Eccentric Hope

Eccentric Hope

By Cynthia L. Rigby

For everything there is a season… a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to harvest; a time to weep, and a time to laugh… a time to keep, and a time to throw away… a time for war, and a time for peace.
– Ecclesiastes 3

I had always thought Solomon, with these words, sounded like a master of the obvious, but lately his wisdom seems a lot more layered to me. Let me explain: Of course I see there must be a certain time to plant and another time to harvest. But what I’m noticing is that it’s often harder to figure out which season it is than it seems like it should be. Should we plant or should we harvest? Keep or throw away? Stay sheltered at home or go back to work?

Questions about how to discern the season and what, therefore, we should do have been pressing in to academic and ecclesial circles for years. Is it time for the mainline church to die (we’ve been asking) so a new kind of church may be born? Or is it time to buckle down and insist on doing things in ways we know and trust? Is it time to clear the decks for virtual learning and worship? To let avatars take communion?

These what-time-is-it type questions are also being raised by scientists who are trying to ascertain what season they believe lies just around the corner. A couple of weeks before COVID-19 hit hard in the US, for example, I heard an NPR story that said global warming will ruin the planet by 2050. Will it soon be time to die? Within the same hour I heard another story that said artificial intelligence will rescue us by 2050. Will it soon be time to be re-born?

It seems to me that, the more baffled we are about what season it is, the more we are tempted to live our days passively, with a “let’s see what happens” attitude focused more on surviving until than on thriving now. Our hope is that we will return to “normal,” or some version of “normal,” or even a so-called “new normal:” some way of structuring our lives, with rhythms and seasons and clarity of time. If we can hold on til then, we will know what to do.

I worry, as a theologian, that we risk domesticating the doctrine of Christian hope by associating it with normalcy. Certainly, the rhythms of our lives can be a God-given gift; but is the order of our creaturely days, the order of our worship, the order of our liturgical calendar really intended to provide a template by which we can function normally?

… they disrupt our normal ways of being by reminding us of the source and content
of our hope…

The biblical witness associates hope not with what is normal, but what is eccentric; even foolish or mad. Not merely with hard-to-reach goals like flattening the curve, but with virtually impossible ones like wiping away every tear from every eye (Rev. 21:4). Not with restoring the inordinately classist global economy, but with “everyone sitting under their own vine and fig tree” (Micah 4:4). Not with surviving until a more recognizable season comes tomorrow, but with living —abundantly — today (Jn. 10:10).

The rhythms of work and rest and worship and the seasons of the liturgical year are not gifted to us for the purpose of maintaining normalcy in the midst of chaos. Often, in fact, they function in just the opposite way: they disrupt our normal ways of being by reminding us of the source and content of our hope that, as Mary describes it in Luke 1, turns earthly kingdoms, systems, values, and understandings inside out. A few weeks ago, for example, at the heart of the season of coronavirus deaths, we found ourselves logging into Zoom and exclaiming “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!” Now, that hopeful proclamation was likely disruptive in many ways. For one, it may have made even the crucial, challenging, goal of “flattening the curve” seem like too low of a bar. Christian hope, as it is shaped by resurrection, is not about making illness and death more manageable — it is about refusing to be satisfied until the sting is removed altogether (I Cor. 15:5). And that certainly is a disruptive idea — NOT a normal idea — in a context in which we are trying to be optimistic, but still realistic, about what can be accomplished. Can we really afford the eccentricity of believing in the resurrection of the body when ventilators are still in short supply?

Can we really afford the eccentricity of believing in the resurrection of the body when ventilators are still in short supply?

Interestingly, Christian hope — when done right — functions not to pull us out of the present and into some futuristic netherworld. Rather, it works to keep us focused on living in the present by reminding us that what is happening right now is part of a concrete, unfinished history into which God has entered and for which God takes responsibility. Hoping God will work all things together for the good in the end makes the pain we experience today less bearable, for we know it will not, and therefore should not, be. At the same time, Moltmann insists, Christian hope does not “cheat human beings of the happiness of the present.” This is because – even in this present, painful, moment – it “perceives” the coming of the kingdom for all who have been wronged or who are suffering.¹

“Normal” is what we are used to and “the new normal” is what perhaps — we could get used to. But neither are what we are called to hope for. We are to hope for the radical things God has promised, insisting in prayer that “God’s Kingdom come!” and recommitting ourselves to the work with “Thy will be done.”

It is always a season for doing the will of God. And so we circle back to a new version of the question with which I started: instead of “how do we discern the season?,” the question is “how do I discern God’s will?” But perhaps now we have an answer: by leaning in to God’s eccentric promises and working to make them so. This will only fly, by the way, if we are foolish enough to believe the kin-dom of God is more than an ideal; more than some kind of unattainable but very tasty looking carrot that keeps us running as hard as we can. On the contrary, Christian hope holds that God’s peaceable kin-dom will somehow really be made manifest here on earth — in history, in chronological time. And so we’d better brace ourselves to do the creative work of fools, to deflect the contempt of the “normalizers,” to know the anguish of pain until that day, and to open wide to the joy that comes when we don’t waste a minute in this awful, beautiful world.

Cynthia L. Rigby joined the faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1995. The Dallas Morning News called Professor Rigby “one of the great theologians of our time.” She is the co-chair of the Reformed Theology and History Unit of the American Academy of Religion, and is an associate editor for the Journal of Reformed Theology and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

1. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 32.