Friday, October 24, 2014


Letting Go of Honest Hope

Honest hope. I have insisted upon it for several years now, ever since reading Dianne Dumanoski, who finishes The End of the Long Summer with a short chapter by that title. “In times of danger, bitter truths serve us better than sweet lies.” Blind hope kills, whereas honest hope accepts the immense uncertainty of the survival of civilization, even higher life, in an era beset by accelerating climate disequilibrium, which is offset by the tremendous capacity for adaptation and resilience shown by human evolutionary history.

Honest hope is like tough love, continually tested by the realization that the only certainty is immense uncertainty. Nature has always been uncertain. But since we've flourished during a long calm, the 10,000-year Holocene Epoch, we have become lazy. We take it for granted that farmers will continue to feed 7 to 9 billion people and that we will be able to suck out all the fossil fuels the Earth has sequestered to replace animal power. We are used to easy street. The Big Easy – New Orleans before Katrina. Though humanity has made it through some very tough times, especially repeated eras of glaciation, we have never faced rapid warming and all that sets in motion in the biosphere. As one climate scientist recently said, “They have no idea of what's coming.” The scale of climate disruption we face is unprecedented.

Instead of honest hope, hydra-headed denial fuels a flight from uncertainty into Providence. Dumanoski outlines three forms of providential salvation: faith in the technological fixes that have gotten us through every bottleneck until now; deliverance by the invisible hand of the market; and the clincher – deliverance through Apocalypse and the end of human history. Though these may all sound like the overconfidence of the political right, these fantasies lurk in us all to some degree.

Grimly clinging to my last thread of honest hope, I recently led a retreat entitled “Collapsing Consciously.” Readers of this blog might recognize the title from my review of Carolyn Baker (March 31). Though the very structure of my retreats, which are based upon Joanna Macy's work in moving through despair to an awakened level of coping, insures residual or renewed hope, my dogged reading of the latest climate science made my statement about honest hope the most tenuous ever. I told the group that honest hope remained, but that it was tied to the thinnest of moorings.

I was completely honest with the group, outlining the latest IPCC report (as well as its glaring omission of the Arctic methane emergency), the tenuousness of the world economic order, and the continuing geopolitical impasse over an international treaty on climate. The latter was leavened by my joining the People's Climate March the preceding week, but we don't know yet if that remarkable event will lead to the necessary shift from protective nationalism to an awakened last-hour accord. And in the central exercise, the Truth Mandala, I once again confessed my fear that we would not survive imminent climate apocalypse.

But the process was resilient enough to allow the group to leaven my darkness and fear, as participants shared their openness to the movement of the Spirit in the midst of dire uncertainty. One person, who had spoken twice of her despair, anger, and deep sadness over the earth crisis came forward, placed both hands on the floor, and testified to the hope that upheld everything. This brought me to a place of wonderment, for shortly before I had pointed out that the very ground of this ritual confession of our deepest feelings was hope. But I had not experienced hope as I spoke. Her eloquent act brought the Buddha's mudra, touch the earth, to bear on our ritual.

As I reviewed the retreat afterwards, rereading Dumanoski's chapter on honest hope. I was startled to realize that my utilization of her concept had subtly morphed over time into a desire that, with some tweaking, the established order would survive. Despite years of wrestling with the central moral dilemma of anthropogenic global ecocrisis, I am still seized by our cultural myth, fearing a break with comforts and the tenuous security of the established order. Thus when I experience myself as cooly rational, I am still provisionally open to techno-fixes like geoengineering, nuclear power, or GMO's as inevitable in the brave new Anthropocene. But this is not honest hope. Honest hope means accepting the challenge of devolving from a complex extractive civilization to a cultural order that is resilient in the face of warming.

“We don't know.” So often my audience says this when I point fatalistically to our impending end. Too often this simply covers a deep-rooted denial of the gravity of our situation. Sometimes it is the simple child-like faith that “God wouldn't let us perish.” But it can also be a genuine openness to the possibility for something new and unforeseen hidden in the nucleus of our uncertain moment in history.

Towards the end of that retreat, I actually found myself saying we don't know for the first time. A sense of wonder and possibility was moving through the room; one man named it the Holy Spirit. The place from which that sentence surprisingly emerged was different from honest hope. And since I later realized that what I was calling honest hope was really a rationalization for a last-ditch confidence that our way of life could be salvaged in some way, then the statement was a tentative doorway to something deeper, even scarier, and more real.

There is a people's climate movement building, with many laudable efforts such as fossil folly divestment, Transition Towns, rapid renewable ramp-ups, shifts in agricultural practices, and a growing call for replacing capitalism with an economic system that is responsive to the earth's stability as well as a chastened but sustainable human presence. But it appears as if we simply don't have time to make changes; we have squandered too many chances. The days of honest hope are coming to an end.

So if we relinquish honest hope, what are we left with? We are in a chiasm strongly reminiscent of the Hebrew community after the fall of the First Temple. It is time for a prophetic response that acknowledges the deep sadness and regret of our seemingly impossible dilemma. Such a response would acknowledge that You have broken God's covenant and will suffer for your ecological sins – but be nevertheless grounded in a deep place of hope. The Hebrew word is batah: confidence, security, without care. It is redoubled in the New Testament with the Greek elpis (“whence cometh our help”) - for elpis is the root of “help.” Neither of these terms can be modified by a downside, as we do with “hope” in everyday speech. Biblical hope is complete, total. It is an unshakable reality, not a feeling.

Even spiritually-minded moderns do not often show this kind of hope. Usually when I hear folks testify to it, I doubt them; surely their faith has not been sufficiently tested. Well we are being tested, and “honest hope” is not going to answer the test.

No matter how bad things get, we need to continue to act as if our actions mattered, honest hope or no, cultivating batah/elpis by something like Paul's continual prayer. When asked the reason for our hope as the world as we know it crumbles around us, answer as Paul did in I Peter 3:15 – Be prepared to give the defense that the Light (Christ) is in your Heart... The experience of hope gives grounds for faith, what I call cosmological faith. This is not collapsing into the arms of Apocalypse, confident of a place in heaven, but seeding the hope of the new Phoenix, whose form we know not. Cosmological faith, rooted in biblical hope, is my anchor when honest hope has become thin to the point of vanishing.

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