As the cultural influence of evangelical Christianity in the West wanes, the lack of consensus among evangelicals about their own identity grows. In this paper, I will propose that evangelicals need a more robust theological, biblical, and Christological account of hope that will, in turn, inform an ecclesiology centered on the living Word. Toward that end, I will briefly visit Jürgen Moltmann’s theology of hope, the apostle Paul’s great Christ-hymn in Colossians, James Cone’s reflections on Christ and hope, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christology of Jesus as the living Word. I will close by suggesting a doxological and ecclesiological path forward for an evangelical theology of hope.
In her book The Politics of Evangelical Identity, Lydia Bean documents the historical alignment of evangelicalism with the political right and describes the battle for self-definition now taking place within this religiocultural group.1 Having grown accustomed to thinking of themselves as a “majority,”2 many evangelicals are reeling from political decisions such as Obergefell v. Hodges,3 which they believe challenged the centrality of “traditional” morality or “natural” law in the United States. The controversy surrounding the dismissal of Larycia Hawkins from Wheaton College4 and the overwhelming support among evangelicals for the candidacy of Donald Trump5 suggests the presence of a growing anxiety among evangelicals about their theological identity and the political identity of the nation to which they pledge allegiance. While a minority of evangelicals tends to align with the political left, among such groups similarly fearful rhetoric about the future of America is not uncommon.6 Many evangelicals find themselves between hope and fear.
In his classic text Psychology and Hope, C. R. Snyder defines hope as a combination of willpower and waypower directed toward the achievement of a concrete goal.7 For Snyder, willpower, or “determination and commitment,” must be accompanied by waypower, or “mental capacity,” toward the achievement of a clearly defined objective.8 For Snyder, the goal of hope is any object or outcome that a human “wants” or “desires.”9 Snyder distinguishes this understanding of hope from “optimism,” which he understands as lacking the component of “planning” that would qualify it as authentic hope.10 For Snyder, where human will and capacity are combined with clearly articulated and achievable desire, hope is found.
According to this psychological understanding of hope, evangelicals do not seem to have a reasonable ground for hope. Many of the clearly defined goals of this movement, whether world evangelization or moral political reform, do not appear imminent. Likewise, the ability and capacity of evangelicals to plan for the achievement of said goals has not yet been apparent. Snyder claims that self esteem is a “byproduct of how effective we are in the pursuit of goals.”11 If that is the case, then evangelicals have every reason to be experiencing a crisis of identity. That such a well-documented identity crisis does, in fact, exist suggests that evangelicals’ understanding of hope is more secular than theological.12 Snyder’s humanist definition of hope, built as it is on desire and capacity and devoid of a divine referent, can be read as functionally atheist. It is a psychology that thrives in modern capitalism or what Daniel Bell calls “the economy of desire.”13 Ironically evangelicals have by and large ordered their ecclesial polities and practices according to the political and economic constructs of free-market neoliberalism. When the body politic is understood as a voluntary collection of mutually consenting autonomous moral subjects14 whose inalienable human rights involve the “pursuit of happiness”15 and who are locked in relationships of economic competition, hope cannot but be understood as constrained by human capacity and directed toward self-interested ends. In contrast, I now turn to proposing a theological account of hope centered on Christ, the living Word.
Moltmann and a Theology of Hope
In his classic work Theology and Hope, Jürgen Moltmann claims that theological hope is neither presumption nor despair, neither activism nor absurdity.16 Rather, Christian hope is found only at the point of the crucifixion.17 It is there that death is real, the reality of pain is real, and the resurrection becomes real. In other words, the historicity of the Christ event is what distinguishes Christian hope from psychological hope. For Moltmann Christian hope has everything to do with this world and everything to do with the God who creates ex nihilo.18 Christian hope is not escapism, nor is it otherworldly.19 If the hope of the parousia is that the eschaton is “all of a sudden … lit up and seen in a flash,”20 then Christian hope is history. It is the activity of God and not human utopian thinking.21 For evangelicals, who should surely be sympathetic with Moltmann’s stress on the historicity of the resurrection, no reason exists for despair at the limitations of our own abilities, potentialities, or capacities. It also means the goal of history is not found in our own desires for moral or political reform or world evangelization but in the God toward whom all history is progressing. For Moltmann, Christology cannot be satisfied only with doctrinal statements about who Christ was, but must also point to who Christ is and will be in the future. With the apostle Paul, Moltmann proclaims: “He is our hope.”22
Paul and the Cosmic Christ
Turning then to the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians, Paul exalts Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”23 He presents Jesus as the one through whom all things were created and to whom all things are headed. Jesus is the one in whom “all things hold together” and is the one through whom God is “reconcil[ing] to himself all things.” The Jesus of Colossians 1 is the cosmic Christ, the arche and telos of all things. For Paul, creation is from, to, and for Jesus. His universal lordship is exercised in his headship over the church, his body. The centrality of Jesus is grounded in the peace he has made “by the blood of his cross.” Much like Moltmann, Paul sees the proper ground for Christian eschatology (the “to” and “for” Jesus, the reconciliation of all things) to be in Christ’s action on the cross. It is there that time is effectively telescoped; it is there that history coheres, taking meaning and shape. The Jesus of the Christ- hymn is creator, redeemer, and sustainer.
As a result, no mention of human capacity or goals is present in Paul’s account of Christian hope. Jesus already accomplished the work and is himself the goal, toward which hope points. Christian hope begins and ends with the person and work of Jesus. Seen in this light, evangelical anxiety begins to look like unbelief. Paradoxically evangelicals, a group that characteristically stresses the centrality of the bodily resurrection and return of Jesus, seem to be primarily concerned with boundary maintenance. This battle for self-identity has produced a group that is increasingly interested in defining who and what are “in” and “out”—both in the ecclesial body and the national body.24 Such a focus on the peripheries is resulting in a church that is less focused on Christ as center. The more that human effort is expended in attempting to hold the theological systems or the institutions of evangelicalism together, the less evangelicals tend to focus on the One who all the while holds all things together.
This “tightening up” of a discrete identity for the evangelical church cannot but render evangelicalism more thoroughly secular. In this schema, a theology of hope gives way to a psychology of hope. As evangelicals assume defensive or reactionary postures, we become defined by what we are against rather than Who we are for—the One who is for the world. Increasingly evangelicalism is not seen by others as connected to the “good news” of reconciliation and hope from which it derives its name.25
Cone and a Christology of Liberation
What has proven to be a rather theoretical exercise becomes more concrete when we consider that many Christians of color, particularly African American Christians, hesitate to identify with white evangelicalism. While sharing many of the same doctrinal convictions, many Christians of color do not fall on the same side of political activism as white evangelicals nor do they tend to share the same anxiety about “secularism” or “liberalism.”26 For African-Americans and many people of color, churches, societies, or social movements that define who is “in” and who is “out” based on a vision of an idealized society of the past is a dangerous political reality. For them a return to a “golden age” of “greatness” in American evangelical history would be an understandably unwelcome development.
Although many African American Christian traditions remain theologically sympathetic to the evangelical tradition in important ways, they do not stress continuity with it in the same way as their white counterparts. Instead of being shaped by the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which contributed to the conservative-liberal impasse and the evangelical anxiety of the twenty-first century, non-white theological traditions have conceptualized and expressed Christian faith in ways that resist the marginalization enacted upon non-white bodies by political and theological means. In the classic articulation of black liberation theology, God of the Oppressed, James Cone reflects on who Jesus is for us today.27 For Cone, Christian hope is Christological but in this vein Jesus Christ is not a decontextualized ideal but a “liberating presence.”28 Jesus is who he is for us today only because of who he was.29 Cone contends that in addition to Scripture and tradition, social context must be recognized as an important norm for Christian theology.30 He thus mitigates against what he sees as the inherent abstraction and Docetism of many contemporary white Christologies by reminding the church of the particularity of Jesus of Nazareth. Because Jesus was a Jew, a member of an oppressed first century Palestinian ethnic and religious group, and because in his risen presence he is liberator of the oppressed, it is most appropriate today to say that Jesus is black.31 Cone reflects on the irony that many classic theologies of hope (Moltmann, Käsemann, Pannenberg) have been influenced more by philosophical discourses on hope than the lived experiences of oppressed peoples courageously asserting their own personhood against dehumanizing forces of oppression. For Cone the ground of Christian hope is the sustaining presence of the black Jesus, the God of the oppressed.32
In this focus on the centrality of Christ, Cone’s theology shares similarities with Moltmann’s theology of hope and the apostle Paul’s Christ-hymn. Cone commends Moltmann for speaking clearly about the connection between a theology of hope and liberation of the oppressed.33 At the same time, he recognizes that Christians of color have often better understood the centrality of hope for the Christian life because of their experience of the crucified and resurrected One’s solidarity with their suffering and liberation. Cone’s Christology is an important reminder for evangelicalism that it is problematic to attempt to reassert Christian identity through a conservative reclamation of tradition more so than a contemporary joining with the living presence of Jesus Christ in his body, consisting particularly of peoples who are marginalized.
