Hope Without Optimism
Church Times Bookshop £16.99
ON EVERY page of this study of hope, which arose from a series of four lectures, there are a dozen reflections that would each merit contemplation. It makes for a dazzling read, although one that is regularly punctuated by Terry Eagleton’s trademark down-to-earth witticisms.
Take this line, almost at random, from the first chapter, which demolishes the optimism and faith in inevitable human progress often associated with contemporary atheistic humanism: "Progress would seem as irresistible as arthritis. We are as helpless before its unrolling as a badger before a bulldozer."
Much of the book explores the nature of hope, and, for Eagleton, that is closely associated with a tragic view of human life, one in which destruction runs alongside advance, and horrors run alongside joys. In this frame, hope is what remains when everything else of humanity has been hacked away.
It is for this reason that hope is a virtue, and lies at the heart of Christianity. "What need is there for hope when one can be author of oneself?" he asks. Rather, hope is like faith, in that it calls for self-abandonment, a commitment to that which is beyond one’s control. "The Abraham who takes a knife to his son’s throat has hope."
In other words, you cannot hope for what you are sure will happen. But, conversely, you can rest sure in your hope. Such fundamental hope is a commitment to a view of the good which transcends any ability to grasp that good. And, again, this is not to turn a blind eye to despair or terror.
There is no resurrection that is not embedded in crucifixion. Eagleton says: "Though death is an outrage, it is only by bowing to its necessity, in an act of self-dispossession which is at the same time the inner structure of love, that its sting can be drawn."
He continues "Hope in this sense is not a question of wishful thinking but of joyful expectation."
In what does Eagleton himself hope — the divine grace of Christian faith that builds on human nature and transfigures it, or the open contingencies of history, which can always change for the better as well as the worse?
He leaves readers guessing, perhaps because, like Marx, he has a constitutional dislike of speculative metaphysics. And maybe it is a helpful stance. It enables him to articulate the Christian vision more precisely than many Christian writers.
Mark Vernon’s latest book is The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy (Idler Books).