Optimism, suffering and artful hope

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
15 Jul 2009

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts...” (Romans 5. 3 - 5)

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A constant question that has to be faced by all who seek a better world is this: What distinguishes genuine hope from optimism or simple wishful thinking?

In the first instance, it may be easier to define the latter than the former. Optimism leans towards the belief that “things can only get better”. It is an outlook that comes naturally to some personality types while remaining opaque or alien to others, it seems. Without further justification it also seems pretty thin. A quick look at the way the world is and the way history goes is surely enough to dispense with the idea that, left to their own devices, human beings will find nirvana.

Technological progress has empowered millions, for sure. But it but has also enabled great destructiveness and has created unprecedented challenges for advanced societies and the planet. Things can get better, yes. But they can also deteriorate. We may simultaneously live in the best and the worst of times, or somewhere in-between. In the strange, glorious and awful reality we call life, there are no self-evident guarantees of success.

Similarly, wishing for peace-and-love to abide is a good thing, and in certain personal respects can become a self-fulfilling desire. We all know people who (for better and worse!) simply shine with positivity and niceness. But if it is to be sustainable corporately and if it is to overcome the war-likeness and hatred which stands in its way, the peaceable aspiration requires something much tougher than noble sentiments to carry it forward.

That is where the kind of hope of which St Paul speaks comes in. Hope is not optimism writ large or wishful thinking with a spiritual gloss. On the contrary, it is very tough-minded. Hope seeks the kind of life-enhancing change that enables us to face the full darkness and tragedy of life, rather than denying, suppressing or sublimating it. Hope also recognises that the kind of resources needed to achieve transformation in the face of death and suffering go way beyond what human beings alone can muster – which is why, as the Apostle says, only God’s love poured out in our hearts can shape a true hope that does not disappoint.

Nor is this an abstruse theological or intellectual issue. It is also a personal and social one. ‘Where does our true hope lie?’ asks St Paul. It is the evidence of lives he has in mind, not aspirations. In church, the temptation is to mouth soothing words. But we pious few cannot let ourselves off the hook quite so easily. Looking around the world at the moment it is not at all obvious that religion equals hope. On the contrary, religion is very much steeped in suffering – and, moreover, the infliction of suffering by one group of believers (wishers?) on others, often in the name of God.

The twin towers in New York, Israel-Palestine, Rwanda… these are all places where dreams lie fallen and people lie in graves because somebody had a particular kind of hope and decided to take a short cut towards it at somebody else’s expense. They have their equivalents in places where hardened non-religious ideologies have held sway, too.

Recently I have been looking again at the pictures that make up the Methodist Art collection [1], a powerful assemblage of images from some very well recognised modern artists and several lesser-known exponents, too. The promising-yet-dangerous interaction between hope and suffering courses through these beautiful (but far from simply entertaining) pictures and sculptures. [2]

At first we may be attracted to the glorious colours, the life, the energy, the images of food shared, and the many evocative, figurative depictions of human and divine love exchanged. But intertwined with this is something much darker. For what is portrayed also involves hatred, enmity, betrayal, anger, scapegoating, and state execution. Heaven for some can be the path to hell for others. How you see and develop the relationship between these two impulses – life and death, if you will – depends upon your point of view and the kind of person you are. Art, like the Bible, is all about perspective and character. Not just ‘seeing things’, but also the angle we choose (or are trained) to take on things.

According to St Paul, what gives real depth to hope is the death of Jesus Christ. Christians throughout the centuries have agreed with him, and it is no surprise that many of the paintings in the Methodist Art Collection deal with, prefigure or allude to the crucifixion. One stark example is Theyre Lee-Elliott’s ‘Crucified tree form – the agony’. The death of Christ is indelibly imprinted upon Christian experience. It names Christian people and defines their (changed) identity.

When people are baptised – I’m talking here of the conscious, adult experience – they are, symbolically and sacramentally, buried in the waters of death in the hope that they will again rise with Christ. It is this peculiar action of faith that enables Paul to make his extraordinary declaration: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

As I have already made clear, whatever this is, it is not optimism – frivolous wishful thinking. And it is not common sense, the kind of folk wisdom that any of us would come up with if only we put our minds to it. Frankly, it sounds like the opposite of those things: dangerous hope, non-sense. After all, isn’t the root of so much human devastation in the world today the insidious illusion that suffering can be justified, accepted, and even sanctified - if only we baptise it with a little God-talk? If we are to have any possibility of comprehending what the apostle is saying we will need to be very careful to understand what he is not saying.

He is not saying that suffering is good. Or that suffering is OK. Or that suffering should be welcomed in some masochistic sense. Or at least, I am pretty sure he is not. For St Paul, like us, is all-too-human, and as he himself points out elsewhere in his writings, good and bad can get hideously twisted up within us at times. So we have to be especially careful about these distinctions. No, what lies at the heart of his message is the idea that, in the transforming presence of God, even suffering and death cannot obliterate the gift of life – if we develop the right perspective, one informed by the love that flows into us (note the parallel with the waters of death in baptism) through the Holy Spirit.

