Margaret SWEDISH. Living Beyond the “End of the World”: A Spirituality of Hope. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008. pp. 222. $20.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-767-9.
Reviewed by Arthur J. KUBICK, Providence, RI 02906.

Remember that photo from space of earth—the blue planet—a photo that held out hope for a beautiful living, breathing planet without borders, free from conflicts, open to the possibilities of peace, harmony, oneness? Well, that beautiful planet is in deep, deep trouble. This is not news to most of us who are paying even the slightest attention to our world. Depending on how you read them, the “signs of the times” are deeply disturbing: global climate change, energy and fresh water shortages, mass extinctions of species in the web of life on which we depend, floods, drought, disease, violent conflict, collapsing economies. We either ignore these signs, look the other way, or pay close attention and risk despair. We have choices—moral, ethical and spiritual—as we face what Margaret Swedish has chosen to call “the end of the world” , a world that we U.S. Americans and other westerners have created and feel entitled to. Hers is not an ominous apocalyptic call to repentance, with rapture as a reward for the chosen ones; rather, the central question posed here is “What kind of human beings are we going to be as we go through the crisis time, the time of transition?” And intimately connected with this question is another: “What is the role of the U.S American, the world’s biggest consumer society, in preventing catastrophic breakdown that would make recovery impossible?”

All of this does not make for comfortable reading. Although Margie Swedish writes well, with a comfortable, engaging style, hers is less a scholarly approach than that of an activist involved in and concerned by the ominous news of ecological overshoot that puts our planet, and all life upon it, at risk. Yet as director of the Religious Task Force on Central America and the Caribbean, her nearly twenty-five years in accompaniment and solidarity with those regions during the conflicts of the 1980s and 90s have given her a valuable perspective on crisis, struggle, and the need for a sustaining and hope-filled spirituality. (For her the four U.S. churchwomen murdered in El Salvador December 2, 1980, serve as an example of choosing to live in the midst of crisis, to share “the same fate as the poor.”)

In nine chapters she explores the various dimensions of the current crisis: the “Katrina metaphor,” what earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires tell us about living on earth; climate change and the possibility of human extinction; the energy crisis—oil, coal, natural gas, biofuels—and our way of life dependent upon this energy; ecological overshoot, “living beyond the means of the earth to replace what we consume or to absorb our waste.” All of this leads to “a world of trouble,” global tensions brought on by the need for access to water, food and energy and exacerbated by a foreign policy dependent upon military might—tensions which promise only to worsen. Close to home the American Dream has offered the unsustainable myth that every generation can be more affluent than the previous one. Is going shopping the answer? How have religion and spirituality contributed to this alienation from nature? Are there deep spiritual roots for our ecological crisis, our alienation from nature? With this as the depressing context in which we live, can we find a way within the dark night toward reason for hope? What are the resources available that might give us “ecological hope” as we enter into “the end of the world,” the end of a way of life we have grown accustomed to? To begin an answer, Swedish draws on the writings of Thomas Berry, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Ivone Gebara, Elizabeth Johnson and many others. But her real goal is to stimulate discussion, to find a way together through hopeful dialog.

Among the many questions asked in this important book, two stand out for this reader: What kind of human beings will we be as we go through this crisis? and Can nine billion people be my neighbor? These central moral and ethical questions in turn raise issues of justice, solidarity and accompaniment. But here is the real challenge: “to bring the ecological footprint of the human species back into balance with the life systems of the planet while allowing billions of poor people to no longer be poor. Whatever one’s religious tradition, this should be at the very heart of the project of faith from here on out.” This spirituality for the coming times might call upon the loaves and fishes story in the gospels for a way forward. “We see what we have available, bless it, break it into smaller pieces, and then share—only to discover that what looked like scarcity is actually abundance.”

That final quote is from a recent posting by Margie Swedish (June 22, 2012) on her blog, Spirituality and Ecological Hope ( Here the conversation begun in her book continues. Readers might also like to know that JustFaith Ministries and Margaret Swedish have developed an 8-week module based on this book using films, prayer, ritual, scripture, church documents and various activities to explore the ecological crisis—and, of course, hope.

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