The other day a friend accused me of optimism. This didn’t sit well. We were talking (ponderously) about the future of religion, and I said the church will outlast every dire trend. The church rose against all odds from the start, stirred to life by Jesus’ resurrection – an impossibility that nevertheless happened. Predictions about the terminal decline of faith are predictable: they never pan out.
My friend said that sounds way too optimistic. I protested: it’s not optimism but hope. Is there a difference? Optimism looks compulsively on the bright side, expecting every happy outcome, sometimes despite evidence. Hope is an attitude about the long haul: God will prevail no matter how much we mess it up in the meantime.
By now, optimism has been linked to benefits of health. Optimists certainly are more fun than glum fatalists. But a ginned-up optimism can become nothing more than dangerous wishful thinking, a bad misreading of human nature. In 2007, upbeat consumerism was blind to the toxic facts of housing bubbles and subprime mortgages. The Great Recession was the inexcusable result.
We’re optimistic that technology will come to our rescue on various fronts. But tech’s revolutionaries underestimated the web’s dark side, the predatory disinformation and cyberattacks. Utopian dreams relied on a frictionless, wide-eyed, one-dimensional view of complex human nature. Now we’re living out the consequences, with A.I. on the march.
Hope makes room for a skeptical view of human conduct – a doctrine of sin, it used to be called – while expecting the cosmic story eventually to turn out right. It’s not a passive waiting game. “Active” hope, says eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, draws on our inner strengths and power of choice: We have a say in personal change and social reform. Active hope doesn’t depend on optimism. It admits the terrible brokenness of the times. But it shows a “readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose,” she says with co-author Chris Johnstone in their 2012 book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.
In Christian terms, these strengths are gifts from a Creator. They accompany people into the risky, unknown, providential future. “God has the power to give you a kind of inner equilibrium through your pain,” said Martin Luther King Jr. Because of the risen Jesus, hope believes God will ultimately heal creation. This belief has the power to dissipate anxiety and unleash creativity to get on with the work. Divine messages filter through the real world, where the Resurrection happened if it happened at all.
Is that hopelessly optimistic? I’d call it hopeful.
TYRANNY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
We hold these truths to be self-evident …
So says the Declaration of Independence, whose signers took note of a long slate of truths, including the laws of nature and nature’s God, the proposition that all are created equal, and the right to pursue happiness and oppose tyranny.
The Founders couldn’t imagine the new nation without these ideas. They provided spiritual glue in dangerous times. The Declaration’s framers couldn’t afford the luxury of indulging in “post-truth” polarization.
Now comes another Independence Day, which finds many of us dazed, despondent yet ever dazzled by daily presidential theatrics, the hypnotics of new media, and the distortion of our laws and regulations by the big money.
Such things always existed. But they’re elbowing their way deeper into public square and inner consciousness, taking up space that was previously reserved for private life and public goals.
Spiritual values were always part of the republic’s checks and balances. But that role is harder to identify now as we witness a transfer of national energy and creativity to reality-show exhibitionism and unapologetic power politics.
A short book from 2017, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, looks at recent history and sees our democracy under real threat. We’re awash in news notifications, addictive despair and distrust, all the while shrugging off inconvenient facts that undergird a functional society.
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” Snyder writes. “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”
In the last century, Hitler and Stalin grabbed power by destroying institutions and endlessly lying and sloganeering. Real patriotism, Snyder says, “wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.”
His 20 lessons for a renewed citizenry:
- Do not obey in advance (don’t sign the loyalty oath).
- Make eye contact and small talk.
- Defend institutions.
- Beware the one-party state.
- Learn from peers in other countries.
- Establish a private life. (Try to separate yourself from the internet.)
- Take responsibility for the face of the world.
- Be wary of paramilitaries.
- Be reflective if you must be armed.
- Be kind to our language.
- Remember professional ethics.
- Stand out.
- Practice corporeal politics. (“Make new friends and march with them.”)
- Contribute to good causes.
- Listen for dangerous words.
- Be a patriot.
- Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
- Be as courageous as you can.
- Believe in truth.
The book does not address belief in God. But gospel faith is consistent with his arguments. Places of worship and personal conscience should be in the business of challenging dark national mythologizing and idolatries.
Rejecting a religious establishment, the Founders endorsed the free exercise of religion. By an ingenious math, this spiritual pluralism has, up to now, helped maintain a balance of sanity in the national soul – a balance that keeps the US from sliding off into a tyranny that worships violence, repeats self-pitying lies and disdains obvious truth.
Snyder hopes readers will take as self-evident an urgent truth of this moment: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”