This past summer, while being interviewed by a journalist, I was asked whether or not I am optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Being pathologically eclectic, my answer is stolen from Dan Berrigan, William Stringfellow, and Joyce Hollyday.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic? The answer is irrelevant because the question is unimportant. Optimism and pessimism are mostly a question of individual temperament, one’s enneagram number. Some people, by nature, are upbeat; others more morose and suspicious. Whether one falls in the former or latter category is, in the end, unimportant. As well, optimism and pessimism are, beyond temperament, grounded in practical human possibilities. One looks at a situation and tries to judge realistically whether or not there might be grounds for a happy outcome. One is then optimistic or pessimistic on the basis of that.
Given this, that optimism and pessimism are rooted in temperament and practical possibility, it follows that what’s important for a Christian is not optimism or pessimism, but something else, namely, hope.
Unlike optimism, hope is not grounded in natural temperament nor in what should realistically emerge from a given situation. One isn’t hopeful because she’s upbeat or because she looks at a given situation and feels that it merits a positive assessment. Hope is grounded in belief in God and in the nature and power of that God. A person has hope because God is infinitely gracious and powerful and, because of that, ultimately, everything will turn out for the good.
Peace, community, justice, forgiveness, and oneness of heart will come about not because a positive attitude towards life will make our desire for them a reality (though positive optimism might indeed be helpful) or because, looking realistically at the world and the church, there are practical grounds for expecting these things. No! Peace, community, justice, forgiveness, and oneness of heart will come about because a God who can do what is naturally impossible, raise bodies from the dead, will also raise these up.
This distinction, between hope and optimism, is so important because it is crucial to keep in front of us the fact that hope is grounded in God while optimism is grounded in human possibility. The kingdom will come about through sustained hope, not through sustained optimism.
If, in examining the foundations of our political, social, and economic order (and indeed, the fabric of institutional religion), one looks at practical possibility alone, then only the most naive of persons will see in those foundations any reason to hope for a future which is better than the present one. Looking simply at what is happening within world and within the churches, there are few, precious few, grounds to realistically think that things will ever be substantially different than they are right now. From the phenomenological facts alone there is little reason to dare think that we, or anyone else, will ever sing a truly new song.
But the seeds for a new earth do not lie in practical possibility. The foundations of our political, social, economic and ecclesial structures are shot through with injustice and selfishness. There are precious few indications that this will ever change substantially. The foundations of our interpersonal lives (our marriages, families, communities) reek with polarization, anger, past hurt, and jealousy. Not much has changed since Cain killed his brother … and there are few enough indications that, left on its own, anything is ever likely to change. The foundations of our personal lives are full of moral ineptness, self-interest, timidity, self-pity, and neuroses.
Given all that, perhaps it takes a lesser act of faith to believe that God exists than it does to believe that things will ever be any different than they are now. It is easier to believe that an historical person, Jesus, once rose from the dead than it is to believe, really, that our world, and all of us, will ever rise to true peace, justice, love, and community. It is easier to believe in intimacy after death than in intimacy after birth.
Human possibility alone offers ground neither for optimism nor for hope (unless one hasn’t watched the news for a long time!) We have struggled long and painfully (and have produced martyrs) for justice, wholeness, and community and yet, daily, injustice triumphs over justice, brokenness is more manifest than wholeness, and community is fragmented at every level. Our present structures (sociological, political, economic, and ecclesial) and our present psyche (the contemporary soul), left all on their own, will not bring about a city of justice, peace, and intimacy on this earth.
The point is that it is not so important whether one responds to this fact with optimism or pessimism. The Christian task and vocation is that of hope.