Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Innate Optimism, Bad News, and Hope

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

Over the long weekend, I came across two Scripture lessons from Romans, a Time magazine article, an editorial from The Guardian, and a press release from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) that all stuck in my mind as a group. All five were worthy of some attention on their own, but what really intrigued me was the way these five disparate things seemed to be related. I’m still unraveling the relationships among them, but am sharing them along with my initial thoughts about them because they seem to point toward some of the questions which all of us, and the church in particular, should perhaps be asking ourselves in the second half of 2011.

It all started with Saturday’s Daily Office lessons, including the verse quoted above about hope. God is the God of hope, it says, and Paul is praying that the Romans might “abound in hope” – have abundant hope – that flows out of the joy and peace of belief, a belief that seems itself to be grounded in hope.


The June 6 issue of Time magazine arrived with a cover story about “the science of optimism”. The article, The Optimism Bias, is adapted from a book by the same name by Tali Sharot. The next biggest headline on the cover of the magazine is “In the Twister’s Path: What’s behind the worst tornado season in 50 years? While that article does ask the question, “Is this the ‘climate chaos’ that scientists of global warming have been warning about?”, no answer is given, and most of the article simply reports on the tornado’s damage.

The Optimism Bias argues that we have an innate bias towards believing “that the future will be much better than the past and present.” The article gives examples of optimistic expectations even when those expectations are not reasonable. Yet this bias helps us to imagine a better future and then work towards it:

Even if that better future is often an illusion, optimism has clear benefits in the present. Hope keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress and improves physical health. Researchers studying heart-disease patients found that optimists were more likely than nonoptimistic patients to take vitamins, eat low-fat diets and exercise, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk.

I wondered whether this view of optimism might help explain our widespread denial about the reality of climate change caused by human activity – both whether it is occurring at all and how urgent a problem it is. On the one hand, the example of the optimistic heart-disease patients suggests that optimism might make us more willing to do the things we need to do – like drastically reducing the amount of CO2 we send into the atmosphere – because we believe we can succeed in creating a better future if we do these things. On the other hand, unrealistic optimism might keep us from understanding the severity of our global predicament.

“The worst news”

Then came the editorial from The Guardian, Global warming: Bleaker and bleaker, which begins with these words:

Sometimes a quotation really does say it all. As chief economist of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol is not given to overstatement – so his comment in our paper today that the latest figures on greenhouse gas emissions are "the worst news" should be taken seriously.

The editorial argues that the diplomatic, economic, and industrial strategies that were supposed to adequately address climate change have failed, and there are no strategies to take their place. It ends by saying this:

Today's figures, then, show a world still hurtling towards dangerous climate change – at a time when policymakers are out of solutions for slowing this process. "A nice utopia" is how Mr Birol describes the hope of keeping a rise in global temperatures below 2C. And if he thinks that, we should all be alarmed.


But then there was the Epistle Reading for our celebration of Rogation Sunday Romans 8:18-25: “…But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Paul talks not only about humankind waiting in hope, but about “the whole of creation” waiting. This passage reminds us that hope is truly hope only if we don’t know it as a present or certain reality.

A “stark warning”

Finally, I came across the press release from the UN FCCC, UN Climate Chief says IEA estimate of record 2010 emissions is stark warning to governments to make rapid climate progress this year(IEA = International Energy Agency) that gives some background for the bleak editorial from The Guardian. In it, though, UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres is quoted as saying, “I won’t hear that this is impossible. Governments must make it possible for society, business and science to get this job done.”


Reflection on this mixed bag of readings raises some questions. Given our present circumstances with regard to the environment, how do we “abound in hope”? It can be hard to find a glimmer of hope, let alone abound in it! Yes, we might answer that Paul is talking about “spiritual hope”, not hope for our world, but we know from the Romans 8 passage that Paul is talking about hope for the world, all of us and all of creation. If we have hope anchored in the joy and peace of belief and if it is plentiful, it needs to be hope with some substance!

We may have a bias towards optimism, but facts can adjust our expectations, especially if we are aware of our tendency to believe the best even when it is unrealistic. Where does that leave us?

One of the questions the church might be asking is what form our hope should take: What are our specific hopes in relationship to the realities of climate change? That we won’t face hardship? That our leaders will get it together at the last possible moment to avert the worst of the disasters that await us if we continue doing little or nothing? That we will simply find a way to live with dignity and meaning in the midst of all of this?

Other institutions are or will be working on other aspects -- economic, engineering, agricultural, military, political, etc. -- of adaptation to a warming world. Along with our traditional roles of disaster relief, perhaps the church should be thinking and praying about the deeper adaptation, the spiritual adaptation, to a world of increasing challenges and hardships. Christian love, our values of charity and kindness and care for our neighbors, will be an essential part of humankind’s adaptation to these new challenges. The sort of deep resilience that is rooted in faith is something else that might allow us to face our future with dignity and real hope.

For right now, that hope or optimism that helps us see that there is good reason to change our habits is one of our greatest gifts. The hope that gives Christiana Figueres the resolve to say, “I won’t hear that this is impossible” just might get us where we need to go. If we think that we can choose to do things that create a better future, then we just might do them. And we just might think there’s some point in letting our leaders in government, industry, and the church know that we expect the same from them. And if none of that happens, if it’s all too little too late, may we find some sort of hope to help us bear the realities we will have created.

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