Supreme fictions and reality's rules —Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction: Grace Limits for the 21st Century (Conditions for Existence). Thus sayeth the Lord…

Bill Anders' photo of Earthrise taken from Apollo 8 (December 1968)
The relationship this address has with Holy Week is as follows. Many times over the past few years I've used the term God-or-Nature (or God-or-Reality) to help move along the project of divinizing the natural and naturalizing the divine. In most Christian traditions Jesus' execution on the cross was, in some way, the death of God. Well, today, (as another supreme fiction) I'm suggesting that it might be helpful to see that by our behaviour we're putting earth on the cross and killing it (her). The hymn we sang at the end of the Sunday service takes the famous Passion Chorale —"O Sacred Head, now wounded"—and replaces Jesus with the earth. In consequence we sang "O sacred earth, now wounded". You can find the lyric at the very end of this post.


The British newspaper, The Guardian, began the week with a deeply disturbing headline:

“February breaks global temperature records by ‘shocking’ amount. Warnings of climate emergency after surface temperatures 1.35C warmer than average temperature for the month”

In the article they quoted Stefan Rahmstorf, from Germany’s Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research who said

We are in a kind of climate emergency now . . . . This is really quite stunning . . . it’s completely unprecedented.” 

If you looked carefully through the mainstream British media this week you could find a few follow up pieces connected with this news but you had to try very hard. As James Dyke, Lecturer in Complex Systems Simulation, University of Southampton, noted in his piece for “The Conversation” and reprinted in “The Guardian”:

“Know what’s trending on Twitter as I write? A photoshopped giant dog, the latest Game of Thrones trailer and Kim Kardashian’s naked body. Actually, it’s mainly Kim Kardashian’s naked body and people’s responses to it. Followed by people’s responses to the responses.
     “It would be churlish of me to deny people the pleasure of looking at pictures of a photograph of a cuddly dog adjusted in order to make it appear both cute and monstrous. But we appear disinterested, either through denial or desensitisation, to the environmental changes happening right in front of our eyes.”

The pressing question is what on earth could/would make us interested? In more ancient days it appears that a message from god, mediated through a prophet, would have helped. At the beginning of the book of Amos (c. 750 BC) we read:

And he said:
The Lord roars from Zion,
   and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds wither,
   and the top of Carmel dries up.

As many of you know these opening lines stand at the head of a series of dreadful, fiery judgements upon the people for failing to listen and respond properly to god’s authority and commands. God’s fire was, here, certainly an image saying to the people of the time that their world was going to warm up in a very, very bad way. Amos’ aim was, of course get the people to see that if they didn’t get right with their god then their tribulations would only continue and worsen, so, Amos says, repent and change your ways now!

Of course, there was never any guarantee that the people would listen to god through the prophet — and even if they did that they would, in fact, be spared destruction (because, after all, such a god really doesn’t seem to exist) — but in an age when belief that god would speak through a prophet was still very real, there was a chance, having issued the warning, that the people would sit up and change their ways — pronto.

But we, in the UK and Europe anyway, live in a largely secular age in which it has become impossible for many (most?) of us to believe in the existence of such a supernatural and interventionist god who is going to speak through an identifiable prophet to whom we really should listen. This simply doesn’t show up to us as a live and plausible possibility.

As I thought about this Heidegger’s 1966 interview in Der Spiegel magazine immediately came to mind. In it he was asked:

SPIEGEL: “. . . Can the individual man in any way still influence this web of fateful circumstance [connected with technology]? Or, indeed, can philosophy influence it? Or can both together influence it, insofar as philosophy guides the individual, or several individuals, to a determined action?”

To which he famously, and notoriously, replied:

Heidegger: “If I may answer briefly, and perhaps clumsily, but after long reflection: philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavour. Only a god can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in [our] decline, insofar as in view of the absent god we are in a state of decline.”

In the pressing context of contemporary climate change one thing we can be absolutely sure about is that the supernatural god of old is simply not going to “Bow hither out of heaven and see and save” us from our ecological folly (or indeed any other of our follies).

Although it’s not entirely clear what Heidegger meant by “Only a God can save us” I have always been powerfully struck by his suggestion that “The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god.” He seems to be hinting at a possibility that intrigued the great modern poet Wallace Stevens throughout his life, namely, the idea of a supreme fiction — “an idea that would serve as a fictive replacement for the idea of God, known to be fictive but willfully believed.”

