Amoureax by Eve Arnold

1 Sanity: A New Order

Sanity is participation in the Kingdom of God. It is a participation characterised by certain postures, dispositions or virtues and by particular material manifestations, things which are formed by us and things by which we are formed. We will find ourselves sane in an order which is not ours - in a ’given order’ - an order within whose limits we are held in flourishing; an order we undergo. I would like to suggest that in the present we have access primarily to a ’sanity’ which is a very pale likeness of that which comes of participation in a ’given order,’ the Kingdom of God. In fact, I would like to show how this ’sanity’ which is a likeness only, actively prevents us from entering into the dynamics which might form us in the sanity of participation in the Kingdom of God. This anemic ’sanity’ is intensely supported and subsidised by the structures of modern life: technologies of diverson; 'ease' born of cheap energy; comforting consumption. It is from these subsidies and diversions that I suggest we must move to subsidise, in as much as we can, a ’given sanity’. A 'given sanity' is a sanity which cannot be manufactured, marketed or consumed - it is given to us; we undergo it. How is it then that we might in any fashion subsidise something given? My supposition is that we might work to co-create particular kinds of spaces, what I call sane spaces. Through opening spaces which possess particular characteristics, notably fecundity born of care, we may ourselves be opened by these spaces into the rhythms and patterns of the Kingdom of God: sanity.1

2 Cheap Energy and Subsidising Sanity

It takes merely a moments reflection, armed with the knowledge that many synthetic products such as plastics and fertilisers are fossil fuel based, to realise that we are intensely dependent upon cheap fossil fuel energy for most of our daily acts of living. Fossil fuels have made many things ’easier’. For example, not many of us bottle and preserve fruit and vegetables anymore. We can easily go to the supermarket and buy all the fruit we want fresh, even out of season, because it is transported vast distances according to what is ’efficient’. Apparently, it often seems more ’efficient’ for lemons to be imported from California to Perth while the lemons from many a suburban backyard tree rot on the ground. To my mind, however, this ’ease’ is the comfort of our captivity. Like the Israelites who would groan in the desert for the fleshpots of Egypt, we remain in a life which is destructive of the creation, our relationships with each other and our mental health. In response to the first, we might change our lightbulbs and recycle, to the second we might structure into our lives more social activities and ’quality time’, to the third we might get a hobby or go on holidays. Of course these are merely a few of the things we might do. I mention them by way of suggesting that most of our responses to our malaise of comfort, while helpful to a certain degree, fall short of a full Christian work. These responses remain deeply dependent upon existing energy intensive systems and do not have the liberating and celebratory element that a Christian response must have. There may be a certain liberating simplicity and ’sanity’ or ’health’ offered by these strategies but they are sometimes subtly additional stresses and sometimes merely diversions from an underlying weariness.

What I am suggesting is something hard-but-good. The kind of thing that will never be a vote-winner and so will not be proposed by any but a career-sacrificing politician. The very last thing that I want to recommend is something simply hard-but-right, something which we berate ourselves into, which we do only because we must, not because we are caught up into a joyful and creative Spirit. I expect that what I am proposing will ultimately be necessary but I think that there is more than necessity to recommend it. One of the peculiar insanities of our age is that is it structurally quite unsatisfying. Indeed, the very unsatisfying nature of the ’work’ most of us do drives us to recreate ourselves, to divert ourselves, to be amused and entertained. Of diversion, Pascal writes:

“The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us on to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.” Pascal, Pensees, 2.171

It is just this kind of diversion that I would like to equate with the pseudo- ’sanity’ which we are so ready to subsidise with cheap fossil fuels. If we are to be able to accept the negative feedback of weariness and form ourselves for a true sanity we must proceed with discernment, lest we become weary unto death.

