Book Review: The Generative Power of Hope: Anticipating Possibilities in Times of Crises

This past Pentecost, my pastor announced the imminent transformation of the world, with the elimination of all oppression.  I’d call it “skylight” hope—the light that comes from above, into the domes of our minds, reminding us of God’s ultimate sovereignty over history.  Biblically, it is rooted in the Magnificat and in the “new heaven and a new earth” of Revelation 21, among other places.  It has a firm place in Christian faith, although I personally have never found it terribly helpful.  The promised imminent transformation never seems to arrive.

Then there is another kind of this-worldly hope which I find more promising.  I call it ‘grounded’ hope for it is anchored in the present, rather than tethered to the future.  The fullest account I have seen appears in Fred Bird’s The Generative Power of Hope.  Bird is a retired but active professor of political science and religious ethics in Canada.  His voluminous work on business ethics and international economic development has exposed him to the very practical questions of how to keep pressing for reform in the face of endless obstacles: inertia, short-sightedness, intolerance, resistance, environmental disaster—the list goes on.  And he has addressed these challenges in case after well-researched case.

So how does an actively engaged reformer generate and sustain hope, given the nest of “wicked” interconnected and stubborn problems that we face?  The Generative Power of Hope explains such persistence.  In chapter 3, the core of his argument, he offers a detailed vision.  “Hope is a virtue oriented to acting in the present” (25).  It feeds upon what we see and do, incrementally, and so is nourished as we anticipate possibilities for action and carry through.

What does grounded hope look like?  Following Aristotle, Bird locates the virtue of hope as a ‘mean’ or middle point between the extremes of despair and wishful thinking, between confusion and fanaticism (25).  Such hope has four features.  First, it requires intentional cultivation, starting with a frank acknowledgment of how bad things really are—in contrast to “false prophets who seek to rally people around unrealistic possibilities”(35).  Here Bird embraces what ethicists call ‘realism’—the willingness to face up to problems without sentimental illusion about how easily they can be resolved.  A second aspect of grounded hope is a posture of gratitude, “which helps us to see the gifts among the givens” and thus to keep feelings of resentment at bay (37).  Third, hope involves imagining: “seeking out and considering alternatives” rather than remaining stuck in the present rut.  Finally, hope involves living with, rather than suppressing, fear of failure and other tensions, and it involves sustained commitment (38-39).

All well and good, but how does such hope become grounded in the individual?  Bird devotes chapter 4 to the personal and social dimensions of hope.  Writing as a social scientist, he discusses four “factors” of personality “correlated” with a posture of hopefulness: self-worth, a sense of vocation, patience and flexibility (45).  He carefully outlines how cultivating each is possible, producing a fine bundle of features to absorb through practice.  The attainment of virtue, after all, requires effort, as any Aristotle-influenced ethicist will tell you.   But it also involves and even requires loving relationships, to which Bird offers a brief reflection on the relationship between faith, hope and love (52-54).

Bird’s muscular version of hope may sound like works-righteousness to Lutherans dependent upon divine grace for personal and social rescue.  But it is not.  It points not to  justification or even sanctification.  Rather, the task of grounded hope is to work on God’s creation which needs rescue–not ourselves, already rescued by grace.  Our hope is oriented to the near and far horizon of the earth, rather than up to the heavenly hereafter, or any other form of divine rescue from outside.  I doubt there is any daylight between Bird’s vision and what Martin Luther wrote about being liberated to serve the neighbor in On Christian Liberty. 

The rest of the book reports on how hope already has found practical expression, in a systematic way.  Here Bird’s reach is extraordinary.  He exhibits his customary passion for detail which here extends in many exploratory directions, in order to persuade the reader that grounded hope is real, and can be sustained.  He starts with exemplary individuals (Gandhi, Saul Alinsky, Vaclav Havel in chapter 5), widens to social reform efforts (chapter 6), then devotes two chapters to history (chapters 8, 9), and then finally seven chapters to the “Crises of our Times” (chapters 10-16).

Bird’s argument is a wake-up call to those of us whose enthusiasms for reform have cratered in light of domestic and international crises, where we have regressed into despair or wishful thinking.  But we should not give up.  Grounded hope “realistically anticipates possibilities and helps us to address present challenges when the future is uncertain and unknown” (3).  It is nourished as we are actively engaged rather than when we fall back on divine providence to rescue us from our failed optimisms.   To borrow a metaphor from the kitchen, hope is the yeast in an actively rising dough, rather than the icing on a pre-made cake of deliverance.

Still, his book is not simply a call to action.  And it is not particularly theological.  Rather, it is a dense scholarly account—the kind of book best read in short bursts for the insights, organized ideas and helpful vocabulary which Bird packs into each page.  So if you engage this book out of a need to educate yourself about the dimensions and history of hope in action, you will find his work a handy reference for everything you need to know about how resistance can be sustained against injustice, oppression and other forms of human folly.









Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, after having retired from the religion department of Concordia College in 2015.  His Durable Goods (University of Notre Dame, 1997) offers a covenantal account of the relation between management and employees.