Living in 'Simple Elegance'

Having witnessed the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, it may be hard to imagine anything comforting about a whirlwind. They remind us that we are small and fragile. They come upon us with little warning, interrupting our routines and threatening our lives. And yet, in the midst of unimaginable suffering and turmoil, God finally appears to Job as a whirlwind. What is this mysterious response?

With insight and conviction, writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben probes the depths of Job’s experience—and God’s dramatic response—to offer fresh perspective on 21st century Western culture and today’s most pressing ecological concerns. Identifying global warming as “the single great crisis of our time,” The Comforting Whirlwind is McKibben’s latest effort to educate and empower his readers. In three short chapters, he deconstructs the primary assumptions driving ecological devastation and social injustice, invites his readers to envision new possibilities, and underscores the urgency of immediate action.

McKibben begins with a description of the “pious orthodoxy” of Job’s friends who, despite knowing Job to be a righteous man, allow their legalistic notion of justice to prevent them from seeing the truth of his suffering. Their initial sympathy degenerates until they can only marvel among themselves at what wicked deed he must have committed to deserve such punishment. And so it goes, when beliefs, expectations, and natural defenses make truth incomprehensible. Job’s friends could not accept that God would allow such atrocities to be committed to a righteous man, just like the Catholic Church couldn’t accept Copernicus’ theory that the earth revolved around the sun. Transitioning to our modern context, McKibben argues persuasively, “We, too, live in the grip of conventional wisdom that no longer fits easily with the observable facts.” He suggests that, in a very real sense, we in Western society still believe we are the center of creation, and that the Earth was created by God for our use.

McKibben analyzes how this conventional wisdom is expressed in our commitment to consumerism and an endless pursuit of wealth, finding challenges to both ecological and spiritual integrity. Our quest for the good life can be boiled down to the endless pursuit of economic expansion—that is, pursuit of an ever-larger GDP (with little thought given to environmental or social impacts). It is a system that only works, McKibben points out, if consumer demand continues to grow and natural resources are plentiful—and, of course, if we have enough places to store our waste, from Pepsi cans to carbon emissions. In light of the facts of global warming, species extinction, deforestation, and soil loss, it is becoming clear that we are collectively perpetuating a system that threatens the ecological integrity of the planet. Perhaps more insidiously, we live with a system that relies on the carrot-stick model of human fulfillment that keeps us focused on ourselves, always on the quest for “more.”

Thankfully McKibben doesn’t stop after diagnosing the problem. Relatively speaking, that is the easy part. Instead he sets about casting “a new vision that accommodates the facts.”

In considering possible solutions to the problems, McKibben argues for a paradigm shift. Yes, he calls for increased technology development and greater efficiency, but that of course does little to address the real problem, only the symptoms. He also advocates immediate international family planning, commenting wryly on God’s blessing in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply: “This is one injunction we can cross off our list, and the sooner the better.”

Drawing from personal experience, reflections on God’s majestic and mysterious response to Job from the whirlwind, and the power of his imagination, McKibben presents a radical vision for the future based on practices of humility and mystical joy in creation. Rather than us seeing ourselves as consumers and viewing the Earth’s resources as the key to our wealth-building and success, McKibben envisions flourishing relationships among God, people, and the Earth, in which we see ourselves as part of a larger whole of creation—but not the ultimate measure of its value. We derive fulfillment from finding our proper place in creation, from living with “simple elegance.” The alternative, as McKibben imagines, is a dreary image of a “managed” world, increasingly devoid of God’s divine presence and mystery.

In his unique way, McKibben challenges us to move beyond recycling into a more radical and fulfilling way of life. Interestingly, he offers up John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and visionary for the modern environmental movement, as an example of the fusion of humility and “wild joy” in creation. Perhaps he is as heartened as I am by a growing number of people of faith who understand the facts of the ecological crisis, hold strong stewardship values, and are increasingly living responsibly in creation.

McKibben speaks out courageously to an American society still nursing the orthodoxy of its day, and whose leaders, despite evidence of harm, relentlessly seek to roll back environmental and social protections in the name of unfettered economic growth and material gain. To me, McKibben’s most interesting theological proposition is that the essence of being made in the image of God is that we “have the ability to restrain ourselves.” I think he’s really on to something.

The Comforting Whirlwind is an excellent resource for Sunday school classes, small group discussions, and anyone who wants to think deeply and critically about the ecological (and ultimately theological) crises of our time.

Lyndsay Moseley is associate representative with Sierra Club’s Environmental Partnerships Program in Washington, D.C.

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"Living in 'Simple Elegance'"
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