24 Feb Tell Me about Hope
I had not expected to be told the world was ending.
The advertisement pinned to the hessian noticeboard in the dorm common room alongside posters for open mic nights, African drum circles (this was 1999), and a one-woman play at the local student theatre had mentioned only a summer job opportunity in Boston. Six or seven other Colorado College students (this was where I was studying at the time) were in the room with me, and they each appeared as shook as I felt.
The job, it turned out, was to loiter on the streets of Boston with a clipboard and a hi-vis vest, signing up new donors for the WWF (World Wildlife Fund, that is, not World Wrestling Federation, which I suspect may have attracted more students). Once you deducted travel and rent, the pay promised to be terrible, so, to generate interest, the presenter—a young woman wearing a logoed polo shirt and possessive of a slightly discordant enthusiasm for her topic—was telling us facts about the rapid extinction of animal species from the face of the earth. She had a whole slide show. Graphs. Time-lapse maps of deforestation and habitat loss. Photos of dead rhinos with bloodied stumps where the horn had once been. A list of animals that had become extinct in the last 50 years that stretched over three slides. A longer list of animals presently under threat of extinction.
We were eighteen and nineteen years old. None of us spoke. The speckled ceiling panels pressed down on me. The fan whirred in the corner like the face of a terrible clock speeding us toward some unknown and unwelcome future. A hollow feeling ballooned in my gut. The presenter had it all wrong; surely, clipboards and hi-vis vests weren’t designed to handle a crisis of this magnitude. I’d met those people. I’d crossed the road to avoid those people. I imagined the conversation: “Excuse me. Do you have a minute? I just want to, real quick, talk to you about the fact that WE’RE DESTROYING THE PLANET.” No, surely, there was another plan. Surely someone, somewhere, was going to fix this.
This wasn’t my first experience of grief and panic at the state of our world. The summer before, I’d worked at a golf club at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs. One afternoon, we received a call over the radio that a bear had been spotted beside the 8th hole on the mountain course. My boss climbed into a golf cart to check it out, and I jumped in with him. Our path took us through the last lonely trees of a forest that had once covered the mountain but had been hacked down so that wealthy people in khaki pants could play golf. A group of them were putting on the green when we arrived. Lounging in a tree about 15 metres behind them was the bear. I climbed out of the golf cart and stared up at it, compelled to silence in the presence of a wildness of which I had no experience. The bear seemed to me immense with life, a life utterly alien to my own; his was a world of hidden places in the last of the deepwoods, of long nights under dark skies, of snow-fed rivers, of high meadows bathed in mountain light. It was wonderful. But wrong. Wrong that this wild thing was clinging to a lonely tree at the edge of a manicured lawn while men played nearby. Some injustice was being done here, some perversion of right relationship with the natural world that I felt but could not then name.
These memories are over twenty years old now. In many ways, since then, things have got worse.
In 2005, I was studying theology in Vancouver, Canada. Each morning, after a few hours of study in the library, I would stand at the periodical carousel and take my break by reading the daily newspapers (this was back when people read newspapers). Over the course of half a year, I began to notice something: the slow, glacial drift of climate change stories from the back pages, where they competed for column space with news about mall openings and retiring police dogs, to the front pages, to headline news. I remember thinking at the time this was, finally, it—a tipping point; the world was waking, a shared consciousness of our common crisis was emerging, something bleak and immense on the horizon had come into view. Surely, now, someone, somewhere will do something. The science was in. There was little room for doubt.
So, I read on and watched how no one did a thing.
I want to talk about hope and, because of this, I need to talk about grief; but first, we need to talk about the crisis.
In his memoir, Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World, Daniel Sherrell struggles to find language to name the crisis we face. He rejects terms like “Climate Change” or “Climate Crisis” as too narrow, not broad enough to make visible the enormity of what we face. Instead, he calls it (all of it) “the Problem.” Sherrell quotes philosopher Timothy Morton’s description of the Problem as a “hyperobject”: an object “so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization and elude specification.” Hyperobjects defy comprehension and slip away from our perception like wet limes under a dull knife. The Problem is a hyperobject. This can feel like obfuscation, but I think it’s helpful. It keeps before us the immensity of what we face and the fact that it is not just one thing.
