The capacity for hope is one of the marvels of human history. No matter how rocky the road, how steep the climb, or how dehumanizing the situation–humans have an uncanny ability to dream of something greater than the here and now, and believe they can, against all odds, achieve goals beyond themselves. This is a soul power that has transformed civilizations and resurrected broken people and communities throughout history. Traditionally, hope is one of three theological virtues. Along with faith and love, it has been seen as a kind of internal combustion engine fueling all the other virtues empowering humans to create their world, not just react to it. Although St. Paul considered love the greatest of these three virtues us (I Cor. 13:13), hope sustains us when faith and love seem to waver.
We have often conflated hoping and wishing in western cultures, particularly the United States. Jiminy Cricket is the icon of this conflation process. As he sang: “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you.” Jiminy, as you may recall was a talking cricket and sidekick of Pinocchio, a wooden puppet hoping to become a real boy. We can’t expect a talking cricket to appreciate the full complexities of human hopes and dreams, even if he can articulate a central mystery of life and help a friend keep motivated in the pursuit of his dreams. But, the original storyline from the 19th century Italian political activist, Carlo Collodi, lacked much of the saccharine of the Disneyfication of Pinocchio, but the role of hope, the belief in dreams, and the importance of tenacity in the face of discouragement and disillusionment is part of the author’s original allegorical tale. Collodi treats the relationship between hoping and wishing more carefully. Certainly not all of our heart desires will come to us. The wisdom of the adage: “take care of what you pray for, you might just get it,” works for hope, too.
Most humans are moved by stories of women and men pursuing a dream in the face of adversity and resistance. From Collodi’s 19th century Adventures of Pinocchio, to W. Somerset Maugham’s 1915 masterpiece novel, Of Human Bondage, to the 1993 sports flick, Rudy, to the more recent exploits of dwarves, elves and hobbits a la J.R.R. Tolkien–every few years our culture serves up fictional and nonfictional stories that allow us to cheer for the underdog, the dreamer who hopes against hope, manages to endure unbearable hardship, and rises above the Fates.
What draws us to such stories, which are often loved much less by critics than the general populace? When the heroes of the story will not give up, will not allow life to break their spirit, will not settle for a world that doesn’t measure up to their dreams of goodness, beauty, truth or some accomplishment, we connect with a part of ourselves that is waging an equally daunting challenge in our own lives. Or, perhaps we just feel that we too might have such heroism and tenacity lurking somewhere deep inside us. Maybe if circumstances ever demanded it, we could release this propensity from the dungeons our fearfulness, our lack of imagination, or our loss of trust in ourselves, others or God.
Hopeful dreamers are not stymied by the limitations trying to crush the fire in their bellies and souls. They adapt around limitations; they build a new creation from the embers of dreams broken by disappointment and discouragement. More importantly, hopeful dreamers transform into someone different through their arduous journey; they are transformed in the heat of imagination to become a harbinger of a new reality, one more in conformity with a dream than the grit and grime of daily existence.
Part of the work of theology is to explore the ground and source of our hoping and dreaming, to peel back the biological, chemical, and neurological processes in operation when we see a horizon beyond ourselves and experience the energy to cross oceans and mountains to get to it. A task of theology is get underneath these processes to the spiritual technologies of human consciousness making us nuclear reactors of hopes and dreams. Good theologians get to rappel down with students into the depths of the human consciousness, to discover the precious gems of the human soul, such as the nature and dynamics of hope in our lives.
The great abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, understood this process intimately. As she once said: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Tubman could have added, “you also have the hope within you, if you are courageous enough to connect with it.” She knew, unlike the star-wishing Jiminy, hope provides one of the fuels for drawing the world closer to a dream, rather than allowing the world to crush a dream into pie-in-the-sky musings. We can’t expect the heights of human wisdom from a talking cricket, but we can from those tempered in the hard work of theological inquiry.
Many are surprised to learn that theology is not just about teaching dusty prepositional statements about faith that have been made by other believers in different times of history. They are surprised to discover that theological exploration is also about helping a student awaken his or her soul to the capacity of hope. Many are also shocked to learn it is about assisting the student in going beyond hope to a lifelong commitment of the energies of the heart, mind, and will to the foolishness of chasing a dream truly worthy of the imagination of a child of God.
Hope is so important because without it we are left with a stifling, pallid grayness, an absence of much of the excitement and joy making life an adventure, and calling forth from our depths one of life’s greatest joys – the discovery, identification and embrace of a personal vocation and mission. Hope is, in fact, one of the seeds of a new creation. When it takes root inside of us, all kinds of remarkable things can happen.
Through next month’s Search for Meaning Book Festival, we will celebrate hope with many of the festival’s authors, and particularly through the work of the keynote presenters. Two remarkable women, both Pulitzer-prize winners, will grace the dais this year. Both have explored the nature, texture and terrain of human hope, and they have explored this terrain in places that seem to leave little room for luxury of imagining a world different than the one given to you.
The morning keynoter, Katherine Boo, in her book, Behind Beautiful Forevers, notes that a young boy with no education, living in one of the worst slums on the planet, and wanted for attempted murder still believed in his ability to overcome the challenges facing him and his family. He believed, she said, that his own dreams “properly aligned to his capacities.” In fact they did not.
Some of the greatest dreams achieved in our world did not align to the original capacities of the dreamer. It takes hope to transform us into something more than we once were. One of the marvels of Boo’s book is that it explains the workings of hope in a community of people in a hellish neighborhood on the outskirts of the thriving Indian city of Mumbai. At times it seems the community also lives on the outskirts of hope itself. However, as her book demonstrates for us: the worst of this world’s poverty and marginalization cannot extinguish our capacity for hope and dreams. Little wonder Boo has been compared to Charles Dickens.
Also at the festival, as an afternoon keynote, Isabel Wilkerson will recount the force of hope that animated an enormous African-American population between 1915 and 1970. As she notes in her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, six million African-Americans migrated from the south to northern and western cities during this period, driven by the hope of finding a better life for themselves and their loved ones. The siren call of hope beckoning them to a distant land in search of a better life left an indelible mark on the entire culture of the United States. Hope always leaves a wake. It dashes over those not sharing in a dream, as well as those who do.
You will see other signs of hope in this e-newsletter. This has been the Week for the Prayer of Christian Unity, an annual pilgrimage of the spirit in Christianity, reminding all Christians that we have yet to begin to realize the promise of unity Jesus called his followers to recognize, claim and express in their life of faith and action. Given the divided history of Christianity, this ecumenical instinct is first and foremost an expression of hope, as is the announcement of upcoming Interfaith Harmony Week celebrations at the school.
You will also note that Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry has received two Lilly Endowment, Inc. grants–one designed to create programming so young pastors can learn how to become leaders in church and society, much as the recently honored Martin Luther King, Jr., learned to do in Montgomery, Alabama, as he stoked the fires of the Civil Rights Movement. The second grant is to develop new models for keeping seminary student debt more manageable for future religious leaders. Both grants are investments in the hope of creating something new for the role of religion in society.
The School of Theology and Ministry is one of only a few seminaries in North America invited to participate in these grants. Lilly has recognized for many years that the school, and the broader university, is a seedbed of hope for a different church and a different world.
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” goes the famous quote from poet Alexander Pope. And, so it does. But, many do not know this full passage from the famous work An Essay on Man.
“The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.”
It is the life to come that beckons to the human (and Divine) power of hope. As we enter into the deep stillness of the winter months, may we nurture the hope within us and wait patiently as it calls forth from us some of the best qualities of the human soul.