Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Against Optimism: On the Task Before Us

So long as we continue to live in a world where the poor are forgotten, the homeless are ignored, women are raped, children are abused, billions hunger, the rich hoard, farmers are dispossessed, the land is neglected, infants die, the sick are untreated, sex slaves are sold, the religious exploit the vulnerable, the powerful fleece the powerless, the nations make war, disease is omnipresent, families are torn apart, wells are poisoned by corporations, nuclear arsenals grow, thieves take what they want, women are disenfranchised, human beings are tortured, prostitutes have clients, deceit is praised, pregnancy is a threat, peoples are wiped out, the air is toxic, violence is glorified, divorce is the norm, and narcissism is a virtue, there will never exist such a great thinker or big idea or impressive PowerPoint or UN Committee or activist group or progressive agenda or global citizen or charismatic politician or revolutionary policy or perfect solution or technological agenda or millennium plan or world leader or think tank bigwig or Ivy League professor or snake oil chief executive entrepreneurial philanthropist faith healer extraordinaire that will be able to convince me to be an optimist.

No; instead, let the words of Rabbi Irving Greenberg haunt every Optimism, every Big Solution, every arrogance that We Have Finally Solved The Future:

"No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children."

Now, then, in place of lofty claims we could neither know nor implement, let us return to the hard, undoubtedly small, inevitably particular, sometimes unnoticeable, certainly unspectacular work of loving our neighbors, raising our children, tending our lands, and serving the needy. And may the God of hope -- not of optimism -- give strength to our hands for the task.


  1. Romans 5: 3-5
    "Also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us."

    Hope in Christ is optimism. We as Christians pray the Lord's Prayer without ever really listening to the words we are saying. "Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth, just as it is in heaven."

    This world exists as it does only because WE allow it to.

  2. I am interested in the difference between hope and optimism, and

    If all statements, theological or otherwise, should be in light of the presence of burning children, why would we say anything at all at any time?

    I like your conclusion, but the post makes me want to talk/post/speak less.

  3. Chris,

    To you too!


    I think the post probably points us squarely in the direction of speaking less. There is more to say there, but I'll leave it at that.


    I appreciate what you're saying, but my intent with the post is specifically that hope and optimism are categorically not equivalent. To say that hope in Christ is optimism is only to obscure the issue that, fundamentally, Christian hope is not worldly optimism. Optimism presumes a pick-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps, sin-can-be-overcome, the-world-is-just-around-the-corner-from-being-okay attitude that has no grounding either in Scripture or theological reflection. Rather, God picks us up, Jesus overcomes sin through cross and resurrection, and the Spirit is the promise of healing for all of creation. Though our agency is both involved and required, it it not "up" to us to remake the world. Whenever we presume to be in control, to be the makers of history, we deny the lordship of Jesus, and usually end up killing people.

    Of course, I get the gist of what you are saying, that insofar as injustice is our doing, let us do justice instead! I simply want to articulate the ground of proper Christian hope over against the sort of blind, "big" optimism that so agitates the world's imagination.

  4. Heath: I am also interested in the distinguishing between optimism and hope. A few months back I came across an illuminating quote in one of William Stringfellow's works. The quote is as follows:
    "Optimism refers to the capabilities of principalities and human beings, while hope bespeaks the effort of the Word of God in common history. Moreover, that distinction signifies that hope includes realism, while realism undermines or refutes optimism." (It's from "A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience with Mourning" if you're interested). This kind of hope is akin to what we find in Yoder. A hope that is both eschatological and embodied in the here and now by the Church. Moreover, this is kind of hope is by no means excluded from politics or realism or reason or epistemology or what have you that we usually exclude faith, hope, and charity from.

  5. I always try to keep that quote in the forefront of my mind when doing theology. It convicts me everytime I hear it. Thanks for the reminder.