Guest post by Julie Neraas, Hamline University, St. Paul
If faith puts us on the road, hope keeps us there. – Wm. Sloane Coffin
Two things keep most of us going. The first is faith – or trust – that life has meaning and purpose. The second is hope: the staying power to keep following our sense of meaning and purpose. Hope is the sense of a way forward. It’s the sense that things will work out, that there are resources to draw upon when problems arise. And, if the problem won’t go away, hope tells us there will be a way to work with it. Together, faith and hope comprise the architecture of self as surely as beams support basic structure of a home. Even when we don’t feel particularly faithful or hopeful, I believe faith and hope can still be alive in us.
Can a person have hope without faith? Yes, if by faith we mean specifically religious faith. But I’m afraid that if faith is defined as trust in the ultimate character of reality, then the answer is no. I believe it is difficult to find hope if we have no confidence that life has meaning, or if everything seems haphazard and without direction. Faith is so much more than belief. Faith includes the stories, rituals, relationships, spiritual practices, commitments and experiences that give life meaning.
One of the most compelling understandings of faith comes from Hindu literature, in the word sraddha. Sraddha literally means “placing one’s heart on.” Or, as Sharon Parks says in her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, faith is “the ongoing composing of the heart’s true resting place.” Faith is determining, again and again, what is worthy enough to be at the core of our very being.
Sooner or later, just about everyone crashes into the rocks of some challenge or crisis that threatens both our hope and our faith. We feel shipwrecked and forced to redraw our maps. During this daunting process of rediscovery, we learn to integrate new experience and understandings. The end result is often that our faith and hope mature. Sometimes when I’m giving spiritual direction, people will tell me they feel as though they’re “losing the faith.” But often it seems to me that they haven’t lost their faith so much as that their faith is changing. Faith and hope both need to change and grow throughout the challenges of life or they would not be a worthy faith or a mature hope.
I have come to think of faith and hope as living, pulsing realities that ebb and flow with life. Some days we are given to faith, some days we are not. Perhaps five days of the week we feel hopeful for the world, and two days we do not. This understanding helps us see faith and hope are ideals that must be rigidly clung to, but human virtues that change and grow.
One of the people I admire most is Vaclav Havel, the former President of Czechoslovakia. He believed that, sometimes, finding meaning trumps particular outcomes. In his book Disturbing the Peace, he wrote the following while in prison for his political convictions:
Hope is not the belief that everything will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
So hope, like faith, is not an iron clad certainty, but the energy and imagination to work toward a dream, a goal or a vision. Neither faith nor hope can lift the burdens of life, but together they give us the courage and energy to carry them more easily.
Julie Neraas is the author of Apprenticed to Hope: A Sourcebook for Difficult Times. She is an ordained minister, spiritual director and associate professor at Hamline University and speaks regularly about hope – where it can guide you, how it can sustain you and what meaning it can bring to your life. For more information visit www.julieneraas.com.