Bonhoeffer and Christ as Center
At this point, evangelicals may be positioned well to receive a timely word of challenge from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While Bonhoeffer has been styled as a contemporary conservative by popular writers such as Eric Metaxas,34 Bonhoeffer’s theological trajectory is not reducible to the anti liberalism of the sort propounded by many in the Religious Right. It was because Bonhoeffer refused to succumb to anxiety about the future or capitulate to the church-state nexus of his day that he was able to follow the sustaining presence of Christ back to Germany after his time at Union Theological Seminary and in Harlem at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church. As Reggie Williams argues in Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, Bonhoeffer’s path of discipleship against the Third Reich began to develop when “he encountered the black Christ who suffered with African Americans in a white supremacist world.”35 In Christ the Center, a collection of Bonhoeffer’s lectures on Christology, we have the clearest picture of his formal Christology.36 For Bonhoeffer, Christ is not a timeless truth or ideal, but is the concrete Word addressed to humans in history.37 Christology is not first and foremost a system but an encounter; it cannot properly ask “how” but only “who.”38 Therefore, Christology at its best is not an exhaustive explanation of the mechanics of the hypostatic union, but rather a response to being confronted by the living Christ. In this sense, Christology is not simply a conservative reclamation of tradition or a foundationalist exercise. As a result, Bonhoeffer reads the early church’s conciliar formulations not as comprehensive expositions upon which to build, but as safeguards against overly systematized inquiries that would infringe on the mystery of the incarnation.39 Therefore, while we should not seek to “go back” against the results of Chalcedon, which Bonhoeffer reads as “critical Christology,” the goal of theology is the risen and ever-present Christ.40 Only in this sense can the church be said to have a positive Christology. For Bonhoeffer this risen Christ is then alive in the community: “Christ is present in the church as a person.”41 Christ is not Christ in abstraction or in himself, but rather, “Christ is only Christ pro me.”42 This means that asking who Jesus is can occur only in the church; his revelation is self-authenticating: “So the question ‘Who?’ is to be spoken only in faith.”43 These are timely words for an evangelical church that often reads the tradition as a static system upon which to be built. In seeking to buttress its own identity, contemporary evangelicalism tends to look backward; it operates according to a fundamentally conservative impulse. Bonhoeffer reminds the church that in looking backward we do not encounter the living Christ but a negative Christology. While the established boundaries may help protect us from heresy, in the Chalcedonian definition, “the question ‘How?’ has made an end of itself.”44
Rather than an unqualified word of affirmation, Bonhoeffer’s Christology speaks a word of conviction to contemporary evangelicals. Evangelicals who are then committed to boundary maintenance are disposed to miss the living presence of the Word being spoken in history; they risk turning away from Christ, the center. When the church is preeminently concerned with institutional preservation or moral reform, we demonstrate we have already accepted a psychology of hope in which our own capacities and desires are central. When we are free from the anxiety and compulsion to hold ourselves together, we fall into the hands of the One who holds all things together. The telos of an evangelical theology of hope is the One in whom all things cohere.
The revitalization of evangelical hope is not to be found through rhetoric in a moral register but in a doxological one.45 Theological hope is encountered through sustained engagement in ecclesial communities centered on a living and active Christ. This is where the church can make a signal contribution to a theology of hope. If the church is the body of which Jesus is head, then she is freed from anxiety about preserving her own identity.46 The sustaining work is the work of the risen Christ. Cone reminds us that the cosmic Christ of Colossians is the particular Jew from Nazareth who is present in the marginalized. How can evangelical Christians find hope in this Christ if we are guided by a misaligned telos—one busy protecting an identity aimed at power and societal influence? Bonhoeffer reminds us that the risen Christ is encountered not as a decontextualized ideal but as a personal being present in his living body.
As we worship the living presence of Jesus, we reject what J. Kameron Carter calls the “cultural reflex” Christ.47 The universal Christ of Colossians is also the particular Jesus of Corinthians who is encountered as a rich diversity of people join to one another in worship and shared life.48 Christocentric hope may be found where a multiplicity of ethnic and socioeconomic groups lives together in somatic unity. When a peculiar group of people who have no other business being together are joined as family, individual desires, capacities, and goals are mutually enfolded into a common desire for the living body of Jesus Christ. It is this body politic against which even the gates of hell will not prevail.49
Evangelicals have often focused on human activity, whether evangelism or social justice, at the expense of a robust ecclesiology that prioritizes divine agency and presence. While these actions are indeed important, the most needed posture is being the body that waits on the Lord. The church is not to be the moral conscience of society or the priest of civic religion but rather an unlikely and diverse community of people that, through the intertwining of lives, testifies to the presence of the risen Christ in their midst. It is the sustaining presence of Jesus that is hope. This does not mean that the church should not take action when led by the Spirit, but rather that it is only in restful connection to Christ and to one another that divine action takes precedence.