However, this love that changes things and the way they are seen doesn’t ‘just happen’. Rather, it requires the ‘endurance’ and ‘character’ that Paul talks about – those communal qualities that enable us to resist destructiveness hopefully and love our neighbour (including the one we dislike or fear) faithfully. In the book of Exodus the same sentiment is expressed as a call, echoed in the Christian Testament, for people of faith to be ‘a holy nation’.

The qualities involved in forming a ‘new community’, a better way of life together, are gifts of God. But they also have to be worked at with great effort, by all of us, together. This is so not just in the big issues of life but sometimes with even more difficulty in the small things. Campaigning for the environment is one thing, taking the trouble to re-use, reduce and recycle is another, for instance.

In his sculpture ‘Kingdom Tree’, David Moore has included in the upper hollow of a tree that grows from the mustard seed (echoing Jesus’ famous parable about the way God’s good life grows) a vision of a ‘circle dance of heaven’ involving both contemporary and biblical characters. Moore writes: “The first figure to be carved was the man on crutches – Michael Sheridan, a homeless man – and about the most unpleasant person I have ever met. If there is no room for Michael, there is no room for any of us!”

This is precisely and starkly what the Gospel is about. There is suffering, there is unpleasantness. They are part of the fabric that constitutes the freedom and the terror of life. Without one we could not have the other. But they are to be embraced in love, however difficult that is, not shunned. This is not romanticism. It is hope. And as both the Apostle and the artist know all too well, it comes at a great cost. But it is the only hope worth having. The alternative, you see, is that we seek merely to repel the pain, to expel what is ‘awkward’ or ‘undesirable’ from our midst – just as we are doing with refugees and asylum seekers at the moment.

But the agony and the contradiction will remain, because it cannot be excised without an annihilation that also annihilates us. It can only be transformed. That is what salvation in Christ means. That is why the risen Christ continues to bear the marks of suffering. Anything else would be illusion. In the wonderful diversity of God’s economy of love this point has often been comprehended more readily by artists than by theologians; by those who know they cling to the edges of belief more than by those who claim to be fully in its grasp.

One of the most moving television moments I have ever witnessed was the final television interview with the playwright Dennis Potter. Taking gulps of liquid painkiller just to keep going he was asked about confronting death and about faith. He talked of how, to his immense surprise, the sheer vibrancy and colour of life shone through in the face of its extinction. How the simplicity of a blossom tree seemed almost overwhelming. As for faith, he still wasn’t sure. He disliked institutional beliefs. But he felt something had grasped him in his life and was not letting him go. And besides, he added (and here’s the rub), “I’ve always thought that religion is the wound, not the bandage.”

Take that powerful, puzzling observation and bring it to the extraordinary ‘Crucified tree form’ painting by Lee-Elliott. What do you see first? Most of us, I imagine, find our eye drawn immediately to the black gash across the centre. It doesn’t matter how long you look, this ‘defacement’ will not go away. It is a gaping wound scarring the yellow, sun-like background. It is a wound. Yet at the same time it is also a tree, a cross and a tortured figure. Christ is the wound. He is certainly not a bandage. There is no bandage in this canvas, just a huge weal across the light source, touched by pieces of barbed wire.

Yet as you look further, more perspective develops. The wound is not only about death. Indeed this picture emerged out of the artist’s life-long interest in what he called "the living tree". Moreover, its darkness is also woven into that luminous yellow background, where it is strangely lovely. And behind the anonymity of the crucified you can just detect, I think, the mysterious possibility – I put it no stronger than that – of a face. It is an echo of the divine promise that “all shall have faces”, perhaps ones as permanently full of character and life as those fleetingly portrayed by Charlie Taylor. [3]

Lee-Elliott’s painting is beautiful, it is disturbing, and it is mysterious. Moreover, its tempera and gouache was applied not by a practising Christian but by someone who worked artistically in a way that did not draw him to the gathering places of the faithful – but rather into the struggle between life and death in the world. This, of course, is exactly where Christ was and is. His death resulted from his willingness to embrace the hated 'other' (the Samaritan, the outcast) and from living a life among enemies he refused to kill but instead sought to love. It is for that reason that his wounds give hope. Not because suffering is good, but because when viewed in the light of Christ it points towards a restored, re-made life that is not captive to the forces of death, but rather seeks transformation. It is the art of hoping against hope.

Notes

[1] This article is developed out of a sermon first preached to mark the closure of an art exhibition at St Mark’s Anglican Church, South Norwood, London SE25, from 22 May to 14 June 2002. The exhibition included 38 works from the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art, plus sculptures by David Moore. http://www.methodist.org.uk/artcollection The sermon was based on the following lectionary texts: Exodus 19. 2 – 8; Psalm 100; Matthew 9.35 – 10.8; Romans 5. 1-8.
[2] See ‘Telling our story: woodcarving and sculpture’, by Richard Smith and David Moore, May 2002.
[3] A collection of stark and moving portraiture of members of the congregation by Taylor remained on display at St Mark’s after the exhibition had finished.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. www.simonbarrow.net He introduces the Methodist Art Collection more fully here: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/9704

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