by Jo Ann Heydron, who raised three children and taught English at community colleges. These days she writes fiction and blogs at Talking to Strangers: An Introvert Hits the Streets.
The Menace of Christian Hope
In the Protestant churches I’ve frequented, all falling into the category of “progressive,” hope is a litmus test. You must have it. I would go so far as to say that in these churches the Ten Commandments are really eleven. The last is thou shalt not fail to hope.
“That’s what they want, for us to lose hope,” the widow of a famous left-leaning theologian once said to me — they meaning the oppressors of the world, the powers and principalities. “If we give up hope, they win.”
If you “come out” in these churches as lacking hope, your fellow congregants will greet you with pitying smiles.
In a sermon I heard just a few weeks ago, the preacher insisted that every generation has feared that the world was about to end, yet it never has.
I don’t see the connection between the world not having ended so far and what is happening to the planet now, which ever more plainly points to its becoming uninhabitable for our species — and many others species — soon.
We will have to face the water flowing into our towns and cities, the beginning of great die-offs, the vegetables we have conscientiously planted expiring in the heat whether we hope or not. Not hoping may allow us to face these things with less confusion, to return to the stardust we came from in peace. Not hoping may allow us to discover what is sacred in our one and only life, the one we’re living right now.
According to the Pew Forum, seventy-eight percent of the American public identifies itself as Christian. Perhaps half (my estimate) anticipate a Second Coming. Some are even trying to hurry it along, supporting Israel’s militant wing, for example, in the belief that it may initiate the Battle of Armageddon.
Counting on a “new heaven and new earth” (Rev. 20:1), they see little reason to cherish the earth they live on now. Why address the danger, why try to mitigate it, when the cavalry is coming to whisk them away? Hope for a better world thus becomes denial that this troubled world is even important.
On the most basic level, why face any unpleasantness on the ground if one is sure that another, eternal life awaits in the sky?
Even progressive Christians, who read the Bible less literally, find it impossible to believe that their god of love could allow humanity and its fellow creatures to perish. Not to believe in hope is for them not to believe in God, or really, in anything at all.
Beyond Hope: Secular Voices
My husband and I both turned 60 this year. Now we receive regular offers about cremation arrangements through the mail from the Neptune Society. I haven’t opened one yet, and neither has he. Pretty soon, maybe, we’ll get around to putting “our affairs in order,” revisiting our wills, buying burial plots near my brother’s at the Bay View Cemetery in Bellingham or somewhere else, or planning to cremate instead. Because we’re entering what is probably the last quarter of our lives, it makes sense to take these practical steps. Is doing that proof that we have no hope? Or does having this task behind us make it easier to live these last decades in the best way we know how or can discover?
The fate of the earth is now very close to that of my own body. Before too long it will cease to support life. All life? I don’t know. Opinions differ. Probably most life. The Sixth Great Extinction, as it’s being called, is under way, and we will not be spared. Human habitation will disappear, not everywhere at once but everywhere over a rather short time. We will no longer have those things that are even more basic than flush toilets and smart phones: places to live where we can maintain our body temperatures, create some basic level of community, grow our food and find potable water. Whether human habitation disappears in 20 years or 80 or 200, some millions of years will pass before “biodiversity” is restored. Whether a species like ours will be included in that future biodiversity, no one knows.
We won’t be able to think ourselves out of this, come up with new technologies, new fuels, build wind farms in every vacant field, spray sulfates into the sky. Sacrificing our “way of life” (which we probably won’t do anyway) might slow things down, but it won’t stop them. The carbon dioxide we’ve already put in the atmosphere will increase warming from one degree to two — that is, the crucial damage has already been done — and at two degrees, climate change careens out of control, feedback loops are triggered, the whole operation (as Jerry used to call his domestic arrangements on Seinfeld) comes crashing down.
I hear people say, well, we might be finished, but the earth itself will be all right. That depends, I guess, on whether you believe that a planet that once nurtured life and loses that ability remains “all right.” We’re taking a lot of other species with us. Sometimes that seems to me to be the saddest thing of all and the place where all our efforts, useless though they may turn out to be, should now be directed.
Can we hope in the face of this? Some voices:
Giving up hope might kill you, and that’s a good thing.
Derrick Jensen in 2006: “Hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line … a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless … When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they — those in power — cannot really touch you anymore.”
Hope leads to inaction.
Chris Hedges in 2011: “This mania for hope is really a kind of sickness because it prevents us from seeing how dire and catastrophic our situation is if we don’t radically reconfigure our relationship to each other and to the ecosystem.”
Intention can replace hope.
Joanna Macy in 2012: “Active Hope [see her book of the same title] doesn’t require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide.”
Hope is a gift we earn.
Chris Hedges in 2014: “Our only hope will come through rebellion.”
Hopelessness is a spiritual practice.
Bruce Springsteen as quoted by Guy McPherson: “In the end what you don’t surrender, well the world just strips away.”