In the sphere of political theology the person who, for me, is most effectively exploring the idea of a supreme fiction is the philosopher Simon Critchley, especially in his important recent book “The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology” some elements of which I’ve introduced to you before.

Although Critchley is also aware of this, in the explicit context of theology and climate change, for me the most intriguing and amenable exploration of a supreme fiction is found in the work of the American Progressive Christian minister, author, and eco-theologian Michael Dowd who has had a long relationship with our sister church in the USA the Unitarian Universalist Association. 

Dowd insists that God is “not an invisible friend or otherworldly entity” but, instead, “a mythic personification of reality”.  So, for example, he says,

“Poseidon was not the god of the oceans, as if some supernatural entity separate from water was looking down from on high or rising from the deep. Poseidon was the personification of the incomprehensibly powerful and capricious seas! The same, of course, is true of Neptune.”

As I mentioned last week, Dowd said in his recent TED talk,

“Language changes over time, and words create worlds. What we call Reality, the ancients called God, or if you lived in a polytheistic culture, the gods. These were personifications of our inner and outer reality. This fundamental insight not only makes sense of religious differences and bridges the science-religion divide, it also clarifies our way into the future.”

In other words, for Dowd, “Reality” is the secular word for “God”, and climate change (and all the scientific evidence we have gathered to show that it’s a real and pressing danger to our continued survival) is the way Reality is speaking to us through the evidence in a way that we once believed God spoke to us through prophets like Amos.

And what is Reality, or God, telling us through prophet scientists? Well, now you get to hear/see/read God or Reality’s “Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction.”

As always I leave you to decide whether to heed these commands or not.

Thus sayeth the Lord!

Here's Michael Dowd's video presentation of the "Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction”:

And here is a simple, text only version:

Reality’s Rules — Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction
Grace Limits for the 21st Century (Conditions for Existence)
Thus sayeth the Lord…

1. Stop thinking of me as anything less than the voice of undeniable and inescapable Reality.

“Imagining that I am a clockmaker outside a clockwork Universe is a form of idolatry — an unreal notion of me — that is creating hell on Earth and leading to your own extinction. The Universe is not a machine; it is my voice and my hands!

“Reality is my secular name and the Cosmos is my local Self. If you don’t honour my presence within Time and Nature, your grandchildren, and theirs, will condemn you and your religion.”

2. Stop thinking of ‘divine revelation’ and ‘God’s word’ apart from evidence.

“Imagining that my most important and up-to-date guidance was provided thousands of years ago belittles me — and has made you blind and deaf to what I have been revealing for centuries now through all forms of evidence. Your scientific, historic, and cross-cultural discoveries, discerned through global collective intelligence, are my evidential revelation.

“Facts are my native tongue and trends are my bullhorn. If you fail to honour evidence as modern- day scripture — more authoritative than elders and ancient texts — you will perish.”

3. Stop thinking of Genesis, or your creation story, apart from Big History.

“The history of everyone and everything that I have revealed through evidence, including what you call ‘green history,’ or ‘environmental history,’ must be incorporated into your Creation myths and sacred rituals as rapidly as possible.

“Without a factual view of my deep-time creativity, extending over billions of years, you will have a pathetic notion of me and how I reveal truth, a trivial view of science and religion, and a dysfunctional and even suicidal understanding of your past, present, and possible futures.”

4. Stop thinking of theology apart from ecology.

“Nature’s ways are my ways. When you overshoot the carrying capacity of the land, air, and sea — when you dishonour Grace Limits through overpopulation, overexploitation, or pollution beyond Nature’s ability to transform it — you betray me and condemn future generations.

“Thinking that you could worship me without honouring my Nature — which, of course, includes the soil, forests, and everything upon which you depend — is idolatry. Repent of your human- centred theologies and come home to me, to Reality, to your true Self. The entire Earth community will be rooting for you.”

5. Stop defining and measuring ‘progress’ in short-term, human-centred ways.

“Making decisions with the seventh generation in mind isn’t just a good idea; to do otherwise is evil. You must immediately begin measuring progress, growth, and success in ways that honour Primary Reality — for example, by how rapidly you can de-carbonize the atmosphere, build soil, restore wetlands, reforest the land, and preserve other species and their habitats.

