Continuing on with a mini-series here on personal ruminations regarding the significance of seasons, Easter has now passed, and in theory we are now full moving full tilt boogey into spring. It might be appropriate in this regard, however, to note that the extra celebration day taken for Easter here happened to fall on April Fools’ Day. In other words if you believe that spring is coming soon in this part of the world weather-wise, the joke is on you.
The timing for the religious self-deprivation of Lent is no accident. This time of year for giving things up quite conveniently falls in the season where, in a difficult year, you would be starting to run out of the foods and things with which you could properly indulge yourself anyway. Back in the day that last month and a half before spring would actually start properly springing was a pretty sparse time, so why not make a religious ritual out of embracing that sparseness in one way or another? But this year Easter came early, and spring is coming late to the point where the naturally lean season is by no means over yet. So in some ways I’m glad that I didn’t bother ritually giving anything up for Lent this year.
There’s another way in which the agrarian roots of our seasons of celebration and my academic lifestyle don’t really synchronize though: Spring, whenever it eventually arrives, is the season for planting, investing and laying the basic groundwork for the year’s agricultural labors. But in academic life spring is the traditional harvest season for all of the autumn and winter’s planting and cultivation of knowledge and understanding. In other words we are heading into the rush season for final examinations and the evaluation of all of the other sorts of work students have done, on the basis of which grades are given and qualifications are handed out. Here’s where the school teacher’s rush season properly begins.
In any case, for teachers and farmers alike, this is a season of great hope: hope that the ground will soon thaw out enough to accept seed and that once that seed starts to grow the young plants will not be killed off by some vicious sneaky late frost; hope that all those distracted and struggling young minds really will show signs of having absorbed the knowledge and understanding we’ve been trying to pump their direction. Hope is a wonderful thing.
Growing up as an American evangelical Christian, one of the more challenging things to get my head around was the distinction between faith and hope. In fact contemplating that difference over the years is perhaps one of the chief reasons I no longer self-identify as a Christian evangelical.
To some this difference might seem self-evident, or hopelessly abstract, so I should probably unpack what I’m talking about here a bit. Both hope and faith, in the everyday senses of the terms, might be thought of as species of positive thinking. When we talk about having faith in another person we are choosing to believe that they will not betray us. We do trust exercises where we allow ourselves to be at the mercy of the other, believing that the person we are trusting will not let us fall. In some real senses we can’t be rationally sure of that person’s reliability, but we allow ourselves a fairly strong degree of emotional certainty regardless. In this way faith is a matter of choosing to believe what we hope for. As the writer of the New Testament’s book of Hebrews put, “faith is the substance of things hoped for.”
Hope in turn is different from faith because there isn’t the same sense of certainty implied. It is positive thinking which leaves more room for doubt, thus becoming less positive in the process. So the question is, is the only real distinction between these forms of positive thinking a matter of quantity or degree? If so –– if hope is really just a weaker form of faith, and the point of the matter is to strengthen the positive thoughts as far as possible –– shouldn’t we just try to take all that hope stuff and push to turn it into a proper sort of faith? Many evangelicals I know seem to operate on such a premise.
This might sound a bit crazy in some ways, but there are strong tendencies in this direction within all of the world’s mystical traditions, in Christianity within the Pentecostal and Charismatic “faith healing” movements in particular. Within the self-help literature and seminar industry this sort of faith-based pursuit of personal advantage has taken on a new secular form, suggesting that by believing something strongly enough you can change the flow of events and cause desired states of affairs to come about. The archetypical form for this is based on a film called The Secret, which Barbara Ehrenreich does a pretty good job of debunking.
It goes with this understanding of things to say that when Jesus told the woman in Luke 8, for instance, “Your faith has healed you,” he was being quite literal about it. Combining the placebo effect with a bit of divine help brought about through persistent and trusting petition to that power can do all sorts of positive things for us. If you only hope in such matters the effect isn’t nearly as powerful. So why bother with hope at all? The basic evangelical perspective wouldn’t seem to have so much use for hope as such.
