By Joseph Mangina
When a colleague invited me to be part of an online panel on the theme of “Petroculture, War, and Democracy,” I must admit to being somewhat flummoxed. I am a theologian, one who generally makes his home in such doctrinal loci as ecclesiology and the theological exegesis of Scripture. What do I know about petroculture? As it happens, this particular forum took place about a month into the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So the assignment seemed to fall somewhere in the intersection of eco-theology, the economics of resource extraction, and the question of democracy and authoritarianism in contemporary Europe. I felt out of my depth.
Gradually, however, some ideas began to coalesce. Walker Percy once wrote a serio-comic essay titled “Notes for a Novel About the End of the World.” Late modernity seems to invite a certain kind of doomsday speculation. Over the past few decades, climate change has become charged with apocalyptic meaning. The End is coming, but the human race just might be able to squeak through, if only we stick to our emissions targets.
More immediately, media coverage of the war in Ukraine has been marked by a strong sense that something big is ending — the pax Americana, the Liberal World Order, or what have you. Christians are not immune to this sense of a world spinning out of control and on the way to some decisive reckoning. I myself am an inveterate news junkie, given to poring over articles from The New York Times and The Atlantic, or who knows how many websites, as if they were augurs of the Last Days. And I am not even on social media.
So almost as an exercise in spiritual self-discipline, I cobbled together the following thoughts. Knowing academics’ penchant for long-windedness, the organizers of the panel wisely allotted each speaker five minutes(!) in which to proffer three theses for discussion. These were mine:
- The church’s primary responsibility is to bear witness to the “apocalypsing” of God in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it must be extremely wary about investing temporal realities like so-called “petroculture” with apocalyptic meaning.
- With that warning firmly in view, the fact is that we do live in apocalyptically charged times, marked — among many other things — by our willful denial of the limits proper to being human. We want to have it all; we risk destroying everything.
- The Church’s proper response to the situation just outlined is, as always, the proclamation of the gospel and the celebration of the mysteries and the cure of souls — but with a special emphasis on the ancient practice of memento mori, the prayerful contemplation of death.
The first thesis has St. Augustine in the background. The second reflects things I have learned from Ivan Illich. The third (which may seem like a non-sequitur) is just a common piece of Christian wisdom, though incidentally shared with a good many pagan thinkers. I’ll elaborate briefly on each.
The first thesis is Augustinian in drawing a distinction between things ultimate and things penultimate, the City of God and the City of Man.“Petroculture” — whatever meaning we may assign that term — is not the beast of Revelation 13 (who, by definition, has not yet come). Nor should our resistance to petroculture and humanity’s relentless despoiling of the earth be assigned messianic significance in its own right. We should, of course, do the ecologically right thing—whatever that means. The penultimate matters. But we will not thereby bring about the new creation, which God has uniquely enacted in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus.
As to the second thesis, it draws on Ivan Illich (1926-2002), that engimatic priest, philosopher, social critic, and radical pedagogue. A persistent theme in Illich’s work is the idea of limits. The modern outlook tempts us to believe that we can overcome limits of time, space, and effort through the simple application of technique. But this is an illusion. Illich’s analysis of the tools of modern industrial society — transportation, health care, education and so on—shows that they are marked by a logic whereby means often overwhelm ends. Thus, cities designed around automobiles ignore the scale appropriate to the kinds of creatures we are. Modern medicine forgets that we are mortal, and treats us as machines to be fixed rather than persons to be cared for, and so on. Illich, a Catholic leftist of sorts, believed much could be done to foster a society that was more just and, as he liked to say, “convivial.” Tools — technology — could certainly be part of that. But care must be taken that our tools do not overwhelm us. To use scholastic language, there needs to exist a certain fittingness (convenentia) in the relation of means to ends.
