(Rejoice, for there is no hope!)
As I was coming home from work, I wondered whether my son had been selected to be on a jury. He had been called in to the district court that day for jury duty, but only a minority of those called in end up on a jury (‘Many are called but few are chosen’).
My thought process was something like this:
‘If he gets selected then the trial will clash with some commitments he has in the next few weeks that matter quite a lot to him. So from that point of view it would be better for him not to be selected.
On the other hand, sitting through a long trial and hearing first-hand stories from people who lead far less privileged lives than we do would be a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth for him, albeit maybe somewhat harrowing.
Dear me, what shall I hope for? Shall I hope that he is selected or that he is not?‘
Then that precious thought came to me that has often entered my mind recently:
‘It is not necessary for me to have an opinion on that‘.
Whether he gets selected or not is outside my control. Whichever happens, we shall try to make the best of the situations that arise. There is no need, and no point, in hoping for one outcome or the other.
So I didn’t. I just shut the thought process down and moved on to something else.
I aim these days to completely banish hope from my life.
That may sound bleak. But it isn’t. The apparent bleakness is just an artefact of our peculiar Western culture. We are taught to hope from an early age. The sentence ‘There is no hope‘ is regarded within Western culture as synonymous with despair and misery. Yet there is no reason at all that it should be so. If we can learn to be content with the present moment, what need have we of hope?
This message has a strong presence in many cultures in India and farther East. It is not unknown in Western culture, but its presence is less strong than in the East. In Western thought it is principally manifest in the Ancient Greek philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism.
I blame Saint Paul for the Western preoccupation with Hope. It’s that famous passage in Corinthians where he says that the three greatest virtues are Faith, Hope and Love. I’m not Paul’s biggest fan but, in between the misogyny and the homophobia, he did have his good moments. And I reckon the poor old fellow got unfairly misinterpreted on that epistle. His point wasn’t that faith and hope are particularly great. It was that love is far more important than the other two. Surely that’s something we can agree on. Paul may think faith and hope are pretty good. I think they’re rubbish! But at least we agree that love is much more important. If Paul says that love is what makes the world go around, then I applaud him, even if he wants to spend some of it on his god rather than on his fellow humans and other suffering animals, who need it so much more. Perhaps he finds it hard to love other humans, and loving his god helps him to love others as well. If so then loving God first sounds like a good strategy, for him. For me it actually works the other way around. I find humans more lovable than the idea of God because of their (our!) frailness, limited understanding, cantankerousness and emotional vulnerability. Virtue of the beloved is only very rarely a reason for love. Parents do not love their toddlers because of their great virtue (what virtue?) but because of their vulnerability, because they need us so much.
I grew up to feel that I ought to hope that certain things would happen and that others wouldn’t. It was almost as though by hoping I increased the likelihood of the desired event happening. Hoping was like a duty, and to fail to hope was somehow remiss.
I don’t know whether I am unusual in that regard or whether it is a common feeling of people in our culture. But in any case, What a lot of nonsense!
My hoping or not hoping has no effect at all on what will happen! What matters is what I do, not what I hope. If I am concerned at the lack of compassion shown to refugees and the lack of action about climate change, I can lobby politically for those causes, express strong views in the public arena, try to personally help refugees and the environment, and donate lavishly to organisations that work towards those ends. Hoping at the same time for success doesn’t seem likely to increase the effectiveness of my actions.
In some ways, hoping may make my actions less effective. If I am constantly longing for success, I may become discouraged and give up acting if the prospect of success does not become progressively stronger. Then the cause will suffer. But if I act not out of hope but out of a belief that the actions are right then the activity is its own reward. If success follows, so much the better, but if not it does not mean that I have failed or that my time was wasted.
Imagine having a family member or close friend with a very serious illness. It seems natural to hope for their recovery, and to hope that they will not deteriorate, suffer and die. But what good does that hope do? What is needed is to do whatever we can to alleviate their suffering, maximise their chances of recovery and let them know that they are loved. If we waste mental energy and thinking time on wishing for a recovery, we will miss the opportunity to fully experience and value the time we have with them now. So let us do what we can to help, focus on valuing our time with them, and leave the things we cannot control to work themselves out, in whatever way they must.