But then why does the Bible, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul, have so much to say on the subject of hope? To start with there is the closing verse of I Corinthians 13, the famous hymn to love: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love…” Thus it states directly that hope, regardless of its uncertainties, together with faith and love, is an everlasting theological principle; towering above wisdom, courage, benevolence and a host of other virtues. Then in Romans 5 Paul goes on to explain how hope is the precious result of faith enduring suffering, coming by way of hard won experience. Beyond that the expected experiences of the after-life and Christ’s return to earth are not spoken of as matter of faith, but as hope: When it comes right down to it we don’t have any absolutely certain information about what lies on the other side of death, or how the end of the world will play out in practice. So we give ourselves certain uncertain expectations to keep ourselves going, and that’s perfectly as it should be. And then there are all of the various things that Paul and other Bible writers allow themselves to look forward to without basing their faith on such things actually coming about, like getting to visit with old friends at some point, or parcel deliveries of various sorts getting through. These things have a way of giving strength and motivation in day to day affairs, but Paul never contemplated a possibility that such things failing to work out might call into question the foundation of his certainty regarding the deeper principles of faith. So there would seem to be something of a qualitative difference between these two phenomena, not just a quantitative matter of hope being the lesser form of positive thinking.
Hope is a paradoxical business though. It involves the anticipation of something sweet that can be a greater thrill than the arrival of the sweetness itself, but if that sweetness never arrives and the hope gets crushed it can cause all sorts of nasty sensations –– “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12). So the trick with hope is to extend it out for the maximum possible level of satisfaction from the hope itself without it hitting that breaking point; or to keep a rotating arsenal of lesser hopes on hand so that when some hopes do fail you can always fall back on others.
Some hopes are certainly harder to let go of than others. For the Apostle Paul the biggest hope defining his life, that he eventually had to let go of, was that he would live to see Jesus return to earth with an army of angels to set things right for those who had suffered in his name. For me the hardest hope in life to let go of has been that of having a satisfying and stable marriage and/or family life someday. For Paul and for me this big hope being frustrated was/has been further complicated by its being combined with other smaller disappointments in life; but somehow the assurance of actual faith combined with the realization of a collection of significant smaller hopes along the way enabled him, and enables me, to keep going in life.
If Paul’s great hope would have been realized, human history would have been over long before I would have been born. I have enjoyed life enough where I still see it as a good thing that Paul didn’t get what he was hoping for then. What grand divine master plan it would have screwed up for whom if my own greater hopes would have been realized is hard for me to speculate about even. Or maybe it’s simplest and most practical just to think of things in terms of my being a screw up when it comes to following through with romance and leave it at that. Whatever the case, life goes on; and as they say, when there’s life there’s hope.
The hopes currently on my mind are simple enough: I hope that the kids I am now teaching give me good excuses to give them good final grades this spring. I hope that what they learn in my classes and my colleagues’ classes will be of some lasting value for them in “the real world”. I hope that they will each find their way into suitable and satisfying academic and vocational paths once their compulsory school education is complete. I hope I find some way of paying my rent this summer, given that as a part time teacher I won’t be getting any summer vacation pay. I hope that my sons each succeed in the academic and career targets they have set for themselves for the coming months. I hope that my sons are each eventually more successful in long-term relationship building than I have been. I hope to stay relatively healthy, including not getting myself killed on the bicycle while negotiating all of the ice and slush that remains on the paths I have to ride each day. I hope that even if we don’t get a proper summer in this country this year there will at least be a pleasant spring sometime soon, with flowers in the fields and all of that. I hope that some of the stuff I get written this year, academically and otherwise, will turn out to have lasting value. I hope to experience many warm moments of friendship and fellowship of various sorts in my own life in the medium-range future.
I figure that if more than half of those hopes come to be realized, whichever ones they turn out to be, 2013 will go down in the history of my life as not having been too bad a year. Meanwhile I’ll keep doing what I can to increase the odds on all of them, realizing that some are less under my control than others.