The Theology: Communicating Hope #2

June 3, 2012

So what do we do when faced with the sorts of things that Dr. Martin Hodson talked about in the first session of the Communicating Hope gathering, and which I summarised in my previous blog post? Prof. Richard Bauckham then helped us consider the situation from a theological perspective, by focussing on two things:

1. The relationship between ultimate and proximate hope

Ultimate hope is the final achievement of God’s purposes for his creation. If we believe in the God of Jesus Christ then we have an unconditional hope that rests on God’s promises to his creation and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The new heaven and the new earth are not a replacement but its renewal, when God takes it beyond the realm of evil, death and transience.

That is then coherent with our own destiny. To quote: ‘our bodies are our solidarity with the rest of this creation’, and so is Jesus Christ who maintains his solidarity with the creatures of this earth. We can’t imagine what this is going to be like: ultimate hope ought to be mind-blowing. But what we can hold on to is that nothing will be lost – all that God has found good in this present age will be there.

Proximate hope is to do with all the hopes we have for this temporal future, reflecting within this world the ultimate hope of new creation. Richard insisted that it’s very important to distinguish this vision from modern progressivism and modern utopianism. We’re not engaged in a step by step progress; what we are able to do in realising our hopes doesn’t accumulate as though we are building the new Jerusalem, brick by brick. Sometimes good developments accumulate, sometimes they don’t, but their value isn’t dependent on progression. Things have value in themselves and will have value in the end.

One key difference between the two hopes is that ultimate hope is unconditional (it depends only on God’s transcendent act of re-creation: Rom 5:5, ‘a hope that doesn’t disappoint’), but proximate hope depends on what humans do. God’s providence is constantly at work, but he doesn’t abolish evil in this world. This world will always be an ambiguous sphere. Proximate hopes can be disappointed.

Ultimate hope plays a vital role for those who live in desperate circumstances and the two hopes can relate in a way that empowers. Ultimate hope can fund proximate hopes. It enables us to work in the direction of God’s purpose, knowing that we are working with his purpose, with the grain of the universe, but distinguishing the two hopes enables us to be appropriately modest and realistic about what we can hope for here and now.  We don’t hold the tiller of history, we must simply do what we can, more or less, as the case can be.

2. Faith, Hope and Love

Richard then turned his attention to look at how reflecting on the way hope is connected with faith and love in 1 Cor. 13 can be a really helpful means of sustaining our hope. As he said, the three belong together: they are perichoretic, formed through their mutual relations. They’re mutually engaging and sustaining, each necessary to the flourishing of the others. Love believes all things (faith) and hopes all things (hope).

Love is mutual between God and us. This isn’t a closed circle: it expands, and our aim is to learn to love as God loves us and to love others and the wider creation in same way as God loves, sharing in the movement of God’s love that encompasses his whole creation and returns to him in reciprocal love. God’s love empowers ours.

Love hopes all things: it empowers hope. When we love we simply can’t help hoping: children, art, starlings, wild things. Love inspires hope and energises hope.

Faith is what makes Christian hope something much more than optimism about human capabilities. It means we don’t expect to achieve what we hope for all by ourselves. It leads to belief in providence. God can make of what we do much more than we can make of it ourselves. A great deal of human achievement and success depends on ‘coincidence’. God honours what we do by making more of it.

Hope: Love hopes all things. It raises the issue of hope and realism, which is a key issue for many of involved in environmental issues. Proximate hopes must be moderated and directed by realism about the real possibilities of the here and now.

As Bill McKibben has written about so well (in Eaarth: Making a life on a tough new planet), we’re living in a tough and getting tougher world. But we mustn’t give up, we must get into increased engagement. We need now to understand the world we’ve created and consider urgently how to live in it. We need to figure out what parts of our lives and ideologies we must abandon – so that we can protect what we can and survive. This doesn’t mean giving up hope, but is about being mature and realistic about where we’ve got to and what we have to do to keep going.  As McKibben says, ‘maturity is not the opposite of hope, it’s what makes hope possible.’

In a situation of disappointed and uncertain hope, it is this trio of virtues that must keep us going. These virtues are linked in the NT with endurance and they can lead us into new visions of the future even in a sorely damaged world.

This is dense stuff and I hope you’ve made it through to the end of this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Richard’s reflections. Do you find what he says helpful?


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  • Reply Paul Davies June 8, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Hi Ruth

    This is similar to what Bonhoeffer calls the ultimate and the penultimate. The penultimate aims to be an essay in the ultimate and is therefore related to the ultimate in an indirect way. This does not nullify our penultimate but recognizes that there is always “an eschatological reserve” (Moltmann). The penultimate is also linked to the ultimate in a direct way because it is more than simply a reflection of the ultimate it also constructs the ultimate. I know there is a danger of an invalid synergy here but in some miraculous way, our work to heal this damaged world is the construction of the new one.

  • Reply ruthvalerio June 10, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    I like that idea of the penultimate being ‘an essay’ in the ultimate, and it’s encouraging to think that it constructs the ultimate, even if we can only say ‘somehow’. BTW nice to see you here!

  • Reply Progressive Evangelicalism: Being an embodied question mark | Ruth Valerio June 10, 2012 at 9:10 pm

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  • Reply Byron Smith July 4, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Is Prof Bauckham’s talk available in either transcript or audio? I remember hearing at the conference that it was going to be made available (even sent out to delegates?) and was wondering whether this has happened or is going to.

    • Reply ruthvalerio July 5, 2012 at 10:11 am

      Yes, it is going to happen, but hasn’t yet… you’ll hear once it’s available. Sorry it’s taking so long!

      • Reply Byron Smith July 6, 2012 at 10:02 pm

        No worries – just wanted to check that I hadn’t missed it. I’d really like to go over it in more detail at some stage.

  • Reply Dave Pearson February 5, 2022 at 12:06 pm

    The failure of the Western church to understand that “the new heaven and the new earth are not a replacement but its renewal” is one cause of our failure to address our destructive addiction to consumption. Many Christians ask “Why bother looking after a planet that is going to be destroyed and replaced?” Do you have any thoughts on how this fundamental misunderstanding can be corrected?

    • Reply Ruth February 6, 2022 at 8:15 pm

      Hi Dave, yes, do read chapter four of Saying Yes to Life – you’ll find that helpful.

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