Imagine a damaged passenger aeroplane that is plummeting towards the ground. Should the occupants hope to be saved? Well, the pilots should be focusing on the technical problem of how to regain control of the plane, not on hope. The cabin crew should be focusing on ensuring the passengers are all seated, strapped in, braced and know the emergency procedures, not on hope. The passengers themselves have less to do. But they can comfort one another – speak words of encouragement and love, help calm fears, hold hands, supply and dispose of airsickness bags. Or if seated alone, they can meditate on the inevitability of death – if not now then later – and try to achieve a state of acceptance. Or even sing! The orchestra on the Titanic that played as the ship went down is legendary, not because they brought hope, because there was none, but because they brought relative calm, courage and acceptance.
Let me restate: there is nothing new in this. The message has been preached for thousands of years in Stoicism, Epicureanism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. It is only because our Western culture so often demands that we have hope, that there is any need to remind ourselves of the message.
My reason for discouraging hope is not only that it can distract from practical, helpful action. It is also that it is doomed to fail.
When we hope, we wish our life away. We diminish the importance of the present moment in order to elevate the importance of a potential future state. But if we prioritise the future over the past, what happens? As John Maynard Keynes said ‘In the long run we are all dead‘. Now I have nothing against death. It is a natural part of life, and is only sad when it comes too soon, too painfully, or leaves dependants in desperate circumstances. But while it is not bad, neither is it especially good. It is not something to be aspired to. It is simply blank, neutral (in fact it is, literally, nothing!). So the final consequence of hoping for the future, at the expense of diminishing the present, is to aspire towards the blankness of death, which seems a particularly empty and uninspiring goal.
It may be that in certain extraordinary circumstances hope may be beneficial. Perhaps parents whose child has disappeared, suspected kidnapped, may find that hope is helpful to them. My guess is that, even in those horrible circumstances, time spent thinking about hope may be more upsetting than time spent focusing on the practicalities of doing whatever one can to save the child. But I have no experience of such a situation, so my ideas are mere idle speculation. All I can say is that, although I have often hoped in the past, sometimes being quite obsessed by it, I have never experienced circumstances in which hope was helpful, and I cannot imagine any circumstances where I would expect it to be helpful.
I have one last reason for objecting to hope, and that is when it is used to focus beyond death, on a potential after-life. It is entirely reasonable and understandable that some people want to believe in an after-life. It is only when it starts affecting their actions in this world that it can become a problem. The after-life has been used as an excuse for terrorism (jihadists blowing themselves up in crowded market-places so they can go straight to Paradise where seventy-two virgins await them), for inaction on social justice (the poor will ‘receive their consolation in heaven’), and for inflicting self-misery (Roman Catholics with irretrievably broken marriages denying themselves the possibility of being in love again, because such ‘adultery’ would damn their immortal soul).
Maybe there’s an after-life and maybe there isn’t. But what we can be sure of is that no human knows anything about it. So whatever other humans tell us about it, whether in speech or via books such as the Bible or Quran, is pure speculation. Hence I suggest we treat after-life stories as just one more interesting, unfalsifiable hypothesis, like string theory, and get on with loving and helping one another here and now.
Notwithstanding all that, I still frequently find myself wondering which of two alternative potential events to wish for, when the outcome is entirely outside my control. Which should I hope for? Quick, this is important! Don’t hope for the wrong one! My running partner is five minutes late for our lunchtime jog and I’m tired. I wouldn’t mind giving the jog a miss today. Shall I hope that they don’t turn up so I can give my tired body a rest, or shall I hope they do turn up because I really need to lose that extra smidgeon of weight? What a responsibility! How can I decide? Then the blessed thought returns to save me:
‘It is not necessary for me to have an opinion on that‘.
