Friday, February 15, 2008

Hope Against Hope

In a column published today in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer severely criticizes the messianic aspirations of Barak Obama, even comparing his extraordinary electoral success at one point to a "cult" with all the earmarks of an irrational mass following and mesmeric charisma.

Krauthammer is among the first commentators I've encountered to take issue with the messianic and theologically suspect claims by Obama to "repair the world." Quoting Obama, Krauthammer writes, "We are the hope of the future," sayeth Obama. We can "remake this world as it should be." Believe in me and I shall redeem not just you but your country -- nay, we can become "a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, and make this time different than all the rest." I don't need to consult with my Catechism to detect several heresies here, among them Pelagianism (belief in the human capacity to achieve our own salvation) and Montanism (ecstatic prophecy). Krauthammer's misgivings are well placed and should generate more widespread suspicion and concern.

Yet, Krauthammer reveals his own theological shallowness in condemning Obama's millenarian claims NOT as a form of heresy, but rather, merely as a manifestation of religion simpliciter. He writes, "the Obama campaign has the feel of a religious revival with, as writer James Wolcott observed, a 'salvational fervor' and 'idealistic zeal divorced from any particular policy or cause and chariot-driven by pure euphoria.'" The charismatic appeal as a "kind of sale is hardly new. Organized religion has been offering a similar commodity -- salvation -- for millennia." What Krauthammer appears not to realize is that the greatest critiques of just these sorts of inappropriate and unrealistic aspirations to "repair the world" or "make time different" have not been secular - which has often adapted this kind of belief in the form of political ideology - but rather, orthodox belief, particularly the main Christian tradition firmly established by Augustine during the early Church. Insisting upon the distinction between the City of God where the heart can rest and salvation lies, and the City of Man, which is inescapably marked by the stain of Original Sin and the inexpungable human lust for dominion ("libido dominandi"), Augustine chided heretical contemporaries against the belief in perfectibility in this world, cautioned against the belief that salvation lie in our power to achieve, and urged upon his contemporaries a realism and humility regarding what is possible in the realm of politics. Most importantly, Augustinian realism clarifies the distinction between "hope" and "optimism," the former which is closely aligned to humility and modest expectations for what is possible in the saeculum, the latter which inclines toward over-confidence in the human power of transformation and perfection. Hope resists ideology and overinvesting in the prospect of political transformation; optimism either results in ideology resistant to the hard data of reality with attendant abuses by political elites, and ultimately elicits in optimism's close kin, disappointment, cynicism and despair.

For a campaign that so freely and frequently resorts to the language of "hope," Obama in fact evokes its exact opposite. His salvific and heretical language - reminiscent of the 19th-century rhetoric of Social Gospel such as that enunciated by Walter Rauschenbusch (whose grandson was Richard Rorty) or progressives like Herbert Croly and John Dewey, could in fact use a good dose of theological hope and its accompanying call to humility and realism. Indeed, what marks above all the fundamental similarity of all the candidates in the current election season is the absence of any such theologically-informed realism based on belief in the two cities of Augustine, such as that once articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr or later by Christopher Lasch in his "New Oxford Review" essays attacking gnosticism. But it is perhaps our own obsession with the race for the Presidency - burdened with attendant belief that its outcome might represent a fundamental and permanent improvement in our condition - that contributes to the overestimation of what is possible in politics, and now manifests itself in our longings for someone who will heal the world.

In this sense, amid our readiness for "change, we should recognize a deeper consistency between the appeal of one who would "heal the world" and the messianism that has so often colored the language of our current President. Particularly pronounced in his Second Inaugural, President Bush declared that it was now the permanent intention of the United States to support freedom everywhere, with the "ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." The war in Iraq was undertaken for many and mixed reasons, but among them certainly - and perhaps underlying most deeply the optimism that informed the belief in the best-case scenario following the invasion, rather the possibility of a worse- or worst-case scenario - was this belief in the capacity of our nation to be the agent of the expulsion of "libido dominandi" from the world.

Let me be clear: my criticisms should not be confused as a call to avoid religious language in politics - far from it (in this sense, Krauthammer's critique is fundamentally similar to the Rawlsian calls to strip religious language from the "public square"). Rather, it's an insistence that theology matters, and we should be ready to draw distinctions between the claims of our political leaders - or aspirants to rule - based on theological grounds.

This is one great peril of the overestimation of the human capacity to "heal the world": the willingness to allow optimism to overcome good sense, and at its worse to permit ideology to trump our flawed human reality. But it is, I suspect, the other peril that we will face with an Obama presidency, namely the disappointment that will set in when, inevitably, such healing of the world proves elusive. Right now the expectations for transformation that will almost inevitably take place following the disastrous Presidency of G.W. Bush run so high as to exceed the capacity of any political leader to realize. And, as a number of commentators increasingly point out - none better than David Brooks in a recent column - the hard facts of reality, both internationally and domestically, will press in upon us starting on the first day of a new presidency, no less than they do so right now. Indeed, given the broader sets of limits that we face and increasingly confront, what is most needful is a leader who is prepared to tell us this hard truth, not promising transformation but acknowledging the hard facts of natural limits and the need for sacrifice that will be forced upon us in a far harder form unless we make some difficult choices and changes now. The prospects for disillusionment become ever more certain, the more we are tempted to convince ourselves, and are drawn to promises, that we await a future of "healing," "redemption," and paradisic contentment.

