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Hope is not optimism

Hope is most definitely not optimism – that’s one of the many takeaways from Dr Con Casey’s powerpoint presentation in the Loyola Institute entitled ‘Hope in This Time of Need’, delivered to a packed hall on Wednesday 27 November 2019. Hope rather is a social practice, not a mental attitude. According to Dr Casey, “It is a disposition to act affirmatively with regard to the future even when the outlook is dismal.” (You can listen to a recording of his presentation above.)

In his address Dr Casey says he wants to make such a familiar word as ‘hope’ strange again so that “we might then re-enter its meaning with renewed energy, rejuvenated.”

To do this he draws on a number of authors, beginning with Fr Tony Coote, a priest of the Dublin diocese who died recently from motor neurone disease. In the latter stages of his illness, Fr Coote is left utterly immobile, his body wasted, he cannot speak, and can barely see, yet he writes, “… I see no meaning in this life ending in a grave. When the train stops, I will step onto that platform with hope and no fear.” And Con Casey comments, that in his life and how he views it, Tony Coote demonstrates the connection between hope and humility. “He [Tony] is setting out for an inheritance, not knowing where he was going, as did Abraham.”

Terry Eagleton’s book The Banality of Optimism provides the basis for the necessary distinction between hope and optimism that Casey elucidates. According to Eagleton, optimism can be described as a firm conviction that things always work out for the best. It depends on a (largely unsubstantiated) presupposition that history and progress are synonymous and can inherently deliver what is best for us. “The problem with optimism is that it doesn’t take the desolation of the world seriously enough,” says Dr Casey, who adds that there is also a difference in the way we acquire hope or optimism.” For the most part, optimism is a matter of temperament, but hope has to be learned and cultivated. It is an acquired habit of acting, thinking and feeling.”

Dr Casey also draws on the work of Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish writer pursued by the Nazis who took his own life as he tried to escape them at the Spanish border.

Benjamin was scathing about the ‘optimistic’ option, holding that history will only ever generate wars and catastrophes. Not only does he regard the optimistic world view as morally and politically corrupt he holds that there is no hope at all in secular history.

Benjamin does acknowledge that there are some ‘messianic moments’ in history where people do make a pitch for justice and community, but these moments are like a “sub-plot, a secret code that runs against the grain of what might be called the central plot of history.” Dr Casey says there is “sobering spiritual wisdom” in Benjamin’s thought, quoting the latter’s bleak words, “Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope.”

If we accept that history in and of itself is can never deliver increasingly better outcomes for humankind–”the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule,”– as Benjamin puts it, then where can we find the hope in history?

Believing along with Eagleton that there is indeed more hope in history that Benjamin allows, Casey notes that “Christian hope, if it does turn our gaze beyond history, also requires us to return to history.” And he cites the encounter between Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist as told in the gospel of John. The Baptist points to Jesus, describing him as the lamb of God who is “taking away the sin (not the sins) of the world.” Casey remarks that the phrase ‘the sin of the world’ refers to “the ugly wound that is disfiguring the entire human narrative.”

Casey, therefore, looks to the incarnation of the Christ, the irruption of the transcendent eternal into time and history as his source of what he calls ‘hope transfigured’. In the final section of his presentation, he relies particularly on the work of the French poet and philosopher Charles Péguy for his exploration of what this type of hope might mean. He pays particular attention to Péguy’s lengthy poem  The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, a poem born out of deep despair. He quotes at length from the poem in which God is speaking.

But hope, says God, that is something that surprises me.
Even me. That is surprising.
That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will go better.
That they see how things are going today and believe that they will go better tomorrow morning.
That is surprising and it’s by far the greatest marvel of our grace…

and further,

What surprises me, says God, is hope,
And I can’t get over it.
This little hope who seems like nothing at all.
This little girl hope.

Commenting on these stanzas, Casey says that the hope that surprises God, is”God’s inner life projected onto the ruins of history as a new transfigured form of hope.” And he adds that the little child of hope”inspires the virtues that lead us to be constantly in search of moral realism, prompting us to resist the excessive optimism that our privileged position readily fosters.”

In response to the question of how we embody or perform ‘transfigured hope’, Casey says “the first practice of hope is prayer,” by which he means, “participation in the millennia-long experiment in listening to God while looking at the crucified Christ.” And he concludes, “‘We have already been saved, not in fact but in hope’.(Josef Pieper) To say ‘we are saved’ is to say that the healing of the ugly would of history is happening to us.”