“Hope” in the Christian Testament

After spending some time explaining the words for and concepts surrounding “hope” in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the ancient Greek story of Pandora, and in Aristotle, I’m now ready to share with you what I found out when I did a study of the word we translate “hope” in the Christian Testament. This is the same word, elpis, ἐλπίς (noun), or elpizo, ἐλπίζω (verb), used by Aristotle and used for the goddess Elpis in the Pandora tale, but the Christ-followers who wrote the texts that have become the Christian Testament used the word in a somewhat different way. Part of this is probably due to the fact that these Jewish authors were used to the meaning of elpis in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint (LXX).

To recap, in Hebrew there is a word for hope within this lifetime (qwh or tiqwah), and a word that refers to a larger form of positive expectation and waiting, usually on God (yhl or tohelet). Both of these forms of hope refer to positive expectations for the future, and are often translated elpis in the LXX.

In classical Greek literature, however, elpis is an expectation for the future, but it can be in a positive or a negative direction. In the Pandora story, it is unclear whether or not Elpis should be considered the goddess of hope or of foreboding, or both. Aristotle distinguishes between elpis (expectation for the future) and euelpis (expectation for a good future). In order to have euelpis, one must move through fear in the direction of courage in order to continue to have hope that there will be a good outcome.

With all of these influences on their conception of elpis, the authors of the Christian Testament (mainly Paul) used elpis in a way similar to the LXX, though they seem to mean something similar to Aristotle’s euelpis. Sometimes in the LXX, words are translated into Greek to mean “hope,” while sometimes they are translated with the Greek word for “trust,” indicating that trust and hope are quite intertwined. Greek doesn’t have a real sense of a hopeful longing, or a hope based on trust and expectation of deliverance, so the authors used the closest term they can find, which apparently is elpis. (They must not have read Aristotle.) In the LXX and the intertestamental Jewish literature, there’s a pretty well-developed understanding of hope that goes beyond the individual, hope in God’s promises for the community, but by the time Jesus comes along, this is mainly expressed in the form of Messianic expectation, but much of this is based on a works righteousness: that the Messiah will come when the community practices the Law correctly.

Interestingly, Philo, a Jewish philosopher writing at about the same time as the original writings of the books in the Christian Testament, apparently had read Aristotle (not surprisingly), and when he writes about the Jewish understanding of hope, he specifies that he’s talking about euelpis. He talks about hope as a form of remembrance: remembering God’s good works in the past helps us have hope for the future. This goes along well with what psychologists have found regarding the need to have stories from our past on which we can base our realistic assessment of whether we should hope for a particular future outcome.

Christian Testament hope is based on the Hebrew understanding of the fullness of hope. It includes the characteristics of being fixed on God and looking forward to the future with patient waiting and trust. Faith and hope are tied together in the paradoxical certainty of what we cannot see (“faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” Heb. 11:1), because we cannot be certain about anything in the flesh, but we can hope in God even though we have to completely trust and have no control. Differently from the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians have a new sense of certainty in their hope, based on the salvific act of the cross and resurrection, and this forms the basis of their faith and hope.

There is not much mention of the term elpis used in this way in the Christian Testament outside of Paul’s writings, however, so I find that really interesting. Perhaps the other authors are using the term “good news” (ευανγγελιον) to mean what we think of when we say “hope.” Or perhaps, since there’s not a good Greek word for hope (and Jesus likely wasn’t speaking in Greek anyway), they’re using other words to attempt to get across the same concept, while Paul was familiar enough with the LXX to know that those authors had co-opted the word elpis to mean this communal, almost-eschatological hope. Or maybe, since the first generation(s) of Jesus’ followers expected him to come back at any moment, they didn’t need a word for long-term hope.

Perhaps, 2000 years later, we are more similar to the Jewish community, waiting in expectant hope, and trying to figure out what that looks like without getting caught up in works righteousness, apocalyptic conspiracy theories, or specific actions that we think will make Jesus come back (e.g., getting the Holy Land back under Jewish control because we think that will make Jesus return). Maybe at this point, the most useful understanding of hope from the Bible is the Hebrew word yachal or tohelet, the idea of the communal expectations for a positive future, trusting in God’s promises and based on the history of the word of God in the community across time. This is not a naive hope that assumes that everything will go well for the people of God; in fact, often this concept is brought up in the Hebrew Scriptures when things are not going well, and people are calling out to God (lamenting), reminding God of God’s promises and trying to figure out how to keep trusting through suffering and loss.

In our current time and place, with so many big problems facing us, from environmental degradation to socio-economic injustice to wars, famines, and refugees, what hope do we have of anything different? Can we speak of this hope with conviction after seeing the last century’s hopes of a “war to end all wars” dashed into radioactive particles?

I don’t think we can optimistically wish for a better world, but perhaps we can lament with our community, as the ancient Hebrews did. Perhaps we can groan with the whole community of creation. I think this is the type of hope that Paul is trying to get across in the oft-quoted ecotheology passage of Romans 8:18-25 (NRSV):

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

In this passage it is clear that the world is not as it should be: there is a critique. Things need to change. Suffering and hope are juxtaposed. We are suffering, but we also have hope because we can envision the world as it should be. The whole creation participates, groaning in this lament, simultaneously critiquing suffering and hoping.