We are apt to forget that there has been one who has, and can, heal the world, but he stands for no office and offers no platform. Christians, above all, should avoid investing our hopes too fully in this world, and chasten those who would promise salvation that is only finally possible in a city beyond and after our own.


Bob said...

In his essay "Immortality," Eric Voegelin speaks of the "mood" of "alienation," which is derived from an estrangement from the reality of time and the timeless (the city of God, the city of man).
We have lost the ability to preceive the truth of existence because we are "strangers" in both hypostatized worlds brought about hy the breakdown of "traditional economic and social forms," global wars, the decline of Christianity into dogmatic belief, and the continuing effects of the Enlightenment, all of which give rise to gnosis.
Is it any wonder Dylan wrote, "There must be someway out of here, the thief he kindly said."
Excellent essay!

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Robert said...


Anonymous said...


You are causing a stink in the South Dakota blogosphere. Who knew your reach was so long?

Anonymous said...

I'm sad to read this negativity. Sounds like my perfectly healthy but uber-Midwest-Christian mom wishing to die soon so she can finally "be happy."

Anonymous said...

Interesting essay - but it seems the professor is a bit harsh concerning Krauthammer's "theological shallowness". I read the article and I see CKs' political astuteness. He's not writing for a theological audience, and shouldn't emphasize points of doctrine.

I think he made his points succinctly and well.

But, your point also well taken, professor, and nicely written. The true nature of hope is certainly something worth meditating over.

And hey, Eric: grow up, and get a life. Sheesh.

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The Eastvold Blog said...

I'm afraid I'll have to take issue with you, Patrick. First the disclaimer: I am an Obama supporter, I don't think I'm a member of a cult, and I certainly don't look to the Senator as my Messiah. Last I checked, my theological beliefs were as intact as before this epic primary began (for what that's worth.)

I don't doubt that there are some people who are taking Sen. Obama's words way too far and assigning spiritual significance to them beyond what is intended - although in my contacts with the campaign I haven't met many. Where I think your argument falters is that Sen. Obama is running for President, which in this country thankfully is a purely political position, and not one characterized by any spiritual authority for the vast majority of people. He is not a preacher or prophet, nor does he claim to be. So I have a hard time believing that he or any of his campaign staff intend his words to be interpreted spiritually - i.e., salvation as a theological term rather than just the noun form of the verb "to save." And I don't think it's sensible to interpret them any other way.

Certainly, he uses "religious" language, and he speaks to and reaches out to "people of faith," including evangelical Christians. But I still maintain that his rhetoric is secular, not sacred - even while it is refreshingly NOT non-religious or even non-Christian.

Belief in the perfectibility of the earth or the people on it before the Second Coming is, I believe, heretical. But I don't hear Sen. Obama or his followers promising to perfect anything - much less anyone. There is much we can do to improve this country and the world before we get anywhere near perfection! And there is much from which we need physical, temporal saving. Haven't other presidents promised to vastly, even fundamentally, improve the lot of Americans - and in large measure succeeded? What about Lincoln? Would you say that the tone of his rhetoric was inappropriate to the changes his administration made and hope that the war's end and the nation's reunion brought to many Americans? I'm not saying Sen. Obama is another Lincoln; only time will tell that, and Lincoln left some very large shoes to fill. But he, too, was a mere man.

I don't see excessive optimism as a scourge from which our nation's politics needs rescuing. Look at the numbers of Americans, particularly young Americans, Sen. Obama has brought into the political process for the first time. I think Obama is dead-on when he talks about the cynicism and apathy that have keep far too many ordinary Americans out of political debates and the voting booth, leaving professional politicians to govern without as much of a popular mandate and popular feedback as they might otherwise have. I think the optimism that most Obama supporters harbor is not optimism that we can permanently fix everything that's wrong with America or the world, but that the people can have more of a say in key political decisions than they had previously thought possible. Again, only time will tell if that optimism is warranted. But it is not heretical.

You point out that Pres. Bush has demonstrated an optimism that has at times bordered on naivete, particularly in the foreign policy arena, and I think you're right. But his optimism has for the most part not been a popular optimism, but his own brand of stubborn, "stay the course" go-gettism. He may have been elected by some optimistic voters, but most certainly were not voting for what they eventually got.

Ironically, one of the reasons I support Sen. Obama over Sen. Clinton is that, rhetoric aside, his management style seems to be actually more realistic than hers. He speaks of creative compromise (for instance, on health care) where she speaks of holding fast to "core Democratic principles" - conveniently ignoring the fact that we have no idea what the makeup of Congress will be, either in 2009 or in subsequent years of the next administration.

Anyway, Jonathan and I do enjoy reading your blog. Thank you!

- Katharine

Paul Allen said...

Well, I'm Canadian and can't vote etc. But what is clearly driving the Obama campaign is the cynicism and despair wrought by Bush II. So, put in that context, a little enthusiasm and cult of personality is hardly surprising given what we know of human nature.

By the way, don't write off Obama's lack of theological antennae or even his Christian realism - he likes Niebuhr, see:

Paul Allen