An Abiding, Enduring Vocation: Delivering Dark Hope #4
David R. Weiss – July 29, 2021
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This is #4 in an eight-essay series written over ten days in which I’m thinking out loud and a bit on the run about what it means to be church (or any authentic human community) … in a time of approaching ecological-social collapse. I’ll develop many of these thoughts further in the future, but I want to set out an overview of sorts. (Here are links to essay #1, essay #2, and essay #3; while each essay treats a different facet of the larger project, there is a narrative arc to them. I encourage you to read them in order when possible.)
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After two essays on collapse, it’s time for some hope. But not just any hope; dark hope.
Why Dark Hope? I’m trying to frame a “hope” that is decidedly not “upbeat.” Because hope in its “upbeat” tone is too close for comfort to foolhardy optimism, which is, in turn, too close for comfort to sheer arrogance, both of which have played a prime role in fostering the collapse that is coming for us. Even more pointedly, though, I say Dark Hope because we’ll need a hope that is fully alongside us in the unpredictable tumult ahead. Not a hope that says, “keep your chin up” or “hang in there,” but a hope that gasps with us: “breathe!” Indeed, not a hope that shines in the darkness, but a hope that abides as darkness itself. I’ll write a longer piece on this, but that’s a start.
But first, a little more on collapse … because today, July 29, 2021, is World Overshoot Day 2021: the day when, as a global community, we’ve used as many resources as the planet can generate in a year. In other words, for the remainder of 2021, we’re stealing resources from future generations. In the late 1970’s, when we slipped into overshoot in late December, it was the first time—in the history of forever—that humanity as a whole had outstripped Earth’s abundance. Since then, we’ve rolled that date back by five months. Now we enter overshoot in July.
But July 29, 2021 is World Overshoot Day. Not all countries use their share of global resources at the same pace. Here in the United States, we blew by our Country Overshoot Day … all the way back on March 14. We’ll spend the last 292 days of 2021 draining off the life of future generations. Did we really think that Mother Nature wouldn’t notice?!
This is why ecological and societal collapse is inevitable. Because we have made overshoot into the very infrastructure of our culture. It is the means by which we’ve come to manage the trauma of our mortality (see essay #3). The rising CO2 levels that drive climate change are “merely” symptomatic of our cultural addiction to an extractive economy now wedded to ecocidal consumption amid psychic denial. But now collapse is coming.
Which is why we must turn swiftly to “Deliver Dark Hope” for the days to come.
Honestly, in the worst-case scenario (and there are more persons than you might guess who foresee a worst-case scenario), the cascading effects of climate change and loss of biodiversity integrity (basically rupturing ecosystem after ecosystem) will be so severe that humanity as a species will not survive the next 100 years. That’s a worst-case scenario, but it is NOT an inconceivable one. Were it to come to pass, the last human being to ever live might already have been born. Worst-case scenario, but conceivable. Sit with that awareness for a few days.
Personally, I still think a best-case scenario is possible: one where over the next 20-40 years we experience a series of jarring lurches backward in development as agricultural, political, electrical, civic, medical systems and more are upended by a world running on overshoot far too much and far too long. Any projection of a smooth, technologically guided draw-down strikes me as dangerously naïve.
Mathematically, the Minnesota Twins (currently 17 games out of first place, with a record of 43-60) could still come back to win their division. But only a fool would bet money today on their World Series chances this year. And only an addict would bet the life savings of their entire family on that prospect.
Right now our entire culture is drenched in addictive consumption—this is true to varying degrees across almost every demographic. Which is why even the level-headed climate pundits preferred by the mainstream media are able to keep telling us, “It’s bad, but there’s still a chance to make this all right.” My brother, who died after a decades long battle with alcoholism, believed right up until his last drink, that there was still a chance to make this all right. I’m telling you, that type of talk simply encourages addicts of all stripes—including lots of folks of good will—to bet the entire welfare of the next generation on the tiniest mathematical possibility (one that nothing in all history says is possible): “we can still make it all right.”
Collapse is coming. And it will be chaotic, brutal, deadly, and apocalyptic in ways we’ll wish happened only on the movie screen … or in the Bible. Still, in a best-case scenario—the one with multiple jarring backward lurches—if we brace for collapse and if we prepare ourselves and one another to endure, we may persevere. Which brings me to Dark Hope.
In 1939, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer accepted an invitation to come to Union Seminary in New York. Already fiercely critical of (and targeted by) Hitler and the Nazi regime, the invitation offered him safety on the eve of the Second World War. But soon after arriving he changed his mind—despite strong pressure from many friends to remain here. He explained that he needed to return to be with the German people in order to be worthy to participate in rebuilding their life after the war. Bonhoeffer’s conviction became clear and unwavering: he was called to be with his people in the midst of tumult. His vocation was to embody Emmanuel—“God-with-us”—for his community.
Today, for the church to deliver Dark Hope—to bear good news in the very belly of the beast that is collapse—we must be equally clear and unwavering. We dare not hold on to the safety of “calm” until it is too late to bear witness at all. Like Bonhoeffer, our calling is to be God’s presence in the midst of God’s people … in the midst of collapse. That begins by having the conviction to be public in acknowledging that collapse is coming. Avoiding it is no longer possible. Hoping otherwise is no longer justified. And waiting even a little longer to see what comes our way risks choosing timid caution in a moment that requires daring faithfulness.
That moment is now. If we are to have a harvest of Dark Hope ready for when our people need it, we must begin planting those seeds today.
There is still more to say about Dark Hope, and I will say it briefly in the days ahead … and at length in the months and years to come. If you’ve come with me this far, thank you. Here’s where we have yet to go.
Sunday: My assertion that Dark Hope admits the impending reality of collapse is NOT a cry of resignation. It is a call to action oriented toward the truth. There remains quintessential, even existential value to justice work. This is true even and especially in a world that’s unraveling. Stopping pipelines, honoring Black Lives, abolishing prisons—this work becomes all the more imperative in a world misshapen by climate breakdown.
Monday: The shape of Christian faith (actually of human faith) in this time of Dark Hope will be steeped in lament-compassion. But there are other key virtues to be cultivated as well, such as the gratitude, awe, widened kinship, mutual service, and healthy humility mentioned yesterday. This is a twin summons that involves both reclaiming core features of our distant heritage and imagining new ways to cultivate and practice them in a wholly changed world.
Tuesday: This will be the most difficult piece for me to write (and the one I am least prepared for). I will offer some first thoughts on how Dark Hope honors our children and grandchildren as the blessing they are, within the agonizing recognition that their inheritance from us … will be collapse. How then will we love these lives that have already been consigned to such jeopardy? I don’t yet know, but I will learn.
Wednesday: This much I do know, even though I cannot say how: Dark Hope brings with it joy. There is much that we will not fathom in advance—we will only understand in the doing, but I believe compassion is the alchemy of human existence. It is the seed of the sacred in our lives. And its fruit is joy.
And now, a short break from these essays to prepare a sermon. I’ll be “back” on Sunday. I hope you are, too.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.