The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Hope and a Long View
This series has stressed the difference between hope and optimism. Optimism is the cheerful belief that things are going to turn out well sometime in the near future. Hope is a grounding conviction about what is genuinely good and right. Hope is a conviction that guides and sustains us right now, in good times and in bad.
The interlocking crises of ecology and justice that are all too evident in today's world -- global heating, species extinction, vast disparities of wealth and poverty, etc. -- do not have simple and quick solutions that point toward optimism. We need strong hope, or we are likely to fall into despair.
Today, I explore a form of hope that I find both very challenging, and ultimately centering. I want to say at the start that "a long view" is just one aspect of hope that speaks to our situation. It is not the only word, and it certainly is not the last word about hope. It is an affirmation of hope that some of you may not feel fits with historic Christian beliefs -- and others of you may find it a path to renewing Christian faith. In either case, it is an important theme to consider in a time when so many things seem to be going so badly.
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A marvelous new film and educational series, Journey of the Universe, presents "an epic story of cosmic, Earth, and human transformation." Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker draw on new insights from science and spirituality to look at the meaning and possibilities of life when we acknowledge that we live in an evolving, 14 billion year old universe. These wise scholars draw us into a deep sense of wonder, and inspire us toward a new and closer relationship with Earth.
For many people -- but not developed as a major part of the film -- this new perspective on humanity's tiny presence in an ancient and vast universe is the basis for a variety of hope that goes far beyond our own interests.
Remember what science tells us: that humans have not been around for most of Earth's history. If we imagine that our planet's 4.5 billion year story is represented by a single year, humans emerged in the evening of the last day of the year, and agriculture was invented at one minute to midnight on December 31. The entire modern industrial era is represented in the final 2 seconds of this figurative year. We are very late arrivals in this story.
Despite any talk about a cataclysm at the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012, and creating tensions with some Christian doctrines of eschatology, science presumes that Earth and the universe will keep on evolving for billions of years more. Humanity's brief, dramatic, and now destructive presence is unlikely to reach all that far into the vast future. Perhaps our species will enter into the sort of remarkable and life-affirming transformation envisioned by Brian Swimme. Or perhaps our over-population, over-consumption and toxic pollution will wipe us out, along with a tragic number of other species. But the universe and Earth will continue.
The continuation and continuity of life is an expression of hope that sustains and encourages some people. No matter how badly humans mess things up, life will go on in some form on this planet. We may not be part of it. We might not be able to recognize the ecological world that will emerge in a million or a billion years. But life will go on. God's intention for a world that is vibrant, fecund and relational cannot be thwarted. The poetic description of creation in Genesis 1, where the waters and the land bring forth swarms of living creatures of every kind, still speaks of the ongoing creation and creativity that is inherent to the universe.
For some people, there is good news when a very long view of the universe brings a realization that life will continue on our planet. It is not good news for us, or about us, but the long view brings us to a perspective where we accept that the universe is not all about us. Because -- however unique our species is -- we are not the center of it all, or the reason for it all, then we can be encouraged by the knowledge that the journey of the universe is the thing that is of utmost importance, and that it is unstoppable.
I struggle with this expression of hope because it can lead to a fatalism that does not fit with the eco-justice faith and ethics that I claim. If an attitude of "life goes on, no matter what" allows us to accept the mindless and selfish destruction of Earth's current biosphere, then other essential elements of hope have been lost. Life will go on, but from my view, love, compassion and community still require that we be actively engaged in the healing of today's tragic crises.
"Life goes on" gives a long view that sees beyond the devastation of climate change, ocean acidification, and the horrific shredding of the interconnected web of life. I am glad for that long hope, but I also refuse to be cavalier about the destructive path of our society. Both forms of hope and commitment -- short term and long term -- are real and essential.
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This all sounds like a far cry from a biblical notion of hope and assurance. Let me name a close parallel, though, that may give us some context.
My favorite Old Testament prophet is Jeremiah. He was relentless in preaching doom and gloom to his society. His words of profound social and ecological collapse must have carried the same sort of fear and despair that people today feel when they hear of global environmental crises. All will be lost.
In chapter 6 of Jeremiah, he foresees judgment and destruction that will be poured out on children and the old, from the least to the greatest, and no one will be spared the trauma. "Their houses shall be turned over to others, their fields and wives together; for I will stretch out my hand against the inhabitants of the land, says the LORD."
Later on, the promised destruction is taking place. Jeremiah 32 describes Jerusalem under siege by the army of Babylon, and the prophet says that the city will fall. But then he does a very strange thing, acting out a prophetic message of hope. He takes a large amount of money -- seventeen shekels of silver -- and buys a plot of land. He tells the people that God has instructed him: "Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land."
Jerusalem was destroyed. The people were sent into exile, and most of them never returned to their beloved city. For the people who heard Jeremiah, there was no optimistic message. They would see only destruction, loss and suffering. But far beyond that, the prophet affirmed that life continues for some future generation. Houses shall again be bought in this land.
Humans and many of the other species that comprise Earth community are on the brink of catastrophic loss. There may be little good news for the short-term. But just as Jeremiah brought a long view to build the hope of the people in Jerusalem, so too the universe story brings an aspect of hope that allows us to see beyond current despair.
It is a hard kind of hope, and I struggle with the ethical questions that it places before us. But it is a hope that draws us beyond our narrow self-interest, and calls us to affirm that the purposes of God cannot be stopped. For that hope, I give thanks.
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