Something I would like to point out is that this pseudo-’sanity’ which I put in scare-quotes purports to be a kind of true sanity. It parades as something categorically similar and would fool us. This is important for, while it has the nature of what Pascal calls diversion, it is in fact a complex of coping mechanisms and techniques which help us to ’soldier on’ and give us the appearance of sanity. To come off these coping mechanisms too quickly or without something with which to replace them may place us face-to-face with realities with which we are unable to cope and send us deeper into our diversions. Jaques Ellul uses the example of a deep-sea diver who uses technological assistance to enter an environment which is otherwise hostile to human life. So it is for us. We are assisted to cope with the manifold alienations of modern life with our fossil-fueled and subsidised technologies of diversion. A deepsea diver cannot at once cast from him his industrial lungs lest he be too deep to reach the surface or risk the bends in trying. In the same way, should we attempt simply to dramatically reduce our consumption, unaccompanied by new structures of a joyful and productive life, we may find ourselves, in the difficulty of low energy life, slipping quickly back to the things that have always provided us with comfort in hardship, things which move us back into a numbed alienation. It is even more difficult to start again from here; we are more weary and so more heavily invested in our diversions.

Attempts to simply reduce consumption, I suggest, are actions born of a narrow analysis. This is a negative strategy and sees over-consumption as the primary problem, not as a symptom of deeper, structural issues. To merely ’flee-from’ overconsumption neglects to consider an alternative destination and the joyful possibility of ’fleeing-to’ something.

I am reminded at this point of Jesus’ parable of the return of the unclean spirit in Matthew 12:43-5 and Luke 11:24-6. Jesus warns that unless something new comes to reign in the ’empty’ space created by the departure of an unclean spirit, a full complement (ie. seven) of impurity will return. Some new thing must arise in an emptied house, swept and tidied. If we are not to continue in ways that offer only the cycle of ever deepening enmeshment in alienating ways, we must hear the liberating word say ’Come ye out from among them’ (Cor 6:17) - out into the promised land, a new and wholly different order. What then might constitute a gentle entry into this new order, one that is wholly committed and yet discerning? What I suggest is the creation of sane spaces.

“... the initial intention of the “sectarian” communities which in the course of Western history have renewed a minority ethic has not been to be sects. Division was not their purpose ... They rather called upon the church at large to accept as binding for all Christians the quality of commitment which would in effect lead them all to be separated from the world once again in order to be appropriately in mission to the world.” - John Howard Yoder

Mimesis’ is a Greek word which means ’imitation’. I use it here because of its richer associations than ’imitation’, because of the tradition of its use and because of the resonances that it brings together. Mimesis, according to René Girard, is the way in which humans desire. We are imitative creatures, mimetic creatures. That we are mimetic places us in continuous rivalry with each other. If you get a newer model of mobile phone, suddenly I am unhappy with mine and desire yours or one like yours. We have all seen a child who wants a toy - with which his or her sibling is playing - who looses interest in it once the sibling gives it up. This is mimetic desire. The child desires "according to their desire of another" and so do we. I use these trivial examples to show how pervasive is this mode of desiring. Mimesis is at the core of all of our relationships.

The concept of mimesis is also used by Arnold Toynbee to describe the relationship between ’civilisation’ and ’creative minorities.’ Greer summarises Toynbee's argument in this way:

"...civilizations emerge when a creative minority inspires the rest of their society with a vision of human possibility powerful and appealing enough to break through what he calls the “cake of custom,” the rigid body of tradition that shapes the behavior of traditional cultures. The key to their success is the universal human habit of mimesis – our incurable habit of trying to imitate what impresses us...Civilizations rise when a creative minority with an openness to new visions becomes the focus of mimesis instead." - John Michael Greer - "A Failure of Mimesis"

’Sects’ have been just such ’creative minorities.’ For example, Quakers were famously influential in the demise of the slave trade in the early 18th Century. We may not wish to make ’civilisation’ the primary body upon which ’creative minorities’ act or which they influence. However, if desire is mimetic, as Girard suggests, then the relationship is transferable to any human organisation. That is, if we are imitative creatures and creative minorities play a significant role in forming our desire, a mimetic relationship is not limited to ’civilisations’ but extends to all areas of life. Indeed, ’civilisations’, as such complex systems, can hardly be acted upon directly. They must rather be changed through the alteration of their constituent parts.

