Political Hope in the Negative World (Part 1)
March 28, 2023

Dare we hope in the midst of “negative world”? The idea of the “negative world” has recently served as a helpful framework for many to come to terms with the fact that Western societies (particularly the United States) are aggressively turning against their Christian roots and moral values. In the negative world, Christian moral teachings are deemed antithetical to human flourishing, and thus Christian self-identification is now a net social negative. In such a context, what does it mean to practice hope, especially in the realm of politics?

Hope is a popular concept, or at least it was somewhat recently. The first Obama presidential campaign ran on that theme, for instance, and he was skyrocketed to a landslide victory.

But what is hope?

Too often it remains vague, just a sentiment: happy feelings that things will turn out ok. When times are generally good, we can ride this for quite a while. But it also feels profoundly vapid, empty, and we long for more.

And thus many throughout history have turned to hope in the sense of historical progress — the passionate pursuit of perfecting society, to usher in the kingdom of God. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Christian millenarianism was secularized into the Enlightenment myth of progress, and similar views are repackaged periodically focusing on various issues, imagining we can, through education and technology, eradicate inequalities, bigotry, climate change, poverty, sickness, maybe even death.

Bursts of optimism quickly dash against the rocks of human limitations and the perdurance of sin and suffering. When we hope in the wrong way or in the wrong things, such failures and limits lead us quickly to despair.

And we are in an age of despair. Anxiety and depression are proliferating among Gen Z. Many live in existential dread about potential climate catastrophes. The next global recession is always right around the corner. The culture seems to be rushing headlong into moral disaster. We are no longer slouching toward Sodom and Gomorrah, but sprinting. Can anything be done?

This is an important question for those who might be most prone to accept the negative world thesis. See, whereas progressives can sin against hope through presumption (in the sense of expecting too much out of their political efforts), conservatives are more prone to traffic in the other vice opposed to the virtue of hope: despair. In our recognition of how bad things have become, we can despair — refusing to hope that good can still be done.

My writings about the negative world have focused on challenging Christians, largely conservative, that we can and should act politically, to pursue the good in society as an expression of our faith and love for our neighbor.

But this political action must be grounded in biblical hope, which is something different from either a naive hope that assumes we can usher in the heavenly kingdom, or neutralizing hope that assumes the kingdom is entirely in the future.

This two-part essay will start with theological hope (part 1) to properly ground political hope (part 2).

To ground our political hopes in theological depths, I will begin with two theological giants who recently passed from hope to home with the Lord who wrote on the theme of hope: John Webster (d. 2016) and Benedict XVI (d. 2022). But before I get to them, let me say a brief word about Christian hope in general.

Hope is related to our status as pilgrims on the way to our homeland, to the good for which we were created and for which we desperately long. We are not home. Hope is defined by the “already not yet” of our temporal creaturely existence. And the two kinds of hopelessness — presumption and despair — threaten us at every juncture. Presumption is a failure to recognize the limits of our actions and our need for help along the way in the arduous pursuit of the good; despair denies that the good is available to us at all. The “already not yet” is turned into the “not” (despair) or “already” (presumption) of fulfillment.[1]

But we are “on the way.” How do we persevere in this life when there is a gap between what we long for and what we currently experience? We must hope — which is the path of the pilgrim.

Let’s turn to Webster to begin to build up the scaffolding of a thick theological account of hope to ground proper political action.

In Webster’s essay, “Hope,” he is emphatic that before we begin to theorize about how we as agents hope properly, we must start with the object of Christian hope: the triune God and the divine economy of God’s redemptive action in the world. Hope is first and foremost grounded in perceiving the world rightly in light of the gospel (195). God and His action toward us is our hope. As Father, God purposes to love creation and bring it to fulfillment. As Son, he intervenes to rescue the creature from its perverse attempt to free itself from the Father’s purpose, thereby refusing to be a creature and thus exposing itself to mortal peril. As Spirit, God acts to bring to completion that which the Father plans and the Son secures — the identity and integrity of the creation in fellowship with God (198f). Christian hope is that creaturely disposition which corresponds to the fact that all of human history — including its future — is caught up within the economy of the triune God’s mercy, grace, and love. No time or space is apart from His presence and action. This God is the object and ground of our hope.

