What A Beautiful World This Will Be
The Difference Between Optimism and Hope.
A few years ago when Daniel and I were back in my native state of Michigan, we went to the Grand Rapids Public Museum which is in downtown Grand Rapids. They had this interesting exhibits about midcentury design in Michigan. We are both suckers for mid-century modern anything so we were in our element. I can remember seeing some examples of furniture designed by Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller, pictures of the General Motors Design Center in Warren, Michigan which was built in 1958 and had this futuristic architecture that showed that the biggest manufacturer in the state was looking forward. In fact, that exhibit screamed optimism. There is this sense that the future is truly bright. In fact, this was the time of what was called the International Geophysical Year. The IGY was a year-long event in 1957-58 and it was a time when the Communist East and the Democratic West participated in an international scientific exchange. That event launched many innovations that are still around today. Both the US and the USSR used the year to launch their first satellites into space. Plate tectonics was also discovered during this time. The musician Donald Fagen’s 1982 hit “IGY” is about the International Geophysical Year and he paints a future that is bright. It’s a future with high-speed rail, spandex jackets, solar power and so on. He says over and over in the song:
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
It’s a wonderful future, right? Except, Fagen wrote this song as a critique of the future, not in praise of it. Everyone was optimistic in the 1950s, and Fagen looking back from 1982 didn’t see a future that was so great. In fact some of the inventions, like microfibers turned out to be detrimental to the environment.
But that’s optimism for you. Optimism looks at the future with a sense of what it will look like. You can look at the present and make an extrapolation about the future. The scientists of 1958 saw the future in light of 1958.
Hope is something different. The theologian Miroslav Volf says that instead of extrapolating the present, hope is about a future that has nothing to do with the present. He quotes Emily Dickenson in saying that Hope is the thing with feathers, it is something that comes from the outside, not from what we think the future will be, but a dream of what could be.
We sometimes look at our faith through optimism. Take the story of Noah and the Ark. There is what I like to call a “Sunday School” image of Noah and the ark, where we see the boat filled with happy animals and a happy Noah. It’s a bucolic scene. It’s optimistic.
But is that a real picture? When the waters recede from a flood, things tend to be in disarray. In this passage, the waters have just receded. The arc has settled on newly dried land and the survivors leave the boat looking disheveled. They also probably don’t smell so great with all those animals. All around them is death. Dead humans and dead animals are rotting all over the place.
It is in the midst of all this death, God gives Noah and his family a message of hope. In Genesis 9:8-17 God tells Noah and his family that God will never ever destroy the earth with floodwaters. He creates and rainbow as a reminder of God’s promises. God flooded the earth because of the sin of the people. The thing is, the sinning would still continue. But now, God wouldn’t try to destroy the world. The rainbow was a symbol of hope. The world would not get better, the future was uncertain if not very bleak. But Noah and his family knew that if they look at the bow in the clouds, they knew that God had not given up on creation. God didn’t give up; God had a plan. In fact, the rainbow was a sign that God was working on a way to repair the relationship between creation and God.
We live in a time when death is all around. We are close to over 800,000 Americans dead from COVID. Millions more have become sick with the virus and many will deal with its effects for years. Last year, we saw the crowd that infiltrated the Capitol taking the life of one policeman and one insurrectionist. It looks increasingly likely that Russia will invade Ukraine. Death and decay are all around. But we follow a God of hope. God isn’t done with us. The sign of hope for us is just as odd as seeing a rainbow in the midst of death and destruction: a cross. It is on this instrument of death that we have our hope. Salvation comes from Christ crucified.
Hope is very different from optimism. The Sunday School version of Noah and the Ark is an optimistic picture. It is looking at some perfect present into a perfect future. But the real version is one of hope because for one to believe things will be better you have to believe that it is going to come from the outside. Hope is about being patient and enduring knowing that change can come like a bird sitting in the window chirping a song and lighting the mood of everyone inside.
Miroslav Volf closes an essay on the hope he wrote for the Yale Seminary magazine by saying this about hope:
Our salvation lies in hope, but not in hope that insists on the future good it has imagined, but in hope ready to rejoice in the kind of good that actually comes our way. The God who creates out of nothing, the God who makes dead alive – the God of the original beginning of all things and the God of new beginnings – justifies hope that is otherwise unjustifiable. When that God makes a promise, we can hope.
In these uncertain times, we can hope. We don’t have optimism in the spandex world Donald Fagen lampooned. We have hope in a rainbow and ultimately in a cross. Emily Dickenson is right, “
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
That’s something to look forward to.
On the Podcast
All About Side B Christianity
I’ve been fascinated with the movement that is called Side B Christianity. For those who don’t know what this is, Side B Christians are LGBT Christians who accept their sexuality but choose to believe they are called to celibacy instead of same-sex relationships. It’s a movement that is found primarily among more conservative and traditional Christians. Side B Christians are not always accepted by Side A Christians, LGBT persons who do accept same-sex relationships because they believe the Side B community feels shame about who they are. But conservative Christians also don’t like them either (which tells me homophobia isn’t just about sex).
I was able to chat with Wes Hill about his own journey as a Side B Christian. Wes is the Assistant Priest at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Pittsburgh and an Associate Professor in New Testament at Western Seminary in Holland, MI. I hope you will give this episode a listen even if you disagree. It is important to follow the journey of someone who walked a different path from you or me.
Drawing is Seeing: Art and Spiritual Formation
I talked to Lutheran pastor Steve Thomason, who also happens to be an artist. Steve loves to draw and paint and it has been his passion since he was a child. He is the author and artist behind the cartoonist guide to the Bible. Steve is on a mission to use his art to tell the story of faith. “It is my mission to use art to create resources that help people grow deeper in God's love,” he says on his website. In the episode, we talk about how he became an artist, how he became a pastor and how the two passions intersect.
YoYos and Mainline Churches
Do you remember what is the difference between centripetal and centrifugal force? One pulls inward and the other outward. Sometimes churches can act in centripetal and centrifugal ways- supporting the institution and its members or reaching out in mission. Loren Richmond Jr. talked to me about how Mainline congregations can too often be pulled inward instead of outward to reach those outside the walls of the church. If you are a leader in a mainline Protestant congregation, you will want to listen to this episode.
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Articles of Note
God Will Not Protect You: What Nuclear War taught me about escaping horror and tragedy.
A Nation of Bystanders: Why do we watch evil and do nothing?
The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Spider-Man: Comic Book as Tragedy.
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