Monday, May 19, 2008

Hope and Optimism.

I’ve been doing some thinking recently with the students at the University of the Arts about the difference between hope and optimism. It’s been an ongoing discussion in response to their lecture series on modes of Modernity and the utopian idea for the perfect city. Here’s what we’ve been thinking.

The first thing to say is that hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism isn’t really rooted in anything real or substantial. It’s an ideal based more on heresy and opinion than on anything really substantial or credible.

I’m optimistic that Scotland will win the 6 Nations next time but, to be honest, that’s not really going to happen. I’m optimistic that the new Indiana Jones film will live up to the hype but I’ve no real way of knowing until I see it. Hope is rooted in something beyond mere preferences and personal expectations. Hope is rooted in something a little more credible. Something that seems quite possible or likely to happen. Hope is based on something credible. Something real. Not on blind faith or subjective opinions.

Hope seems to have something to do with the future. We don’t hope for things in the past. Rather, we expect a better future. The future, it seems, is always a better one. Therefore, hope is always positive. We don’t hope for things to get worse! We only hope for things to get better. Ridley Scott’s film, Blade Runner, is not a hope for a brighter future. It is not a hope for Utopia, rather it is an expectation or prediction for worse things: for Distopia – a Modernist twist on the ideal of Utopia.

Hope and expectation are different things. We hope for the good. We expect the bad. My granny always used to say, “Hope for the sunshine, Al, but pack your Mac just in case!”

In order to give us something better to look forward to in the future, the fact we all hope for something tells us that something is wrong with now.

Woody Allen sums it up like this:

“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon.”

Cheerful guy! He should have been Scottish.

When we hope, we only ever hope for good things. We don’t hope that England will loose in the cricket. We don’t hope for war or for ill health. Hope is only for good things. And the nature of hoping for good things tells us that there is something about the now that is unsatisfactory.

The idea that everything is not as it should be is not exclusive to Modernity. You don’t need to be a Modernist philosopher to recognise the world is messed up. It’s also something that the bible affirms. In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul writes of the world (or to use his language creation)

“The creation waits in eager expectation… The creation was subjected to frustration, not by it’s own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from it’s bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”
Romans 8:20,21 (NIV)

Later Paul even describes the creation as groaning under the weight of decay and evil.

The bible affirms that the world is messed up. It recognises social injustice. It recognises poverty. It recognises personal struggle and the pain we both inflict on other people and the pain that is inflicted on us. Jesus Christ himself said that he had not come for the sake of the wealthy and the healthy but for the sake of the poor, for the social outcasts, for those who grieve and mourn and suffer.

The biblical expectation for the future paints a picture both of suffering and for redemption. Unlike the modernist vision for the perfect future city, the Christian hope for the city of Zion isn’t based on an ideal or the best intentions of man but on the claims of Christ and his resurrection from the dead. As certain as we are of his death and resurrection so we hope for the great future of a restored earth on his return. This is no mere optimism but a great

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