Hope is a remarkable phenomenon. Hope gives meaning and direction to our lives, and nothing is worse than to live without it. This is graphically conveyed in the most famous line in Dante’s Inferno, the inscription that is written over the gate to hell: “Abandon every hope, who enter here.”
And yet, hope is a two edged sword. To express hope is to concede that all is not well. Hope signals discontent, it acknowledges a palpable absence and beckons something not yet here. To sing “O Come, O Come Immanuel” is to feel the cut of the sword.
And that raises one of the most fundamental of all questions: for what can we rationally hope? What kinds and degrees of happiness and fulfillment are possible? Can our deepest and largest longings for love, for joy, for peace, for justice ever be met? Or must we cut the size of our hopes down to small and medium?
Christianity, of course, is a religion of soaring hope. It urges us to enlarge our hopes, it promises happiness and fulfillment beyond our wildest dreams. Reality is far greater than we can imagine, more beautiful than we can conceive.
By glaring contrast, I was recently struck by these lines:
The conflict between scientific naturalism and various forms of antireductionism is a staple of recent philosophy. On one side there is the hope that everything can be accounted for at the most basic level by the physical sciences, extended to include biology. On the other side are doubts about whether the reality of such features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought,and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level of physical facts—facts, however sophisticated, of the kind revealed by the physical sciences.
These lines come from Thomas Nagel’s remarkable little book Mind and Cosmos, a book that challenges the reigning orthodoxy of scientific naturalism and reductionism. Nagel himself is a committed atheist, but he is highly dubious of the dogma that all of reality can be explained in terms of the physical sciences. Indeed, the aspects of reality that are the most interesting and immediately accessible to us are the very features of reality that resist scientific explanation, things like consciousness, reason, and objective moral truths.
But here is what struck me. Notice in particular this line: “…there is the hope that everything can be accounted for at the most basic level by the physical sciences…”
When I read this line I want to cry out, “why would anyone HOPE this?”
Let me be clear. I can, at one level, understand regretful atheism. I can empathize with those who reluctantly come to the conclusion that God does not exist, that it’s all matter and energy, determined by mindless, heartless laws of nature, that the same laws of nature that somehow generated human life will eventually destroy all of us as the stars burn out and the physical remains of the universe go on expanding and disintegrating forever.
But what I cannot understand is why anyone would celebrate this vision of reality. To regretfully come to this conclusion is one thing, to enthusiastically embrace it is another thing altogether. To celebrate it with a sort of triumph makes no rational sense. Indeed, it is perverse.
It is one thing to believe your wife has a brain, but not a soul. It is another thing to be glad about it. It is one thing to think her most heartfelt, loving thoughts toward you are ultimately reducible to chemical events in her brain, but it is quite another thing to savor that “thought.” It is one thing to believe death is stronger than love, and will get the last word. It is another thing altogether to relish this prospect as a matter of hope.
And here is another thing. Atheists have for centuries deployed the problem of evil as their main argument against the existence of God. Again, I respect the force of this problem, and understand those who find it hard to believe in God in the face of devastating evil. But it is another matter altogether to wield the problem of evil like an axe with a sense of sneering triumph. Those who do this seem often to lose sight of the tragic implications of their claims for the very victims of suffering and evil on whose behalf they profess to speak.
When I encounter this sort of disdainful atheism, I am always reminded of an argument Richard Creel advanced several years ago that we have a moral obligation at least to hope that God exists. Why hope that God exists? Creel asks. Precisely because of compassion for those who suffer. If it is even possible to retain the hope that God exists, he argues, then it is possible to hope that the terrible suffering in our world can be redeemed. If there is no God, there is no hope for those who have suffered terrible evil and injustice, whose lives were cut painfully short.
To hope that atheistic naturalism is true is to embrace a vision of ultimate reality that consigns to oblivion those who have suffered horrible and unspeakable evil. It is to write them off as monuments to the tragic absurdity of life.
I will not write them off.
O Come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel. [i]
[i] It is important to emphasize that from a biblical perspective, hope is not a desperate last resort, a matter of “hoping against hope,” but rather, a grounded confidence. For more on this, see my essay “The Wisdom of Hope in a Despairing World” in The Wisdom of the Christian Faith, eds Paul K. Moser and Michael T. McFall, Cambridge University Press, 2012.