Life means tension.  Of course there is the biological tension of the struggle for survival, shared by all creatures, from amoebas to humans.  We humans however also have the unique privilege of living with the tension of good and evil, which turns our thoughts toward God and eternity.  This tension is felt in the contradiction between our desire for moral goodness and our encounter with the inescapable reality of moral breakdowns throughout our history.

 Mt Hope bridge in RI (photo by bellullabob on flickr)  In his personal struggle to believe in God in spite of the horrible realities of war, the young German POW Jürgen Moltmann came to faith and began to develop his famous Theology of Hope.[1]  Fifty years later, Moltmann continues to reflect on the biblical message of hope.  He recently wrote of our need for an ethics of hope.  Can there be any other viable option for ethics in the face of the tension between persistent evil and the possibility of change and transformation, other than an earnest search for “an ethics of hope for the future of this world in the kingdom of God”? [2]

    And how do we pursue an ethic capable of holding together the two poles of this ethical tension?  Moltmann suggests we begin by uttering ‘hope sentences’.   That is to say, not just by proclaiming hope in words, but also by living in a manner that shows what hope looks like, and what hope means.  That’s what St Francis was getting at when he said, “Proclaim the Gospel loudly; when necessary, use words.”  Moltmann expresses a similar idea in terms of “the linking of ‘hope sentences’ with critical statements about reality, but not to a link with what are allegedly purely ‘descriptive sentences’.”[3]

   Descriptive sentences are the currency of empirical science.  Physics, biology and economics all make descriptive statements about reality.  Likewise philosophy operates by making descriptive statements, however speculative or contemplative they may be.  But descriptive sentences are not enough for ethics of hope.  It’s not enough to describe human behavior or the functions of neurons.  No amount of statements and hypotheses about society, culture, or evolutionary psychology can provide a basis for hope.  Hope requires something more than descriptions of nature and human behavior, which is decidedly infused with immorality in terms of any ethical system humankind has yet devised.  Hope requires a promise to hope for and a reason to trust the promise.   That kind of promise is expressed in prayer, worship and Scripture, which provide the grammar for ‘hope sentences’.  To build ethics other than on the basis of hope sentences is to build a fragile structure that will ultimately fail to survive bouts of despair and suffering.

Promise is essential to bridge the tension of life and sustain an ethics of hope:

The historical present and the eschatological future can only be bridged in the language of promise, not in the language of concepts.[4]

This is why the resurrection serves as the foundational bedrock for an ethics of hope. Dostoyevsky powerfully demonstrated this connection between ethics and the resurrection in the lives of The Brothers Karamzov, which illustrated both the depths of despair and the strength of hope sentences.   Ivan cannot come to terms with the resurrection and thus concludes categorically that ‘all things are lawful’.  Alyosha trusts in the hope of the resurrection and reveals an ethics of hope in his life. This is the tension of ethics and the tension of human life.  Pro and contra:  hope or despair; lawlessness or ethics.  The resurrection is the bridge.

[1] Originally published as Theologie der Hoffnung (1964).[2] Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology (Fortress, 2000), p. 101.   [3] Ibid.  [4] Ibid, p. 102.