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Heaven is a Place on Earth?! – Hope as Signature of Christian Existence

Published onApr 16, 2022
Heaven is a Place on Earth?! – Hope as Signature of Christian Existence
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Introduction: More Than Sprinkles on An Ice Cream

Most of us hope for something: good weekend weather, a bigger paycheck, happy relationships, peace in Ukraine and the world. Hope, it seems, is omnipresent in our daily lives. The apostle Paul already points to the importance of hope when he wrote to the early church in Corinth: “Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love” (1 Cor 13:13). While Paul hastens to add “But the greatest of these is love,” it is faith that has made an impressive career since the Reformation, particularly in Protestant Christianity (sola fide!). Hope, it almost seems, was shoved aside, her thunder stolen by her two more famous sisters. Completely unjustifiably so, as I will argue. “Most people think about it [i.e. hope] … like the sprinkles on an ice cream, like it’s great if it’s there, but I think it’s actually fundamental to our basic wellbeing,” says psychotherapist Nancy Colier.1 While mental health experts hail hope as a significant predictor of mental health, increasing resilience in tackling life’s challenges, lowering stress levels, and even offering chemical benefits by assisting in the production of endorphins, theology has its own hymn of hope to sing. Hope is the signature of Christian existence, embodied both individually, and collectively as church. Yet beware! As with all signatures, they can be forged, nearly erased, or disfigured almost beyond recognition. In the following I will therefore firstly unveil false hopes before, secondly, discussing the significance of dangerous memories for keeping hope alive. The third and final part is devoted to giving concrete contours to hope: It is rooted, reckless, and resistant.

1. Against False Hope: Marx (Briefly) Revisited

One of the most ardent critics of religion and its numbing effects on a suffering humankind is Karl Marx. While it is not my aim to engage here in an in-depth discussion of criticism of religion, I want to utilize some key insights of Marx for our topic as his ideas influences this discourse up to this very day. In his introduction to “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” Marx observes, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions” (Marx 1975: 175). One could add: “And the hope of hopeless humanity.” Marx then goes on to his now-famous postulation: “It is the opium of the people” (Marx 1975: 175). This phrase has commonly been understood as a solely negative verdict on religion. Here, however, it is important to keep in mind “the ambivalence of the opium metaphor” (Boer 2017: 92) as blessed medicine, yet also as cursed source of addiction. To Marx, religion is equally ambivalent (cf. McKinnon 2006). Keeping this ambivalence in mind, these phrases form part of Marx’s structural-functionalist argument against religion, which he perceives as destructive to his revolutionary agenda. For religion often functions, according to Marx, as a potent narcotic, reducing peoples’ senses and perception of the pain caused by the oppressive class structures they find themselves in. Instead, religion gives people the pleasant illusion of heading towards an eternal bliss that makes their temporary plight seem negligible. This fosters a false consciousness in the oppressed, leading them to submit to cultural structures and beliefs designed only to entrench the dominance of the ruling class. Why even try to change anything about one’s destitute conditions, why fight for an improvement of living conditions, for gender equality, for justice and peace? “For this world is not our permanent home, but we are looking forward to a home yet to come” (Hebr. 13:14). Similar to Marx, his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche calls for a renunciation of transcendent hopes when he cries out in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth and do not believe those who speak to you of extraterrestrial hopes! They are mixers of poisons whether they know it or not. They are despisers of life, dying off and self-poisoned, of whom the earth is weary: so let them fade away!” (Nietzsche 2006: 6). If hope is understood solely in this way, namely as a religiously dressed up putting off and as poison to any engagement in constructive real-life changes, then Marx and Nietzsche are right in their critique of this false hope: “The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo” (Marx 1975: 175). From this perspective it becomes clear why religiously inspired hope is a powerful, yet double-edged sword. While critics like Marx do acknowledge the ambivalence of religion, he was mostly concerned with its problematic sides, namely as a means to disseminate false hope in order to placate the oppressed and to perpetuate systems of oppression. Yet this is only one side of the coin. For it seems that thinkers like Marx, Nietzsche, or Feuerbach thoroughly underestimated the constructive power of radical hope.

2. Dangerous Memories. Or: Remembering the Future

Hope, it seems, directs the present towards the future. This makes it easy to overlook that hope is also fundamentally connected to the past. The bridge between the times is, as I will argue, remembrance (Schliesser 2016). Manifold atrocities and gross human rights violations in the past and present beg the question: Where is hope for the countless slain victims of history and society? Is their history simply over? Max Horkheimer leaves no doubt about it:

Whatever has happened to the people who have perished will not be healed by the future. They will never be summoned in order to be blessed in eternity. Nature and society have done their work on them and the idea of the Last Judgment into which the longing of the oppressed and the dying has entered is just a remainder of primitive thought which fails to recognise the trivial role of mankind in the history of nature, and thus humanises the universe” (Horkheimer 1980: 341; translation from Bowie 1997: 236).