For some, the Problem is carbon emissions. For others, it is rising global temperatures; or extreme weather events; or photos of emaciated polar bears clinging to vanishing icebergs; or it’s lives lost (by some estimates already over 150,000 deaths annually); or it’s homes lost (216 million climate refugees by 2050, the World Bank warns); or it’s wildfires; or oil tanker spills, seabirds drowning in black skins of oil; or it’s soil erosion, palm tree oil, polluted riverways; it’s bottom trawling and whales scarred by propeller blades; it’s food waste and landfills; it’s sun-bleached plastic waste among the shells on a beach walk and the carcass of a bird with fishing line around its neck, its feathers riffling in the sea breeze; it’s a plastic bag drifting like an alien jellyfish at the bottom of the Mariana Trench; it’s the loss of the world’s deepwoods; the blinding of the night sky by artificial lights.
For me, it’s a longing for wild places long erased from the map; it’s “species loneliness”; it’s “solastalgia”; it’s reading to my children about animals I know they will never see and that will likely be long dead and gone by the time they read to their own children. It’s a deep sense of loss, immense and often subterranean, like a water table that sometimes rises in flood, the recognition that “we live in a shadow land, in a dim, flattened relic of what there once was” (George Monbiot). I have inherited a diminished world; my children will inherit a diminished world.
This is the context in which I want to think about grief and hope. I am grieving, and, yet, I find myself living a life deeply shaped by the gospel of hope. It is at once discordant and strengthening. How do I make sense of this?
Lately, I’ve found myself reading books and articles about the Problem with an odd type of aggression, as if trying to reach through the pages and grab the author by the lapels and demand, “Tell me about hope!” Some authors are more reticent than others, but, eventually, most give up their answer. Hope, some tell me, can be found in us, in our potential and capacity as a species to respond heroically in times of need. Changing attitudes toward the Problem—the way it has shifted from the back pages into public consciousness—buoy up these authors in their sense that we can still turn this around; we can make the political, societal, and economic change we need. So, put on your hi-vis vest, get out your clipboard.
Others disagree. It’s not system change we need but technological innovation. Hope is placed (somewhat ironically, I must say) in humanity’s enormous capacity to transform the earth through technology. We broke it; we can fix it. Hope is found, therefore, in green cement or low-methane cows or hydrogen ships or solar, tidal, and wind energy, or (with increasing degrees of desperation) wrapping Greenland in reflective blankets, spraying sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, or launching giant mirrors into space to deflect the sun’s rays.
Others see this approach as quite wrong-headed, indeed dangerous and counterproductive. The grounds for hope are not found in our capacities—political or technological—but in nature’s incredible resilience. Lawns left unmown become wild meadows attractive to bees; felled forests left fallow will eventually regenerate; seas unfished will become full again; when factories are closed, rivers soon run clear, and fish return to the depths. Nature is a “vast self-regulating organism,” and we just need to get out of its way; trust “the forces of nature to restore land and sea.”
Nature. Ourselves. Our technology. Sometimes a fourth, somewhat darker, source of hope is offered, a kind of existential backstop when all else fails. Human civilisation may be doomed, but nature will survive in some form or another. In his essay, “The Witness,” Paul Kingsnorth calls this the “geological perspective.” Extinction events are common in earth’s long history, he argues; indeed, earth is “an extinction machine.”It is not nature that is in crisis, it is us. Human civilisation may end; we may go the way of the dinosaurs, the last victims of our own disastrous reign, but nature will remain—not nature as we know it today, sure, but another world that will rise in the ruins we leave behind.
There are real differences between these four answers to the question of hope. In the debate between them, much is at stake. But it seems to me that what unites them is that they are each anchored to potentials already present within this world. They indicate concrete—even if debatable—realities: here, here hope may be found. One way or another, hope is found within this present world, as it is.
Christian hope is different. Christian hope is excessive. I mean this, first of all, in an ordinary sense. “I saw Heaven and earth new-created” (Rev 21:1), writes John in Revelation. “Look ahead with joy. Anticipate what I’m creating,” writes the prophet Isaiah; “Wolf and lamb will graze the same meadow, lion and ox eat straw from the same trough” (Is 65:17, 25). Renewal. Re-creation. “The Restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21). These are the bright, bold brush strokes with which Scripture paints its vision of the future: the hope held out is not careful or managed—not concerned to guard against possible disappointment—it is exuberant. And here, excessive takes a more precise meaning: transcending normal possibilities or limits.
Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan makes a helpful distinction between Christian hope and anticipation. “Anticipation teases out a future that lurks within the present as a possibility.” In much of what I read on the Problem, this is the kind of hope offered. But Christian hope, O’Donovan insists, “is not a heightened form of anticipation”; rather, it “speaks of what cannot be foreseen.” Our experience of carnivorous lions and wolves does not make the possibility of these predators grazing alongside their prey a present one. Such a future is not a reasonable anticipation of possibilities in the here and now. These deep changes to the world, the object of Christian hope, exceed what is within our—or nature’s—unaided grasp. The lion and the wolf will graze not because of gene-editing or evolutionary change but because God fulfils his promise to put an end to violence and usher in his peaceable kingdom. Christian hope is excessive because it is found in God the creator (who has made all things from nothing), in the fact creation—all life—exists by God’s free gift and is sustained as such moment by moment, and, finally, in the promise that God will have the last word, one day restoring creation and us with it. The dry bones of this earth will live because God breathes on them.
The landscape in which Christians walk is one of pronounced and tenacious hope. What, then, am I to do with my grief?
I did not end up taking the job in Boston. As I mentioned, the pay was terrible, and I guess at the time I couldn’t see much point in the work. What difference could I make? I remember that evening speaking with an evangelical friend of mine, trying to convey to her the horror of the slideshow and something of my feelings of grief and panic. “Don’t worry,” was her reply. “God promises to fix everything. He’ll put it right.” I guess she meant well, but I was not helped. It’s taken me a long time to understand why. It seems to me that while grief can be diffuse—confused and subterranean—such generalised grief is given power by the layering up, the accretion, of more specific griefs. I grieve not so much generally but specifically: for that rhino bleeding from its stump, for that bear robbed of its home, for my children whose world will be less than mine. Zadie Smith, in her essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” calls these griefs “local sadness” and argues these intimate losses are where the Problem becomes meaningful for us.
My grief was specific, but what my friend offered me was general hope. It was, if you like, a category error. Her response was the equivalent of telling a pet owner on the death of her cat, “Don’t worry about Fluffy, the SPCA has loads of cats you can adopt.” The fact that this might be true doesn’t make it less the case that such a response misses the point. I find much Christian discussion about the Problem seems to likewise miss the point: it offers a poorly rendered version of Christian hope—flat and vaguely general—and fails to speak to the reality of our particular grief. As a result, it denies grief room to be felt, understood, and engaged with. And this denial has consequences.
In “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” Zadie Smith voices what is surely common wonderment about Christian inaction in response to the Problem:
[A] response that would seem natural aligns a deep religious feeling with environmental concern, for those who consider the land a beauteous gift of the Lord should, surely, rationally, be among the keenest to protect it. There are a few of these knocking around, too, but again, not half as many as I would have assumed.
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.
(Image: Photo by USGS, CC Zero – “A serene gradient from red to smoky blue-gray seems to mask a chaotic scene underneath, expressing a wide range of emotion. Looking like a NASA closeup of Jupiter, this image reveals sediment in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast.”)