We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. (King 1968)
Martin Luther King Jr likely never imagined that his hope-filled claim concerning the coming of justice ever could become a point of theological controversy. Not only has his idea of human “overcoming” come under attack, but also his understanding of how a future, abstract vision of justice is enough to sustain such a hope of beating-back today's innumerable injustices. Such attacks have come despite – or alternatively viewed, precisely because of – the much debated world-wide “return of religion” we are witnessing today, especially within Charismatic communities, and especially among the demographic of the poor or disenfranchised outside the Global North. The hopeful, social theology of MLK indeed is a riff that can be found in the rhythms of the eschatologies of exactly these communities; namely, because they rely upon a long moral arc that must be awaited for patiently, even amidst the difficulties of the present.
Some have interpreted that these disenfranchised communities have relied upon an eschatological vision that may serve more to tighten their binds than to break them. At the risk of oversimplification, proponents of “deprivation theory” in sociology of religion (Hunt 2010) have explained the return of religion and the persistent growth of Charismatic faith among disenfranchised communities in such terms. Without going so far as to outright criticize these communities as only pursuing religiosity because of economic deprivation alone, the landmark work that paved the way for deprivation theory portrayed how the beginning of the Charismatic movement was thoroughly contextualized in poverty, as demonstrated in the biographies of over 40 Pentecostal preachers who were poor, deprived of social goods, and under-educated (Anderson 1979, 108). The argument was that the Charismatic movement was growing because it offered an alternative for oppressed persons from “passive acquiescence to a world they hated and wished to escape.” (Anderson 1979, 222) This conclusion then snowballed into the view that those deprived of certain social goods have shaped their interests around eschatologies of the hoped-for coming kingdom(s) of God in a way that overshadows their needs in the present. Although there are parallels that can be drawn between the modern critiques of religion as an opiate or placebo for fulfillment (via the so-called “masters of suspicion”, e.g. Marx, Freud), deprivation theory should not go so far as to draw causal conclusions that these communities’ hold to the eschatologies they do because they are poor.
To make that next, problematic step of analysis would be to think that these persons become trapped in their own hope, thus only reinforcing their oppression, keeping them trapped in a state of deprivation (Hunt 2010). Thus some have determined that deprivation is not the primary reason for the growth of the Charismatic return of religion (Gerlach and Hine 1969). Instead of a macro social analysis, the focus should be on the subjective experiences and human desires at work in the complex motivations of hoping (Wacker 1982), which reflects the basic and universal “spiritual needs” (Bradfield 1979) of humans as an expression of an “earnest religious quest among the masses” no matter their economic status (Miller 1996, 114, Hunt 2010). Proponents of deprivation theory, in a nutshell, should take care not to leverage the eschatologies of certain Christian communities against them. Although we should take the facts seriously – that some live under much more socially dysfunctional aspects of social disorganization, economic deprivation, and psychological tragedy than others – it would be a vast underestimation of these people to draw the conclusion that they are victims of their own hope because their eschatologies share features with the “indubitably tragic” optimism of the Global North (Eagleton 2015).1
De La Torre's recently expressed concerns about hope in Embracing Hopelessness may not be so bold as to employ such a Eurocentric critique of the disinherited and their chosen eschatologies of hope. Yet it must be clarified that we cannot over-interpret “from above” the supposed disparity and impoverishment of those suffering “down below”, for that would be a Western “scientific” gesture. De La Torre offers a number of fascinating points in need of careful consideration; namely in the critique of Western optimism and how we “on the outside” over-interpret hope in the eyes of the disenfranchised in order to absolve ourselves from helping them. The important concern here is that “hope” has been used as a “middle-class privilege” to ameliorate or sooth “the conscience of those complicit with oppressive structures, lulling them to do nothing except look forward to a salvific future where every wrong will be righted.” (De La Torre 2017, 5) This should lead us to accept a kind of hopelessness but not despair. Hopelessness can be effective in the fight for justice in the present.
