“Is there hope?” – by Father Bud Grant
For years now I have been asking the same question of every environmentalist I meet. I’ve often been asked that question myself. The question is “are you hopeful?”
My answer to that question has changed over time, from a rather gloomily existentialist “no,” to something much more theological. It is complicated. To get there it is important to distinguish between secular hope and Christian Hope. Secular hope is clinging to the possibility, no matter how remote, that the worst can be averted. This is exquisitely and excruciatingly illustrated by a Libyan novelist whose father was imprisoned by Kaddafi over 30 years ago. The chances of his having survived are very, very slim, yet his son, Hisham Matar, has never given up hope. But his hope, he observes, is something like a curse: “Living in hope is a really terrible thing,” Matar says. “People speak about hope most of the time as a very positive thing. … [But] it’s a very dispossessing thing; it’s a very difficult thing to live with. When you’ve been living in hope for a long time as I have, suddenly you realize that certainty is far more desirable than hope.” This hope shackles, enslaves, and denies one the opportunity to live freely.
Christian hope is freeing precisely because it begins with death, rather than dodging and denying it. Christian hope is not that death will not happen, but that resurrection will. That is why it is so stunningly, startlingly and counter-intuitively liberating. This is the grace that Christian environmentalism can offer. To think that we can avert the ecological consequences of our assault on God’s Creation is naïve and dangerous. Though not quite as impressively egregious as those who deny climate change, to hope that we can have the planet we have always had is a form of blindness.
Activist Bill McKibben’s most recent book is called “Eaarth.” This is not a misspelling but merely the shortest parable I’ve ever read: the world in which we now live—the world our children will inherit—is fundamentally different and considerably less hospitable to human life than that into which my generation was born, hence, McKibben re-names this new global ecosystem. Paul Gilding, in his book “The Great Disruption,” makes a similar point. It is no longer a problem of stopping ecological change, he asserts, but rather of adjusting to it. Granted, neither of these two respected environmentalists is approaching the issue from the stand point of faith, and Gilding, at least, may be accused of a (very slightly) rosy tinted optimism about how the adjustment will take place, but at least both have grasped the bull by the horns: we cannot avert the ecological and economic consequences of climate change.
This is where Christ, and his disciples, can offer our own peculiar brand of Hope. It begins with the acknowledgment of sin. Indeed, we have sinned against God’s Creation. Our greed, in the form of consumerism and unbridled growth, has exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth. Gilding and others point out that by mid-century it would take 7 planet earths to produce for the global population the goods currently being demanded by Americans. We are causing the demise of countless other species; we are destroying habitat; we are contaminating earth, water, and air; we are spreading invasive species; we are altering the temperature and depths of the oceans…it is a very long list. The whole planetary ecosystem, the world’s poorest, and future generations bear the brunt of the crisis while we continue, as Golding says, charging up the ecological credit card to maintain our accustomed standard of living.
Our Catholic-Christian theology assures us that genuine repentance, like Christ’s death on the cross, liberates us. In the environmental sense, this means that we are freed to confront the world that is emerging. We can assume the yoke of penance willingly and as an expression of our re-ignited love for God and that which is God’s. We can embrace the suffering that would, anyhow, swallow up some of us regardless of our spiritual receptivity. Christian Hope is born from the death that is confessed sin. As St. Augustine astutely warns, the confessor cannot assure us that all will be well—that proper expiation will re-balance the scales and return us to that romanticized and illusory ‘past’ when all was well. Rather, penance throws off the yoke of illusion and romance and that tragic clinging-ness that is secular hope. We are freed to do our duty, we are empowered to do so through the love of the Crucified One. It is no coincidence that St. Francis of Assisi, patron of the environment, bore on his body the wounds of Christ. Nor is it an accident that this “Clown of God,” as Italians call him, is so very joyful. His feast day, appropriately coinciding with the fall harvest, reminds us of the biblical parable: “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest” (Jn. 12:24).
So, when asked about hope, I smile and point toward the nearest crucifix. Either that will resonate or the questioner has not yet come that far along the via crucis, in which case anything I say would be, as St. Paul says, “a stumbling block…and foolishness” (I Cor. 1: 23).
Father Bud Grant is an Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, where he teaches courses such as Intro to the New Testament, Intro to Environmental Studies, Environmental Ethics and others. He’s the coordinator of the Environmental Studies program and advisor for St. Ambrose’s environmental club. He was also a planner and presenter at the symposium in October 2009 celebrating the 30th anniversary of John Paul II’s visit to Iowa.