I was recently asked to preach on hope to a local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Great, deep, theological topic, hope.
The more I pondered what I would say, the more I kept returning over and over to my training in systematic theology and ethics where I learned that hope is a gift, a grace. I wondered about this when I first studied the theological virtues. I’ve been pondering hope for weeks and wondering if the idea of theological virtues, especially hope, as gifts hold up with my Unitarian Universalist theological grounding.
My contemplation of hope starts with hopelessness. If hope is actually a grace and a gift, what happens when it is not present? There haven’t been a lot of times in my life when I felt the absence of hope, but there have been a few.
My parents divorced when I was ten years old. I have no memory of the initial days and weeks of their separation except crying. I probably didn’t cry twenty four hours a day, but my memory of that time is only crying and being told it would be OK and feeling like it never would be.
During college I suffered through a period of soul crushing depression. I didn’t get out of bed for days at a time. I went to work and to classes and put on an incredible mask. I could appear “normal” to the outside world, but it was always as if my mind and heart were split in two. I could carry on conversation and engage necessary activity, but at the same time there was a spinning reel of thought holding my mind hostage: I’m crazy, I’m going insane, everyone hates me, what’s wrong with me, I hate myself, it went on and on.” I had nothing to get me through except family and therapist reassurance that it wouldn’t last forever. It always felt like it was never going to get better. But I held on and held out, and it did gradually get better. I comes back every now and then, but never as bad as that first time when I didn’t even know what it was.
I’ve been through a divorce, which even though it was rather amicable was an emotional rollercoaster for over a year. I felt at home nowhere. I always felt lonely. I wanted to just be left and alone and at the same time I hated being by myself. I felt like there would never a “normal” in my life again.
I’ve been through job loss, unemployment and under-employment. I’ve felt like I would never be wanted or valuable or able to make a living at something I enjoyed and was good at ever again.
My parents now tell me that when the Red Sox lost the 1975 World Series I was inconsolable for a much longer time period than I was when they divorced. I lifted myself out of that first deep depression largely by praying “God, get me through this, let it end.” I didn’t believe then and don’t now that a supernatural being in the sky heard my pleas and changed my situation, but I do believe that the cry of my soul needed somewhere to go and be heard, and it’s way, it was. I have been talked through divorce and job loss by family and friends and I know in my heart that I have wonderful things left to give to the world.
Any one of these situations leads other people to give up. Suicides aren’t unheard of from people who go through similar things. And yet the world has far worse to dole out than what I’ve faced. What about people who are falsely imprisoned, raped, tortured or dying of cancer and a host of other ailments? Why do some people survive and continue living productively and why do others not. Why do some people live generatively even through the process of battling hardship and disease and poverty? Given war and violence and torture, why do some people survive and why do some people give in and give up
I don’t know, but it has something to do with hope. I’ve long been fascinated with hope. Hope is a very difficult thing to define and explain, yet we know it when it’s present and we also know it when it’s absent. It’s intimately related to persistence and tenacity and courage, but it is not any of these things. They are not synonyms.
Hope is a theological virtue, like Love and Faith. Some theologians argue that Faith, Hope and Love are gifts of grace. They are either present or they aren’t. There isn’t anything you can do to be hopeful or more hopeful or feel loved or more loving or have faith in something. I think I see it this way more and more.
I resisted this way of thinking of hope for a while because it seemed to me that if one is hopeless (or loveless or faithless), one is somehow at fault or being punished, or less than those who are hopeful (and loving and faithful). The reality I’ve experienced is that some people are generally more hopeful and faithful and loving and some are less or not much at all. It seems to matter little the particular circumstance. This is where this explanation of the theological virtues as gifts rings true with me.
No one is bad or wrong or sinful or less than for feeling and experiencing a lack of hope or a lack of love or a lack of faith. Sometimes these things are absent. it is no one’s fault. Why is it there and other times not there? I think it is just a gift. A quality or characteristic of the spirit or the soul or the heart.
