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The severity of hope

The reduction of hope is one of our greatest temptations. Hope, unlike optimism, nostalgia, or raw self-assertion speaks of a space in which all our abilities to “deal” with our situation have vanished. We have no raw data, resources, skills, or powers with which to get a handle on things, and are left only to hope. When have no reason or rationale to anticipate a resolution, we are left either to descend into despair, or somehow to inexplicably live in expectancy of a hope beyond our hopelessness, a Word that cannot be produced, but can only be cried out for, and if uttered, only received with thanks and praise.

The severity of hope is easy to close one’s eyes to precisely because it is so deeply severe. Allowing ourselves to live in expectant hope, when all the signs point to its irrationality and foolishness is supremely difficult and disarming. To venture into the realm of hope is come to the very edge of the void, to finally surrender one’s cleverness, resourcefulness, and courage and cry out for a salvation that is, quite simply impossible on the basis of all that is. As my friend Peter Kline has recently pointed out in his superb essay on Lady Gaga’s Marry the Night video:

The line between despair and hope is razor thin. Both face the future anxiously as a kind of empty darkness. The only difference is that whereas despair cowers before the darkness in fear, grasping for some-thing to stabilize the dizzying anxiety . . . hope leaps forward, dancing into the darkness with an inexplicable expectancy that love is present and that love will come. . . . Love is the impossible possibility of dancing the night away on the razor, treating it not as the precipice of despair, but as the edge of glory.

Walter Brueggemann makes some similarly helpful points in his essay “Faith at the Nullpunkt” in his The Word that Redescribes the World. Examining the crises of faith that Israel negotiates in the Old Testament, he speaks of the point of utter failure, in which the securities of Israel utterly break down in exile. It is precisely at this nullpunkt where the challenge of hope begins. In the face of hopelessness Israel is faced with the dual calling to, on the one hand “relinquish what is gone, to resist every denial and every act of nostalgia, to acknowledge and embrace what YHWH has ended”; and on the other hand “to receive what is inexplicably and inscrutably given by YHWH, to resist every measure of despair, to await and affirm what YHWH, beyond every quid pro quo, now gives.” But the crucial point in all this, the point at which we are all tempted tame and blunt the severity of hope is that we can assure and possess “no automatic move from relinquishment to reception; one does not follow necessarily from or after the other” (62).

The movement from despair to joy, from fissure to healing is not a movement that can be held in hand. We cannot anticipate or secure it. Rather, in the very depths of the darkness of the nullpunkt we can only cry out for it, only hope for it. Ultimately hope, if it is not to be reduced to a grasping for control, or a dishonest and self-possessed optimism, must be understood as that which

stakes everything on the unfettered “Thou” who is not in thrall to the reasonableness of any nullpunkt. All nullpunkt, in every sphere, have common properties. In the end what counts is the capacity of this “Thou” to intrude into the nullpunkt and override it. (Brueggemann, 71)

Hope, real genuine hope must not shy away from this bare point of hopelessness. If we are to avoid abandoning hope for nostalgia, self-assertion, or self-imposed blindness and despair we must not close our eyes to the point of dissolution, of emptiness and screaming in which the world, and all of us in it ultimately find ourselves.

The nullpunkt, in its many forms, is enough to evoke deep and raw fear. The exile offers a fear of abandonment. The pressure of chaos invites fear of obliteration. The immediacy of death bespeaks nullification and nonbeing. The nulpunkt carries the prospect of total nullification. Into that is spoken, “Do not fear.” The antidote seems modest in the face of the threat. Unless, of course, the antidote is uttered by one who is trustworthy. Everything depends upon that. The future always depends for Israel [and the church, the world, and ever human person] upon the trustworthiness of the One who characteristically hovers somewhere between the fear so palpably grounded and the faith so fragilely embraced. It is the pivot point of hope: “Do not fear!” (Bruegggemann, 71)

But this “Do not fear!” is not simply the assurance that there is nothing to fear. No, the word of grace which comes among us and tells us “Do not fear!”, the perfect love that casts out all fear (1 John 4:18) comes not before, but after and during the night of trembling in which blood is sweat from the brow of Jesus. The calling not to fear is spoken precisely into the face of that which is utterly and ultimately fearful. And this calling, this severe hope turns always and only on the one who speaks it. It can ultimately be true only if this one is indeed trustworthy and has and will overcome death forever. And it is this one, the Crucified Resurrected one who indeed speaks this to is, precisely on the precipice of hopelessness: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hell” (Rev 1:17-18).


