The Advent Hope
Romans 13.11-14. Matthew 24.36-44
Are you an optimist? This was the question posed to David Attenborough in a television interview the other day. There was an awkward silence.
The question brought to mind a recent book by the literary critic, Terry Eagleton, Hope without Optimism (London: Yale University Press, 2017). For a Marxist, Eagleton’s writing has taken a decidedly theological turn in recent years. Of optimism, he says that ‘There may be many good reasons for believing that a situation will turn out well, but to expect that it will do so because you are an optimist is not one of them. It is just as irrational as believing that all will be well because you are an Albanian, or because it has just rained for three days in a row.’ (Eagleton, Hope without Optimism, 1). The banality of optimism is a theme which has preoccupied Eagleton for some time. I remember a review he wrote of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which began with the memorable line: ‘ ‘Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology’ (London Review of Books, Vol. 28. No. 20, 19 October 2006, 32).
Certainly, Dawkins book was ill-informed, in spite of his claims to the contrary. There is indeed, much bad religion out there in the world, which provides an easy target for Dawkins’ invective. We might share Dawkins’ distaste at fundamentalism: but as Eagleton points out, it is remarkable that his anti-religious diatribes have never been matched in his work by a critique of the global capitalism that generates the hatred, anxiety, insecurity and sense of humiliation that breed fundamentalism. In Eagleton’s estimation, for Dawkins at least, the problem with religion is that it stands in the way of ‘progress.’ When it comes to global politics, in The God Delusion, Dawkins believes in what he calls a zeitgeist involving ever increasing progress, with just the occasional reversal. ‘The whole wave he says keeps moving.’ There may be occasional setbacks, but ‘the progressive trend is unmistakable and will continue.’ As Eagleton says: ‘So there we are, then: we have it from the mouth of Mr Public Science himself that aside from a few local, temporary hiccups like ecological disasters, famine, the global AIDS pandemic, ethnic wars and nuclear wastelands, History is perpetually on the up.’
While we too may have a tendency to view the world through rose-tinted spectacles, the problem is that optimism professes to know the future. And for the sake of balance, it’s worth saying that pessimism does the same thing. Both optimism and pessimism ‘are forms of fatalism’. ‘There is nothing you can do about being an optimist, rather as there is nothing you can do about being five foot four. You are chained to your own cheerfulness like a slave to his oar’ (Eagleton, Hope without Optimism, 3). And yet, you may argue that ‘human beings are (generally) richer, freer, taller, healthier, more peaceable, more mobile, better educated, more leisurely, secure and comfortable than at any previous time in their violent, diseased, poverty-stricken history’(Eagleton, Hope without Optimism, 15). While such optimism may appear to be rational, the shadow of the polar ice cap and the exponential increase in foodbanks may perhaps have just begun to give us pause for thought.
The Christian tradition teaches us that there are three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. And like all virtues, they have their corresponding vices: faith may fall into credulity, charity into sentimentalism, and hope into self-delusion (cf. Eagleton, Hope without Optimism, 39). Today marks the beginning of Advent, the season of hope. In the run up to Christmas, if Black Friday weren’t sufficient an ordeal, the Church invites us to contemplate the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. Is it any wonder that we console ourselves with mince pies and mulled wine?
The gospel reading that we have heard seems like a strange place to start a new year. Last Sunday, we were reading Luke’s gospel, who records that wonderful and moving scene at the crucifixion, when Jesus speaks to the penitent thief, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’(Luke 23.43), and then today, we begin reading Matthew and we are thrust into the midst of a strange discourse which begins with this agnostic note: ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, not the Son, but only the Father’ (Matthew 24.36). It warns of sudden catastrophe, ‘they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away’(Matthew 24.39). It speaks of the precariousness of our existence: ‘Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left’(Matthew 24.41). Jesus reminds us that our lives are unpredictable: ‘Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’(Matthew 24.44).
Each of these sayings provoke in us some sense of what it means to live with uncertainty. And that is why the theological virtues of faith, hope and love are so important. By cultivating these three virtues, we are not only drawn into what Professor Graham Ward has described as 'the pedagogy of grace', but we also begin to recognise our own finitude, our insecurity and our vulnerability.
At the beginning of this term, we celebrated the canonisation of John Henry Newman, and many of us listened to a lecture here at St Mary’s on one of Newman’s great philosophical works, An Essay in Aid of the Grammar of Assent. Newman was seeking to demonstrate that faith is a perfectly natural and rational human activity. It is integral to the act of knowing, in fact the act of making any human judgement. Most of us make judgements all the time. We decide on various courses of action. We can never predict the outcome. Newman helps us to see that the point at which we say ‘Yes’ in determining a course of action or assenting to a proposition, often comes before the point at which we have a full grasp of everything that there is to know. There are sometimes gaps in our knowledge and understanding. And however neat the logic of a syllogism, the reality is that human experience is never so neat or tidy. None of us ever begin at the beginning. Things are uncertain, and yet we decide. We offer a judgement. And that can be true whether we say ‘Yes’ to a proposal of marriage, or put a cross on a ballot paper.
Newman was talking about faith. But I wonder if his insight can help us to recognise something of the character of hope. There is indeed a proper reticence, even a curious provisionality, about hope – for it does not profess to know the future. It is not like optimism or pessimism. Like faith and love, hope is ultimately a practice, which demands patience and persistence, the persistence which refuses to allow our hearts to be defined or diminished by the reality of human suffering, the patience to resist being overwhelmed by our fears, anxieties and insecurities. In its ‘not yet’, in its ‘nevertheless’, hope opens up for us the space to imagine another future, a future which is hinted at in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the mystery which illuminates those dark and sombre themes of death, judgement, heaven and hell. This is the mystery which we contemplate during the season of Advent.
Are you an optimist? No. But I'm not a pessimist either. Like St Paul, I believe with the same urgency that 'the night is far spent and the day is near' (Romans 13.12). And my heart is filled with the hope that ‘salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed’(Romans 13.11). This is the hope which fills my heart. This is the hope of Advent.