What Do You Mean, “Not Optimistic?”

Posted: May 13, 2011 in Theology
Cathedral of St. Andrew

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I have always thought of myself as an optimistic person. You know the one who says, “the cup is half full.” Until recently I have never really reflected upon this notion any more deeply than most people. Over the past several weeks I have been reading Miroslav Volf‘s book,  Against the Tide, as a daily devotional. While many of the short essays were previously published in Christian Century I found each of them (so far) to be treasure troves of spiritual and theological insight. In the most recent essay I read, Volf makes a significant descriptive contrast between optimism and hope. Have you ever considered the differences between the two?

From Volf’s description optimism’s starting point is cause and effect thinking. In other words an optimist imagines the near future positively based upon the reasonable expectations that one’s abilities will provide a positive outcome in the future. The noticeable emphasis is based upon the humanistic centrality of the optimist’s performance.

What is often confusing is that hope is not optimism. Here Volf relies upon Jürgen Moltmann‘s notable work Theology of Hope. In this work Moltmann argues for the centrality of hope to the Christian faith. Unlike optimism, hope is not dependent upon human performance and abilities. It stands in direct contrast to Modernity’s notion of progress and the fallacy that technological and scientific advancement can and will solve all human ills. As noted by Volf, hope in this sense is dependent upon a transcendent reality. “Hope is grounded in the faithfulness of God and therefore on the effectiveness of God’s promises.”[1]

In a world where there seems to be more natural disasters, wars and various other tragedies, I think optimism is not up to the task. Sure anyone can be positive when walking beside still waters, but in this world where nuclear holocaust is becoming a more realistic future and when people are feeling helpless in the face of the awesome power of weather, what then? Perhaps it’s me, but when I look around and see wars being waged that are propagating toxic hate that revels in death and multiplies optimism seems elusive.

However, I think a rightly placed hope creates a redeemed optimism. It is an optimism that is confident in the call that has been given to those who follow Jesus. It is not grounded upon human ability and performance but upon the realized hope of what God can and will do through those who are faithful. In a theological sense it is how the Spirit animates the believing community to the new life in Christ. It is from this perspective that I will trust in the efficacy of God’s promises and live as if they have been realized. Perhaps this is a redeemed optimism that is divorced from the false claims of modernity and which refocuses upon the source of all things. Whatever the case may be, I will not consider myself an optimist in the usual sense (and certainly not a pessimist), but I am a hopeful person who will live a hope-filled life in the Spirit.

[1] Miroslav Volf, Against the Tide. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 45.

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