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The Authority of Hope

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education. This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


In his remarkable collection of Hasidic tales, Elie Wiesel tells of a young couple discussing their marriage announcement with the rabbi. The announcement indicated that the wedding would take place in Berditchev (Poland) on a certain date. The Hasidic rabbi, with that peculiar wisdom of the Hasidim, edited the announcement. "The wedding will take place in Jerusalem," he said, "but if the Messiah has not come, it will take place in Berditchev." That is the authority of hope.

Like other great words, hope has come upon bad times in common speech. It is generally used in relation to a hopeless situation. It finds itself being defined by its opposite. "Where there’s life, there’s hope" is really a statement of resignation. When all else fails, we can at least hope for the best. The New Testament, however, uses the word in an active sense. The word is translated "the joyful and confident expectation of eternal salvation." In the Septuagint, the verb has the meaning of trust, and the noun means "that in which one confides or flees for refuge." Rather than last resort or resignation, hope has the authority of joyful and active trust in the coming shape of events.

Jurgen Moltmann has reminded us of this active notion by a vivid metaphor of religious life. He suggests that some Christians are fossils, located properly in museums, locked into the past. Other Christians are chameleons, located in nature, changing colors with the changing environment. But Christians, according to Moltmann, are those whose lives are conditioned neither by history nor environment alone, but are lived out in active hope, the "great experiment" that places its confidence in the promises of God in Jesus Christ.

How have we missed this? The Bible itself is an eschatological document. Its last words address the future: "Come, Lord Jesus." The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is an eschatological feast, a festival of joy and expectation. We celebrate that feast "until the Lord comes again." Other generations have required different themes in theology. Ours, for example, is certainly no Age of Faith. Confidence in tradition has been challenged. Ours is not an age of dogma. Theology today is thematic and not systematic. But our times are ripe for what Moltmann calls "the experiment hope." That hope is confidence in the belief that the word of God will yet manifest itself in Christian presence and obedience and that faithfulness to that vision will significantly alter God’s initiatives in this period of history.

Hope is the joyful and confident expectancy in a future ordered under the love and justice of God. Ours is a time when the future looms for most as more of a threat than a promise. Ironically, it is the promise to the deprived and hungry and hopeless peoples, but a threat to those who are complacent in comfort and plenty.

When I was in seminary, eschatology was either a mistake (Schweitzer) or a rationalization (Dodd). But those judgments were somehow to miss the real point of the matter. The New Testament church was incurably eschatological, and its whole sense for life was conditioned by that style. It is not so much an attitude attributed to the self-consciousness of Jesus, nor to misplaced ontology; it is a sense of the way one lives a life. It is as simple as this: a person with no future is a person with no present. The promises of one’s future are the visions that control the shapes of one’s present. That is why liberation theology is so attentive to eschatology. One is freed in the present precisely to the degree that one is liberated by a vision of the future. Rage, anomie, despair, and anxiety are the characteristics of a person or a community deprived of hope. The most terrifying form of dehumanization is the denial of meaningful time to a person, denigrating their past and foreclosing their future.

The theme of freedom from bondage, consistent throughout the biblical tradition, is operating at an increasingly articulate level in our time. The joyful, confident trust in the reality of a different future for his people drove Martin Luther King, Jr., into the arena of social change. He challenged the church and the state to live by their eschatologies and to provide meaningful freedom for black people. It is the trajectory of hope of a homeland that empowered a whole generation of Jews to seize their present in the state of Israel. Ironically, it is hope that drives the Palestinians to acts of terrorism in defense of their dreams. It is hope, kindled in American schools and universities, that empowers black Africans in their struggles for a liberated present.

What is overpowering in the historical particularity of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity is the sense of the significance of history and the conviction that history is an arena of positive social change and liberation.

One’s hope for the future shapes the present. We all know this. Some of you have lost your confidence in the future and may feel doomed to serve out your ministry in routinized ways. You all know friends in your parishes who have died to their futures and who choose a variety of scenarios to act out their days. When a certain governor of Georgia announced some years ago that if black and white children sat in the same classrooms "blood would flow in the streets of Atlanta," he was determining the present behavior of his citizens. When, at the same time, church folk in Georgia actively looked with longing and trust to the image of children of all races sitting in the same classrooms, their vision of the feast without end conditioned their present and drove them into positions of advocacy and political action in behalf of their dream.

The sixties were the battlefield of hope and despair for so many of our generation and of the youth. Troublesome and tragic as those times may have been, what we confront today is a generation which has given up on idealism. Martin Kaplan comments on "I’ve Got the Music in Me," a hit song of 1975: "Muzak ideology: Cooling all rage, substituting easily won aims for those foolish dreams that make us struggle, cry, endure, and perhaps prevail." Of this generation of young people, Kaplan says, "Instead of doubt, irony, inquiry, and foolish dreams, the dreams that made their older brothers and sisters cry, they have chosen the rewards of privatism, self-fulfillment, personal gratification, individualistic autonomy, and the burgherly hearthside virtues of coping, acquiescence, and accommodation. They are the real flower children of the seventies; their ontology is clear and crisp: ‘Yoko and me, that’s reality" (Martin Kaplan, "The Ideologies of ‘Tough Times’," Change Magazine, August 1976, 28-29).

