This is part one of a two-part series from Miroslav Volf on hope.
Miroslav Volf on hope, part 1. The ancient observation that hope is linked to fear and how the Stoics simply gave up hoping; Emily Dickinson's "Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul"; the difference between hope and expectation or optimism.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Miroslav Volf: In hope, a future good, which isn't yet, somehow already is. A future good we cannot see still qualifies our entire existence. We might be suffering. We might be, as apostle Paul did, we might be experiencing hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword. We may be being killed all day long as the apostle Paul writes. And yet, and yet, we have been saved and we are saved in hope.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World. A podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of your humanity.
I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Perhaps, we just need to say it. This is not exactly a hopeful time. It's hard to envision a future of flourishing right now. For some people, life is beginning to feel like a no exit situation. For others, life are already felt that way before the rest of us started worrying, complaining, grieving, fearing, homeschooling, canceling, contingency planning and so on. But hope is for the no exit scenario. Hope is for the life teetering on the edge. Here's Miroslav Volf on hope, or as Emily Dickinson called it, "a thing with feathers, perched on the soul." Hope, Miroslav observes, has always been linked to fear, tempting the stoic philosophers to give up hope entirely, just to avoid fear.
Hope, Miroslav observes, is not expectation or optimism. It's hope against reasonable expectation. Emily Dickinson's feathered hope never stops singing. Come storm, chill or strange sea. Miroslav's thoughts on hope will come in two parts, part one today, and part two this week or next. And to make sure you don't miss part two, which is about hoping against hope, the enduring darkness of it, subscribe wherever podcasts are found and paid. When you do subscribe, we would be so grateful for your review and rating. Leave us a comment on the ways hope has entered and feathered and sung into your life. Enjoy. Thanks for listening. And we hope this finds you with some peace and respite, this weekend.
Miroslav Volf: Fear, much more than hope, is characteristic of our time. In the late sixties, we were optimistic. It was an optimistic century of hopes of triumph, of justice, of something like universal peace, but that has given way to maybe increasing pessimism at the beginning of 21st century. We live in a kind of environment of no-future scenarios.
Now, as I speak Corona pandemic, gives the dominant shape to our anxieties. We fear what might happen to us, what might happen to our loved ones, what is to happen to our economic system, to our political system. And on these economic and political systems, much of our lives and our livelihood actually depends. But even before the current pandemic, we feared more than we hoped. We fear falling behind as the gap widens between ultra rich and the rest of us, and be frantically work and strive while staying at the same place. We fear collapse of ecosystem, which is straining under the burden, which modern life has placed on it. We fear the revenge of nature for the violence we perpetrate against it.
We also fear loss of cultural identity as the globe shrinks and people–people driven by war, driven by the predation. They migrate to where they can survive and thrive. Politically, the consequence is the rise of identity politics and nationalism. And they're both driven in part by fear. Culturally, maybe we can say that the consequences are dystopian movies and literature and popularity of pessimistic philosophies. In theology, too, apocalyptic moods prevail and theologies of hopelessness seem to be on rise.
Summing it all up, we can say hope seems impossible. Fear seems the only option. In our lived experience, but also in this sketch of our historic situation that I have just made, fear and hope seem like exclusive alternatives and that's not entirely wrong, but it isn't right either.
What these way of putting things leaves out of sight is how closely hope and fear are linked. The idea of linking hope and fear is ancient. It is at least as old as the Stoic philosopher Hecaton of Rhodes, who lived some hundred years before the common era. Seneca, who died AD 65, is another Stoic philosopher who is experiencing something of a Renaissance today. He refers back to Hecaton in his own famous reflection on the relation between hope and fear. In Moral Letters to Lucilius, written in his retirement following 10-year-long service to emperor Nero, Seneca writes:
Evan Rosa: "I find in the writings of our Hecaton that the limiting of desires helps also to cure fears. 'Cease to hope' he says, 'and you will cease to fear. 'But how' you will reply, 'can things so different go side by side.' In this way, my dear Lucilius, though they do seem at variance, yet they are really united. Just as the same chain fastens the prisoner and the soldier who guards him, so hope and fear, dissimilar as they are, keep step together. Fear follows hope. I'm not surprised that they proceed in this way. Each alike belongs to a mind that is in suspense, a mind that is fretted by looking forward to the future. But the chief cause of both these ills is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts along way ahead."
Miroslav Volf: Seneca advised us that we give up hope so that we can spare ourselves fear. We should adopt ourselves to the present and leave future to be. But giving up hope, that is the expectation for a good future, seems like a high price to pay for freedom from fear. And even if the price were worth pay, would it be possible to pay? Can we give up hope for the project we have just started? Can we give up hope for the love we have just discovered or for the child that was just born to us?
