Misplaced Hope

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
~W.H. Auden, “Advent,” III, For the Time Being

Where have you placed your hope? For many of us, the word ‘hope’ conjures up the image of Shepherd Fairey’s iconic poster of Barack Obama by that circulated so widely during the 2008 election. The poster cast then candidate Obama in our national colors, looking up and out toward some unseen distant horizon, the single word ‘hope’ emblazoned at the foot of his portrait in big capital letters. The image, which has since been mimicked by people on both sides of the aisle, is indisputably powerful, and, at the time, spoke to some of our nation’s highest aspirations. But whatever one might think of President Obama’s subsequent time in office, one would be hard pressed to find anyone who feels that the hope evoked by that image has come anywhere near to fulfillment. It’s hard to see how it could have. And in this election season, so rife with suspicion and scandal and petty bickering, the psalmist’s advice, “Put not your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help,” has never sounded more sage. (Psalm 146:3 NRSV) Christian citizens should, indeed, must participate in politics for the sake of the Kingdom and for the common good, but hope placed in politics, policies, or politicians will always be misplaced hope.

Many of us in the modern world are similarly tempted to place our hope in the promise of technology, whether digital or medical or agricultural or whatever, to make the world a better place. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, famously gave voice to this technocratic dream when he addressed the India Institute of Science in 1960, asserting that “it is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and literacy, of superstition and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people…. The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science.” A man educated in the elite institutions of the British Empire, Harrow and Cambridge, Nehru was impressed by the ways the Industrial Revolution had benefited the British people (ironically, by enabling the British to subjugate and exploit countries like India) and he believed that if only Indians could avail themselves of the same sciences and technologies they might enter a new golden age. But as the philosopher Mary Midgley argues, Nehru’s faith in technology was oversimple by half:

Supposing we were to ask Nehru: can you really rely on science alone? Aren’t you also going to need good laws, effective administrators, honest and intelligent politicians, good new customs to replace the old ones, perhaps even a sensitive understanding of the traditions that you mean to sweep away? Might you not even need to know a good deal of history and anthropology before you start on your destructive cleansing of tradition? Now Nehru knows of course, that he is going to need all these things. But he is assuming that all are included in what he means by science. He includes in “science” the whole world-view which he takes to lie behind it, namely, the decent, humane, liberal attitude out of which it has actually grown…. He expects that the scientific spirit will include within it wise and benevolent use of those discoveries. He is certainly not thinking of science as something likely to produce industrial pollution, or refined methods of torture, or opportunities for profiteering, or a concentration on weaponry, or overuse of chemicals on farms, or computer-viruses, or irresponsible currency speculation made possible by the latest computers, or the wholesale waste of resources on gadgetry.

One might think that by now we would be so keenly aware of the shadow side of technology, from clickbait to chemical weapons, that we would be unlikely to be overawed when the techno-prophet Steve Jobs comes down from the mountain with his two tablets. And yet the myth that every problem admits of some technical solution continues to seduce us. Whether it’s the utopian vision of Star Trek or the tough-minded, can-do spirit of movies like The Martian, we are inclined to believe that we can engineer our way out of any problem and perhaps even in to the Promised Land. But the technocratic hope that, with the right technologies and the right policies, we can engineer a good society and enjoy the good life without having to be good ourselves is, as Midgley warns us, a false hope.

The psalm in this week’s lectionary is Psalm 121, a psalm very near to my heart because when I was learning Hebrew in seminary we used to sing this psalm in Hebrew every morning before class.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth. (vv. 1-2, ESV)

The psalmist rightly looks beyond the immanent plane and places his hope in the Lord. Neither technology nor politics can remedy our immorality, which corrupts all that we touch, or our mortality, the final frustration of all our efforts. In the final analysis, the problems stemming from our twisted human nature—our inveterate fallibility, finitude, and folly—require a supernatural solution. We need the maker of heaven and earth to make us new, to replace our selfish hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. As W.H. Auden said, “Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.”

To my friends who, surveying the current scene, are tempted to to despair, I have good news: In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Infinite became a finite fact and the Eternal did the temporal act, freeing humanity from futility. To my friends who are tempted to place your hope in the merely possible, may I suggest that you lift your eyes beyond the mountains toward our only possible true and final hope, the maker of heaven and earth who was Himself made flesh and is, even now, making all things new.


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