Last Wednesday Daniel Finkelstein wrote about the dangers of hope in our current situation (The Times, 22nd April). In times of peril, he said, people always look for an ‘exit strategy’. If the Government decides to commit troops to an overseas conflict, for example, critics only offer support if there is a clear plan for subsequent withdrawal when the mission has been successfully completed. Such an attitude, Finkelstein insisted, was founded on an illusion: that the outcome of the initial commitment of troops could be known in advance. In practice, that is never true.
In our ‘war’ against Covid-19 the uncertainties are even greater, and the call for an exit strategy out of severe lockdown is also based on an understandable, but illusory, hope. By contrast, policy makers, and all of us in the general public, need to be resolute in our pursuit of hard truth.
And all this, from a distinguished Jewish journalist and Tory peer, in the midst of the great season of Easter – the Christian springtime of hope. But is our hope an illusion, or grounded in reality? In Romans, Paul addresses that question head on. We shall share in the glory of God, he says; that is our hope, and it ‘does not disappoint us’ (Romans 5: 5). In other words, it’s not based on wishful thinking and a refusal to face the facts.
In the Gospels there is plenty of evidence of wishful thinking. The two disciples trudging back to Emmaus speak of their hope in Jesus as the one who would redeem Israel. For them his crucifixion proved that was a cruelly false hope, so they’re sunk in deep gloom. What radically changes things is the encounter with their unrecognised companion. Yet, until he breaks bread with them at home he’s just a visitor to their district who seems out of touch with the shattering news. It is the wholly-unexpected encounters that change the situation, not just for Cleopas and his fellow-traveller, in Luke 24, but also for Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb, in John’s account. Even at the climax of Matthew’s Gospel some of the eleven doubted.
For the Christians in Rome for whom Paul was writing, the Easter faith does not render believers immune from suffering. But they can find the strength to endure, Paul insists, because of the reality of God’s love, poured into their hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So here are the two foundations of the Christian’s hope: the present reality of the Spirit, taking up our inarticulate sighs and presenting them to the One who, in loving wisdom, searches the human heart – God ‘within’ in prayerful communion with God ‘above’ (Romans 8: 26-27). And then, the ultimate reality, the love of God in Christ from which nothing can separate us – neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come (Romans 8: 38). The second foundation is entirely secure because the first is already a matter of current experience – not something we conjure up out of our fevered imaginations, but pure unexpected gift.