Hope

how faint the whisper we hear of him! (Job 26:14, TNIV)

* * *

Here
is bigger than you can imagine
Now
is forever (Bruce Cockburn)

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about pain and suffering and genocide and natural disasters and…God.  Without diminishing the pain and horror, and without denying the legitimacy of our incredulity, our anger at God for allowing these things to happen, I do have the strong sense that we humans are awfully short-sighted in our assessment of what God is or is not doing in the world. What truths can we derive from our suffering when it is but a blip of an event in the continuum of history?  What do we, with our short lives, know about how these things fit in the great scheme of things?

And what of all the beauty and goodness we see in the world?  Should God get any credit for those things?  Should the bad things outweigh the good?

Perhaps it is easy for me to say this sitting comfortably in my Poäng chair at home, surrounded by books, family, love, health and…a roof and walls, but there runs inside me a deep vein of hope.  There is good in the world and it will prevail. I believe this deeply.

Hope does not do away with the pain and suffering, and neither does it justify or excuse it.  Hope does not mean we cannot or do not weep, grieve, shout at God in anger.  What hope does is see, if faintly and uncertainly, beyond pain and suffering to the time when, in Julian of Norwich’s wonderful words, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.

Tonight I had Bruce Cockburn’s album You’ve Never Seen Everything playing in the background as I worked.  The title track is quite a powerful song.  On first listen it comes across as a heavily political song, which is not unusual for Cockburn.  It is a dark song, sparse instrumentation, with lyrics spoken in a low, tired, almost pained voice.

The listener is presented with a series of vignettes showing the dark underbelly of the world: viruses, suicide, murder, drug trade, sexual harassment, consumerism, poisoning of women and children, rage, greed, and so on.  After a couple of these vignettes, the words, “You’ve never seen everything”.  For example:

And a car crashes and burns on an offramp from the Gardiner
Two dogs in the back seat die, and in the front
a man and his mother
Forensics reveals the lady has pitchfork wounds in her chest –
Pitchfork!
And that the same or a similar instrument has been screwed to the dash
to make sure the driver goes too

You’ve never seen everything

The listener is shaken out of his or her stupor: there is so much darkness beyond that comfortable little world you’ve created for yourself, he seems to be saying. You think you get it?  You think you understand the world–like watching the nightly news gives you any sense of what’s going on?

For the longest time I would simply skip over the song.  It was too dark, too discomforting.  And the only reason I did choose to listen to it was to get to the chorus, which is a rich, beautiful melody dropped in the middle of those dark vignettes:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around

Until tonight I wasn’t sure what to do with that chorus, other than enjoy it as a brief reprieve from the dark images being spoken around it.  The song is the shadow, it seemed to me, and the chorus but a thin ribbon of half-light running through it.  But suddenly, tonight, perhaps in confirmation of the things I’ve been thinking about hope, I realized what the song is actually saying.  It ends with the chorus and repeated mantra:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around
Never feel the light falling all around

You’ve never seen everything

It’s not the darkness we haven’t seen around us, it’s the light!  We think we’ve seen it all when we see the pain and sorrow of the world, but we haven’t seen everything: we haven’t seen the light falling all around, filling all the infinite space in which the ribbon of shadow moves.  We choose to ride the ribbon of darkness when we could just as well ride the light if we are willing to see it.

In fact, the album ends quite abruptly a few songs later on the word “hope”.

19 thoughts on “Hope

  1. Toni

    Thanks for taking the time and making the energy to create, Marc.

    I don’t quite understand why we can be angry with God for allowing genocide when we’re perfectly happy for him to allow us to do things we know to be wrong. Why should it be different for us compared to other people?

  2. Andrew

    Excellent post. Great album too – I think one of my favourite Cockburn CD’s.

    Tough topic. Is God “beyond good and evil”? Is the “God is love” of the apostle John compatible with the jealous Yahweh of the Torah? Should a reconciliation even be attempted?

    I recently watched “A Serious Man”. You should watch it when you can — you’d like it, I expect, and it’s theme is essentially Job-like, dealing with suffering and the apparent arbitrariness of evil.

