By Elizabeth Anderson 

The early 21st century presents many of us with a crisis of hope much more than a crisis of faith. There are the global issues: climate crisis, mass shootings, racial injustice, war. More locally, we confront the precipitous decline of many churches, the erosion of the humanities, and the collapse of academic institutions. The list could go on, and the sober prognosis is grim. In the face of such dire realities, the Christian virtue of hope often seems like a mere naïve optimism, a delusional belief against all evidence that the future will somehow be better than either the present or the past.

I often tell students that virtues are often best understood by considering the vices that are opposed to them. Prudence is seen more clearly when contrasted with rashness, or temperance when compared to drunkenness. But when I ask students which vice is the opposite of hope, without fail they walk directly into my pedagogical trap by unanimously and unhesitatingly answering “despair.” In fact, though, most Christian writers have described hope as being the midpoint between two opposite sins: despair on the one hand, and presumption on the other. The near-disappearance of presumption from our contemporary moral discourse, despite its traditional prevalence in the Christian tradition, suggests to me that much of what passes for hope in our day is perhaps merely presumption by another name.

If you are convinced that the future is definitely going to be better than the past, if you are certain that you can definitely save the academy, save the Church, save the climate, then that’s not the virtue of hope, but the sin of presumption. The fact that, eschatologically, God’s plan for all creation will come to some kind of fruition does not mean that any of the minor story arcs where we find ourselves in the meantime will necessarily have a positive outcome.

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I think it is perhaps no coincidence that the revival of interest in both eschatology and the theology of hope in the second half of the 20th century coincided with a period in which, despite great challenges, there was nevertheless widespread optimism that a better world was very much possible, and a belief that things could, and indeed would, change for the better. On many fronts, for many people, that sense of optimism has now long since eroded. But this may, perhaps, allow us to disentangle the Christian virtue of hope from the sentiment of optimism with which it is so often misidentified. To that end, a retrieval of Christian theologies of hope from eras of Christian history long before the 20th century may be instructive.

Within Western Christian theology, hope is usually discussed in the context of eschatology, and it is oriented primarily toward the future. Furthermore, following Thomas Aquinas, hope has often been seen as a theological virtue, one that can be infused only by the grace of God, and not one that can be acquired by human effort. But within the monastic literature of Eastern late antiquity, hope was more often seen as a praxis for living in the present moment — faithfully doing the work that is put directly in front of you without falling into either presumption or despair. This is certainly not to claim that Eastern Christian theologies are devoid of eschatology; if anything, they are often rather stronger on it! However, they are more likely to speak of our expectation of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come as the object of faith, with hope being the active, ascetical struggle that we undertake in this life rather than a state of longing anticipation toward the future.

That active struggle against sin, both personal and structural, is precisely what the monastic literature of late antiquity names as hope. According to the fifth-century monastic writer Diadochos of Photike, faith is the passively received gift by which we look toward the kingdom of God. But hope is the active progress of the mind striving toward God. Indeed, the favorite term that Diadochos and other Greek writers use to describe the practice of hope is agon, which means struggle, ordeal, even combat. The struggle of hope is not the comfortable assurance that the future will be better than the present, but it is rather the active battle to do the work that one is able to do, with the presumption of success being as fatal an error as the temptation to despair. If you look up or down while you are climbing toward God, you are liable to fall, and so must instead keep your eyes only on what is directly in front of you, lest you lose your balance.

John Climacus warns in The Ladder of Divine Ascent that virtues sometimes carry a particular vice with them as a stowaway. He vividly compares this to drawing a bucket of water and bringing up a toad with it. In the case of hope, he warns that the vice most likely to attach itself is laziness. If one has confidence that God will eventually bring all things to rights, then there can be an attendant temptation to think that one doesn’t really have to try very hard. Likewise, if one is convinced that one’s efforts are all in vain, and that there is no realistic prospect of success, then one may be tempted to give up in despair. Both despair and presumption are fundamentally failures to do work, assuming that there is an inevitable outcome and that one’s efforts don’t actually matter. They are also both attempts at control, insisting that a particular outcome is assured rather than accepting the contingency and uncertainty of creaturely existence.

