I hope my bookshelves don’t collapse

Hope without Optimism, Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press.

The imprecision of the English language means that we can say both ‘I hope I get a piece of that chocolate cake’ and ‘I hope injustices will be righted at the end of time’. The former is more related to feeling desire or craving, while the latter statement has affinities with the kind of ‘wordless groans’ the Bible associates with the Holy Spirit. The latter statement is more deeply felt, but its object less pin-down-able, and it is this manifestation of hope with which Terry Eagleton concerns himself in his latest book.

Ernst Bloch

Eagleton, typically, in his examination of hope, turns the word over and over, enlivens the text with jokes and uses a long list of examples drawn from literature, theology and philosophy, including a chapter-length consideration of Ernst Bloch (above), whom Eagleton calls the philosopher of hope, but who mistakenly thinks hope relies on optimism. In contrast, Eagleton suggests that pessimism about the current situation aligns itself naturally with hope for some future resolution, a notion that is at the heart of a Christian worldview, one which Eagleton, though known as a Marxist literary critic, is in his latest books increasingly strident about.

For his fellow Marxist Ernst Bloch, about whom Eagleton has many bad things and the occasional good thing to say, there is something fundamental about hope that is expressed in facets of human culture, including religion, but Eagleton criticises Bloch’s seeming reliance on hope itself as a desirable goal, rather than the thing hoped for. To rework a phrase of Franklin Roosevelt’s, it is as if Bloch believes the only thing to hope for is hope itself. For Eagleton, Christianity is more materialist in the sense that we long for justice. In fact the Old Testament is one long plea to God for justice for overrun people, for the impoverished, orphaned, widowed and maimed. It is less concerned with the notion of our spirits living on in some sort of vaguer form. Traditional Christian doctrine speaks of resurrection of the body because the identity of human beings is tied up with our bodies. We feel things rather than just think them, as indicated by the fact that the Bible talks about loving with the gut rather than just the mind. The Church argues that the future should contain a renewal and perfection of our bodies rather than simply release from them. Eagleton’s point is that whereas in Bloch there is a focus on a vague concept of the human spirit living on, Christianity looks to a more concrete renewal, a perfection of the Kingdom of God already initiated by Jesus that sees the homeless being taken in, the prisoners being visited and the thirsty being given water.

Eagleton says, perhaps paradoxically, that the ‘exemplary case of hope is tragedy’. What he means by this is that it is the pessimists, who see the injustices of the world as fundamental rather than as an aberration in a usually sunny world, who need to hope. We don’t need to hope when everything looks rosy, when our present circumstances offer evidence that things will work out just fine. Eagleton attacks the liberal faith in the goodness of humanity, which he says should have died out after World War II. He also attacks a conservative tendency to think that the status quo is okay.

Rather, the world doesn’t offer a lot of cause for hope. Yes, Eagleton says, technology has improved our lives, but there are a lot of areas where it has made little difference to injustice, and only exacerbated it. Eagleton refers to Jurgen Moltmann who argues that the Christian perspective on hope begins with the realisation that the natural order of the world is unjust. If Bloch is the philosopher of hope, Moltmann is the theologian of hope and he argues that whereas for the Greeks the world is as it is and needs to be explained, for the biblical Jews the world is flawed and God needs to do something about it. At this point we could enlist Jacques Ellul, whom Eagleton doesn’t mention but whose book on hope is a kind of ghostly twin to Eagleton’s. Ellul suggests that we have plenty of knowledge about the state of the world – more than ever – and we don’t need more explanations of the world; we want to know when it will change (‘How Long, O Lord?’). Of course there are resonances here with Marx’s proposal that ‘the point is not to explain the world but to change it’. (Eagleton doesn’t always agree with his fellow Marxists’ ideas of what changing the world entails.)

moltmann

Both Marx and Bloch suggest that it is at our lowest point where hope (not the chocolate cake variety) starts to grip, and it is from here that we can long for radical change. It is not enough to see a cure in the current circumstances. In fact, easy-to-envisage change is not hope, but optimism. This is the kind of thing Eagleton criticises in author Matt Ridley, for whom capitalism has the potential to fix whatever mess we presently find ourselves in. Hope must have an indeterminate quality about it. It must have its source or hint in the present, but must be something we can only see through a glass darkly. Jacques Ellul suggests that hope looks to the improbable. It can’t be rationalised. It is something we can’t properly put into words. This is why we speak of faith in this context. Faith is trust in God to do something, to enact a rescue that we can’t quite spell out ourselves and that we can’t see laid out in front of us. For Ellul, hope entails a wary of certainties. This is why Christians should be equally cautious of announcements of either the inevitable withering of capitalism or the inevitable utopia of a capitalistic future.

A hope in an as-yet indeterminate Christian solution is not delusional, like hope that Martians will rescue us, as is sometimes assumed of Christian hope. It is a matter of trust based on tradition and experience leading back through the Early Church and the disciples’ experience of Jesus. This hope can’t be willed, but it can be encouraged, which the Church does. It is also, as Eagleton points out, more than an emotion, although one could argue we are emotionally invested and our emotions will be affected by its existence and its fulfilment. It is a mix of feeling and intellect which leads us to see something and be certain of something despite the majority of evidence to the contrary, and despite the fact that others may not apprehend this vision.

As Jacques Ellul points out, hope is lived out (in community). The idea of the Kingdom of God is not about going to heaven when we die; it is about working towards a future state of renewal – the now and the not-yet. Even though we see this future dimly, we can strive towards it. If I said ‘I hope I pass that exam’ it would be odd if I then refused to study for it. But we also work against our hope, as when I say ‘I hope my bookshelves don’t collapse’ as I proceed to load them further. Christian hope is realistic about the potentiality of rescue with human capabilities. It relies on a radical act that goes against human tendencies. This Eagleton names as grace, as does Christianity, and Eagleton finds the acting out of grace exemplified in the theatre of Shakespeare, which is a discovery also made by Marilynne Robinson in her latest book of essays. Robinson suggests that in the political climate of the time Shakespeare had to be coy about his religious allegiance, but she argues for him as a theologian of grace. According to Eagleton, Shakespeare recognises that although ‘Nature cannot transcend itself by virtue of its own powers,’ there exists within it grace, which is ‘a divine gift bestowed from beyond the frontiers of secular history’.

As with some of Eagleton’s other books, some of the material here sounds like extended, reworked book reviews, and in the past that is exactly what his books have been. But Eagleton is a literary critic and it is understandable to find a close attention to other writers’ works. His eclectic reading habits turn up good material, and beyond that he can be increasingly relied on to argue that the improbable Christian future is the only one worth keeping our eyes on.

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