The terms translated “waits with eager longing” here have a meaning of continuous, active, expectant hoping. The word for “waiting,” απεκδεχομαι or apekdechomai, is in the middle mood, meaning it is a reflexive action in which the creation is acting and receiving the benefit of the action. In some way, the hope of creation is part of the act of “obtain[ing] the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” When we participate in creation’s groaning and longing, we receive the benefit of this. Our act of hoping engenders hope, and it perhaps implies that it is only by participating in the process with the whole of creation that we can receive the benefits of this eager longing and hoping. (Note: these thoughts on Romans 8:18-25 will appear in more or less the same form in my forthcoming article in Cross Currents, “Climatologists, Theologians, & Prophets: Toward an Ecotheology of Critical Hope.”)

It is this type of critical hope that I feel drawn to explore in my academic work right now, not simply studying it from an objective researcher’s gaze, but actively participating in bringing that hope about. I trust that by participating in the groaning lament, by recognizing and feeling the suffering, and by continuing to act in hopeful ways, I also get to participate in the “glory about to be revealed to us.”

References, in addition to those listed in the linked posts:

Christens, Brian D., Jessica J. Collura, and Faizan Tahir, 2013, “Critical Hopefulness: A Person-Centered Analysis of the Intersection of Cognitive and Emotional Empowerment,” American Journal of Community Psychology 52(1–2): 170–84.

Kittel, Gerhard, ed. “ελπιϛ, ελπιζω; απ-, προελπιζο.” In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, eighth printing, Δ—Η:517–35. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.

Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: book review, part 3

This is the third (of three) posts reviewing and thinking about the ideas found in Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. If you missed the first two, the first post gave an overview of the book and the second post discussed the region we might call “Cascadia,” and whether or not there is a nature-based spirituality in the region. Several of the authors of Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia assert that this nature-based spirituality is a form of civil religion, so that is the idea I’m going to discuss today, along with a wrap-up of my thoughts on this book and where the scholarly Cascadian community might go from here in terms of further research.

Is nature-based spirituality a civil religion?

In my understanding of civil religion from the perspective of sociologist Robert Bellah, civil religion has to do with utilizing religious language and symbols in order to support a national origin myth/history—usually in the form of nationalism. For example, the idea of Manifest Destiny is an American form of civil religion. This American civil religion bases American conquest and the genocide of native peoples on the religious conviction that it is important for God’s “truth” of civilization and order to be spread throughout the world as gospel. Therefore, the actions of the European settlers, no matter how grisly, were justifiable based on the origin myth of bringing order and civilization to savages, using a particular biblical interpretation. Civil religion tends to celebrate the state, and uphold its policies using religious language and religious-style ceremonies.

In Cascadia, I am not certain that I see a civil religion of this kind that is different from the civil religion of the rest of the United States. Perhaps Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia contain a distinct culture based on proximity, but is it a civil religion?

Mark Silk derives his definition of civil religion from an Italian historian, Emilio Gentile, who says civil religion is:

the conceptual category that contains the forms of sacralization of a political system that guarantee a plurality of ideas, free competition in the exercise of power, and the ability of the governed to dismiss their governments through peaceful and constitutional methods. Civil religion therefore respects individual freedom, coexists with other ideologies, and does not impose obligatory and unconditional support for its commandments. (p. 110)

To me, this sounds basically like the definition of democracy, or at least the definition of pluralism. Silk finds that there is not a civil religion at play in Cascadia any more than anywhere else in the US or Canada, and by his definition I agree.

Sallie McFague, on the other hand, encourages what she calls a civil religion of Cascadia, following the editor of the book’s simple definition of Cascadia’s civil religion as “finding God by taking a walk in the forest.” She puts a comma between “super, natural,” following the British Columbia tourist logo, “super, natural British Columbia,” to indicate that Cascadians’ understanding of the supernatural has everything to do with the natural, and vice versa. McFague implies that the “religion” of the bioregion is a cultural focus on spiritual connection through the natural world, which seems to be true if we focus our understanding of “Cascadia” on the portion west of the Cascades, but is McFague’s idea truly a “civil religion”? What makes it civil, rather than simply a religion?

Implications & Suggestions for Further Research

If we limit the understanding of Cascadia down to its western section and take a closer look at the nature-leaning spirituality present in many portions of urban Cascadian society, this book effectively and helpfully categorizes different forms of “spiritual but not religious” Cascadians and the strengths and weaknesses of their perspectives. One author, Gail Wells, points out that the difference between Cascadia’s emphasis on a more natural faith and the rest of the United States’ civil religion is a focus on what’s “really real.” Wells says she is “going to argue that both nature-based spirituality and conventional religion have the potential to play an important, subversive role in what has actually been Cascadia’s dominant culture: the scientific-rational-secular-liberal culture of North America. That role is to offer an alternative way of thinking about what is real.”

This, in my opinion, is the opposite of a civil religion. Instead of a religion enforced by authoritarian dogmatism and nationalism, it is a religion that grows out of an encounter with the Earth and the supernatural Life-Force (a.k.a. God) that sustains it.

Perhaps it is the bioregion’s beauty and abundance that allows Cascadians to perceive the interconnectedness of life and to look for the sacred outside the walls of political and religious institutions. The native people of the area also felt this way, and another chapter gave insight in this direction. Authored by First Nations member Eli Bliss Enns, the chapter is called, “A Geo-Indigenous World View from the Far West Coast of Cascadia.” Enns defines various terms in his indigenous language, such as, “Wii-cosh-naas: Honoring our mutual source of creation: Everything that exists is born from a common creative source.” He also speaks of the value of each person’s contribution to a discussion, and “owning” the land through protecting it and using its resources wisely, recognizing that we are all indigenous animals and other beings. This seems like the “elusive utopia” referred to in the title of the book, a vision present in our most historic and imaginative, liberative myths and sacred stories, from Native American to ancient Hebrew, and a vision new and freshly reborn for such a time and place as this.

