Growing up, I had many evangelical friends who were preoccupied with an imminent Second Coming of Christ. I could never get on board with this apocalyptic worldview—I think I worried too much about experiencing a frightening moment, when I realized that the truly faithful had been raptured away and I had been left behind. This Advent, however, I find myself thinking again about the future in eschatological terms.
The next few decades will likely be the advent of what author Richard Heinberg describes in his book Peak Everything. In a nutshell, this means that the increasing rate of average global energy and resource production will level off and begin to decline—perhaps slowly, perhaps precipitously. In either case, an expanding population will face a scarcity of cheap energy and natural resources, as well as a likely reduction of agricultural productivity and less available fresh water, amid other challenges.
Beyond simple denial out of despondence or willful ignorance, there are two basic approaches toward a future of such limits. The first is fearful pessimism, a dystopian outlook that envisions resource and energy availability taking a steep nosedive. This could lead to what I call the “Republican nightmare”: the rise of centralized, authoritarian, Big-Brother regimes (or corporations), which enforce draconian measures on the citizenry and engage in wars over scarce resources. Or we could experience the “Democratic nightmare”: a catastrophic failure of the economy, mass food and water shortages and the disintegration of government and society. What survives of civilization will do so in “lifeboats”: small pockets of survivalists in a degraded, lawless world akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. On either count: yikes.
A more optimistic stance toward a future of limits recognizes that for all our shortsightedness and sin, human beings are astoundingly adaptable. We have survived almost everywhere on earth. We find our way through disasters, as the Benedictines did after the collapse of the Roman Empire, when they helped rebuild Europe’s agricultural base and sustained its intellectual heritage through the dark ages.
Adaptability could take the form of a smooth, green-tech transition without serious economic, political or climate disruption. Scientific ingenuity somehow devises alternate means to provide a first-world lifestyle and sufficient energy, raw materials, water, food and fiber for nine billion people. Or, with bumps along the way, perhaps adaptability could mean a less-is-more future. The “less” of that future would probably lead to an overall reduction of global economic output and energy use, fewer material goods, less easy mobility and a smaller, less centralized population. On the positive side, this future would likely entail resilient economies based on information, services and agriculture rather than manufacturing. It could result in more meaningful work, stronger community connections, more equitable standards of living among nations and (one hopes) greater aesthetic and spiritual sensitivity.
What are Christians to make of these scenarios, if we take God’s future seriously and pray, “Thy kingdom come”? How can the hopeful seasons of Advent and Christmas help us be like the five wise, waiting virgins, who were prepared for the bridegroom’s arrival?
The birth of Jesus revealed that God’s love is no mere philosophical principle; it is fully incarnated in the nitty-gritty of creation and history. Belief in a love-infused world provides no talisman against disaster—but it can drive out existential fear that disaster will have the final word. It can also inspire our own incarnation: trading the anesthesia of virtual reality and consumerism for the genuine satisfactions and sorrows of responsible relationships to each other and to the creation. Incarnated life is real life.
Incarnated life is also a life of limits. In the incarnation, the infinite God took on the confines of flesh and history in the form of a servant and showed us that love is most powerfully present in willing self-limitation.
God’s love will certainly be active even amid cataclysm. But cataclysm, the prophets insist, is not God’s dream for creation. Advent limns a kinder, gentler future: of cooperation and clever adaptability but also of simplicity and enoughness rather than extravagance. To embrace limits, as did the child in the manger, is to embrace life itself—and a love that has no limits at all.