In the midst of home confinement and stringent guidelines to limit the spread of a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus, we were all left wondering if life will ever return to any semblance of normalcy. The deep-seated dread gnawing at our insides is not just a symptom of fear due to the menacing virus threatening our families and communities, but can also be attributed to the disconcerting feelings associated with the unknown. We take pleasure in forecasting a good and thriving future, but by the same token, life reminds us that we are susceptible to all sorts of setbacks and terrible misfortunes. Who could have ever imagined that life as we know it would undergo such radical disruption, giving rise to a whole new way of living and interacting with one another? There was no form of clairvoyance or extrasensory perception that could have given us a heads-up to what was coming straight at us around this time last year.

 In addition to the coronavirus, 2020 witnessed the massive explosion of social unrest sparked by another killing of a black man at the hands of police. A video capturing the brutal death of George Floyd of Minneapolis triggered a global outcry against the enduring evil of white supremacy and systemic racism. The year 2020 also saw one of the most contentious and highly controversial U.S. presidential elections in modern history, which may or may not have lasting deleterious effects on American democracy and around the globe. All things considered, 2020 was a year shrouded in uncertainties and marked by calamitous events. Ruben Alves writes that “when we are assured that tomorrow, in the natural order of events, will be better than today, we can enjoy ourselves in peace.”[1] It gives us comfort to think that while the future is uncertain and veiled in obscurity, it will mostly mirror the present order and structural arrangements. The notion that the landscape of the world to come is easily imagined as reflecting present tendencies and organized around familiar patterns gives us a deep sense of security.[2] The ironic allusion to “perfect vision,” clarity defined in terms of optimal visual acuity exemplifies some of the clever metaphors used to describe the beginning of the year 2020—characteristically a year of sagacious decisions and luminous foresight. But as news began hitting the airwaves with reports of a highly contagious virus surging in Wuhan, China—the letters on the Snellen chart suddenly seemed out of focus.  

The coronavirus pandemic has not only claimed the lives of over a million people across the world, of which the United States accounts for nearly a quarter of the total amount, but has managed to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into what some consider the smooth-moving and finely tuned market economy. Coupled with the existential threat of a deadly pandemic, most people living in the United States are grappling with the inefficiency and the unreliability of the market economy. Many believe that a strong and reliable economy reinforces our faith in the system that always provides and assures us that no matter what may come our way, the ability of the economy to sustain and keep us moving forward will never waver. The faith and hope in the ineluctable logic and all-prevailing nature of the market economy will carry us through and secure the future. But for who? And what do we make of this unrestrained and rampant anarcho-capitalism, which envisages the radicalization of neoliberal economic practices whereby the poor get poorer and the rich keep getting richer—not to mention the harmful impact on the planet.

The Coronavirus amid the swell of racial injustice and political unrest might be “ushering in a wholly new world as the consequence of the ending of an old world.”[3] Thomas Altizer’s notion of apocalypticism describes it best: “The violent and disruptive transformations, increasingly global in their reach, that have constituted our actual history; as such they have fissured and transformed not only our common history but ourselves, our core identities, and not only our core identities but that which we knew and identified as God.”[4] These extraordinary events that are now inscribed in the year 2020 have challenged, destabilized, and even undermined some of our deeply held beliefs and notions about the way in which we conduct ourselves in the world.

“Hope is woven into the very fabric of Christianity, a fundamental virtue that along with faith raises us up from the cruelties and tribulations of life to the prospect of a new day.”

The stable and secure social schemas no longer seem to withstand the demands of our time, it raises questions about how they will meet the challenges ahead. The religious landscape, especially in the United States, is seemingly undergoing changes at a rapid pace and taking on noticeable new patterns and irregular forms of expression. As we anticipate a different and new world resulting from these life-altering events, theology will make possible an ultimate language that not only “confronts but blesses our most ultimate ground.”[5] In other words, it must be ready to articulate the new by becoming ever fully messianic and divest itself from the timelessness that keeps it anesthetized and frozen in time.    

