Monday, July 2, 2012

Hope, That Thing From God

I'm sometimes accused, in one forum or another, of naive optimism.

How can I hold out the prospect of a world guided radically by the compassion of Jesus, and of an earth and time to come filled with peace and forgiveness? The overwhelming evidence is to the contrary.

Especially as a Girardian, surely I should accept the final word is "Battling To The End," not the end of battling.

Allow me, therefore, to bring a word in defense of my Pollyannaish viewpoint. The recent Theology and Peace conference underlined the need. You can't continue to do public theology without hope at its core. If we continue to expand the T&P community, reaching out to new constituencies and demographics, the more it will be the message of hope that keeps people coming back.

Apart from René Girard there has been one other major living influence in my life. It was Carlo Carretto of the Little Brothers of the Gospel, with whom I spent a deeply formative year in community. He used to say, with his usual passionate panache, "Optimism is not the same as hope. The former is a human condition of mind, the other is a gift from God."

Emily Dickinson famously said "Hope is the thing with feathers." I am tempted to think she got the word "thing" from the version of Corinthians: "Three things remain, faith, hope and love..."

In Hebrews faith is described as the underlying reality or substance of things hoped for (11:1).

In other words faith reaches out in relationship to something real that is absent to sight, while hope acts on that reality in the present, effectively bringing it into the present.

Hope is a relationship to the unseen in the here and now. Traditionally it is called a virtue, which means something like a personal strength. Certainly it gives strength, but it is much more a relationship. Even less is it an intellectual vision, something seen by the mind. Our standard Christian epistemologies (rooted in the individual, intellectual soul) have skewed the sense of a living relationship experienced in the body.

Hope is feminine whole-body relationship, a being in-touch with the future thing of Christ. That is why it was women who first "got" the resurrection, and they did so by touching the Risen One.

A hope-filled person changes the world constructed around her because she feels and knows it as already changed.

The cosmos is changed because of the resurrection. Perhaps the standard pop male version of resurrection relationship is science fiction. Science fiction channels the resurrection but at the same time gives lots of toys for the boys. Essentially sci-fi is brought to birth by the story of resurrection, given its plotline to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. Perhaps one reason why resurrection hope is displaced in sci-fi is that the church has been so bad at proclaiming the concrete reality of resurrection.

The resurrection is a concrete reality discovered not by a spacecraft, but by a whole-body relationship with the Risen One. It is cosmic metamorphosis right in our backyard, right in our kitchen, because the New Testament narrative makes it clear that the conditions of physical life have not been abolished but transformed in Christ. 

So here then is the thing (really). Because of this astonishing cosmological shift the actual conditions of the world are already changed into peace and forgiveness. Hope is the link to this change and it is experienced as a "thing," as real and substantive, because that is the way we experience our bodily reality. It is not a ghostly world or intellectual idea because these are constructs and displacements made out of death and rejection of the body, while hope is an actual thing that remains.

Which means that no matter how hard the violence of the world presses, no matter how the armies and weapons accumulate, no matter how our system of crisis doubles down on itself, and even if the very bombs themselves are dropped, the concrete physical reality of the Risen One remains. In him the new earth already exists. In him, as he said, paradise is today.

But if we also add in the underlying leavening effect of the gospel in the contemporary world--which I have constantly argued, in Virtually Christian and elsewhere--it means the rest of the world is also picking up this concrete hope. Despite the world, against the grain, in a masked and often contorted form, all the same, this hope is showing itself in the concrete, practical affairs of humanity, in the political, the social, the legal, the medical, and the media. And of course in popular entertainment and culture.

So none of us should be scared off by the threat of doom. Or, place our faith in some beam-me-up-Jesus of a "spiritual" other world, or indeed in a me-alone-with-my-loved-ones brute survival possibility. The victory is already won in the here and now, in all its immense and mysterious human complexity.

We do not know of course how exactly it will work out, and against what catastrophes and reversals it still has to contend. But the feathered thing from God says it will work out. "Do not fear, I have overcome the world."

The Christian call then is to affirm this concrete hope in all things, not mimetically to doubt it. The so-called "realists" really are not real enough.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

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