The day is fast approaching when the unraveling of Constantinianism will likely mean many evangelical institutions will no longer exist or will exist in dramatically altered and more modest forms. Although legal work aimed at mitigating against some of the more extreme consequences of these eventualities may be in order,50 to prioritize protecting the institutions or platforms of evangelicalism suggests evangelicals have misplaced their hopes. Do we truly trust that history is headed toward the One who is reconciling all things to the Father? If so, we would do well to reject the fear, anxiety, and toil that come from laboring at the peripheries and enter into the hope, vitality, and confidence that come from worshiping Christ, the center.
Cite this article
- Lydia Bean, The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).
- I am thinking here of the “moral majority” language of Jerry Falwell.
- This is the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States.
- Ruth Graham, “The Professor Wore a Hijab in Solidarity—Then Lost Her Job,” New York Times Magazine (October 13, 2016).
- Gregory A. Smith and Jessica Martínez, “How the Faithful Voted: A Preliminary 2016 Analysis,” Pew Research Center, November 9, 2016.
- See the publications of groups such as Sojourners and Red-Letter Christians, which tend to align with politically liberal causes and often evince a similar apocalyptic tone about conservative trends in American politics.
- C. R. Snyder, The Psychology of Hope (New York: Free Press, 1994), 10.
- Ibid., 6–8.
- Ibid., 5.
- Ibid., 14.
- Ibid., 21.
- Lisa Miller, “An Evangelical Identity Crisis,” Newsweek (November 12, 2006); Alan Wilson, “The Evangelical Identity Crisis,” The Guardian (October 27, 2010); Adam Ericksen, “The Evangelical Identity Crisis,” Sojourners (February 3, 2016).
- Daniel M. Bell Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012).
- John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 323–333.
- The United States Declaration of Independence, Art. 1, par. 2.
- Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 24–25.
- Ibid., 19–20.
- Ibid., 33.
- Ibid., 15, 21.
- Ibid., 31.
- Ibid., 17.
- Ibid., 17; see also Col. 1:27.
- All quotations are taken from Paul’s Christ-hymn in Col. 1:15–20 ESV.
- I am thinking here of the public and caustic manner in which evangelical leaders, such as John Piper and Albert Mohler, try to ensure doctrinal conformity and the manner in which the presidency of Donald Trump, who was supported by many self-described evangelicals, has resulted in the tightening of borders and descriptions of who is “other.”
- Jessica Hamar Martinezet et al., eds., “Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings toward Religious Groups,” Pew Research Center, February 15, 2017, which demonstrates the downward trend in perception about evangelicals, especially among younger generations.
- For articles describing the trends in how black and white Christians think differently about race, the church, and the future, see Kate Tracy, “A Growing Gap: How Black and White Christians Now Think about Race,” Christianity Today (December 23, 2013); Robert P. Jones, “White Christmas, Black Christmas,” The Atlantic (December 22, 2014).
- James Cone, God of the Oppressed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), chap. 6.
- Ibid., xiii.
- Ibid., 106.
- Ibid., 99–105.
- Ibid., 106–115, 122–126.
- Ibid., 117.
- Ibid., 118.
- Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). See reviews in Christian Century and Christianity Today that claim that Metaxas’s biography “hijacks” or “mistakes” Bonhoeffer’s theological legacy for contemporary conservative evangelicalism: Clifford Green, “Hijacking Bonhoeffer,” The Christian Century (October 4, 2010); and Jason B. Hood, “Redeeming Bonhoeffer (The Book): The Problem with Eric Metaxas’ Portrayal of the German Hero as an Evangelical,” Christianity Today online (February 7, 2011). For Metaxas’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal supporting Donald Trump: Eric Metaxas, “The Promise of President Trump: Eric Metaxas,” Wall Street Journal (January 19, 2017).
- Reggie L. Williams, introduction to Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).
- Ibid., 51.
- Ibid., 29–34, 106.
- Ibid., 90–92.
- Ibid., 104–106.
- Ibid., 43.
- Ibid., 48.
- Ibid., 36.
- Ibid., 106.
- See Brian Brock and Bernd Wannenwetsch, The Malady of the Christian Body: A Theological Exposition of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, vol. 1 (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016), 9–14.
- See Col. 1:18.
- J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 80.
- See 1 Cor. 12:12–26.
- See Matt. 16:18.
- This may be the case in regard to maintaining tax-exempt status or the ability to hold traditional Christian positions in regard to sexual ethics without threat of legal repercussions. However, the manner in which many evangelical Christians frame the battle as between liberal ideologies and conservative free markets suggests that they do not see how both systems are germane to the totalizing nature of neoliberalism.