“We do not want you to copy or imitate us. We want to be like a ship that has crossed the ocean, leaving a wake of foam, which soon fades away. We want you to follow the Spirit, which we have sought to follow, but which must be sought anew in every generation.” - First generation Quakers a Balby, York, late 17th Century1

The term ’sect’ is much less likely to be used appreciatively than it is to be used as a term of scorn or suspicion. It is my belief that there is much to learn from (some of) the groups which fall into the category of ’sect’ and I would like to advocate a more appreciative approach to matters sectarian. In particular, I would like to suggest that sects provide concrete historical examples of the missionary shape of Jesus the Messiah; that of potent 'powerlessness'. (Of course, not all sects are potent in their powerlessness but the shape of powerlessness may give rise to such creative potency if it is imitative of the Messiah.) Embodying something imitable is a mode of mission. Sects are imitable by their societies when they concretise creative alternatives. I suggest that imitability is the product of creative practice derived from imitation of the one ’through whom and for whom all things have been created.’ In as much as they embody the Messiah and thus also creative alternative lives, sects engage in a kind of mission. Through this potential for the creation of compelling contrast-societies, ’sects’ can be instructive for a Messiah-shaped practice of mission. 'Imitation' is not the only kind of mission, indeed it is an impoverished kind. I suggest, also, that 'sects' have potential to exemplify communities which induce structural as well as personal change.

1 Sectarian Suspicion

It seems quite natural to most of us most of the time to write off some groups - without knowing anything about them - on account of their bearing the name of ’sect’. I will not deny that there is a limit to the energy available to explore every group that we encounter but I do not think that ’sects’ deserve neglect as a category. Some groups which bear the name are very worthy of our energy. There remain some which I have very (very) little time for but it is not on account of their being ’sectarian’. Other ’sects’ ongoingly provide me with inspiration. I intend to write more of these later groups in the future. For now I would like to explore why ’sects’, as a category, may provide insights into a Messiah-shaped missional practice. Lets look briefly at what the category captures.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s primary definition is simply ’a class or kind of persons.’ This early definition has a close relationship to its use in Latin from which it is borrowed. This first sense, along with all senses down to the fourth, is marked as ’obsolete’. This word is no longer used with this meaning in English. The fourth sense is ’a religious following; adherence to a particular religious teacher or faith.’ but the subpart a. shows that this cannot be applied to Christianity, Judaism or Islam (and presumably any other religion) in general but only to ’different’ subparts thereof. And so we come to the dominant use which I suggest we must overcome:

“A body of persons who unite in holding certain views differing from those others who are accounted to be of the same religion; a party or school among the professions of a religion; sometimes applied to parties that are regarded as heretical, or at least deviating from the general tradition.” (emphasis added)

And so we have ’differing’, ’heretical’ and ’deviating’. I do not want to dwell long on the English usage of the word but I would like to draw attention to the Constantinian nature of the category. ’Sects’ are not named by themselves, they are named from without. It is often size and the ability to use coercive power that qualifies a group to name another group as a ’sect’. It is a name which dispenses with the need for dialogue. It does not merely name difference but a class of difference which may be ignored for the purposes of conversation because they do not possess coercive power or are somehow threatening to those who do. I would like to consider now the sociological use of the term, which will lead us into a discussion of the potentially missionary shape of ’sectarian’ groups.

Ernst Troeltsch distinguishes between two descriptive types: the Church-type and the sect-type. They are descriptive tools and form poles on a spectrum - they do not apply strictly to any particular group. For Troeltch, the Church-type is that kind which is:

“... overwhelmingly conservative, which to a certain extent accepts the secular order, and dominates the masses; in principal, therefore, it is universal, i.e. it desires to cover the whole of humanity.” - Ernst Troeltsch

The Church-type, then, is deeply connected to and dependent upon the existing social order. Its capacity for creativity is in this way somewhat more limited in scope than the sect-type. The sect-type is that kind which is constituted by:

“... comparatively small groups; they aspire after personal inward perfection, and they aim at a direct personal fellowship between the members of each group. From the very beginning, therefore, they are formed to organise themselves in small groups and to renounce the idea of dominating the world.” - Ernst Troeltsch

It is this renunciation of domination which is of particular interest to me. John Howard Yoder, commenting on Troeltsch, takes this as the relevant point also:

“The term, in this [sociological] usage, has to do not with the narrowness of the ’sect’s’ truth claims, or the pettiness of its cultural self-understanding, nor with the size of the group, but with the quality of the group’s recognition that it is not in control of the wider society.” - John Howard Yoder

I would like to suggest that this shape which has renounced dominating the world, whether explicitly or by fact of powerlessness, can provide an incubator for Christ-shaped mission. I have said already that there are particular sects that I have little time for and it must be acknowledged that this shape may be possessed by those who would dominate if they could, and if they can’t, they ’lord it over one another.’ Although I am suggesting that we do not rule out any group because they have been called ’sectarian’, I am not suggesting that ’sects’ are somehow good by virtue of the category. I do, however, think the category describes a shape which is potentially fertile ground from which Christian mission might spring, however much some who have that shape fail to realise its potential. I would like to broaden our conversation partners. The kind of conversation we might have is suggested by this shared renunciation of world domination.

"These people were passionately committed to improving human nature and building a model society - to living like angels in heaven on earth." - Rita Buchanan, The Shaker Herb and Garden Book
"Put your hands to work and your heart to God." - Mother Ann Lee

The Shakers are intriguing in many respects - they were a communal religious society devoted to living in the 'now' of the Kingdom of God and, in doing so, they have provided us with a concrete example of 'being in the land.' The stark simplicity of their architecture and furniture has something hauntingly compelling about it. Their music and worship speaks of a full life lived joyfully.

The Shaker economy was marked by diversity. They both cultivated the earth and used its products in manufacturing. Diversity was a mark of both craft and cultivation. Multiple communities, or societies, the unit of which was called a 'family' (25 to 100 people), existed in mutual aid relationship and had their own domestic economic life.
"... each society faced its own way by selling whatever they could produce, including garden products, such as apple sauce, dried sween corn, maple sugar, pickles, vegetable seeds, fruit trees, dried herbs, and herb extracts; butter, cheese and milk; baskets and brooms; chairs and other furniture; and yarn, woven fabric, knitted goods, and other textiles. These products were sold wherever there was a market - locally, regionally, around the United States, and even overseas." - Rita Buchanan, The Shaker Herb and Garden Book
This very diverse economy provided the Shakers with means of life and was itself their mode of participation in the creation in a responsible way: here is a joyful simplicity.

The Shakers are striking for the way in which they challenge the theory of motivation central to most modern economic theory. For example, in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes:
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." - Adam Smith, Chapter II, 'On the Principle which gives occasion to the Division of Labour', Wealth of Nations
While I will not dispute Smith's insight into the importance of self-interest as a motivating factor in economics, the Shakers certainly throw doubt upon the degree to which self-interest can be assumed to be the only, or even primary, driver of economic activity.

Each person in a Shaker society was given what was necessary for life and health, whether efficient or not, whether healthy or sick, young or old. No one was directly remunerated for their work and yet each was diligent in its performance.

Drawing upon US agricultural and manufacturing census records for the years 1850-1880, Metin Coşgel and John Murray were able to compare the productivity of Shakers to contemporary non-communal enterprises of equivalent size and conditions. They found that the Shakers were consistently as productive, sometimes more so, than others. Shakers also sacrificed some productivity to produce the diversity of crops that made for a livable domestic economy. Coşgel and Murray speculate that the Shakers must have had some motivation other than direct pecuniary gain.

It is not difficult to see that several things may form a complex of alternative motivations. The Shakers had an intensely liturgical life in a broad sense of that word: their work was deeply related to their Christian practice and so was understood as a part of a 'story'. Working together may make for happier workers but it also facilitates the efficacy of shame mechanisms. In this sense, communal work was supervised work.