  3. Phil L

    Very timely, coming on the heels of the Haiti earthquake, with its resulting comments that it was proof that God didn’t exist, that he was punishing a nation for past sins etc.
    I haven’t listened to that particular Cockburn album. Now I’ll need to check it out.

  4. Jerry

    “I do have the strong sense that we humans are awfully short-sighted in our assessment of what God is or is not doing in the world. What truths can we derive from our suffering when it is but a blip of an event in the continuum of history? What do we, with our short lives, know about how these things fit in the great scheme of things? …And what of all the beauty and goodness we see in the world? Should God get any credit for those things? Should the bad things outweigh the good?”

    Does your ‘strong sense’ make you less ‘short-sighted’ than others?

    If so, I suspect that you’re expecting your audience to trust that your ‘strong sense’ is more than a feeling (personally inspired by the religious culture you were born in and hope to advance) transferred onto the world we know . Is this ‘strong sense’ something your audience can indeed rely on when they’re wondering how anyone could assume there is some kind of ultimate truth about a ‘great scheme of things’?

    Marc, are you asking your audience to consider justifying (to whatever degree) the horrible suffering our world experiences, by rhetorically challenging our ability to appreciate a supposed cosmic good in all the horrible suffering? Are you asking your audience to consider justifying (to whatever degree) the horrible suffering our world experiences because we can locate human ignorance? Or because we can know that humanity has experienced (to some degree) beauty and goodness? And this goodness ‘outweighs’ and therefore justifies (to whatever degree) the horrible suffering our world experiences?

  5. Jerry

    Toni, you said, “I don’t quite understand why we can be angry with God for allowing genocide when we’re perfectly happy for him to allow us to do things we know to be wrong. Why should it be different for us compared to other people?”

    Toni, correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be using the freewill argument to justify ANY kind of evil.

    The fact of the freewill matter is, our societies of voting citizens, judges, politicians, lawyers and officers deem it NECESSARY and JUST to limit a citizen’s freewill for the purpose of protecting our societies from greater dangers than restricting the limits of our freewill.

    For example, though it may be consistent with your theology, Toni, is it reasonable for the christian church to expect our societies to hand over the keys to dangerous criminals in state prisons, freeing them to be the only ones to lock themselves in jail, if they so choose to?

    Obviously, not. It’s absurd. And so is the freewill argument.

  6. Jerry

    “Hope does not do away with the pain and suffering, and neither does it justify or excuse it. Hope does not mean we cannot or do not weep, grieve, shout at God in anger. What hope does is see, if faintly and uncertainly, beyond pain and suffering to the time when, in Julian of Norwich’s wonderful words, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.”

    If we direct our hope to a distant future where ‘all manner of thing be well’, how are we not hoping that someone or something ‘justify or excuse’ the pain and suffering?

    The fact of the matter is, the deeds (or a lack there of) are done. All of the horrible suffering our world has experienced in the past cannot be redeemed.

    However, if a “God” doesn’t choose to justify for humanity this ugly part of our history, I suppose this “God” could wipe away any human memory of it, hiding it from everyone but “God’s” self. But what kind of a “God” would that be?

    I personally don’t want our ugly history to be justified. I think those who suffered deserve better than that. Therefore, I’ve given up on hoping for some type of future utopia. I direct my hope to our immediate future, which will involve disappointment (to whatever degree). But this approach seems to me to be a realistic, practical approach to make our world a better and more beautiful place to live in.

  7. Jerry

    By the way, if a christian utopia includes an atheist-free, heaven-on-earth, how do you suppose “God” will bring about this utopia?

    p.s. Marc, I hope I’m not giving you the impression I’m attempting to monopolize your thread of comments on this post of yours. Your post obviously was an inspiring catalyst for me to respond ..again, and again.. and..

  8. Marc

    Hi Jerry,

    I’m not ignoring your comments. I’ve been working on papers and resisting the urge to jump in and get caught up in a discussion, which historically have been a great distraction.

    I was a little surprised by how much you were pulling out of this post. I was not trying to develop a theodicy of any sort with this. In many ways, in fact, I was trying to do the opposite: embrace some level of mystery (which is included in hope).