Perhaps hope (like love and faith) is something we all possess, but don’t see or can’t access. The theological virtues are definitely different from the Cardinal Virtues and other virtues that one actually acquires by practice. How do you become more just? Practice Justice. How do you become more Courageous? Practice bravery. How do you become more wise? Practice good decision making. How do you become more loyal? Practice devotion. It just doesn’t work that way with hope. You can’t be come more hopeful by practicing hope. If hope is present you don’t need to practice it, it’s already there. Same for love and faith.
I am generally hopeful (even though I sometimes pretend to being otherwise) and I know lots of people who are not. Why? How? I don’t know. I keep coming back to hope being a grace, a gift. Hope is a gift of the spirit.
I also think we have a general misconception of hope. Hope is more than persistence and courage and tenacity. Hope is not a fairy tale or a magic potion to make it all better. Hope is not optimism. Hope is not a way out of our present circumstances, it is a way to live through them. Hope is not a way out, it is a way through. Hope is what makes hanging on possible. In 1986 Vaclav Havel was asked if he thought there was hope in the 1980’s. I love his response:
Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.
Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is.
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
Havel articulates as well as any theologian I’ve read, the idea of hope as a gift. I believe that concept of hope is a core tenant of my theology as a Unitarian Universalist. James Luther Adams tells us that one of the five core elements of liberal theology is the idea that we believe (have faith or trust in) it as fact that there are enough divine and human resources to justify having an attitude of ultimate, if not immediate optimism.
I think what’s he’s speaking about is hope. Hope isn’t that optimism. It’s not the same thing, but maybe hope is the quality that exists in us that allows us to assume that attitude of ultimate optimism. In this way our faith as Unitarian Universalists is bound up in hope. The presence of this gift is a sign that we are Unitarian Universalists. So what happens if we don’t have the gift.
And here’s where I differ perhaps from the classical theology of the virtues and the traditional concept of the theological virtues as gifts. I believe (have faith in, trust in) that we are all equipped with what it is to be fully human. I believe we are all “saved.” There is nothing we have to do to get “in” with God or keep some God from punishing us. So what happens when we’re feeling hopeless, without hope? Perhaps it’s there, but we can’t see it.
Perhaps hope is like a gift that lost behind the Christmas tree and when discovered while taking down the tree, presents itself. Someone gave us a present, we just couldn’t see it. Perhaps it’s like a personal blind spot, something we can’t see in ourselves but others can. We may not feel loved or lovable, but others love us fiercely. Perhaps hope is, like grace, an “opt out” proposition. It’s always there, but circumstances or the way we feel prevent us from accessing it.
Although hope is not the same as courage or persistence or tenacity, but maybe hope, even the unseen presence of the hidden gift of hope, makes those things possible. Even though we can’t create or generate hope, maybe what we need to do in order to make hope available to ourselves and others is just be present, to be a companion on the journey, to witness the hanging on and hanging in until hope rises.
A number of years ago, I received a phone call telling me a member of my congregation had a baby. I know, happens all the time, right? Later that very same day I received a phone call telling me that same baby had died. Few things can engender the hurt, the pain, the loss, the grief and the hopelessness of losing a child. What was a pastor to do? The only thing I could do was show up and hold hands and give hugs and bear witness to the anger and pain and loss and name it out loud how much it hurt. It certainly wasn’t the time to be overly positive or unrealistically optimistic as hope (and love and faith) can only be present in the reality of the situation.
I know that during my times of depression and divorce and unemployment, it was nothing my friends and family said that helped so much as it was their just being there. Eventually hope returned, and it returns over and over, and I never really know why. Eventually, for many people hope returns after loss and pain and anger and the death of a loved one. How? I’m sure I still don’t know. I only know that it can and it does, and it’s like a gift each time, like a present you didn’t expect to get.
What do you think? Is hope a gift? Is it the same as optimism and persistence and tenacity? Or is it something different, such as a quality of the spirit with its roots so deep beyond and/or within us that it is experienced as grace and gift?