We live between hope and despair, a theme discussed by Claudia Eppert, Sharon Rosenberg, and Roger Simon at great length in their profoundly insightful book Between Hope and Despair. The book is faithful to its title. It holds in tension the concept of hope and despair. After all, can we even have great hope without great despair?
The concept of hope and despair is not foreign to us. In one way or another, we have experienced it and can relate to it. We know the feeling of despair. At times life sucks, and it’s difficult to bounce back from setbacks. But we also know the feeling of hope, few and far between as they are.
The season of Advent is upon us. Advent marks the beginning of the Christmas season by rekindling the messianic expectation. At the heart of Advent is a longing of a messiah – a messiah who will rise above the ashes of despair.
As I think of Advent and the hope it speaks of, I am reminded of the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In Chapter 5, The Grand Inquisitor, Dostoyevsky grapples with the future hope associated with the coming of Christ. The thought that one day, in the future, the Advent of Christ will happen, and Christ will recuperate the people from pain and trouble is seen in a new light.
The story commences with the arrest of a person who alleges to be the messiah. But before the arrest, he works some miracles. He gives sight to the blind, heals the lame, touches the untouchables, and therefore gives hope to the hopeless wondering crowd.
At that particular moment, people start out claiming that he is the one. Our Messiah, our Saviour. He is the one who will save us from the grips of the empire.
At that time, the Grand Inquisitor enters the scene and arrests the Messiah.
Messiah does not resist or reacts but quietly walks away from the crowd with the Grand Inquisitor and soldiers. Messiah is kept in a prison cell. Not a single word comes out of his mouth.
After a while, The Grand Inquisitor enters the prison room. He starts asking questions to the prisoner messiah. In this rather important part of the story the Grand Inquisitor poses some serious questions to the messiah, but again the Messiah holds tightly to his silence; he does not answer a single question.
In the end, The Grand Inquisitor says: why have you come back, we have been living our life, and at least we have been striving to enhance the conditions of human life?
We know that people are not particularly happy, but they have understood it, they have accepted and made peace with their miserable conditions. They know it is their fate, which they must endure without any one’s support.
After a brief silence, the Grand Inquisitor continues: due to your arrival, people will start building hope again. They will hope that their messiah and saviour will take away all the troubles of life. But this time, peoples are not imbecile, they have gone through enough pain, and they have pinned their hope and security in their loved ones. And I tell you, tomorrow, the same people will lynch you and kill you in front of the crowd.
But as usual, Messiah does not speak a word, due to that the Grand Inquisitor is frustrated. The silent messiah was creeping him out. Finally, he controls himself and tells the messiah to go back and leave us in our condition. He tells Messiah never to return, never to come again. Messiah quietly stands up, he looks at the Grand Inquisitor, kisses him, and disappears from the dark prison cell.
For Dostoevsky, this episode is the external expression of concepts he was grappling. A pious Orthodox Christian, Dostoevsky had to grapple with some very unsettling questions about the nature of Christian hope associated with the Advent of Christ. What if Christ truly arrives? Do we realise that his arrival will interfere with our lives, with our hopes, with our dreams? That it may actually cause some disturbance. It has the potential to turn our existing hopes and dreams upside down.
Throughout the centuries, people have hoped for a saviour who would come and rescue them from their misery. Other times they have pinned their hopes on political ideologies. Not to forget that the Enlightenment was supposed to be a perfect programme for human progress. In our own time the marriage between capitalism and liberal democracy is seen as the endpoint in human progress – for example, the End of History, a book by Francis Fukuyama.
I think Dostoevsky conjures up a striking image of Advent and hope associated with it. He informs us that the Advent of Christ is never a straightforward affair. And this shall prompt us – to ask – if we have realized the impact it will have if Christ is really to arrive? It will actually interfere with our lives. Our lives will never be the same again. It would change our reality in ways that we cannot even fathom. What if the Advent of Christ turns our greatest hopes into deepest despair?
Dostoevsky was grappling with these existential questions amid political struggle. He was not interested in bland optimism or feeble compromises. I believe that for him hope was more about possibilities, not certainties. He knew too well how quickly our most sincere dreams, when realised, could turn into nightmare.
I wonder if Adorno and Horkheimer were mindful of this inherent tension between hope and despair when they wrote: “I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.”