To speak of hope is to walk a fine line between a romanticized and illusory concept, highly discredited by the horrific events that have plagued our world, and the ability to muster a strong and confident expectation for what lies ahead. In a world plagued by ecological devastation, deadly viruses, the resurgence of authoritarianism and white supremacy, violence brought about by neoliberal economic practices and ongoing wars, it is no wonder why people find it utterly impossible to remain hopeful. Hope has certainly lost its potency amid all the pain and suffering that surrounds us. Hopeful thinking, by many accounts, is considered naïve and unrealistic, no longer offering a plausible way to envision the future. However, to be Christian is never a done deal or a finished fact, but an ongoing struggle, a matter of persevering despite the hardships and deadlocks in life. It means that we fight the good fight, run the good race, and stand firm in the midst of a turbulent climate. Hope is woven into the very fabric of Christianity, a fundamental virtue that along with faith raises us up from the cruelties and tribulations of life to the prospect of a new day. Christianity is effectively future oriented, always expectant, hoping, and anticipating the advent of what or who is to come. In the theological sense hope is tied to the messianic, which awaits the time when the truth we believe to be God is manifested.[6] This messianic truth, or the truth disclosure is not a one-time future occurrence where God reveals God-self in absolute terms, but rather multiple moments of radical receptivity —“moments when one abandons all inherited certainties, assumptions, and expectations in order to open oneself to the radical surprise, and trauma of the incoming Other.”[7] This moment of radical receptivity is what Jacques Derrida termed as the universal messianic structure.

The messianic signals the reversal of the powers that be, which claim to offer order and clear perspective (perfect vision), pretending it has everything figured out and lined up well for whatever the future may bring. The in-breaking of the messianic event shatters the horizon of expectations and confounds the logic of the world. Richard Kearney puts it succinctly: “The messianic exists before us as the possibility that lies ahead of us. It heralds the one who comes before and after every “god” we presume to possess, the sacred stranger who is always in front of us, always to come.”[8] Messianic hope involves waiting without a clear vista of expectation and no ability to foreknow what is to come. This kind of hope requires radical openness and readiness to declare a solemn yes to the sacred stranger that arrives unannounced—“at an unexpected hour.”[9] This radical yes is what the Jewish and Christian tradition refer to as hospitality, the “undecidable openness to the incoming stranger, whoever it may be.”[10]  Or in the words of Derrida, “I say ‘come,’ ‘enter,’ whoever you are, and whatever your name, your language, your sex, your species may be, be you human, animal, or divine.”[11] There is no guarantee that the incoming visitor will never pose a threat. In fact, Derrida said the “newcomer may be good or evil, but if you exclude the possibility that the newcomer is coming to destroy your house, if you want to control this and exclude this terrible possibility in advance, there is no hospitality.” This unexpected newcomer, he concludes, “like the Messiah, must arrive whenever he or she wants.”[12] This is not a comforting prospect, especially when the logic of the world advises against letting our guard down and maintaining a careful distance from the other.

The more commonplace understanding of hope anticipates a future that can be extrapolated from our present desires and expectations, whereas messianic hope views the future as an open field of possibilities, of trusting that what is to come is unconditionally good, even when it is not. In Moltmann’s terms, anticipation for the future cannot be extrapolated from the present or from the past because “extrapolations do not treat the future as an open field of the possible; they see it as a reality already determined by past and present.”[13] Messianic hope is a risk, wager, or a leap of faith as Kierkegaard describes it. Anticipating the advent of the sacred stranger is attunement to the coming of a new creation – a new heaven and a new earth.

The sudden intrusion of an unexpected phenomenon into our comfortable, stable, and orderly lives is an unsettling prospect; and yet, that seems to be the current state affairs. Messianic hope does not offer visual clarity and lucid explanations for the future, it is not in the business of replicating the existing reality for a future time, but “to lead existing reality towards the promised and hope-for transformation.”[14] The world is not yet finished or complete, but still in an ongoing process of creation and re-creation, directed at a novum ultimum, towards a new creation where all things become new.[15]  Hope, in the messianic sense, is driven by the desire for the Messiah to come, the sacred stranger whose arrival unsettles for the sake of the new. Come, Lord Jesus, we pray. “Thy kingdom come!” Our prayer is a resounding and solemn yes to the unfolding new.    

[1] Rubem A. Alves, Tomorrow’s Child: Imagination, Creativity, and the Rebirth of Culture (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011), 25.

[2] Alves, Tomorrow’s Child, 26.

[3] Thomas J.J. Altizer, “Apocalypticism and Modern Thinking,” Journal for Christian Theological Research 2, no.2 (1997): 1-27. 

[4] Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Call to Radical Theology (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012), xx.

[5] Altizer, The Call to Radical Theology, 11.

[6] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 20.

[7] Richard Kearney, “Derrida and Messianic Atheism,” in The Trace of God: Derrida and Religion, ed. Edward E. Baring and Peter E. Gordon (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 201.

[8] Richard Kearney, Anatheism Returning to God after God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 54.

[9] Matthew 24:44

[10] Kearney, “Derrida and Messianic Atheism,” 202.  

[11] Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 138-39.

[12]  Jacques Derrida, “Hospitality, Justice and Responsibility,” in Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Continental Philosophy, ed. Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley (London: Routledge, 1998), 77-78.

[13] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 134.

[14] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 18.

[15] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 33-34.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

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