Author(s): Diana Butler Bass
I confess: I spent much of Summer 2012 avoiding the news. This was odd for me as I have been passionate about current events for many years. At fifteen, I experienced an awakening of political and religious consciousness and have spent a quarter-century writing and teaching about faith in the world.
I do not entirely know what precipitated my sudden revolt against cable television, radio, the web, and newspapers. Unexpectedly, dreams of bucolic escape – fantasies of moving to a small farm or waterside cottage – occupied my mind. "There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees," wrote poet Mary Oliver, "A quiet house, some green and modest acres/A little way from every troubling town/A little way from factories, schools, laments." I knew something deep was happening – I was feeling increasingly wearied by hopelessness.
A Fading Poster
As summer waned, I summoned enough energy to watch the political conventions. Of the many words and images, a particular moment disturbed me: vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s description of the "fading" poster from the 2008 election, now tormenting a generation of young adults with lost hope. As powerful as "HOPE" proved four years ago, it now seems little more than a slogan to some. To ridicule hope has become acceptable political sport. Fading hope, decaying dreams, gnawing doubt, and eroding confidence framed far too many speeches. These are emotions of escape, the inner space where sadness sows isolation and individualism. A party cannot put "DESPAIR" on a poster, but a disorientation bordering on despair reflects what too many people feel. And it was being plied to motivate – or deter – voters.
Hope comes not through political campaigns. Rather, lasting hope will spring from a rebirth of courage in faith communities.
As autumn arrives and campaigns take up the media, I fear despair might displace hope. Somehow hope has become passé. This cynical public discourse, absent hope, forms the backdrop of what happens in our congregations, informs the hearing of our sermons, and deforms the connections of our communities. Hopelessness is not only endemic to politics; it has worked its way into the spiritual DNA of many churches and denominations. It is hard to hope for the future when your congregation is declining, the Sunday school is empty, people are arguing about the issue du jour, and there is little money to pay the pastor – and when programs to increase numbers and vitality have failed. Hope is in short supply, even in churches, the single place where one would expect to find it.
The scriptures warn that without vision, the people perish. But vision begins in hope, and without hope, the future dies before it is born. Sans hope, we waste away.
Hope is not a political slogan. In Christian tradition, hope is one of the three theological virtues. According to Paul in First Corinthians 13, hope, along with faith and love, form the core of Christian life. In classical theology, hope is the opposite of despair, of which John Chrysostom said, "It is not so much sin that plunges us into disaster, as rather despair."
Medieval Christianity understood the state of despair as acedia, the desire to flee from the good, toward apathy, isolation, even death. Thomas Aquinas referred to this state of hopelessness as "uneasiness of mind." Despair, generally called sloth, is considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Is it possible to move past hopeless? Can we find our way to genuine hope?
Hope involves emotions, but it is not ultimately a feeling of happiness or optimism. Hope is a noun, meaning "expectation" or "sure confidence." It is also a verb, "to expect" or "to desire." The New Testament links hope with the salvation of all creation, God’s dream to heal the universe through divine love. In Romans, Paul says "the whole creation has been groaning" as with labor pains as it waits expectantly for this new world. Hope – the sure confidence that everything is moving toward this cosmic end – is the foundation of salvation. "Now hope that is seen," wrote Paul, "is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience" (Rom 8: 24-25).
A Universe of Health and Freedom
The hope that Paul describes takes not only patience but courage. Indeed, Christians must live with an eye toward this unseen end, the cosmic summing up of all things in God. We labor in service of birthing this new creation, a universe of health and freedom, formed by and in God’s love. In the New Testament, hope is always political – Christians hope
for a new world, not personal salvation. This vision gives Paul courage as he faces criticism, challenge, and persecution. For him, hope goes far beyond sentimental feelings. Hope is the driving vision of a world restored by grace, and the ability to act upon what is only partly seen.
To those who trust that the future holds the promise of God’s salvation, hope-filled action is courage. Indeed, without the courage to act, hope is just a word or a slogan on a fading poster. However, when we act with deep assurance that things can and will be different, acedia loses its hold and we can move back into the world. Hope and courage are intimately connected in a mutual exchange of expectation and transformation. Hope without courage is a platitude; courage without hope is folly.
Hope and courage begin with honesty. We need to understand the wide gap between what is and what we cannot see. Thus, hope starts with a straightforward assessment of the world as it is. We must lament the state of things because we believe a different future is possible; we must acquaint ourselves with despair because we know the gulf between the two. But lament and understanding do not end in despair. Rather, despair points toward a spiritual reality: at the center of all doubt is, as the Hebrew prophets write, a steadfast and compassionate God.
Much of today’s contemporary young adult literature is dystopian: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Age of Miracles. Each of these books begins with unblinking portraits of worlds of despair. These tales are modern versions of Lamentations, "How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!" (Lam 1:1). Yet, in each of these bleak stories, the main characters, even while suffering the full weight of despair of their circumstances, courageously act in expectation of a different world: They choose to love, leaping across the gap of what is and what can be. Ultimately, they are stories of hope.
Dare to Lament
My recent book, Christianity After Religion, begins with a sober assessment of the current state of North American religion. A woman sent me this email: "I like your new book, but I almost didn’t make it out of the first three chapters. They were depressing." I replied that that was the point. Christianity After Religion is actually a lament, describingthe turn away from conventional forms of religious life toward a different sort of spiritual connection. This turn has opened up a gap between church-as-it-is and the sort of community for which many yearn.
This disjuncture is frightening for many who love the church. Yet, in the gap between what exists and what could exist, new possibilities for vibrant faith are being birthed – and there can be found courage to embody a more meaningful, loving, and transformative faith. There is not much reason to expect that religious institutions will survive as they are; there is much reason to hope if we courageously reform and renew the church.
As summer turns to autumn, the questions bedevil me. I wonder if hope and courage will join hands to forge a new sense of the common good. But hope comes not through political campaigns. Rather, lasting hope will spring from a rebirth of courage in faith communities, when God’s people prophetically act on divine intention for a world transformed. I wonder if we can find the power of lament as a path toward a new future. I have turned the news back on. Its hourly din reminds me how bad things are, how far there is to go. However, the groaning of creation strangely cheers me. After all, these are the labor pains. Redemption awaits.
Diana Butler Bass is an author, independent educator, and consultant. Her latest book is Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (HarperOne, 2012)). She holds a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity from Duke University. To read more about her most recent book: "The Future of Faith: An Interview With Diana Butler-Bass"