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It is an Orientation of the Spirit

Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to preach at another church in our area. The text I chose was Jeremiah 31:31-34—the promise made to weary exiles of a new day coming, of a new covenant written not on tablets of stone but on human hearts. It’s a beautiful passage, and an intoxicating hope—the hope of forgiveness, and of the goodness we were made for, flowing out of us naturally and joyfully rather than inconsistently and partially as it is now. No more conflicted selves acting out of mixed motives. No more failure and frustration. It is a passage that speaks of a permanent and indissoluble connection between the heart of God and the heart of his people.

After the service, I had a very interesting conversation with a member of this church. In the sermon, I had referred to Miroslav Volf’s discussion of the difference between optimism and hope. Our conversation was a short one, but it touched on, among other things, the role hope can play in everything from theology and ethics to ecology. He promised to send me an article on hope and optimism from an ecological perspective, and today it arrived in my inbox. But it didn’t arrive alone. Along with the promised article came a series of quotes from Václav Havel’s Disturbing the Peace. I haven’t had a chance to read the article yet, but was blown away by the depth of insight, wisdom, well, hope in the quotes from Havel.

Here they are:

The kind of hope I often think about… I understand above all as a state of mind not a state 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, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. I don’t think you can explain it as a mere derivative of something here, of some movement, or of some favourable signs in the worlds. I feel that its deepest roots are in the transcendental, just as the roots of human responsibility are in the transcendental…

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 headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that 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.

In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    When I place this idea of hope next to Larry’s observation in your last blog posting about the idealized beginnings and idealized heroes of old, and think about some things James wrote in the past about Anabaptists seeing themselves connecting with the earliest Christians, I think I am getting a better picture of what it is like to be an Anabaptist or Mennonite and what faith and hope look like in that experience.

    Re: “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 headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good,…”

    I think this expresses it.

    For me, it is different. I connect hope with desire. I connect it in a religious context with a desire for that which is eternal or whole. In the ecological realm, which is where I spend much time now, I connect hope with the desire immanent in the wholeness of the universe (whatever that means:) I think it is connected also with faith – faith understood as a sense that all is connected.

    This does motivate me to work for conservation, and against development and population growth. In that I see such work as good, I think I connect with what this author has said, although I would not use his words and I have a sense that things look at least somewhat differently to him than to me. I would not lean against optimism to define hope. I agree that hope is not optimism, but I do think hope does contain a certain degree of optimism and I think an optimist without hope is hard to imagine. I do think the writer is right to see elements of risk and indeterminism in hope.

    March 30, 2012
    • Interesting that you made connections between these quotes and Anabaptism… I didn’t associate the words of Havel with anything particularly Anabaptist, but perhaps I’m barely aware of how my theological DNA affects what I resonate with and why…

      For me, hope and desire are intimately connected as well. I can’t imagine one without the other. I agree, hope contains a certain optimism—perhaps an optimism with a very long and broad horizon.

      March 30, 2012

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