“To think that you could master and control my Nature is proof of your idolatry. Humble yourselves and work with, rather than against, the restorative and regenerative dynamics of this living planet. Doing so will enable you, over time, to restore the Garden you so foolishly defiled in your anthropocentric hubris.”

6. Stop allowing the free or subsidized polluting of the commons.

“Externalizing the true costs and environmental impacts of your business activities onto society, the community of life, or the future is not merely short-sighted; it is evil. Repent and redesign your economic system so that it mimics the laws of ecology. And stop creating chemicals and technologies that defile my Nature.

“The impact that individuals, corporations, and nations have on the larger body of Life, for good or ill, must be reflected back to them. Only then will they be incentivized to do what is right, just, and ecological, and deterred from doing what is wrong, unjust, and reprehensible.”

7. Stop using renewable resources faster than they can be replenished.

“Unsustainable is just a pretty word for evil . . . how is this not obvious? My grace is boundless only if you honour my Nature and don’t exceed the rate at which my living systems — soil, forests, groundwater, oceans, ecologies — can renew themselves.

“Limits are sacred and must be honoured! As you are now painfully discovering, the story of Adam and Eve is about dishonouring Grace Limits, not disobedience.

“Stop driving other species — plants and animals alike — to extinction. It is both foolish and self- destructive to dishonour the living beings inside of you and outside you that make your life possible. Do whatever it takes to preserve biodiversity, including ethically reducing your numbers and assisting other species in migrating as the climate shifts.”

8. Stop using non-renewable resources in ways that harm or rob future generations.

“All metals, minerals, and other non-renewable resources should be recycled as close to one hundred percent as possible. Your energy intensive, throwaway culture of greed — what you deceptively refer to as a ‘global free market’ — is an abomination.

“To reduce your use of non-renewable resources you must re-inhabit your local communities, your watersheds, your bioregions; there’s no other way. Simplify your lifestyles and become a blessing to your human and non-human neighbours — and, thus, to posterity. In so doing you will become saviours, rather than destroyers, of the future. Regardless of beliefs, the former are Christians; the later, anti-Christians.”

9. Stop exploring for coal, oil, and natural gas—keep most of it in the ground!

“You must reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions as much as possible, as rapidly as possible. Given that you already have five times more fossil fuels in reserve than is needed to create hell on Earth and drive you to extinction, it is insane to keep exploring for more.

“And for my sake, and yours — but especially for the sake of your grandchildren, and theirs — don’t rely on hopes, prayers, or techno-fix miracles. Rather, reduce your consumption habits and energy use substantially and immediately!”

10. Stop prioritizing the wants of the wealthy over the needs of the poor.

“When I said, ‘the love of money is the root of all evil,’ and ‘whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me,’ I meant it! Periodic jubilees, or occasions of general and generous debt forgiveness, are not optional; they are necessary if you hope to avoid societal breakdown.

“Your current economic system rewards the few at the expense of the many, measures progress by how fast it can turn the biosphere into pollution, and forces billions to betray the future in pursuit of the so-called ‘good life.’ The fact that you don’t call this demonic (which it is) is further proof of your idolatry.

“When your local and regional economies honour Grace Limits and the wellbeing of my Nature first, and when you stop making excuses for the inexcusable gap between rich and poor, then and only then will a just, healthy, beautiful, and sustainably life-giving future be yours.”


O sacred earth, now wounded, 
what have we done to thee? 
The carnage is unbounded, 
for all our eyes to see. 
Thy air and soil and water 
are poisoned by our greed; 
thy forests we do slaughter 
to serve our every need.

So fierce in our ambitions 
we’ve entered sunlight’s field, a
nd armed with strong emissions 
we’ve torn apart its shield; 
and ever there is waiting 
our bomb’s immortal fire, 
the flower of all our hating, 
eternal glowing pyre.

The time has come for grieving, 
to bow our heads, and pause; 
and we must cease believing 
that we may break earth’s laws. 
The time has come to worship 
this place, where we belong; 
to consecrate our earthship 
with prayer, and verse, and song.

And then to start restoring 
our earth, with our own hands, 
with work, with love outpouring, 
with laws throughout the lands; 
to bring the nations nearer 
with every quest for peace, 
until, as hope grows clearer, 
our war on earth may cease. 

Lyric by Martha M. Pikrell