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).