HOW HOPE DIFFERS FROM OPTIMISM
The hope of a coming kingdom is like a pair of jump leads from the future reaching into the present, jolting us out of the inertia we are prone to.
Some may remember the film, Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford and set in a miserable future where it rains permanently. This holds no threat for me as I was brought up in Lancashire. However, it set a trend in the depiction of the future as a dystopian place where all the promise and hope in life is snuffed out. Most science fiction imagines the future as a place where the fears we have today become a tangible reality. This cultural pessimism is so pervasive that it might surprise us to know that a hundred years ago there was widespread optimism about the future of the human race.
There was a peculiarly British slant to this, of course. The Empire was large and robust and we were still two years away from the First World War which would begin to eat away at the energy and reach of this empire. The British were a confident people and developments in science and industry gave us hope that the social and economic problems which had once plagued us could be remedied. However, the first suggestion otherwise had just burned itself on our psyche: the luxurious and unsinkable ship, the Titanic had recently gone down with the loss of fifteen hundred people. The loss of the Titanic, more than most events, has come to symbolise the risk of over-confidence in human affairs. All grand schemes are subject to the Titanic test today and the sense remains that disaster lurks just around the corner from the unwitting; that progress will always be spoiled by human weakness and vanity.
One consequence of this is the evisceration of hope in human affairs. Few other words have been quite so denuded of their meaning than hope. It feels so weak and insipid. To hope for something is no stronger than to wish for something by crossing our fingers. Yet this is so far removed from a Christian understanding of the idea.
Christian thinking should be replete with a sense of who we are, where we have come from and where we are heading. A society without this sense of momentum and purpose is at risk and it feels today as if we are faltering. Time has become flattened. We don’t think much about the past and how it has shaped us. This is partly because we are living through another scientific wave – the digital revolution – which is making us infatuated with our ingenuity. In such a mood, it is easy to forget the lessons of the past. Yet in spite of our enthusiasm for the present, we lack a sense of hope. Many people are fearful of the future. This is not just the temporary anxiety induced by the recession, but a genuine concern that we are racing ahead of ourselves in scientific developments like bio-technology and advanced weaponry and that climate change and population growth may overtake our ability to cater for future generations. As a result, the rich sense that comes from the feeling that we are part of a flow in history is deprived us. The past is irrelevant and the future is scary so we live for the present. The phenomenal growth in the entertainment industry is evidence of people living in the ‘now’.
A Christian view of hope should be distinguished from optimism. Optimism is the vague but undefined feeling that things will turn out alright. It is a projection from the present into the future and as a feeling, amounts to little more than a personality trait or an intuition that life will get better. By contrast, Christian hope brings the future into the present in a transformative way. The common acclaim: ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’ joins the dotted lines that lie between the past, the present and the future. The hope of a coming kingdom where Christ’s reign is confessed by all infuses our lives and our plans with purpose and inspiration. It acts like a pair of jump leads from the future reaching into the present, jolting us out of the inertia we are prone to. Well, it would if we didn’t feel as attached to the world as we do.
In 2 Corinthians 4, St. Paul says: ‘For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen’ (verses 17-18). These words are a profound inspiration to Christians and especially those who are suffering and whose experience of life is so diminished. The hope of the kingdom to come was an enduring lifeline to so many who suffered during the iniquitous slave trade, for example. God saves his people; this is what he does and it is cause for inexpressible joy. In practice, however, we only give it two cheers if life is going well because we think we can defer God’s salvation until the point of death. It is as if the reverse of what Paul said is truer for us: that the eternal weight of the present occupies us so much that the coming kingdom feels slight and momentary by comparison. This may be an exaggeration, but it is near enough to make us uncomfortable.
Christian discipleship should always be edgy. It has been expressed as living in the ‘now and not yet’. We have seen how attached we have become in our society to living in the ‘now’; for Christians this should be joined by a sense of living in the ‘not yet’. There is something not right with this world. God has promised eternal life and the gift of the Holy Spirit gives us a taste of what is to come, but we cannot feel content until the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ have fused into one and what it wrong with us and this world has been put right by God.
Hope calls for active resistance in, not passive acceptance of, the world as it is. There is a risk that we read St. Paul’s words, about this life being a slight momentary affliction, in a way which encourages apathy and indifference to what is wrong in the world; as if it doesn’t matter what happens now because the life to come will be so much better. This is exactly the criticism Marx made of religion: that it is opium to keep people subdued. This failure emerges when we do not allow the hope set before us to transform our experience of the present. Once the Church is connected to these jump leads, it is galvanised into making good what is wrong; moulding lives and cultures in the shape of the world to come.
It call for wisdom to know what should be resisted in modern culture, and the Church is always at risk of choosing the wrong targets, but the principle that whatever enslaves human beings and the institutions they create should be challenged is a sound place to start. The prayer, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ is the rallying call to sleepy people.
It is as if we are being called to wear bi-focal lenses. These are becoming more sophisticated by the year, though I struggle with using them so I wear different glasses according to what I am doing. In this way I represent the Church at its clumsiest, where it can only focus on one thing at a time and usually at what is in front of it. Bi-focal lenses enable us to look both at what is in front of us and also what is in the distance with just the flick of an eye. In this way the future may influence the present; only in this way may hope transform reality.
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