Transcendent Hope Amidst Cultural Devastation

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

Romans 8: 24-25

St. Paul speaks of “hope” in Romans 8 in the context of the groaning of all creation, including ourselves, “as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” All is in the process of coming to be what it is “not yet.” One of our greatest illusions is that we make our own future. Of course, we have a share in the form that our life takes, but the very nature of that share is responsibility, our ability to respond to what is given and what is asked of us. So, the “work” of our life is always a work in faith, hope, and love. We live in hope about the future, but it is a “hope for what we do not see.”

There is always a human tendency to hyper-dramatize the struggles and conflicts of one’s own time. Every moment, as Charles Dickens wrote “is the best of times” and “the worst of times.” It seems fair, however, to say that a uniqueness of our time is the speed with which cultural forms rise and fall. Whereas our grandparents, for example, lived out the course of their lives with a certain consistency of cultural structure and value, those generations following us will perhaps see a constant shifting of cultural and ethical norms in the course of their single lifetimes.

At this moment in history it feels very much as if both in the realm of our individual life forms (marriage, single life, religious life) and in our shared western culture, certainly in the United States, we are experiencing a moment of what Jonathan Lear calls “cultural devastation.” In his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Lear examines the life of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow nation. Plenty Coups describes his cultural moment in the following way:  “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” Lear’s theme is what is the actual nature of hope in a moment, after which in light of past experience, “nothing happened.” Both as a member of an “active” religious community, founded in the 19th century, and as a citizen of the United States, I find myself as part of two cultural forms that appear to be disintegrating. We think, we imagine, we create our lives and our future in light of the forms we know. What happens to us when those forms no longer serve or even apply? How do we maintain a stance of hope in the face of what appears to us as “nothingness”?

How do we “hope for what we do not see”? At the level of our rational-functional ego this is impossible. As Lear points out, if all I “understand as valuable . . . is going to evaporate,” then I must be able to trust and hope in what I do not understand or can even recognize. It is only in our capacity as spirit, our essential nature as transcendent, that such hope and trust in the good is possible. We can navigate such a social and cultural transformation with integrity only from the transcendent dimension of our human personality. It is there that we know our true abode is in and with the Mystery. We have learned to live life not in the false security of the forms we create but in the always beckoning call of the Mystery, a Mystery that we have come through experience to recognize as trustworthy.

All created forms rise and fall. If we have come to know and to appreciate this in both our personal lives and the world around us, if we have come to touch the ground of that which is present in all forms but which transcends every one of them, we shall, as Jan van Ruusbroec says, know a rest that is suffused with love. Plenty Coup lived at the historical moment when the life of his entire people was being destroyed. Their life in all its dimensions was inextricably bound to the presence of the buffalo. Any way which his people had of identifying and measuring “the good life” was lost to them. Thus, hope could only survive by hoping for a good that he and they could not know. To hope was to believe that there would be “good” for them, even though they could not even begin to imagine what that good would look like.

As the mystical tradition is always reminding us, transcendent faith, hope, and love are of a radically different order than our more physical and material versions. Most commonly when we hope, it is for a specific and desired outcome. If we cannot see the object of our hope physically, we can at least picture it in our mind’s eye. Yet, the hope of which St. Paul speaks is a hope “for what we do not see.” It is a hope for what we cannot see. As T. S. Eliot, echoing St. John of the Cross says:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
(East Coker)

Lear says that to hope in the face of life, as we know it, coming to an end, we must be able both “to recognize the discontinuity that is upon” us and “to preserve some integrity across that discontinuity.” The first great temptation, when we live in a moment of “cultural devastation,” is to deny the discontinuity that is upon us. Pope Francis has warned of this tendency in religious life, a certain romanticization of the past. It is natural enough that when a form is breaking apart because it no longer serves the current reality we can think that what we most need to do is “strengthen” it. Pope Francis was speaking of candidates for religious life who long for a restoration of the external aspects of the form from the past. The “problem” from this point of view is not “discontinuity” but rather merely a loss of those external manifestations of a form that served well in times past.

Such a refusal to face the discontinuity also takes the form of nostalgia and a romanticizing of the past by current members. Instead of facing the call of the unknown in the present into the future, our psychic energy is spent on a sentimental and self-congratulatory retelling of our past members and achievements. Paradoxically enough, one way of evading the truth of the discontinuity of a cultural form is to conflate the very life of one’s people with the life of the form and to declare both as dead.