“History is the field of hope,” explains Webster, “because it is part of the divine economy” — God’s orderly administration of all things by which they are brought to fulfillment (202). This means that history is not random or meaningless. It has shape and order. It “moves to an end” (202). Therefore, Christian hope can never ultimately interpret history through a narrative of decline — again, a challenge to much contemporary conservatism. No, this is “the time of grace” — “that space in human history which follows the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of his Spirit” (204). The present time, then, is not a time to be filled with dread or projects of self-making. No; again, it is the time of grace. “To hope,” says Webster, “is to exist in that trust that God’s constancy is such that the present is on the way to perfection” (205). The gospel “outbids” all other interpretations of history. Therefore, we — as Christians called to hope — know that He is at work and we trust that He will complete His perfecting works. This gives us profound security, because it is grounded in God’s plan and fulfillment in Christ. The Christian knows his or her future.

Benedict XVI wrote his second encyclical on hope: Spe Salvi. He echoes Webster in his emphasis on the security of our hope, and Benedict ties it especially to Christ and the comfort we have that He will be with us through death, because Christ has gone ahead of us in death and come out victorious over it. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He shows us a way beyond death, and only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life, says Benedict:

The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through. The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his ‘rod and his staff comforts me,’ so that ‘I fear no evil’ (cf Ps 23:4)—this was the new ‘hope’ that arose over the life of believers. (§ 6)

Benedict argues that man is redeemed by love; but love in this life remains fragile — it can be destroyed by death. Death hangs over our existence, threatens everything we hold dear. We know it can be lost. Human beings need an unconditional, un-losable love. According to Benedict, man needs the certainty to say, “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). Only if this absolute love exists with certainty is man redeemed. This is why the apostle Paul says that those without God in the world are also without hope (Eph 2:12). We need a hope that holds firm despite all disappointments; and Benedict argues this can only be God — the God who has loved us and continues to love us to the end.

All other hopes will fail us, says Benedict. He lists the hope for romantic love, or for a prestigious role in one’s profession, or some other type of success. These, even if we attain them, will not satisfy. It becomes evident that they were not the whole, that man has need of a hope that goes further. Only something infinite will suffice, something that will always be more than he can ever attain. These greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day are not enough without The Great Hope, which must surpass everything else. And this can only be God, “who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what what we, by ourselves, cannot attain” (§ 31). Benedict goes on to explain that this comes to us as a gift, which is part of our hope. “God,” says Benedict, “is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end. … His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect” (§31).

From here, Benedict’s main emphasis is to de-absolutize temporal hopes, especially those that imagine that humanity can usher in or build the kingdom on earth. No, we cannot build the kingdom of God by our own efforts, and thus we must not place messianic burdens on political leaders, and we must not expect perfect justice through our political projects. Benedict mentions here the atheistic progressivism of the past two centuries which protests against the injustices of the world and world history, and burdens man with the task of establishing perfect justice, of righting all wrongs. “It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice,” argues Benedict. “A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope” (§ 42). No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering; no one and nothing can guarantee that cynical powers will cease to dominate the world. “I am convinced,” says Benedict, “that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life” (§ 43). This is why it is foolish to protest against God in the name of justice. A world without God is a world without hope. God is justice and justice is secured in God’s final judgment. And for those in Christ, that justice was meted out on the cross. Thus, God is our only hope for justice and grace — they kiss at the cross. And the great injustices in this world will be dealt with. We look forward to the day when He will right all wrongs in his perfect wisdom and justice.

A question raised by many critics of the classical Christian doctrine of hope is this: Is this all too otherworldly?  

Certainly we must beware of placing our ultimate hope in any finite goods. But, these critics ask, does ultimate, eschatological hope bear in any significant way upon our present lives? Upon the social order we inhabit?? Does it destroy all other hopes for societal improvement? Doesn’t this view distract from temporal concerns and undermine earthly social action? As it is famously quipped: “Are Christians so heavenly minded that they become no earthly good?”

In fact, Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann and Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff have laid such charges at the feet of classical Christian accounts of hope.[2] They have argued that hope for heaven tends to neglect justice on earth. Eschatological hope seems to undermine political hope in the here and now.

In the next essay, I will briefly address these critiques of traditional Christian accounts of hope and expound on how such hope inspires, informs, and sustains political action.

James R. Wood is Assistant Professor of Ministry at Redeemer University (Ancaster, ON). 

[1] This paragraph is largely inspired by Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1997). See the section “On Hope.”

[2] See Jürgen Moltmann, “Theology as Eschatology,” in The Future of Hope: Theology as Eschatology, ed. Frederick Herzog (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970); “Christian Hope: Messianic or Transcendent? A Theological Discussion with Joachim of Fiore and Thomas Aquinas,” Horizons 12, no. 2 (1985): 328-348; and Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Seeking Justice in Hope,” in The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity, ed. Miraslov Volf and William Katerberg (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).

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