Living Like a Narnian: Finding Hope in Dark Days
These are dark days, and optimism is in short supply. But we’re Christians, and this is Christmas. Shouldn’t we, of all people, be hopeful?
Photo Credit: iStock.com/StefanoVenturi
Lots of people these days are asking, “Are you optimistic about the way things are going?”
Hmm… Things aren’t looking so good.
Since the IPCC Report came out in August of this year, I’ve been pretty discouraged about the liveability of our planet in the not-too-distant future. Somehow we’ve got to muster the courage to take drastic measures to slow the warming trends. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. The commitments made at the recent Glasgow COP26 climate summit are insufficient to keep the global temperature rise under two degrees Celsius, and most nations have a track record of not living up to such commitments anyway.
I’m afraid the future climate we’re bequeathing to the next generations is not the inheritance they would hope for.
Climate doom and gloom is just a little too distant to spur our human psychology into action. We’re much more concerned with the present reality of a pandemic, but not really handling that so well either. Now the question is whether we’re going to run out of Greek letters to name the variants before we can tame this coronavirus into submission. And what will be left of the strained and fractured personal relationships when we can return to normal life?
These are dark days, and optimism is in short supply.
But we’re Christians, and this is Christmas. Shouldn’t we of all people be hopeful?
What is hope?
I’ve been thinking a lot about hope lately. Particularly, I’ve been trying to sort out whether it’s possible (and logically consistent) to be hopeful but not optimistic. I’m afraid I’m not very optimistic about the way things are going, but I want to be hopeful. Can I do that?
Of course the answer depends on what we mean by those words, and I don’t want to just define the problem away. But it seems to me that there is something deeper and more abiding about hope that is less dependent on the immediate circumstances the way optimism is. “And now these three remain,” said the Apostle Paul, “faith, hope, and love” (1 Cor 13:13). I’ve heard a lot of sermons about faith and love; not so many about hope. I suspect that is because we’re not sure what it means.
When I was a faculty member at a Christian college, one of my colleagues died tragically in a fishing accident. I was one of the people asked to speak at the funeral, and I couldn’t bring myself to offer platitudes like, “I guess God wanted to bring him home.” My message was more along the lines of, “this is awful and tragic and we should be sad and maybe even angry that this is the way the world is right now.” But I went on to say we have hope that the world won’t always be this way, and I hope to see my colleague again one day.
The next day I got an email from a pastor friend who was at the funeral. He invited me to have coffee because he wanted to talk. I accepted the invitation and wondered what he was going to say. It turned out to be a question about my use of “hope” in that context. He wondered why I didn’t say I “know” the world won’t always be this way, and I “know” I’ll see my colleague again one day. To him it sounded too wishy-washy and uncertain to say “I hope.” Was my faith wavering?
My response at the time was to refer to the Bible (a sound strategy for talking to pastors!), saying “hope” is a legitimate eschatological attitude—“the hope of glory” to quote Paul again (Col. 1:27). But I think there was something else going on inside me that gets us closer to understanding what it means for Christians to have hope.
All in on hope
A few months ago we did a podcast episode with Bill Newsome, a Stanford neuroscientist who is also a Christian. He gave a fascinating characterization of religious faith: “I often say that I think religious belief is about one third cognitive assent, and about one third intuition, and about one third sheer unadulterated hope.”
Our faith does involve a cognitive component—my pastor friend will be glad to hear that! We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he rose from the dead. Newsome didn’t expand on what he meant by “intuition” there, but I suspect it is something like “what seems reasonable to us.” And then the rest is sheer, unadulterated hope.
The older I get, the less I think I know—at least with certainty—and the more I hope. In my earlier days, I might have put Newsome’s percentages for religious faith to be closer to 75% cognitive assent, 20% intuition, and only 5% sheer unadulterated hope. Now I’m more comfortable with those things in thirds.
It is important here to understand that “sheer unadulterated hope” isn’t just wishful thinking (President Deb Haarsma made that point in her article on hope a couple of weeks ago). Rather, I’m taking hope much more in the sense of what I’m committed to. I want it to be true, yes, but I’m also acting in the expectation that it really is true. I may not be able to prove it to the satisfaction of the cognitive element, but I am “all in” committing myself to the truth of the Christian story.
I’m going to live as like a Narnian, as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia. I think that’s a really nice picture of hope. I’m committed to it despite the appearances and even the outcomes.
There’s no better literary illustration of this than Puddleglum in CS Lewis’s The Silver Chair. He’s a funny, melancholy character who helps lead the children in search of a lost prince, and their journey takes them to a nasty, underground kingdom where the circumstances get as bad as ours are today. They find the prince, but he’s under the spell of a witch. And she attempts to put them under the same spell through some incense in a fire and her soothing words that their memories of the world above and Aslan their king are just a dream of silly children. They all come to the point where that explanation does in fact seem perfectly reasonable and consistent with their experience (it satisfies their intuition). But then Puddleglum, in a herculean effort to break free from the spell, stamps out the fire and makes this speech to the witch queen:
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. I think that’s a really nice picture of hope. I’m committed to it despite the appearances and even the outcomes.
Finding hope when we’re not optimistic
So hope isn’t a feeling, but a commitment. In that sense it is something I can cultivate. How do we do that? Back to Paul.
In Romans 5, Paul boasts in his hope of sharing the glory of God, and then says, “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom 5:3-4).
Hope comes from character, which is the settled disposition for how we think and act. We create (or at least contribute to) our character by the kinds of habits we form. Paul speaks of these as endurance. I form habits by enduring in a consistent response. Response to what? In this passage, Paul says that comes from suffering. My response to suffering is what creates habits of endurance, and that’s where character comes from, and that’s how I develop hope.
In that sense, the state of the world today has delivered us the perfect circumstances for cultivating hope! I don’t mean that we should seek to suffer more. But maybe we can “boast” in sufferings that do come our way. That is, we should look at them as opportunities for building up the muscle of hope, for recommitting to the way of Christ.
Hope and faithfulness
In another recent podcast episode, Kyle Van Houtan answered my question about ways the Church might respond to the current climate crisis by saying, “We are not called to be effective, we are called to be faithful.” I think there is a lot of wisdom in that.
The pessimist in me doesn’t think we will be effective in limiting global warming to two degrees. The present circumstances don’t look good for this pandemic to go away anytime soon. And I don’t know if the deep wounds to our personal relationships will heal.
But I’m called to be a steward of this good Earth, and so I will act like one. I’m called to love my neighbor, and I see no more important application of that right now than getting vaccinated. I’m even called to love my enemies, which have appeared in surprising places the last few years and I must continue to treat them with respect and act for their good.
I think that’s what being faithful means right now. And in responding this way to the suffering that is upon us, I’m committed to the view that whether or not I am effective, God will bring good out of bad, even new life out of death.
“Are you optimistic?” The honest answer most days recently is, “No, not very.” But I am committed to hope.
Let’s go to the Apostle Paul one more time and give him the last word: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
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About the author
Deb Haarsma | James Webb Space Telescope