November 4, 2008. Cheers flooded the streets of Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles. People danced in the streets as Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States. Few elections have ever produced such a moving display of popular emotion, as the president-elect from the Southside of Chicago declared, “It’s been a long time coming. But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.” November 9, 2016. A country split in two gasped as Donald Trump upset predicted election winner Hillary Clinton in a stunning populist uprising. Some people danced for joy. Many took to the streets in anger over the election results, wearing pink hats and screaming “Not my President!”
Elections don’t define hope and despair, but they give us a glimpse of what they look like on millions of faces simultaneously. In democratic countries such as the United States, people get up and go to work the next day either glad or disgruntled but still functioning and experiencing few truly “disastrous” outcomes from the event itself. This story runs quite differently in authoritarian or theocratic regimes such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or North Sudan, of course. In this country, hope and despair wear less obvious faces than the faces of hunger and genocide, of religious oppression or state-enforced leader-worship. But this doesn’t mean that despair isn’t real and isn’t growing in our beloved Republic.
Numerous interesting studies released in the last several years highlight an emerging phenomenon known as “American hopelessness.”Some, such as a “Mood of the Nation” poll from the Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy, focus largely on political metrics analyzed large-scale feelings regarding the Presidential Election of 2016. Others observe broader societal issues such as family cohesion, overall health and behavioral concerns, including analyses of rural white despair. Still others examine the movements towards or away from religious movements or social causes. From these studies, a theme has emerged: American hopelessness is not determined by a single issue or even a single category of issues, but by a general outlook on the world that has turned from rosy, to gray, to dark and despairing.
However, these studies can’t explain precisely why this movement has happened. Jonathan Rauch’s article in The Atlantic, “How American Politics Went Insane,” shows that the problem of political hopelessness is neither new nor exclusively linked to the political process. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy shows that the decline of rural Appalachia was tied to entire ways of life, complete with family dynamics, behavioral tendencies, family medical histories, and educational and professional legacies. Indeed, Appalachia’s problems remained unsolved despite 50 years and counting of the “War on Poverty.”And every time a prominent cultural voice comes out with the all-too-familiar Rolling Stone exclusive, “Why I left the _______Faith/Philosophy/Movement,” we learn that decisions affecting a lifetime stem from a multitude of smaller decisions, all conspiring to push a human soul down the path towards mutiny against a formerly cherished ideology.
If hope and despair can’t be compartmentalized into neat boxes such as religion, culture, or politics, what are we to blame for their seesaw-like appearance in American life? Will we shake our finger at the grand arc of history, blaming cycles of war and peace, poverty and prosperity, tyranny or freedom, for our constant pendulum swings between infectious optimism and irritating malaise? Or are we ourselves to blame in a different way.
In 1882, a European philosopher finally put to paper what the European intellectual community had already been thinking for some time. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous sentence, taken from Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Happy Science) , has repeatedly been identified as a pivotal point in European history, one that would both sum up the movement towards humanist idolatry that found wings during the Enlightenment and predict the arrival of strongmen in Germany and Russia less half a century later. The Happy Science, The Antichrist, and Thus Spake Zarathustra undoubtedly helped to push Europe down the path towards the ultimate departure from the universal morals that prevented The Holocaust or the killing by the starvation of 30 million souls.
Many who have looked back at Nietzsche’s writings have said, “Well, he was right, wasn’t he? Europe killed God!” Not quite, but Europe did kill something inside its continental soul. It had been preparing to carry out the execution of its conscience for some time. Social Darwinism and the assorted racist writings of the natural and social sciences loaded the gun; Hitler and Stalin simply pulled the trigger.
Pontificating on the writings of a late 19th century German philosopher is meaningless, however, without realizing what his toxic ideas mean for the vulnerable human soul. At the end of the day, “God is dead” didn’t just mark the final decline of the European soul from grasping at basic morality into large-scale nihilism, but it also signaled that at long last, humanity finally boasted, nay, practically shouted from the rooftops, that it was the sole reason for its total loss of hope.
The efforts of humanity come to ruin. Everything under the sun is in vain. Nothing we do really matters. The great tomes of modernist and postmodernist fiction, whether The Great Gatsby, The Stranger, The Sound and the Fury, or Slaughterhouse Five voice the world’s anguish at its own folly. Every human attempt at goodness or success from Gilgamesh to Homer to Dante to Darwin to Marx to Sartre – all nothing more than “dust in the wind.” One can almost hear the planet cry out, “Oh how I have destroyed my own desire to live!” Creation truly mourns and trembles at its “groaning that cannot be uttered.”
Now for a moment of clarity, at the risk of outright offense to the secularist and the humanist. For the American soul, the rise in hopelessness is simply a result of a consistent abandonment of the theologos — the knowledge of God. Knowledge in the sense of the French “connaisser” and the Spanish “conocer,” to know personally as opposed to “savoir” or “saber,” to know of. Rejection of God, or even of the quest to know God, will ultimately end in total ruin.
Do you see the villain behind all of this hopelessness? Do you see the faces of the ones pulling triggers or pressing detonators, the ones turning away callously at all of this carnage and suffering? It is not a political candidate or a Hollywood celebrity, a Silicon Valley tycoon, a media mogul, or any one race, ethnicity, religion, or class of individuals. And it is not God who has done this. It is we who have done all this evil, with our own bare hands.
The cure? A rightful knowledge of God — one that would lead us to love Him and to love our neighbor as ourselves. There is no other cure. There is no other hope. There is no other way.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
57 A.D. Corinth. A little man, balding and bearded, inscribes an unforgettable epistle to a struggling church in that day’s global capital.
And hope does not disappoint . . .
Hope does not disappoint.
Our Western tendencies to abstraction (no thanks to Plato here) obscure our vision as we read these ancient Jewish texts (for yes, they are both unquestionably ancient and unabashedly Jewish). The Apostle Paul understood, as did the rest of Jesus’s closest followers, the total physicality of hope. Standing at the foot of the cross and then at the mouth of the tomb, they knew (again, “connaisser” not “savoir”) that the Christ was God made man, yet still God, who had hung on Rome’s most shameful instrument of torture for the sins of humanity. For their sins. For their darkest thoughts, their most shameful words, their most evil deeds.
And then, on the third day . . . risen.
Christ’s body emerging from the tomb is the very definition of hope. In that infinitesimal moment of time, He infinitely defeated Despair and all of its minions, crushing Satan’s head. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the bright Morning Star, the Alpha and the Omega.
Why would you want to live apart from Him? Why would any of us?
Despair is a dark room that shuts us in so that we cannot pray, cannot love, cannot breathe. Entrapped by its power, we look inside ourselves so deeply that we grasp the very nature of aloneness itself. Stupefied by the aimlessness of culture, the disappointment of religion, the inadequacy of politics, we turn our meaninglessness into wanton destruction of faith, then of others, then of ourselves.
But theologos — now that is something worthy of hope.