  1. Glen wrote:

    Yes. ‘Hope against hope’

    Reminds me of Calvin: “Everything by which we are surrounded conflicts with the promise of God. He promises us immortality, but we are encompassed with mortality and corruption. He pronounces that we are righteous in His sight, but we are engulfed in sin. He declares His favour and goodwill towards us, but we are threatened by the tokens of his wrath. What can we do? It is His will that we should shut our eyes to what we are and have, in order that nothing may impede or even check our faith in Him.”

    Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 1:30 am | Permalink
  2. dan wrote:

    It seems to me that you trying to look but taking back what you see at the same time. While trying to confront the severity of hope, it seems as though you still end up blunting the confrontation in a number of ways. Of course, that’s how things used to be for me as well, when I first started encountering the context of hopelessness and godforsakenness. Spend some more time there (if I may be so bold as to presume to speak this way) and this is what you will find:

    Hope will stop crying out. Hope will stop dancing. Hope will not be appeased by any word or Word. The context of hopelessness and godforsakenness can cut out your tongue, cut off your feet, and make you deaf.

    In the end, hope is simply the decision to remain alive. To not kill one’s self. That’s all.

    No matter how a person chooses to stay alive (with the assistance of drugs or alcohol, by lashing out at others, by slashing his or her own body, etc.), all of these lives are the embodiment of hope, precisely in the way that they are lived, for as long as a person chooses not to die.

    Some say that “where there’s life there’s hope” and take that to mean that things could be better, things could change, God could intervene, you never know what might happen… I take it to mean that choosing to remain alive, in one’s unchanging circumstances, and not choosing Death, is the most audacious act of hope there is.

    Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I think you’re right. Thanks for saying that.

    Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Permalink
  4. This post just seemed to completely go over my head Halden, even though it had such great creative writing and all–”dancing on a razor blade of hope and despair,” c’mon, that’s damn clever! However, It did cause me to admit that I don’t think I really know what hope is, but I don’t think I have much of it (even though I ain’t quite ready to kill myself). So I went looking on my bookshelves and on-line for some insightful quotes about hope from the usual suspects: Mother T, Padre Pio, Henri Nouwen, Dom Helder Camara, Carlo Caretto, Rick Santorum, etc. (hmmm…where are the protestants in this list, maybe Oprah?), and I didn’t find a thing that helped.

    So, looking over my book shelves again I spotted “The Holy Fire” (of course! the Jews!) by the Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira who I have mentioned before, one of my favorite teachers, and I was sure I would find some piquant quote on hope in there; I didn’t. Rabbi K. was the main Rabbi of the Warsaw ghetto and he died there refusing to escape even when he had the chance so he could continue to minister to his people even until the end. He experienced not just the pain of starvation and a sick and wounded body, but the death of his wife and all his children, all his friends and acquaintances, even the family dog for christ’s sake, AND, the destruction of his whole cultural and physical world; from his perspective, he witnessed the end of the world. Well. I ended up reading the whole book through again and I’ll be damned if I could find one decent quote on “hope.” And yet, after starting this reflection on hope without much, and really feeling a fair amt. of personal despair and supra-existential angst about the world (seasoned with self-pity and ungratefulness for all my many blessings, which drives me to greater self-loathing and despair…I really suck at this whole Christian thing) yet, after reading the Rabbi K. through again I found myself a bit more hopeful…I think.

    First, I like what DanO says about hope, and I think it must be a part of our understanding about what hope is, but somehow defining hope strictly as mere-survival seems somehow inadequate, but I don’t yet know why. Let me try and paraphrase a bit on what I read by Rabbi K. (and G-d forgive me if I am not being faithful to his words). Now at the beginning of the catastrophe the Rabbi had hope that it would pass quickly and that the normalcy of a basically decent humanity would resume. Not so, and soon the Rabbi and many Jews began rationalizing that their suffering and persecution was their own fault, a result of their unfaithfulness and assimilation and they hoped that a return to stricter and more faithful relationship to God would end their travails. That didn’t work. Then, as the scope of the death-dealing horror became more apparent their hope was for some kind of divine intervention. When that failed some had hope that either the West or the Russians would defeat the Nazi’s and save them before they all perished; that didn’t happen either. Some few just hoped to survive by any means, none did. But many more came to hope for even the nothingness of death, and they were the ones whose hopes were proven; but some went further and killed themselves in hope of a better world to come.

