In a Rolling Stone interview years ago, American professor and scholar Cornel West made the following statement about optimism and pessimism:
The categories of optimism and pessimism don’t exist for me. I’m a blues man. A blues man is a prisoner of hope, and hope is a qualitatively different category than optimism. Optimism is a secular construct, a calculation of probability.
I’ve been reflecting on the power and nature of hope lately. As I mentioned in my last post, hope has been naively understood in our day as little more than “the power of positive thinking.” But West’s language is even more pointed, recognizing optimism as nothing more than a secular construct. As a philosophical position, optimism is the Polyanna belief that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Seriously? In psychology, dispositional optimism is the expectation of the best possible outcome in any given situation. Everybody knows you want to be a “glass half full” kind of person, rather than a “glass half empty” Debbie Downer. Just like everybody prefers Tigger to Eeyore.
Which is all well and good, I guess.
I just have one problem with optimism.
It’s not biblical.
I can’t get behind the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds primarily because it runs counter to what I believe to be a foundational claim of scripture: our world is broken by sin. Disobedience and greed and rebellion and lust and narcissism and rage and corruption have wreaked havoc on the cosmos, leaving us a world of our own creation. When I read of Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden, I hear a description of what it means to be human, to live in the realm created by the consequences of our prideful attempts to play God. I believe the biblical witness testifies that human sin marred the intrinsically good world God created and ordered in the beginning.
God made it.
We broke it.
The best of all possible worlds was once a reality, but not any longer.
And if that’s where the story ended, boy….talk about depressing.
Thankfully, the greater balance of the biblical testimony is devoted to a more hopeful narrative:
God made it.
We broke it.
And God is now at work putting it back together.
I always think of N.T. Wright’s phrase here: God is “setting the world to rights.” He is at work to reconcile this world back to himself, to restore his original (“good”) intentions for creation. Jesus emerges as the agent of this redeeming work. The Good News spills forth as a result: not only is God at work through Jesus to renew his creation, he also enlists us to participate in this work in the present.
This is the mission of God.
This is the aim of salvation.
But none of this turns a blind eye to the reality of our world. In order for the Good News to be the Good News, it must be a counter claim against the Bad News. Which requires an honest, realistic look at the world we live in. A world of violence and warmongering and ISIS and nuclear armament. A world of greed and hoarding, a world of hunger and starvation. A world of disease: AIDS and ebola and cancer and dementia. A world of drug abuse. A world of pornography addiction. A world where men and women and boys and girls are bought and sold and used. A world of political corruption and grandstanding and jockeying for position.
This is the best of all possible worlds?
But hope is the dogged belief that such a world is on the horizon.