Although this critique of Christian postmillenialism is aimed at the middle-class purveyors of Eurocentricism, the critique runs the risk of falling not on the shoulders of the colonizers, but those under-privileged persons who hold to such theological positions, especially among the growing, world-wide Charismatic movements in developing countries. More should be said about how hopelessness in this life might not be at odds with hope in an afterlife.2 Not unproblematically, this is what drove Moltmann’s theory of hope as a way to renarrate, in hindsight, the atrocities of human suffering. De La Torre is right that hope has been used instrumentally to maintain power over others, and that hope has become a secularized Heilsgeschichte of human enlightenment progress. Read as a work of theodicy, of coping with suffering, or of critique of Eurocentric colonial thinking, this is an important book. Yet it could be misunderstood as a critique of the dominant eschatological position of precisely those persons trapped in socio-political marginalization, thereby making that interpretive leap from deprivation theory to placebo theory. This is why it is even more important to point out that the necesity of being liberated from how the English word “hope” has become synonymous with “optimism” about humans as autonomous agents bringing about the moral arc that supposedly ever-bends toward justice. Instead of swinging too far in the direction of hope’s polar opposite, “despair”, De La Torre calls for the embrace of “desperation” to bring about social goods for the disenfranchised. The Spanish esperanza (usually translated as “hope”) demonstrates more accurately the theological disposition of waiting (as it is based in “esperal”, or “to wait”), and “the Latin root for desperate suggests hopelessness that leads to action” (De La Torre 2017, 140). This kind of hope “cannot be imposed,” yet it is an “antidote for the privileged.” (De La Torre 2017, 155) Hoping is waiting with desperation.
Without disregarding the many important interpretations of hope (e.g. is it simply a virtue that necessitates a connection with Divine teleology? Is it a complex network of the many tensions of otherness/sameness, vulnerability/confidence, action/waiting?), it is helpful to recognize that critiquing the idea of hope is not incredibly novel. These critiques range from the classical, Hellenistic approach (Plato, Aristotle) that hope cocoons humans from the harsh realities of this world thereby preventing them from honest critical thinking, to the later German idealistic claim that hope is a political tool to maintain order over “the mass” (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche).3 More recently, and from an analytic philosophy and intersectional feminist perspective, Katie Stockdale argues for how hope indeed needs to be understood within the specific context of hope's important obstacles; namely oppression. On the one hand, oppression is always “a threat to hope” (Stockdale 2021, 23), while on the other, hope is a threat to the oppressed because many of their hopes go “unrealized.” (Stockdale 2021, 82) Stockdale's response to this double-bind is that hope can only be sustained by “an explicit or implicit recognition of the limitations of one’s own agency in bringing about the hoped-for end.” (Stockdale 2021, 19) She helps us recognize that even repeated experiences of the failures of hope can indeed create more hope, as even the moral emotion of “anger” of a failed hope can be productive, as it “often indicates the presences of a hope for repair.” (Stockdale 2021, 82) The true dialectical “other” of hope, then, would seem not to be despair, but rather instead a “bitterness” that is “damaging because it leads to despair and inaction.” (Stockdale 2021, 116). Bitterness develops over time.
It is on this point of despair, desperation, or oppression that the topic of how one’s hope can stand the test of time and endure the threats of bitterness becomes essential. The element of time-duration and “waiting” in hope – how we wait with a virtuous posture – is in need of being more carefully investigated. It is necessary to have both a realistic hope that takes seriously the facts of the disenfranchised on the one hand, and an eschatology of the good that does not lead to bitterness, on the other. This paper investigates the question: how might we inspire waiting and what might encourage a realistic hopefulness and a healthy desperation without falling into despair? To answer that question, the paper develops three arguments: 1) Patience is a primary lynchpin to being able to endure suffering and to have realistic hope; 2) Patience is not what we tend to think it is: patience is not simply an optimistic stoicism, or “calm” and detached naiveté, but rather the gritty, stubborn, desperate, and tenacious refusal to have a commitment to a certain, future good conquered; and 3) To attain and keep this kind of patience (again, without becoming bitter or falling into blind optimism), a number of activities are necessary: the “fearful” imagination of the end of time, the forgetting of certain past experiences, and the joyful anticipation of what is not under our control. Overall, these three arguments help depict the significance of a “desperate patience” that is not blind or abstract, but rather habitual and ethical.4 The word “desperate” here is used intentionally. Although despair and desperation share the same etymology, recognizing their differences is essential: despair can debilitate us from further hope, while desperation and the state of being desperate entails a recognition of the dark realities of the world, and how one still yearns for something beyond them. While despair might lead us to descend into lacking motivation, desperation opens onto faithful action.
