I’ve delayed, and now in the face of new expressions of terror in the world around us, I must write—about hope. It was never more relevant. It is always relevant.
The idea of ‘forming faith, hope and love’ follows the expression of the Scripture verse, and a tradition amongst Christians, to name ‘these three: faith, hope and love’, and here I want to suggest that it is significant that hope sits between faith and love.
I would like to begin with two little stories. First, a story from Athol Gill, wonderful teacher and colleague, who left us so suddenly many years ago now.
On one of his trips to teach in Eastern Europe (in those days behind the ‘iron curtain’), he stopped off in West Germany where he was invited to speak to a group of Christian university students about radical discipleship. Afterwards, as he would always, he spent time talking with them, and during that conversation one of them said to him, “Man, you are so 1960s. You still think there’s hope.”
I would like to think (to hope!) that the same ‘1960s’ spirit burns in me.
Some years ago I sat in a plane from Toronto to LA, next to a Canadian on his way to a conference of computer security experts. He asked what I did, and then asked a lot of questions about Baptists, and the various strands of Christianity. I spoke about the ecumenical movement, and the vision of unity within diversity, and indeed about a desire for genuine co-operation with all other faiths.
He quizzed me about how this was even imaginable. As he saw it, all religions have competing truth claims, so they must be inherently opposed to one another. We discussed whether, and how, the various peoples and religions of the world could ever co-exist in peace and mutual respect and co-operation.
Following that conversation, I have since wondered about why I have hope about all that. What gives me such hope?
The character of hope:
Hope is very different from wishing, from wishful thinking.
Hope is much more realistic than that – much more anchored to how things are and what needs to be done, rather than what we might have wanted or preferred.
Hope is more reality-directed, and is also more focussed on responsibility.
Wishful thinking is about escape from reality into fantasy. Hope is about changing things.
Hope, in Christian theology, is the impact of grace, and is therefore an outworking of faith, into love.
Hope has a vision: a vision of the present being transformed by grace, by God. As such, hope already changes the present: even as hearts are lifted up, things are no longer the same.
In teaching about hope (I am going to teach a whole semester on the theology of hope next year) I have found it very helpful to draw on a simple but incisive framework first set out in John Macquarrie’s book about hope, called Christian Hope—published way back in 1978.
Macquarrie suggests that hope has these aspects: the emotional, the volitional and the cognitive, and then finally he talks about the religious meaning of hope.
Before all that, though, he notes the view of many scholars that in some way hope seems to be a universal phenomenon: all human life and behaviour is in some way implicitly hopeful.
We are always in some sense affirming life and implying that there will be a future, worth striving for, worth having a go at: otherwise we would all suicide. (I am sorry to say that in some senses at least, our society does engage in a kind of self-destruction, expressing a loss of hope.) More broadly, though, I think Macquarrie is right. At least some very fundamental form of hope seems to be implicit in the very structure of our being, our living and doing.
So what is the emotion of hope? We can clarify this if we think of its opposite – fear, – a sombre mood and negative index in relation to our situation and life in general.
We need both: hope and fear, and usually they are together in some mixture; perhaps they are interdependent, like faith and doubt. But positively, hope is about an openness, a going-out, a willingness for change, experiment, adventure.
With fear, there is a physical state, of anxiety. Is there an analogous physical state – bodily symptoms of hope? I have no clear answer, except to say that there is a more general physical well-being that is reflective of the attitude of hope, and it can be seen in people’s lives, and I think it often has a very significant role in how people engage with serious illness. Hope has a very profound influence on the possibility of healing, even (and perhaps especially) where there is no cure.
Fear and hope can both move us: in fear we run away, in hope we run towards; and both can cause us to stand: in fear, we are frozen, immobilized, while in hope we take a stand, in expectation.
So hope can also be a kind of choice, what Macquarrie means by the volitional. Hope is an exercise of attitude or stance. In this way, hope is connected to freedom. If everything were determined in advance, we could not hope. Hope can exist only where there is some perceived possibility of change.
As a result, hope becomes the basis of action. People act when and because they hope for some outcome from their actions.
And that’s what leads us to the third element: what we think and believe (Macquarrie’s ‘cognitive element’).
If we think about it, hope is directly related to ideas about change, transformation, gaining some goal or desired outcome.
The idea that things can change, and we as human beings can ‘reach out’ for such change, is a fundamental presupposition of hope, and Macquarrie and other theologians have interpreted this as an essential element of what it means to be human. Indeed this is how many have understood the idea of the ‘image of God’ in humankind: that we have that divine capacity for much more, for potential, growth, becoming.
That provides a clue to what it might mean to ‘form’ hope. But before I go to that directly, I have one last thing to say in drawing upon this analysis of hope. Karl Rahner put forward the idea that hope sits between faith and love and ‘makes room’ for what we hope for, in effect for what God promises. After affirming that all our present circumstances must be seen as ‘provisional’—because they can change, and will change—Rahner then says that hope ‘eliminates’ the provisional ‘ …
in order to make room for the radical and pure uncontrollability of God. It is the continuous process of destroying that which appears, in order that the absolute and ultimate truth may be the intelligible as comprehended, and love may be that which is brought about by our love.’ Karl Rahner, ‘Hope’, in The Practice of Faith: a handbook of contemporary spirituality, edited by Karl Lehmann and Albert Raffelt, London: SCM, 1985; pages 227 – 228.
Though the language is difficult here, the vital idea is about ‘making room’ for the ultimate, not by some positive ‘helping’ of God, doing for God, but by being available to the ‘uncontrollable’.
This can only be done as we are grasped by the reality of the divine. But in so doing, hope also commits itself radically to this ultimate reality, which endures beyond all temporal life, and all provisional things and ideas.
So this is the practical meaning of all we have said: Hope makes room for another, deeper reality.
In this way, it is clear that hope is an exercise of faith, in terms of trust in God, in believing that our lives and the world in which we live are not meaningless and hope-less, but rather is filled with the potential of its creator. More than that, hope draws upon what God has promised. This is the core of Moltmann’s wonderful theology of hope, which I’ll be teaching about next year. The ‘history of promise’ is the basic content of our faith. God will not abandon what God has created and redeemed. Therefore we live in hope.
Then, too, it is clear that hope leads to love, loving action for the sake of the world and indeed for God.
Here I will be very brief. Forming hope is about evoking faith that acts, reaching out for what God has promised and is doing.
To form hope is to invite the experience of assurance, even in the face of struggle and difficulty. The experience of many people is that in fact such hope is most evident in the faces of communities facing real struggles, persecution, deep distress—whereas many of us up against ‘first world’ problems complain and allow ourselves to give up, precisely because really we have all we hoped for and have never really lifted our eyes to those deeper realities, the promise of God’s way. For others, God is their only hope.
Forming hope requires teaching people the nature of hope and how it is different from wishing, and from working to gain control, success and security. It is about learning the truths of our faith and the basis of those truths, not in logic or philosophy as such, but in the reality of God.
Learning to hope is about developing the attitude of openness to possibility, to change, even transformation: and it is about learning the skills which are needed to work together for that change. Hope requires effort, work, co-operation and struggle. It may take the long haul. It needs workers and planning and, along the way, refreshment and renewal. That’s what worship can provide. It too is an essential expression and source of hope, making room for what God has promised and is doing.