Tuesday, 7 March 2017

hope born of love is unaccountable to reason

There are times when it's rational or irrational to act on or offer hope. There are, that is, forms of hope-inspired action the rationality of which is properly said to be assayable. Thus I may hope to win the lottery and this find expression in my buying lots of tickets. Which, given the dreadful odds, would be irrational. Or I may perennially be lost to the hope that, in some or other arena of my life, the grass will yet be greener; a hope which, in the typical contexts of that idiom's deployment, is to be understood as irrational. Or I may quite reasonably leave my umbrella at home in the hope that it won't rain - after all it's been rather dry recently. Such forms of hope are all either rational or irrational, and never neither.

Such a conception of hope - let's call it 'empirical hope' - is not what interests me here. I bring it up to provide the necessary foil for that other conception - let's call it 'transcendental hope' - to which I want to draw attention. For this latter form of hope is, as it seems to me, when offered and when taken, the very essence of the restorative and the salvific. What it provides is a restoration of life itself, a venturing outside the shell, a raising of the gaze, an opening of the heart, the 'finding of meaning in life' - a new attitude to life itself. Transcendental hope and the acts it inspires are, I claim, not rational or irrational. Or, to the extent they may be, they are so in a very different sense than acts born of empirical hope. And the reason I want to highlight the distinction between them is because, as it seems to me, the perennial temptation is for transcendental hope to be collapsed into its empirical cousin in ways which damage what is salvific in it. My claim is that, in contrast with its empirical cousin, a marker of transcendental hope is that it is not assayable as rational or irrational.

We may hope for and we may hope that. I hope that I will get a promotion; I fail and am disappointed. This is empirical hope. I have already taken out a mortgage on the new job's arrival, and now I must painfully repay the debt. By contrast I hope for love and health and happiness; I get ill or remain alone, yet am not painfully disappointed; I had not taken out a mortgage on their arrival.

Transcendental hope is a living acknowledgement of what I like to call 'love's possibility'. Such hope may be deeply personal yet is not, unlike hope that, vulnerable to hope's predators in the same way. With hope that we make ourselves the measure of the world. We have a wish which will or will not be satisfied. With hope for the world's possibilities are instead the measures for us. Including, especially, the possibility for love.

Various spiritual battles may be read as the collapse of transcendental into empirical hope. Thus Job had a dismal time of it and, one can easily feel, quite reasonably wished and hoped that matters could be otherwise - for example that he could be dead. Or, Jesus succumbed to hopelessness on the Cross ('why hast thou forsaken me?'); from a natural all-too-human standpoint, one might say, life wasn't exactly working out his way.

Transcendental hope has nothing to do with forming a representation of how one wishes life to be. Hope which is a willing acknowledgement of love's possibility is not hope that love will come along for one. The hope that is born of love is a loving recognition simply of the fact of love's existence, that one lives in a world that is so structured that love can obtain. It is the possibility of it that matters.

Yet by this focus on possibility I don't mean to detract from a thought of love's particularity and personal character. For what is essential to staying alive to such hope is a sense of the intelligibility of the idea of one's own lovability, and the intelligibility of the idea that one's own loving could be welcomed by someone in friendship, in parental care, in romance. Without that living and highly personal sense, life becomes transcendentally hopeless. We become depressed.

Christians, it seems to me, sometimes have their eye on this ball, to possibly good effect. The transcendental character of hope is guaranteed for them by the love of a transcendental God, and the personal sense of hope is guaranteed by the essentially personal character of an individual prayerful relationship with Him. But what interests me here is elaborating the concepts of love's possibility, and of a hope that is unaccountable to reason, outside of the religious context. Partly because that context so often carries so much (by way of supernaturalism and psychology) that I and others find impossible. And partly because I fear the ways in which it itself, in grounding a possibility (love's possibility) in an allegedly cognisable actuality (the personal love of a transcendental God), loses the essential fragility of the possibility as such. An obvious way that shows itself is in the utterly non-transcendental hope that good behaviour will be rewarded in an afterlife - such that my hopeful actions now are rationalised by what is to come.

An essential aspect of transcendental hope is, I believe, that it is unaccountable to reason. But this isn't to say that we can't marshall reasons why it makes sense to become transcendentally hopeful. In short: life tends to go better if we do! (That's no great surprise, and it's hardly magic.) But that's not my point, which is instead that transcendental hope cannot be justified in terms of it being reasonable for someone to expect love. And this is because transcendental hope simply does not expect love. To expect love is, as it were, to ask of the world that it conform to one's wish, whereas transcendental hope is of a piece with the relinquishing of that wish. Hope born of love is, to borrow the religious language, essentially a dying to self. Where ego was, there other shall be. Transcendental hope is unaccountable to reason in the sense that it doesn't make sense to talk of us being hopeful thus as it does to go to the shop on the way home. The latter makes sense to me because I want some milk and it's an excellent bet that there's some milk in the shop. That the action makes sense, or doesn't make sense, is partly a function of my wish (this makes it possible for it to be rationally assayable) and partly a function of whether the world is going to play along (our knowledge of this determines whether the hope is rational or irrational). But transcendental hope - we might also call it 'hope beyond hope' - is not like that. It is instead a matter of saying 'yes' to the living of one's life, a willingness to take what inevitably comes to you, a refusal of the impulse to pretend to know what will happen to one in one's relationships to others, a refusal to foreclose on possibilities.