single fertilized cell — for a time Mary’s secret, so vulnerable, so small. That was Almighty God’s most considered and long prepared response to all the brutalizing Powers that harrassed and hounded the human species. The fragment of holy grit that smashed the bauble that is the world.

‘Theology after Bucha’

The team that I am part of reads hundreds of magazines each year and we file references and notes about them to use in the new version of the best-selling prayer handbook ‘Operation World’, eighth edition due out sometime.

Sometimes we share articles around. Here’s one from the person who monitors Russian and Ukranian magazines. I’m sorry it’s not in the cheerier terms in which I usually try to write.

Last week Ukrainian troops liberated the entire territory of the Kyiv region. What they discovered in the cities of Irpin, Gostomel, Bucha, and dozens of surrounding villages, words cannot convey. As I write these lines, my hands begin to tremble, and my eyes fill with tears.

Hundreds and hundreds of unarmed civilians were shot dead with their hands tied. Burned bodies of raped women. Dead bodies cover the streets of cities, fill basements, and decompose in looted apartments. Entire towns and villages destroyed to the ground. Russian military vehicles are full of stolen goods (household appliances, jewellery, underwear, perfumes, plumbing fixtures, etc.). The Russian soldiers in the border regions’ post offices send everything they looted to their families back in Russia.

I don’t know how to live with it. We have liberated only a tiny part of our country from the invaders. However, we can already say that in Ukraine, Russian troops have repeated the crimes of Srebrenica and Rwanda.

A month and a half ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today, I can only cry. I used to be tormented by the question of why so many Holocaust survivors later committed suicide. It is worth mentioning the poet Paul Celan, the philosopher Jean Amery, a great witness to the horrors of Auschwitz (in which my own grandmother also died), and Primo Levy.

A month ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today…

Today, I understand that the violence and evil they experienced deprived them of ways to return to everyday life, normal relationships, and trust in other people. They, like Eli Wiesel, have been in such an abyss of evil that it is almost impossible to look away from it.

Who knows how to pray with a woman raped for a week by a Russian soldier, who then shot dead her sick mother when the woman refused to go with him to Russia? How should I pray for a six-year-old boy who turned grey because the Russian military raped his mother day after day in front of him?

What words can be said to the elderly residents of a care home that ruthlessly reduced to rubble by a Russian tank? What can be said to the people who survived hell on earth, which was arranged for them by the Russian military? How can we bring comfort a wife whose husband ran out to seek help because she had given birth but was killed near the house? How do we mourn civilians who have been tortured so much that they cannot be identified?

Apparently, my readers find it hard to believe all this. A few weeks ago, I would not have believed that this is possible. But this is Ukraine, and this is the 21st century. And I think with even greater horror, what else will we learn when we liberate the rest of our territories?

I am not ready to talk more about this today, but I know that a new theology has emerged in Ukraine these days: Theology after Bucha.

This piece was written by Ukrainian church leader Rev. Dr. Roman Soloviy and published by The Dnipro Hope Mission.

The inside-out church

Solid at the core, fluid at the edges

Reshape to renew

I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going. Image by Marianne Aldridge from Pixabay

We were talking with a couple recently who were part of a church that had turned itself inside out. They had sold their (Baptist) church building, and moved into a community centre that was owned by a mental health charity. The charity, a non-religious outfit, had been set up to provide community-based care but were short of volunteers. The church had volunteers but no building. Bringing the two together brought two half-formed visions together. Fascinating (even if I’ve somewhat garbled the story).

Much more could be done. I have sometimes wondered if a church, instead of employing a family worker or a youth worker, could employ a professional mental health nurse. She or he could supervise lay work in the community and provide professional backing. Many community mental health needs can be met by lay people. They are often at the level of dropping in on someone for a cup of coffee, or phoning them to make sure they’ve taken their meds, or helping with cooking, shopping or budgeting. Such community concern (also known as ‘friendship’) can be transforming in the life of someone struggling alone with mental health issues.