The temporal character of hope, or the way in which one can actually experience a realistic hope worth having, is “patience,” or the long-suffering and perseverance of going about the duration of time in a way that is particularly and peculiarly unstrained. Recent theories have described patience as an “openness” or “awaiting-enduring” that is “precisely in opposition to my actively assuming control of the situation.” (Steinbock 2014, 175) Seeking total control is an expression of impatience, which rivets one to the present and can only end in frustration, displaying our “inability to accept friction in the meeting of … desires.” (Kupfer 2007, 268) The differences between impatience and patience may be at times actually difficult to discern: sometimes what looks like patience may, on the surface (Pianalto 2016, 108) be a non-virtuous waiting that is bent towards destructive ends, and therefore is a manifestation of impatience or even sloth. However, the two can be distinguished, especially in how the patient person struggles against her own burdens in order to help bring about a certain good that does not harm another person. Impatience disconnects us from our teleological orientation towards the good, and binds us to our own particular demands in a particular moment, thus having the unfortunate effect of isolating us from others as well (Kelly 2020, 96).
Further, it is a matter of anticipation whereby one intends something imaginatively and ushers its effects to liberate the present. Patience thus calls for an “attentive receptivity” (Nietzsche, cf. Pianalto 2016, 7), or way of “lingering with the particular” (Adorno, cf. Pianalto 2016, 17–18). The person who is patient has come to accept both unavoidable and avoidable burdens because doing so would be wise in both the present and the future (Pianalto 2016, 51–54), helping these persons maintain “a clear view of his or her ideals and commitments, and to implement them” (Pianalto 2016, 15–16). Although typical western understandings of patience conceive it only as a virtue, and emphasize how it sutures us to the roles of “the present” (Kelly 2020), usually patient persons have developed a disposition that makes the delay of their present gratifications seem easy because of a certain vision of the future. Patience also often gets misunderstood with “calm”, which could simply be the expression of someone who does not have strong desires towards the future, or does not care enough or strongly about achieving certain aims (Kupfer 2007, 266).
And finally, while many are correct to believe that patience is more than simply waiting, some perhaps presume too much about the patient person, suggesting that they necessarily wait with a stoic, saint-like avoidance of “agitation” (Kupfer 2007, 265) not lapsing into anger or despair. Similarly, many presume the patient person to hold a Zen-like calm or superhuman self-control in a presently challenging moment. However, this misunderstanding may be due to overlooking the difference between “a type of patience in doing ... and a type of patience in waiting.” (Kelly 2020, 93; Pianalto 2016) Recalling Stockdale’s claim that hope can at times be expressed in anger, it seems that the patient person also has the right to suffer, decry injustice, or be agitated while simultaneously maintaining a patient posture. This is because the patient person does not entirely escape her present: the preservation of patience is held not simply through a future-focused escapism or nihilism, but rather the commitment in the present to realizing or helping bring about a particular future good. Patience is not a mere disposition. Patience can be engrained within our dispositions, activities, and (at times all-too-human) emotions.
These different reflections help demonstrate how patience and hope are sutured to one another. Without at least some level of a “patient” way of going about time, one might quickly fall into despair. In a nutshell, this is because, “the patient person can experience time differently than the person without patience” (Kelly 2020, 93), as patience helps liberate us from the shackles of the difficulties of the present.
Before engaging some recent phenomenological reflections relevant to how we might better take on a habitus of desperate patience, it is necessary first to consider the theology of patience, which serves to show how a person’s eschatological beliefs play an important role.
Patience should in most respects perhaps be understood more of an eschatological product than a mere outcome of specific moral actions meant to produce virtue. One reason is because eschatology concerns a certain temporal relation with ultimate reality, one qualified by the degree to which one’s expectation-horizon and beliefs about both the end of one’s life and the end of humankind are contextualized within beliefs about God’s teleological aims for humans. This future orientation aids to shift human consciousness away from the typical chronologies that entrap them. Here we acknowledge the paradox of being towards death (Heidegger’s Das Sein zum Tode): the more we live with death’s reality, the more we fully live; the more we can take on a certain “death time consciousness”, the less we spend our energies on trying not to die, and merely survive. Instead of fearing time and the demands it places upon us, we live according to the reality of our inevitable, pending death so that time itself can die – or, at the very least, so that “our present time” might become less important to us.
