Hope Springs Eternal
“Hope springs eternal” has been a commonly utilized phrase practically since Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man was completed in 1734. The poem itself took him two years to finish and it was intended to be the first in a four-part series which he didn’t live to complete; intended as a proposed system of ethics in poetic form. The full couplet reads: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is, but always To be blest. The soul, uneasy, and confin'd from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come.” According to David Coty, Associate Professor of English at Hartwick College, Pope was trying to show that even in the apparent complexity and imperfection of the Universe, there is a rational system that follows natural laws and is a whole and perfect work of God. It only looks imperfect to us because of our limitations as human beings – less than angels and more than beasts – we hover in a middle ground. For Pope, there is a divinely ordered plan that we can only perceive in small part and so we are left to hope as a source. All the things we covet are in fact worthless in this grander scheme and we must simply strive for good. It is, at once, a plea for hopefulness while at the same time elicited in a tone of hopelessness. He was a conflicted man. Pope writes in the midst of the Enlightenment Era, the Age of Reason, where humankind began to believe that we could accomplish and overcome most anything by the power of our minds. He writes in response to this trend suggesting that although we think ourselves quite capable, there is only so much we can uncover on our own. There is a much vaster plan afoot and no matter how hard we try it will always hold sway over our imaginings. We are not in control and so we hold onto hope, trusting in the mystery of the universe, never fully understanding it all. Just the other morning as I sat down to write, Chuck noticed from the kitchen that it was raining and said he hadn’t been counting on that. I pointed to the science – that it had been predicted, using my reasoning mind, but he was apparently counting on hope in order to get himself outside and do some yardwork! We do it all the time! In our reading this morning, Camus expresses the idea that each of us has a role to play in the awakening of hope through our actions which have the power to overcome the implications of history. Regardless of what comes our way, whether good or bad, we have our agency with which to build the future for ourselves and others. Our hope is in our ability to shift the tide. This more humanistic approach runs counter to Pope’s belief that life is predestined, and that we should hope in the beneficence of its Creator. That second line – Man never Is, but always To be blest - speaks to me of our propensity to dissatisfaction with life as we know it; to our constant striving and our attempts to control in order to be blessed. Pope implies that blessing is always a future tense sort of thing for us, just beyond our reach and so we are forever in a state of moving toward. And this is fine except that we do so quite fiercely sometimes, wearing ourselves out to get to the promised land. Hope, in Pope’s mind, creates in us a faithfulness if we can settle into it; trust something greater than we
might ever be; admit that we won’t ever have all the answers; that there is an order to the cosmos. For those of us who don’t believe in anything such thing, hope has to land in a different way – back to humanity to decipher and solve and propel. And for some, this is, admittedly, a welcome challenge! There is a tension within us as individuals, too – that head v. heart thing that happens, as if it always had to be one or the other. Some of us have managed to strike a balance between all science and all emotion, but they do seem to want to battle it out inside of us – perhaps the ego’s need to control. We see it in our congregations also. Members lean more toward Humanism or Mysticism or Theism – no shortage of “isms” to explore - and then are confronted with an alternative idea popping up from within and we may not be sure what to do with it. We live in tension – in paradox – all the time. Embracing ‘both/and’ thinking frees us to enjoy the journey. It allows us to loosen our grip on where our hope is placed, trusting it will land where it serves us best in the moment. People will indeed come through for us. The rhythm of life can be counted upon. Not necessarily at odds with each other, these beliefs. Today is the first full day of spring, having passed the vernal equinox yesterday at 5:37 a.m. So, it has been a full cycle of seasons since we have been together in this space where I stand; the wheel of the year turning through four quarters to return us to yet another new beginning. We can say that there is an order to this phenomenon; certainly one that we did not create, but one that has evolved out of time before time was counted. We accept the science in this naturalistic frame of reference, believing that it can be relied upon. We see ourselves and our world as emergent from it and part of the ongoing cycle of life. A religious naturalist receives this core narrative and finds in it a potential for “developing interpretive, spiritual and ethical responses to the story,” according to Professor of Biology Emerita at Washington University in St. Louis, Ursula Goodenough, who first proposed the paradigm, suggesting that one engages alone and with others in such a process of discovery and experience. She, too, offers a framework for us to place our hope in, one that combines both the underlying science and its implications in the ongoing tale that is our living. If a particular discovery is found to be true – say that these new vaccines are 95% effective against the Corona Virus, what does that mean for us? How are our spirits affected? Does it render us hopeful? What are the ethical considerations associated with vaccinating folks on our little spit of land, in our state, our nation, the wider globe? The science and the spirit go hand in hand in interpreting what develops. Whatever we choose to trust as individuals and as a community of faith – whether you are of the mind that humanity has proven itself worthy of our placing hope in it – or if you believe there is a grander scheme or order to the cosmos beyond our reach – or if you happily dance on the line between the two, possessed of a knowing that life has its cycles and we have our part in moving them forward – hope springs eternal. When we truly embody that which guides us, hope springs forth from our hearts and our hands. We have a confidence in what comes next. I am aware that this is our 25th year in this place – imagine that! Imagine what our founders were thinking – hoping – when they made the brave decision to make a permanent home for our special contributions to Unitarian Universalism. Some of you are with us today and we are so grateful for the hope you had back then! We are poised to come through this liminal time with so much hope if we allow ourselves to lean into it, balancing what we know in our heads with what we experience in our hearts; believing in the power of our actions and the cyclical nature of the Universe to work together for good; cradling the sacred potential of UUMH out before us in our hands and nurturing it with our love for this faith, this community and this spiritual home.
May it be so and Blessed be.