Bondi Junction, June 2014
One bright winter Thursday, in my last years of high school, I went for a bike ride in the morning. Thirty kilometres, quite hard, with plenty of hills. I didn’t have to go to school until 11 o’clock because I had a double free period. After arriving home and having a shower I went into the lounge room, put on a record – Schumann’s piano concerto – and made myself a cup of instant coffee (this was long before the days of personal espresso machines, not that my parents could have afforded one anyway).
The lounge room had a large window into which the sun was streaming, and outside I could see the nearby gum trees and the far off blue-green hills. My leg muscles had that pleasant, achey feel that tells of a hard job, well-done, and I felt very relaxed – full of endorphins perhaps.
It was the first time I had fully realised how marvellous Schumann’s piano concerto is. It has great swelling surges and a captivating momentum, especially in the last movement. It is deeply romantic in its expressivity, yet has a classical sense of drive and purpose. I had read not long before someone’s opinion that Schumann was only really a “miniaturist”, writing well for solo piano or accompanied singer, but that his attempts at large orchestral works were failures. “How wrong that critic is!” I thought as I thrilled to the surges and rhythms of the orchestra and the piano in response. Relishing the music, relishing the warm sunlight (on a chilly but bright winter’s day), relishing the coffee, relishing the gentle, worthy ache of my quads. Relishing the fact that I, a mere schoolboy at an undistinguished Catholic school, was free until 11 o’clock, and that the ride to school was mostly downhill.
This, I thought, is an excellent experience. I must remember this.
And I have. More than thirty years later, the sounds of that Schumann concerto still transport me back to that sunny lounge room.
Last week I had another great experience. I was just riding along a bush-lined path next to the airport. I had been feeling a little seedy earlier but now, after about half an hour on the bike, I was warmed up and felt a harmonious unity with nature as I swooped around corners and over dips and bumps. I am dancing Nataraja, dancing the cosmic dance that is the universe.
I doubt I’ll remember last week in thirty years, should this body last that long. I’ve already forgotten key elements – there was more to the feeling of well-being than I can remember even at this short interval. Perhaps I need a musical accompaniment, a taste or a smell, to really fix something in my memory.
My life contains these rare moments when there is a feeling of tremendous well-being. There are many more moments of dullness, routine, embarrassment, discomfort, sadness, fear and anger, as well as plenty of feelings on the positive side – relief, comfort, amusement, intellectual stimulation, success, kinship, love – that are appreciated, but not remembered for a lifetime.
People sometimes talk of wishing to “bottle” a special moment, to make it last. I can’t make it last, and I realise that trying to do so would be counter-productive. Clinging destroys the beauty and pleasure of the moment. In fact, part of the reason why such moments are so special is that they are different from the everyday. They are precious because they are rare of occurrence and finite of duration. But we can preserve all of the moment that is worth preserving by fixing it in our memory. We can write it down, or just set some mental markers to make it easy to recall. The Schumann and the coffee are the markers for my marvellous Thursday in 1979.
Each life is a work of art, a pattern, a dance, a song, a tapestry, and each individual is the creator of their own artwork. The artworks of all the different individuals mingle to make a grand panoply of colour and movement. We can make decisions and perform actions that enrich our own art work and those of others as well. Works of art need contrasts: highs and lows, louds and softs, fast bits and slow, pastels and primary colours, rough and smooth textures. If we can internalise the understanding of that sufficiently well then perhaps we will appreciate times of sadness, fear or pain as well as times of pleasure.
So I will pay more attention to the feelings that life arouses. If they are negative, I will try to view them as interesting, curious anomalies, phenomena to be studied. If they are positive I may do that too, but I will also try to make mental bookmarks to be able to recall them later on. Perhaps at times of great sadness it will be helpful to view the strife in the context of past joys, to reclaim, at least in part, the feeling of aesthetic necessity of such times as part of the grand pageant that this life is.
Perhaps it’s even worth mentally bookmarking some negative times for later reference. That may enhance the enjoyment of the positive ones, as well as assisting the holistic perspective. I can think of some past experiences of fear, pain (physical and emotional) and embarrassment on which I can look back quite equably now, perhaps even fondly.
