Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Problem with Radical Hope

Behavior Consonant with Radical Hope

Three months ago, in a blog post titled “Hope and Behavior,” I said there ought to be an appropriate “fit” between virtues and behaviors.  Then I wrote:

Now what are the behaviors appropriate to hope? 
Since people hope for many things, and many kinds of things, our initial answer will have to be very general.  It may sound vague.  Here it is, in the form of two guidelines: 1) If and to the degree possible, one ought to act to build for one’s hopes.  2) One ought not to act in such a way as to contradict or prevent one’s hopes. 

            I illustrated my vague guidelines with examples such as my hope to recover from injury or the hope many people have for peace in Syria.  Since I can do things (e.g. obey my doctor’s directives) to recover from injury, hope for recovery ought to express itself in doing those things.  Achieving peace in Syria may be beyond ordinary persons’ powers, but we can pray for peace and at the very least not ignore the suffering of the people there.
            Someone might object that my guidelines don’t work well when it comes to “radical” hope.  Here I am borrowing a concept from Jonathan Lear.  Radical hope, he says, is hope for a good future even in times of “cultural devastation”—situations in which our thick concepts of a good life and the virtues appropriate to a good life have come unstuck.  Lear thinks we can hope for the good even when we don’t know how to image the good.
            The objection is that without concepts of the good future it’s impossible to apply the two guidelines.  How do we build for an unknown future?  How can we avoid acting in ways contradictory to that future, if it is unknown?
            This is not a merely theoretical objection.  In fact, I think it points to a widespread problem for Christians and others who cherish transcendent hopes.  We hope for a future made possible by the power of God (or some other transcendent power; I will concentrate on the God of the Abrahamic religions).  But what is it that we hope for?  What images do we have of the good future made possible by God?
            Most Christians have seized on a single biblical word to express hope; they hope for “heaven.”  But if asked what heaven is like or what heaven means, they aren’t sure—and for good reason.  The Bible doesn’t say much about heaven.  
            Christians often think about heaven as a place, as in “going to heaven” after one’s death.  Heaven is the place where God is.  That sounds a bit like the pagan gods who dwelt on Olympus, and most Christians would hasten to say they don’t mean that; after all, they know God is omnipresent.  The point is, a typical Christian might say, that we’re talking about something spiritual.  We don’t really know anything about it.  I suspect that most Christians would say that (1) they aren’t at all sure of what the afterlife will be like, but (2) it will be good.
In other words, for most Christians, their hope for the afterlife meets Lear’s definition of radical hope.  So: how can a radical hope direct behavior?  If our images of the good future are very thin, how do we know which behaviors “fit”?
            N.T Wright provides a response to this problem by turning to the images of the future in the New Testament.  He insists, in Surprised by Hope, that Christian hope ought to be expressed in Christian behavior.  We need to get away from defining Christian hope in terms of heaven (especially as a “place” to which we “go”) and emphasize other New Testament phrases: “a new heaven and new earth,” “the kingdom of God,” and “resurrection.”  Christian hope is not that we will be taken out of this world to a different one, but that that this world will be transformed.  The “kingdom of God” will come to earth.  We will be resurrected in bodies similar to Jesus’ resurrection body, and we will live on an earth renewed.
            The “kingdom of God” suggests social relationships, a world where people live together under God’s rule.  Since God is holy, loving and just, the kingdom of God is “righteous, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).  Wright argues that if we are going to hope for righteous and just relationships in the afterlife, we must build for such relationships now.
            “A new heaven and new earth” may well be thought of as a “renewed” heaven and earth.  The future earth might be this earth—but cared for as it ought to be.  Some Christians will object that the present earth will be destroyed and replaced when Jesus comes.  Even if that is so, Wright would answer, we ought to act now in terms of our hope.  We ought to treat this earth with the kind of care we will give to the new earth.
            On Wright’s interpretation, the New Testament gives us images of Christian hope.  Not as many as we might like, but enough to free us from the empty image of “heaven.”  A content-less image of heaven strikes many people as boring.  I’ve heard atheists claim that because heaven would be boring we ought to be glad it doesn’t exist.  Unfortunately, some believers implicitly share the notion that heaven will be static and uninteresting, though they would reject the idea if it were made explicit.
            I think Wright is right.  The Bible gives us images, words, and metaphors for God’s future.  We need not be satisfied with empty pictures of “heaven.”  But we need to dwell on the biblical ideas.  We need to let the Bible shape our imagination.  Then we will be able to act in ways consonant with our hope.

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