What's Tony Thinking

It’s the 4th, Are You Feeling Hopeful?


Happy 4th of July! Are you feeling hopeful? Hope, according to a dictionary definition is, “To cherish a desire with anticipation: to want something to happen or be true.” Are you feeling hopeful about life? About the state of the nation?

Augustine, channeled by philosopher, Michael Lamb over at Aeon, says that may be the wrong question. Why? Because, according to the 4th century, North African Bishop of Hippo, hope is not a feeling. It’s a virtue.

That strikes me as a helpful distinction. Feelings are delightful (except when they are not), but they are also fickle. The come and go. If, as Augustine claimed, hope is a virtue and not just a feeling, then it is a quality of a person’s life and character. And it is something that we practice, giving hope expression in our behaviors and activities.

For those of you who want to go deeper, Lamb does. He says that hope provides an alternative to the false binary of optimism or pessimism. We sometimes imagine that those are the choices. But optimism can decline into presumption. Better is our due. While pessimism descends into despair. The slough of despond.

If part of your 4th of July involves any kind of reflection of the state of the nation, reasons can be found for both optimism and pessimism. The argument can be made that democracy has won some important victories of late. But, without any great effort, reasons for pessimism can as easily be catalogued.

Pessimism seems more the default option for many today with clear majorities saying that the nation is on the “wrong course.” Are we feeling that way because of the steady drumbeat of bad, often outrageous, news? “If it outrages, it leads.” Or does the news appeal to and reflect our aggrieved or anxious feelings?

Augustine would say, it doesn’t matter so much how we feel. Certainly, it does not matter ultimately. Because hope isn’t just a feeling. It’s a virtue. It is one of what are described as the three great theological virtues, “faith, hope and love,” of which Paul writes in I Corinthians 13. “Faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.” Theological virtues because they are grounded in faith in God.

What Augustine is saying about hope is similar to what is said in a Christian wedding service. A minister, like me, doesn’t ask the principals, “Do you love one another?” The question is “Will you love one another?” Again, love isn’t simply or only a feeling. Loving feelings come and go. In most marriages there are times when we don’t feel all that loving toward our spouse. But if love is not simply a feeling, but is a commitment, a promise, and a way of life, then a couple can survive the vicissitudes of feelings.

So, on this 4th of July, but any day really, I like Augustine’s distinction. Hope isn’t just a feeling. Whether you and I are feeling hopeful today — not the deal-maker or breaker.

Hope is a virtue. An aspect of character which finds expression in one’s way of life as well as in our life together in community, in congregations, in cities and towns, in a nation. Do hope.



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