The World Feels Hopeless. I Talked To Christian Scholars About What To Do.

“We don’t have any special wisdom. We don’t have special answers.”

The day I had set aside to write a story about hope, the sun didn’t rise. Around 5 in the morning, our dog woke howling, and I couldn’t fall back asleep. The sky should have grown lighter, but it didn’t. By the time I crawled out of bed, it seemed darker than before. It was not the climate for hope.

As wildfires burned across the Pacific Coast, a cloud of ash had settled in the sky, blocking much of the light that reached Oakland, where I live. What did come through had a sick orange color like a rotten pumpkin. My father, a retired scientist, emailed me, comparing it to nuclear winter. The temperature had dropped 30 degrees at his house a few miles from us. On Twitter, we passed around a video of drone footage of San Francisco superimposed with the music from Blade Runner 2049.

Summoning hope for the future didn’t seem any more possible than ending the global warming that made the fires worse. I felt queasy.

If you ask the philosophers, to hope means at least to think something might happen that would be good. But we aren’t talking about the fires (or the pandemic, or the presidential election, or the police shootings) in the language of analytic philosophy — which makes hope seem like something not so different from expected utility. In this hopeless week, even the most secular of us have turned to religious turns of phrase: Apocalyptic. Hellfire. The end of the world.

The fires in the West were only the latest apocalyptic moment in a year in which the trumpet never stopped sounding: Police violence that relies on a technical version of omniscience. A pandemic that has led to a “techno-medical despotism” that, paradoxically, hasn’t gone far enough to fight the plague.

So I called the theologians. This is their job, after all. They’ve had 2,000 years to work something out about hope. I was looking for firm answers. I found something much more destabilizing — and hopeful.

Hope is a religious virtue, sometimes a Christian one. (For this story, I only talked to Christian scholars — of which I am neither — but I could have learned from other faiths, including Judaism, Islam, and Bahaʼí.)

I’m more familiar with the ancient Greeks, who weren’t fans of hope, at least not in the written records they left. According to one myth, when the god Zeus wanted to punish humans for stealing fire, he gave a jar to the first woman, Pandora. When she opened it, all the evils of the world flew out and only hope remained inside. That’s ambiguous; is hope also one of the evils? A consolation? The philosopher Plato didn’t even think hope was ambiguous. In Timaeus, he put it on a list with rashness, fear, and anger, and called it “ready to seduce.”

If you want a full-throated defense of hope, you have to talk to the faithful.

“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three.” If you have attended a Christian wedding, you’ve heard 1 Corinthians, a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to a church in Corinth around 53 or 54 AD. The hope he had in mind, Thomas Aquinas would write more than a thousand years later, was for something specific: salvation. “The proper and principal object of hope is eternal happiness,” Aquinas wrote — because things in this world could be lost. Only heaven endured.

Early Christians drew on the Jewish praise of hope, but we’re currently a long way from the cultural matrix that gave birth to the faith. In fact, in the secular world, there’s something of a stigma around hope (“I hope so” is a sarcastic way to say no) and a taboo around suggesting that theology might have something distinct to offer (church membership has gone down sharply in the United States since its peak) other than consolation for the particular members of its own churches.

Turns out that some theologians share that pessimism.

“We don’t have any magical wisdom. We don’t have ‘special’ answers,” Steven C. van den Heuvel, professor of systematic theology at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium, told me. That’s a little unsettling to hear from the editor of Historical and Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Hope, published earlier this year, and one of the leaders of the Hope Project, a social science effort to measure hope.

What he meant is that he doesn’t see a clear role for his denomination in the larger community: It doesn’t have a voice in the larger conversation. “I stand in Europe in a secular context,” he said. “Essentially, the church doesn’t play a big role here. We are even more irrelevant than before.”

In Belgium, the virus — rather than drawing people toward faith — has brought a secular communion. “The guiding moments early on were the press conferences of the prime minister,” said van den Heuvel, when the nation would gather, at home in front of their televisions, to connect, find meaning, and mark the time in rituals.

I thought he might tell me how the secular world could draw lessons on how to have hope from the Christian world, but rather than “secret tools for hope,” van den Heuvel said that the distinctiveness of Christian hope is its attitude of radical openness to the future. We talked about a book on hope and cultural devastation he’s fascinated by. It’s about what happened to a tribe of Native Americans after the genocide at the turn of the 20th century. The Crow Nation had collapsed — its land stolen, the last buffalo killed, its way of life impossible to continue.

One of its leaders, named Plenty Coups, “accepted the situation and looked for new ways to be,” said van den Heuvel. It became a question of hopeful waiting despite conditions that offered no hope. Hope was holding space open for the arrival of something unknown, like keeping a radio tuned to a channel full of static. “He characterized his time as years in which nothing happened. Years out of time,” van den Heuvel said.

