Archbishop of Westminster

RSA Lecture 2015: Where do we find the generative capacities for hope?

Given at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) on 17 June 2015 

In the long, rather exhausting run up to the General Election, I was told of a researcher, in Essex, testing views and opinions. He had a hard time from the group he was interviewing. Everything he asked received a negative reaction. Eventually, somewhat exasperated he put down his pen and simply said: 'Is there anything you like about Britain today?' There was a long silence. Then a man in the back row put up his hand. ‘Yes, what is it?’ The man answered emphatically, 'The past!' 

Maybe this is not the best starting point for reflections on hope, but at least it poses the questions sharply: What, if any, are the places where we find hope? How do we understand that hope? How and where is it generated? What is its deepest nature? 

The phrase ‘generative capacities’ appears in this talk’s title because, as it seems to me, the capacity for hope is something which can grow and flourish in individuals and in society. It’s worth thinking about some of the conditions for such growth. In doing so, I will draw principally upon my own Catholic faith, as you would expect of me, as a bishop. Yet, perhaps more importantly, part of the bishop’s task is simply to be there as a reminder of the awkward questions about what it is we ultimately hope in and for. As someone put it to a colleague of mine: ‘Don't just do something, stand there.’ But I will speak and, I hope we then follow with a lively and constructive dialogue. 

What do I mean by hope? It’s not the same as optimism. Optimism is a disposition ‘to whistle a merry tune’, ‘to look on the bright side’, however irrational, whatever the state of things. It may or may not be realistic. As a Liverpool supporter this is something I am having to learn. 

Hope is something else. The great philosopher and theologian St Thomas Aquinas treats hope in two distinct, but intimately related, parts. He first presents hope as a natural passion arising from a desire for something understood to be good, though not yet possessed; difficult, but not impossible, to attain. Hope is a movement of the will, a striving towards such a future good: an appetite which stirs up confidence and grants assurance. Thus hope abounds in young people and drunkards! 

More seriously, hope moves us to become pilgrims. A hope-filled person is spurred into action when faced with something desirable, yet hard to achieve. Such hope is not the product of opinion or argument alone. There is the lovely phrase about the brilliant philosopher ‘who knew all the arguments, and for whom they had all grown cold.’ We do not acquire hope just by having a point of view. There has to be something else - an impetus to act, a vision, something from within our understanding that fires our imagination, a drive consciously exercised in the effort to achieve a possible yet still a future good. Hope is a partnership between both our understanding and our will. It moves us to get something done, something demanding, something that will make a difference. Hope gets you out of bed. Lack of hope leaves you reaching for the duvet. 

Understood this way, our world is full of signs of hope. They surround us every day. They come as daily strivings to establish, maintain, express or consolidate efforts to attain something both desired and difficult to achieve.  No matter how fragmented our world, no matter how lacking in overall vision, there are countless fragments of hope. 

What kinds of fragments do I mean? They are often the experiences of our daily lives to which we respond with warmth of heart, a quiet smile of gratitude and admiration: a neighbour’s kindness, a friend’s compassion, the utter generosity of a lover, the creativeness of a gifted person brought to a good purpose, be it the generation of wealth or a work of charity. These stories do not fill our newspapers; but they do fill our hearts and encourage us along the way. 

These fragments express the strivings of hope and are themselves generative of hope in others. We can see well enough how each of them is a tiny masterpiece designed to strengthen a hope that something difficult will be achieved: the relief of suffering, the faithfulness of love, the ending of poverty, the creation of new jobs or new wealth.

More challenging is to see how these tiny fragments are in fact pieces of a mosaic, the ‘tesserae’ which when brought together can make a fine and inspiring work of art. 

I believe that this challenge is made all the more difficult, at least in part, by the culture of cynicism in which we live. This culture urges us to view with suspicion reports or even experiences of goodness. It tutors us to attribute to others the worst of motives, or at least to seriously entertain that perspective. World-weariness teaches us to be cautious.  The misdemeanors of many institutions, including my own, emphasize that lesson. Nevertheless, we may have to learn afresh to see what is actually before us: the innate goodness of so many people. 

Another factor making the formation of a coherent view of hope problematic is our culture’s embrace of relativism. By the logic of relativism nothing that others do in pursuit of their hopes or ideals is necessarily related to me since notions of what is truly good (and truly evil) are privatized. That may be good for her, but is of no interest, or relevance to me. To nurture and benefit from the generative capacities of the hope we see around us, we may have to give more attention to those fragments which, if brought together, have the capacity to defeat both cynicism and relativism. 

Let me reflect briefly on three aspects of our relationships which seem to me particularly important in thinking about how we assemble a larger picture, of which we are all a part, and thereby strengthen the generative capacities for hope.  

First, the family: our initial school of life and love. We know much about the conditions needed for secure attachment and bonding of infants. Evidence for the lifelong consequences of early childhood trauma and dislocation is powerful. The experience of healthy childhood development, including failure and forgiveness, the learning of gratitude, such things deeply influence our adult selves and our capacity for hope and trust in others. It follows that a society that cares about the quality of hope for the future will care hugely, in an objective and systematic way, about factors which help or hinder the family. 

Second, beyond but founded on the family, is what Jonathan Sachs speaks of as the social sphere. He describes this sphere as 'covenantal', always based on a kind of covenant we make with others as we engage together in work or projects, outside of the political or economic spheres. This covenantal activity generates trust between us. Effective political life and creative economic activity depend on trust. But they do not so easily generate trust. In fact they tend to consume trust. So the social sphere is crucial: it is the place where our identity as social beings, whose fulfilment is bound up with that of others, finds expression.  But more importantly in this place, hope is something carried by the community and not just the by individual.  For a common project or goal that is difficult yet possible to attain, one week I may be full of hope and cheer you along; but the next week your commitment and belief stirs me from my apathy and despondency.  

