Hope in hopelessness

Mar 5th, 2009 | By | Category: Spirituality

“Well, my dear Pangloss,” said Candide to him, “when You were hanged, dissected, whipped, and tugging at the oar, did you continue to think that everything in this world happens for the best?”

“I have always abided by my first opinion,” answered Pangloss; “for, after all, I am a philosopher, and it would not become me to retract my sentiments . . .

. . .  There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not travelled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

“Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.

Voltaire’s Candide is as old as Arthur Guinness’s stout, both of them appearing in 1759, both of them reaching their quarter millennium this year.  Candide is an hilarious read; absurd, fantastic, surreal, it is about the triumph of optimism. No matter what fate befalls Pangloss, he will not forsake his belief that all will turn out for the best.

Candide foreshadows the magical realism of some contemporary writing in the fantastic nature of parts of the story.  Harry Eyres wrote in last weekend’s Financial Times on a much more earthly realism and on the nature of ‘radical hope.’   Reflecting on the fate of the Crow people in 19th Century America, Eyres notes,

Human life, however much we doubt it right now, is not just about survival; for it to be human in the full sense, our life must be about not just surviving but flourishing. We are cultural beings, not simply natural ones . . .

. . . Radical hope wagers a visceral trust that there is enough goodness in the world for things to turn out – unexpectedly – all right, against the disappearance of familiar forms of the good.

Does the radical hope, that there is enough goodness in the world for things to turn out all right, have any more substance than the absurd optimism of Pangloss?  The history of the Crow people did not turn out as badly as it might have done, but is that a vindication of the visionary hope that guided their decisions? What of people who had their own visions, but who disappear from history?

Tom Stoppard’s character the Player suggests an alternative view of drama, and of life in general, “Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as  they can possibly go when  things have  got about as bad as they reasonably get”.

Things can only get better in the view of Pangloss and from the perspective of radical hope; things can only get worse according to the Player.  Watching the evening news last night as the Minister of Finance announced that crisis measures were necessary, but that he wasn’t sure what these might be, there was a feeling that Stoppard might have been right.

Perhaps Christian faith has to acknowledge both perspectives.  There must be an appreciation of the reality of sin, but there must be an even greater appreciation of the reality of the resurrection, that most radical of hopes.  Saint Paul is the first to acknowledge the darkness of the world, but asserts, “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God”.

Faith seems an optimism as absurd as that of Pangloss, but it gives a view of the world where things are not so gloomy. It is Christian belief that no matter what happens, things will – unexpectedly – turn out all right in the end.

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  1. Nice one, Ian. And helpful to me. I’ve been thinking about Christian hope while preparing to deliver the Omega Climate Change course this Lent. Your quote from Paul (Romans 8:28) is the perfect hook.
    Thank you!

  2. Paul’s writing is never easy and Romans must be amongst the most difficult, but that verse came immediately to mind when I read Eyres’ words. Paul, of course, would not attribute to goodness in the world to worldly sources.

  3. I can’t claim that my experience has global implications but things do work out in some fashion. Yesterday i was talking to Billy about having had to stop work for a while because of the unpredictability of meniere’s diseasebut if I hadn’t done that then I wouldn’t have had the time or energy for Ben to come and live with us and I think it’s obvious which is the greater blessing.

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