There are few things so difficult to see then someone’s greatest hopes crushed. It can be as incidental as witnessing a favourite sports team lose by a single point in the final moments of the championship or something as grave as getting the news that your spouse has only months to live after successfully fighting cancer for years. Our response is universal: we instinctively look away even as our hearts drop and are forced to face that very sublime, modern reality that is despair. Despair is that ‘death before death’ where the dizzying disorientation of the loss of hope is felt deeply and personally. It undermines and erodes not only what is desired, strived for and sought after, but in robbing us of a future, it even plunders who we are today. Any loss of hope, but particularly those of an ultimate nature, are the epitome, perhaps even the core, of crisis itself.
We don’t have to look very far today to see considerable crises. Climate scientists warn that global warming of even several degrees has a massive impact on changing weather patterns, crop production and natural disasters. This sends the most vulnerable communities around the world into serious crises, and it is only going to get worse we are told. Our political institutions seem more tenuous than they have ever been and often sow social distrust for their own gain. Because social trust is at an all-time low, we demonise those that are different from us and tell ourselves and our tribes we are in a crisis often precisely because of those not like us and those not like us are often already marginalised and the weakest members of our societies. Gross inequalities that have always lined the foundation of our collective life have been starkly manifest during the COVID-19 pandemic where racial and socioeconomic injustice have only been exacerbated by the upheaval caused by shutting down economies and stressing our medical infrastructure to the brink. These recent, global crisie serve as a reminder that there are those amongst us that live in crisis every day and who know nothing else.
Where ought we derive Christian hope in times such as these and how can it be a life-giving hope that both acknowledges the real challenges we face but also incites us to meaningful action that is liberatory, inclusive, and universal? This, in many ways, is the million-dollar question. And as a Christian theologian I am aware that doctrinally informed answers might be treated with grave suspicion for the way that can often rightly be accused of too quickly succumbing to supposed safe, distanced theological responses that can engage little with present realities. But if we don’t begin correctly, we have no hope in finishing well.
We must acknowledge that the first principle of Christian hope is that it ultimately derives from the gratuity and utter reality of God. Christian hope is generated from God’s activity in His creation. That activity is as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer and Perfector. Christian hope, according to theologian John Webster, “is that creaturely disposition which corresponds to the fact that all occasions of human history, including its future, are caught up within the economy of the triune God’s mercy.” Because nothing is outside of God’s reign, indeed nothing is outside of the activity of the divine life, hope is the proper response to all divine activity in history and creation. But, of course, what makes it difficult to hope is precisely our present unfulfilled, incomplete and sinful condition. This is not only a judgement of individual creatures and human beings of all types, but to their creations, institutions and what is often referred to as the “powers and principalities”. Clearly all is not right with us, nor our world. Yet, as Webster says again “To exist in Christian hope is to trust that in all its dissipation, complexity, and misery, human history is by the mercy of God on the way to perfection.” This is not a Pollyanna hope that lives in denial of the present, often egregious conditions, but it also recognises that this terrible moment is held by a loving God that is making all things new (Rev 21:5) and that the present has no reality save that which depends on God for its very existence. So even if things look bleak and we see no way out, Christianity affirms a superabundant God who desires to bring his excessive gifts to us and that means bringing to perfection all His creation in history. This is the ultimate ground of the Christian hope.
Some may protest that God’s securing our hope robs us of our agency in bringing about the conditions for which we hope. In other words, why do we need to act—especially in times of great crisis—if God goes before us (indeed has gone before us) to secure and perfect our lives? It is because God has chosen that it is a higher good to work through His creatures to bring about their perfection and security. We are called to participate not only in his divine life and to receive his glorious blessings and gifts but are stewards of that blessing in His creation and participate in His blessed activity amongst our fellow creatures. Accordingly, we help build God’s kingdom today by our righteous actions that include our inner piety and, perhaps we need to hear this more today than ever, our acts of justice to the marginalised who live crises every day. For those for whom the system/institutions were built, hope is a luxury, but for those who bear the marks of crises on their bodies and in their spirits, hope is the very air needed to survive. And this world gives them no hope as it does for those for whom the world has been built. As such, true Christian hope—that is, hope that recognises God as the fount of hope—can be best found in the enslaved African spiritual, in the cry of the penniless widow, in the exhausted COVID doctor, or your single mother neighbour that knows not how they will feed their children because they’ve recently lost their job. All they have is God. But what they remind us is that all we have is God as well.