The Most Depressing Lecture I Ever Heard
The day started to come unstrung long before I got to the lecture.
This was 1987. Debbie and the kids and I had only been in Aberdeen, Scotland, for a couple of months. The word got around the faculty of divinity at the university that Jurgen Moltmann was going to give a lecture the next Friday at the Old Guild Hall in Stirling, a couple of hours away. I volunteered to drive.
Debbie and I had recently purchased a car, a used 1980 Mercedes sedan in China Blue. The previous owner was a professor of agricultural studies at Cambridge who had recently moved to Aberdeen and wanted something more practical to take into the field. We loved that car. Even after what happened that day.
My friends from the Ph.D. program gathered at our house in good time. Debbie had just taken the car a few blocks away so Jeremy could spend the night with a Scottish classmate. The granite gravel crunching in the driveway announced that she had returned. She came into the house crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Come and see.”
Nothing gathers a crowd faster than bad news. And all my buddies quickly assembled in the drive behind the car.
“Look at the rear passenger’s side,” Debbie said.
I did. My heart dropped. I nearly cried too. There was a long dent and a scar extending from the backdoor across the rear fender. It was savage.
We were both getting accustomed to driving on the left-hand side of the road. Debbie had mis-judged the distance between her and a parked car at Jeremy’s friend’s house. It was a black car belonging to Jeremy’s friend’s father. His car had generously shared a coat of black paint with our car in addition to the long dent.
“His car isn’t quite as bad,” she said. “I told him just to take it to a reputable body shop, get an estimate for us to look at, but we’ll cover it.”
I was numb. I kissed Debbie goodbye. The fellows and I piled into the car and we headed for Stirling. The guys avoided talking to me. Wise of them. I was so depressed. What I didn’t know then, however, was that the day was about to get a lot worse, catastrophically worse, universally worse, so bad that a dent in the side of our car became a very minor problem indeed.
The Old Guild Hall in Stirling, Scotland, where Moltmann was lecturing that night, would be considered very old in America (17th century), but it hardly merits a historical marker in Scottish terms. It stands across the street from the Church of the Holy Rude (the founding of which was in the reign of King David I, in 1129) and just down the hill from Stirling Castle (which, although dating from the 12th century also, stands on a site which has been fortified repeatedly since at least the Roman period by various Scottish tribal groups). We parked in the medieval village and walked up.
There were maybe twenty of us attending the lecture that evening, a very intimate group. Professor Moltmann addressed us informally, though he worked from a manuscript. After the lecture he answered questions and generously hung around a long time for individual conversations.
Not that we really felt like talking much after the lecture.
It may be hard to recall the late 1980s with any real clarity. But at least one thing stands out. This was long before scientific research had become a political football; specifically, it was long before the specter of global climate change had become a partisan political subject. Conservatives, Liberals, and Independents, Tories, Labour, and Whigs (if they still exist, for all I know) didn’t fuss and fight over the politics of climate change back then. It had not yet become a requirement of any party either to “believe in” or to “deny” the science. It was just science. And as science, serious theologians around the world were already reflecting biblically and theologically on the subject.
The reason the lecture was so depressing, even in that pre-hyper-polarized era, was because the news from science was already bad. Really bad. Worse than any of us realized.
Jurgen Moltmann is a careful scholar, and before he began reflecting theologically on climate change that night, he recited for us findings from the latest research. Remember it’s just 1987 so the science was not nearly as thorough as now. But even then, as fact piled upon fact the gloom in that room thickened till it was like a fog.
You would expect, of course, for him as a theologian to reflect on the task of the “steward” in the Bible, and what it means for us to follow the commandments of God from Genesis to Jesus about tending and nurturing and caring for this world which God loves. And Moltmann did allude to the theme of stewardship. But he did so in order to speak about our failure to live up to our obligations. He didn’t really see, already by 1987, much cause of optimism that human beings would turn the tide.
By the end of the lecture, none of our group had anything to say. We went up to him, shook hands, thanked him warmly. Then we left the Guild Hall, went down into the old town, and found a pub. We were well into our second round of pints before we spoke. And when we spoke, we only half-jokingly said that it sounded as though Moltmann was writing a “theology of extinction.” Had the great “theologian of hope” become the “theologian of despair”?
This was the most sobering conversation I’ve ever had in a pub.
That evening came to mind recently when I read about a team of Australian scientists who have predicted that human society may have only another thirty years or so left. Who knows? We’ve all bumped into evangelistic preachers who have been sure they’ve been able to figure out the dating of the world’s end, and so far all of these latter-day prophets have been wrong. I sure don’t know. But doing scientific research is very different from doing bad biblical interpretation. The scientists had gotten my attention.
The same week the Australian scientists made their prediction, it was joked about on National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” I laughed along with the audience. But not for long.
Like many of you, I have children and grandchildren. And like my grandparents and parents, I’ve always imagined that at least one aspect of my human obligation was to leave the world a little better for them. I believe in legacies. I’m not a scientist, but I’m sure no politician either. I’m a preacher. And whatever lies ahead, I still believe we have an obligation older than the hills themselves, to be stewards of this earth God created.
There’s a song by Sean Rowe I’ve been listening to lately. It sounds sad, but not hopeless. Maybe we have no right to speak of hope until we are ready to speak of our own responsibilities. I think perhaps that’s what Sean Rowe is saying. So I’d like to share with you a few lines from Rowe’s ballad, as we continue that long drive home from Moltmann’s depressing lecture, thirty years on.
“Words have come from men and mouths*
But I can’t help thinking I’ve heard the wrong crowd
When all the water is gone my job will be too
And I’m trying to leave something behind.
“Oh, money is free but love costs more than bread
And the ceiling is hard to reach
Oh, the future ahead is broken and red
But I’m trying to leave something behind
“This whole world is a foreign land
We swallow the moon, but we don’t know our own hand
We’re running with the case, but we ain’t got the gold
Yet we’re trying to leave something behind
“My friends I believe we are at the wrong fight
And I cannot read what I did not write
I’ve been to His house, but the master is gone
But I’d like to leave something behind.”
It has taken some time for me to realize what I didn’t thirty years ago, that feeling despair in the face of huge challenges can be just another way to avoid responsibility. Instead of feeling despair, I can look the difficulties of our time in the face and ask myself, “What can I do about this? I cannot necessarily change all things, but there are things I can do, things that really do lie in my path, things I can make a difference in. Even in the midst of apparently insurmountable odds I can leave something good behind.”
* If you have an opportunity, I encourage you to look up Sean Rowe singing “Leave Something Behind” online. There are some nice videos. I imagine that if the Prophet Amos were around these days, he’d look and maybe sound a lot like Rowe.