But I’ll not pretend that I don’t enjoy the good experiences more. I do. Even one of those experiences is enough to justify this life. I have been very fortunate. I hope that everybody can have at least one experience like my Schumann moment before they die.
Friedrich Holderlin’s marvellous poem “To the parcae” expresses this rather well:
Grant me but one good summer, you Powerful Ones!
And but one autumn, ripening for my song,
So that my heart, fulfilled by sweet play,
Might the more willingly die, contented.
once I lived as the gods live, and more we don’t need.
A postscript. It’s not just about the bike. The two positive experiences I relate above involve bikes, but that’s not always the case. Many involve exercise, it’s true. I can remember running around Centennial Park on a sunny winter morning about twenty years ago (there’s something about sunny winter mornings that seems particularly conducive to well-being), watching the fence fly past me and thinking “I’m running so fast, and I can’t even feel my feet touch the ground!”. There are also wonderful, memorable moments involving one’s children or spouse. I have less of them though. I think the mind is too distracted during the years of child-rearing, by tiredness, busyness and endless to-do lists, to be able to focus well enough to form sustainable coherent memories. But the rareness of memories of such moments makes them extra special.
Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 3 May 2013
CS Lewis coined the memorable phrase ‘Lord, Liar or Lunatic’ in his advocacy of the orthodox Christian dogma that Jesus of Nazareth was God, and his rejection of the view held by some less doctrinaire Christians that he may have been a man with some admirable teachings.
The argument appears compelling: Jesus said he was God, so either he was a liar, in which case we should reject everything he said, or he was deluded (a lunatic, in Lewis’s colourful, alliterative prose), in which case we should also reject his teachings, or he was actually God, in which case we should worship him. This analysis deliberately leaves no room for the ‘Jesus as sage’ interpretation. On the face of it, it implies that moderate Christians, who take a mostly metaphorical interpretation of Christian teaching, lack intellectual integrity, that they are guilty of wishful thinking at the expense of cold, hard rationalism – which is what Lewis thinks he practises.
Persuasive though this argument may sound, it is wrong. If Lewis had offered only two choices, we would call it a a false dichotomy. As he has offered three, let us call it a false trichotomy instead. The whole argument rests on the unstated assumption that Lord, Liar and Lunatic are the only choices available. But we can never be sure that the alternative explanations offered for any observation are exhaustive unless one of them is labelled something like ‘none of the above’, or can be proven equivalent to ‘none of the above’. Lewis never proved that Lord, Liar and Lunatic are the only possible explanations, and we can easily see they are not by considering two other possibilities.
Lack – Perhaps Jesus of Nazareth is fictional
The evidence that there was a single person called Jesus who lived in Nazareth around 0-30 CE and spent his last few years travelling around Palestine preaching and conducting healing ceremonies is fairly strong, but not overwhelming. There is little or no eye-witness mention of such a person from Roman historians, who chronicle many other less important events of that time and region.
The literature debating the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth existed is enormous, and there’s no need or space to review it here. But the very existence of significant debate on this topic amongst ancient historians, even if the ‘Jesus really did exist’ case is predominant, indicates that we cannot definitively exclude the possibility that there was no single Jesus of Nazareth that said all these things, in which case a lack of a Jesus character, implying that the New Testament stories are myths, needs to be added to the Lord, Liar and Lunatic options.
Libelled – Perhaps Jesus didn’t claim what they claim he did
Much more likely though, and not mentioned at all by Lewis, is that there was a single holy man called Jesus of Nazareth, who lived around that time, but he never claimed to be God.
It is undeniable that the Gospels contain some reporting errors, as the reports of the sequence of events on Easter Sunday contradict one another. So why shouldn’t the parts where Jesus implies that he is God be reporting errors? This could very easily happen, as there are very few passages that support such a claim, and most of what there is is vague and indirect. It is entirely plausible that the biblical reports of those implied claims were not based on eyewitness reports but on wishful thinking inserted later by a devoted disciple. After all, we know that the earliest written gospel – Mark – was written more than thirty years after the assumed date of Jesus’ death.
