Leading Causes of Life: Christian Hope
When a colleague at the Divinity School asked me to write on the topic of Christian hope as a further exploration of Gary Gunderson's Leading Causes of Life, my thoughts quickly turned to Dusty Springfield, the British pop singer from the 1960’s (confession: I am a card-carrying Boomer). Dusty’s 1964 hit “Wishing and Hoping” stands as one of the great, pre-feminist, yearning anthems of the decade. Here’s how it begins:
Wishing and hoping and
thinking and praying,
planning and dreaming
each night of his charms –
that won’t get you into his arms . . .
Pop artists serve as helpful markers of cultural assumptions, and Dusty’s coupling of wishing and hoping as synonymous provides a useful starting point for theological reflection. Some Christians think of hope as culminating in the attainment of a personal goal or in the fulfillment of desire: I hope to get that job I applied for last week. I hope it doesn’t rain the day of the school picnic. This is the Springfield Conflation: wishing and hoping conceived as one and the same.
There’s nothing selfish in hoping that a new job comes through or that the weather proves cooperative. Hope for these positive outcomes translates into benefits that extend well beyond me to the larger communities to which I belong: this hope has an altruistic component. But it is not distinctively Christian hope, is it? A Druid could hope for the same things on her way to prayer at the maple tree in the town square.
Christian hope is lodged not in the fulfillment of my wishes, but in the identity of the One who is my hope, Jesus the Christ, crucified and risen. Christian hope is the conviction that the glory glimpsed in Jesus’ ministry – healing, feeding the hungry, uplifting the downtrodden, welcoming the least, raising the dead, naming and disarming the demons – will, in God’s time, become the rule of this world. Hope transcends the power of my imagination and the capacity of my wishing. Christian hope is for the mind and heart of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, to become the dwelling place of humankind.
The cultural coupling of wishing and hoping sows the seeds for sad distortions of faith, one of them being the prosperity gospel. With no transcendent referent for my hope – the crucified and risen One – I may begin to see God as the cosmic ATM, existing to ratify my wishes. To use the turn of phrase common in such belief, all I need do is 'name it and claim it': my wish becomes God’s command. But my wishes are always tainted by my sinfulness, aren’t they? God only knows – literally – what dangers could lurk in my wishes becoming reality. Christian hope needs to begin elsewhere. Mary Magdalene wished to see a tomb, but instead discovered resurrection and preached the first Christian sermon, “I have seen the Lord.” She inaugurated the church’s hope.
Russell Conwell (1843-1925) an American Baptist pastor and the first President of Temple University, delivered his speech, “Acres of Diamonds” more than five thousand times. Its theme was simple. There are diamonds buried all around you. All you need are your shovel and energy, and your wishes can come true. When they don’t, the failure lies in you. That sort of thinking, still strong in American culture, sets folk up for anger, resentment, frustration, or worse. It’s unhealthy, pure and simple. Christian hope, on the other hand, is not dependent upon my efforts, but upon the faithfulness of the One who named me the day I was baptized. Those healed by his touch were not rewarded for their efforts, but made whole by the Incarnation. In the New Jerusalem, John writes in Revelation, stands the tree of life, its leaves “for the healing of the nations.”
Now there’s a vision worth hoping for.
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity