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Response to Miguel De La Torre: Embracing Hopelessness

Published onJun 27, 2022
Response to Miguel De La Torre: Embracing Hopelessness

Let me say this up front. I don’t think that embracing hopelessness is the most fruitful way to go forward, not for an ethics inspired by the Christian tradition nor for anyone else for that matter. Yet it is precisely in my disagreement with Miguel’s main thesis that I feel challenged to question my own presuppositions. Miguel’s text – rich in justified and less justified provocations – leaves me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Yet as we learn from the South African theologian Christo Thesnaar, “Theology happens in discomfort”.

I highly appreciate Miguel’s perspective and especially his challenge to what I called “false hope” in my first contribution: “Heaven is a place on earth?! – Hope as signature of Christian existence”. I couldn’t agree more when he writes: “As a statement of unfounded belief, hope is an illusion beyond critical examination, serving an important middle-class purpose, providing a quasi-religious contentment during oppression.” We both concur on the dangers of false hope as an opiate that primarily serves the purpose of those in power in order to numb the oppressed and to nip any rebellious thought and action against injustice in the bud. Yet I disagree with Miguel in his analysis and even more so in his conclusion. The following questions serve to guide my dissent, (1.) A Theology of False Hope? Moltmann Revisited, (2.) Whose Europe? Which Eurocentricity? and (3.) Fuel For Transformative Action: Despair or Hope?

1. A Theology of False Hope? Moltmann Revisited

With the “theologian of hope” Jürgen Moltmann, Miguel has found an engaging conversation partner. Yet rather than hearing him out, it seems that Moltmann is rather used as a prop for Miguel’s critique. I want to illustrate this by addressing two aspects of Miguel’s criticism of Moltmann, namely (a) Moltmann’s alleged understanding of hope as passive and otherworldly-eschatological and (b) his purported understanding of history based on a “God of process rooted in linear progressive thinking”. While I agree with Miguel that any such understandings ought to be criticized, I think Moltmann is the wrong sparring partner for this endeavor. Ad a) When Miguel charges Moltmann with “hopefully waiting … for God’s future promise to materialize”, he neglects that Moltmann’s theology of hope is one of action and transformation of the here and now, not one of passively waiting for a better life in the hereafter. For Moltmann, Christian ethics is a “guide to changing the world” (Moltmann 2010: 59), led by three concrete steps, namely rejecting the restraints of our circumstances, finding a new identity and communion in Christ beyond national or cultural loyalties, engaging in “world-changing conflicts of life against death, […] justice against violence” (Moltmann 2010: 60). An ethics of hope, according to Moltmann, is quite the opposite of “hopefully waiting”. Rather, it guides transformative action in order to anticipate the new creation – promised by God and put into effect by Christ – in the here and now. Moltmann’s theology of hope is therefore active and transformative-eschatological. His remarkable influence on liberation theology gives testimony to the fruitfulness of his approach, in particular in contexts of injustice and oppression. Ad b) Moltmann’s understanding of and struggle against on-going oppression and injustice – not to mention his own experiences in World War II, witnessing his best friend being torn to pieces in the firebombing of Hamburg – already point to his rejection of any optimistic, progressive understanding of history. Against Kant’s “enlightened optimism” (Moltmann 2010: 21), Moltmann sets Hans Joas’ “heuristic of fear”, emphasizing the need for responsibility as the necessary companion of hope (ibid.).

2. Whose Europe? Which Eurocentricity?

A friend from the US recently told me of her plans to “go and visit Europe” for two weeks this summer. She flies into Paris and, after spending a few days there, goes on to Berlin, and with a brief stopover in Switzerland, she continues to Florence and Rome, from where she will return home. Surely, exciting vacations lie ahead of her. But will she have been to “Europe”? What about the rough beauty of the Scottish isles? The breath-taking panorama of the Carpathians? The hospitality of the Poles? The vivaciousness of the Spanish? Appropriate or not, these clichés show one thing: Europe is diverse. It is diverse in terms of countryside and culture, history and religion, struggles and successes. In order to speak meaningfully about Europe, we need to be precise. Considering that Europe is home to seven larger faith traditions (and not counting different denominations within one faith tradition), criticizing “Eurocentric faith” is about as helpful as criticizing “politics”. Equally elusive remain terms such as “Eurocentric modernist quest” (on a side note: putting “Europe” alongside “modernity” seems strangely anachronistic). And what is “a European way”? Alas, if only the European Union knew! It seems Miguel is taking the term “European” as a black box signifying all kinds of evil and oppression. Yet he needs to spell out who and what exactly he is criticizing and why. The mere concept of “Eurocentricity” seems only plausible if leveled from an outside perspective so remote that European intrinsic diversity, struggles and competing voices become blurred. And just as not all of Europe is filled with evil and oppression, it is not only “noneuropean bodies [who] lack luxury and privilege”. For example, child poverty in Germany, one of the wealthiest countries not only in Europe, is affecting every fifth child, diminishing severely children’s chances in terms of education, social and psychological well-being and healthy development (Bertelsmann 2020). So whose Europe are we talking about here?

