14. The Kingdom of God as a Global Hope
The prospect of catastrophic climate change illustrates what I am calling “global” hope. A global hope is, as one would guess, a hope for something big, something that affects whole cultures or the whole planet. The environmentalists who contributed to Ecology, Ethics and Hope have the whole planet in mind.
Three questions, identified last chapter: What is the “object-state” our hope aims for? Second, how can a person hope when he knows that his own actions will contribute infinitesimally to the object-state? Third, how can we avoid the vices of despair and presumption in regard to global hopes? These questions interpenetrate each other, so that what we think about one affects how we answer the others.
Hope for the Kingdom of God is a global hope. It’s probably the most global object-state ever imagined. We pray: “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Kingdom of God is that place or time where God’s will is done. It is not limited to earth; if we ever visit other planets we will take our prayer with us. We pray these words often, but what do we mean? What does it mean for God’s will to be done?
Biblical images come to mind: Isaiah’s mountain of the Lord, where lions lie down with lambs and children play with serpents without danger, or Revelation’s new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to earth, or Jesus’ parables of feasting in the King’s presence. Such images reinforce biblical themes of peace, justice, solidarity, hospitality, integrity, and holiness. Or, as Paul put it: “The kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps the best word to describe the kingdom of God is shalom—peace/wellbeing/wholeness in the inner person, between persons, and in all creation.
In one sense the kingdom of God is too encompassing. We can’t get our minds around it. When we hope for the kingdom, we hope for wellness, for healthy ecosystems, for material prosperity, for peace between nations, for the appreciation of beauty, for human solidarity, for peaceful communities, for interpersonal justice, for exuberant enjoyment of natural goods, and more. The kingdom of God seems to include everything good—do we hope for all goods at once?
In one sense, yes. When we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we know that the rule of God both includes and transcends the particular goods we have in mind. We hope for God’s universal rule to come.
That isn’t the whole story though. In very many cases (I do not say every case), hope consists partly in actions. Andrew T. Brei and his fellow environmentalists prize hope because it often sustains people in the pursuit of difficult goals. Our climate change crisis demands radical change, they say, and it seems very unlikely—given social, economic, and political realities—that the human race will change its behavior fast enough. The environmentalists think we must encourage hope so that we can sustain ourselves in a desperately hard struggle.
But it is impossible for a single person to act toward all the goods implied in shalom. No one person can feed the hungry, heal the sick, build communities, educate children, oppose aggressors, celebrate beauty, restore damaged ecosystems, reconcile enemies, and so on ad infinitum. Necessarily, we focus our actions on some particular goods.
It’s not just that we are limited in our ability to act. As finite creatures, we can’t thoroughly imagine the kingdom. At times we may catch glimpses of the goodness God plans for us—in some spectacular beauty, in the wonder of worship, in the joy that comes when broken relationships are restored. The New Testament says that the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives is a “down payment” or “first installment” of the glory of the kingdom. Nurtured by such experiences, we hope for something greater than what we can comprehend or imagine.
There is a sense, then, since we can neither act toward nor imagine God’s kingdom in its fullness, that the kingdom of God surpasses our hope. Nevertheless, we can act and imagine in accord with our hope.
An example: I hope that the civil war in Syria will end, and I hope that the refugees from that war will find new homes. It seems that I can do very little to bring peace to Syria. I cannot help tens of thousands of refugees. I haven’t the ability and resources to effectively help even one refugee. And even if I could do these things, achieving peace in Syria is a small part of shalom.
But! I can join the refugee resettlement committee at my church. Together we can help a refugee family to settle in a nearby town. After that family is settled, we can help a second family and more. Our committee can cooperate with Catholic Charities and other groups to create a network of refugee help. Because we are concerned to help refugees, we can petition our government to be more welcoming to refugees.
My example illustrates a simple truth, often repeated: though you can’t do everything, you can still do something. It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.
Our global hopes will all share this feature. The object-state we hope for will be “too big.” Sometimes we will wonder whether anything we do will be of real benefit. We won’t know how to precisely describe the object-state. Yet it will still be possible to hope—to license ourselves to think, imagine, anticipate, and work toward some aspects of the object-state.
The kingdom of God is both “come” and “coming.” To the peasants of first century Galilee, Jesus said the kingdom was “right at the door” and “within you.” Through repentance and faith, we live in the kingdom now. The New Testament also says we must endure until the Lord returns, bringing the kingdom with him.
Hope is similarly double-edged. We desire and look for some future good, and in doing so we experience a good right now. We hope.