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On Christian Hope

November 1st, 2021 | 14 min read

By Kirsten Sanders

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

— Psalm 90:1–20

I have often thought that anyone who ate at a Cracker Barrel should have predicted Donald Trump’s election in 2016. There they would have eaten nostalgic food amid relics of “days gone by” — antique washbasins, vintage scrub boards, old posters advertising laundry soap and vinegar and bleach. At least a few journalists likely sat under these artifacts, chewing their biscuits and gravy with an ambience provided by dead women’s chores.

Few, it seems, made any connection with this meal and the 2016 election. Perhaps hardly anyone would. And yet there is something worth investigating about a culture that saves antique washbasins and clothing irons and implements of premodern housekeeping. These are not gilded washbasins or jewel-encrusted scrub boards. Such objects are saved for reasons other than their essential worth. Their value lies in memory alone.

Nostalgia and Progress

Memory is, of course, a way to treasure things and people who were loved and who brought value to our lives. But memory can slip quickly into the trap of nostalgia; trading the complicated realities of the present for a representation of times-gone-by. The hope that a nation would be “made great again” certainly misremembers the greatness of the past.

Christians must learn how to avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia and progress both, even as we commit ourselves to the work of bettering our communities. In the noise of partisan debate, we can lose sight of how calls, both to restore national greatness and to institute new social changes toward a better social vision, can come unmoored. Right Christian hope in the eternal God can serve as a corrective to a swing in either direction: either overemphasis on what has been lost or an overemphasis on human possibility. Nostalgia and Progress are equally tempting and can be equally dangerous; as Martin Luther once said, it is possible to fall off a horse in either direction.

Nostalgia is a perennial danger for the Christian, with its memory of a past that perhaps never was. Take the example above of nostalgia for laundry implements. “Washing day” would have been a long and grueling affair, to be repeated again almost immediately after it was finished. The dirt and grime of agrarian communities especially was not insubstantial, and so removing it required scrubbing and soaking and wringing out, only to repeat them again. The water would quickly soil, filled with particles and debris, and washwomen would find their hands stirring the slurry. The basins would need to be filled, then emptied, then filled again, the clothes immersed and scrubbed and wrung out and hung out to dry. The physical work combined with the grimy cast-off debris made this work, I imagine, at least a bit undesirable.

This was also work done by those without other options. Women who did their own washing did so because they had to. But it was also servants — and even slaves — who did the housework of the well-to-do, whose hands touched those washbasins that traveled through time and landed in interstate restaurants. What we memorialize when we save washbasins is nostalgia for a simpler life made possible by another’s labor. With this kind of nostalgia, we risk memorializing also the conditions that led to such a lack of options; the despair of menial work and low pay, day upon day of cracking dry skin and sediment swirling in greasy gray water.

The danger of nostalgia lies in imagining the past as without moral complication, without despair, without sorrow. It is the memory of a thing without its inconvenience, its burden, its strenuous detail. It confuses the good that has resulted from time gone by for the reality of that time itself, valuing the fruits of another’s labor as our own inheritance.

Now we have washing machines that free us to tend to other things. This, we are told, is Progress. What is called “Progress” provides the second pole of the social imaginary and its own dangers besides. The ideal of progress pulls individuals not toward a mythic past but to a better, brighter future. But progress, if it exists at all, is no less complicated than nostalgia. According to the idea of progress, the current social order is judged to be objectively better than the past, and the goal of social life is judged to be the actualization of further improvements. The idea of “social progress” often carries with it a view of moral improvement that has its roots in Darwinian thought and its logical extension branching into eugenics. The view that the condition we find ourselves in — one of weakness, frailty, and need — could be improved or eliminated quickly leads to viewing weakness, frailty, and need as moral deficiencies. It is not a far leap from eliminating weakness to eliminating the weak.

Further, the gains of progress are often coupled with losses. All too often the achievements of “progress” veil within them a darker cost. New industry promises jobs but brings with it low wages and poor working conditions. Greener technology promises to reduce carbon emissions but inadvertently contributes to other forms of environmental degradation. Advanced targeted military technology removes the moral clarity of war from soldiers and replaces it instead with an invisible, soul-crushing sorrow. Additionally, progress often judges the modern individual to have unchallenged knowledge of what is good and beautiful about human experience and the natural world. Such beliefs are naive at best and deeply colonizing at their worst.

Christian theology at its best should serve as a corrective to naïve notions of “progress” and “nostalgia” both. But we are caught between nostalgia, with its false memory, and progress, with its vision of human improvement far removed from the reality of human sin. Christian hope is properly neither.

