Monday, March 26, 2012

High Hopes

Society & Faith

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Alexander Pope,
An Essay on Man (1733)
It is not easy to be optimistic these days; it takes a lot of faith to be so. Truly, there is much to worry about, both locally and internationally. Truly, things could be worse, and that's the fear: a nuclear Iran; a volatile Syria about to erupt into civil war that spills over into other nations; increasing poverty and civil unrest in Europe; a declining middle class in the United States and Canada; and continuing assaults on democracy and freedoms in many nations of the world— all this taking place 20 years after the collapse of  communism and the optimism and promises of the early 1990s.

When will this madness end? is a fair question to ask. For an increasing number of persons, comfort is found in the religious life. Alexander Pope was a man of his time and generation, where his Christian faith informed his secure views of the afterlife, the only place or position where true rest and repose would be found. No more striving and struggle; it all sounds relaxing and appealing. No doubt, religious people often place their hopes in the afterlife, in a messianic age where truth and justice will prevail. That's a comforting thought for people who view that life achieves a perfect state of redemption only later.

But for persons who look and live in the here and now, change is wanted, even demanded, in our lifetime. Such a view is what engenders change, since the promises of later do not always move people to better the world in the hear and now. In some cases, however, it does, as in the central beliefs in Judaism to perform tikkum olam, repairing the world now, while at the same time preparing and living your life in accordance with the dictums of doing mitzvot, or good deeds. Doing good is always a good thing to practice, to observe, whether or not you believe in the afterlife.

Truly, it takes courage and diligent and conscientious effort to better the world now without any belief in an afterlife. This is it; it's all we have, and we ought to make the best use of our time on earth. In truth, all persons hold some sort of faith, whether it is religious or secular. For example, it also takes faith in the institutions of democracy and science to advance humanity. That explains why in every election, there is at least a hint of optimism that things will change and get better. That this candidate will strengthen the institutions of democracy and increase the level of opportunity for all of its citizens.

It takes optimism to believe that such institutions are not only good but operating effectively and fairly for all. The current failure in optimism, some would say, is a reflection that we are not doing a sufficient job in bringing persons to a clear understanding on why democracy is the best and fairest system for the greatest number of persons. That means a liberal democracy that has within its confines an economic system, and government policies that emphasize and deliver fairness to all of its citizens. As I have written previously in a number of articles, these ideals have been stretched thin, if not distorted to fit narrow special interests.

That doesn't mean that Western values are the problem, though some might think so. It is quite the opposite, namely, the attack and erosion of Western (moral) values that has led to our social unrest, uncertainty and inequalities. Western values, derived in large part from the Jewish and Christian religious traditions, are the underpinnings of our modern liberal society, without which humanity would be all the poorer and mired in the Dark Ages. Some might disagree but they can't honestly point to a better political or economic system.

Yet, optimism is not the same as hope. The former has a secular component; the latter a religious one. Optimism places its faith in secular society and what it can accomplish, whereas hope tends to place its faith in God and his judicious and (often) unknown ways. But the observant and faithful hold on tenaciously to the promises. Such promises contained in the Jewish Bible have given and continue to give comfort to Jews the world over. In To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of England, writes:
A morality of hope lives in the belief that we can change the world for the better, and without certian theological beliefs it is hard to see where hope could come from, if not from optimism. Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue; hope an active one. (166)
In uncertain and dark times, when the human instruments of morality seem weak, people tend to have less optimism and turn to religion for hope and certainty. Today, it might be easier to have hope than optimism.