Can I continue to speak about hope after I have given up hope or finishing it, or if it's having any impact? To give up on hope, is to give up on investment in future, and therefore, it is to give up on any form of meaningful life. Without hope we would not be living a human life, but only letting the stream of time carry us along. To live is to hope and to hope is to expose oneself to fear. Fear for things we love and therefore hope for. But here's the twist. If fear follows hope, as Hecaton and Seneca noted, then it is not only true that as long as we hope, we must also expect to fear. It is then also true that as long as we fear all hope is not lost. In fearing, we are still hoping.
Pessimism and dystopian moods of today are in fact the obverse of our hopes. If our hopes were to die, these dystopian moods would disappear as well. The challenge is to retain hope, but to conquer fear–not all fear, but the kind of fear that paralyzes us, or the kind of fear that sends us us into frenzied flight, or plunges us headlong into fight. We need to break the power of fear to rule our lives, so we can continue to hope, actively stretching ourselves toward the future good, which is the object of our hope.
But to hope, we need more than just ability to conquer fear. We need to learn what it means to hope. More specifically, I think we need to learn to distinguish between hope and mere expectation. And to distinguish the two, not just in our minds, but also in our hearts, and in our practices.
What is this hope? This thing we cannot live without. In the following very brief reflection on hope, I will take Apostle Paul and Emily Dickinson as my guides. Paul has penned what must be some of the most famous lines about hope ever written.
Evan Rosa: "For in hope we were saved. Now, hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."
Miroslav Volf: Now that was apostle Paul. Dickinson has penned probably the most famous poem about hope.
Evan Rosa: "Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops at all/ And sweetest in the Gale is heard/ And soar must be the storm/ That could abash the little bird/ That kept so many warm/ I've heard it in the chillest land/ And on the strangest sea/ And yet never an extremity,/ It asked a crumb of me.
Miroslav Volf: Hope. Hope is a strange thing. A thing with feathers perched in our soul, ready to take us on its wings to some future good. In fact, hope is a thing that has already taken us to that good with the tune that it sings. In hope, or perhaps by hope, we were saved, writes apostle Paul. In hope, a future good which isn't yet, somehow already is. A future good we cannot see still qualifies our entire existence. We might be suffering. We might be, as apostle Paul did, we might be experiencing hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword. We may be being killed all day long, as apostle Paul writes. And yet, and yet, we have been saved and we are saved in hope. Interpreting the phrase "in hope we are saved" Martin Luther, Protestant reformer, suggested that "just as love transforms the lover into the beloved, so hope changes the one who hopes into what is hoped for."
How should we understand this creative power of hope? In his justly famous books, Theology of Hope, Jurgen Moltmann distinguishes between optimism and hope. Optimism, if it is justified, is based on extrapolations we made about future based on what we can discern to be tendencies in the present. The present is pregnant with the future. And we are reasonably optimistic when we discern that the future to be born out of the present will be good. Now hope is different. Hope is not based on accurate extrapolation about future from the character of the present. The hope for future is not born out of the present. The future good, that is the object of hope, is a new thing. Moltmann uses Latin term novel. It's a new thing that comes from outside the situation. Correspondingly, the hope is also like a bird that flies from outside and perches in the soul.
In the thinking of Apostle Paul, hope is underdetermined by reasons. We hope for that, for which we don't have sufficient reason to hope It is based on trust in the promise. In Paul's telling in Romans 4, God promised Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child in whom nations will be blessed. But they were past their childbearing age. Still, they hoped and they hoped against hope. When we hope, we always hope against reasonable expectation. That's why Dickinson's bird of hope never stopped singing, never at all–in the soar storm, in the chillest land, on the strangest sea. Hope is, as I said, underdetermined by reasons. It lives apart from reason and against reason. And that's certainly true, but it looks so, and it is so, when we look at things in abstraction from the reality of God.
For the Apostle Paul, however, hope and God belong together. In fact, in Romans 15, he speaks of God as the God of hope. And he is echoing the prophet, Jeremiah, from the Hebrew Bible who speaks of YHWH as the hope of Israel. Abraham's hope is victorious, Paul writes, in the presence of God in whom Abraham believed–the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
The God who creates out of nothing. The God who makes dead alive. The God of original beginning and the God of new beginnings, that God justifies hope that is otherwise unreasonable, unjustified. When that God makes a promise, we can hope. When every course of action by which we could reach the desired future seems destined to failure, when we cannot reasonably draw a line that would connect the terror of the present with any future joy, hope in that God, the God of hope, still sings.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian, Miroslav Volf. You can follow him on Twitter to catch a glimpse at what he's reading and thinking about right now, @MiroslavVolf.
I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced this show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We produce a new episode of the show every Saturday, and you can subscribe through any podcast app. We're grateful you gave us a bit of your time this week and hope you're finding perspective, education and a vision of a flourishing life. If you have time today, right here after listening, would you go to Apple podcasts and leave us a review and rating? It helps us get the show out to even more listeners and gives us a sense for what's working and how to keep delivering good stuff. We'll talk to you next week.