20 April 2012

Hope and Change and Optimism: The Unfulfilled Promise

Then candidate Obama ran his campaign on the slogan "Hope and Change," without ever specifying in what we were hoping or what change we were getting.  Some of us, however, knew the answers and so looked on this message with great skepticism and urged others to do the same.
Today I finished reading A People of Hope: Archbishop Timothy Dolan in Conversation with John L. Allen, Jr. (New York: Image Books, 2012). The book is well-worth your reading.
Speaking of how those looking in from the outside view the Church, then-Archbishop Dolan said:

Pardon me for being a name-dropper, but in my meeting with President Obama, he said, "The government can't give hope, and the government can't love.  You in the church can, and please keep doing it."  In the long run, isn't that the only thing we have to offer (207)?
The cynic in me can't help but point out the obvious contradiction between the words of the Presidential Candidate and the words of the President, which also happen to be the words of the same man.  Have Mr. Obama's thoughts about hope changed, or did he run on a lie?  That is a question only he can answer, and hopefully he will.
At the same time, though, it seems beneficial to draw a distinction between hope and mere optimism because it seems to me that more people were optimistic about Mr. Obama's message - whatever it was - and election than were hopeful (though, to be sure, few would be able to make the distinction).

On the Third Sunday of Advent in 2009, I preached:
The hope of the Christian is not as Denethor said to Gandalf as the armies of Mordor encircled the city of Gondor: “[T]hy hope is but ignorance.” Such a hope is founded only on possibilities, the chance of victory, but the hope of Christians is founded on no mere possibility, but on a certainty. It is founded on the certainty of the Birth of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem and of his glorious return at the end of time. What is more, it is founded on the certainty that “the Lord is near,” present in the Scriptures, in his sacred ministers, in his people and, above all, in the Holy Eucharist (Philippians 4:5).
The one who has hope – true and authentic hope and not simply optimism – is the one who has God, or, rather, who is possessed by God and has known his love. The hope of Christians is founded on their union with Christ, who has baptized them “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). This is why the one who has hope lives differently. They are to live, as Saint John the Baptist teaches, lives of generosity, honesty and humility, in imitation of Christ Jesus (cf. Luke 3:10-14) [more].
 The distinction, then, between hope and optimism of the foundation of the two; hope is founded on God whereas optimism is founded on humanity.

The man who is now Pope Benedict XVI once wrote:

..."optimism" is the theological virtue of a new god and a new religion, the virtue of deified history, of a god "history," and thus of the great god of modern ideologies and their promise.  This promise is utopia, to be realized by means of the "revolution," which for its part represents a kind of mythical godhead, as it were a "God the son" in relation to the "God the father" of history.  In the Christian system of virtues despair, that is to say, the radical antithesis of faith and hope, is labelled as the sin against the Holy Spirit because it excludes the latter's power to heal and to forgive and thereby rejects salvation.  Corresponding to this is the fact that in the new religion "pessimism" is the sin of all sins, for to doubt optimism, progress, utopia is a frontal attack on the spirit of the modern age: it is dispute its fundamental creed on which its security rests, even though this is always under threat in view of the weakness of the sham god of history" (The Yes of Jesus Christ: Spiritual Exercises in Faith, Hope, and Love [New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1991], 42-43).
Continuing his reflections, he made a further, helpful distinction between what he calls an "ideological optimism" and an optimism that "springs from someone's temperament and nature" (45).  Clearly, the second form of optimsim is not here in dispute, which he says "by means of Christian hope it can grow and become yet more purer and more profound" (45).

An ideological optimism, he explains, "can exist both on a liberal and on a Marxist foundation," the first of which is "faith in progress through evolution and through the scientifically guided development of human history" and the second of which is faith "through the class struggle and revolution" (45-46).

Looking both at what President Obama has said and what he has done, in conjuction with the words and actions of his friends, mentors, and advisors, his form of optimism clearly is a mixture of the two.

Hope and optimism are not only different in their foundations but also in their goals.  Optimism's goal "is the utopia of the finally and everlastingly liberated and fortunate world, the perfect society in which history reaches its goal and reveals its divinity" (46).  Hope's goal, on the other hand, "is the kingdom of God, that is the union of the world and man with God through an act of divine power and love" (47).

Seen in this light, hope and optimism are not very close, which is why President Obama's campaign has not been able to deliver what it promised - nor is it able to deliver it's promise, as President Obama acknowledged to Cardinal Dolan.  Such an ideological optimism is really a great deception.  As Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
In reality ideological optimism is merely the facade of a world without hope that is trying to hide from its own despair with this deceptive sham.  This is the only explanation for the immoderate and irrational anxiety, this traumatic and violent fear that breaks out when some setback or accident in technological or economic development casts doubt on the dogma of progress...

This is where the problem of death crops up.  Ideological optimism is an attempt to have death forgotten by continually talking about history striding forward to the perfect society.  The fact that this is to skirt round what is really important and that people are being soothed with a lie becomes obvious whenever death itself moves into the vicinity.  The hope of faith, on the other hand, reveals to us the true future beyond death, and it is only in this way that the real instances of progress that do exist become a future for us, for me, for every individual (48-49).
To put it in the more folksy style of Cardinal Dolan,
Hope must flow from faith. Faith has to be a part of it.  The reason I am a man of hope, the reason the Church is a people of hope, is precisely because of faith.  My faith is that there is a God who happens to love us, who happens to hold us in the palm of his hand, who happens to have sent his only begotten Son to save us and to promise us eternity, and who assured us that he'll be with us always even to the end of days, and who inspired Paul to write that ultimately everything works to the good for those who believe.  That's faith, okay?  From the theological viture of faith, hope will flow (213). 
This explains why the one who has hope lives differently, while the one who has an ideological optimism does not.

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