I can get behind this vision and desire, but to truly connect this form of nature-based spirituality to the geography of the area in question would require much more focused research. Further study needs to be done to see if this is legitimately different from other urban areas, and to find out if the whole area of Cascadia fits the description of “spiritual but not religious,” or only the individuals west of the Cascades. Also, research would need to occur regarding whether engaging in outdoor recreation across Cascadia’s girth can correctly be termed “spirituality.”

In short, although there are a number of pieces to this puzzle pointing toward a nature-based spirituality in parts of Cascadia, much more research would need to be done to make the correlation clear, and to determine whether or not “Cascadia” is a useful regional term to describe the area where that culture is present. Perhaps that culture is no more present here than anywhere else, but we Cascadians are simply lucky enough to live in a place where these super, natural spaces have not yet been completely destroyed. If nature is the “second book” where we come to know God (alongside the Bible—though, arguably, nature came first, but this is a different topic—the point is that many theologians across time and now see nature as a second way, besides the written books, to understand and know something of God, especially since so many of Jesus’ parables are based on nature metaphors), living in Cascadia can give us access to that book in more extravagantly beautiful ways than are perhaps still available in other regions.

Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: book review, part 2

Yesterday, I posted initial thoughts about the book Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. In the first post I gave an overview of the text, and here I approach the question of where Cascadia is, and whether or not there is a nature-based spirituality in this region. Tomorrow I’ll discuss whether or not any nature-based spirituality found here can be properly termed a “civil religion,” which some of the authors of Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia assert.

Where is Cascadia?

Although individuals involved in ecology and bioregionalism have used the term “Cascadia” for at least 25 years, it is perhaps not a term known to most, whether local or outside the region. It is also not a geographical location that is easily defined, even by the authors of the book. Editor Douglas Todd defines Cascadia, for the purposes of this text, as Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. He defines it thus in order to use data collected based on state and province boundaries.

Not all the contributors utilize these geographical boundaries. Philip Resnick discusses Cascadia as a “rainforest climate” (Resnick in Todd, 2008, 119), which only pertains to the western portion of the region. Elsewhere in the book, the Rocky Mountains are mentioned as the “backbone” of the region (Wexler in Todd, 2008, 216). The Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains begin in Alaska and run south through California and southeast through Idaho and Montana, respectively. Some maps of Cascadia also include portions of Nevada and Utah (see map at left).

If we define Cascadia as a bioregion based on geography, the region is decidedly larger than Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, and it contains a much wider range of cultures and spiritual emphases, not to mention a variety of climates, from beaches to high deserts, fertile valleys to rugged mountains, and temperatures from subarctic to subtropical. Defining a uniform culture in this region proves suspect, let alone basing that culture and its spiritual expressions on the region’s geography, since the geography is so varied. If we are to assume a connection between land and culture or spirituality, I think that defining Cascadia so broadly limits the ability to describe meaningful connections between the land and its effect on human populations.

Rather than talking about a bioregion of Cascadia, the Environmental Protection Agency’s website utilizes the term “ecoregion,” defining these regions by attending to climate, geology, and ecology to create ecoregional maps such as the one at right (Environmental Protection Agency website, “Level I-III Ecoregions”). On this map, the region others call “Cascadia” is broken up into smaller, geographically and meteorologically similar regions. West of the Cascades, north into parts of Alaska, and south into the Redwoods, is one ecoregion called the Marine West Coast Forest, while most of the rest of Cascadia, including eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and Idaho, is in the ecoregions of the Northwest Forested Mountains or the North American Deserts.

In my anecdotal experience, and based on the voting patterns of the area (for example, see the red and blue portions of the map of the Pacific Northwest at left, and the virtual blue line down the “left coast” of the United States), the EPA’s ecoregions describe more clearly the cultural differences apparent in the bioregion of Cascadia. The culture of “spiritual but not religious” emphasizes care for the natural world. This description fits many in the culture of those living west of the Cascade Mountains, which also contains the largest cities of the region.

This map of the “American Nations” shows the region “Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia” terms Cascadia into the Left Coast and The Far West

If we are to posit a bioregional connection between spirituality and the land, the land must be uniform enough to make the connection clearly. Therefore, I would define Cascadia as the Cascade Mountain range west to the Pacific Ocean, which would be the western portion of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, in addition to the northern portion of California and the southern portion of Alaska. Utilizing this definition makes it more possible to note correlations between the culture and the land (see map at right showing cultural “American Nations”). Making generalizations about connections between culture and land are not as possible when discussing the entire region generally called Cascadia, due to its huge variety of geographical and meterological regions.

Is there a nature-based spirituality in Cascadia?

Given that the majority of the population of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia lives west of the Cascades, we can assume that the polls referred to by the authors regarding culture and spirituality show data mainly from this western ecoregion. If we posit a cultural similarity within this region based partially on the land and partially on the shared history and economy of this region, can we also see a shared spiritual sensibility?

Authors draw our attention to a number of nature-based spiritual practices and religious sects in Cascadia. Most of these find their epicenter west of the Cascades. It is curious to recognize that those living in the western part of Cascadia are apparently more drawn to nature-based spirituality than others from the US and Canada, but the authors do not do the work here of drawing conclusive evidence between the land itself and the propensity for nature-based expressions of spirituality. Since the surveys they refer to did not explicitly ask about nature-based spirituality, we do not know whether those who are “spiritual but not religious” find more meaning in their experiences in nature than in a church building, for example.

