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Between Presumption and Despair: Further Thoughts on the Ordeal of Hope

By Elizabeth Anderson

I have written previously about the understanding of hope espoused by many of the monastic writers of Christian late antiquity. Rather than a passive orientation toward a future that was believed to be better than the present, hope was seen as the active struggle to do the work directly in front of us, without falling into the opposite pitfalls of presumption and despair. This is a theology of hope that becomes most useful when our external circumstances seem bleak, and when the work to which we have been called seems unlikely to result in any obvious worldly success. I now want to return to this topic in order to consider two further aspects of that theme. 

The Ordeal of Hope Among Mortals and Angels

One of the interesting features of many writers in the Syriac Christian tradition is that humans are not the only creatures who struggle to work in hope, without falling into either presumption or despair. The angels also continue to struggle against both temptations. This may, perhaps, be a surprise to Western Christians who — when we remember to think about angels at all — usually regard those angels who did not fall and become demons as sinless. Scripture is silent on the question, however, and most writers in the Syriac tradition see the angels as exemplified by the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:25-35). If human beings are the younger brother, squandering our inheritance and getting the dramatic narrative arc of fall and return, angels are the older brother, obediently serving and doing everything that they are asked to do, but nevertheless being rather resentful and judgmental about it.

According to this tradition, humans and angels alike are made in the image of God, but humans are made in the image of God’s mercy, whereas angels are made in the image of God’s justice. That means that human beings are miserably incompetent at doing what is right, but are nevertheless capable of showing mercy. Angels, however, are pure, unmitigated, blazing justice, which is precisely why they are so terrifying. Their instinct, if they were not constrained by obedience to God’s will, would be to smite all of us who fail so miserable at justice, and when some of them fell into error, they preferred to justly condemn themselves to hell as the only righteous outcome, rather than accepting mercy and forgiveness. Accordingly, while human beings are certainly capable of both presumption and despair, presumption is seen as the more prevalent human flaw, so ubiquitous that we may not even notice it, and may even mistake our resilient belief that things will always get better for the virtue of hope. This is parallel to what modern psychology understands as “optimism bias.” Angels, by contrast, (having, perhaps, more knowledge and longer memories) are much more prone to the temptation to despair.

One of my favorite Syriac writers on the question of angelic despair is Joseph Hazzaya (eighth century), who has some marvelously despondent angels. According to his work On Providence, when human beings first sinned, the bond of affection between humans and angels was destroyed. Angels continued to minister to humans because God had ordered them to, but they did so only grudgingly and with great resentment. Moreover, whenever human beings fell into sin, the angels would be plunged into a dramatic despair, and every time a human being died, they would also become utterly despondent — convinced that all of their labor on our behalf had been in vain, that God had entrusted them with a hopeless and futile mission, and that there wasn’t any point to any of it. Joseph therefore interprets many episodes in biblical history as pedagogical lessons specifically for the angels, to teach them that they should not despair over these errant little earth creatures, and that it was worth their while to continue struggling on our behalf.

Now, if even the angels are pretty bad at this struggle of hope, in spite of millennia of practice, then it is unsurprising that human beings often fail in this ordeal. But the angels also teach by their example that presumption can be more dangerous than despair, because the angels who fell into presumption are those who fell and did not repent, whereas the angels who regularly succumb to the temptation to despair are those who repeatedly repent and renew their efforts on our behalf. This suggests that we should not be too hard on ourselves for all of the times that we fall into despair at the general state of things, but also that we should be even more on guard against the vastly more dangerous sin of presumption, which might lead us to think that if we can just manage to make the right plan and line everything up properly and finally get it right, we can manage to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth. Despair, by contrast, should at least inspire us to throw ourselves entirely on God’s mercy when our own resources fail us.

Anger and the Ordeal of Hope

How, practically speaking, are we to go about this ordeal of hope, engaging in struggle with neither presumption nor despair? The primary faculty given to aid us in this struggle is actually anger. Many Western Christians tend to assume, based on a cultural tendency to equate virtue with niceness, that anger must be inherently sinful. However, given that Jesus, who was without sin, is shown to experience anger in the gospels, and that Ephesians 4:26 exhorts us to “be angry and do not sin,” the reality must surely be more complicated than that.

It has become commonplace to number anger among the “seven deadly sins,” but traditionally this list was understood primarily as the list of passions that gave rise to sin. They were called the “capital” vices not because they were worse than the lowercase vices, but because they were the heads (caput) from which all sins sprang. Evagrius of Pontus, whose original list of eight thoughts became the list of deadly sins, included both anger and sadness on his list of passions that give rise to sin, but that is very different from seeing them as sinful in themselves.

Under the influence of Evagrius (and, ultimately, Plato), many monastic texts of late antiquity describe both desire and anger as inherently good human faculties that only become disordered when we misdirect them. Desire is given to us so that we will desire God, and the will of God, and it becomes disordered when it is misdirected and becomes attached to lesser goods. Anger is given to us so that we will fight against anything that would keep us from God and from God’s will. Anger becomes misdirected when we direct it against other human beings, against ourselves, against the human condition, or against God. The most appropriate object of our anger is demons.

I think one of the reasons we have a problem with knowing what to do with anger in Western Christianity is that, by and large, talk of demons tends to make us uncomfortable, and thus many theologians have neatly purged demons from their cosmology. (In fact, one of my former university libraries rather boldly classified their books on angels and demons under the heading of “superstitions and delusions!”) Even those theologians who might admit in private that they believe in demons are nevertheless unlikely to betray any evidence of that conviction in their scholarly work, which means that these absent demons have left behind a gaping hole in most modern theological systems.

The problem here is that, even if a theologian is personally convinced of the unreality of demons, they have historically occupied a key role within the Christian theological ecosystem. If you just come in and exterminate all of those pesky, inconvenient demons, like killing off all of the mosquitos or all of the spiders, then it’s going to have a domino effect on the rest of your theology. One of those many effects is on anger. If there are no more demons left to be the proper object of human anger, what is left? Yourself? The body? Other human beings? God? None of those seem especially helpful. At best, we end up with a theology without any real scope for struggle, because there are no longer any true opponents left to contend with. At worst we direct our anger toward one another.

If we are to understand hope primarily as a struggle and not simply a longing gaze toward some eschatological horizon, then it requires an opponent. But if the only enemies whom one can find to fight against are other human beings, then it is harder to see how the struggle of hope can truly be a virtue. If, however, our struggle is “not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 6:12) then the ordeal of hope can truly be a battle against everything that stands against the will of God. Hope therefore becomes an active struggle against opponents, not merely a passive anticipation of a better future.

Conclusions

Because neither humans nor angels have perfected the ability to sustain a constant attitude of hope, our struggle to draw ever closer to the kingdom of God is fundamentally the work of repentance. We may falsely assume that repentance is essentially about being sorrowful, and wallowing in regret for our numerous shortcomings. However, early Christian monastic literature insists that repentance is actually the most hopeful work a human being can do. John Climacus describes repentance as the daughter of hope, and Mark the Monk insists that continual repentance and growth in holiness is the power than enables hope to move us closer to the object of our faith and love. Indeed, hopeful repentance is the only kind worthy of the name, because without hope, regret for sins, whether ours or those of the society around us, is merely a form of complaining, self-loathing, or ingratitude. The ordeal of hope, therefore, calls us to action, not to an idealistic prospect of building a better world, but to striving in all of our undertakings to draw ever closer to God.

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