“Hope in an Age of Despair”
A reflection for the 50th ‘Earth Day’, 22nd April 2020,
for St Luke’s Church, Claremont St, Newcastle upon Tyne
Dr David Golding CBE
In talking about “an age of despair”, I’m not thinking only of the alarming impacts of the Coruna virus pandemic, although the infection and the illness it causes are certainly the source of immense distress, and the economic and financial effects which lie ahead may well be even more so.
Our age drives people to despair for many and various reasons, many of which are truly alarming, so much so that Sir Martin Rees, the former President of the Royal Society and one of the UK’s leading and most sober-minded scientists, has stated that, “there is only a 50% chance that civilisation as we know it will make it through the present century”.
As some of you know, the climate and wider environmental crisis is one which has occupied much of my attention for nearly 15 years – and with good reason: “We are in terrible, terrible trouble and the longer we wait to do something about it, the worse it is going to get,” says Sir David Attenborough.
The science is as clear on this, as it is on the reason for the current health crisis: the world is hitting record-breaking temperatures, and the poorest communities are being impacted first and hardest. The devastating decline in wildlife is set to wipe out a million species. Our oceans are choking in plastic, our children are breathing toxic air, and we are feeling the impacts. This is not a future problem: the time is now.
And then, along comes the Corona virus and its threat to the global economic system – we don’t have to look far for reasons which drive many to despair.
My title is, in fact, taken from a book published by IVP entitled, “Hope in an Age of Despair – the gospel and the future of life on earth”, by Jonathan Moo and Robert White. The authors are an American theology professor and a professor of Geophysics at Cambridge University, respectively – both of them evangelical and reformed – and they are eminently well qualified to deal with the book’s subject. I’ve produced a ‘Digest, Commentary & Critique’ of it. [Me being me, ‘critique’ was bound to feature somewhere!]
The authors acknowledge that the Bible’s teaching on care for creation and care for the poor have clear lessons for our response to the environmental crisis, but they’ve opened up a highly original vein of biblical teaching, pointing out that Christ at his coming will make ‘all things new’, and discussing what that means for our lives now, for which they cast a compelling vision. It is this hope – what is called the ‘ultimate’ or assured hope – which should indwell and empower us, and not some misguided, pseudo-pious, and unfounded optimism about the future during this present age.
What they are saying, in essence, is this: there’s a glorious kingdom coming, in a new creation, and it will be characterised by complete shalom – peace, health and justice – in the relationships between God and humanity, between human beings, and between humanity and the rest of creation. But the kingdom is here right now, albeit in its infancy, since it was inaugurated by the coming of Jesus, and believers are members of it right now! Similarly, the new creation is here right now, albeit also in its infancy, since we are “new creatures in Christ”.
Consequently, imbued with an assured hope of our participation in the coming kingdom, in the new creation, we should personify the values of that coming kingdom, and exemplify the characteristics of that new creation, in all we do right now!
These considerations inevitably provide a devastating indictment of the attitudes and behaviour which we have shown to date: our casual selfishness in how we use the world’s resources, and in how we treat our global neighbours. Our grotesque abuse of God’s creation, and our gross oppression of the world’s poor in consequence, are, according to Moo and White, “revealed for what they are: an affront to God, an abrogation of the responsibility given to us and a rejection of our identity as his children in Christ”.
The world looks very broken indeed sometimes, but Jesus reminds us that the smallest seeds can grow into trees that bring shelter to many. Every small part of our daily lives can restore relationships, bringing justice and abundant life to all – and doubtless those of you listening will encounter many opportunities for just such acts of ‘kingdom living’ in the months to come.
Philippa Strickett, a Tearfund supporter, has described how, “Being a Christian changed our eating habits! [Exclamation mark] We have eaten a lot less meat, etc.”, and concluded by saying, “We certainly fail sometimes [join the club, Philippa!], but step by step, with a spirit of generosity and grace, we’re trying to follow Jesus with our whole lives.”
Isn’t that wonderful?! I was particularly struck by that bit where she says, “Step by step, with a spirit of generosity and grace, we’re trying to follow Jesus with our whole lives.” “With a spirit of generosity and grace” – please help us to exemplify such a spirit, Lord, even in current, trying circumstances!
But suppose we start to personify the values of the coming kingdom, and exemplify the characteristics of the new creation. What if not enough people do that and, anyway, the governments of the world continue in their current wicked folly, what then?
I’m convinced that anything we do right now to reflect the values of the coming kingdom, and to exemplify the characteristics of the new creation, is of lasting significance! Such lives are “not in vain in the Lord” (I Cor. 15.58). In ways we can barely imagine, lives lived now which reflect the character of the coming kingdom, in the renewed creation, have enduring value and their echoes will sound on into eternity.
“Help us, dear Lord, to live such lives and to do so, like Philippa Strickett and her lovely family, “With a spirit of generosity and grace”. Amen!
David W. Golding CBE PhD DSc DCL
Associate, Faculty of Science, Agriculture & Engineering, and Honorary Chaplain, Newcastle University;
Development Coordinator, North East CALL TO ACTION on global poverty and climate change; Founding Trustee, Jubilee Debt Campaign; Trustee, Blue Sky Trust (ACET North East); Spokesperson for Tearfund in NE England.