Between optimism and hope there is a huge credibility gap. Optimism can be foolish or a realistic prediction based on evidence. Is life getting any better? There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism depending on your point of view – but a well rounded maturity would find it difficult to call one way or another because the evidence is so complex. The folly of liberal optimism shows itself in the advent of Holocaust and economic meltdown. The only ground for optimism seems to be forgetfulness – when we forget our history and our nature: or arrogance, when we think of ourselves superior to either.
Optimism trusts human progress. The opposite of optimism isn’t pessimism but hope. Miroslav Volf (in Against the Tide: love in a time of petty dreams and persisting enmities) reminds his readers of Moltmann’s wonderful work on helping us to think about “hope”. Moltmann distinguished between two ways in which the future is related to us. There are two Latin words for “future” – futurum and adventus. “Future in the sense of futurum developes out of the past and present inasmuch as these hold within themselves the potentiality of becoming and are “pregnant with future”.” But future, expressed as adventus is the future “that comes not form the realm of what is or what was, but from the realm of what is not yet, from outside, from God.”
Advent is about the future that bursts in on our darkness. There is nothing in the data of our existence that gives us grounds for optimism. It is just faith. There is no optimism in W H Auden’s Christmas Oratorio “For the Time Being”. There is no sense of “what shall we get for Christmas?” that we have to endure in the commercialised Christmas. How could there be? Auden was writing in the 40’s where the overwhelming “grinning evidence” is that the “Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss”. There is only one option left for us “who must die”. Auden writes:
We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
the Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die, demand a miracle.
And Volf writes:
“Every year in the Advent season we read the prophet Isaiah: “The people who wlaked in darkness haveseen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2) This is what Christmas is all about – something radically new that cannot be gernerated out of the conditions of this world. It does not emerge. It comes…. God promises it”