One day early in my teaching career, I was laboring to help students in a small seminar on hermeneutics (the art of interpretation) to understand the logical and grammatical structure of a passage in Paul. As is often the case in Paul’s letters, the issue involved a simple “therefore,” by which Paul argued for the connection between what Christians believe to be true and how they can and should live their lives – theology and ethics are interchangeable. I was not succeeding. After several attempts to rephrase my point, to find an analogy that communicated, to clarify, even resorting to gestures, the light finally went on for one of the students who exclaimed, “Oh, so you’re saying that the meanings of the words is important, even the little ones!” Well, yes. That statement summarized my point nicely.
The meanings of “even the little” words have always fascinated and sometimes frustrated me. As a youngster growing up in a Baptist church, I developed my own primitive theory about many of the words I heard there: glory, grace, faith, and hope, for example. Today, I might describe that primitive theory in terms of “formal” uses of language. It seemed to me then that church folks used these words more to fulfill a formal role than to convey concrete, specific, information. “One day, we will see God in all of God’s glory,” the preacher would say. What is “glory?” I thought.
I still think that many Christians use or hear the important little words of Christian doctrine formally – as the words one is supposed to use in a certain context. Many times, I have preached or taught about the radical nature of God’s love expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and tried to make clear that this love demands that believers also live in such radical ways and to such radical extents only to be thanked for my “sweet” message. In this moment, one “little word” promises to convey vital energy to individual believers, to churches, and, indeed, to the world – if we can save it from “formal” obscurity.
Critics and doubters of Christianity often relegate Christian faith to “mere” hope. Granted, the semantic spectrum of the English word “hope” (and of its equivalents in all the languages that I know) includes the idea of an unfounded desire, a wish unlikely to bear fruit. I hope, for example, that medical researchers will find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease tomorrow. Nothing suggests that they will. I still hope for it. At the other extreme of the semantic spectrum of hope, however, lies the expectation born of signs and signals of the arrival of a new reality. Speaking of birth, a young woman in the eighth month of a normal pregnancy does not have “mere” hope that she will soon give birth. While hope, then, can denote wishful thinking, it can also refer to a well-founded expectation.
The author of Hebrews used hope’ in the latter sense when he described it as constitutive of Christian faith. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1, KJV). Hope, he suggested, represents the present reality that points beyond itself to something yet to come. Faith is the ὑπόστασις (hupostasis: confidence, assurance; that which gives substance to or guarantees a thing) of what one hopes for; it is the ἔλεγχος (elegchos: that by which a thing is proved or tested) of the reality one does not yet see.
Does a Christian’s faith express an empty wish or an expectation aroused by signs and signals that something real but still unseen approaches? Does Christian faith await what the eyes of hope foresee? What do we see that gives us reason to look out for (to ex-specto, Latin) much more? Do we see glimmers of pink-orange light on the horizon presaging a rising sun and a bright new day?
At least our corner of the universe manifests an urge, a drive toward life. Human beings evidence, further, the drive toward personhood, sentience, morality, and relationship. Human beings value truth, beauty, and goodness. Human beings exercise altruism, feel anger at injustice, and work for the good of others. Human beings sympathize. Even sorrow demonstrates an awareness that something ought to be otherwise. Easter Sunday, Christians all over the world will celebrate the signal sent to us across time through the testimony of the earliest evangelists, that Good News that God did not abandon Jesus of Nazareth to the grave.
Hope is a way of seeing signs of the unseen.
“Whispering Hope” (Anonymous/Unknown)
Soft as the voice of an angel,
Breathing a lesson unheard,
Hope with a gentle persuasion
Whispers her comforting word:
Wait till the darkness is over,
Wait till the tempest is done,
Hope for the sunshine tomorrow,
After the shower is gone.