I was recently invited to make a presentation to a group of psychotherapists on the subject of hope. As this is one of two foundational aspects of my ministry, along with joy, I was keen to do as good a job as I could in the short time available. I chose to compare and contrast our understanding of hope in two domains, spiritual and psychological. This month’s reflection is based on the first.
One author refers to a growing sense of helplessness and cynicism that he relates to heightened individualism with its illusory expectations and the myth of progress that sees suffering as something to be eradicated. He calls for a reconstruction of hope as the foundation of everything of value: “The point of departure that keeps human thought open,” a passion for the possible.
Modernity, he argues, is predicated on closed systems that lack the dimension of transcendence, which is the fullest expression of human existence. He writes, “Hope resists the binding narratives of modernity, preferring to be surprised by the something new.” In effect, hope is expectantly open to the future, which means that true hope has a confident assurance about a future that it cannot know in advance.
Hope and trust play a key role in religious anthropology. They are the midwife of all religious thought and are integral to the human condition. They allow but, at least in the case of healthy persons, are not overwhelmed by skepticism or doubt.
Hope creates and rises out of community and relationship. It’s impossible to hope alone. A theology of hope, therefore, requires an anthropology that is committed to the relational character of human existence. The Jewish and Christian doctrine of creation is part of the theology of hope. Experiences of Exodus and Exile are part of the narrative of hope regarding a future already given, but not yet realized. Resurrection is the crucible of hope in the Christian tradition, a refusal to accept suffering as having the last word.
These stories point to the power of memory in building and sustaining hope. It is not possible to sustain hope in the present without reference to the past, particularly to our own lived experience of survival or those of people who we have known.
Along with memory, hope requires imagination. There are three types: First, ordinary, reproductive and conserving imagination; second, creative imagination that goes beyond the familiar; and, third, religious or theological imagination that goes beyond conceptual understanding to the unknowable objects of faith. Each dimension of imagination enables us to transcend the current affliction that darkens our immediate horizon. Each refers to existential as well as transcendent meaning. In all cases, meaning and hope are closely tied.
For persons of faith, particularly those steeped in Jewish or Christian narratives, there is a dynamic movement from the particular to the universal, from the concrete to the ultimate, from the relative to the absolute. For Christians, solidarity with Christ is a trajectory of rising to new life in the present, moving from a horizon of self-absorption to one of value or ultimate meaning, liberation of the true self.
The reconstruction of hope must be part of any recovery from psychological distress. This is best achieved by reaching back into personal and learned memories of survival, carrying these forward with imagination, and the confidence that vulnerability is not a curse, but a natural part of life.