Astra Taylor in her Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone (London: Verso, 2019) quotes the famous saying of Antonio Gramsci about ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’ in the context of the climate catastrophe. This connects with that other saying about ‘civilisational pessimism and existential optimism’. When we take a hard look at our civilisation – here I quote Taylor (p.308) –
“the concentration of wealth, the structures of minority rule, the market imperative of endless growth, the seemingly irrepressible appeal of racism, and the rapidity of climate change”
then perhaps we have every reason to think that the ‘time we live in will not last long’ (1 Corinthians 7:29). The question is: what sort of an ending are we thinking of? This is an important debate. Is it a revolution in which one system is replaced by another, a spinning wheel where the bottom comes around to the top (as in the Magnificat)? Is it like taking the old ingredients, adding some new ones and then producing a completely new recipe? Is it a removal of impurities, a refiner’s fire at work? Is it like Spring, where the seeds planted in the Autumn begin to emerge after a period when everything seemed dead, yet they are the same living organisms come again in quite different forms? Is it just starting again, like an artist throwing away the first sketch and only after abandoning it, producing the piece he or she really wanted to offer?
Whatever image we prefer – and they propose significantly different answers to our question – there seems no doubt that ‘ending’ will be a period of great testing, in which the loss and suffering and disruption will tend towards despair, and yet in which we need to maintain hope.
There is another difficult question here relating to praxis. What is our role? As we see our civilisation crumbling, as we see the ship sinking, is it our responsibility to do what we can to keep it afloat, or do we abandon ship, and if the latter what does that mean? (Revelation 18:4 seems to suggest the latter, but is that what that verse means?)
It certainly seems that we need to be selective. Perhaps it would be easier to express this in terms of values. The present civilisation, the doomed Domination System, will pass away, but the values of ‘the will of God’, the ‘rule of God’ to use the term that Jesus used, will outlast the coming destruction. The new world is to be built on these values. Is this new world creation something which takes place alongside (i.e. at the same time as) the dissolution of the old world? Is New Jerusalem formed even as Babylon is falling to pieces? I think this might be right
The question remains: how should we behave in these circumstances? Here it might help us to think about the passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, verses 29-31. (We have already briefly mentioned verse 29 above.) Clearly, Paul here considers that there is an emergency. He does not know what is about to happen in physical reality, but he knows that whatever it is, is just around the corner. During that time, we may reasonably develop new attitudes towards normal rules of behaviour. That is what you do in an emergency. If you are in a blazing building and the smoke is getting thicker, it is time to act, but do not, on any account, worry about lesser matters such as trying to save the new carpet you bought only last week. ‘Those who buy should be as if they possessed nothing’ (verse 30). Paul is not altogether excluding ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ life: marriage, sorrows and joys, acquiring possessions, and being involved in business. No, but they should not be seen as an end in themselves. Paul says ‘that the world as we know it is passing away’ (verse 31). There is always an element of living ‘as if’, as if the world we experience is not the last word.
So, here is an important lesson. Let us concentrate on the emergency. Partly this will have to do with priorities. We must seek out what will last and what will not, what can be saved and what cannot. We cannot hang on to the old order. This humanly constituted world or civilisation has no future. We think that, by a little tinkering, we can get back to our old comfortable lives. But it is too late for that.
So, what will last? God, and his justice, will last, of course. In terms of human response, that means doing God’s will. ‘The world and its allurements is passing away, but those who do God’s will, will remain for ever’ (1 John 2:17).
God is aiming at the defeat of the world system, so that the universe will be delivered from its ‘futility’ and ‘bondage to decay’ (Romans 8:20,1 NRSV). The new heaven and earth will be a place where justice is established (2 Peter 3:13). God does this through his people. Thus, the ‘world’ of Noah’s day was renewed through Noah and his family. The creation is waiting for the revealing of the children of God (Romans 8: 19-21). The leaves of the tree of life in the New Jerusalem (the church) are for ‘the healing of the nations’ (Revelation 22:2). Ultimately, we are not looking forward to the destruction of all things but the renewing of all things. There are things to be destroyed but it is not the creation. It is the godless who will be destroyed (2 Peter 3:7).
I think somewhere, somehow, we must expect an intervention. There is an interesting parallel to this ‘double vision’ in the writings of the Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin hoped for the coming of the Messiah to bring about the reversal of a history which included the rise of fascism (in the 1930s) and the persecution of Jews like himself. But he believed that this would be hastened by means of revolutionary practice. A paradox perhaps, but no more so than what we find at several points in the New Testament. We have a responsibility to work for Kingdom values and God’s justice and to present it as an alternative to the Domination System even though it is ‘passing away’. Yet the final blow to the old system will be dealt by God’s interventionary judgement. The one, however, does not rule out the other. The end of the world is at hand, but we must be found doing our duty. Our faithful service and God’s righteous action together generate the new heaven and earth.
Jonathan Ingleby is a former lecturer in Applied Theology at Redcliffe College, Gloucester. Previously, he worked in education for more than twenty years in India. He lives in Gloucester and is active in local environmental politics.
Image: Survive by lassedesignen royalty-free stock photo ID: 192450863 https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/survive-192450863