Jerry Shave who attends our Friday night bible study believes me to be an optimist type. He's not the first one to accuse me of the last plague out of Pandora's box, but he's one of the more sympathetic. While others might interject "naive" before the descriptor he has been known to put terms like "intelligent."
It is no small matter.
Growing up I spent some of my most impressionable years in the shadow of a British penitentiary. It was a bleak estate of cramped army billets for families of the guards, just outside the fifteen foot granite walls which held the convicts. Allied to the harsh atmosphere was a sour, tense mood in both my parents, for a number of reasons, mostly to do with sad, repressive religion and its consequences. Our family situation improved but, without going into it all Angela's-Ashes-style, you can guess that a lot of the direction I followed in later life--spiritual and intellectual--would be a working out of the major features of that experience.
What sustained me? Was there hope in all this? There was, of course, the native instinct of a child to survive and find as many ways of entertainment and happiness as possible. I can even look back on some of that time with affection and pleasure. But when things really were grim and native spirits deserted me and I was scared and alone, it was something else that kept me going. There was a feeling in the middle of it all, too deep or dark to give it a name or even be properly aware of it: a weird, improbable feeling that there was a profound structure to everything and it was good. Although all present appearance might seem to be against it, the goodness was always there and one day it would win out.
I believe that awareness is in fact properly named hope. It is not a surface sentiment of good intent and positive attitude, a superficial golly-gee-look-on-the-brightside thing. It belongs actually in the midst of darkness, not light. It is planted in a field of stones. It is not inappropriate for a child, because "the kingdom belongs to such as these". The key word is structural, but a sense of structural that goes way beyond ordinary up-down, left-right, like the shape of a room. The experience has profoundly affected all my later understanding of the world.
It is really the structure of love: something that does not force itself on the world but shows its face where the world is overturned and cruel on its underside. It is "Blessed are the hungry...Blessed are those who mourn" become real according to its own wonderful oblique logic. I can't say that I knew this in any direct way, and that I am not now perhaps overreaching names for my experience looking back. But something kept me going and this is the best language for it I have. I depended on it totally to survive as a person in my world, in my time.
Subsequently I needed the better part of thirty years to figure out that this structure of love was not necessarily the sense of the "Religious Life" to which I later committed my life. I set out on that road (in a religious order of the Roman Catholic church) in a spirit of profound rejection of the world. Classically called fuga mundi (flight from the world) I took much delight in accomplishing this gesture, not realizing that it was really the attitude of someone who had never been given the world in the first place. I mostly acted out of spite. And the church went along with it. I had to leave it all behind in order to find and embrace that deep structure which I first dimly sensed as a child.
Almost immediately I left the order I encountered the work of Rene Girard, and I then understood that the deep structure of the gospels has infected the whole of human culture. Why not? If it could speak from the grim prospect of a prison estate, surely it could announce itself in just about every other situation!
Many people have remarked on how Girard has transformed their lives. There is even a facebook page dedicated to it! For me his work provided a fundamentally new way of understanding the Christian gospel at work in the world, allowing a new theology which raised the structure of hope to full, plain view. But at the end of his career, in his last book, Girard turned to a pessimistic view, seeing human history as essentially a duel between rivals, escalating toward some inevitable cataclysm. The structure of hope now seems to be missing.
That is why I have now turned to other authors, not abandoning basic mimetic insights, but seeking out a further articulation of hope to affirm the direction I first glimpsed there. Here is the core point of this blog.
One particular author who has helped supply this character of hope is Giorgio Agamben. His short book on Romans, The Time That Remains, is a goldmine. In it Agamben pays close attention to the quality of time released and expressed in the New Testament.We are used to seeing time in a purely sequential way, thinking that it doesn't have much bearing on spirituality. It is only the period or interval in which we are--or are not--"saved". Space is the key dimension, the place where we are now (bad) and the place where, finally, we're going (much better).
But time is the medium of spiritual relationship. It puts you in tension toward something. Or rather it is that tension which produces the quality or nature of time itself. The philosopher Heidegger famously made death to be the meaning of human time, but the New Testament put the whole world in a relationship with Christ. It has thus produced a critical change in time right here in the present. Heidegger is known in fact to have plagiarized this New Testament Christian time to produce his own existential time. The churches, on the other hand, have tended to reduce Christian time to a mere flat sequence between one spatial order and another. Allowing too much tension in the present creates disorder.
Agamben's point is that every present moment bends under the weight of Christ and so the quality of time is changed from within. This is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 7 : 29, ho kairos synestalmenos estin, "time is contracted". Time is contracted like the wave pattern of sound, producing a very different frequency of experience right now. Or it is like a woman about to give birth. Any sensitive mind and heart, not deafened and blinded by the constant stream of media, has to hear this crucially different pitch and quality in time in which we're living in today.
Agamben points out that the famous distinction of chronos (clock time) and chairos (season time) in the New Testament is not an absolute distinction. Chronos contains chairos, and vice a versa. Every tick of the clock is fractured with the kingdom of God. This is the concrete structure of hope. That no matter what happens to space our relationship is always with a radical newness here and now, and that relationship inevitably will include space too!
So if humanity is looking down the collective barrel of a gun it is also, at the very same time, glancing at the Messiah at the door. Messianic time trumps apocalyptic time, that is Agamben's New Testament analysis. By not constantly teaching, structuring and communicating this radically transformed sense of time the churches lose authority in the world, forfeiting their message to a "bye and bye in the sky." Meanwhile the world cocks the rifle. But even if it shoots--and this is the most profound point about the structure of hope--the Messiah is still at the door, transforming every element of that moment. The earth is not taken away by men, it is remade by Jesus even as they may pull the trigger.
And because this is our hope--differing from Girard--that final, extreme trigger can and never will be pulled.
This indeed is the structure of hope. It is, I am certain, an intelligent hope.
Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian