Surely. Rationally. Smith’s observation comes in a section where she explores how so much of our response to the Problem is not primarily rational but emotional. Smith is not, in fact, surprised by this, or overly critical; we are overwhelmed and grieving, seeking to cope as we can. But her observation about Christians is revealing and has, in my mind, at least one possible explanation: those “who consider the land a beauteous gift of the Lord” do not always allow themselves to grieve its degradation and loss. Denying a place for grief, poorly rendered Christian hope can distort our emotional connection to the Problem, short circuiting the urgency and clarity we might otherwise attain. Denying grief withers the natural response of love to loss and suffering, and therefore enervates love’s response, its hopeful action.
My friend, as I now see it, offered me a false choice. Grief and hope are not conflicting states but two aspects of the way love for this world is lived out. And both may be lived together; indeed, I suspect they must. The pathway of grief—with its personal and particular nature—must be understood and walked lest all kinds of foolishness follow: complacency and inaction, fearful violence, or selfish, survivalist reactions.
True, granting the pathway of grief its scope and seriousness does not guarantee it will be walked well. As far as the Problem is concerned, grief can lead often to a type of fanaticism that subverts all other goods and buries itself in work. Climate activist Daniel Sherrell describes in his memoir how:
When I found no other place for it, I funnelled my grief into work. I worked harder, clocking more hours, diverting more thought. My grief tethered me to my phone. It responded to a rash of emails in the morning and another one before bed. It logged out of one conference call and immediately into the next. It signed everything ‘Best,’ which it knew was disingenuous.
If it is not to be denied, grief must be granted its course—be walked with understanding, even if stumblingly. Fanaticism repurposes grief as something else (a type of counterfeit hope energising action) and, because it does so, the grief does not run clean and clear—it stagnates as burnout, overwork, impotent rage, or breakdown. Among Sherrell’s fellow climate activists, this was a common account:
Everyone who was working on the Problem threw themselves at it with sub-healthy abandon. It had an incandescent gravity, like a lightbulb for moths, something painful we kept slamming ourselves into…. The goal was to push as much as you reasonably thought you could without getting so tired that you gave up completely. Many of us operated right on the edge of this line, constantly trying to fend off burnout—a phrase whose irony wasn’t lost on us.
Grief is a pathway we all need to walk, an unavoidable reality in this groaning world. The path it assumes depends on how completely we walk it, and what convictions shape us as we do so. Walking this path is made difficult by denial (leading to inaction) or when we repurpose grief as something else (fanaticism). We only really deal with grief by grieving, by suffering ourselves to walk over a landscape that is big enough to support its path. Here’s the thing I’ve learned: the Christian confession—that creation is a gift sustained by God and denigrated by human beings, and that God will, finally, have the last word and restore us and creation with us—is a large enough landscape to hold these griefs and direct our grieving away from despair and fanaticism.
The picture of history found in Scripture is not one of a straight trendline toward the promised kingdom (or its opposite), not a simple unfolding narrative, but a series of ups and downs, of strange reversals (for good and ill), of steps forward and steps back, of hiddenness and mystery, and of the strange freedom humans have to cause harm and to do good—none of which, though, ultimately threatens the reality of God’s good future. But it does mean that we don’t as Christians have a privileged view of how the next few decades will play out, whether the climate crisis can be averted, or whether we are stepping inevitably, inexorably, toward a darkened future. Our excessive hope promises a good end but doesn’t speak directly to all our specific griefs. I don’t know if I will one day walk with resurrected woolly mammoth in the new creation or hear the cry of huia among the kahikatea. Ours is not a story where we wake and find it all a dream. Our losses are real losses, and they remain. I take a strange comfort in this, though I desperately wish it was otherwise. Christian hope enables grief to be felt—indeed, it dignifies grief as real. There is real loss. The world truly groans (Rom 8:22ff). We find ourselves walking in a landscape of hope, grieving. This is the right response of love to loss. And grief in light of Christian hope can remain grief without curdling into rage, or numbness, or bitterness, or despair. It need not be cast off too quickly or buried deep down to fester. It need not overwhelm. Grief and hope can step together. Indeed, the Christian landscape of hope offers courage and perseverance in the midst of our grief.
“All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action,” writes Pope Benedict in his encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope). This is true in a simple sense: all action is motivated toward achieving some good, some lesser or greater hope. Human beings are, if you like, like boats on open water. A boat can ride out this or that sea, those conditions, these winds and waves because it is fastened to hope, an unseen yet very real anchor that secures our courage to act and persevere. The Problem hurls us upon mighty seas. We are in great need of courage and perseverance for the days ahead. Action anchored only in the present world as it is—to hope in ourselves, or in technology, or in nature’s resilience—seeks to steady the boat by anchoring to the waves themselves (for it is our failures of policy and technology, and the fragile balance of nature that are the source of our grief, the choppy waters we seek to navigate).
In Hebrews, Chapter 6, we read that Christian hope—founded on the “unchanging nature of [God’s] purposes” and in God’s character and promise—is “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf” (Heb 6:19–20). Christian hope is not, ultimately, vulnerable to the moment and to the Problem but has been secured by Christ in the presence of God and in the future Christ has already begun as our “forerunner”. Again, Benedict writes:
Only the great certitude of hope that my own life and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love, and that this gives them their meaning and importance, only this kind of hope can then give the courage to act and to persevere.
This hope thus holds our griefs, and directs our grieving away from despair and fanaticism, giving us courage to act and to persevere. And pivoting as it does around the resurrection, there is a temporal complexity to real hope. Christians are free to affirm hope now because the resurrection of Jesus has pierced the fabric of history and brought the reality of the new creation into the present. In this way, the resurrection makes the landscape of Christian hope lively—we walk the pathway of grief on a landscape that is moved by strange currents, marked with signs and hints and foretastes of God’s future already present, breaking in like the first flowers of spring pushing up through still-frosted ground.
On the golf course, when I was nineteen, my experience of the bear was full of grief. The bear to me was a sign of all that was lost and would not return, of the vanishing woods, of the disappearance of wild places. On the landscape of Christian hope, another meaning accrues. As it witnesses to loss, the bear also witnesses to the goodness of creation—it was immense with life, made and sustained by God. And as a witness to creation and God’s sustaining power, it points beyond itself into the future. As Walter Brueggemann writes, “Creation itself is a sign and measure or Yahweh’s capacity to do beyond what the world thinks possible” (cited by John Goldingay in Israel’s Faith). The bear, then, can be seen as a sign of God’s ability and commitment to fulfil his promise to renew all things and, therefore, as a taste of the life that will one day live without corruption on God’s good earth. Even the men playing golf (a sign for me of our broken relationship with the earth) are freed to point to a different reality (though I admit I’m reluctant to concede them this), to a future (to gloss Isaiah) where “the bear and men in khakis will play together and shall not hurt or destroy on all God’s mountain.” My grief is not diminished by this thickened view—indeed, it is felt more keenly, sharpened by knowledge of what God intended for his creation—but it is held now in a larger frame, mapped onto a greater landscape, and I am awakened to hopeful action, given courage and perseverance even in my grief. I push my boat out into open water, sure of its anchor.