The Case for Optimism (of Grace)
In his recent column Nick Kristof argued that “2017 was the very best year in the long history of humanity.”
While acknowledging that there’s plenty to worry about, Kristof also notes there is actually a lot of good news. Across the globe in 2017, 217,000 people a day exited “extreme poverty,” while 325,000 a day gained access to electricity, and 300,000 a day to clean, drinking water. That’s significant.
The lives of children are being saved and enhanced across the world. Here’s Kristof:
“As recently as the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone. After thousands of generations, they are pretty much disappearing on our watch.
“Just since 1990, the lives of more than 100 million children have been saved by vaccinations, diarrhea treatment, breast-feeding promotion and other simple steps.”
Kristof cites to Stephen Pinker and his forthcoming book Enlightenment Now that takes a similarly hopeful view. But not everyone sees it or wants to see it. In fact, Pinker comments, “Intellectuals hate progress.”
That set me to thinking. Is it true that “intellectuals hate progress”? If so, why is that? Is there some sort of hidden payoff in taking the dour or dark view? Does it make a person seem smarter or more sophisticated? Does it protect a person from disappointment or from appearing credulous?
I’ve never been a fan of a what seemed to me a Pollyanna-type optimism, as in “Everything’s great, and getting better every day! Golly!” Suffering is real, and so too is evil. But Kristof and Pinker say to me that you can go too far in that direction. You can be so transfixed by suffering and injustice that you distort things that way too.
The poet Jack Gilbert has this line in one of his poems: “To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
The Wesleyan theological tradition has a phrase I like. It is “the optimism of grace.” John Wesley was not an optimist about human nature. He didn’t think we were so great, but he did think Christ was and is. Wesley was an optimist about the power of God’s grace to change human hearts and lives. Grace can change a person. People and groups can change.
It’s easy to slip into the sad view that “people don’t change” or “people can’t change.” And yes, there seems to be plenty of evidence to support that conclusion. But Wesley and his “optimism of grace” challenge that, holding out the hope and conviction that God’s grace can bring about real change.
We need the Kristofs and Pinkers to challenge a too easy negativity. And even more we need Wesley and the “optimism of grace.” Grace, God’s pardon and power, changes people. People can change becoming stronger, better and happier. I’ve seen it happen.