We also do not know if this type of connection with nature extends east of the Cascades. Although those living east of the Cascades hold differing political beliefs, outdoor recreational activities are important in eastern Oregon and Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Would those who practice these outdoor activities speak of them in religious terms in the same way as more urban, western Cascadians might?

Another important question that would need to be clarified is whether the culture defined as “Cascadian” is simply an iteration of the urban cultures in the United States and Canada. Certainly, the cities in this region have their own native quirks, as does any city. Is the nature-based spirituality hinted at in Cascadia a reflection of the urban-rural divide, or does it truly reflect the particular land of Cascadia? These questions are not answered in the current work. More research would need to be done to show true correlation, let alone causation, between the geography of the Cascades and the region’s “spiritual but not religious” sentiment.

References:

Todd, Douglas, ed. Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008).

Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: book review, part 1

As a native Oregonian, hikes in the Cascades and the Coast Range dot my childhood memories. My family and I, as a child and now with my own children, have taken trips to central Oregon’s high desert, the agricultural areas of eastern Washington and Oregon, the Wallowa Mountains, southern Oregon, and the spectacular North Cascades north of Seattle, in addition to a few trips jaunting across the border into British Columbia. The Oregon Coast beckons and serves as a place of rest and renewal, its raw nature calling me back to myself, to my location, to gratefulness for the mystery of the natural world that is so much larger than I. Camping, backpacking, hiking, biking, beach combing, sitting still in the forest, watching the stars, gardening: these activities connect me to the place I live in and to those with whom I’m sharing the experience, and also connect me to Godin a profound way. I recognize the presence of God during a meeting for worship inside a building, but the natural world grounds me spiritually in a way I deeply need and that differs from the way I connect from within the walls of a building. Outdoor experiences also call me to treat this space and its inhabitants with respect and care, recognizing the connection between my health and the health of the world around me, and the design of the Creator who wove consciousness into the make up of human beings.

I know there are many who experience a similar spiritual connection with the land of the Pacific Northwest, especially in its more majestic locations. Is this connection more prevalent in the Pacific Northwest and BC than in other American and Canadian regions? If so, is a spiritual connection based on specific geography? Is there something about the bioregion of Cascadia that draws people to notice a spiritual connection to the land? Is there a specific culture in the Pacific Northwest that is shaped by the land on which we live? Does geography shape the way we interact with the Spirit in this place?

If so, what is this particularity, and where does it come from? How might we define it, if it is separate from a traditionally defined religion? Is it classified as a civil religion, a modified version of an existing religion, or is it a new type of religion growing out of this place and time?

These are the questions with which I approached Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. Setting itself a bold and challenging goal, this work of interdisciplinary essays tackles the question of whether there is a definable culture of Cascadia, how this impacts the region’s spiritual sensibility, and whether this spirituality has anything to do with the geography of the bioregion. Beginning with the term “Cascadia,” which they use to describe the bioregion of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, the authors cite studies indicating a higher percentage of individuals with no religious affiliation compared to individuals in other regions of the United States and Canada. The authors also note a distinct interest in spirituality, especially nature-based spirituality, in some areas of Cascadia. Similar to my own questions, the authors wonder whether there is something about the geography and history of the region that inspires “spiritual but not religious” individuals to relocate here, or whether the landscape itself helps shape this worldview. The text provides rich food for thought, giving just enough background and theory to provide a great deal of learning. It sparks questions for further study, some of which I will explore here.

The basic hypothesis discussed by the authors of Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia is that the bioregion known as Cascadia can be a helpful designation when discerning a particular culture and spirituality of the region, and that the bioregion attracts or grows those with a “spiritual but not religious,” nature-based understanding of spirituality more consistently than other regions of North America, due partially to the land itself. Some authors accepted and attempted to prove this hypothesis, while others rejected it.

From my own experience and from reading this and other texts, I do notice a propensity for those in this region to care for the natural world and practice a form of spirituality that is not as firmly tied to a particular religion compared with other regions. I question the assumptions of some of the authors, however, regarding the geographical boundaries of Cascadia, their ability to clearly connect nature-based spirituality with this bioregion’s landscape, and the designation by some authors that this nature-based spirituality is a “civil religion.”

I am breaking this review into three parts in order to make each post a manageable length. In this post, I will give a brief overview of the text. In part 2, I will discuss differing views on the geographical region under discussion when we use the term “Cascadia,” and then discuss whether or not the authors of Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia provide ample justification for positing a nature-based spirituality in this region. In part 3, I will turn to the question of whether such a nature-based spirituality can legitimately be called a “civil religion,” and also suggest areas for future research.

Overview of the Text

Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia contains essays by a wide range of authors from various disciplines, complete with author bios at the end of the book. The authors are historians, environmentalists, theologians and religious academics, literary personages, scientists and social scientists, political scientists, and ethicists, as well as a member of one of the tribes of the First Nations. They are mostly Oregonians, Washingtonians, or British Columbians, though a few outside voices were included as well. Each essay is well written and engaging. The book contains five sections of full-color photographs that illustrate places and individuals highlighted throughout the book, including maps. There is also a helpful index and a few endnotes per chapter.

