Hope
May 17, 2019

When I was in high school (a private, Christian high school), we sang a song in choir that I loved called “Oh, How Can I Keep From Singing?” by Robert A. Harris. I could only find about two recordings of it on YouTube, and here’s the better one. And here are the lyrics:

My life flows on in endless song
    above earth's lamentation.
I hear the real though far-off hymn
    that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm;
    I hear the music ringing:
It sounds and echoes in my soul—
    oh, how can I keep from singing?
What, though the tempest 'round me roars?
    I know the truth; it liveth!
What, though the darkness 'round me falls?
    Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm;
    I hear the music ringing:
Since Love is Lord of heav'n and earth,
    oh, how can I keep from singing?

I still think it’s a beautiful song; some of the harmonies are quite haunting, and I’m a sucker for Picardy thirds approached step-wise. 😀

It actually took me a while to hunt down this recording; I couldn’t remember who the composer was, and there are many different settings of the original text and many arrangements of the original hymn. As I was trawling through a billion YouTube recordings of the other settings, I noticed that they were all, well ... shallow and irritating, to be honest. Most of them were in major keys with moderate or fast tempos. There was even some syncopation! (*clutches pearls*) Admittedly, the Harris version was the first setting of the text I ever encountered, so it’s quite natural that my opinion of what an “appropriate” setting of the text should sound like was inevitably shaped by him. However, I found even in my last few years in Christianity that “happy” songs rarely fit my experience. Life, as the Buddhists say, is suffering. If you believe that there’s an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God out there who has your best interests at heart, who’ll lift up the oppressed and punish the oppressors, and who’ll save you from death by whisking you off to eternity in paradise with him after you die, then of course you have something to be happy about. But that doesn’t negate the fact that our experiences while we’re living can be quite close to the popular image of hell: eternal conscious torment. And, as C.S. Lewis said, sometimes loss is real; sometimes, things get lost in such a way that even God can’t or won’t bring them back, and they’re simply gone forever. Harris’ minor setting of the song captures some of that suffering and loss in a way that other settings don’t. I’m not saying that all happy songs need to be minor, but I do think that songs that purport to examine the totality of experience shouldn’t be flippant or blasé about the actual state of things.

Well, anyway, you know that I’m agnostic about religion, so I’m no longer able to share in the Christian feeling of hope, a hope built on “the real though far-off hymn that hails a new creation” and “the truth” that “liveth” and the fact that “Love is Lord of heav’n and earth” — which sucks because it’s nevertheless still the case that “the tempest ‘round me roars” and “the darkness ‘round me falls.” I don’t really want to dive into the details right now lest my blood boil out my ears, but I’m quite convinced that the world is on the brink of a handful of catastrophes. Between climate destabilization, Trump and other aspiring fascists, the upcoming American constitutional crisis and possible civil war, Brexit and other populist movements around the globe, the breakdown of nuclear arms treaties, antibiotic resistance and potential pandemics, etc., we seem to be barrelling towards a variety of existential crises as quickly as we possibly can. I would love to have some hope right now of the kind Christians feel, the kind of hope not based in circumstances but based on something fixed and eternal. I’ve talked to some friends about my fears, and they’ve said things like, “Well, we have to hope that Republicans will eventually do the right thing,” or “Well, the 2020 election is coming up soon; maybe we’ll vote them out of office.” But what happens if Republicans continue forever down their current path of treason, corruption, and authoritarianism? What happens if we lose all the 2020 elections? “Well, at least we’ll have another shot in 2024 ... “ No! That’s not good enough for me! I need a hope that’s not conditional! If my hope, and therefore my sanity, is contingent upon what’s going on right now, then I might as well go ahead and embrace despair and madness. Robert Wadsworth Lowry, the man who wrote the original hymn, seemed to feel that he had hope regardless of what was going on around him, that even though darkness was falling and a storm was roaring around him, he felt a calm and a joy and an assurance that nothing could ultimately harm him. Christians often quote from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, which expresses a similar sentiment:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 8:35-39 (NRSV)

It would be wonderful if there was a secular version of this. The closest thing I’ve yet found is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quote (which was a paraphrasing of a snippet from a sermon by Theodore Parker [source]), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But even that can’t really bear the weight that I want it to bear. For King and Parker, that claim was true because it was a principle derived from the Bible. But because I can’t perform the same derivation, I have to view the claim as being empirical. And because it’s an empirical claim and because we haven’t seen the entirety of history yet, we can’t know with any kind of certainty that the claim is true. The best we can say is that, in some cases, goodness wins over badness; in some cases, justice is done.

But here’s the closest I can get to hope right now: humans are the cause of an absolutely unbelievable amount of suffering in the world — but they’re also the cause of a good amount of the joy in the world. Whether one amount is greater than the other either now or in the future, I don’t know. I tend to be a pessimist on that point, but I’m also skeptical that my perception of the world is accurate. I wish I could have certainty that humans would, in the end, cause greater amounts of joy than of pain, but I simply have no way of being certain. But that’s it. That’s all I’ve got to cling to at the moment. It’s not much, and it’s not fixed and eternal, but I’ve got to find some source of hope or I’ll lose my everloving mind.

What about you? Do you have any sources of hope that feel sturdy and reliable to you irrespective of circumstances? If so, then I’d like to hear about them. Feel free to email me if you’d like to pass along some comments or questions. Thanks for reading!