THE THING WITH FEATHERS

by

Edward A. Frost

The Unitarian Universalist theologian, James Luther Adams, said that our liberal religion is religion “in the optative mood”– that is, ours is  a religion in the mood of vision, and of hope toward the future. Adams wrote, “The affirmative answer of prophetic religion, which may be heard in the very midst of the doom that threatens like thunder, is that history is a struggle in dead earnest between justice and injustice, looking toward the ultimate victory in the promise and fulfillment of grace.”

This assumption of “ultimate victory,” assuming and depending upon  the ultimate victory of good over evil, justice over injustice, is at the heart of most religions: At Hanukah we share these hope-filled assumptions with others in the Judeo-Christian heritage. The prophets of Israel and the teacher from Nazareth both turned, as Adams put it, “from retrospect to prospect,” from reliance on idolatry of the past to the promise of the future. Jesus, in fact, was almost entirely oriented toward the future. He taught in relation to his expectation of an imminent and total transformation of the world.

But why should we assume this “ultimate victory”  of justice of injustice, good over evil, life over death? Is there any real ground for hope, or is all religion founded in nothing more than wishful thinking? Tennyson wrote, “O yet we trust that somehow good will be the final goal of ill.” “Somehow?” There is no theology in Tennyson. He offers no ground for the trust he speaks of.

Others have found what they believe to be firmer ground for hope– those whose hope is rooted, for example, in faith in a divine being. “My hope is built on nothing less,” says an old hymn, “Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” And in another hymn, “We hope in thee, O God in whom none hope in vain; We cling to thee in love and trust, and joy succeeds to pain.”

This hope rests in the belief in the “events”–the stories–and the promises  contained in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and in the tradition of the Christian church. Those stories are of a God who, having been faithful in the past, can be trusted to fulfill the hope for the future. The hope of Judaism is grounded in the Exodus, the story of the escape from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and in the divine covenant, “I shall be your God and you will be my people.”

For orthodox Christianity, hope is grounded in the story of the resurrection. The faith is that God gave his only son as the only acceptable sacrificed for the sins of humanity, then raised him from the dead.

And it is written that Jesus then said, “Because I live, you shall live also.”

In nineteenth century religious liberalism, the ground from which our own religion has sprung, liberal theology turned from biblical miracles to find hope and faith in “natural religion”  and in nature itself. Ralph Waldo Emerson, rejected the anthropomorphic, “man-like” god  and saw divinity, and therefore hope, in the very heart of nature.

Emerson spoke of “Destiny” and of the “Beneficent Genius” that guided all existence. He wrote, “It turns out that love and good are inevitable in the course of things.” “It turns out…” Emerson said: meaning, I suppose, that from Emerson’s faith viewpoint all the evidence was in and it was clear  that good would “naturally” prevail. This was a hundred years before the holocaust. As much as I respect Mr. Emerson, I fear that his perspective on the nature of reality was very much limited by his time and by his experience with the cultured classes in the neighborhood of Boston–which Boston Brahmins often, and to this day, confuse with heaven. From that very tiny piece of the world it was perhaps not difficult to support the hope that love and good are inevitable winners in the cosmic struggle. Others, in search for a ground for hope have turned away from what they see as wishful thinking, have turned from the unsupportable beliefs of religion, and have turned to humanity itself and to the wonders of human accomplishment.

Darwin’s theories in particular gave great hope to many who derived from his proposals sweeping generalities  in philosophies of inevitable “onward and upward forever!” James Breasted wrote, “Moral development on our planet is an unfinished process, and in this fact lies our greatest reason for hopefulness.” A strange leap, that, for a scientist–to assume that an unfinished process has nowhere to go but toward the good, true, and beautiful.

In assuming that the moral sense was unfinished in humanity and that it would, therefore, continue to develop positively Breasted could not have foreseen  the moral disasters of the twentieth century—the World Wars, The holocaust, The Stalinist purges, 9/11,  Iraq, Afghanistan. How can any sane person look around, speak of “moral development,” and cling to hope?

And hope for what? That the swords will be turned to plowshares? That the wolf will lie down with the lamb? That there will be no hunger, no disease– and, of course, the persistent hope, that there will be no death?

In a speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775, Patrick Henry said,

It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren ’til she transforms us into beasts…Are we to be in the number of those who, having eyes, see not and having ears, hear not? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

Patrick Henry might well have been speaking to the Jews of Europe in the 1930’s– and to everyone else– who, in spite of what was before their eyes and ears, refused to see and hear, continued to cling to the illusion of hope that what was clearly foreseeable would not, in fact, happen.

Given the realities, can it be anything other than false hope, wishful thinking, that led  nations on in a mad arms race, chattering foolishly about how we “hope” those weapons will never be used? –building up an incredible force for death and destruction in the mid-east “hoping” that it will not be necessary to use it?

Much of modern literature, film and theater has turned its back on the traditional grounds for hope and promises nothing, reveals no deeper good in which hope is grounded. In the movie, “As Good As It Gets,” Jack Nicholson, as he passes through the psychiatrist’s waiting room filled with depressed, despairing, hope-less souls, says to them, “What if this is as good as it gets?” Most artists of the modern era do not hold out hope. They simply describe. This is the way it is. And many, who read them, say, “This is awful,” as if they themselves had not noticed how awful it is and had hoped for something else.

