A false virtue
Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew within a month that he had made a mistake. Arriving in New York in 1939 to accept a position at Union Seminary, he wrote to a friend: “I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.” Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to help the Jews flee Nazi persecution, crediting his resolve to an ancient virtue. With rear view mirrors, we can see it… and appreciate why optimism is a false virtue.
Bonhoeffer spoke of the good virtue when he returned briefly to New York in 1941. He was appalled to find “Protestantism without the Reformation” and said that only in “the Negro churches” did he hear the missing Reformation piece – “the final hope.”1 As far back as the 1940s, the idea of biblical hope as an ancient virtue was disappearing.
Hope is a unique virtue in the Christian faith because it “does not disappoint” (Rom. 5:5). “Disappoint” comes from two words – dis (to negate) and appoint (to see what is going to happen). Disappointment is when your vision for the future fails to materialize. Hope is never so foolish as to dispense confident visions about the “here and now.” Visions involve seeing – optical – that make people optimistic. But optimism is a false virtue, writes Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School. It “does not pay attention to truth.”2
The truth is that we cannot see what will happen tomorrow (James 4:14). Yet “vision casting” does this very thing – all the while being relentlessly upbeat and perpetually positive (ever hear a vision for a church falling apart at the seams?). The Bible begs to differ. In Hebrews 11, half the people soar in this life, the other half are sawn in two.
“Vision casting” breeds optimism that nurtures starry-eyed idealists who are disappointed when their dreams die. Disappointment then sours into cynicism, which Oscar Wilde defined as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Whew – no wonder optimism is a false virtue! This is why God is never disappointed. When things go awry, God is grieved. In Genesis 6:6, for example, he was grieved over the spreading stain of sin. This means there’s a whopping difference between disappointment and grieving. When the unforeseen happens, believers can grieve, yet with hope (I Thess. 4:13-18) because hope does not disappoint. We’ve forgotten this.
The Enlightenment hooked us on a drug called progress in this life, which is why George Orwell said that futurism is the major mental disease of our time. We might fudge the facts by saying “vision casting” is nothing more than a “preferred future.” In reality, it’s optimism – just like the hundreds of Chinese shipped in to the Beijing Olympics when attendance fell below forecasts. They wore yellow shirts inscribed with “Cheering From Beijing Workers.” Failed visions make it hard to face reality.
Boston University professor Peter Berger warns that whoever slurps up Enlightenment ideas had better have a long spoon. He “will found his spoon getting shorter and shorter – until the last supper in which he is left alone at the table, with no spoon at all and an empty plate.”3 The empty plate is crushing disappointment from failed visions. Real progress, wrote C. S. Lewis, is made when we resist ideas such as vision casting.4
Vision is a biblical idea – but not the way we use it today. Our rendition is more about motivating people and managing the church. The pastor imparting vision “hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries,” writes Eugene Peterson.5 Earlier Christians believed vision had to do with a person, not a plan – as the old hymn reads: “Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart; Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.” They believed in hope “as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast” (Heb. 6:19). They taught that “without a vision, the people perish” – Proverbs 29:18 – meant a lack of the guiding power of wisdom derived from good teaching.6 It had nothing to do with “vision casting.”
This is why Bonhoeffer highlighted the Negro churches’ emphasis on hope. Four years later, on April 7th, 1945, Bonhoeffer and a group of other prisoners celebrated Easter with a short service. He read from 1 Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Bonhoeffer was then taken back to the notorious concentration camp Flossenbürg, where on the night of April 8th, he was arraigned, convicted, condemned to death, and in the gray dawn of the following morning, April 9th, was executed by hanging. The camp was liberated days later.
Christians are to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (I Pet. 3:15). If no one is asking you for the reason, perhaps you’ve lost your rear view mirrors. It’s not difficult to reattach them and become hopeful as “a way of avoiding disappointment,” Bonhoeffer wrote. It’s why “wise people condemn optimism.”7 With rear view mirrors, you’ll caution others against optimism as a false virtue but commend hope as a true one.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. N. H. Smith (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1978), pp. 279-280.
2 Stanley Hauerwas and Thomas Shaffer, “Hope Faces Power: Thomas More and the King of England,” Christian Existence Today: Essays on the Church, World and Living in Between (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1988), pp. 200-201.
3 Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Anchor, 1970), p. 22.
4 Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life & Works (New York, NY, HarperCollins, 1998), p. 607.
5 Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 1.
6 Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 446.
7 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, First Touchstone Edition, 1997), p. 15.