The Shape Hope Takes

The object of Christian hope is, as Thomas Aquinas writes, “a future good, difficult but possible to obtain.” But it is not a generic hope; rather, hope is only properly Christian when its source is God himself and its end the eternal happiness found in communion with God. Hope, therefore, is not the correct word to speak about human optimism or the desire for the betterment of the human condition, conceived in human terms. It is not remote wish fulfillment (“I hope the sun comes out today”) or vague future desires (“I hope next year’s markets are stronger”). Christian hope is not a theological emotion. It is, at least in the Catholic tradition, considered a theological virtue.

Aquinas was clear that hope is a virtue of the will. But unlike the acquired virtues, hope is infused, given by God as a gift of grace. Hope works to nurture and urge the soul on its journey toward God; it is a virtue that both invigorates the soul and prevents it from moving toward presumption or despair. As David Elliot memorably writes, the task of the Christian is “to get hope’s leaning right,” to lean on God alone, in order that our human action might be rightly ordered as we sojourn toward God.

Further, for Aquinas, hope is not a passion, but is located in the will. Therefore, it moves the creature toward reliance on God. The theological virtue of hope, rooted in the will, keeps the soul from going off course, from running ashore, or from eagerly pursuing something other than a theological good.

These definitions orient Christian hope as something other than the human desire for whatever it is that is judged to be a cultural good. Both nostalgia and progress can grant humans a vision of a world they wish for, but according to these definitions, both can fail to be adequately Christian. But Christian hope joins itself to charity, that chief theological virtue. It unites the individual soul to God through love, and this love spills over into seeking the bettering of one’s neighbor.

Christians have a somewhat notorious reputation for using the language of hope to ignore other people’s problems, deferring relief of suffering to the life to come. But a properly Christian hope cannot become lazily disposed toward the tragedy of this world. Rooted as it is in God, and ordered therefore toward the good, hope possesses the soul by ordering it toward the virtues. Therefore, hoping in God is not separate from ordering one’s life toward neighbor-love, which entails seeking the betterment of one’s neighbor.

This is where the shape of Christian action, ordered by Christian hope, provides a corrective to simplistic nostalgia or bloated views of progress based in human achievement. Christian hope is both confident and modest. Vested in God, hope orders the soul toward growth in virtue and therefore seeks to secure the good of one’s neighbor by the demonstration of such virtues. And yet it is not frenetic, self-involved, frantic, or exhausted. It recognizes that God provides both the means and the mechanism, the sail and the wind that orders the soul toward its end. As Elliot notes, Christian hope recognizes that happiness is possible but future, and that attaining it is arduous. This tension keeps the pilgrim on the right and narrow path.

Our current cultural moment finds Christians terribly divided over the question of how to pursue justice. It is difficult to imagine a worse witness to Christian hope. The work of neighbor-love to which all Christians are called must be peculiarly Christian work; its effectiveness marked not by its speed or volume or emotional decibel level. The exhaustion that perpetual outrage and unrelenting sorrow generate results in part from the persistent occasion of violence against the powerless. The exhaustion stems, however, not only from the barrage of violence but from the perpetually urgent call to respond and react in real time. This equates action with emotional response. It makes us weary, thinning the space to weep, to listen, to pray, to talk, and reflect together. It requires that we move quickly, when justice often requires slow, plodding, persistent work. It also demands that our emotions respond at a level commensurate with the violation — and truly, there is no anger that could match such sorrow.

Certainly we should not do nothing; quietism is the enemy of the gospel. But to say something is not necessarily to do something, and so often nothing gets done. In our current moment it is easy to live as those who exist only in the Now, in the urgent, in the response after the incident about which we must have something, right now, to say.

We must instead act as those who, having placed our hope in God, have time on our side. Between the stultifying morass of nostalgia and the frenetic emotionalism of progress, the Christian work of neighbor-love keeps God’s eternity first at hand. This is not an argument on the side of either resistance or accommodation. Those studying the Black church have often noted the tendency of activists to choose one side or the other; to move swiftly to oppose this world’s structures, or to moderate and work within them, accepting the slower cost of change. To keep in mind divine eternity is to reject both options as absolutes and lodge our action instead in the character of the God who Is.

The God Who Is

Divine eternity may seem a strange place to end a discussion of Christian social action. Discussions of divine eternity are often treated as one of theology’s many Rumpelstiltskin questions, a matter of initial value that is turned into naught through endless, fruitless spinning. But God’s eternity grounds Christian hope as something other than a choice between nostalgia and optimism, between a grab at regaining what’s been lost and a strategic race to accomplish what is beyond our grasp.

To say that God is eternal is not to simply say that God possesses all the time in the world, as if the question were merely quantitative. Rather, it is to be reminded that time is God’s to take. The Genesis account records God making the world “in the beginning.” This is less a matter of origins than it is a statement of fact — this was the beginning; before it time was not. To create time is chief among God’s acts. Indeed Eternity is the name God gives himself, in the Tetragrammaton, where God’s naming of himself as the One “who was and is and will be” casts Israel as always in God’s care. God as “I am who I am” is not a statement of God’s self-evident obviousness (“It is I, who else would it be?”), but of God’s eternity.