So, we must remain awake to the truth and to the reality of our situation. We must also, however, “preserve some integrity across the discontinuity.” How do we do this? Primarily, as we’ve stated, by growing in our capacity to live transcendentally. We need “temporary and contingent” forms in which to live out our lives. But these forms are not our lives. In the gospel for today, Luke has Jesus telling us that the Kingdom of God is like the mustard seed and the yeast in the dough. Real life is small and hidden deep within. It is the measure by which our lives our grounded in the inner life, our “ordinary” life with God that is “common to all” as Ruusbroec says, that we are able to pass and to grow from one current form of life to another, “preserving some integrity across the discontinuity.” The “integrity” we preserve, at the individual level, is what Ruusbroec calls the “ordinary.” At the common or cultural level it is the radical or seminal truth of our common call.

It seems there is little doubt that we, citizens of the United States, are living in a moment of “cultural devastation.” If so, it has been a long time in coming. The American experiment in constitutional democracy has always been a fragile one. Unlike many other nation states, it was, in its ideation, never constructed on a common ethnicity. Rather, it was founded on basic human ideals of the Enlightenment — protestations of religious foundations not withstanding. For some time, however, we have seen so called “Constitutional principles” used to justify privilege and prejudice, to foster extreme capitalist and consumerist ideologies. Largely through the undue political and so judicial influence of the wealthiest class, the Constitution has come to be contorted in ways to further increase their position and privilege. As a result, to many it seems as if this culture is on the verge of dissolution. The increasing tensions in both political parties and throughout the country suggest the search for what constitutes the “integrity” that is to be preserved through the discontinuity. Is it possible to create a society based not on racial, religious, and ethnic commonality, nor on the flourishing of the few and the subservience of the many, but on the universal human rights of Locke as adapted by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence? If so, where will lie the continuity and the discontinuity of the new with the current form? The temporarily ascendant movement is the denial of discontinuity in an attempted restoration of a past of racial privilege and unacknowledged genocide. Yet, in its lack of correspondence to reality, it is doomed to be short lived.

A great danger is that in the cultural devastation that seems likely to occur we shall lose hope. In the political, as in the religious and personal spheres, it is only in transcendent hope, in “a hope for what we do not see,” that we remain invested and committed to the passage from the “cultural devastation” to a new form of common life. Without hope there is only violence. Yet the hope of which St. Paul speaks must be a hope that does not cling to specific objects and outcomes. We find our way to new and more congenial forms of life only as responsible servants of the Mystery. In the Gospel of John, Thomas says to Jesus:  “We do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” Jesus answers him, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:5-6). We know the way, but only in “sincerity and truth.” It is difficult to live an ever-changing human life. It is much easier to live “formally,” to take the contingent and temporary forms within which we live our lives for life itself. To truly live we must keep our eyes and our hearts focused on the One who is the very source of life itself.

There is more to hope for than mere biological survival. It is not enough for me simply to survive. Another person might say, “All I care about is survival; and when I get to the other side of the abyss there will be different goods, and I’ll then want them.” But that is not enough for me. If everything I care about, if everything I understand as valuable, if everything I understand about myself as valuable and making life worth living—if all that is going to evaporate, I would prefer to go down in a blaze of glory. I would prefer to be a a martyr to that way of life. If I am going to go on living, I need to be able to see a genuine, positive, and honorable way of going forward. So, on the one hand, I need to recognize the discontinuity that is upon me—like it or not there will be a radical shift in form of life. On the other hand, I need to preserve some integrity across that discontinuity. There are some outcomes that would be worse than death. But I do have reason to hope for a dignified passage across this abyss, because 

God—“Ah-badt-dadt-death”—is good. My commitment to that genuine transcendence of God is manifest in my commitment to the goodness of the world transcending our necessarily limited attempt to understand it. My commitment to God’s transcendence and goodness is manifested in my commitment to the idea that something good will emerge even if it outstrips my present limited capacity for understanding what that good is.

I am thus committed to the idea that while we Crow must abandon the goods associated with our way of life—and thus we must abandon the conception of the good life that our tribe has worked out over centuries. “We shall get the good back,” though at the moment we can have no more than a glimmer of what that might mean.

Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, pp. 93-94

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