In the pages of his blog for World Affairs, David Reiff has been musing of late about the ways in which historical consciousness influences our political and social imaginations. His reflections on historical memory, especially the tendency for societies to carefully tend the fires of past afflictions and injustices, remind me of the witticism about Irish Alzheimers . It involves forgetting everything, except the grudges.
His most recent posting dissects the modern tendency to place hope in history. Scientific progress, economic growth, international cooperation: yes, observes Rieff, the world does change, and sometimes and in some ways for the better. But never fully and finally and reliably. We seem to slaughter each other with the tools refined by technological progress. Or Port au Prince is wiped out by an earthquake. Or our gilded lives of historically unprecedented material wealth become tainted by regret, unhappiness, and despair. History, Rieff concludes, makes no reliable promises, and we are foolish to invest our hope in this fickle god.
That sounds right to me. The Christian tradition identifies two sins against a proper hope in the promises of Christ: despair and presumption. Despair comes when we lose confidence in the victory of Christ over sin and death. Presumption comes when we no longer hope in Christ, and instead invest our hopes in various immanent processes and powers, as if our salvation will flow quite naturally from the progress of science, the wealth-creating potential of free markets, or, as Kant imagined, from the moral maturation of the human race, or, as Hegel puts it, from the metaphysical genius of history.
Hope? As Rieff observes, it may be necessary as a motive for a morally serious life. But he’d like modern men and women to give up their progressive fantasies and “sever the bond that seems to yoke” hope to history.
I’ve long thought that Christian faith and hope sustains a sober-minded and skeptical view of human affairs precisely because it does not yoke hope to history. Christian hope is what is called a supernatural virtue, which means that it’s a gift of grace, not something one can acquire by a realistic assessment of the evidence of human life. As anyone who has buried a child or a parent or a close friend knows, it’s neither obvious nor easy to sustain a robust hope in the promises of Christ. So much argues to the contrary. Christian hope need neither ignore nor deny the painful facts of life, and it certainly does not encourage us to paint our historical experience in soft pastels.
On the contrary, the very source of our hope, which is the mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, saturates the Christian historical imagination with a particular vivid sense of the life-crushing reality of evil and the penetrating power of death. The triumphant Yes of life comes at first as a mere whisper on the lips of the Crucified, and it echoes in the darkest prison cells of deepest hell. Yet, Christian hope is not “outside of history,” as Rieff imagines the only alternative to hope IN history. The Risen Christ pierces history like a sword entering into a bloated, corrupted, maggot-filled body. Animated by hope, the followers of Christ enter into the wound as an invading army.
One of the first blows was struck by St. Stephen. As he was being stoned to death after witnessing to Christ, he prayed on behalf of his persecutors: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). The episode is quite relevant to Rieff’s concerns about the heavy burden of history. Forgiveness refuses to allow evil to control the future, and in so doing it disarms history. The sword of Christ is love, and hope in his promise of eternal life gives us the courage wield it. That’s a different sort of hope “in” history. It’s not a hope that expects history to flow nicely toward an ideal goal. It is, rather, a hope active in history, a hope that fights against the powers that make history such a sad affair.