That Shakers' productivity levels are comparable with those of firms which were motivated more by self-interest is not the only feature of Shakerism worthy of note. While it was important to be productive, productivity was subordinated to other concerns such as a diverse, rich - if frugal - communal sharing of the products of their labour. All the products made or grown by the Shakers were first for the community and surplus was sold. This had a dampening effect on overall productivity, especially where labour intensive perishable vegetable crops are concerned. Certain costs could be borne for the sake of communal maintenance. Community was more important than commerce.

Certain tasks took on the nature of forming people in the rhythms and patterns of Shaker life. In the same way that the economics of our time forms us, often unconsciously, the Shakers were formed, knowingly, by an economy they saw as participation in heaven.
"...the management of a hotbed 'is quite particular, and requires you to be thoughtful and regular; but this is only promoting a good habit; and if you were inclined to forgetfulness, it would almost justify keeping one expressly for that purpose." - Rita Buchanan, The Shaker Herb and Garden Book
We may not agree with all of even much of Shaker thought or theology, but there seems to be something in their practice to which we might pay heed. They put questions to us like, 'How are we formed by our economic life?', 'How does our work participate in the fullness of creation?', and 'What is our primary motivation and how does it impact on the organisation of our lives?'

7[The brothers] must not become distressed if local conditions or their poverty should force them to do the harvesting themselves. 8When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks. 9Yet, all things are to be done with moderation on account of the fainthearted.” - RB 48.7-9

Taken as a whole, I believe these three lines of the Rule of St Benedict (RB) represent a complex, sensitive and beautiful picture which speaks deeply to our age. It took me some time to appreciate them, however. When first read them, I took note only of the eighth and ninth line. I confess to having an ideological inclination towards living by manual labour and my interest was piqued by the lines which rang with the resonances of my heart. I read the ninth line as the characteristic sensitivity of the RB and so was pleased at it but afraid for my ideology. Later I came back and read the whole of chapter 46 in which these lines occur, entitled 'The Daily Manual Labour' and was troubled to read line 7 for it seemed to me that it marred the whole chapter by seating it in a context not unlike our own in which other (lesser) people perform the most distasteful tasks of life, usually those most intimately concerned with our daily bread. From being troubled, as I struggled with the text I began to feel joy and then I thrilled at the wonderful symmetry of it. The text gently, yet insistently (and so graciously) ushers us into the resurrection life, the life of secure, just, landedness. It forms no ideology but encourages us in the narrow way in which we are ever in danger of leaving some behind or taking the wider road of numbing comfort. It is a way in which the dangers will never cease to be dangers and might only be averted by our immersion in a counter-story which is aware of the perils is faces.

I am not equipt to make any kind of authoritative statement about the fuller meaning of the text, I wish only to use it as a point of beginning to discuss some of the themes that arise from it for me. For this reason I have begun with my personal encounter. My purpose in writing is to consider what these lines of the RB speak to us in the context of global warming and a future of lower energy. I don't think that this global climate is what makes movement into gaining our sustenance by manual labour a Christian thing to do, I believe that this climate makes this Christian thing to do a necessary thing, one of the few possibilities of being Good News in the coming time. It is an expression of wholeness characteristic of the new life that we have in Christ. In this way, while 'monks' are spoken of throughout what is below, 'monks' might be traded for 'followers of Jesus' or 'disciples'. This is a hard thing and confusing. Rather than being troubled by it, I begin with Benedict and say loudly 'do not become distressed'.