3. Fuel For Transformative Action: Despair or Hope?

I readily concede that in order to struggle for justice, you don’t need to be Christian. You don’t even need to be religious, for that matter. “We struggle for justice for the sake of justice”. And yes, despair can become a powerful force. “Desperate people will do whatever it takes to change the situation because nothing is left to lose.” Yet, this is not the point here. My focus is on reclaiming hope from a Christian perspective. I think it has become clear that both Miguel and myself reject false hope. We both criticize a problematic understanding of hope as paralyzing rather than empowering, as acquiescent rather than transformative, as supporting unjust power structures rather than challenging them. Yet, we differ widely in our conclusion. Faced with the dangers of false hope, Miguel chooses to let go of hope entirely and to embrace hopelessness instead. This is understandable, yet creates its own problems. For Miguel includes no provisions for safeguarding his concept of hopelessness against the same dangers that led him to abandon hope. The very same problems that can be connected with hope – passivity, resignation, submission to injustice – can easily be linked to hopelessness. Hopelessness can be just as stifling as hope! Perhaps even more so, for it does not come with the added benefits to our health and well-being associated with hope by psychologists and mental health experts (Dastagir 2020). Yet not only comes hopelessness with its own problems, it is – and this weighs from a theological point of view much more heavily – deeply unchristian. Rather than throwing out hope altogether, therefore, we need to seek to recover it. We need not say good-bye to hope, but to our faulty perceptions of hope.

One of our mistakes regarding hope is to think we know intuitively how to do it. This is not the case, however. While despair comes naturally to us, we need to both learn and teach how to hope, says Ernst Bloch (Bloch 1959). Genuine hope makes people wide instead of narrow. And hope cannot be separated from action. Hope “requires people who throw themselves actively into the becoming, to which they themselves belong. It does not bear a dog’s life, which feels only passively thrown into the being” (Bloch 1959: 1). And hope does not merely seek the struggle for the sake of struggle, but hope seeks transformation. Hope “is in love with succeeding instead of failing” (ibid.). While all this also goes for Christian hope, a Christian perspective on hope goes beyond Bloch. Yet again, there have been problems. Christian hope has sometimes been understood primarily or even exclusively in terms of the ultimate future, i.e. hope for salvation, resurrection and eternal life. From this perspective, the impact of hope within the present world remains unclear. And again, we as Christians need to re-learn hope. Christian hope is rooted in the resurrection of Christ. Yet the resurrection stories in the gospels are actually not about eschatological hope in the sense of going to heaven when you die. The point is rather, as N.T. Wright emphasizes, “Jesus is risen, therefore God’s new world has begun [and] his followers have a new job to do. […] To bring the life of heaven to birth in actual, physical, earthly reality” (Wright 2008: 293). The kingdom of God is not about transferring life on earth to heaven but rather about infusing life on earth with life of heaven, as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us. Christian hope is therefore both deeply “spiritual” and “political”. Hope is the elixir of life for both the dying and the dispossessed. “Every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity – doing justice, making peace, healing families, resisting temptation, seeking and winning true freedom – is an earthly event in a long history of things that implement Jesus’s own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation and act as signposts of hope, pointing back to the first and on to the second” (Wright 2008: 294f). In hope, transcendence meets immanence, heaven meets earth.

Works Cited

Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2020. Kinderarmut in Deutschland.

Bloch, Ernst. 1959. Das Prinzip Hoffnung. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt.

Dastagir, Alia E. 2020. Why it’s so important to hope, USA Today, October 10, 2020.

Moltmann, Jürgen. 2010. Ethik der Hoffnung. Gütersloher Verlagshaus: Gütersloh.


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