    Do I think I’m less short-sighted? No, of course not. I said that 1. I get the *sense* that 2. *we* are short-sighted, which includes me.

    I’m not expecting my audience to rely on my words. But some may be encouraged by them. (And others may be incredulous.)

    I’m not entirely sure how having hope (and obviously my hope connected to something specific) justifies or excuses anything of the pain and injustice of the world. A prisoner of war who deeply hopes and believes in victory by his country and his release does not then also say, “Well, the abuse I’m experiencing in prison is all just fine and dandy, because I’ll be rescued in the end.”

    Hope exists, it seems to me, precisely *because* we believe the pain and suffering in the world is not right or the way things out to be–that conversely there is a way that things ought to be.

    You wrote, “The fact of the matter is, the deeds (or a lack there of) are done. All of the horrible suffering our world has experienced in the past cannot be redeemed.” But that’s precisely it: my hope and belief is that somehow it can.

    Redeeming something evil is not the same as justifying or excusing it. Something is redeemed because it is in a situation in which it should not be, because it is somehow broken and not right. Redemption happens precisely because evil cannot be excused or justified.

    I don’t know if I responded to all your comments, but I’ve got another class in a couple of minutes, so I have to end there.

  9. Jerry

    Thanks for responding, Marc, despite your hectic schedule. I wish to say more but don’t let whatever I say take you away from your responsibilities. I’m sure you have enough pressure dealing with assignments!

    After your response, I’m left wondering…

    How is it even logically possible that all of the horrible suffering our world has experienced in the past can be redeemed? Can we say it is anything more than wish-fulfillment?

    And you’ve made me even more curious about where you received the “strong sense” from. Is it from what you’ve been taught (and therefore, most believers should be aware of it)? Or is it some type of revelation apart from the bible? And if so, what are the implications of you having this insightful supernatural experience while others who seek this kind of experience can’t find it or simply have not had it offered to them?

  10. Marc

    I am not capable to explain redemption by logic. But that’s the barrier in our discussion, isn’t it? We are operating from fundamentally different premises. You know the worldview I am speaking from; you no longer share that worldview. From my perspective, if God is God, then there is the distinct possibility that God is able to do things that I don’t understand and that therefore may seem to defy logic–and perhaps they actually do.

    Where have I received the strong sense from? By that do you mean, what is my authority in saying this? Or how can I back this up?

    That’s the kind of question we could toss back and forth endlessly. You write with a great deal of certainty as well (you used the phrase “the fact of the matter is” a number of times, for example): on what basis are you certain that redemption is impossible and illogical?

    I’m not trying speak as an authority. This is my take on the world; my audience can take it or leave it. My view is drawn from and informed by orthodox Christian belief (I am clearly not the only one who believes this). It is also informed by experience, though not, perhaps, “empirical” experience.

  11. Jerry

    “You write with a great deal of certainty as well (you used the phrase “the fact of the matter is” a number of times, for example): on what basis are you certain that redemption is impossible and illogical?”

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fact
    ? ?/fækt/ Show Spelled[fakt] Show IPA
    –noun
    1.
    something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact.
    2.
    something known to exist or to have happened: Space travel is now a fact.
    3.
    a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true: Scientists gather facts about plant growth.
    4.
    something said to be true or supposed to have happened: The facts given by the witness are highly questionable.

    I say redemption is illogical because there is nothing factually close (in the reality we all recognize) to challenge this statement of mine. I say redemption is impossible because it is illogical for an omnibenevolent “God” to wait long before redeeming the horrible suffering our world has experienced in the past – and is still experiencing. So, if a so-called omnibenevolent “God” will not bring about redemption as soon as it’s needed, either this “God” is not omnibenevolent (allowing suffering to continue until some future redemption), or there is no logical reason to assume this “God” will ever bring about redemption.

  12. Marc

    I’m not sure what to say, Jerry. In a way, this discussion is beyond anything I intended with this post. The post was an expression of what I believe and hope for (along with most of the church throughout its history) rather than a reasoned argument based on empirically proveable facts.

    If you by “redemption” you mean “undo”, then I can see how this would appear illogical. But what if redemption means something else, like restoration?

