The Hopeful Pessimist

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.Mud Splat.jpg

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.)

Moltmann Quote: Passive Conformity

“Those who are experiencing this crisis” (crisis regarding the identity and purpose of the church in the ‘modern’ age) “tend to divide into two groups.

The one group would like to see the church become more modern, involved, contemporary and relevant. Since politics determines man’s destiny, they are demanding the church’s radical political involvement in the vital contemporary problems confronting their country and divided mankind. They look at the church as a political avant-garde on the road to justice and freedom in a world of conflicting interests and struggles for power. For them the ideal church is a moral vanguard of a better world.

The other group maintains that a church which is socially-oriented, politically up to date and relevant is bound to lose its proper identity, its Christian proprium. They are at a loss to recognize the church of their fathers; in a church which, for example, considers itself a sociotherapeutic institution. They too are aware that the number of those who still hold to the church is steadily declining. But they do not blame themselves or the church; rather they panic and extol their small number as the remnant of God’s faithful during the final apostasy of mankind at the end of time. They retreat inwards into themselves and other likeminded circles where they can support each other. They make a virtue out of their necessity and change into a sect. Compared with active conformity to the modern world this is nothing but passive conformity. In confrontation with the ‘flood of unbelief’, which they bemoan, their own faith shrinks into little faith. They have lost confidence in him whom they believe. They fight for pope and church or Bible and confession. They want no ‘experiments’, no new experiences, and no dialogue with non-Christians. They are most adamant in their hostility towards those who share with them the experience of threatened identity and have chosen to act otherwise. The ghetto mentality continues to grow. Under the impact of the self-imposed retreat of the orthodox and the self-chosen challenges of the assimilators the self-confidence of the church is falling apart. The question of the church’s purpose elicits a confusing variety of answers depending on the respective needs, but there is no longer a single, clear, and necessary answer.        –Jurgen Moltmann “Theology of Joy,” SCM Press, 1973, pg 76-77.

I was brought up in a Christian environment that tended towards the Separatist tradition. There is a place for that. During the time of King Ahab and Elijah, 7000 were hidden away to preserve God’s message and work for a time when they can come back out and interact and transform the world around them. The C6 (hidden) Christans in hostile communities have their place… at least as a transitional phenomenon. However, a condition of self-imposed ghettoization should not become a long-standing activity or a virture. Although it may be incorrect to confuse the Church with the Kingdom of God, the two clearly interrelate. The Kingdom of God is to be as live yeast that may seem insignificant at first, but will transform the dough. It is to be as a mustard seed that is forgettable of itself, but is full of life and will grow and become impossible to ignore. The church (and Christians) are to be salt and light in this world.

Perhaps Moltmann is correct… churches (and members) that focus on protecting and hiding themselves from the world rather than interacting and changing the world, are guilty of passively conforming to the world they are defending themselves from.