We live in a young town and our church is trending young. Many of us might not recall the early ‘60s and how in those years hope seemed to hang in the air. JFK challenged us to reach the moon by the end of the decade. MLK seemed to lead us toward the fulfillment of our “all men are created equal” and to redeem us from America’s original sin of slavery. Student idealism asserted itself for big changes.
The Western world felt the upsurge of these student movements, such as the “Prague spring,” and new hopes for the spread of democracy. The women’s and environmental movements got on their feet, looking to horizons of transformation.
So with lies and subterfuge afoot in our own day, who can feel hopeful right now? But let’s revisit that former hope to test it before we cave into despair. Much that we call hope is only optimism. And optimism is dangerous. Reinhold Niebuhr said that between optimism and pessimism, optimism is the more perilous of the two. Much of what we felt in the early 60’s was less about hope more about optimism.
Optimism is about watching trends of cause and effect auguring into good things. It’s about extrapolating good feeling in a moment and projecting it into the future. Optimism is related to another tenuous idea, progress. Progress is the idea that institutions like business, government, school, church, and military will join arms and march confidently into the future. Every day in every way things will improve.
For most of the insightful people I respect, that notion of progress died with WWI.
That’s why I never describe our church or my ministry as “progressive.” So naïve.
Both optimism and hope involve positive expectations regarding the future. But their radically different orientations toward reality are worth some key distinctions.
Optimism says since “this” happened then we can look forward to “that.” We see an orange sunset and we expect sunshine the next day. Much positive thinking toward the future grows out of this. This is ok so far as it goes, but this isn’t hope.
Hope is utterly independent of human circumstances. Hope is not based on the moment’s possibilities and projecting them forward into the future. Hope is grounded in God’s faithfulness, and the reliability of God’s incomparable promise.
Optimism is about the possibility of how things might come to be. Hope is based on how with God all things are possible, irrespective of countervailing evidence. True hope even sprouts in the valley of the shadow of death, as Psalm 23 has it. Indeed that is the very place where the most sturdy and enduring hope will grow.
My counsel at a moment as we learn about Dietrich Bonhoeffer taking on 1930s Germany and notice alarming trends? Forget about optimism and focus on hope.