Christian hope vested in an eternal God offers us three things. Because all of time is God’s own, we can move in it without hurry. The constant drumbeat of waking to fight another day is an important reminder of the necessity of justice work. But hurried movement often lacks disciplined reflection and communal insight. Moving as those with Chrsitian hope reminds us that all our lives are in God’s hand, and that we can move in the world without the fear of not having enough time to accomplish God’s will. God both has all the time in the world and yet is without need of it; time is but a tool that God uses for his purpose. Time is God’s to enter, in the shape of the divine Son, and then heartbreakingly to leave again, to the right hand of the Father. But this entry and exit of God into time is the way the world has always been, filled to bursting with the possibility of grace breaking through. God binds all creatures to himself, makes and remakes them in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. It takes as long as it takes, because time is God’s to take.

Second, God’s eternity can allow us to act with rest. The deep brokenness of the world all around can spin the unquiet soil into a frenzied cycle of exhaustion. Truly the task is too great, and we are not up to complete it. And yet God’s naming of himself as the Eternal One sets all our days in his hands. It is, Augustine writes, “our refuge,” “that we may fly there from the mutability of time, there to remain for evermore.” Finding God as the One whose strength is never diminished allows us to find rest in him. Christian hope does not allow for quietism, for the deferral of happiness to the life to come. But it reminds us that our hope is properly in God and the improbable economics of his reign.

Finally, divine eternity can afford us the opportunity to live without fear of tiring. Because the task is so large, the wounds so deep and persistent throughout generations, it is easy to give up before the day is over. Working with rest is itself a theological commitment. It is the acknowledgement that all we have, our creaturely abilities and our daily energy, is given by God. This same God who gave the initial gift of grace will continue to give again, as we cooperate with his work in the world. The trick is discerning which work is God’s, and not ours alone.

We are given a hint of what the shape of Christian hope lived out in the world might look like. It comes in Matthew 20, with the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

This parable is a story about work and reward. There are three groups of workers, those called early in the day, those called at midday, and those called toward the end of the day. At the end of their work, they are all paid the same wage. Those who worked longer, in the heat of the day, begrudge the landowner’s generosity. The parable’s claim is stark: the wage is not up to our discretion. We must not begrudge generosity that comes from the divine hand. Indeed, in this work of the vineyard, which I take to mean kingdom work, we must work irrespective of whether we receive a wage proportionate to our labor, or whether others are rewarded more generously.

The parable, however, can also tell us something about time, and about how we approach the kingdom of God in light of it. It is easy, when faced with the challenges of racial injustice especially, to feel that we are running out of time and that we are not up to the task. The suffering is so great and has gone on for so long, and yet solutions available to us seem both inadequate and increasingly impossible to actualize. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is not only a corrective to pay attention to the latecomers. It is a reminder that evil will not prevail, because God has all the time in the world — time that he will use to remake it.

We live, all of us, inside oppression’s thousand-year day. It is late in the afternoon and the shadows have grown long. Night will come soon. The laborers are exhausted, but there is so much work yet to be done. When in 1 Peter 3:8 the apostle says a day is like a thousand years, John Swinton notes, he is not saying that a thousand years feels like a day — but that it is a day. This is the riddle of the workers in the vineyard who reap a reward far outweighing their effort. This is the riddle of God’s relation to time — not that abundance means God has “so much” — but that God’s plenty is only God’s to give. The wage given to the workers is the same because it is given at God’s hand.

It is not just that there is a disparity between the wage given to one and the wage given to another. It is that God’s time is not our own. Faithful consistent labor is rewarded, but so is that of those who show up near the end of the day, when it seems far too late for their response. God rewards the latecomers, too. The parable is not merely about due wages or generosity, but about God’s working in the world in ways that defy our understanding of both.

Time casts a long shadow over our nation’s sorrow. It has been so long, and it seems it will be yet longer, before its injustice is erased. So many spirituals bemoan, “how long, O Lord” and “soon and very soon,” placing the persistence of sorrow adjacent to the echo of divine response. It has been so long — too long — and we cannot hasten the morning. It is only true Christian hope, vested in the eternal God, that can help us to act. Time is God’s creation, itself a creature, and the God who never goes out of fashion has as much of it to spend as he needs. The Christian called to labor must move beyond the false promises of both, regaining what was lost or a future untainted by sin. We must hope as those who live lives nested in the God who was, who is, and who will be, whose own name is the Eternal One.

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Kirsten Sanders

Kirsten Sanders (PhD, Emory University) is a writer and theologian. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.