Michael Dowd, post-doom theologian
This past Tuesday, theologian Michael Dowd presented to the Tuesday theology group over Zoom. Listen to a recap of his theology, one participant put it best, “You’re not exactly Susie Sunshine, Michael.” That he is not. And he took this comment as a compliment. Dowd calls himself a post-doom Christian theologian. What is that? He is no longer fretting about the collapse of creation or human civilization as we know it, trusting that creation will continue in some form post climate-collapse. He says that while our consciousness may not continue, he takes heart that our memory and presence continues. Continuity in the sense our bodies will decompose into the earth and be reformed into whatever comes next. Dowd cares for his infant granddaughter several days a week, but says he doesn’t expect she will live beyond her 20th birthday (which sounds like a warped fairy tale spell). Nevertheless he finds joy in cherishing the moments he does have and in advocating for people to do the right thing morally advocating for care of creation and neighbours. Even if it won’t change outcomes of the world collapsing, he calls us to trust that God is present in us and with us in the midst of whatever happens. Dowd says his theological outlook is finding joy rooted in faith in a world in which hope is no longer possible.
To be charitable to Dowd, he does not conclude that we should do nothing. Just the opposite, do what brings joy and what is faithful to Jesus’ call to love neighbour. In other words his vision of the life of a Christian disciple remains unchanged. He just doesn’t think humans will play much of a role in the future because his interpretation of climate science suggests collectively we will experience a mass extinction event due to extreme famine or another catastrophic event.
This may not come as a surprise that several of us found this theological outlook unsatisfying. Not that we want to cling to false hope, but it seems too easy to say nothing can be done to change climate outcomes. It’s also a privileged position to be comfortable with what he calls a post-doom theology, rather than doing the hard work of organizing and fighting for change. Understand that my interpretation here is based upon a little over an hour-long conversation with Dowd. I encourage you to check out more of Michael Dowd’s work to get a full-some picture of this ideas.
Gospel: Matthew 25
To be charitable to Dowd and those who think climate collapse within our lifetime is inevitable, we still find a lot of common ground in the gospel. Today’s gospel from Matthew 25 is especially poignant on the Reign of Christ. Despite all the fanfare end times Bible passages evokes, the heart of this gospel passage comes down to selfless actions of love towards neighbours. While there are vivid images of God’s judgment, this passage is not a law-based tallying of good works. This isn’t a Santa Claus God tallying up who is naughty and who is nice. Instead it is a parable urging us collectively to live lives rooted in grace and love. (Dirk G. Lange, 2020)
Note that the people described who are put at God’s right hand, seem unaware of the future before them. They do not act out of anticipation of a divine reward. They ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?” They do not count themselves as “saved” in any self-righteous sense.
In contrast the people judged harshly also do not foresee the future. They respond with shock when God judges them having fallen short of love of neighbour. And yet their ignorance whether real or feigned is not enough to get them off the hook.
Interpreting these parable through Michael Dowd’s theology, I can imagine him saying, go then and be like the faithful ones. Do acts of love toward neighbour and creation, as though you do not know what the future holds. Those who fail to do these acts are what have visited judgment upon us. Failure to take climate change seriously. Failure to make tough decisions that share resources fairly. Collectively we live with this failure to act. And yet whatever the future brings, does nothing to diminish our faithful calling to follow Jesus today. To care for our children today. To care for creation today. To demand justice and restitution from power brokers today. To demand an end to racism and queer-phobia today.
What Matthew 25 teaches us is that all of us abide together in moments of grace. Whatever our outlook of the future. Whether we think the earth or humanity can be brought back from the brink, our Christian discipleship remains the same. That much we can agree together with Michael Dowd. I suggest we bracket out the far off future in the same way the righteous ones in the gospel parable bracket it out. They do not act in regard for divine reward. They simply get on with doing the faithful work of loving neighbour.
What does that look like today?
What does faithful discipleship look like today? I think about the hundreds of people living in tent cities in Greater Victoria parks. Sometimes we see our own homes through different perspectives when friends or family come to visit (prior to the pandemic). Family and friends from Europe have marvelled at how in North America we accept hundreds of people living on the streets or in parks. I remember one person saying, “Even poor countries in Eastern Europe have better living standards for poor people. No one has to sleep on the street.” It is pointing out something obvious that we have grown too comfortable with. Municipalities that cannot solve housing crises on their own and provincial and federal governments that have failed to invest in enough public housing over decades, resulting in an even bigger crisis. A bit like failing to fix leaks in a roof over time and then being surprised when you’re told you need a new roof.
Thinking about trans neighbours and Trans Day of Remembrance this past Friday. Ways in which we show up for trans folks in the church and in the community. Confessing that the Lutheran church until relatively recently valued protecting the status quo of straight relationships over valuing trans lives. And still openly queer candidates for ministry struggle to find first calls in comparison to non-queer peers. We think about ways in which trans people are more likely to be attacked and killed. We think about ways we continue to show up for trans neighbours.
In terms of climate change, living on the island we are more aware than some places the risks of rising sea level. People joke that if you cannot afford sea front property, just wait 10-20 years and you might get lucky. We hear that old growth forest continues to be logged on the island despite there little of it left. We realize that even on the island, seemingly teeming with environmental groups, it remains a struggle to fight against well financed economic interests who enjoy an access to political leaders and decision making, that we lack as everyday citizens.
And yet the gospel reminds us we continue to love our neighbour and fight injustice, bracketing out future consequences. We continue walking forward together, trusting in Christ, not because of divine reward or guarantee of success, but because that’s what following Jesus looks like. Standing in our common gospel calling, it doesn’t matter whether we share the same hope for the future, because it’s answering Jesus’ call today that matters.
Whatever you need the future to be, to aid you in this gospel work, that’s okay. If you need a more hopeful future outlook, then that’s okay. If you can abide in a faithfulness that makes no promises about the future, that’s okay. This is where community care comes in. We meet one another where we are at.
Suffering from depression or anxiety in the midst of a pandemic.
Feeling concerned about the future of children and grandchildren.
Feeling lonely and feeling isolated given new Covid protocols.
Feeling hopeful that we can rise to the challenges and build a better future. Wherever we find ourselves it’s okay. And I mention community care, in addition to pastoral care, because I know you are also caring for one another. Checking in on neighbours, friends, and family members.
The Board of Community of Care is calling up folks in need of special attention. Together we’re all finding ways to abide in this time faithfully. Regardless of our vision of the future, abiding in love binds us together.
Where do you find yourself?
Where do you find yourself? Whether you identify as a post-doom Christian (and whatever that entails). Whether you long for hope for the future. Whether you abide in this moment in Christ, know that you are enough. You are good enough to receive Christ’s love. Together we abide in grace, trusting that God is already out there in the world. Jesus is already calling us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for creation. Abiding in the gospel and God’s love for us is enough. Amen.