Third: imagination, which I mentioned earlier. I believe the capacity of art to stimulate hope should not be underestimated. A friend told me a story of a group coming together in a poor area of Bristol to hear about deep seated social problems and the acute difficulties of effecting real change. Halfway through the meeting there was a performance by a local choir, its members aged from 10 to 80 years. The effect was dramatic. When the meeting resumed, the mood was wholly different. The choir’s imagination kindled in the group hope for what might be and invigorated them to act. 

These are some of the ways in which we can bring together isolated fragments of hope into a wider and more coherent picture, thereby strengthening their generative capacity. The more we construct and contemplate that picture, the more we are encouraged to seize some of the difficult things we know are for our good and believe that they are achievable. 

But we have to go further. Indeed, I suggest that both our experience and reasoning requires us to do. 

Take the experience of being moved by a piece of art or music. We are taken out of ourselves. We move beyond the moment into something timeless. We reach for another horizon, an instinctively emerging sense of cohesion about all things, or conversely, the challenge of radical meaninglessness. The invitation is clear: radical hope or despair. 

This leads us back to St Thomas and part two of his consideration of hope. Here he brings into focus the ultimate good towards which hope compels us: the mystery of God. Hope has as its ultimate object our radical happiness. That happiness comes with our presence before and within God. Hope directs us towards God, the source and summit of all good: Goodness itself. Realising this enables us to recognise that among all that God gives us are the means by which we may attain this perfect happiness. So for Thomas the full description of hope reads: 'Wherefore, in so far as we hope for anything as being possible to us by means of Divine assistance, our hope attains to God Himself, on Whose help it leans.' 

This is what makes us truly pilgrims. Over and over again we grasp that we are 'not yet' there, still to achieve our true and deepest purpose. In the language of faith, this is the simple recognition of our creatureliness, the fundamental fact of the inner structure of our lives. Put it this way: If we are not creatures, beings loved into existence by a creator who acts with intentions, then our journey is towards nothingness and our present entirely without lasting meaning. God’s grace infuses our natural hope - our stretching forth with restless hearts for the future good, difficult but possible to attain - with the imprint of its true purpose, one that is at the same time intensely fulfilling yet truly daunting. Our home lies beyond us. Yet our hearts and our reason reach out towards that home, and the gift of God makes it truly attainable. 

Such hope is at the core of contemporary Christian humanism. It drives Pope Francis to embrace the profoundly disfigured man, to kiss the feet of the Muslim girl, to harangue the ideology of global capitalism for its disdain for people, especially the poor, to proclaim ceaselessly that our reason for hope is the never-ending mercy of God, who pours out His life that we might see and live again. And all this is done in Christ Jesus.

In conclusion. 

There are many places in the world today where hope is in short supply. Recently I have visited Gaza and seen the conditions in which over 1 million Muslims are held. I have been to Erbil to be with the many, many thousands of Christian refugees there. But I would like to end with a short reflection I wrote after visiting the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. This Memorial poses the questions we are considering in the most radical manner possible. 

Yad Vashem is a powerful tribute to all who perished in the Holocaust and a damning indictment of all who perpetrated it, directly or indirectly. On my visit, only slowly did these perceptions sink deeply into my consciousness. 

The journey through Yad Vashem is long and needs time. I went without a guide, with a small group of people. Fairly quickly on its zig-zag paths I lost touch with my companions. In fact I lost touch with everything: time, space, wider purpose. I quickly became absorbed in the horrendous history that was claiming my undivided attention. As I walked its paths, I had a sense of being drawn into a closed world, or rather into an understanding of how the world systematically closed its doors to the Jewish people, leaving them to their dreadful fate. Never before had I understood how abandoned they were, left without any place to which to go, or to call their own. 

Then, too, I was drawn into the personal horrors of the victims of the holocaust, told and retold, city by city, family by family, until reduced to yet another corpse brutally bulldozed into a pit. Never before had I felt in my deepest being the impact of the total degradation of the human person, executed on an industrial scale and here presented before my eyes. 

The questions flooded in, both at the time and afterwards. How could this have happened? What are the roots of this evil? What are its consequences for generation after generation of those who perished and of those who survived? And how do so many of us now live with the guilt of being associated with its perpetrators, or with its indirect participants or just its bystanders?

Sin is a reality. No one remains untouched by it. But does not this holocaust of sin and evil demand that we stop any talk of human goodness and simply stay silent in front of its abyss in which surely all hope is lost?  

Yet even here traces of enduring goodness are to be found. They emerge in the indomitable endurance shown by so many in the Nazi killing camps. The last words spoken by many in the gas chambers were: 'Next year Jerusalem.' Traces of heroic goodness are found in the lives of those who risked all to shelter Jewish people and form with them the powerful bond, that alliance of secrecy, between the hunted and the protector. Sometimes, in Yad Vashem, I had to read the small print to find these stories. But they are there. And today this same heroism is recognised in granting the title 'Righteous Gentile’ to those whose stories of astonishing courage emerge only now. 

Perhaps there are indeed moments in which the small print of the messages of hope seemingly disappears from sight. There are many when it does not. Ours is surely the tasks of keeping alive these rumours of hope, however we understand them, and of knitting them together so that the far horizons of an eternal hope may never to be lost to our sight.

 

 

 

 

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