Talk of fittingness, however, assumes a picture of the human being as a definite something, a “nature” (however conceived) that imposes constraints on our actions. It is just this that Illich thought was missing in our time. Anything that can be done, will be done. Perhaps this has always been true of fallen human beings, but our technical capacities have reached a kind of tipping point, such that any determinate sense of the human is quickly being left behind. The marketplace — its reach globally extended by the computer — rules. Illich was a reluctant apocalypticist, fearing the uses to which the traditional biblical language could be put. And yet by the end of his life, he was willing to talk in a qualified sense about the apocalyptic character of our age. As his friend and biographer, David Cayley, writes, there is “something uncanny and unprecedented in the way our world presses, across the board, not just at ecological limits but also at the limits of human nature.”
But if the world as we know it is coming to an end, what should we the church be doing? We should do what we must always do: preach the gospel, celebrate the sacraments, venture out on mission. The ecological crisis and its attendant woes have done nothing to change that. The freedom of the gospel is such that we may carry on “as if nothing had happened,” to borrow Karl Barth’s famous dictum from the German Church Struggle. Barth was not of course counseling passivity or indifference in the face of evil, but rather commending the primacy of the Word of God as the basis of any authentic Christian responsibility. The Christian must see — or more precisely, hear — before he or she can act.
In my third thesis, I suggest that part of such truthful seeing and hearing is a contemplative moment, focused on the fact of our shared mortality. Memento mori; “remember that you must die.” This may seem incongruous as a response to petroculture and related ills. In fact, I believe it is deeply relevant. According to Illich, what we lack is a proper sense of limits, as an index of our creaturely nature. And what is more limiting than the fact of death? The theme of memento mori is pervasive throughout the Old Testament: Qoheleth’s wisdom, for instance, can be read as one long meditation on the fact of death. It is perhaps less common in the New Testament, where, perhaps, the vivid concentration on one death crowds out reflection on mortality as such, even if the Old Testament view is constantly presupposed (but see Luke 13:12-21, Heb. 2:15). But memento mori does become a major theme in Christian spirituality across the ages, from Julian of Norwich’s startling visions of the bleeding head of Jesus, to Blaise Pascal’s witty and death-saturated Pensées, to those Renaissance still-lifes depicting a skull, an hourglass, or a vase of fading flowers.
Remembering that you will die is not just a private gesture of devotion, however, but an ecological act. At least that is the case within a biblical and Christian frame of reference, where the awareness of death is inexorably linked to faith in God as Creator. To know one will die is to know that one has, one is, a body — this body. It is this body that links me to a larger web of life, to beings who are likewise finite and mortal. The contemplation of mortality is part of the church’s larger task of recovering a quite particular sense of creatureliness. This, it seems to me, is more helpful than being caught up in abstractions like “saving the planet,” the Anthropocene, projections of planetary warming or cooling into the distant future. No wonder young people today are so anxious (and not only the young)! Without minimizing the threats, we stand in need of a more local knowledge, a humility born of the conviction that our time on this earth is limited, and that it has been given to us by the Lord to use it well.
What ecological ethic flows from these observations? Working this out would exceed the space available to me here. I suppose it would fall between Paul’s apocalyptic “Behold, now is the favorable time! Behold, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2) and the sobriety of Old Testament Wisdom. Again counterintuitively, I suspect these things belong together. In the meantime, let me close with the words of one of Israel’s sages:
Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.
And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. (Ps. 90:1-4, 10-13, 16-17, KJV)
 Walker Percy, “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” in Percy, The Message in the Bottle (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1975). First published in 1966, Percy’s essay was an early draft of ideas that would appear in his novel Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1971).
 David Cayley, Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey (Penn State Univ. Press, 2021).
 See Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (New York: Harper and Row, 1973).
 I doubt Illich knew C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947), but there is much in Lewis’s brilliant essay he would have agreed with.
 For Illich’s thoughts on the computer, see his lovely In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh of St. Victor’s Didaskalikon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). The work traces the history of reading technologies, from the monastic manuscript as a “vineyard,” to the rationally-organized modern book, to the book as pixels on a screen.
 Cayley, Ivan Illich, 400.