The main basis for writing a book about the spirituality of the Pacific Northwest is a series of studies showing that a larger number of citizens of this region do not claim a particular religion compared to other regions, and yet they do not all count themselves as atheists. This leads several authors to conclude that Cascadians are “spiritual but not religious,” and many posit the presence of a nature-based spirituality in the Northwest. Mark A. Shibley writes a chapter entitled, “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia,” pointing out that compared to the 14% of Americans generally who say they have no religion, 25% of Oregonians and Washingtonians say they have no religion, and more than 33% of British Columbians say the same. Also, 63% of those in Oregon and Washington are not connected to a particular worshiping community, and 80% of British Columbians. Contrary to the assumption this points to a lack of spirituality in the region, Shibley also notes that only 5-7% of Oregonians and Washingtonians and 14% of British Columbians say they are atheists (p. 34). This means that a large portion of Cascadians are “spiritual but not religious,” either involved in some sort of secular spirituality such as a civil religion, creating their own religion, so to speak, through their nature encounters, or they identify with a particular religion but prefer to practice it outside the walls of an institutional meeting space.

Each essay in this book contained interesting information, though the book as a whole lacked cohesiveness in areas such as: 1) the definition of Cascadia, 2) convincing the reader that there is a definable and unified culture of this bioregion, and 3) concrete evidence of any connection between spirituality and landscape in the region. I turn now to exploring each of these in turn in the next two posts.

References:

Todd, Douglas, ed. Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008).

Hope in Ancient Greek: Aristotle on hope, optimism, and courage

Continuing in my study of the term “hope,” I also ran across a really interesting article on Aristotle’s understanding of the term hope: “Aristotle on Hope,” by G. Scott Gravlee, which appeared in the Journal of the History of Philosophy in October 2000. I previously wrote about hope in Hebrew as well as the Greek goddess Elpis, who appeared in the story of Pandora. I also talked about the elements involved in the cognitive process of hoping, according to psychologists. As I’m working on developing an ecotheology of critical hope, I want to find out what the words we translate as “hope” in the Bible meant within their cultural milieu, how the authors of the Christian Testament received, utilized, and transformed these ideas, and ultimately how these stories and concepts have shaped our present culture. My ultimate goal is to then do similar reinterpretation (or “remix,” thanks to Wess Daniels, see my post on his book) of these received traditions to speak to the need for hope in our current context, in which humanity seems to be having a difficult time finding hope for the future, and therefore we’re using up all our planet’s resources right now with no thought to future generations.

In “Aristotle on Hope,” Gravlee clarifies two different Greek words Aristotle uses that are generally translated “hope,” one which means something more like expectation (ελπιϛ = elpis, though it is used in the Christian Testament to mean a deeper hope), and one that gets more at what we generally mean by the term hope: ευελπις (euelpis), “eu” meaning good and “elpis” meaning expectation—in other words, expectations for a positive future, as opposed to regular elpis, which could refer to expecting either a positive or a negative future. A fascinating point is that Aristotle states that one cannot truly hope (ευελπις) unless one has experienced fear: if one feels vulnerable, that one might not succeed. One cannot hope unless there’s a chance that one’s hope will not be realized.

Courage is a hallmark of this second kind of hopeful person, since one must realize that one’s goal is not surely obtainable, and realistically take stock of one’s abilities. A person who hopes for a positive outcome but does not act courageously in the face of his or her fear is, according to Aristotle, not really hoping: he or she does not take the courageous steps needed in order to bring about that good end, it’s just expecting something positive to happen in the future. The act of courage in the face of fear, on the other hand—of willingness to recognize one’s vulnerability and pursue one’s goal anyway—is the agency required in the hope system.

Optimism can be a type of not-quite-hope that does not take any courage. It is a positive outlook because one knows (or at least believes) the outcome is almost assured. When one feels fear, one can recognize that this indicates a hope buried somewhere within. Those who do not hope for anything also do not fear, but are apathetic. Fears can point toward hope if one takes the time to mentally process one’s reaction. When an individual notices feeling fear, s/he can choose either to continue on the route of feeling fear, or s/he can choose courage and move in the direction of hope. Or, though not necessarily stated in this article, one can stop feeling and go in the direction of apathy.

Gravlee’s explication of Aristotle led me to wonder whether perhaps there is a “hope in a negative direction,” as in, an expectation that what we fear will occur. In English we don’t have a specific word for that, although when I was talking to my then-eight-year-old son a few months ago about hope, he expressed this kind of negative hope. He said it didn’t feel like fear and it didn’t feel like despair, but that his body expected the situation to turn out in the outcome he could envision but did not want. While in that space, he had a very difficult time being willing to entertain ideas of how to solve the problem positively, even when I suggested possible solutions, and he instead thought about taking steps to ensure that this negative outcome was inevitable, and would have done so had I not stepped in.

What happened was that he lost a LEGO piece and intensely feared he would not be able to find it. Rather than pursuing solutions, such as looking for it more thoroughly or using a different piece from his LEGO bin, he was going to give the whole rest of the LEGO set to his brother, since it was worthless to him without that one piece. This might be what Aristotle through Gravlee calls “resignation,” a pessimistic outlook that the outcome is going to be negative so there is no point in trying to change it through personal agency or pathway generation, but I usually think of “resignation” as fairly inactive. In this case, my son’s resignation was leading him to want to take active steps to ensure the feared future outcome would occur. His negative hopes would occur and he would reach his goal, so this fits the definition of hope. He would be actively making his expected future inevitable by setting steps in motion to bring about the feared outcome.

Interestingly, this shows a kind of hope and agency—in the direction of the negative outcome. He looked at the possible outcomes, he decided which one he could see pathways to get to and that he felt like he had the agency to achieve, and he started setting plans in motion to get to it. I would argue that he didn’t realistically look at all the options, since it’s not that hard to find a LEGO piece when you know exactly where you lost it, and he also didn’t have a very tenacious idea of what he could achieve or a willingness to try something different when his original ideas didn’t work, but low hope is still a form of hope. He chose instead to focus on his fear, rather than generating ideas that might take more courage and effort to achieve. (That this example of negative hope fits so well within the system of the psychology of hope is one of the reasons I think the psychological understanding doesn’t fully explain hope, helpful as it may be.)