    “in the reality we all recognize”–which is what? You assume “we all” agree on this, but clearly this is not the case, and not only from a Christian perspective.

    If we’re talking about God–even hypothetically–we must assume something more than the material world. And if we’re speaking theologically, then perhaps this redemption is something only God can achieve, in which case of course we haven’t *seen* it (at least not yet), and so there would be no repeatable, empirical evidence of something like that happening.

    And if we are assuming for the sake of this argument that there is a God and he is omni-whatever (-benevolent, -scient, -present, etc.), then we must also assume that he may know something that we do not.

    Is reality limited to that which can be logically deduced?

    In terms of timing (i.e. why didn’t God clear this up a long time ago?), I really don’t know. It’s a question I also ask sometimes.

    But I think you’ve created a false dichotomy: that either God is not omnibenevolent or he will never bring about redemption. Are these the only two choices? This dichotomy assumes to know everything which can be known and which needs to be known relating to this. I would argue that we don’t have all the knowable and necessary facts to make a judgment.

  13. Jerry

    “If you by “redemption” you mean “undo”, then I can see how this would appear illogical. But what if redemption means something else, like restoration?”

    How do you restore the ugly fact that unjustified suffering happened? And how do you restore the fact that there have been times when people (and for believers – “God”), capable of saving others from their afflicted suffering, stood by and let it all happen?

    ““in the reality we all recognize”–which is what? You assume “we all” agree on this, but clearly this is not the case, and not only from a Christian perspective.”

    I was talking about the experienced material reality we all acknowledge. Whatever people add onto it is up to them.

    “But I think you’ve created a false dichotomy: that either God is not omnibenevolent or he will never bring about redemption. Are these the only two choices? This dichotomy assumes to know everything which can be known and which needs to be known relating to this. I would argue that we don’t have all the knowable and necessary facts to make a judgment.”

    This dichotomy makes no assumption about future knowledge because no one can. And if you know of any other necessary facts that would change the dichotomy into something else, please, don’t hesitate to share them. Otherwise, the only thing substantive you and I have on the matter of this dichotomy is what I’ve offered.

  14. Jerry

    I just re-read my last comment and see that I was obviously in too much of a hurry. Both questions in the second paragraph (my first response) should lead with, “How does restoration overcome the ugly fact…”

  15. Marc

    Another option to the dichotomy is that we don’t know everything–we don’t have all the facts and circumstances, we can’t see the world from some kind of objective, bird’s eye view.

    This is what I was getting at with the suggestion that by definition God knows a great deal more than you and I do. So here’s third option to the dichotomy you’ve set up: that God has his reasons and his knowledge for doing things the way he’s doing them and that he will somehow bring about redemption.

    Is this a cop-out? Maybe it is, I don’t know. I’m just not concerned about being able to explain or understand the inner working of a future redemption. Reality is not limited to the sphere of what I can understand or what makes sense to me.

  16. Marc Post author

    That’s not to say that I support some kind of irrational, free-for-all view of God. I mean that there are likely things which we are simply unable to comprehend.

  17. Jerry

    I’ve got a couple more dichotomies for you. But before you read them, Marc, I suggest you read my last comment on my first dichotomy again: “This dichotomy makes no assumption about future knowledge because no one can. And if you know of any other necessary facts that would change the dichotomy into something else, please, don’t hesitate to share them. Otherwise, the only thing substantive you and I have on the matter of this dichotomy is what I’ve offered.

    Second Dichotomy: IF there is a “God”, the only logical way for “restoration to overcome the ugly fact that unjustified suffering happened”.. and for “restoration to overcome the ugly fact that there have been times when people (and for believers – “God”), capable of saving others from their afflicted suffering, stood by and let it all happen” is to, as you said, ‘undo’ it. Otherwise, “God” is left to justify it.

    Has “God” done either of these? The ‘undoing’ hasn’t happened. And if “God” has justified it, where and to whom is this justification communicated? In the bible?

    Third Dichotomy: If “God” hasn’t done either of these things, then either this “God” is of the non-personal/non-relational deist variety or this “God’s” relational skills are seriously lacking.

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