By Matthew Kemp
I distinctly remember sitting in my undergraduate class on medieval philosophy when we were discussing the ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas. I commented that I did not share the author’s optimism regarding human nature. This remark earned me an unexpected rebuke from my professor, who informed me that, for a Christian, it was hope, not optimism, that drove the Aquinas’s vision.
I have since given much thought to this exchange, and to what exactly such a distinction implies. In some ways, our everyday speech tends to employ hope and optimism more or less interchangeably. Upon closer examination, however, there does seem to be a certain variation in connotation, by no means universal, in which optimism can imply a reasonable confidence (I am optimistic about my team’s chances of winning), whereas hope may express little more than a wish or desire (I hope that you come to my party).
In contemporary American culture, we tend to gravitate toward optimism as reasonable confidence, and the American can do spirit seems to be alive and well. While anyone can identify a long list of social and political problems, many of us assume, in theory at least, that we can solve these problems as a nation if we put our minds and hands to it. Our default assumption — which even cuts across political lines of what our problems are and how to solve them — is that, on the whole, our economic life will continue to flourish, and that we will remain a primary player on the world political stage. This cultural bias toward optimism shows up in our personal lives as well. We are told to think happy thoughts, send “good vibes,” and focus on the positive aspects of a situation.
I can only speak for myself, but I often cannot help responding to such optimism with skepticism. Maybe it is my northern European ancestry, my melancholic temperament, or a fear of being disappointed. Whatever the source, I find myself asking things like But how do you know that it will turn out well? or Shouldn’t we be prepared for the worst possible outcome? I do not intend to rain on every parade, but it just seems naïve, even foolish, to operate on the assumption that things will turn out well. Some would call this pessimism, I might prefer sober realism, but it is certainly not optimism.
When my skepticism showed itself in my college philosophy class, it forced me to do some soul-searching. If hope is a Christian virtue, should I be so quick to ask critical questions? Is it not commendable to look for the best in a situation? Is it in fact “more Christian” to be an optimist than a pessimist?
Yet the way my professor distinguished the two terms implied not only a difference between them, but even the opposite characterization from our colloquial usage: optimism can be naïve, but Christian hope grasps reality. This is certainly the way that St. Thomas talks about hope. While natural hope takes as its object “a future good which is difficult to obtain, yet possible” (ST 2-220.127.116.11), hope as a theological virtue is directed toward “nothing less than God himself, since the goodness by which he bestows good things on a creature is nothing less than his essence” (2-2.17.2). As a result, “hope tends to its end with certainty, since it participates in the certainty of faith” (2-2.18.4). On the other hand, the glorified in heaven have no need of hope for future blessedness, because they already possess blessedness in the present (2-2.18.2).
If this definition of Christian hope seems abstract, I believe that it finds a concrete expression in the character of Puddleglum in The Silver Chair, in a way that clarifies the difference between true hope and mere optimism. From the time that Puddleglum is introduced into the story, he is clearly a pessimist par excellence. Despite his claim that he tries to put the best face on things, he is constantly assuming the worst, even when there is little or no evidence to support such a conclusion. Despite his aversion to optimism, he becomes an unexpected exemplar of hope.
At a critical moment in the narrative, an evil queen attempts to bewitch Puddleglum and his companions. Deep underground, she nearly convinces them that there is no world above them, that everything they remember about that world — trees, the sun, even the great lion Aslan — they have simply imagined. But it is Puddleglum who breaks the spell with these words:
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. … 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 … 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. (pp. 190-91)
Even in the midst of his persistent pessimism, Puddleglum hopes for a greater reality than what is in front of him. Yet while he prepares himself for disappointment, this hope is far more than a mere wish or desire. It is a confident acknowledgment that what he seeks is better than the alternative, even if fails to find it. It is, in other words, an apprehension of a reality not yet attained.
I would contend that it is precisely this grasp on reality that characterizes Christian hope. Optimistic desires and predictions may or may not pan out. People, institutions, and projects will inevitably disappoint. But as Christians our hope is in God, whose goodness is his very essence. And our hope comes with a confidence in God as its object — a reality greater than what is in front of us. Even in the midst of the sufferings and evils of this world, we look beyond our ability to improve things, our good fortunes, and our positive vibes, toward the greater things that God has in hand.
In that case, for those who find themselves out of place in a world of optimism, there may yet be hope.
The Rev. Matthew Kemp is curate at St. Paul’s by-the-Lake in Chicago and is working toward a PhD in theology at Loyola University Chicago. He has written previously for Covenant (“The Dead, Divided Church of Holy Saturday”).