Further, Jesus is not reported in the Gospels as ever having directly claimed to be God. There are passages such as John 8:58 that are interpreted as implying such a claim, and others where he accepted worship (Matthew 2:2, 14:33, and 28:9; John 9:35-38). In some passages Jesus describes himself as the “Son of God”, but it requires some heavy-duty interpretation to accept these as claims of divinity. After all, the Bible also tells us that we are all sons of God, but most non-pantheists don’t interpret that to mean we are all God.
Now maybe these interpretations are correct and maybe they are not. Maybe they are all historically accurate and maybe they are not. But it is undeniable that there is a great deal of presumption required in order to conclude that Jesus was Lord, Liar or Lunatic. It is at least equally likely (and seems much more likely to me) that he was Libelled by the gospel writers.
After all, I could place an article on Wikipedia entitled “Obama Divinity Claim” and say in it that President Obama has claimed to be God, and that hence he must be either Lord, Liar or a Lunatic. Since he clearly isn’t a Lunatic and hasn’t shown evidence of being an egregious Liar (and that would be a most egregious lie), according to Lewis we must then conclude that He – President Obama – is indeed our Lord and God.
Of course that would be nonsense. The correct interpretation would simply be that I had libelled the president, by claiming he said something that He (sorry, ‘he’) didn’t.
Why does this matter?
The purpose of this essay is not to undermine anybody’s belief that Jesus was God. Right now I have no interest in disputing the divinity of Jesus, Krishna, Dionysus, Osiris, Mithra or any other purported incarnation of a deity. If someone wants to believe in any of those things, I am entirely supportive of their decision to do so, as long as they don’t use it as a basis for vilifying or otherwise tormenting others who don’t believe the same thing, or who don’t conform to a set of rules about victimless crimes, purportedly made up by the said deity.
What I wish to do here is to champion the intellectual honesty and integrity of moderate Christians such as John Shelby Spong, Richard Holloway or John Dominic Crossan, who regard the Gospels as a source of some wisdom, but deny that Jesus was Lord, Liar or Lunatic. I have a particular fondness for people of moderate religious belief, who accept the claims of their chosen religion that they find plausible, and reject the rest. By doing this they can avoid having to ‘disengage their brain’ in order to accept all the beliefs they find implausible. Although I believe no religion, and doubt there are any gods, I am convinced that religion will always be with us, as it is an easy way to address a number of deep psychological needs. Since some people must be religious, surely it will be more conducive to the peace and harmony of humanity as a whole, if those that are religious are mostly of the doubtful, open-minded Spong, Holloway or Crossan variety rather than the devout and utterly convinced bin Laden, Ahmedinajad, Westboro Baptist, George W Bush or Pat Robertson variety?
To these liberal Christian theologians, we can also add many Muslims and Jews as people who reject the Lord, Liar or Lunatic hypothesis, choosing instead to regard Jesus of Nazareth as a prophet or holy man, whose sayings are worthy of contemplation, but denying his divinity. I have as low an opinion of Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists as I do of Christian ones, but many members of those religions are not fundamentalist, do not regard their scriptures as inerrant, and are comfortable accepting some of the sayings attributable to Jesus as another source of wisdom upon which they can draw.
Lewis’s false trichotomy would paint Spong, Holloway, Crossan, and anybody else that likes some of what Jesus is alleged to have said but is not convinced that he was God, as wishy-washy and self-delusional, holding contradictory beliefs for irrational, emotional reasons. I want to suggest the contrary. A moderate, partly metaphorical, ‘cafeteria’ approach to Christianity, or any other dogmatic religion, is the only one that is logically defensible, as the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, like any other long religious texts, contain many internal contradictions, as well as claims that are contradicted by science. What matters is not so much which bits they choose (although I’d rather they rejected the homophobic, misogynist, pro-slavery, pro-genocide bits and the threats of eternal hellfire) as that they accept that it is reasonable for somebody else to accept different bits, bits of a completely different religious text, or none at all.