    Now, are all these “hopes” the same thing? Or are words failing us? Can we understand hope by itself or only in it’s relation to other soul-states, and shackled to despair? Faith/ doubt, joy/sorrow, good/evil, hope/despair, are such binary models really necessary or even helpful? or do they trap us in a language game that we cannot transcend? The Rabbi K. wrote that hope is a very dangerous thing and can often lead one to death; rather than mere survival being a sign of hope, hope itself can destroy us. When one has experienced such profound suffering like the Rabbi K. and others, hopelessness itself can be a kind of gift. One cannot survive on hope as a world dis-integrates. Hope keeps the wound from scarring over, keeps it raw and bleeding till it bleeds out, keeps traumatizing the victim over and again until they break and die or wish they would. The Rabbi witnessed sufferings that were so profound that they led to madness, and created existences of stupefying torpor and an inhuman and barest form of beingness that came to be accepted as a kind of hellish grace. The Rabbi said that if a purpose can be discerned in this suffering, (it can’t) it is to crush the human mind, to sweep away every human conceit of understanding and security, every conceptual underpinning and foothold that we rest upon, including hope. Perhaps only then might the void that remained be replaced with a new mystical surrendering to a revelation of “G-d-consciousness” and a embracing of participating into the “infinite suffering of G-d.” There are no more rationalizations or any place for an isolated and remote divinity then, one reaches a place beyond judgement, criticism, or need for explanations, the world is simply the way it must be; the Rabbi says this near the end: “Since G-d does thus, that is the way it is supposed to be.” And so the Rabbi K. lived without hope day after day, gathering survivors and saying the ritual prayers, putting on the tefillin, etc., but not studying the Torah any longer like he used to, no, he wasn’t even interested in any Job-like badinage with G-d anymore. That divine name that up to this point was too holy to even be spoken, didn’t need to be spoken anymore, because it came to be his own name, to be everyones name.

    Well, I hope y’all have some idea what the Rabbi K. was talking about because I’m not sure I really do. I can’t say if I agree or disagree, I am just too damn immature and ignorant to really understand such wisdom borne from unspeakable suffering. But for today, writing this, I do feel a little more hopeful, and I’ll be damned if I know why! Thanks Halden and DanO, and Obliged y’all.

    Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Permalink
  5. Geoff wrote:

    Hey Dan,

    Thanks for this comment… I just want to add to it a bit. I think you are saying this, but to clarify: Choosing hope means choosing life, but life (as we often say, albeit blithely, as Christians) can mean different things in different contexts, as can death. There are times when what appears as death to me will in fact be precisely what is needed to bring life to another.

    Hope is not only the decision to live, but it is also the decision to choose life, even when that life appears as death to those outside of our situation. And, hope chooses to stand by/with another in the midst of their ‘remaining alive’, even when, for all intents and purposes, it feels to us as though the other is dying.

    I’ve been thinking that in this regard it makes more sense to say that love flows from hope, rather than vice versa. Love is, to be very cliche, hope made flesh. At least that’s how it seems to me…

    Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink
  6. dan wrote:

    Hi Geoff,

    Where I’m coming from, choosing hope does not necessarily mean choosing life. To choose not to die is not the same as making the deliberate choice to “choose life”… it just means that you still keep living because that’s what we tend to do until something intervenes and stops us from doing so (sickness, a car accident, whatever).

    Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  7. Geoff wrote:

    Do you not find that reductionistic? I mean, I know people who decide to keep living, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them hopeful, and certainly not ‘audaciously’ hopeful. Seems to me they’re just following their biological imperative, which doesn’t strike me as hopeful per se. Am I missing something?

    Monday, January 16, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink
  8. dan wrote:

    Solidarity with the poor?

    Monday, January 16, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink
  9. Geoff wrote:

    Maybe, but I don’t see your point. There appear to be poor people who are extremely hopeful, and poor people who are extremely hopeless, but both continue to keep on living. The same could also be said of wealthy people. The reality of hope seems far more complex. I guess that’s all I’m saying.

    Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  10. Chris Grataski wrote:

    but our social location and the company we keep are not incidental to what we think about this.

    Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  11. Geoff wrote:

    Sure, but that applies across the board, no? The most consistent position would seem to be that all of our reflections on hope are provisional, and that supports the basic premise that hope exceeds our grasp.

    I was trying to articulate that point, alongside what also appears to be a true statement about hope, which is that it seems to entail a vision of possibilities. Hope implies a choice between allowing for possibilities, and a resignation that one has run out of options. (Hence, ‘giving up hope’.)

    Animals, I take it, choose to “still keep living” (to use Dan’s words) in a deterministic sense, i.e. they have a drive to stay alive as long as possible. But I don’t think anyone would define that as hope.

    I am having trouble seeing how Dan distinguishes that biological imperative from his definition of hope, that’s all.

    Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink
  12. dan wrote:

    Why do you need to distinguish hope from that “biological imperative”? Maybe all that means is that hope has been hard-wired into us…

    That said, I cross-posted this comment on my own blog and perhaps the issue you raise is better clarified in the conversation that occurred there.

    Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  13. Geoff wrote:

    Ok, I’ll check that out. I guess that would be where I disagree–I don’t think hope can be simply ‘hard-wired’. It must involve freedom and decision in order to be hope.

    Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 6:39 am | Permalink

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