Together, my son and I eventually found the missing LEGO piece, and then we talked through the experience later. I had my son repeat back to me what had happened so that he can use the experience as a basis for positive hope next time. Perhaps he will be able to have “courageous confidence,” as Aristotle terms good-hope. Since one cannot be certain of the outcome for which one hopes, moving forward in confidence regarding one’s sense of agency and choosing a path in the positive direction takes courage in the face of fear. Also, trying something else if one’s first idea fails is an important piece of hoping (one that Gravlee doesn’t really address here, but is addressed in other places by philosophers and psychologists). It is also possible to take action that ensures a negative outcome, having given up on the positively-hoped-for outcome.

I am intrigued by this situation, because it may provide an explanation for the self-sabotage that many human beings seem to do intentionally (though probably not consciously) when they know the situation facing the planet with climate change, and take active steps to ensure that the world continues going in that direction. To truly hope in the face of climate change takes courage in the face of real fear, an acknowledgement of vulnerability, and the choice to move in the direction of a positive outcome anyway.

What is it about self-sabotage that seems appealing? I assume it’s a coping mechanism. Maybe it’s easier to not feel. We would rather be apathetic, because feeling hurts too much.

My son said he would rather never have had the LEGO set than to have it and lose the piece. This shows a level of defeatism that has given up and doesn’t want to have to move through feeling fear and any other negative emotions so much that it would rather also not feel the good feelings. I wonder what makes people feel this way. I think it’s probably not learning to acknowledge, name, and be okay with feelings (so this is something I’ve definitely been working on with my kids since this LEGO experience!).

Overall, I find this ambivalence about the direction of hope to be a helpful way to think about our responses to the future. We can be optimistic or pessimistic about the future but take no real action to ensure that either one happens, but this is not really hope. We can also actively “hope” in a positive or a negative direction. In English, we’ve come to use the term “hope” to mean acting courageously to bring about a future we perceive as positive, while in classical Greek the term had not taken on this meaning but was any action taken in order to bring about a future state. Hope involves experiencing fear, and our response to that fear determines whether our action is euelpis (courageous good-hope) or self-sabotaging resignation: whether we’ve recognized our fear and decided to move in the direction of our hoped-for future anyway, or whether we’ve remained frozen by fear and intentionally taken actions (or intentionally not acted) to bring about our feared future. I wonder if this self-sabotaging resignation is the same as despair?

Both of these types of Aristotelian hope (positive and negative) can be distinguished from apathy, in which case we do not even feel fear—or perhaps we have acted so long in a state of self-sabotaging resignation that we are numb to the fear. If we’re feeling fear, we can then choose to act positively or negatively, but if we no longer even feel the fear, that’s when we’ve really moved beyond the category of hope. Despair is different from apathy, because it shows that there is still something that one hopes for, one simply despairs of it happening. One fears that it is impossible, or at least that one has no pathways, motivation, or agency to get there.

So, the presence of fear shows that there is still a spark of hope. If we are willing to do the hard work of acknowledging our fear and working through it, and if we are willing to find the place of courage within ourselves to move in the direction of a positive future even though it scares us to death, we can move out of the space of despair and into hope. In previous posts I’ve mentioned that this isn’t always possible without medication/therapy in cases of mental illness, and in future posts I want to share more about the connection with a community that I think is vital in helping us move beyond despair, transforming that fear and despair through meaning-making and storytelling into good-hope.

References:

Gravlee, G. Scott. “Aristotle on Hope.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.4 (October 2000): 461-477.

Image: detail of Aristotle and others from the “School of Athens” by Raphael

“Hope” in ancient Greek: Pandora and the Greek goddess Elpis

In developing an ecotheology of critical hope, one of the things that is important is to understand what the biblical authors mean when they’re discussing hope in the Bible. After doing research on the concept of hope in psychology, I found this framework of hope useful, but not a sufficient understanding of hope from a faith-based perspective. In psychology, hope basically refers to the ability to create and complete (or adjust) goals, while hope in the realm of spiritual faith has more to do with a long-term sense of moving in the direction of a hope that is larger than anything we can accomplish in a lifetime. I recently posted about the concept of hope in the Hebrew Bible, and today I’ll write a bit about my findings on hope in classical Greek. These languages and their thought-worlds contributed to the ways that the authors of the Christian scriptures used language to try to put spiritual experiences on paper. Understanding how Greek culture viewed the concept of “hope” can help us understand the similarities and differences between the Hellenistic (Greek) concept of hope and the way the Greek term is used by first century Christian authors.

The Greek word we translate “hope” is elpis, ἐλπίς (noun), or elpizo, ἐλπίζω (verb). In classical Greek literature, elpis can be used as an expectation of the future in either a positive or a negative way, as opposed to our usual understanding when we use the term “hope” in English (anticipating something positive). Elpis is actually the name of the Greek goddess for hope, or at least for expectation. In the Greek myth of Pandora’s box, found in Hesiod’s Works & Days, Pandora—the first female human being created by the gods—is given a gift from each of the gods, and these are placed in a box (or jar, really). She is actually seen as a punishment to humankind because Prometheus, who created human beings, stole fire from the gods and gave its secret to humanity. So, the gods created Pandora, and gave her a bunch of “gifts” that led mainly to misery and deceit, but also beauty and hope. She could have kept them contained in the jar, but…she didn’t. Therefore, a bunch of torments and miseries were unleashed on the world, plagues and diseases, silently assailing humanity, taking human beings out of an idyllic past into an uncertain and tormented future where life is short and hopeless.

