Anthony Kelly, appiah, hope

On Hope and Change

I’ve been reading Anthony Kelly’s work Eschatology and Hope. While reading my thoughts have been pushed in a direction I did not anticipate, although the place is very familiar. But first a quote:

Optimism is no bad thing in itself. It is a kind of implicit confidence that things are going well in the present situation. Optimism may be simply a feature of temperament expressing itself in a spontaneous logic: we can manage and cope in a world that is reasonably predictable. Optimism is happy enough with the system. In contrast, genuine hope is always “against hope.” It begins where optimism reaches the end of its tether. Hope stirs when the secure system shows signs of breaking down. Hope is at home in the world of the unpredictable where no human logic or expectation is in control. It rejects any assurances of pretending to manage what in fact intrinsically resists management. It relies on something that comes from outside the system. (pg. 5)

I’m a bit of an anarchist, but not really. Perhaps a social anarchist, but I’d like to think I’m really just a Christian who is constantly understanding my identity within God’s basileia and that can look awfully anarchistic. I consciously knew this going into the book, with those thoughts already mulling around in my mind, but upon reading the quote above, I realized – again for the umpteenth time – that it is Christian hope that re-orients us. The source of our alternative way of being is faith, it is hope, it is love.

Hope challenges us and challenges the system; hope is prophetic. And so, if something lacks hope, it seems to lack the innate quality of change and flourishing. Altering hope, to an American hope, makes us docile because we lose our prophetic nature. Comfortability and apathy is born from a boring and inept hope. Our hope is cut short and therefore our force to change is crippled. This is perhaps the largest reason for why I had little love for Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers by Kwame Anthony Appiah when I read it this past fall semester.

Appiah puts forth a philosophy for a relational existence that he calls Cosmopolitanism. He defines Cosmopolitanism through two chief concerns: “obligation to others” (which can extend to all of humanity) and to “take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (xv). This is all well and good. In fact I would agree with these two ideas as a Christian, and one does not need to be a secular humanist to do so (if that is indeed what he is – I have a sinking suspicion that he is); however, Appiah goes little beyond his thesis. Granted this book is a constructive work insomuch that draws categorical boundaries, but at the same time, the work lacks a force for change. This is to say, his thesis goes nowhere and my answer to him is “So?”

Appiah touts values often, even outlining Levitical law as value, but rarely, if at all, seems to talk about the morals under girding the values (56). In fact, there is little prophetic or constructive about this book outside of his thesis. Largely the book functions as a deconstructive work, stating what we should not say or do or be, but he gives little imagination to what he argues for. He does have a few points, but by and large it is a rudimentary skeleton that says, “Who cares how we agree, it is just important that we do” and then the four points just over ten pages from the end of the book (97, 163-166). Simply put, Appiah lacks teeth. His thesis is mundane. Where is the force or drive to change or care? He admits the challenge on page 153 but goes nowhere with it in substance.

I find it interesting that I, by his description on pages 137-138, could be a Muslim fundamentalist, but I am neither a Muslim nor a fundamentalist. I simply disagree that the state is savior; instead, I have a strong ecclesiology. Not surprisingly, Appiah soon touts the myth of state as savior and ends the book asserting, that “the primary mechanism for ensuring these entitlements remains the nation-state” (141, 163). Despite that Appiah couches this argument mostly in relation to Muslims (particularly violent Muslims and sometimes other “fundamentalists”), it is really an argument for the state and the status quo. This is name-calling and a straw person argument by equating those who identify more with a different social body with what Appiah calls a violent, Muslim or Christian fundamentalism. He names me wrongly.

In fact, Appiah is guilty of what he accuses counter-cosmopolitans. “Join us, the counter-cosmopolitans say, and we will all be sisters and brothers. But each of them plans to trample on our differences—to trample us to death, if necessary—if we will not join them” (145). However, the status quo and the state are just this way, but this is not seen because we are already born into the system. If I resist the state and status quo, they respond with oppressive force, even to death.

In the end, Appiah does not seem to have teeth in his argument to challenge Cosmopolitans onward; he is not prophetic because he argues for the status quo and therefore renames the status quo as Cosmopolitans. Those who reject Appiah are counter-cosmopolitans and for whom he has little love, calling them fundamentalists. I call the counter-cosmopolitans prophetic and people who at least live a philosophy with teeth (if it is indeed a philosophy, as opposed to an entire way of life). If Appiah’s work were translated into pop Christian culture it would be in direct competition with other equally unhelpful and individualistic philosophies like Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez – an upper class (or white) gospel of wealth.

To avoid Appiah’s or Wilkinson’s stagnant ethics, hope must be revived. To heal the church, Christian hope must be reunderstood.

For any depressive system freezes our capacity to relate, to desire, and to act. God’s gift in Christ means a new way of relating to others. For all are called to the one communion of life….

Love and hope inspire new capacities to act. Patience, kindness, and courage to endure what must be patiently suffered become possible….

The church exists in history to be the space of hope in the world. As that part of the world that has awakened to the plenitude of the divine promise, it expresses not only hope in the world but an unconditional hope for the world. In this regard, the church is the community of those who have a sense of a future so full of promise, so absolute, that nothing and no one is excluded (Kelly, 12-13).


One thought on “On Hope and Change

  1. Pingback: More Quick Impressions of Carter’s Work « flying.farther

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