Cornelius Plantinga Jr. is president of Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In his novel A Separate Peace, John Knowles gives us the character Gene Forrester who, in the summer of his sixteenth year, found that his soul was coming to life. During a stretch of glorious New Hampshire weather he would wake up each morning with a rush of feeling so profound that it overwhelmed him:
One summer day after another broke with a cool effulgence ... and there was a breath of widening life in the morning air, something hard to describe—an oxygen intoxicant ... some odor, some feeling so hopelessly promising that I would fall back in my bed on guard against it.... I wanted to break out crying from stabs of hopeless joy, or intolerable promise, or because those mornings were too full of beauty for me.
Many people would admit that they have had experiences something like this, especially when they were young. Not everybody can report times of wanting to “break out crying from stabs of hopeless joy,” but many do know what it feels like to yearn. People yearn for a time gone by, for a certain season, place, or sound. Many people know what it’s like to listen to a particular piece of music that, at a certain spot, makes them ache. Mozart and Schubert knew how to touch us this way, as do country and western singers, whose music is full of lonesome dreams and broken hearts.
C. S. Lewis explores this human longing and observes that when we have it, we are seeking union with something from which we are separated. What’s remarkable is that these longings are unfulfillable. We cannot merge with the music we love. Nature may delight us beyond telling, as Lewis says, but she cannot open her arms to receive us. We may want a good career or a family or a particular kind of life, and these may come to us. But we want more than these things can give. Even if we fall deeply in love, we discover that something in us keeps saying “not this” or “still beyond.”
The truth is that much can make us content for a time, but nothing can fill us to the brim. Our final joy lies “beyond the walls of the world,” as J. R. R. Tolkien put it. Ultimate beauty comes not from a lover or a landscape or a home, but only through them. These earthly things are solid, but they are not our final good. They point to what is “higher up” and “further back.”
|A watercolor by Ann Shank Rohrer
St. Augustine (354-430), perhaps the most powerful thinker among the fathers of the Christian church, spent years in search of the final target of human longing. He called it the summum bonum, the “supreme good.” Instructed by such scripture as Psalm 42 and deeply moved by the tumult of his own soul, St. Augustine finally found the one good that would not crumble if he leaned on it with the full weight of his love. And so, at the beginning of his Confessions, Augustine prayed: “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
What Augustine knew is that human beings want God. In fact, humans want union with God. Until it’s suppressed, this longing for God arises in every human soul because it is part of the soul’s standard equipment. We have been endowed by our Creator with a “sense of divinity,” wrote John Calvin, and everywhere in the world, even when expressed as idolatry, the sense of divinity is the seed of religion. God has made us for himself. Our sense of God runs in us like a stream.We human beings want God even when we think that what we really want is a green valley, a good time from our past, or a loved one. Of course we want these things and persons, but we also want what lies behind them. Our “inconsolable secret,” says C. S. Lewis, is that we are full of yearnings that point us beyond the things of earth to the ultimate reality of God. And summer mornings when we awaken to “stabs of joy” are clues that this is so.
As a student you may have any of a number of goals for your education. Perhaps one should be to expand the number of things that excite your longing. Not just any things or any longing. I’m thinking instead of “whatever is true, ... whatever is pure, [whatever is] worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8). I’m thinking of the visual arts, music, drama, landscapes, poetry, and friendships that can arouse human desire for sheer goodness and, finally, for the One who is its overflowing fountain.
But do you find this talk of longing irrelevant to the daily business of studying, making friends, managing your freedom, and working to support yourself? The answer will depend, I believe, on how much you are a person who hopes. This is because longing is an ingredient of hope. You can hope only for something you want, and if you really want it, you will long for it. Some of our longings are inarticulate, but others can be stated, especially when trouble intensifies them. Innocent prisoners who appeal their conviction, cancer patients who cling to rumors of experimental cures, persons who love but whose love is not returned—such folk know what they long for, and they know it urgently.
According to Fuller Theological Seminary’s emeritus ethicist Lewis B. Smedes, genuine hope always combines imagination, faith, and desire. The hopeful person imagines a good state of affairs. He also believes that it’s possible. Finally, he desires the good state of affairs he imagines and believes in.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and gave one of the most celebrated speeches of the twentieth century. Recalling the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln had signed a century before and the heroic claim of America’s Declaration of Independence that the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are “unalienable,” King lamented that black Americans “still languish in the corners of society,” still struggle through the “dark valley of segregation.” It was time for black Americans to rise from their desolation, said King, and to start striding along “the sunlit path of racial justice.” Taking the voice of biblical prophecy, Martin Luther King Jr. declared it was high time for “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).
