Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4: 16-18, NIV)
There’s a new hermeneutic about. It’s called ‘I don’t think this means what you think it means’. I’ve noticed it popping up online, though usually in relation to misuse of language, rather than to biblical passages. I may indeed be the first to apply it to the Bible. On the other hand, it may just be a new version of the good old ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, which is always worth trying out.
Be that as it may, I received an email recently from the Henri Nouwen Society, to whose daily reflections I subscribe, and it was on the above passage. Here’s what the late great Henri Nouwen had to say on it:
Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things-the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on-will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.
All the great spiritual leaders in history were people of hope. Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Mary, Jesus, Rumi, Gandhi, and Dorothy Day all lived with a promise in their hearts that guided them toward the future without the need to know exactly what it would look like. Let’s live with hope.
Now it’s not exactly that I disagree with Nouwen here. There is a difference between optimism and hope, and it does have to do with trusting in God’s intention to fulfil God’s promises. But where I find what he has said inadequate, is this: he associates optimism with an expectation that things will get better in concrete terms: the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation. Yet when he turns to hope, he associates it with some abstract condition called ‘true freedom’. By so doing, he implies that true hope, hope in the fulfilment of God’s promises, has nothing to do with ‘the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation’.
Yet if you look at the people he cites as examples of true hope, their hope had absolutely everything to do with conditions in this concrete world. Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Mary, Jesus, Gandhi, Dorothy Day (I don’t know enough about Rumi to say) all spoke out about their hope for a transformed world where human relationships, the economy, the political situation would be changed for the better (and the weather too, insofar as climate change is a justice issue…). The fulfilment of God’s promises has enormous relevance to all these areas, not just to some afterlife where something undefined called ‘true freedom’ reigns.
So Henri Nouwen, much as I love your work, I do not think this passage means what you think it means. The ‘things that are unseen’ are not to do with some ‘spiritual realm’ detached from concrete conditions in this world. What Paul meant by ‘what is unseen’, I believe, is precisely the justice, peace, equality, food and shelter for all, that we do not yet see in this world, but which we will see on ‘the Day of the Lord’. The ‘unseen’ does not pertain to some heaven far away, but to this very material world, which God so loved that he gave his Son. The only difference between the optimist and those with hope, is that those with hope know that God’s transformation of the world is assured.