Similarly, I am very impressed by the work of legal aid charities, who provide free legal services. Some of this work doesn’t need trained lawyers – for example helping people get justice via disability or Special Educational Needs tribunals. It just needs suitably skilled and trained volunteers. A church could easily pay a legal professional to manage a community law centre who could in turn lead a team of enthusiastic (though trained) amateurs and perhaps the odd intern.

Imagine a community legal centre or mental health centre that became a worshipping community on Sundays and the evenings!

These are all examples of churches turning themselves inside out, or perhaps more strictly, dissolving their outer structures and seeking fluidly to fit themselves to pre-existing vulnerabilities in the community. Solid at the core, fuzzy or fluid at the edges. Becoming less like bacteria and more like viruses perhaps. The churches get to do all the good they want to, the community gets served. Better, surely, than worshippers in a building, and needy people in their homes, each alone in their own way.

What does revolution look like?

Nice try, but hélas! Photo by Pierre Herman on Unsplash

What does a revolution look like? Most of them involve armed thugs, which is hardly a good start.

That kind of revolution –which is most so-called revolutions — is only a revolution in the sense once defined by Terry Prachett: they call them revolutions because everything goes round and round.

What does a real revolution look like, one that actually changes things? The Kingdom of God, heralded and inaugurated in the New Testament, is supposed to be such a thing. What would it look like?

  1. A culture where leaders are accountable, to law, to being sacked by the people they rule.
  2. A culture grown kinder so that people are more patient, more honest, more generous, more likely to share your load.
  3. A culture where personal integrity is valued. Personal integrity forms, drip by drip, over a lifetime, like a stalagmite. Once formed, and if genuine, it reaches deep and extends far into the networks of people around us. When it connects with the integrity of others it provides a scaffold upon which decent human cultures can grow and thrive.
  4. A healing culture. That would be nice: people restored to joy and usefulness as part of a community, love flowing, even as lives bloom and decay.
  5. A worshipping culture. Perhaps all cultures are worshipping cultures; but this would be worshipping the maker rather than the made.
  6. A culture committed to living at peace: in harmony with creation; with forgiveness and forbearance to others at its heart; aiming to restore the broken.
  7. A learning culture, so that we are curious about the world around us; able to experiment; able to fail; willing to change.
  8. A culture committed to changing. I think much of what is loosely called ‘progress’ fits here. We can learn stuff and discover how to do things better. I personally prefer, for example, hi-tech, unnatural births over having all these dead babies or mothers taking up needless space in graveyards. Free markets distribute the good things of the earth around with great efficiency. Property rights and the rule of law ensure that the whole of society rises together, like boats on a rising tide. Unjust leaders get moved on. The Old Testament appears to regulate rather than abhor all these things.
  9. A remembering culture that knows other generations walked this way too and knew and did stuff and are owed respect at times.
  10. A respectful culture, sensing the preciousness and autonomy of every human, and letting that inform our corporate life.
  11. A creative culture, valuing playfulness, and invention, and engineering, and hypothesising, and art, and music, and literature.
  12. An ambitious culture, ambitious for human thriving, dreaming of still more goodness piled on the goodness of earlier years, like bank upon bank of clouds in the sky, all reflecting the sun from different angles.
  13. A culture committed to the long term. I’ve walked round a reservoir in the Peak District that was built in the 1930s, built to solve permanently the need of nearby cities for water. Ninety years on, our generation and culture doesn’t have to worry so much. Then in the 1940s Clement Attlee, that modest man ‘with much to be modest about’ in Churchill’s phrase, implemented across the nation the ideal of free healthcare for everyone. Eighty years on, for all the problems, we still stand in the good of that. What will we add? Imagine, for example, if we solved the problem of generating electricity sustainably; imagine if future generations hardly had to worry about flicking a power switch. Imagine if we found better ways of keeping warm, or feeding ourselves, or doing construction, or living alongside a thriving Earth. What gifts all that would be to generation after generation, to the grandchildren of our grandchildren, leaving them free to work on other stuff.
  14. A hopeful culture – when all the above is ripped apart, or becomes a monstrous idol of its own self, when everything is back to square 1 or square minus 10: still straining for ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’ (as George Herbert wrote) that make us stand and go again.
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