Faith and Forests is a special monthly series by Joseph Frankovic. In the series, Joseph will explore how his deep connection to spirituality and faith intersects with our forests and the work of Dogwood Alliance. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by Dogwood Alliance.
This blog installment is dedicated to straight talkers—to the youth and to Aspies of all ages.
Last month, we celebrated Jane Goodall’s book Reason for Hope.1 Much of Goodall’s optimism centers on a specific demographic, namely young people. To them, she attributes boundless energy and enthusiasm, as well as the release of a powerful force when they resolve to effect change.2 We also met Michel de Montaigne, who lived in France during the 16th century. He affirmed young people, in a roundabout way, by rejecting the assumption that age and wisdom correlate directly and proportionally.3
With each passing year, my skepticism about the age-wisdom correlation grows. I have cited below evidence that nourishes that spreading skepticism, using the recent remarks of a former world leader who spoke of hope and change. Before discussing his remarks, allow me to say more in favor of the youth.
In the Synoptic Tradition, each of the Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—repeated a story about Jesus and children. Parents were bringing their children to Jesus, whom they considered to be a saintly man, so that he could touch them. On one occasion, for an unknown reason, Jesus’s disciples discouraged this activity. Objecting to their interference, Jesus transformed an awkward moment into a teaching opportunity:
ἄφετε τὰ παιδία ἔρχεσθαι πρός με καὶ μὴ κωλύετε αὐτά,
τῶν γὰρ τοιούτων ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν,
ὅς ἂν μὴ δέξηται τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ ὡς παιδίον, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθῃ εἰς αὐτήν.
Allow the children to come to me and do not hinder them
because from such as these, the kingdom of God is [constituted]. Amen—I say to you,
whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.4
Children inherently possesses a character trait that Jesus regarded as indispensable for entering his movement. Former Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University explained Jesus’s sublime remark to mean, “one has to accept the kingdom of God [i.e., of heaven] simply and without mental reservation.”5 In previous blog posts, we met Brother Bill of Chicago, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Mother Antonia of Tijuana, each of whom had this childlike quality of accepting a big, comprehensive truth without requiring qualification or seeking a limiting condition.6
Before the time of Jesus, at various moments in Judaism’s long history, shifts occurred in perception regarding how God communicated the unknown to the Jewish people. A common new way involved the Bath Kol (i.e., בת קול)—literally, the daughter voice. Professor Saul Lieberman, who taught Talmud and Rabbinics for many years at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, gave a fuller definition of the term. “Bath Kol very often means simply vox, verbum, a voice or a word heard without seeing the person who uttered it, or a word heard from a person who was not conscious of the import of his [or her] saying.”7 This definition can accommodate a range of variables regarding experiencing the daughter voice. The rabbis associated the Bath Kol with the activity of the Holy Spirit. When hearing a child’s voice, particularly when Scripture was being read or recited, the rabbis viewed this moment as favorable for experiencing the daughter voice. The rabbis also emphasized that when the daughter voice disclosed the unknown to a Jewish auditor or audience, she communicated in plain language that contained no ambiguities. Straight talk—this distinguished the Bath Kol, for example, from the utterances of Apollo and Dionysus when one or the other god spoke through the Pythia at Delphi, the ancient religious sanctuary on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.8
In one paragraph, I will assemble a distinctive set of assets that young people, including schoolchildren, bring to the contemporary struggle for inclusive justice and their right to defend the biosphere for posterity. From Goodall, we learnt that energy, enthusiasm, and commitment define young people. They release a powerful force when they commit to making change happen. Jesus attributed to children the ability to accept a comprehensive, existential truth simply and at its face value. People who need ifs and buts clarified do not enter the kingdom of heaven. The rabbis also had a few relevant details to add. First, they portrayed the daughter voice as straight talk from heaven. Secondly, they associated the daughter voice with the speech of schoolchildren, usually when they were vocalizing Scripture. Thirdly, these children were unaware when their utterances were part of the Bath Kol.
