Sunday, July 29, 2007


“Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change.” (Jim Wallis)

“ 'Til everything's right, we ain’t here no more” (Jake Krieder, quoted by Mary Metzler - describing it as a 'Zen Mennonite' kind of statement!)

“History belongs to the intercessors, who invoke the future into being” (Walter Wink)

“We do well to remember that we are human beings, not just human doings” (Eric Fromm)

"It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope" (Jonathan Sacks - thanks to Alison Goodlad for this one, from The Dignity Of Difference. See also his To Heal A Fractured World)

Antonio Gramsci, for whom I have great respect, is famous for commending an attitude to life which he summed up as “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” This sparked an exchange between the German humanist-Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (whose classic Der Princip Hoffnung, 'The Principle of Hope', was later translated into English by my friend Stephen Plaice) and the political theologian Jurgen Moltmann (best known for his A Theology of Hope). They agreed that ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’ are not the same thing.

At least as a cultural phenomenon, optimism is the haphazard trust in the idea that things will somehow work out. Hope, on the other hand, is an active commitment to seek out and practice the good, the just and the true in situations of seemingly intractable wrong, injustice and falsehood – knowing that to succumb to an emaciated version of ‘reality’ is to decide in favour of non-change and to distort ‘realism’.

Whereas the world is, we discover as we explore it, a process of inexorable change, encapsulating both growth and decay, renewal and degradation, life and death. Similarly, John Macmurray is right to claim that Descartes would have been nearer the truth to say “We act, therefore we are” instead of “I think therefore I am”.

In this context, to believe in the necessity of God is not to posit some ‘supernatural addition’ to the world, but to recognise in the world process, where God is given in excess or not at all, that what is essential stasis (hatred, killing, intellectual rigidity, social fixity) cannot have the final word. For such things have no word to speak, only words to deny.

God is not “finished being”, such as we are, or rather imagine ourselves to be. Instead, God is better thought of as endless potentiality ranged against the kind of human arrogance that improbably imagines it has adequate grounds, in the frame of this life, to decide what the full-stop is and where it comes. In that realisation resides true hope.

The kind of atheist that the later Jacques Derrida was, and the kind of Christian believer I seek to be, are united in this conviction about “refusing the full-stop”. The kind of believer that Jerry Falwell was, and the kind of atheist that Richard Dawkins is, seem to have decided otherwise, on the grounds of two incompatible certainties which I find equally non-compelling.

They are, I recognise, options. Just not ones I find either rational or faithful. [Picture: Jurgen Moltmann]


Kelly Fryer said...


I've just found your site - what great stuff. I will spread the word. Your post today on hope -vs- optimism really struck a chord with me, and I couldn't agree more. Optimism, I think, is maybe what killed liberal Christianity 3 decades ago. This generation, I hope, will learn a lesson. Change will come because GOD is doing it...through us, though human beings, of course...but real transformation is God's gig. I can be a part of that movement for the long haul. Because I know that what God promises, God will get done. Thanks for the post...and for your work. - Kelly Fryer

Bob said...

> "Hope, on the other hand, is an active commitment to seek out and practice the good, the just and the true in situations of seemingly intractable wrong"

I understand that optimism, for example about human relationships, or even the diseases we have, can be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. And where "the truth" intersects with the possible benefits that accrue to optimism, then hope really can change the state of affairs. But this is not always the case.

Sometimes, active commitment to a particular idea in a situation where that idea is "seemingly intractably wrong" is less the exercise of "hope" and more the exercise of stubborn pig-headedness.

By the way, I think it's deeply unfair to put Dawkins in the same category as Falwell when it comes to his epistemological certainty. Dawkins makes a case for his atheism. You can only brand his assent to that position as uncritical once you've shown that it fails and could only be held to be true by one with an irrational commitment to it.

Simon Barrow said...

Hi Bob: Things are rarely if ever "always the case", and critical discernment constantly needs to be brought into operation. Obviously. Acting contrary to dominant conceptions or what appears to be accumulated evidence can, equally evidently, be "pig-headedness" rather than counter-intuitive wisdom. Sure. Nothing I've actually said would suggest otherwise, I trust.

Regarding Falwell and Dawkins. If you re-read what I wrote I hope it will be clear that I anticipated precisely such an accusation of "unfairness", and therefore, rather than making an illegitimate comparision (I was in fact drawing a parallel, which is a little dfferent) I sought to stress the *incompatibility* of the thought-streams of the two. However, procedurally, I fear that Dawkins' presumption that his position is simply "rational" is as misplaced as Falwell's presumption that his position is simply "biblical". Reality is more complex and instersting than either, in their opposing ways, allow. In that sense they do both suffer from (quite different kinds) of naive positivism and lack of sufficiently self-critical enquiry - I would argue.

Falwell's approach is flawed in almost every way, though it betrays suprising bits of (to many, unexpected) humanity. And, unlike Dawkins, JF was not in any way and intellectual. What saddens me about Dawkins is that one of the great scientific interpreters of the age has produced angry and partial rhetoric about "religion" which offers little by way of enlightement to anyone (whatever their view) who has thought deeply about the issues involved. Of course he scores some palapable "hits" along the way. But there is far more heat than light.

Regarding the fundamentalism of someone like Falwell. About the biggest mistake one can make is to assume that it is irrational. This gets us virtually nowhere in undrstanding the appeal and power of wrong ideas - and it avoids the awkward evidence that Christian fundamentalism is bound up with narrow C19th conceptions of rationality which are then turned into religious propositions and imposed on the delightfully messy texts that are (amazingly!) claimed as their legitimation. I've done a short paper on fundamentalism for Ekklesia, which is at the bottom of the front page, btw (

No doubt we could dialogue about this kind of stuff for a long time. Perhaps over a drink? Cheers, Simon