Hope Without Optimism – book review

My short review of Terry Eagleton’s latest book in the Church Times.

On every page of this study of hope, which arose from a series of four lectures, there are a dozen reflections that would each merit contemplation. It makes for a dazzling read, though one regularly punctuated by Eagleton’s trademark down-to-earth witticisms. Take this line, almost at random, from the first chapter, which demolishes the optimism and faith in inevitable human progress often associated with contemporary atheistic humanism. “Progress would seem as irresistible as arthritis. We are as helpless before its unrolling as a badger before a bulldozer.”

Much of the book explores the nature of hope and, for Eagleton, that is closely associated with a tragic view of human life, one in which destruction runs alongside advance; horrors alongside joys. In this frame, hope is what remains when everything else of humanity has been hacked away. It is for this reason that hope is a virtue, and lies at the heart of Christianity. “What need is there for hope when one can be author of oneself?” he asks. Rather, hope is like faith in that it calls for self-abandonment, a commitment to that which is beyond one’s control. “The Abraham who takes a knife to his son’s throat has hope.”

In other words, you cannot hope for what you are sure will happen. But, conversely, you can rest sure in your hope. Such fundamental hope is a commitment to a view of the good that transcends any ability to grasp that good. And again, this is not to turn a blind eye to despair or terror. There is no resurrection that is not embedded in crucifixion. Eagleton: “…though death is an outrage, it is only by bowing to its necessity, in an act of self-dispossession which is at the same time the inner structure of love, that its sting can be drawn.” “Hope in this sense is not a question of wishful thinking but of joyful expectation,” he continues.

In what does Eagleton himself hope: the divine grace of Christian faith that builds on human nature and transfigures it, or the open contingencies of history that can always change for the better as well as the worse? He leaves readers guessing perhaps because, like Marx, he has a constitutional dislike of speculative metaphysics. And maybe it’s a helpful stance. It enables him to articulate the Christian vision more precisely than many Christian writers.


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