Thursday, August 7, 2008

Hope vs. hope

This post has spoilers for the film The Shawshank Redemption.

I've been reading He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. This is the true story of an American Jesuit priest who spent more than twenty years in the Soviet Gulag. Fr. Ciszek's story has led me to meditate on the the difference between Hope (the theological virtue) and hope (the worldly confidence that things will turn out well.)

I think the difference between Hope and hope can be brought out if we compare Fr. Ciszek's story to the story of another prisoner, Andy Dufresne of the file The Shawshank Redemption. Both Dufresne and Fr. Ciszek spent many years in imprisonment under inhuman conditions; both performed good works for their fellow prisoners; and both eventually found liberation from prison and a life of peace and happiness. Andy Dufresne is an icon of worldly hope; Fr. Ciszek is an icon of the theological virtue of Hope.

The most significant difference between Andy Dufresne and Fr. Ciszek is, of course, that Dufresne is entirely fictional, the creation of author Stephen King, and Fr. Ciszek was a real person, born and raised in the United States. I don't mean to imply that this means that worldly hope is a fantasy and only theological Hope is real. Not at all. Worldly hope is a real phenomenon. But the fact that The Shawshank Redemption is fiction can lead to some illusions about the nature of secular hope. American films are famous, perhaps notorious, for requiring happy endings. Watching an American film, you know things will turn out well for the hero. This is no less true for The Shawshank Redemption. We see Andy Dufresne falsely accused of murder and thrown into prison. We see him exploited by the prison warden and abused by the guards. But we know that, in the end, things will turn out well for him, especially since the film is narrated by the reassuring, grandfatherly voice of Morgan Freeman. Freeman's narration gives the viewer the illusion of a "divine perspective" that provides a foundation of hope for Andy Dufresne. The suspense in the film is not whether Dufresne will be saved from his prison existence, but just how that salvation will be effected.

It is the nature of worldly hope, however, that is has no assurance that things will turn out well. Worldly hope is based on reason, specifically a calculation made by the hopeful of the probability that things will turn out well. A prisoner may have an appeal on file or know that a private detective is researching evidence that will exonerate him, for example. Or, like Andy Dufresne, he may have a plan for escape. But there is no guarantee that the appeal will be granted, the evidence found, or the escape end in success.

We discover in retrospect that Dufresne had a plan of escape that he implemented over many years. It was this plan and his chance of escape that formed the basis of hope that sustained him over his years in prison. The narrative perspective of the film, however, gives Dufresne's escape an air of inevitability that it could never really have. In fact, the escape involves considerable good fortune. It required the long, painstaking digging of a tunnel from a particular cell over the course of years, an effort that would have come to nought if his cell assignment were changed at any time over those years. It required the hiding of the tunnel entrance behind a poster, its existence somehow never discovered during the periodic cell inspections (although the warden quickly finds the tunnel shortly after Dufresne escapes.) Lastly, and most obviously, a thunderstorm fortuitously happens the night of the escape, conveniently covering the sounds of Dufresne hammering his way into a sewage pipe. It is the nature of secular hope that it cannot effect itself by itself and that it is subject to the whims of the "God of Good Fortune."

Is the secular hope of a film like The Shawshank Redemption merely what remains of a genuinely theological Hope in a post-Christian world? Pre-Christian cultures didn't speak of hope the way we do now. They saw life as dominated by fate. Aristotle taught that happiness is a life of human flourishing lived according to virtue. But virtue itself is not enough to assure happiness; in addition to virtue, good fortune is needed. A man born in miserable circumstances with no chance to improve his lot is fated to unhappiness. Life sucks (for some). Deal with it.

Christianity introduced the radical notion that true happiness, because it is based entirely on a personal relationship with God as known in Jesus Christ, is not dependent on material circumstances and is therefore equally available to all. Happiness flows from the grace of God, the possession of the "pearl of great price" for which man gives everything else, and in light of which all other concerns come to nothing. That includes material concerns. The man with theological Hope has confidence that "things will turn out well," but this is because, for him, the experience of the love of God makes him almost indifferent to material concerns. Things will turn out well because he already possesses the only thing that matters; things have already turned out well and can't change, however material circumstances might.

This is an easy thing to say, of course, for someone in comfortable circumstances like me. For me, "Hope" in such depth isn't much more than a nice idea. Even before he went to Russia, Fr. Ciszek was a man of much deeper faith than I am; yet in his suffering in Russia, Fr. Ciszek discovered that his Hope was tainted by a fair degree of purely worldly hope. He expected God to save him from the suffering he endured; in other words, the "pearl of great price" wasn't really enough. In addition to God, Fr. Ciszek needed more food and better conditions, and he expected God to provide it. 

There is a wonderful passage in He Leadeth Me when, after four years  and endless interrogation in Lubianka Prison, Fr. Ciszek finally abandons himself completely to God. His Russian interrogators had threatened to have him shot, and, almost without thinking, he had signed papers confessing to various "crimes." Now the Russians wished to turn him into a spy in the Vatican. With the grace of God, Fr. Ciszek refused, and had a deep experience of freedom, for he was genuinely indifferent to his fate. No matter what the Soviets did, whether they sent him to the Gulag, had him shot, or released him, God was with him and nothing else mattered. This is the "freedom of the children of God."

Now an atheist would say that Fr. Ciszek had merely talked himself into things for the sake of getting through his difficulties. His hope was not "realistic." There is really no way to prove the atheist wrong in any objective sense. Only God and Fr. Ciszek, in his heart, really know what happened. But consider that any hope, if it is to go beyond the fragile and temporary confidence that is the summit of worldly hope, must be "unrealistic" in this sense, for it must be "unreasonable" in worldly terms. Hope that is based on calculations of probabilities and material outcomes will always be suspect and fragile; only a Hope that is based on something eternal and unchanging has any chance of gaining depth, of transcending the "fates" that ruled the pagan world. The man in possession of the eternal and unchanging Love will naturally appear unreasonable, even crazy, to the rest of us, for his "calculations" operate on a level we can't even imagine. But it is a level that cannot help but call our own cynical judgments into question, as Fr. Ciszek's witness in the Gulag brought Christ even to those reduced to the bare minimum of human existence.

The truly crazy man appears unreasonable to us, but he is also unable to cope with reality as well as we sane people can. That is the real test between the sane and demented; we put the mentally disturbed in asylums because they are manifestly unable to deal with reality. (Is that what an "asylum" is, a "haven from reality?") Yet a man like Fr. Ciszek managed to handle the reality of the Gulag better than everyone else, as was universally acknowledged. The typical zek (prisoner of the Gulag) was surly, defensive, and did his job as poorly as he could get away with. Fr. Ciszek was kind, charitable, and did his job as well as he could, since he saw it as a participation in the work of God. If the test of the sane person is his ability to deal with reality, then Fr. Ciszek was among the sanest of men, and that sanity, in the end, testifies to the reality of the God Who sustained his Hope in a far more powerful way than any worldly calculations.

No comments: