If you were to ask me about what I hope for, I guess I would give you a fairly random set of answers. I hope to see my grandchildren graduate. I hope to visit Hamburg once more before I die. I hope the weather improves before I go on holiday. I hope a cure for Alzheimer’s is found, I hope there isn’t a hold up on the trains when I go to York next week. I hope that one day, one day, the Cincinnati Reds will win another World Series.
Above all, I hope, that when the time is right, I shall depart this life and be with Jesus.
All these different things are linked by the word hope. One has to be a bit careful interpreting each, because hope is not used in the same sense in each case. Dictionaries simply say that hope is a combination of a personal desire and a conjectural future state of affairs. There are various links between the two, but if we really want to get at the heart of hope, we have to pay attention to these links, because they come in various shapes and sizes.
In my examples, the probabilities range from certain to remote. One of the examples depends entirely on my wishes, a couple depend on chance and one is a pretty educated guess at the state of scientific progress. So, how confident am I in each? I can make a guess at each of the earthly possibilities, but what of my final hope? If hope is simply a combination of personal desire and possible future states of affairs, it is hard to see how my dreams of heaven are different from my dreams of cheering the Reds home to a World Series victory.
If hope were just the combination of what I want and what might happen, it would be an interesting psychological phenomenon, but not much else. Indeed, if I were a secularist or a humanist, I think I would argue that this is all there is to it. Hoping is a bit like laying bets: you wager on what you want to happen. There is essentially no difference between my dreams of heaven and my dreams of another Mean Red Machine carrying all before it.
The difference, the missing element, as it were, is faith, which is why hope, in a religious sense, is fundamentally different from hope in the ordinary, workaday sense, the point of my personal examples. As Hebrews 11:1 tells us, if we have faith, then we will discover that what we hope for is actually a reality and not a dream.
This implies two things. First, there is the nature of what scripture calls the realities we do not see. It means, simply, the truth. We do not see the truth, but we have the ability to recognize and understand it. Second, there is the state of our own souls. When we turn to God, we open ourselves to all kinds of possibilities we never knew were there, and we learn how to do things we never thought of before.
These are the coordinates of Christian hope, and they are what distinguishes my hope of heaven from all the other things for which I hope. One can go further and say that we are dealing with a spiritual reality. It obviously has a psychological basis, because it originates in the mind, and we all have different minds and personalities. At the same time it goes well beyond that, because hope is not therapy; it is what leads us into unity with one another and brings us together into the presence of God. It is why we worship.
I am delighted Quaker Life has decided to feature my book Reasons for Hope because it was written, I suppose, to take these things I have just been talking about which are common to all Christians, to see how they look in a Quaker context. I tend to see the different denominations as variations on a single theme, because each one takes the common music of the faith and sees deeply into one aspect of it. That includes us. We have our own integrity to which we have been called by God, and it is up to us to witness to it.
Our tradition does not witness to things by talking about them, which is why some people think “Quaker theology” is a contradiction in terms. It isn’t, of course, though we tend to prefer questions to answers. This not because of diffidence or uncertainty, but to encourage others to discover for themselves the hope that, often unrecognized, lives within them. That, we think, is the way to enter the Kingdom and, in Paul’s words, to rejoice in our hope. There is faith and there is love. What joins them together, let us never forget, is hope.
John Punshon is a retired Professor Quaker Studies Professor from Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion. He is a recorded minister in Indiana Yearly Meeting and lives in the United Kingdom with his wife, Veronica.