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Introduction to Issue 17.2 of Political Theology on “The Secularization of Hope”

Issue 17.2 of Political Theology entitled “The Secularization of Hope” is now available.  Below is the introduction to the volume by David Newheiser of the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia.

One of the articles by Rick Elgendy entitled “Hope, Cynicism, and Complicity: Worldly Resistance in Reinhold Niebuhr’s Criticism of Karl Barth” is available for free download until July 1, 2016 at the following link.


Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 8.36.00 PMHope is an unstable force, powerful and unpredictable. Through hope, act and imagination press into a future that transcends present reality, and this is its power. Because it is directed toward what may be rather than what is, hope is disengaged from prudent calculation. As such, hope is detached from the rational evaluation of probabilities; in extremis, it faces impossible odds and anticipates the miraculous.

Through the extra-rational tenacity of hope, religious and political movements have been able to keep faith in the face of shattering disappointment. However, hope itself cannot determine whether such persistence is good. Hope has been the source of transformative change, but hopeful transformation is often evil. Hope presses ahead in the conviction that the future will redeem the pain of the present, but there is no certainty concerning what is to come. Hope is therefore a wager that is unavoidably perilous.

Although hope seems like a nice idea, the papers in this special issue suggest that it is profoundly problematic. They argue that hope allows people to respond productively to personal trauma and social disintegration, but they do not assume that hope is unambiguously good. On the contrary, each suggests that some forms of hope are helpful while others are not. Hope can sustain the work of truth and reconciliation or descend into solipsism and passivity; it can respond creatively to devastation or naively repeat the past; it can nourish the struggle for justice or inadvertently reassert privilege; it can enable transformative solidarity or embody metaphysical arrogance. These authors affirm the importance of a hope that maintains a self-critical openness, but they show that self-enclosed hopes may make things worse. Although they differ in many respects, they are united in recognition of hope’s ambivalence, its peril and its promise.

Reflection on hope is often confounded by the fact that it sits at the intersection of theology and politics. In keeping with its Jewish roots, Christianity is oriented by divine promises, but their fulfillment remains unrealized. Although Christians claim that the Christ has come, they await his coming again; although they pursue intimacy with God, its consummation remains to come. This delay inflects Christian practice at every point, and it has shaped the manner in which Christians engage the world.

Conversely, the motifs of Christian eschatology frequently echo in worldly politics. To take a recent example, Barack Obama’s politics of hope tapped into a political tradition that is at least as old as Cotton Mather’s Theopolis Americana. But even those who explicitly distance themselves from religious commitment frequently draw upon a theological vocabulary in order to motivate and sustain political transformation. Kant dreamed of perpetual progress, and Marx awaited the advent of revolution; neither, it seems, could do without messianic expectation.

Some assume that these two sides to hope — the secular and the religious — can be strictly separated, but the papers in this issue suggest that is a mistake. Devin Singh makes the case most directly: he argues that modern economists criticize irrational hope in terms borrowed from earlier theological debates. Tamsin Jones, Joshua Daniel, and Vincent Lloyd focus on the significance of hope for political contexts, but their accounts are informed by theological traditions of reflection on hope. Rick Elgendy focuses upon twentieth century theologies of hope, but he suggests that this specifically Christian debate has significance for the public realm of politics.

By holding together the two sides of hope, these authors suggest that worldly politics and hopeful theology influence each other too deeply to be disentangled. Secular hopes are inevitably formed by the long history of religious reflection on hope, while theologies of hope are marked by the complex ways in which hope works in the world. For this reason, thinking carefully about one requires attention to the other.
The papers in this issue agree that hope is problematic and powerful, and they suggest that this ambivalence is common to both theological and secular forms of hope. They demonstrate that, because theological and secular hopes face the same challenges, thinking through each can clarify the other. They suggest that, having been let loose in the world, hope remains delicate, subject to shattering disappointment, but it is also a resource for creativity and endurance in a dangerous world.

Devin Singh notes that the calm rationality of modern economics privileges one form of hope over another. Commentators like Alan Greenspan respond to the dangerous exuberance that threatens to destabilize the market by commending the patient calculation of what is to come; according to Singh, Greenspan’s criticism of enthusiastic hope is bound up with earlier criticisms of religious fanaticism. Much as Calvin and Luther criticized the excessive hopes of the radical Reformation, Enlightenment thinkers saw enthusiasm as a threat to social order. In this way, a specifically theological argument over the character of hope was used to promote the rationality of the market, sometimes at the expense of religion itself. Singh argues that, although Greenspan’s appeal to calculated hope presents itself as purely secular, it derives power from this theological background.

Tamsin Jones describes two dangers: hope may either extinguish agency by encouraging a purely passive expectation, or it may demand the satisfaction of a subjective desire that is essentially solipsistic. Jones argues that the act of bearing witness models a hope that avoids both quietism and idolatry. As Jones describes it, witnessing pursues the truth while acknowledging that truth can never be fully possessed; it attempts to respond responsibly even though no response is adequate to traumatic events. As displayed in the practice of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, witnessing exemplifies an active response to an excessive experience that overwhelms comprehension. In this way, Jones concludes, witnessing both presupposes and enacts a hope that involves expectation while remaining open to whatever comes.

Joshua Daniel reflects upon the meaning of hope when time itself is under threat. Following Hartmut Rosa, Daniel claims that the experience of temporality in modernity is threatened by accelerating change. On this view, we assimilate change by drawing upon the past and imagining the future, but acceleration compresses the time required for reorientation. Daniel argues that, because this frenetic haste makes it difficult to maintain a coherent narrative, it causes cultural temporality to break down. For this reason, where Jonathan Lear describes a hope that draws creatively upon other cultures, Daniel argues that temporal devastation requires a hope that may persist when culture as such has collapsed. This more radical hope trusts that the goodness of the world transcends enculturated understanding; it requires the humility to give oneself over to the world’s own temporality, which sometimes resists us.

Vincent Lloyd traces various ways in which hope has been conceived: as desire, as affect, as rhetoric, as novelty, and as identification with the poor. In each case, Lloyd claims that although hope presents itself as progressive, it reaffirms the status quo. Thus, when hope of this kind envisions racial justice, it projects a way of seeing that is distorted by injustice; for all its talk of the radically new, its program for change extends the presumptions of present reality. In place of these secularized accounts of hope, Lloyd defends a post-secular hope — nurtured in community and given by God — that is directed toward that which is good in itself. Lloyd argues that whites in particular are at risk of appealing to forms of hope that reassert white privilege, and so he concludes that white hope should be trained by despair in order to avoid idolatry.

Rick Elgendy argues that acknowledging the flaws in one’s traditions need not lead to cynicism since hope can harness disappointment in order to promote active engagement to promote active engagement. In support of this claim, Elgendy considers Reinhold Niebuhr’s argument that Barth exhibits a pessimistic quietism born from an oversensitive conscience. Where Niebuhr argues that Barth’s insistence upon self-criticism leads to despair, Elgendy shows that Barth did not take it to preclude meaningful action. Even if one agrees with Barth that we are always complicit in evil, it is possible to trust in a righteousness that transcends every community. In fact, Elgendy claims, human solidarity is strengthened by recognizing the gap between human efforts and the hoped-for Kingdom of God.

To conclude the issue, George Pattison reflects in light of the papers on hope’s resonance in the contemporary world. In Pattison’s view, the resurgent interest in hope responds both to the temporal character of human existence and to the breakdown of time in our technological age. As Pattison observes, in contexts where radical novelty is excluded, restoring our relation to the future requires a hope that is appropriately suspicious of the ways in which hope itself can go awry.

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