Some thoughts on the tension between Certainty and Hope, inspired by’s book “The Prophetic Imagination”…
“I have a dream!” said the Preacher.
A dream implies hope: hope for a better life, for redemption, or justification, or perhaps vindication. Hope is the conviction that the future holds the promise of better things to come, that the future is a better place than the present.
And the Preacher, representing a people who had endured centuries of oppression, terror, bondage, and worse, gave voice to their hopes that hot afternoon, more than 50 years ago.
“I have a dream!” he said. And yet, the hundreds of thousands who first heard those words had little else but those words.
Hope flourishes in the forgotten corners of human existence, in those places where certainty either does not exist, or where the only certainty to be had is dark and painful. Hope flourishes where human voices are not given the chance to speak, where human hands are not allowed to build a future for themselves, and quite often where those with power and wealth have done all within their power to eliminate the future.
Stop! …Say that again? Eliminate the future?
When the world becomes too ordered and too predictable, when the present is full and satisfies every need, then Hope dies.
Consider the book of Ecclesiastes, where (in chapter 1) “The Teacher” (said to be King Solomon) says:
…All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
There is nothing new under the sun…
The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that Solomon succeeded too well – everything was controlled. He had a strong army, secure borders, incredible wealth, and a powerful and devoted priesthood. Anything he wanted was his. Everything in the land was subordinate to his will – the very picture of a wise and glorious King sitting on the Golden Throne he’d created for himself.
The problem is, once you’re in that position, once the present is full of everything you need, and your comfort and needs are completely assured, what hope does the future have for you?
At the start of Solomon’s reign, the future had been a place of hope – a place where it was possible to imagine things getting better, to imagine new victories, new accomplishments, of redemption or vindication of ancient wrongs, and the satisfaction of almost any need and desire. – But once the present became full of all these things, the only thing the future became full of (at best) was more of the same, or else loss and death. There was nothing else, as the future had become the present, and when that happened, Hope died.
Once that happens, the future can no longer be allowed to hold the promise of change, because would mean that the current state of things is somehow insufficient. The future could only hold more of the same, without meaningful change. Change of any sort meant the intrusion of chaos, the threat of losing what they already had. Change could not be allowed to exist, nor even be conceivable. So, in the name of preserving and protecting what already was, Hope had to die.
And this is the trap that Solomon finds himself in – in securing his power and glory (by leaving nothing to chance), by ensuring that there was no room for chaos to intrude upon his life and his Kingdom, Solomon eliminated all hope for himself and his people. And so, he starts his book with the words “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
James Baldwin, a prominent voice for Civil Rights and Freedom in the 20th Century, wrote: “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” He’s getting at the same thing – a safe future is no future. To have Hope, we must be willing to risk ourselves – risk that which we see as essential to our identity. For a King, this means risking the Kingdom so that there is the hope of something better. Sadly, Solomon could not even conceive of a future better than what he already had. Vanity!
Even in our own lives, we see this tension between Certainty and Hope. We constantly seek to shore up the walls we’ve built to protect us from Chaos by building new infrastructure; accumulating more wealth; laying down new laws, rules and regulations; building new bureaucracies; and strengthening our military.
But, is it a good thing to not allow any change to occur unless we deem it to be in our own best interests? I think not. When we do so, we are eliminating chaos from the equation, which can be a good thing; but ultimately, if we go too far, doing so eliminates Hope for ourselves and those around us.
Certainty and stability are desirable, but too much of it destroys Hope, and therefore destroys the future.
And, frankly, we know in our heart of hearts that we cannot totally protect ourselves from the intrusion of chaos anyway. As Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, NRSV)
All things in this world must end, no matter how much we try to deny it. The Hope of God is the only thing we have that promises victory over the chaos that threatens to eventually overwhelm us all.
So, taking the risk of a bit of chaos in our lives and allowing that which is central to our identity to be challenged is a good thing. It forces us to grow. It makes life enjoyable, challenging and worth living. It helps us overcome weariness.
Only by allowing our own identities and positions to be challenged can we hope to have a future.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site).