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Advent Hope

Fifty years ago German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote a book titled Theology of Hope. It became mandatory reading for all divinity students, and popular reading even outside of seminaries. The book made it to the front page of the New York Times. One of Theology of Hope’s main themes is Advent, God’s coming to the world to redeem it. 
The book’s popularity probably owes much to the fact that when it was published,  “hope” was in the air. It was the “Kennedy era” in the U.S. and the time of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. The Western world was about to experience the power of radical student movements. Theology of Hope was riding a global wave of social hope. But what really was in the air when Theology of Hope came off the press was optimism, not hope. The two are easily confused, Moltmann argues, although both optimism and hope involve positive expectations of the future.
Optimism is based on “cause and effect thinking.” We draw conclusions about the future on the basis of the experience with the past and present. We believe that events can be explained as effects of previous causes. Since “this” has happened, we conclude that “that” is likely to happen. Since my daughter Emily could pick up Little Bear and read it when she was in kindergarten, I could be optimistic that she would do reasonably well in grade one. Optimism can also be misplaced. My son Harald was very good at throwing a ball when he was young, but it would have been foolish for me to bet that he was going to land a multimillion-dollar contract with a pro ball team and take care of my retirement.
One of Moltmann’s greatest contributions in Theology of Hope was to insist that hope, unlike optimism, is independent of people’s circumstances. Hope is not based on the possibilities of the situation and on correct predictions about the future, but grounded in the faithfulness of God.
Optimism is based on the possibilities of things as they have come to be; hope is based on the possibilities of God regardless of how things are. Hope is alive even in situations which, for cause-and-effect thinking, can elicit only hopelessness.  Hope is based on God’s coming into the darkness to dispel it with divine light.
Every year in the Advent season we read the prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isa. 9:2). This is what Christmas is all about—something radically new that cannot be generated out of the conditions of this world. It does not emerge. It comes. God promises it.
If darkness has descended on you and your world, try not to persuade yourself that things are not as bad as they seem or to search for reasons to be optimistic. Instead remind yourself of a simple fact: the light of the One who was in the beginning with God shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. That is Advent hope.

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