'They must not become distressed'

I suspect that the distress spoken of here is born of two things. On the one hand there is distress at the nature of the work itself; harvesting is hard work, that's why we get others to do it! This is a distress at what is being asked of us in the present. On the other hand, there is the distress of becoming aware of how complex and difficult is the task ahead of us. Harvesting is hard work and yet it forms only the beginning of a fuller work for which we are ill prepared. This is the distress at what might be asked of us in the future. Like us, Benedict and the monks of Cassino were facing a transitional time in which tasks foreign to them may have been becoming more necessary. The following quote illustrates something of the times:

“The rule of St Benedict was written at a moment of change ... The fragmentation of Europe, the disappearance of political and economic unity and control, the rift between the eastern empire and the western kingdoms were widening. In the chaos and turmoil of the age that followed the monasteries of westen Europe, from being places of withdrawal from a world that was seething with political and social activity, gradually became centres of light and life ... While kingdoms changed hands and the great estates were broken up, the monastery, self-supporting and self-sufficient, could often remain. It became a nucleus that could escape destruction when towns were destroyed ...” - David Knowles, Christian Monasticism, p37

Here is a picture of what monasteries were able to become within a time of tumult. That monasteries were able somehow to be 'centres of light and life' is a testimony to the obedience of the brothers but was apparently not an easy thing. The picture given by

“They must not become distressed if local conditions or their poverty should force them to do the harvesting themselves.”

is not one of ease which suddenly encounters a nasty reality from which it will soon retreat again. It is one more like our own, in which the disciplines required to approach a different time are yet ill-formed in us, inclining us towards becoming distressed. Distress keeps us from our present and future work. Distress signifies an imagination which has not yet been fully formed by a God which 'brings us out', through the desert, into the land which has been promised. In Christ are the desert and the land brought together in one person. In Christ death is made merely a step in a life which bears no suppression. Death is no longer to be feared. We might be tempted to say with the Israelites:

“If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

only to be find ourselves caught up in God's glory:

“In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD ... At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.” Exodus 16:6-7;21

If we keep from imagining our life only in slavery, that is, if we keep from becoming distressed and so grasping for comfort, then we shall discover that there is sustenance given for our freedom, that our life will not be stopped as we look to the One who is crucified-and-risen.

Benedict's council, seated in a circumstance in which monks are dependent, like us, on unjust economic patters and systems, is one which would open us to a patient hope. There is work to be done in the present which will form the possibility of an imaginative work in the future. Benedict and his monks were in a similar struggle to us, that of extricating themselves from complicity in dehumanising ways; indeed, as with us, it seemed impossible. Obedience to Benedict's word that 'they must not become distressed' allowed them to be opened to becoming 'centres of light and life.' There is in this statement at once an empathy for our natural fear of 'harvesting ourselves', of the desert, of death, indeed of life which seems like death, and a gentle yet insistent call that we allow ourselves to be formed by the One who is crucified-and-risen and who provides for our life in the desert, leading us into life, lest we settle for our present slavery.

'When they live by the labour of their hands'

“When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks.”

Here is no ambiguous statement: a community of monks draws closer to the very heart of the Christian vocation by gaining their sustenance by the work of their hands. This statement flows out of what it is to be a community of persons, it is not a response conditioned by any one social, political or economic context, however relevant it was and is. In this way, Benedict appeals to the self-sustained life of 'our fathers and the apostles' as a model of Christian life. This fact gives all the more reason for celebration; the very life that it seems more and more necessary that we pursue in response to our present circumstance is a life which is in fact a more Christian life and so a more human one in which God might better be loved. It is, as Peter Maurin would say, 'the kind of society where it would be easier for people to be good.' Rowan Williams expresses this well:

“The self that is brought into the light in study and prayer is a self that lives in a material world where crises and limitations call for response. Yet the identity of the monk is not exclusively or even primarily that of a producer, a pair of hands. The mind and heart have to be both self-aware and turned away from self towards a God who is to be praised. So labour exists in order for there to be a growing conscious self, expanding into the awareness of joy in God's presence, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love (Prol.). The balance of the day's rhythm is directed towards that state of being aware of advancing towards God in everything.” - Rowan Williams, 'Benedict and the future of Europe'

Life must be ordered and directed towards the love of God. The best context for this is a life in which responsibility is taken for the material upkeep of that life. So Williams says, with uncompromising force echoing Benedict's own statement:

“Benedict has no expectation that the monastery will be dependent on anything other than the work of its members...” - Rowan Williams, 'Benedict and the future of Europe'

That is, there is no way in which we might play off work against prayer. A delicate whole is formed by the work we do for our bread and the work we do in the oratory (in hope of the bread of Tomorrow); neither can exist healthily apart from the other. The labour is not one that is subservient to prayer in some facile way, however. It is not a labour which is done merely to break up the day or keep fit or satisfy creative impulses, though it will have these benefits. Labour is minimally directed towards the actual material maintenance of a community directed towards hospitable independence. The very activity of gaining our living by our own labour benefits our prayer; it is a kind of work that might become prayer because it can be called 'good'.

'Yet, all things are to be done with moderation'

No sooner than we are thrust into an exciting yet terrible dusk by the force of the statement about living by the labour of our hands there comes a spoon of honey.

“Yet, all things are to be done with moderation on account of the fainthearted.”

No one is to be drowned in the tide of ideology. No one will be sacrificed!

This penetrating vision of a monasticism which gains its bread by manual labour with prayerfullness is flanked by equally penetrating analyses of a seemingly immovable and compromising economic reality and the limits within, and so of, any community of people.

This is no mere sugar coated pill, however. Here is a physic whose centre draws us into a hope which has the peculiar bitterness of the material shape of love. It is yet sweeter at its core than any honeyed foretaste. This has not been our accustomed diet. We are grown comfortable on the fleshpots of Egypt. Even so, those whom the fleshpots have afforded little strength and those who are wearied by slavery must not be left for dead nor abandoned at the side of a desert road when Pharaoh pursues. No, all must go together. Slowly. Gently and yet surely, for our hope is sure.

Our hope is for the day when all shall live beneath their vine and fig tree. We proceed toward that hope by being moved together into a material justice from a compromised place while there is yet grace for us. The very movement is our grace.

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Practical Considerations: a cruciform (and crucial) ark

“A sign has been given. The powerless have here and now received a plot of earth, for they have the Church and its fellowship, its goods, its brothers and sisters, in the midst of persecutors even to the length of the cross. The renewal of the earth begins at Golgotha, where the meek One died, and from thence it will spread. When the kingdom finally comes, the meek shall possess the earth.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p100

The task ahead of us is a daunting one, however sensitively it is approached, and it is not one which we can afford to approach with anything less than a sensitive seriousness. How are we to find ourselves living from the patch of earth which belongs to the meek; the patch made ark by the One who would have us give to those who ask of us? In the next ten years the preparations we make for the future vitality of our more frugal but potentially more joyful lives and communities will be crucial.

Our present action is composite. It consists of actions we must perform to sustain ourselves in the present as well as actions we must take to propagate a cruciform life for ourselves and others in the future. That is, without a desperation born of distress but with a discipline born of patient hope, we must act now in such a way as to sustain our communities in the present, without sacrifice, as well as design in a way which is cognisant of the coming time. As with Noah, the relevance of many of the actions we must take now will not be manifest until the conditions anticipated by them are manifest also. The ark is cruciform not because it is somehow forever suffering. It is cruciform because its builders and inhabitants do not wither at living the resurrection life in the present. Its builders and inhabitants do not shirk the responsibility of opening up to the meek, creating a place for them and themselves becoming meek. The earth is inherited a patch at a time.

'It's easier to build an ark on dry ground'.

Above I mentioned 'the next ten years'. This is not some kind of apocalyptic calculation nor a strict guide. Some with whom I am inclined to agree believe that it is in the time following the next ten years that we will begin to see the most dramatic changes, particularly the effects of declining fossil fuel energy. Again, it must be said 'do not become distressed.'

Fossil fuel energy is a gift. It is a gift which we have squandered yet a gift nonetheless. We have gained the leisure and resources for the accumulation and distribution of knowledge and information in a way which is unprecedented. We have the ability now to use fossil fuel energy as a gift, to choose not to squander it. We must ask, what is it fitting to do in this time where cheap energy is still available? To remain in our metaphor, what use might we make of the fact that the surface of the earth is not yet drowned in water? It is easier to build an ark on dry ground. We might think how to make available the present technology, knowledge and resources, in tandem with our leisure, to create systems which are catalysed by yet do not require high energy.