King longed for racial justice; he imagined a new day when the children of slaves and slave owners would break bread together; he looked forward in faith:
When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children ... will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
In this speech King incorporated all the ingredients of hope, all the power of longing, imagination, and faith. He knew that racist politics, racist laws, and racist law enforcement were wrong. He knew that racist religion was wrong and that racist hearts were all wrong. Moreover, he had the biblical passion and prophetic eloquence to shame a whole nation into seeing that these things were wrong. He did it by expressing biblical hope and by publicly appealing to the righteousness of God, a transcendent standard of right and wrong that people of all kinds ought to acknowledge as the will of their Creator. In this way, as social scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain once observed, Martin Luther King’s dream was the human dream, the universal dream.
The most eloquent addresses to human hope and human conscience appeal to God because God’s program of peace transcends racial divisions and invites us into God’s “one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:15). In Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address the president spoke to a bloodied and divided nation, holding before its citizens the plain fact that North and South “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.” Lincoln did not regard the religious stalemate as an occasion for giving up but as evidence that “the Almighty has his own purposes” and that sometimes they may be discerned only amid the ruin of human causes. Slavery and war are human scourges; only “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Without the lens of scripture to correct and enlarge our vision, we see the world with self-referential bias. Peering out from the two sockets of our skull, we perceive, understand, and judge the world from our own point of view and are tempted to think of ourselves as centers. Moreover, we study and live in a culture that often encourages us to think in this way, and worse, to think of ourselves as our own creators and providers. But imitators of Christ, the incarnate one, struggle to see the world through the eyes of others, particularly those whose situation in life differs sharply from their own, and to focus upon their need of justice and kindness. One who hopes is one who imagines.
Of course, it’s natural to hope for our own well-being; it’s also healthy. To hope for our future is to affirm the life God gave us and its range of possibilities. But it’s provincial and unhealthy to hope only for ourselves. With only their own interests at heart and only their own future in view, egocentric persons eventually harden themselves into a small, snail-like shell.
But the person who can look out toward the future of others has some range to her hope. She has been enlarged by the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit filled the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2), they began to speak in multiple languages that must have sounded like a league of nations. This wondrous phenomenon was partly the fulfillment of a hope and partly the expression of one. It fulfilled the prophetic hope of Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares, / that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, / and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, / and your young men shall see visions / and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17)
Visions and dreams about what? Pentecost hope was expressed by Peter, who declared that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. The promise of God is not just for disciples and Jews; it is “for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39).
Here, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, one man’s hope spreads out to cover all humankind. If we hope as the prophets and apostles did, we shall hope not only for ourselves but also for people we must struggle to understand, for people we may never have met. We shall trust God to bring forgiveness and peace for generations we can only imagine. To do this, we need faith in the Christ whom Peter preached at Pentecost, in the resurrected Jesus, the Savior of the nations. But we also need love to get us out of our shell. Love lifts our interest not only toward Christ but also toward others, so that when we begin to hope, we naturally hope for them as well as for ourselves. As Paul says at the end of his great hymn in First Corinthians 13, biblical hope must have faith on one side of it and love on the other.
Biblical hope has a wide-angle lens. It takes in whole nations and peoples, and the entire created order. When it is widest and longest, biblical hope looks forward toward a whole new heaven and new earth in which death, and mourning, and pain will have passed away (Revelation 21:1, 4).
Hope on this grand scale is just what we find in the visions of Isaiah, Joel, and the other prophets. Prophets cry out against evil, then they go to work, organizing people to fight it and to pursue justice. They follow through on their dream so that the Spirit of God may blow upon it and make it live. Faith without works is dead (James 2:17), and the same goes for hope. Without costly action, hope can soften into sentimentality.With costly action, hope may harden into reality. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life in the struggle for justice, and a whole nation’s modest gains in racial understanding have become unthinkable without him.
Prophets understand evil because they also understand good. They know how many ways the world can go wrong because they also know how many ways (higher up and further back) it can go right. And they keep dreaming of a time when God will put things right again.
This webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets called shalom. We call it ‘peace,’ but it means far more than just peace of mind or cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, all under the arch of God’s love. Shalom, in other words, is the way things are supposed to be.
We see around us only approximations of this great state of affairs. Everybody knows human life is out of whack. We can be happy at times, but not totally fulfilled. And every day brings us fresh news of old evils—of nature ravaged, God blasphemed, people cheated, battered, terrorized. Every day brings us news of misery almost impossible to fathom.
For centuries, philosophers, theologians, novelists, and artists have described the human predicament and then prescribed a cure, or at least a salve, and then estimated the likelihood that the prescription will work. Hope is the reach of our hearts for the cure, for what we think will fulfill us, secure us, save us—and not just us, but the whole world. To be a Christian is to participate in this very common human enterprise of diagnosis, prescription, and prognosis from inside a Christian view of the world, one constructed from Scripture and centered on Jesus Christ the Savior, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29.) Christian hope centers on Jesus Christ, because he is the Lord of the whole cosmos, the one “through [whom] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20.)
This article is excerpted and adapted from Engaging God's World: A Christian Vison of Faith, Learning and Living by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. Copyright © 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. To order this title, call the publisher at 800/253-7521 or visit their website at www.eerdmans.com