Monday, April 23, 2012

The Prepositions of Hope

Ryan Groff coordinates Gordon College's interdisciplinary great books honors program, Jerusalem and Athens Forum, and teaches sections of the first-year seminar course, The Great Conversation, and the upperclassman Christian Theology seminar. He reflects on Thursday’s Symposium theme, "Hope: Making All Things New," in light of the event's various lectures, panel discussions, and other opportunities to ponder the place of hope within our lives:

I don't usually mention prepositions on the first day of class. But there I was, cruising through the COR107 syllabus and finding myself talking about prepositions. How they are so important for good writing, and so painstakingly annoying when overused. My students’ glassy expressions told me to get back on topic.

I've made a few comments on prepositions since then, but didn’t really think about these little pieces of speech again until this past Thursday during Gordon’s annual Symposium. During the all-day event, I attended many insightful student-led sessions focusing on this year’s theme of hope. Aside from a few generic definitions, I noticed that references to hope didn't get too far before linking hope with a preposition.

Students who participate in Gordon's Loving Our Religious Neighbors (LORN) interfaith group invited leaders from other Boston-area schools to reflect on the virtue. The Buddhist from Boston University and Atheist Humanist from Harvard addressed a "hope to." Hope to achieve public and common goods; hope to recognize and enjoy the beautiful things of our world; hope to do. Their hope was active, and they explicitly said so—as if challenging an unspoken, incorrect assumption that hope was passive. Perhaps they had in mind those who only have hope to go to heaven, and lack a desire to live well until then. Either way, their hope was unmistakably directed to immediate action.

Other sessions offered during this year’s Symposium pronounced a "hope against." Hope against unnecessary pollution; hope against lethargy and unhealth; hope against illness or disease, terminal and otherwise; hope against political non-engagement; and many hopes against ignorance by way of educational displays and sessions covering topics like Orthodox iconography, the history of Islam, effects of social media, and venues such as theatre and fine arts presentations, interviews, debates, or even thirty minutes with a good book under some unlikely April sun. In these ways, hope helps us to maintain distance from harbingers of despair.

But in the face of immediately-directed hope, I wondered about its origins and long-term destination. As it keeps us from despair, to what does hope draw us near? Is there an object or idea at its center which makes its directions and restrictions worth heeding? I was asking 
about the center of hope and what gives it meaning—about "hope in."

I found the keynote Symposium address given by John Skillen, dean of European programs, a fitting response to questions concerning this preposition of hope. He distinguished the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, courage) from the theological virtues (faith, hope, love). In so doing, we understood the various prepositions I encountered throughout the day. The Cardinals direct and restrict the to and fro of our present lives, fashioning us into the sort of polities, communities, and relating beings we ought to be here and now. But where does all this to and fro go, and for what purpose? And from whence doth it cometh? Enter the theological virtues, which prepare us for what lies beyond and align us with our Creator and Sustainer. Prudence, often recognized as the lead cardinal virtue, lives rightly in light of the past while hope is living in the present oriented towards a glorious future. Skillen finished by highlighting the hope of Simeon and Anna in Luke chapter 2. They practiced temperance based on past promises in order to sustain their hope in the coming messiah. Like us, their eyes have seen salvation and the very Person in whom hope derives meaning and purpose.

As I attended Symposium events, questions about how to hope, what to hope for, and from what hope can save changed to questions of what sustains and energizes hope. Certainly human achievement, collaboration, and delight in the law of the Lord are unmistakably important for right living today. And by itself, our hope for the future is far-sighted and misapplied if it doesn’t compel us to certain action here and now. Hope in Christ must have some bearing on the quality and reliability of my beneficence.

I still wonder about the difference between the prepositions of hope. I might do a good deed, or temper wrong behavior, but will I keep on these trajectories? Will what I hope in be able to sustain me as I live it out?

Photo: Every year, Symposium offers students, faculty and staff a day to ponder the questions and implications surrounding a particular topic. This year, the community gathered in events all over campus, like this discussion in the Ken Olsen Science Center, to discuss a simple yet profound theme: "Hope."

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