(Does this sound familiar to any Judeo-Christians out there, all the sins and evil in the world blamed on the woman’s choice? I haven’t studied this story in depth, but I would like to see a feminist interpretation of it.)

At any rate, the connection to hope is that the only one of the gifts that didn’t escape the jar was Elpis: Hope, or, in other translations, Foreboding. Elpis hung on or was caught in the lip of the jar and did not escape before the lid was replaced.

One interpretation of this is that hope wasn’t released to dissipate out into the world, but was contained within the jar of the human form. If we mix our ancient stories here and add in something about the “jars of clay” that human beings are likened to in the Christian scriptures (II Cor 4:7), we could interpret this to mean that the jar is a metaphor for the container of the human body, made from dust and returning to dust, and indeed, Pandora herself is shaped from dirt in this myth. Interpreted this way, the story tells us that though we cannot control the other Fates, we can still have hope contained inside. (Looking at this passage from Corinthians through the lens of the Pandora myth, I wonder if Paul also had this story in mind when he wrote this passage. Hmm…I might have to look into this further.)

Alternatively, if we translate elpis as Foreboding, then the fact that it was NOT unleashed on the world gives us hope, in the sense that we usually think of hope. If this foreboding is more like despair, a perspective on the world that expects the inevitability of chaos and entropy, then Foreboding’s entrance into the world would have sent humanity into a downward spiral of despair and meaninglessness.

It fascinates me that the concepts of hope and despair can so easily be interchanged with just the tiniest modification. It’s a tightrope balance, hope: tipping one way or the other into blind optimism or endless despair and meaninglessness is, perhaps, easier than staying on the tightrope, but it’s doable—at least for people with the right combination of talent and practice. This is my experience in life, too: some days I feel hope based on the meaning I find in a history of individuals and groups who have chosen to live for love and justice, while other days I look at those same stories and despair that with all the work that has already been put in, how can I even think that any of our actions has meaning, since the world still contains so much pain and suffering? Hope is definitely a practice, a practice of learning to balance, like learning to tightrope walk.

Pandora’s story also ties together the themes of hope and suffering, which is a consistent pattern I’ve noticed as I’ve studied hope. Hope seems to show up most fully in the lives of those who experience suffering and manage to transform it, through meaning-making, into hope. Jürgen Moltmann worked on his theology of hope because he needed a theology that could handle the suffering he witnessed in World War II, and likewise Viktor Frankl realized his psychology of meaning through reflection on his experiences in a concentration camp in World War II. If these men had not experienced suffering in this way, would they have been able to think so deeply about hope and meaning? (Disclaimer: this is not to say that we should seek out or cause situations where we can experience more suffering. My point is that when we allow ourselves to examine and transform personal experiences of suffering into some semblance of meaning, we gain hope from them.)

I wonder if one way to interpret the story of Pandora and the double-sided nature of hope is that if we keep hope contained within ourselves, if we hold onto it, if we choose to house it within our clay-jar bodies, it provides the meaning we need to move forward into the world of disease and evil with courage and purpose, but if we let go of hope and it flies out of our jar, we move through the world with a sense of foreboding, seeing nothing but inevitable death and despair. But I’m not totally happy with this metaphor, because this sounds like we’re grasping and holding tight, we’re keeping the lid on, we’re bottling up whatever good things we can manage to catch hold of. I think what I mean is that hope is something we already contain, something that’s already a part of us, and we don’t have to grasp for it or try to get it back from some ether of escaped dreams and unreachable gifts. It’s already there; it’s already within us—like when Jesus said that the Kingdom of God isn’t something we can point to as over there or over here, but it’s within us (Luke 17:21). We don’t have to chase it or win it, we already have it. (Interestingly, in that passage, it’s a plural “you,” the Kingdom of God is within and among you collectively. Is it the same with hope?)

Again, I want to be careful about any indications here regarding clinical depression. When I say this is a choice, I’m not certain that it is a choice we can all make ourselves without the help of medication. I’m not certain if this is the case in all societies, or simply in ours, where we have become so comfortable that life apparently feels increasingly meaningless. I do know that in the present time and in this present place, hope is not always a choice that an individual can make by him- or herself.

In the story of Pandora, all the gods and human beings have dysfunctional relationships and don’t really make a community that can support one another, so within the frame of this mythology, perhaps it is up to each of us to hold onto Elpis or to let her go. But perhaps we can imagine and experience a different framework, one where we help hold that hope for one another.

Imagining this in light of the present environmental context, however, is hope enough to keep all of the other evils that human beings unleash on the world from overwhelming and destroying us and the world’s ecosystems? We cannot put Pandora’s other “gifts” back into the jar, but does hope provide us a deep enough reservoir from which to draw in order to learn to live in a way that is less destructive? Or, with this mythology as a major basis for Western culture, a worldview that is infecting humanity around the world in this globalized system, does this fatalistic understanding of human identity lead inevitably to self-destruction? Or maybe this self-destruction is part of the process, this recognition that we’ve let all the other gifts dissipate and all we have left is hope, and it is enough. If Pandora’s story is not the story of Christianity (but arguably close to that of Christendom’s interpretation), might the Christian story offer something different in the way of hope? Do we have a story strong enough to imagine ourselves into an identity that doesn’t give up? Do our faith stories provide us a strong enough reservoir that, rather than bringing only entropy and despair, they can provide meaning, imagining us into a place where we fit within the rhythms of chaos and creation?