Trying to conceptualize theology after the horrors of World War II, Johann Baptist Metz goes a different route. He calls for “anamnetic solidarity” with the victims (Metz 1977: 98). Theology after Auschwitz must be done not outside, but rather in the middle of the agony, suffering, and pain of the world. Yet the pain of the present and past is not all there is. Rather, in Christian faith, memoria passionis is inseparably woven together with memoria resurrectionis. The story of suffering is part of the story of liberation, just as the story of liberation is part of the story of suffering. At the same time, memoria passionis contains what Metz calls “dangerous memories” (Metz 1977: 176, cf. 79). These memories are dangerous because they hold on to the possibility of liberating practices in the future against the oppressing forces of the past and present. “Every rebellion against suffering is fed by the subversive power of remembered suffering” (Metz/Moltmann 1995: 8). Dangerous memories include hope that does not exclude pain and suffering. Christian faith with its intrinsic link between passion and resurrection, hopelessness and hope, embodies the hope that the stories of suffering are not given the final words in history. Instead, Christian hope spells out a counter narrative that even cuts across time. “Only a hope for history, a hope that radically, even defiantly hopes against the timeline for a messianic unfulfilled [messianisch Unabgegoltenes], is a hope for the slain” (Thomas 2021: 13, translation CS).

3. Rooted, Reckless and Resistant: Hope as Signature of Christian Existence

The signature of our time seems to be crisis. As we look around, crises abound, and hope seems elusive. One thing is clear, at least for the overwhelming majority of people on this planet: Heaven ist not a place on earth. So how can we hold on to hope then? Three aspects are important here. Hope is rooted. First of all, hope needs to be distinguished from either naivete or simple optimism. To “sit back and hope for the best” is not hope, but illusion. Hope, according to clinical psychologist Matthew Gallagher, ist an active coping approach: “Hope is how we can think about our goals for the future, the extent that we can identify pathways or strategies to achieve those goals and then maintaining the motivation or the agency […], even in the face of obstacles.”2 Easier said than done. Here we need to keep, secondly, in mind: We don’t hold on to hope. Hope holds on to us. Hope is rooted in God’s reconciliatory action with humankind, it is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hope doesn’t die last. Hope is risen. Hope is reckless. It does not patiently wait for its time to come but is impatient. Hope constantly reminds God: “Thy kingdom come.” We are still caught in the place between reconciliation and redemption. God’s kingdom has begun now, but it is not yet fulfilled. Together with all creation, we yearn for redemption as we cry out our anger and anguish before God. The resurrection is the prototype of paradoxical intervention. What else is reckless hope but illuminating God’s sense of humor? The old tradition of Easter laughter reminds us of this. Reckless hope is the totally unexpected. It is creative. It shines through in Ukrainian farmers kidnapping abandoned Russian tanks, hooking them up to their tractors and towing them away to their farms.3 It is already a glimpse of the time when swords will be turned into ploughshares, tanks into tractors. Hope is resistant. Hope resists evil and stupidity. And it resists all false hopes. Hope lives in the present but is fed by a radical imaginary of the future. Resistant hope is in love with God’s creation. Knowing what will come, we can embrace what is. Here, we join with Nietzsche as we sing along “Heaven is a place on earth.” For, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it,

There are people who think it frivolous and Christians who think it impious to hope for a better future on earth and to prepare for it. They believe in chaos, disorder, and catastrophe, perceiving it in what is happening now. They withdraw in resignation or pious flight from the world, from the responsibility for ongoing life, for building anew, for the coming generations. It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future. (Bonhoeffer 2010: 51)

Works Cited

Boer, Roland. 2017. “Karl Marx (1818-1883).” In Religion and European Philosophy: Key Thinkers from Kant to Žižek, edited by Philip Goodchild and Hollis Phelps, 87–100. New York: Routledge.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 2010. Letters and Papers from Prison: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 8. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Bowie, Andrew. 1997. From Romanticism to Critical Theory: The Philosophy of German Literary Theory. New York: Routledge.

Horkheimer, Max. 1980. “Zu Bergsons Metaphysik der Zeit.” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 3: 321.

Marx, Karl. 1975. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law: Introduction.” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3., 175–187. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

McKinnon, Andrew M. 2006. “Opium as Dialectics of Religion: Metaphor, Expression and Protest.” In Marx, Critical Theory and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice, edited by W.S. Goldstein, 11–29. Leiden: Brill.

Metz, Johann Baptist. 1977. Glaube in Geschichte und Gesellschaft. Studien zu einer praktischen Fundamentaltheologie. Mainz: Matthias Grünewald.

Metz, Johann Baptist und Jürgen Moltmann. 1995. Faith and the Future. Essays on Theology, Solidarity, and Modernity. New York: Orbis.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2006. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Edited by Adrian Del Caro and Robert B. Pippin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schliesser, Christine. 2016. “Die Pflicht zur Erinnerung als Pflicht zur Gerechtigkeit (Paul Ricœur) – Erinnerung und Versöhnung im Blick auf das post-genozidale Ruanda.” Zeitschrift für evangelische Ethik 60: 117–130.

Thomas, Günter. 2021. “Heaven is (not) a Place on Earth.” Junge.Kirche 82:12-16.

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