Eligible for characterization by these youthful qualifications is Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old daughter of Swedish actor Svante Thunberg and Swedish opera singer Malena Ernman. A student and young climate activist, Thunberg brings another asset to the struggle: She benefits from Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).9 In short, Thunberg inhabits a conceptual world that is mostly dichromatic—black and white with few shades of grey intervening. When the distance between reality and the narrative, between actions and the explanations for them, becomes too far-fetched, a person with Asperger’s Syndrome is likely to protest against the distortion, irrespective of the social context and cost. Think of the child character who exposed the weavers’ fabrication in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes.10 Furthermore, the two hemispheres of the Aspie brain typically clamp down on a narrow bundle of interconnected issues, interests, and subjects with the tenacity of a pit bull terrier. Thunberg’s targets are climate justice and biosphere protection. Her mind has a firm grip on the need for action to deaccelerate climate change. She recommends pulling the emergency brake, now.11
Near the beginning of this post, I briefly mentioned a former world leader who held high the banner of hope and change while on the campaign trail. I am referring to former President Barak Obama. On November 27, 2018, President Obama participated in a conversation with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III at the Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, Texas. Presidential historian Jon Meacham moderated the event, an anniversary gala to raise money for Secretary Baker’s public policy think tank. The President delivered the desired results: Over 1,000 guests attended and 5.4 million dollars were raised.12 Fifteen days later and over 5,600 miles away in Katowice, Poland, Thunberg addressed world leaders in a plenary session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as COP24–Katowice.13
Although President Obama and Ms. Thunberg’s speaking events were separated by time and geography, I will arrange another gala and replace Secretary Baker with Ms. Thunberg. I also will dismiss moderator Meacham and replace him with me, an adult who was diagnosed with ASD by a medical professional. Ms. Thunberg and I have something in common, so the reader can expect the wind to be at her back throughout this imaginary event. I did not ghostwrite the sentences for either participant, but I did create the context in which they are now presented.
THUNBERG INSTITUTE ANNIVERSARY GALA
Moderator: Mr. President, thank you for joining us. We are honored by your participation.
President Obama: It’s good to be back.
Moderator: Is there a particular achievement of your administration that you feel has been undervalued, perhaps even overlooked?
President Obama: Sometimes [I] go to Wall Street and folks [are] grumbling about anti-business. And I said, “Have you checked where your stocks were when I came into office and where they are now? What are you talking about? What are you complaining about? Just say, thank you.”
Moderator: Disappointing and frustrating—you helped those folks earn good money and were not properly acknowledged for the role that you played. Ms. Thunberg, is there something you would like to say.
Ms. Thunberg: Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.
Moderator: Yes, corporate magnates and politicians sacrificing life to enlarge private fortunes—that is a theme known to us from the past. During the Great Depression, Brigadier General Smedley Butler wrote War Is A Racket. An excellent antiwar booklet by our Nation’s most decorated general, I recommend it. He spoke about war—who benefits and who pays. He basically said that war is conducted at the expense of the very many, for the benefit of a few people who make huge fortunes from it.14
Ms. Thunberg: Change is coming. The real power belongs to the people.
Moderator: Mr. President, you earned Ivy League degrees, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, served terms in the U.S. Senate, obviously, you were well-informed before entering the Oval Office. Once you were there, you had expanded access to scientific data and analyses from experts working in Government, at agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Forest Service, and so on. Based on your assessment of the information that you had available, tell us something about your domestic energy policy.
President Obama: American energy production—you would not always know it, but it went up every year I was President. And that whole suddenly, America is like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas producer, that was me people.
Moderator: Change you are proud of—helping America become the biggest producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons in the world. Some may bristle at your personal satisfaction with such an achievement because more production means graver environmental consequences. Ms. Thunberg, do you approve of this approach to energy production? Please, address your response to the President.
Ms. Thunberg: You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope.
Moderator: Mr. President, you campaigned on the promises of hope and change. Yet Ms. Thunberg is characterizing your domestic energy policy as depressing for young people. Certain things that you say, the underlying rationale eludes me. Is there a particular ideological system that you embrace, a school of thought with which you identify?
President Obama: [The Washington] consensus, of which I consider myself to be a part of and still believe in.
Moderator: Ms. Thunberg, give us a final comment and, again, please speak directly to our special guest.
Ms. Thunberg: You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess. If solutions within this system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.
