Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). A stoic.
The Gospel lesson for this week (August 4th 2019, Year C) is Luke 12:13-21. In it God says to the rich man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” (The meaning and sadness of these words was brought home to all of us when we learned just two days later that one of the members of our congregation passed away suddenly — to our knowledge her health had been good up until then.)
This Gospel also speaks to those of us who understand that climate change will have drastic, even catastrophic, effects on our way of life. Our way of life will not end in a single night, but it is coming to an end. Many Christians are working diligently to slow down the pace of change and/or mitigate the consequences. But, when we look at the magnitude of the predicaments that we face and at the overall feebleness of our political response, these actions often feel futile. (This loss of hope — even a feeling of despair — can be seen in web sites such as reddit's Collapse. The writers at such sites may be exaggerating the scope of our difficulties, but their attitude is real.)
A danger with this way of thinking is that it could lead people to develop a sense of fatalism, a feeling that that events are fixed in advance and that human beings are powerless to change the future. In the words of Socrates,
If you don't get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don't want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can't hold on to it forever.
Which brings us to this week's Gospel reading.
The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’
But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!
We see that Jesus recognized and understood the fatalistic approach to life. But the above passage makes the point that we should not just give in to fate, we must actively pursue a more spiritual life in such time as is left available to us. Specifically in the context of the Age of Limits, we should have two responses to this passage.
First, we should not just give in — we should do what we think is the right thing to do when faced with the dilemmas of climate change, resource depletion, biosphere destruction and over-population. The second response is not to give in to the siren call of 'hopium' with an attitude of “they will think of something”. It is our responsibility as Christians to understand the scary implications of the phrase, “It is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet.”
The philosophy of stoicism provides a middle ground between despondency and hopium. It is a way of thought that was founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BCE. He had been a wealthy merchant but he was literally washed up when a merchant ship that he owned sank in a storm, taking all his possessions to the bottom of the sea. Others, including Christians, who have followed in his footsteps are the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Nelson Mandela, who did so much to free the people of South Africa. In the first century CE the stoic way of thought was widespread throughout the Roman empire, with the City of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul’s hometown, being one of its centers. Scholars debate the extent to which the writings of the Apostle Paul were influenced by the stoicism.
One of Zeno’s followers, Epictetus, summarized this way of thinking when he said,
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.
In the year 2017 the following image from the Second World War went viral. It was prepared in the year 1939 by the British government in anticipation of air raids of cities by the German air force. It is stoic.
Or, as Hamlet put it, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
In short, we should focus on goals, not on outcomes — an approach that is the antithesis of coach Lombardi’s, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
Stoics recognize that nothing lasts. Two generations from now, few people will remember either myself or you, dear reader. Marcus Aurelius himself said, “Alexander the Great, and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”
Stoicism also recognizes that we do not control external events. But we can control our thoughts and our actions — including the manner in which we respond to those external events. Indeed, for many people the very word “philosophy” has come to mean stoicism. When something unfortunate happens to us, we are encouraged to be “philosophical”, i.e., to accept the consequences without complaint. Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known serenity prayer is stoic.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Stoics urge us to confront fears head on. So, if you are worried about the consequences of living a more basic lifestyle as a result of resource depletion and climate change then try it and see how you cope. For example, if you have a modern air-conditioned home and you live in a hot climate, try turning off the air conditioning at the height of summer for a week or two. You will be uncomfortable, but you will survive. And you will be better prepared if the power should go down for a long period of time. In other words, “Collapse now and avoid the rush”.
The four pillars of the stoic way of life are:
Courage / Fortitude
Most Christians would accept these four tenets with little debate. However, there is one important difference between stoicism and Christianity. Stoicism says, “Live well, because in the end, what difference does it make?” Christians say, “Live well, because in the end, it makes all the difference.” (Flynn 2018).
The Christian message is one of realistic hope — lying somewhere between fatalism and hopium.