Hard work: to live in the middle of a collapse and hope for...nothing in particular? I hadn’t expected that anyone would try to convert me, but I had assumed there would be a more definite answer.

To understand more about that challenge of hoping without knowing, I called David Newheiser, author of Hope in a Secular Age. He’s interested in lacing together the recondite experiments of French philosophers with the reveries of long-dead Christian mystics, each of which he thinks expressed a similar idea in different ways, one secular and one religious.

We live in incomplete times, grasping our way toward something we can’t be sure of. But we hope for it anyway, even if we don’t know what it is. Hope is a way of keeping ourselves open to something else. Call it democracy, call it God, “it’s not easy to feel that incompletion,” said Newheiser, but we can act as if we feel the presence, even if what we hope for is hidden by the clouds.

“We don’t know what is going to happen in the future. We don’t even know what we should be hoping for,” he explained. Yet we act as if we could hold open the door for the stranger’s arrival, as if something is on the other side of the clouds.

That takes discipline and a community. It’s not a passing emotion held in isolation.

“I would not want to retreat to the monastery,” he said, “but take to the streets.”

Ephraim Radner seemed slightly surprised to talk to me. In August, he published an article titled “Theology After the Virus” on the website of the religious journal First Things, in which the professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College argued that Christians’ failure to offer anything to the outside world pointed to a need to retreat from the secular world. Out of the streets, back to the monastery.

“Churches have had little to say during this period beyond platitudes: encouragement, social responsibility, mutual care,” he wrote in his article — idle talk unsuited to the demands of modern life, let alone the pandemic.

His point was bracing and, to my ears, correct.

“There will be a deep thirst to forge some theological ‘response’ to the Time of the Virus,” he wrote. “I already hear exhortations from Christian leaders, reminding us that the present time is stirring up new powers of Christian proclamation. But most of this energetic cheer, I confess, seems to come down to ramping up current and long-standing commitments to justice, economic reinvention, democracy, environmental sustainability, and generic ‘hope.’”

All fine goals, but nothing particularly theological about them. Those sound like the hopes held by a political party or a book club. What do they have to do with faith?

For Radner, that’s an indictment of the sort of hopes offered by the Christian churches; they don’t offer an independent vision of what to hope for. “The churches don’t have a lot to say about next month, next year. ‘Hang on.’ ‘God is good.’ ‘The Holy Spirit or whatever can energize us to get over this.’ But to get over it to what?” he told me. For him, this talk of waiting for an undetermined future to make itself appear seems an insufficient consolation. After all, we don’t have that much time. Even without a pandemic, our lives are short. And so Radner suggests a departure.

“There’s a lot to be explored in traditional communal life,” he said, where we might be more connected to the rhythms of birth and death and draw different kinds of hopes from them.

In the evening, the air cleared enough that we took the dog for a socially distanced walk with a friend. I talked about what I was working on, and how I felt at a loss about it. Interesting ideas, but one of them, hopeful waiting, seems too thin and the other, rebuilding traditional communities, too thick. My friend wanted to introduce me to someone she works with.

Will Hocker is an Episcopal priest who works as a chaplain at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, San Francisco, in the part of the hospital system that cares for children who are chronically ill and dying. If anyone should feel hopeless, he should. And yet providing hope is his job.

“We don't really tell people what to be hopeful about. We help them come to their own discovery of where hope is,” he told me a few days later before he started his rounds.

Just as grief is a process, hope is too. That extends to the hope that comes at the end of a life. At first, a child’s family might hope for a cure. Then, when that doesn’t come, for comfort or consolation. “You just don't see families giving up hope,” Hocker said.

Hocker is a deeply learned man. We talked about Spinoza and state-of-the-art medicine. But he had a way of bringing my abstract questions to the concrete, waving off the big talk for the small things.

“Jesus and other great leaders have spoken of living in this time of not knowing. That’s a big element of why people like to go into hospice chaplaincy,” he said. “We suffer all the time, and we trust that all will be well. We trust that we are never alone, and that God is with us.”

That’s a wager: that the divine is with us, even in the moments when the clouds block it from view. Bet on hope, even if the cloud never lifts and the child never leaves the hospital. What a bad bet, the Greeks would say.

“Occasionally, there are people who are able to say, ‘we are having the miracle here,’” Radner said. “Look at all these doctors, nurses, and technicians. This is the miracle, and it’s not going to come out the way we had hoped.” ●


This post has been updated to better reflect the point of view of Steven C. van den Heuvel.

This story is part of the BuzzFeed News Hopes Week series, about how people are thinking about the present and future during this chaotic moment in time. Read more here.

The World Feels Hopeless. I Talked To Christian Scholars About What To Do.

"We don't have any special wisdom. We don't have special answers."
Pete Ryan for BuzzFeed News; Brittany Hosea-Small/AFP via Getty Images
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