Living hopefully has never been more important. I say hopefully rather than optimistically. Optimism speaks to me of a bland sense that everything will be fine; an assumption that because things been alright for you in the past, things will continue to be ok; wishful thinking with no strong foundation. Hope, on the other hand, is realistic about the dangers and troubles that may be ahead, and gives the strength to endure them. What we need right now is hope, not optimism.
But where do we find a strong foundation for hopeful living? The more I think about hope, the more I see it as bound up with narrative, with story, particularly the end of the story we use to make sense of our lives. The means it’s important to ask what that story is, and whether the hope it gives us is strong enough. In this post I’m going to talk about the importance of endings and how they relate to hope. Then I’ll talk about the hallmarks of a truly hopeful story. Then I’ll share with you how the story I’ve chosen to inhabit – the Jesus story – gives me hope.
The importance of endings
We make sense of our lives through story. We use narrative to connect all the different experiences we have into a continuous, meaningful thread. We might use one or more stories to do this. Perhaps an individual story, perhaps an ancestral story about our family, or a national or cultural story. Our lives are often shaped by stories without our knowing or choosing. You could say we’re born into the middle of a story – in media res. Although I don’t feel like I have a strong national identity, I spent enough time at school learning about English kings and queens for a particular version of the English national story to have influenced me in some way. When UK politicians talked of ‘blitz-spirit’ in response to the global pandemic, they used a particular national story to make sense of what’s going on. The conversations sparked by the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston are about narrative – who gets to tell the national story?
An important part of stories is how they end. Almost all stories have an end. Even ‘The Never-ending Story’ has an end! Endings give shape to stories. They also give meaning to everything that’s gone before. In a classic detective story, at the end the detective gathers the suspects and explains the mystery. All the twists and turns of the plot that have led up to this moment are given their full and proper meaning. The end of a story can change how we see the rest of it. If a book has a disappointing ending, this affects my impression of the whole story. Endings give meaning. To hope is to yearn for a meaningful ending. To talk about hope is to ask ‘How will it all turn out?’ To ‘hope against hope’ is to hope even in the face of events that suggest that everything will ultimately amount to nothing.
So our hope is to do with the end of the story that shapes our lives. But how do we know if the narratives we inhabit are good enough? We need to be able to test these narratives. The good news is that, if they don’t measure up, we can change them. Although stories shape us, they are also things humans tell, so we can choose to tell our them differently, or tell different stories altogether.
The hallmarks of hope
I think there are three things a truly hopeful story needs to be able to do.
First, a truly hopeful story provides a vision of the future that energises and discomforts us in the present. By this, I mean that the end of the story is something we can be guided by here and now. Something that powerful people tend to do is announce that the hoped-for future has arrived. When powerful people have things the way they want, they can’t conceive of a better future. If the way things are benefits you, why would you want things to change? We can see this being played out in contemporary events. The British Government is reluctant to even acknowledge that Britain has a problem with racism – why would those who benefit from white supremacy want to see a future without it? But we need a story with a much more expansive and inclusive vision of the future, a vision that doesn’t allow us to become comfortable with the way things are in the present. A truly hopeful story will have an ending that encourages us to press forward, to keep going, and not be satisfied with a status quo that only benefits a small group of people.
Second, a truly hopeful story allows us to honestly face the horror and terror of history. If hope is about the search for meaning, then we need a story that makes sense of all the terrible things human beings have done in the past, and of all the terrible things that may happen to us in the future. In 19th Century Europe, people used a story called Progressivism to make sense of their lives and to give them hope. This was the belief that human goodness and reason would naturally and progressively lead to a better and more enlightened future. All the human suffering of the past was a natural part of this progress. The future wasn’t to be feared, because the future would be under human control through scientific and technological progress. The 20th century has shown this story to be in reality a hopeless one. Can any future be worth the suffering of Auschwitz? The scientific and technological progress we thought would liberate us, has given us instead the threat of nuclear disaster and climate chaos. A truly hopeful story helps us to face, and make some sense of, these terrible things.
Third, a truly hopeful story reassures us that the way we act in the present matters. In the best stories you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. Or you know that things will turn out well, but you’re not sure how. Hercule Poirot always solves the mystery, but he keeps you guessing till the very end. A truly hopeful story isn’t already written, fixed or entirely predictable. There’s room for us to make a difference. Despair is when we believe that we cannot change anything. There are some stories that on the surface seem to be hopeful, but are actually based in despair. In some versions of evangelical Christianity, there is the belief in the ‘rapture’, where the saved will be taken from earth into heaven, before the earth is destroyed. This is a story of despair, because it says that nothing can be done about the fate of the world. A truly hopeful story has room for active hope, for meaningful actions in the present.
Inhabiting the Jesus narrative
I’ve written before that Jesus is the key that unlocks and makes sense of my experience of the world. The Jesus story is also a narrative that gives me hope.
The Jesus narrative gives a vision of the future based on justice and compassion for all things. It speaks of this future using images like the New Heaven and New Earth, the New Jerusalem, the Tree of Life, and God’s holy mountain where the lion lies down with the lamb. It’s a vision of the liberation of the oppressed, where the last will be first and the first will be last. As long as we live in a world that lacks peace, justice and compassion for all, it’s a vision that makes me uncomfortable in the present, and suspicious of any political regime that claims that the end has come.
It helps me face the horror and terror of history, because at the centre of the story is a crucified God. To me this says that God is in solidarity with the suffering, the abandoned and godforsaken. I need not fear the future, because whatever it brings, God is there. Another important aspect of the story is that at the end there will be judgement. As unimaginable as it may be, things will be made right. The murderer will not be victorious over the victim. The knots of countless injustices will be unpicked.
It’s also a story that gives me the confidence to act in the present, because there is a sense that the story is still being written. The Kingdom of God isn’t totally here, but neither is it far off. There’s the sense of being invited to be a co-author of God’s story, about being open to the possibility of something astonishingly new. The Christian God is a creator God, a God who makes new things. I see the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus as saying God does new things that humanity would never have expected, or been able to achieve by themselves. And the new things are not over. Part of the Christian vision of the future is Christ saying ‘Behold, I am making all things new’. God’s future is breaking through into the present, and I can play a part in recognizing where it’s happening and helping it come to birth.