I am a self-described pessimist. Some find this troubling… believing that optimism is healthier, and makes one happier. As a melancholic, I am not all that sure I want to be happier… I want contentment… I want peace,.. I want purpose… I want belongingness. I think I can generally do with just a small bit of happiness most of the time.
But as a Christian, I often wonder whether pessimism is wholly consistent with my faith. Additionally, there are people who describe pessimism as another term for “realism.” That sounds more negative than I am, or want to be.
With that in mind, I decided to start reading Jurgen Moltmann’s book “The Theology of Hope.” I still have a long way to go in the book, but it emphasizes eschatology (the “study of last things”) as not so much a field of academic rigor, but a recognized hope that helps us interpret the past and especially the present.
This may sound strange, but one thing I like about this viewpoint is that it leaves room for an element of pessimism. Consider a quote of John Calvin on Hebrew 11:1, referred to by Moltmann:
“To us is given the promise of eternal life– but to us, the dead. A blessed resurrection is proclaimed to us– meantime we are surrounded by decay. We are called righteous– and yet sin lives in us. We hear of ineffable blessedness– but mean time we are here oppressed by infinite misery. We are promised abundance of all good things–yet we are rich only in hunger and thirst. What would become of us if we did not take our stand on hope, and if our heart did not hasten beyond this world through the midst of the darkness upon the path illumined by the word and Spirit of God!”
In other words we live in a world of suffering and injustice. Pessimism, then, is in a sense justifiable, a truly realistic and appropriate viewpoint much of the time. YET… as people of faith in Christ, we also have a divine hope– a hope that starkly contrasts and contests with the world we perceive.
Moltmann also quotes J.G. Hamann rhetorical question, “Who would form proper concepts of the present without knowing the future?” The future hope doesn’t just contrast with the present… It helps us understand the present.The present, likewise, drives us to hope.As a Christian… pessimism, expecting the worst rather than the best in the present and near future, may be well-founded anecdotally– perhaps even empirically… yet it is still not fully realistic. Quoting Moltmann directly this time:
“Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’, because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught. It does not take things as they happen to stand or to lie, but as progressing, moving things with possibilities of change. Only as long as the world and the people in it are in a fragmented and experimental state which is not yet resolved, is there any sense in earthly hopes. The latter anticipate what is possible to reality, historic and moving as it is, and use their influence to decide the process of history. Thus hopes and anticipation of the future are not a transfiguring glow superimposed upon a darkened existence, but are realistic ways of perceiving the scope of our real possibilities, and as such they set everything in motion and keep it in a state of change. Hope and the kind of thinking that goes with it consequently cannot submit to the reproach of being utopian, for they do not strive after things that have ‘no place’, but after things that have ‘no place as yet’ but can acquire one. On the other hand, the celebrated realism of the stark facts, of established objects and laws, the attitude that despairs of its possibilities and clings to reality as it is, is inevitably much more open to the charge of being utopian, for in its eyes there is ‘no place’ for possibilities, for future novelty, and consequently for the historic character of reality. Thus, the despair which imagines it has reached theend of its tether proves to be illusory, as long as nothing has yet come to an end but everything is still full of possibilities. Thus positivistic realism also proves to be illusory, so long as the world is not a fixed body of facts but a network of paths and processes, so long as the world does not only run according to laws but these laws themselves are also flexible, so long as it is a realm in which necessity means the possible, but not the unalterable.”
So what does this mean to me? Pessimism can take (at least) two flavors. One flavor is despairing or nihilistic. I remember a quote from the TV Show “Late Night With David Letterman” that stated “Life is a sucking, swirling, eddy of despair, bespeckled with brief glimmers of false hope in an ever-blackening universe.” Some pessimists are disappointed when good comes… They have come to not only expect, but appreciate, bad things occurring.
But another flavor of pessimism is hopeful. Such a person recognizes the failings, the flaws of the NOW, and anticipates these flaws, these ills, are pushing the world towards more misery and pain. Yet, as a Christian one is aware that God is committed to redemption of His children and His world. This commitment gives us hope and helps us to interpret the present from a less myopic perspective. That perspective does not eradicate pessimism… we still see the institutions and powers of this world that perpetuate sin and misery. In fact, a clear-eyed recognition of the NOW can better give us the heart that makes us all the more long for God, and to pray, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
(By the way, I websearched the term “Hopeful Pessimist” and discovered that I am not alone. Perhaps I should feel good about that. Or maybe not.)