Crafted out of the experience and rage of his own generation, Kaplan’s analysis of the end of foolish dreams is also applicable to the suburban burghers of the church itself. The timid experiments in social action, the easy decisions to "cool it," the obsessive attention to maintenance, these point to the captivity of the church. While you may dismiss this as special pleading by a church bureaucrat, let me give you a bit of trivia about church funding. The United Methodist Church is a one-billion-dollar operation annually. That makes it one of the largest social enterprises in the country. Of that one billion dollars, only 5 percent is directed to the World Service programs of the denomination. The rest is raised and spent on maintenance and program in the local, conference, and jurisdictional levels. I am not suggesting that all of that expenditure is maintenance, but a great deal of it is. And are there not some eschatological implications in that discovery?

Now eschatology is anchored in the history of the church and therefore the past is a part of our present-future understanding. Sometime ago, Julian Hartt suggested that the Christian person is a person living between the past and the future in the creative tension of the present. But that tension is often broken. Some persons choose to live primarily in the past. They suffer from the sickness of nostalgia, and their present becomes intolerable because "it’s not the same anymore." Some choose to live only in the future. They are susceptible to the sickness of longing. To state the matter practically, monarchism suffers from nostalgia and Marxism from longing. Nostalgia leads to the excesses of the politics of the right and longing to the excesses of the politics of the political left. Only those who have the nerve and hope to live in the tension between our past and our future may have the satisfaction of a significant present. Christianity is a life style that identifies itself with the patriarchs, saints, and faithful believers in all times and with joyful expectancy to the future of God.

The authority of hope is also profoundly related to the recovery of a meaningful past in the church. Note that Gutierrez and Moltmann and the other theologians of liberation and hope ground their work in the momentum of the life and thought of the church. We live in a time that likes to think of itself as the "now generation." That indicates that this generation has disinterest if not contempt for the past, including the Christian past.

Edward Fiske, education editor of the New York Times, recently described a meeting in the temple of one of the new eastern religious cults and listened to a convert explain why he had chosen his ascetic style of life. When the reporter pointed out that the explanation amounted to a classical exposition of the ideals of medieval monasticism, the young devotee replied, "What do you mean?" He was clearly unaware that the Trappists of Kentucky, or for that matter anyone else in western civilization, had ever pursued such ideals. What is puzzling is not so much the man’s ignorance, but the fact that he was unaware of a tradition that could enhance his own experience.

That is the principal role of the past in Christian terms. The mere knowledge of the past is not saving, but the possibility that identifying oneself in the mighty procession of saints, knowing of their political and spiritual journeys, assessing their wisdom and their rationalizations, provides an authority to faith that makes hope possible.

It is one of my more ascerbic reflections these days that we may be entering into a new dark age. There are terrible signs about us that education has failed to educate. Testing shows serious declines in student ability in reading, writing, and mathematics. Visions of history and coherence are swallowed up in specialization and technological myopia. When a sense of wholeness is lost, the possibility of ethical decision making is seriously limited. This is one of the visions I have for the church’s schools and colleges. They may become once again islands of humanities and grace and style and learning in a new dark age that is characterized not by ignorance but by paralyzing and unassimilated information.

What is the content of our hope? It is the Christian story. It is the affirmation that God is at the end of our history as at the beginning; in fact, God is with us yet. It is the confident statement about the intentions of God that all might be one in Christ, that love and justice will dominate political decisions, that all persons will be liberated from the bondage of sin, seif-centeredness, racial pride, arrogance, and despair. It is the summation of all our dreams and aspirations, the themes of all our hymns, the content of all our prayer. It is, at last, the content of being a Christian person united in purpose with others in the church of Jesus Christ. It is believing in Jesus Christ.

Kosuke Koyama, whose fascinating book Waterbuffalo Theology I commend to you, has written elsewhere about these matters in a metaphor of hands. He recalled the hand of Buddha, "soft and open, with beautiful curves. . . . There is no feeling of pain or agony revealing a lack of discrimination in mercy." He recalled seeing the hand of Lenin, in his tomb in Moscow, "formed into a fist, the symbol of determination. . . symbolizing ideological righteousness, closed." Then, recalling a crucifix, Koyama noted that Jesus’ hands are neither open nor closed. "He is neither like Buddha, attractive and merciful, nor like Lenin with his confident ideological fist." He is in agony, he is beaten, he is defenseless, "he is crucified in weakness."

For Koyama, Christian belief suggests that God’s hands are neither open nor closed. The future is not a disinterested matter nor is it a matter of closed ideology. The future for Christian belief has to do with crucified hands. These are hands that get in the way of relative and closed systems that are determined to condition the future of history. Jesus is not simply truth, but his truth is fully revealed in his loving-kindness and that loving-kindness is our future as Christian believers and political persons. "All the promises of God find their Yes in him," suggests St. Paul. Come, Lord Jesus.


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