After I wrote this post but before I posted it, one of my friends, the amazingly talented artist Melanie Weidner, shared this video of her work entitled, “Cataclysm: Hope in the Breakdown.” Though I haven’t seen this friend for years, apparently we’re on the same wavelength about the way that hope goes along with suffering, meaning is born from the ashes of despair, and something new is born out the remnants of something that has died. I’m not exactly sure what this has to do with Pandora, except that the idea of opening “Pandora’s box” usually refers to opening something that is mysterious and dangerous, but potentially alluring—a creative force that is so big and powerful that it can’t be controlled, and therein lies the danger. Perhaps Pandora’s box (jar) is simply life itself, that huge, beautiful, uncontrollable and unfathomable mystery we cannot contain, and all we can do is hold tight to the lip of the jar as the Mystery and the Creative Power rushes past, like Moses in the cleft of the rock as the glory of God’s backside passes by (one of my favorite weird Bible passages, Exodus 33). And so I leave you with that mystery, the chaos and the breakdown, and the paradoxical hope that us humans can’t seem to shake.

 

Outdoors with Kids in Chehalem Valley: Miller Woods

Sisters
Erin and me, Miller Woods

The other day, for my sister’s birthday, we decided to check out Miller Woods Conservation Area. None of us had ever been there before, and in fact I didn’t even know it existed until recently when I started looking around for hikes in the area. This is a great location! 130 acres, it contains many hiking trails. Bridges 1The Yamhill County Soil & Water Conservation District, as well as Miller Woods members, are doing tons of work to provide habitat for native plants and wildlife. The property is open to the public ($3 suggested donation per car), and it is also used for education: bird houses are in evidence all over the place, there’s an “education station” that measures meteorological data (weather), and they have a greenhouse and enclosures to protect native plants. Native plants are also sold to the public periodically.

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(Photo credit: The photos in this post that are from a nice camera are by my soon-to-be-brother-in-law, the wonderful and talented Paul Kachris-Newman.)

Directions to Miller Woods

Miller entrance
Miller Woods entrance

From Newberg, we chose to take the scenic route. The one pictured in the map (above) is 33 minutes if you drive through Carlton, and we chose the even-more-scenic route through Yamhill AND Carlton, which took about 40 minutes. If you’re from McMinnville, apparently this is only about 3 miles (10-15 minutes) outside of town. Coming from Newberg, you could also go through Lafayette and McMinnville, but that’s not as beautiful and takes about the same amount of time. Miller Woods wasn’t difficult to find, following our GPS. The GPS would have taken us slightly beyond the entrance, but there was a sign, so we saw it and knew where to go. I had been warned ahead of time that the sign was fairly small, so I was keeping an eye out for it.

Field
Miller Woods

We hit a beautiful day for a hike: mid-60s, slightly overcast, no rain. Much of the trail is actually through a field, so most of the time we were out in the open and not in the woods. There are longer trails that pass through more of the woods, but with kids along, we mostly stuck to the “Education Station Trail” (blue line on the trail map, below), plus some segments of the yellow and red trails.

Miller kiosk
Miller Woods kiosk

When we got there, we parked and hit the kiosk, of course! That seems to be a theme of these posts. Anyway, there was a nice kiosk overlooking a pond. It has a big map so you can see the whole property, and it also has laminated maps you can carry around with you and then return. I thought this was a great idea. They don’t have to keep printing more maps and/or have potential litter blowing around the property. We grabbed a map and planned our route.

Miller Woods Trail Map

Miller trailhead
Miller Woods trailhead

The only problem we encountered on our hike was that the numbers on the map don’t always (ever?) correspond with the numbers on the signposts along the trail, and sometimes where there is a number on the map, there is no signpost or other indicator on the trail. (In the photo at right, this signpost 14 is at the location where we think signpost 31 should be.)

14???
Signpost 14 on trail, 31 on map

With all the trails intersecting and diverging, and since we didn’t want to get ourselves TOO far out with kids who weren’t excited about a long hike that day, it was somewhat frustrating that the map didn’t correspond with the markers. Also, although the map gives us a general indication of distance (showing 2200 ft), it doesn’t say how long each trail is. Maybe this information is somewhere online, but I couldn’t find it. Since the area has only been part of the Yamhill Soil & Water Conservation District since 2004, we’ll forgive them for not having all their ducks in a row yet in terms of technology and user-friendliness! We’re grateful for the work they’re doing to create, conserve, and restore space for native species, and a space for our species to enjoy and cherish.

K in the fieldOverall, we loved this area. Although we don’t know a whole lot about birds, it inspired us to learn more! We saw many different types of birds, including hawks (OK probably turkey vultures, they were too high up to tell for sure), swallows, finches, and robins, as well as others we couldn’t identify. Birdhouses 2We also saw some bullfrogs. I think these are an invasive species, but they were cool to look at, anyway! We saw many interesting creepy-crawlies and plenty of wildflowers. The wooded part of the trail followed a creek, and the trail crisscrossed it several times, with nice bridges.Bullfrog It would be fun to go there on a warm day in the summer to play in the creek. There are also picnic tables near the pond, so you could bring a picnic—though, make sure to bring some bug repellant if you’re going to sit by the water for a while.

I highly recommend this trail and conservation area for anyone looking for a beautiful, easy hike, and/or ways to get involved with habitat restoration.