A Story called Hope

January is a month for courageous beginnings. Yet so many of us are starting the new year with less conviction than usual. This is an extraordinary moment in our history where fragmentation and confusion are casting heavy shadows over our day-to-day lives. Widespread populist power is a growing phenomenon in a radically changing world – a fragile world so wounded by the nightmares of terrorism, political upheaval and global warming. The challenges that face us are, indeed, huge. The journey to a healing wholeness will be slow and complicated. Our hearts are apprehensive. We need courage to hope.

This new year is surely a challenge for the human soul, a time when we try again to believe in a deeper, more harmonious way of living our lives on this earth. Beyond retreating into a naïve spirituality of wishful thinking we search for a vision and a language that gives hope to a perplexed and threatened society. There is no denying the spreading anxiety, the sense of a growing menace, of a lost order. In a pre-Christmas statement about this deep-seated concern, a multi-racial group of Christian scholars including Richard Rohr OFM, wrote that it challenges Christians at a core, religious level, and that ‘this is no longer governance as usual but rather (constitutes) a moral and theological crisis’.

Is this the time to reach again for our true traditions, to remember the stories we grew up with, to re-enkindle in our world the powerful fire of faith? Hope or despair spring from the stories we tell. Stories can pander to the weakness in us or they can empower us to imagine and create a better world. And we have already, of course, if we listen to it, a revealed and confident story that touches us both personally and universally. In 1986 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote about ‘awakening the memories and stories of our goodness and beauty so as to open the doors of hope’.

The man who recently shot the Russian ambassador to Turkey shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ – God is truly great. There is a blasphemous theology underlying the misuse of that terrorist phrase.  Commenting on the assassin’s words, ‘The Guardian’ columnist Giles Fraser wishes for people to be even more extreme in their faith, trusting wholeheartedly in God’s utter greatness, not killing brutally and indiscriminately for a distorted version of it.  Divine greatness does not need violent human protection. A fierce and fearless faith in God’s compassionate power, many enlightened leaders believe, is now the world’s best hope and common anchor in face of the relentless lust for a terrible supremacy.

People wait for our Christian churches to clarify a theology, a faith-story, that inspires and engages with the issues of our time, one that envisions the ultimate unity of the human race, that strengthens the resilience of the human spirit. Such a theology proclaims and sustains a confidence in the enduring love and compassion at the heart of our ever-green story – the Incarnation story we have just been celebrating in churches across the world. We are the custodians of those beliefs and values – of justice, fairness, mutual respect and of the utter equality and holiness of all people.

We desperately need to hear that perennial story, especially now during these anxious, liminal times of breakdown in government, in religion, in ecological awareness. This story of hope is wonderfully set out in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ which captures the essential vision of a truly sacramental Christianity that springs from a traditional belief – a belief in the original blessing that is creation, that is humanity, that is God’s unfailing, unconditional love. Our Christian faith essentially stands by the hope that the ultimate future will be blessed too.

God, already present in our planet from the first nano-second of Creation, is always emerging from its inmost heart as the ultimate force-field – that graced and urgent energy that motivates and commits us to become, in our very fleshed presence, the responsible healers and reconcilers, living and acting within society from a new level of consciousness. In spite of the sinister signs of the times, we continue to believe that humanity is still, and always, evolving toward that final Omega–point of a peace-filled belonging. It is from our inner, passionate vision that others will catch the fire of a new possibility. We must begin with hearts. It is where hope is born.

Too often we ourselves, in our weakness, collude with the status quo by our silence, our fear, our mindless consumerism, our selfish voting, our resistance to change. We forget that for the Christian, love itself is the beginning and end of Creation, the energy that sustains all life, the reason for our hope. ‘Not to love is a vote for war’, wrote Etty Hillesum, before they took her to the gas chambers. The world is increasingly insecure because people are disconnected from the soul of the earth, from the incarnate love-energy of the Creator-Mother we call God.

Meanwhile we must endure the waiting. Hope emerges when the future is utterly uncertain and unpredictable. In ‘Hope in the Dark’ cultural historian Rebecca Solnit, referring to the current apprehension across the globe, writes, ‘We don’t know what is going to happen or how, or when, and that very uncertainty is the space for hope’. Our Christian faith hinges on that story. Despair creeps in when we forget the story; hope grows in our memory of it. As within so without.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech William Faulkner said ‘we tell stories to help man endure by lifting his heart’. We are called to tell our beautiful story as a blessing for those who feel overwhelmed by today’s defeatist perspective, giving them new ground to stand on. We believe that an evolving creation is now the human flesh of the divine, incarnate Being. The peace and unity we wish for are already present within the world. Nightmarish though it now is, this is the time, this is the year, this is the new moment of waiting for the star of a faith-filled imagination to guide us towards horizons of hope.