Tingling Ears

June 3, 2018

Rev. Dr. Alan Baughcum

Day’s Ferry Congregational Church, Woolwich ME

1 Samuel 3 and 4:1, 2 Corinthians 4:5–12

Talked on Saturday to my mailman who was resting in the shade …. suggested to him that it would be great to have a day like Saturday transferred to January or February … he grudgingly said yes, but unfortunately the weather was changing for the worse …. was going to get colder, go back to March weather, he said ….

The man just could not handle the good news …. had to immediately turn to things getting worse!

I was talking to a friend this week …. she told me that she was an optimist despite all evidence to the contrary. I responded that I also was an optimist but I am an optimist at least in part BECAUSE of all the evidence in support of optimism.

She was startled and asked me what evidence. I pointed her to a brand-new book by Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018, Viking Press).

Pinker is not the first optimist. Julian Simon was an optimistic economist long before Pinker.

What is Pinker optimistic about? Pretty much everything.

Violence: our best measurements of violence show a continuing decline in violence throughout human history. We have learned how to use law and government to prevent one another from doing the kind of damage that tribes and families and clans used to inflict as a matter of course.

From the 1500s into the 1800s the world’s great powers were at war with each other most of the time. That number in our time is close to zero. Battlefield deaths are minuscule compared to when I was born, same with deaths from genocide.

Life: Life expectancy at birth for most of human history was around 20 or 30 years. The average for the world is now in the 70s, with Europe and America higher than that. Child mortality and maternal mortality are now at historic lows, amazingly low for nearly all the world … would that mortality rates associated with childbirth were zero!

Income: The world GDP has exploded in the last couple of hundred years. Average GDP for the world in 2008 was at the level for Europe in 1964. Yes, the rich are getting richer but that’s not the reason for the world getting richer …. the reason is that the proportion of humankind living in extreme poverty has been vastly reduced: in the early 1800s, 90% of the world lived in abject poverty …. today that percentage is down to 10%, with almost half of that decline occurring in the last thirty-five years.

Knowledge: the percentage of people in the world who are illiterate is now down to 17%. That is a huge drop from 90% in the early 1800s. And most of those who are illiterate are middle-aged or elderly. For young adults (15-24) the world literacy rate is 91%.

The proportion of the world with basic education has risen over the past 200 years from below 20% to over 80%, projected to hit 100% by the end of the century.

Yes, but are we getting smarter? On average worldwide, we’ve picked up 25 to 30 IQ points per person in the last 100 years. Due to? Better diet and nutrition and health and more access to education … we are getting measurably smarter especially in the subject matters taught in school: general knowledge, arithmetic and vocabulary.

Environment: Surely the rising numbers of people are pushing world resources to the limit. Well the world population growth rate peaked in 1962 at 2.1% per year and dropped to 1.2% by 2010 and will probably fall to less than 0.5 % by 2050. As a result it appears that the world’s population will peak (at 9.5 billion) and begin to fall by the end of this century. As people get wealthier and social support systems strengthen, we tend to have fewer kids.

As for the ever-larger population putting pressure on scarce resources and driving prices sky-high as those resources disappear …. well, most metals and minerals readily available at prices today than they were in 1960. And, you may not like fossil fuels, but you may have noticed that the U. S. has found ways of adding enormously to the world’s supply of oil and gas.

Yeah, well, so we are burning more and more fossil fuels …. the environment is clearly in danger. Well, we should be concerned about the environment, but, in the U. S. where we burn a lot of the world’s fossil fuels, one measure of five air pollutants shows that we have cut pollution by two-thirds since the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. For the world carbon-dioxide emissions per dollar of GDP peaked around 1960 and have been declining ever since, even in China. Carbon-dioxide emissions have increased in toto because GDP has increased but it looks as if total emissions may be peaking now, with declines in the last several years for each of the top three polluters: China, Europe and the U.S.

Oil spills are way down over the last fifty years …. the size of our forests is increasing. New England has more trees now than it did at the time of the American Revolution. Even in the tropics where the deforestation rate needs to come down even more than it has, the deforestation rate has fallen since the middle of the 20th century by two-thirds. The percentage of land and water that is being protected is increasing …. and more is needed to go under protection.

Enough! Pinker has written a terrific book with lots of data. In another sermon I will tell you why he is wrong to attribute all the reasons for that success to the Enlightenment. The church, in my view, Christianity, has been a major force as well.

Nonetheless, there clearly is ample reason for my friend and for me and for you to be optimists.

Of course there is so much more to be done. Poverty is still with us, as is ignorance, war, and environmental pollution. Good Christians are still being usefully called to fight battles against these great enemies of humankind. Remember the shepherd in Jesus’ parable who went out after the lost sheep even though 99 of 100 were safe and protected? That’s also our job …. and we do not yet have 99% safe and protected.

And above all other peoples, it is Christians who have reason to hope. Yes, many of the numbers around the quality of human life have greatly improved. But our hope goes beyond the quantitative measures that scientists, economists, and others can demonstrate. We are called to be concerned about values and issues that cannot be measured with numbers. We are called to the healing of the world.

Our hope is not in numbers.

Our hope is in God, who spoke to the child Samuel to let him know that he and Samuel were about to initiate a new and better era in Israel.

Our hope is in God, who spoke through Jesus to Paul. Paul spoke in turn to the young churches of Christ giving them the truth that Jesus is Lord and that the world can see the life of Jesus in the lives of Jesus’ followers.

As Christians we know that all of human history is pointed towards the final and full establishment of the Kingdom of God. …. where there will be no poverty, no ignorance, no pollution, no war, no injustice.

It is our work, whether the numbers look good at the moment or not, to keep the faith and stick to the task of building for that Kingdom. Praise God, that is meat and potatoes for this congregation! Amen.

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