Of course we hope, no matter how shallow the ground for it. How can we not? As human beings, we have been both blessed and cursed with consciousness,  with awareness of ourselves, not only in present time but in history and in the future. We can project our consciousness into the future. We have, in fact, no choice but to do so. It is the beckoning of the future moment which keeps us sane and alive.

Given awareness of the future, we can exist only in the hope that we are contained in that future–not only that we have existed but that we shall exist in future time. So, hope springs eternal. “While there’s life there’s hope,” Or, as Studs Terkel calls his latest book “la esperanza muera ultima.”  It was a saying of the vineyard workers organized by Caesar Chavez. It translates roughly into “Hope Dies Last.”

“Hope,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “Is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the  words/And never stops–at all.”

Patrick Henry said that hope was the siren that may turn us into beasts. But it seems to me, that, without hope, we are beasts, living always between time, only in the moment, without memory and without desire. It is not so much, then, that “there is hope” in the sense that there are always hopeful indicators, always visible grounds for hoping for the good. Obviously, that is not the case. There is hope simply in the sense that hope is. Hope exists, regardless of the conditions of existence. In fact, paradoxical though it may seem, the conditions of existence, including evil and injustice, create hope. After all, in a state of perfect good, what would there be to hope for?

Hope exists, not only in spite of the sometimes awful conditions of existence, but because of them. The question, then, “How can one look about and speak of hope” is a moot question. Hope exists.  It is. The religious question is whether we choose to live in it or out of it. Liberal theology takes account of the fact that those awful conditions of existence are, to a considerable extent, created and perpetuated by human will. The ovens of Auschwitz, the ditches at My Lai, the ghettoes of our cities, the literally millions of hungry people in America, ignorance, stupidity, and greed–which are the contexts of injustice–these are humanly-created conditions.

Liberal religion has a theology of hope because of our conviction that not all the conditions of human existence are givens, eternal and inevitable Some may look at the evils, the horrors and atrocities that we have committed and despair. But, from the perspective of liberal theology, evil is not pre-ordained  or unchangeable except through some supernatural intervention. That would indeed be cause for despair.

“It’s all in God’s hands,” is an expression of ultimate despair. Human beings do not behave as they do because it is their “nature,” because they are condemned to “sin,” but because we choose evil or good. The Hebrews knew that. The Hebrew God said, “This day have I set before you life and death. Therefore, choose life.”

It was known and accepted that, as human beings, we are awesomely capable of choosing death. When human beings choose evil, it is because they are free to so choose. And it is that freedom which provides liberal theology with ground for hope.

Granted, there are severe limitations on human freedom. We cannot wish away the givens of existence. Hannah Arendt wrote, “The chances that tomorrow will be like yesterday are almost overwhelming.” What happens in defiance of those chances, she says, “Is of infinite improbability” or, and here she uses a theological term, “a miracle.” Nevertheless, no matter how improbable or miraculous, the fact that something can be done which will make tomorrow not like yesterday means that the conditions for existence are not givens, not inevitable.

And we ourselves are the miracle-workers. We are the definers of infinite improbability; We are the beings who can see the future and, if we will, change it. We have the gift of freedom, and the gift to act in consciousness of future time. Therein lies our hope. This theology of freedom and action in time–this theology of hope– not only denies the idea of fate in our personal existence but denies the idea of fate in all human existence.

This gift of freedom and the freedom to act exists also as a demand. For people of faith, the freedom to act is the requirement to act.

The religious demand is not merely to passively hope that something will happen,  but to care about what happens. Hope, then, theologically defined, is something active and deliberate. Mere waiting, spectatorship, is a denial of the gift of freedom. Hope as a theological principle is not merely observing the struggle between good and evil and “hoping” that “somehow” good will prevail.

The condition of human existence is rather like being in an automobile rolling down a hill with no brakes. In Hannah Arendt’s terms, the chances of avoiding a smash-up are in the category of infinite improbability. With that condition as a given, then, one can take any one of several attitudes toward the condition–attitudes which will lead to different kinds of actions. One can let go of the steering wheel, scream, and jump out of the car. Suicide. That is, as Camus pointed out, one possible response to the human condition which must be taken seriously.

Another option is to let go of the steering wheel in the assumption that there is nothing one can do to alter the situation. One is helpless. One is in the hands of fate. This is the “God is my co-pilot” response. Sitting back and waiting  to find out what fate has in mind for us in this situation is another kind of theology. It assumes that there is a reality beyond that which we can see and grasp. It assumes that a greater power than ours can reach over and “take the wheel”—if it chooses to do so. Such a theology is inherent in the brief admonition, “Let go and let God.” Underneath are the everlasting arms. It is a gamble.  A wager of faith.

Jumping out is despair. Leaping in to the abyss in the assumption that there is nothing to be done. The present condition is unbearable and the outcome is inevitable.

The other option, of course, is to grab hold of the steering wheel, pay careful attention, summon all the knowledge, skill and courage one has to steer that car down the hill. The chances may not be good. But one is free to choose a response and one is free to act in the hope of ultimate victory.

la esperanza muera ultima.