The Human Odyssey

by Elder M. Lindahl

It is unfortunate that in the Christian Church the idea of hope is most often associated with the end rather with the beginning of life’s pilgrimage. Unfortunate, I believe, because as a consequence hope as a present-time orientation is often ignored or degraded.

Why has there been so much stress on hope as an afterlife orientation for Christians? For one thing, the eschatological emphasis has been an integral part of the Gospel from the first. St. Paul’s words in the Corinthian letters are commonly used to provide comfort and assurance to those grieving the loss of loved ones. Apocalyptic literature, found in the Old and New Testaments, especially in Daniel, Mark 13, and Revelation, is an essential part of our tradition. The Christian hope as end-time is well-established in Scripture, the Apostolic Creed, hymns, sermons, and memorial services.

For another, the “Late-Great-Planet Earth” and “Left-Behind” writers capitalize on the end-time emphasis in their speculative interpretations of Christian faith. Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and other violent catastrophes, fuel their shaky but really very profitable use of eschatologically-orientated biblical passages. Sadly, they take a literalistic, non historical approach to apocalyptic symbols. Their writings build on fear and tend to move people away from any hope for the present age. Their other-worldly ideology diminishes proper Christian concern for social justice, world peace, and the environment. Contra these gloom and doom advocates, I contend that our beautiful, little, blue planet is simply not in any sense “late.”

But that’s a topic for another time. The question I pose in this essay is how does human hope fit in with Christian hope? It is my purpose to show that human hope and Christian hope in concert provide good resources for the human odyssey. The Christian hope enlarges and completes human hope.

St. Paul recognized that human hope is a powerful force that moves us in the here and now. He includes hope in his famous triad of virtues—faith, hope, and love. We live by hope. Since the advent of developmental psychology, we have come to recognize the importance of Paul’s point that we live by hope on this earth. It’s a vital strength for the beginning as well as the end of the journey. Hope is an absolutely necessary element in human life. Humans are blessed if hope comes early and continues to the end. Hope motivates us to make our daily as well as our eternal plans.

Just put one foot in front of the other and go forward.
A journey of a thousand miles, begins with one foot-step they say.
And as you go forward leaving what you were behind,
A new reality beckons you, like the dawn of a bright clear day.
——taken from The Lime Green Poetry Page

Child Psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) found that hope is the earliest and most indispensable virtue to emerge in human experience. From birth to age one, infants struggle between basic trust and basic mistrust—a struggle between warmth, love and acceptance on the one hand and cold rejection on the other. In the presence of a mature care giver, a sense of trust, confidence, and hope are established which can provide the foundation for lifetime coping abilities. Erikson defines hope as:

The enduring belief in the attainability of primal wishes, in spite of the dark urges and rages which mark the beginnings of existence and leave a lasting residue of threatening estrangement.

Failure, for whatever reason, at this stage of development means the emergence of feelings of despair and hopelessness. When a child comes to feel all is not right, that big people are untrustworthy, that his/her needs are never adequately met, that care givers are insecure, unfriendly, hostile, or abusive, the positive emotions are stunted.

Success in the initial developmental stage becomes the foundation for positive resolutions of the succeeding developmental conflicts in childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood. It is amazing to realize that emotional growth throughout an individual’s entire lifetime, as well as from one generation to the next, begins early in the positive relationship between infant and mother or mother surrogate.

Author Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) agrees with Erikson on the importance of the maternal person and suggests a musical metaphor. He writes: “There can be no hope that does not constitute itself through a ‘we’ and for a ‘we.’ I would be tempted to say that all hope is at the bottom choral.” Marcel centers on the communal aspects of primal hope. Hope constitutes itself through and for others. Humans are like choristers who sing together and influence each other positively in the face of despair and hopelessness. This broken world may be healed through music, drama, and relationships. There is something mysterious that happens to individuals singing together whether in choirs or in a congregation. A group worship experience summons a powerful emotional quality above and beyond the individual choristers.

The best recent work on hope I have encountered is a book written by a Jesuit, William F. Lynch, and entitled Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless (1965). Lynch finds that imagination is the key to sustaining hope in difficult times. Hope is not fanciful, not whistling in the dark, not wishful thinking. Rather, it is practical imagining of something better to come. A fundamental problem occurs when an individual’s power of imagination breaks down.

Imaging is like formulating an hypothesis. Say you are in despair, hopeless, depressed, and ready to give up. You look over the options, scan some possibilities, and hypothesize what might work. Hope means imaging somehow a better situation than the one you are in. Patience is necessary. “The ability to wait is central to hope, and must therefore have an essential place in human wishing....The kind of wishing that can wait is the mark of growing maturity” (177).

For Lynch, hope is at the same time an individual and a collective experience. Independence and dependence are not in conflict. Human solidarity is the context in which human autonomy emerges. “Only adults will help others become autonomous adults.” (238) Cultivating hope means giving some practical assistance to isolated persons. The ideal is to “join human society without destroying our own identity, without annihilating ourselves” (239-40).

The choral metaphor suggested by Marcel still fits. Sometimes there are solos and the focus is on an individual. The choir might hum in the background as all eyes and ears attend to one person. The director might continue to give some hand signals and the pianist to accompany, but the I, the individual soloist, leads. At other times, the director herself stands as an individual critiquing how well the choir is singing.

There are many ways of combining human hope and Christian hope. The key is somehow to put hope as the beginning and the end of the human odyssey together. The late Bruce Carlson, Poetry and Navigation Editor of Pietisten, stands tall as a “both-and” person. He expressed great hope for the significance of music on this earth. You might say that hope for him was a kind of thinking, a controlling vision. His boundless expectations and enthusiasm led him to set up remarkable programs which continue to bless people of all ages. He loved music and his career in music. His passion to present the best possible talent through the Schubert Club brought about some marvelous accomplishments.

Human hope and the Christian hope formed an organic unity for Bruce. His earthly vocation was to call people together to enjoy concerts; his Christian hope, anchored in the Christian faith, imaged a heavenly choral and orchestral transformation of human hope. The hymn by Fred Pratt Green in The Covenant Hymnal expresses it well:

How often making music we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound
as worship moved us to a more profound
Alleleluia!

The concluding phrase Bruce chose for his memorial service at the Plymouth Congregational Church was “Till we meet again.” Rest in peace, faithful and hopeful friend.

Relating beginning-time hope and end-time hope in a temporal-eternal perspective is a topic which goes far beyond the scope of this paper. My point here is that human hope which functions so significantly at the outset of the journey continues to imagine betterment in a new and amplified way as we exit. The Christian hope is that Christ will graciously stand with, by, and for us as our life odyssey draws to a close. Christian hope builds on and fulfills the initial confidence we likely found as we came into this world. We live by hope from beginning to end.

Elder Lindahl (d. 2015) was a well-known North Park University professor and long-time contributor to Pietisten.

See all articles by Elder M. Lindahl