This view is inspired by Christian eschatological visions that call for an imagination of the end. It is necessary to develop a vision of the end of time in order to access “two major aspects to the Christian hope: the return of Christ and the final resurrection.” (Yong 2014, 33). The details of how theologians approach these two aspects of hope of course vary, especially in terms of the difference between the now and the new. The balancing-act between the former, “historical eschatology (the return of Christ and the millennial reign of God)” and the latter, “final-state eschatology (what happens after death and after the end of this world)” (Yong 2014, 33) help teach us that hope is not merely a theological problem, but one that concerns anyone who makes plans for any specific future whatsoever. Plans require resolve and responsible steadfastness in the present. And once this present is laced with a view of “eternality,” which expands the present horizon, belief in an historical unveiling or apocalypse of truth (Pannenberg) can create a certain grit and resolve in the present. One unique characteristic of Christian eschatology is how it envisions liberation through Christ: “Christian prayer and meditation” are “designed to nurture, not dampen or squash, the longing for reunion with Christ and union with the triune God through the eternal Spirit.” (Yong 2014, 43)5 Expressions of Hebrew-Christian faith understand hope concretely in the now, but not-yet kingdom of God (Ladd 1990, 3).
So what, then, does patience have to do with this projection or imagination of being-towards-death, and this hopeful eschatological vision? One way to answer that question is to look first at how the early church – persecuted, subjected to new inventions of death, forced to live with travesty – was absolutely obsessed with the topic of patience. This obsession with patience placed it over and beyond other virtues or values we deem central to the Christian habitus today, such as love, wisdom, or piety.6 Writers of the early church (100–300 AD) praised patience the “highest virtue” that was “peculiarly Christian.” (Kreider 2016, 2) However, this would have been seen, at that cultural moment, as rather peculiar. Indeed, “patience was not a virtue dear to most Greco-Roman people ... but it was centrally important to the early Christians ... it was the first virtue about which they wrote a treatise ...”. (Kreider 2016, 1) Although on occasion Greco-Roman society would refer to patience as an attitude of endurance or “gritty resolve”, most of the time patentia referred to “subordinates and victims” who were powerless, enslaved, in poverty, deprived, or under oppression. At that time, “patience was the response of people who didn’t have the freedom to define their own goals or make choices.” (Kreider 2016, 20) This makes these Christians' praising of patience all the more peculiar. Instead of embracing hopelessness, these persons acted in ways that may seem to us today to be contradictory: They “trust God and do not try to manipulate outcomes” while they simultaneously “live incautiously, riskily.” (Kreider 2016, 35)
It is not by accident therefore, that the topic on which Tertullian chose to pen his first essay was patience. Irrespective of social status, he even boldly claimed that for all Christians patience is not only “the highest virtue”, (Tertullian 1959, 194) but also deserving of “pre-eminence in matters pertaining to God.” (Tertullian 1959, 193) Having written this treatise around the time when the North African Christians were persecuted in the Carthage amphitheater, Tertullian had many reasons to call upon Christians to impatiently take up arms. Instead, he triumphs in the imitation of God, who is the most patient. For “patience is the very nature of God” (Tertullian 1959, 197), and God uses patience to remain hopeful – “by his patience he hopes to draw them to himself.” (Tertullian 1959, 195) Tertullian teaches that Christians can attain this patience, and overcome the “lonesomeness” of death because of a gritty tenacity rooted in hope: “If we believe in the resurrection of Christ we believe in our own, also, since it was for us that he died and rose again.” (Tertullian 1959, 209). Tertullian interprets, in contrast, that “impatience is hopeless.” (Kreider 2016, 23)
Cyprian likewise praised patience for how it helps ward off the desire for revenge against persecutors. Patience helps keep those believers in the middle of crises to remain “in the way of Christ” (Cyprian 195, 283). Further, patience “fortifies the foundation of our faith. It is this patience which sublimely promotes the growth of hope.” (Cyprian 1958, 283) Patience helps keep hope rooted in reality. And this may be one essential reason why the early church (100–300 AD) grew in great numbers in the Roman Empire. Instead of simply touting their victimhood, suffering, or “admiral death” in glories of martyrdom, the early Christian's successful expansion came through establishing a habitus or “ferment of suffering” as a suffering-through or “long-suffering.” (Kreider 2016) These early Christians were much less interested than we might think in developing a “winning politic” or in establishing their new movement as a State religion.
So what was it about patience that allowed them to have this kind of success? As Kreider argues, such success came by way of creating a new, unprecedented sense of “space and time” because of three key activities. They developed a persistent focus: on the virtue of patience, (ὑπομονή), on establishing communities that practiced “rehabituation” leading to virtues of especially patience, and on teaching young believers the catechesis and transmitting it to new believers. The Early Church did not focus on "saving others" but rather on exemplifying this new habitus of patience by loving their enemies as opposed to having an attitude of revenge upon them.7 Justin was entirely convinced that such a “strange patience” (hypomonen xenen) of the Christians was precisely what was leading others to the faith (Justin 1953, 252).8 Kreider even goes so far as to argue that the downfall of the church began when its focus on patience was compromised; a compromise traced back to its official negotiations with the Constantinian empire. Even Augustine failed this important tradition of patience when he preached “a gospel in which impatient, forceful actions—animated of course by loving intentions—replaced patient actions.” (Kreider 2016, 294). With the decline of patience, came the decline of hope, and the inevitable rise of justifying war and Christian empire and crusade (Kreider 2016, 296). It should be clear by now why the theology of patience is today more than relevant in thinking about hope.
To the early church, hope only in the present age would have not made any sense. The livelihood of participants in the early church demonstrated instead a “combination of relaxation and urgency” that fused the past to the future (Lindbeck 2002, 82). Yet this raises the question: is hope even possible for those persons without an explicit Christian eschatology? Through living with the tensions between amor mundi (Arendt) and the development of a realistic fear of our possible, impending doom (Anders), hope can be transformative for anyone. It is this latter point of developing fear that this section would like to consider more carefully, especially in terms of how the realities of time get ignored due to the fatalism inherent within much of our contemporary forms of optimistic hope. It certainly is tragic that humans can stand “even in a situation of utter hopelessness” and still be “incapable of losing hope” as “incurably optimistic ideologists.” (Anders 2014) Perhaps this misplaced optimism is rooted in an “apocalyptic blindness” (Anders 2014) whereby we have lost our imagination of the end of time or our coming death.
Modern Theologians far too often have fallen into the trap of “Scheler’s Dictum” for their cultural and political optimisms whereby they “believe in the existence of God but not the Devil.” (Anders 2002, 407) Ernst Käsemann sought to counteract this and to tarry with the “negative” through the realism and Marxism of dialectical theology. He criticized his more “hermeneutic” contemporaries (e.g., Bultmann) for their lack of polemical concern, and their attempts to purge Christian apocalypticism (of punishment for sin via justice) from eschatology (Käsemann 1960, 162–164). St Paul’s reference to the Day of Judgement, according to Käsemann, is cosmologically apocalyptic, not simply “forensic-eschatological”, as Bultmann believed.9 For Käsemann, it is an apocalyptic vision of the end of the time that moves “the engine of Paul’s entire theological vision” (Davis, Harink 2012, 42). Yet how might one live in relation to this end of time?
Developing an apocalypticism similar to Käsemann, yet in a Secular key, Günther Anders was convinced that humans have developed an “apocalyptic blindness” in our Atomic Age. Promethean shame (the feeling of being belittled by what we, ourselves, have created) is one root of this blindness. As we suppress the fear of our creations, an entirely unrealistic optimism about our own development becomes the norm, leading us to mistakenly interpret our technological innovation falsely as the very advancement of humans. We therefore have become characterized by the “inability to fear.” (Anders 1972, 257) Paradoxically however, a certain kind of fear is precisely what we need. Fear is the key to our liberation, one that “corresponds to the magnitude of the apocalyptic danger” we might face (Anders 1961, 14). Such blindness is further supplemented by our modern obsession with an endless Fortschrittsglaube, or “belief-in-progress” (Anders 1980, 268) to the point that “man believes in no end, man sees no end.” (Anders 1961, 271) Without fear, and blinded by optimism, we of course cannot see “objectively” the sentient threats that would bring about our own deaths.
The critique does not stop there: This modern, enlightenment narrative of progress has become intertwined with a pantheistic Monism, or “pan-atheism” that baptizes all progress as not only human, but entirely “natural.” Progress and God's blessing within the absolute will of the universe towards “the good,” has become a secularization of eschatological hope that represents “automatically the movement of optimism of our age: the concept of development is integrated within our concept of nature.” (Anders 1980, 310)10 This vision is entirely contrary to the theory of nature most broadly accepted by scientists – the theory of degradation, which insists that over the course of time objects and resources do not increase in quality, but rather necessarily deteriorate. It therefore is a rather peculiar theological invention to believe nature and humankind are ever-increasing in quality. What we are left with is an optimism void of attachment to both 1) an explicit or intentional theological tradition, and 2) a scientifically-sound reality of nature. This optimism ultimately and paradoxically makes a nihilistic turn, as we become willingly blind to the degradation that surrounds us. We have become “inverted Utopians.” (Anders 1980) Traditionally utopians begin with a vision of the world, and unfortunately are incapable of producing it in reality. Yet in the modern period, we are incessantly productive and industrial, yet without an adequate vision for understanding the consequences of what we are producing.