An ark that will float.

The cruciform ark which we are called to build has the timeless quality of the society in which we live by the labour of our hands 'as our fathers and the apostles did' and requires some analysis of the time into which we are heading. We might be guided, then, by ongoing efforts to live by the work of our hands with a consciousness of what that will require of us in a time of lower energy. The term 'energy-descent' used by the permaculturalist David Holmgren describes the gradual decline of available energy following the age of fossil fuels. That the decline be gradual is of course the most desirable possibility. If it is not gradual it might be described as 'collapse'. It is one of these circumstances that I believe will constitute the future in which we will be called to incarnate Jesus Christ. That incarnation will be aided by our ability to design for a future time using the knowledge of past and present low-energy systems. The degree of experimentation that is allowed to us in the present must be directed towards and contained within a longer view; a design which includes a diversity that will be proven over time.

By way of illustrating design for a low-energy future we might...

... gain access to land or make space available on land available to us from which we will be able to gain a livelihood when transportation of some goods and services becomes less practical or impossible.

... develop communities and communal structures / patterns of work with an awareness of directing our work towards greater subsistence.

Again, these are but a few examples. It is important to act now, to design now, with an awareness of the possible conditions of a future time. I am aware that there is a certain discordant note struck by including anything like 'practical considerations' in reflections of this nature. As I have said, they are by no means programmatic or prescriptive, they are far too simplistic and decontextualised for that. I have risked including this section dominantly because I do not want to stop at nice sounding words. I want to make clear that there are real practical things to consider which may bring real sweat to our brows. In later posts I would like to consider further approaches to the actions we might take.


We are entering into an uncertain time and there is work to be done. The work is hard as are all works which bring us more deeply into our true selves. To paraphrase Peter Maurin, 'we must use the whole person so that we may become holy people.' We are so used to the alienation of parts of ourselves that we easily forget that there is yet a better life for us. In his Rule, Benedict provides us, I believe, with an invaluable picture. The hard work of being opened to the sustenance which God provides, the work of closing ourselves to the comfort of slavery is to be embarked upon with full knowledge of the scandal that it may cause us and our brethren. We are just as likely to shirk the task as to embrace it while leaving behind those who need a gentler path than our fear will allow us. Nevertheless, when we live by the labour of our hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then we are really monks.

Fruitful Conversations

In the prologue to On Christian Theology, Rowan Williams develops a typology of theological expression. He describes three 'moments' of theology: celebratory, communicative and critical. The first two have provided me with a way to describe my purposes for this space. The former, or celebratory mode, Williams describes as having the intention:

"less to argue than to evoke a fullness of vision."
This struck a chord in me. I do not want the things I write here to be merely interesting, though even that is a difficult task which I am not sure I can rise to.

To exemplify the second, he gives liberation theology's productive use of Marxist categories. In the communicative mode:
"The assumption is that this or that intellectual idiom not only offers a way into fruitful conversation with the current environment but also that the unfamiliar idiom may uncover aspects of the deposit of belief hitherto unexamined."
I would like to attempt to have fruitful conversations to evoke a fullness of vision. Many traditions which are not properly part of Christian discourse provide us with ways in to the 'deposit of belief' in such a way that we find in them deeply Christian resonances, even if we are unable to assimilate them in toto.

It is my intention that this space become somewhere for fruitful conversations to occur with more marginal (often called sectarian) parts of the Christian traditions, permaculture, agrarianism, communalism and anarcho-communism. For me, these have evoked a more full vision and I believe that they provide ways in to some of the biblical resonances which struggle to be heard in our times. I realise that for many these traditions may appear irrelevant or threatening or hostile and this would not be without reason. Nevertheless, I believe that a discerning approach to these conversations can be transformative and conversional for all concerned.

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