Moderator: I see, the Washington consensus seems adept at keeping failed ideas on life support when they should have died in hospice long ago. [—Applause—]15
In the real conversation with Secretary Baker, President Obama exposed himself as a deadwood leadership booster. With the wealth gap so wide, and growing steadily, only a sympathizer would relish helping Wall Street folks increase the value of their portfolios.16 Being the father of two young adults, Malia and Sasha, he even took pride in making America the world’s biggest producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons.17 How will he explain that achievement to his grandchildren? Montaigne shared an insight long ago that may shed light on the former President’s economic and energy policies: “In old age our souls are subject to more troublesome ailments and imperfections than in our youth.”18
The Swedish daughter’s voice sounded altogether different from that of the presidential father. Her intellectual and moral launch pad stands on the simple acceptance of a new reality. Without mental reservation—with neither a nuanced qualification nor a neat limiting condition—she accepts that we live in a time of existential crisis on a planetary scale. At COP24–Katowice, Thunberg spoke truth to power, describing world leaders as so immature and insecure that they have foisted the responsibility of educating people about climate justice and Earth’s biosphere on children. She also implied that our leaders are unfit to lead: They repeat bad ideas that contributed to the crisis and continue pointing to them as the way forward. These leaders act for the sake of political expediency, ignoring the warnings from scientists.
She also spoke about mankind’s most adored idol: mammon. Acting like an iconoclast, Thunberg hammered neoliberal mammonism for undermining civilization and ruining the biosphere. For what purpose? To give a very small group of elites the privilege of making obscene sums of money; to ensure that rich citizens in affluent Western countries enjoy pampered lives. This arrangement, in which the many pay while the few play, contrasts violently with Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom of heaven.19 The evangelists of neoliberal capitalism—which include the Washington consensus, an identifier President Obama used—preach a sweet-sounding, but divisive gospel.
The defiant part of her statement came toward the end when Thunberg raised the possibility of replacing the current system. I heard a revolutionary refrain in that option. Then, she added that the youth did not come to COP24—Katowice to beg world leaders to care. On the contrary, the youth did not attend to extend an olive branch, but to deliver their declaration of independence: “You have ignored us in the past, and you will ignore us again.” These world-class ignorers will reap the consequence of their inaction: change. Irrespective of their preferences and timetables, Thunberg informed world leaders that change is headed their way. Moreover, they are powerless to alter what is in motion because “the real power belongs to the people.” Whether or not the Swedish daughter spoke presciently, we will know before the end of the next decade. And at that time, we can listen, again, to Thunberg’s COP24—Katowice statement and recognize whose voice we heard.
- Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, with Phillip Berman (New York: Warner Books, 1999). See last month’s blog post Keen on Youth and High on Awareness (8 December 2018).
- Goodall, 233, 242, and 244.
- Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works, Donald M. Frame (London: Everyman’s Library, 2003), p. 752.
- Luke 18:16–17. This Jewish custom continued after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Echoes of the custom were preserved in rabbinic literature.
- David Flusser, Jesus, 2d corrected and augmented ed. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998), pp. 116–117. I added the words in brackets.
- See The Anthropocene: A Time When Scientific Priorities and Religious Values Converged (6 October 2018) and The Kingdom of Heaven: Where Benefactors and Beneficiaries are One (3 November 2018).
- Saul Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine / Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1994), p. 194–199. The quotation is found on page 194 of Hellenism. I added the pronoun in brackets.
- See the sources mentioned in note 13.
- COP24 is an abbreviation for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The United Nations posted a transcription of Thunberg’s “high-level segment statement” in Portable Document Format (PDF) on a UNFCCC web page. Its publication date was 21 December 2018. https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/COP24_HLS_ENGO.pdf Democracy Now! posted a video and transcription of Thunberg’s statement on its website. https://www.democracynow.org/2018/12/13/you_are_stealing_our_future_greta
- Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket (1935; reprint, Los Angeles: Feral House, 2003), 23.
- The conversation at the imaginary gala accurately represents the words of Obama and Thunberg, but places them in a fictional context. I bracketed each place where I edited lightly to enhance readability. The comments of the moderator in the imaginary conversation are a total fabrication. https://www.bakerinstitute.org/events/1980/ In the fictional conversation, President Obama spoke four times. I transcribed his words, using the Baker Institute’s video of the real conversation: [12:32], [1:01:27], [1:00:58], and [55:33].
- Michel de Montaigne, 752. “If I were to compose a motto for the kingdom of heaven, I would propose: The obedience of the few profits the many.” See the earlier blog post The Anthropocene: A Time When Scientific Priorities and Religious Values Converged (6 October 2018).