Fortunately, for Anders there is something that can be done about this. There are productive ways to imagine the end of time without being “annihilistic” optimists or inverted utopians. Against common intuition, the first thing to do is “increase your capacity to fear” (Anders 1980, 13). Concretely viewed, we need to project into the future what seems most likely to occur based upon what we are doing with our time. We need to investigate our lives, and imagine what kind of impacts our actions quite possibly (negatively) can have over time. Only the person who can “visualize the effect of his doings ... has the chance of truth,” (Anders 2014, 499) and the truth about the end of time actually might supply us with unstoppable freedom that expands our sense of time. Our practical imagination of the end of time is actually an “immanent transcendence” not one that imagines “hopefully” the best within humans, but rather how we constantly are teetering on a “falling slope” (das Gefälle) of danger. Imagining the end of time goes hand in hand with an imagination or enlightenment of a different kind: the “enlightening of our defects” and fallenness. (Anders 1980, 277) Perhaps Anders’ approach truly is an “apocalypse without a kingdom” (Moltmann 2004, 217). Nevertheless, if embraced as one step in the process of gaining a realistic hope, the critiques of blind optimism and the imagination of the end of time provides us with some indispensable tools in developing a desperate patience.
“Be patient!” is a command we all have heard frequently in our lives. Yet how does one actually do that? Is it merely a virtue towards which one strives as an ideal? Does it simply construct or frame a pre-given and cultural disposition of dealing with time? One philosophical movement in recent years that provides a deeper way to think about time, and the way consciousness structures it diversely (as actions play out in time, given the parameters of time as a part of the a priori “furniture” in the mind, how time is relative according to that about which one is conscious) is in recent phenomenological theology. This movement is heavily influenced by an understanding of time that prioritizes possibility over actuality, and the future over the present, precisely because everything we do in the present is teleologically oriented in a hoped-for future. Two approaches to how we relate with time-consciousness from within this movement are highly relevant to how we orient ourselves towards patience; namely, by actively forgetting and anticipating.
In order to anticipate a future (and to patiently wait for it) it also is necessary to develop a particular orientation towards one's past. A realistic hoping can contextualize the past, not by being ignorant to it, but by focusing on certain things in the future by intentionally forgetting what might disable us. Of course, any mention of intentionally forgetting something automatically raises concerns of escapism and the nihilism Anders abhorred. However, forgetting is "not the opposite of recollecting but of hoping … to forget is to blot out” certain past experiences that trap us from being able to anticipate appropriately, and therefore to also be properly calibrated within the present. (Chrétien 1991, 34) Forgetting is not the kenotic emptying out of memory, but a productive and positive loosening of the conscious grip on "the remembered" so that the past does not dictate the terms of the future, or our beliefs about what could happen. Contrary to how we prioritize memory and memorialization, it also is possible to see how what we remember can exact a certain tyranny over our lives. Memory can underwrite ignorance to the point that we cannot imagine a future otherwise. Forgetting therefore can open us up to new experiences.
Such concerns are what led Jean-Louis Chrétien to develop the topic of “unhoping,” or letting go of any supposed control over that which one hopes. He called for attention to be placed instead on the person upon whom our hope relies: “One must not for a single moment lose sight of the fact that biblical hope, just like faith, is a personal link with the personal God.” (Chrétien 2015, 78) Given this inter-relational link, hope is not always within our individual, subjective control. Instead, hope often provides for us precisely what we do not hope for, or ever could have imagined hoping. Un-hoping is the act whereby we choose to forget something in order to break spells of ignorance and “acquired dispositions”. Un-hoping helps us come to terms with our optimism, and all of the “good things” we think we deserve (in some distant or near future). Un-hoping therefore helps us learn to place our hope in persons, not things.11 Eschatologically conceived, after all, it is a future “with God” in which Christian hope traditionally has been rooted. This is a much more powerful, realistic, and fulfilling “hope.” Therefore, one practical way to practice patience is, from time to time, to actively forget the “content” of one’s hope.
Another practical way to practice patience is through a particular way of anticipating the future. Anticipation has been described as a “pre-givenness” (Lacoste 2018, 112) whereby we experience in the present something to come. This pre-givenness serves to make the present experience coherent with what could arrive or occur. Anticipation follows from our desires, however when one is oriented rightly towards the anticipated, it will furnish not a singular vision, but an “irreducible plurality” (Lacoste 2018, 113) of that phenomenal experience, each and every time it is experienced, thus not fulfilling our desires directly. This variety or plurality keeps that in which one hopes novel. We anticipate because everything we experience (even everything we anticipate) bears the utter impossibility of repetition.
Not unlike Chrétien, Jean-Yves Lacoste attends also to the necessity of how we must consistently frustrate our hopes, especially in order to anticipate rightly. Anticipation of a hope demands both ambiguity, and leaving space for God to surprise us and fulfill us. Indeed, from an eschatological point of view, “we cannot rationally conceive an experience ... with no frontier of inexperience” as we know so little of the glory of God. (Lacoste 2018, 118) This “black hole” of experience helps make room for new, surprising possibilities.
However, anticipation of a hoped-for future, and awaiting it patiently does not necessitate that one lives in the “not yet” at the expense of “the now.” Anticipation, in fact, helps us enjoy the present even more. Enjoyment helps us build walls to being overly focused in the future, as “enjoyment absorbs us completely.” (Lacoste 2018, 122) Without enjoyment in the present, and at least some rudimentary belief in a good future, we remain trapped in optimism again, and “without the pretense of a fulfillment.” (Lacoste 2018, 133) Finding joy, even in present suffering (Romans 5) may develop a patient posture towards the future without falling into the nihilistic escapism Anders warns us about. One might truly find joy in opening the future to a diverse array of good possibilities without having full control over what that future might look like. And this can help sustain patience and ultimately hope. This lack or deficiency of a specific futurity is not a deficiency of anticipation, but precisely the opposite – a hopeful, clarion to attention to “who” is making the promise, the “promise that draws us on to further experience.” (Lacoste 2018, 133)12
Theological investigations into Christian patience usually first turn to chapter 5:1–5 of Paul's letter to the Romans.13 However, many interpretations of this passage often overlook some of its most important claims. By reading this passage backwards, we might better understand what makes the role of patience in achieving hope so important: The (gift of the) Holy Spirit has poured God's love into human hearts, a love that should help us never believe it is shameful to hope. Hope is created by good character, which comes through patient endurance. Patience can be achieved through suffering, which is something in which we can rejoice. And this hope is in the promised future experience of the glory of God, in part due to the justification by faith in the grace of Christ.
Three fundamental things stand out here in this passage that often do not get enough attention, and are directly relevant to thinking about “desperate patience”: 1) patience does not come about through blessing and a good life, but through perseverance through difficulties; 2) persons can be patient not because of highly specific details about the future, but rather because of the fundamental experience with what they believe to be a loving God who wants to be with them; and 3) hope is not merely a product of an abstract, cognitive acceptance of certain presuppositions, but rather a disposition one gains through the habitus of becoming patient. This all is rather consistent with St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians who also are encouraged to adopt “the right attitude toward the world’s end” (Mirela Oliva 2021). Such an attitude involves patient, sober, and lucid anticipation of the παρουσία or return of the Christ (parousia). The Romans and Thessalonians both are encouraged to embody a certain disposition of waiting. Waiting is necessary in order to sustain this hope.
Yet hope is precarious and vulnerable. In order for hope to remain, one must have a dynamic way of both imagining the positive content of a supposed future, and acknowledging its uncertainty. (Newheiser 2020) Our vision of the future therefore must undergo constant deconstruction, even if ones faith in a particularly good outcome is producing patience and abiding by the promises in which one believes. In other words, it is only through a spirit of a affirmation that it becomes necessary and desirable to clarify, over and again the dynamic and abiding character of hope. (Newheiser 2020) In order to establish “a hope [that] would not put you to shame” (Romans 5:5), but one rooted in reality, this article has sought to build bridges between various disciplines on thinking about the interrelations between hope and patience. This results not in a “new” way of thinking about hope, but rather a call for attention to how patience and vigilance against false equations of hope with optimism are necessary.
The paper also has provided some specific strategies for establishing the disposition of a “desperate patience.” Patience paradoxically helps us live more truly in the present by sacrificing it: instead of merely trying to survive, we can become more patient through our acceptance of both our coming death, and a possible after-death. Patience helps us get beyond frustration about the present, and accept that many of our desires will not be met. Patience requires, then, a certain active struggle towards a focused end point that one attentively receives in waiting. Waiting could also be escapist, however. And thus, it is a certain kind of waiting that helps the patient person experience time differently and in a liberating way. This therefore necessitates that we take responsibility in developing our own eschatological horizon. Even those who would claim to not believe in an after-life need to establish what could allow them to have patience. The paradox of being-towards-death is that it helps humans avert attention away from the all-too-human and ingrained instinct of merely trying to survive.
Theologies of patience provide some important observations on ho to merge our future orientation with practical reality in the present. The earliest Christians underwent some of the most outstanding travesties and sufferings that humans can imagine. They believed that it was precisely their obsession with learning to establish a habitus of patience that helped them gain the strength to subvert the norms of Greco-Roman culture to look down on patentia, and intentionally align themselves with the enslaved, dispossessed, and powerless. Patience, they believed, set them free and empowered them to live incautiously and riskily. This “strange patience” (hypomonen xenen) made them neither blind to reality as incurable optimists, nor subservient to the despair of suffering. It led to a realistic hope. It is unfortunate that the careful habitus of patience and its ensuing hope of the early church far too often is overshadowed by abstract hopes for kingdom expansion and Christian empire. Between escapist eschatology, and our modernity-induced progress narrative, it seems at first as if little can be done to split the difference between despair and ignorance.
As Kreider helps us see, we unfortunately miss out today on the potentials of desperate patience, as we have reduced Christian life to the more “abstract” and less practical belief in “charity” or neighborly love. Likewise, hope also has become abstracted and detached from a reality induced patience. This abstraction has led to the development of an escapist eschatology that is blind to danger as if there is nothing at all to fear. Without fear, we come to believe in progress. We now see progress as ingrained in the fabric of the universe and nature itself.
As I have argued, however, there are a few strategies for developing the habitus of a realistic hope by way of desperate patience. As exemplified by theologians such as Clement, Origen, Tertullian, and Justin, patience does not require perfect social conditions in order to thrive. Therefore, we can see that a dose of realism as an antidote to our blind optimisms does not squelch patience, but on the contrary, can support it. To reflect this kind of patience, we need to expand our imaginations to fear appropriately. This fear can help us imagine the dangers that may await not only ourselves, but also those who come after us. This is a creative process that holds simultaneously to both the apolcalyptic realities of our social world and God’s more positive promises in an unknown future. Such an “immanent transcendence” cannot be sustained by beliefs in “ascendance” or improvement in this world alone. Paradoxically, it is precisely our lack of being able to creatively imagine the end times that contributes to our loss of patience due to holding onto a blindly optimistic hope.
Only after embracing the factual, harsh realities of this world can we then have a proper orientation towards a hoped-for future. One way of orienting ourselves towards the future is by forgetting a particular past. This is not a negation of the past, or a resentment of it, but a loosing of our conscious grip on how the various acquired dispositions we have accumulated into our individual and collective histories dictate our futures. In addition to forgetting, another way to practice patience is to anticipate rightly. Anticipation can maintain its excitement and joy in the present, and for the future by focusing upon a God who promises a certain, yet unpredictable diversity and plurality of what is to come. By making our anticipated future presently relevant, and in lacking certainty about what is to come, we can take risks, yet without becoming escapists.
These three practical activities (imaging the end of time, forgetting, and anticipating) help cultivate a habitus of patience. And this time (our time) certainly is one in which we need an eschatological vision that can navigate the tensions between hope and despair. As we witness the confrontation between the decline of religiosity in the Global north, and the return of religion in the Global south, attempts to explain the hopeful eschatologies of those returning to religion, precisely within oppressed people groups, are bound to create conflicts. It is the responsibility of all persons – the disenfranchised and the privileged alike – to fight against any passive acquiescence to the blind optimisms and quiet escapisms they might face.
We indeed need to critique certain bourgeois forms of optimism that get projected onto the disenfranchised in order to escape our sense of guilt. Yet if we are not careful, such critiques, from the outside, may in the end lead us to a nihilism trapped in the present via desperation. With a theology and ethics of patience now in mind, it is possible to still give hope a chance, but one purged of all optimism. This would be a hope that is the product of waiting with desperate patience. And desperate patience helps keep us from falling into despair: Where despair entraps us in the private sphere of our own consciousness, desperation reaches out to other persons. Where despair can birth bitterness and inaction, desperation can fuel a productive anger at injustice. Where despair debilitates, desperation can enable.
This article was made possible by the generous support of a grant from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), within the framework of the project “Revenge of the Sacred: Phenomenology and the Ends of Christianity in Europe” (P 31919).
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