John’s remedy for the danger of laziness is to remind his readers that hope is a battle, not a victory. He urges the hopeful monk to slay despondency with his sword; then, having defeated despair, the hopeful monk must immediately turn and do battle against presumption. True hope is thus not a passive stance of anticipation, but rather the active power behind love, the force that leads us to fight for what it is that we love. It is commitment, directionality, ceaseless effort, a continual battle.

Now, for all that I’m a pacifist, I will admit that I actually love this kind of spirituality of battle. But for those who find the military imagery difficult, the other favorite analogy employed to describe this struggle in late antiquity is childbirth. An extended discussion of this is found in the fifth-century writer John of Apamea, but the image is found in many other writers because it harkens back Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:18-25), which also uses the imagery of childbirth in connection with hope.

John of Apamea writes that just as a developing fetus cannot see the colors of creation or experience all of the scents and sounds and tastes that the external world possesses, so we also cannot even imagine the realities of the spiritual world that we will experience after the resurrection. But although the world to come has not yet been born, the process of labor has already begun, and the Church is now laboring in arduous struggle and expectation to bring that eventual reality into being, even without knowledge of what it will be like.

Now, I hesitate to expound too much on the mysteries of childbirth, because pretty much everything I know about the subject comes from watching Call the Midwife! But I’m really going to go out on a limb here and observe that childbirth certainly looks to me like work (it is, in fact, called “labor”). But somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost our focus on Christian hope as the arduous, if exhilarating, struggle of childbirth or warfare, and replaced it instead with a passive confidence that surely God will make things better for us in the future. Yet a key feature of both of these analogies is that warfare and childbirth are dangerous ventures, and they do not come with any guarantee of a successful outcome.

The focus on hope as struggle emphasizes that hope, together with its deficits (presumption and despair), is not an emotional state. Feelings of despondency only become despair if one actually gives up the fight, and feelings of confidence and optimism only become presumption when one becomes too confident to do the hard work that is necessary. The ordeal of hope is therefore a struggle that is undertaken daily regardless of the emotional state of the one who undertakes the labor. It is thus perfectly possible to work hopefully even when there is no realistic expectation of success. If one works in hope simply because it is the right human attitude to take toward work, then probable or actual failure is no reason to give up the fight.

The belief that the future will definitely be better than the present is often fantasy more than hope. If nostalgia is how the memory gets trapped and fixated on how things were somehow better in an imagined, mythical past, then fantasy is perhaps how the memory becomes trapped by imagining how things will be better in an imagined, mythical future. Both may actually be helpful in moderation. But in excess, both nostalgia and fantasy can serve as dangerous distractions from sober reflection on our actual present realities, and on the struggle that is placed before each one of us in any given moment.

A theology of hope that is focused not upon the future, but rather upon faithfully doing the difficult work that is set before us in the present, may be precisely what we need to renew in moments when the future seems particularly bleak, when there is no reason to assume that circumstances are going to get better, but when we nevertheless find that there is meaningful and important work placed in front of us to do; not because we will necessarily succeed, but simply because it is the human vocation to take up arms in the struggle against evil, to endure the birth pangs of a new reality, to labor on with neither presumption nor despair.

About The Author

Dr. Liza Anderson is a historical theologian who focuses on the ecumenical history of Christian spirituality, monasticism, and the history of ancient and medieval Christianity outside of Europe. Trained as a scholar of patristics and Syriac studies, she now teaches church history and ascetical theology at General Theological Seminary in New York City.

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Steve Schlossberg
27 days ago

Thank you—that’s the clearest and most helpful thing I’ve ever read about hope.

Chip Prehn
23 days ago

This elegant, practical article is really interesting and useful. I hope we might hear more from this writer. Surely it is the case that we have a tough time with the Christian hope. Dr. Anderson’s idea–derived from the sacred tradition but also from her own good insights–makes good sense: by planting both feet on the ground, taking a deep breath, and facing the “agon,” we are assuming Hope already; it is the horizon of our focused facing of the here and now — and thus it is as St. Paul might say inextricably bound up with Faith and Love. There… Read more »

Benjamin Horrocks
22 days ago

Thank you for sharing such an important understanding of hope. Is there a longer treatment that you have written with these themes?

Daniel Martins
13 days ago

Belated thanks for this, Liza. The Despair–Hope–Presumption continuum is an eye-opener for me.