The first of Douglas John Hall's books that I read was Lighten Our Darkness. It began with a very sobering paragraph.
The Subject of this book is the failure of a people and the courage that can come to those who contemplate this failure in the perspective of the cross. The people are the North Americans. (page 15)
Hall, as anyone who has read or heard him knows, is a steadfast critic of the official optimism of both his native Canada and the United States, an optimism which has infected the churches of those two countries as well. In the nearly forty years since Lighten Our Darkness was published it has become harder and harder to hang on to this official optimism. Too many things are going wrong, sometimes with deadly results, as in Ferguson, Missouri this past few weeks. Too many of those who were only recently optimistic about the future have become discouraged even cynical. Even leaders and members of the once optimistic mainstream (or oldstream) Christian denominations are having a hard time remaining optimistic about their denominations' futures.
Like the death of Christendom, the death of optimism can be a good thing for the disciples of the Crucified One, as well, perhaps, for all of those who live in North America. There is great wisdom in knowing that our best efforts at achieving something good will, in some measure, fail. There will be unintended consequences, and for the Christian there will always be what T.S. Eliot called the last treason, doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Especially in crafting political solutions to society's problems, Christians need to follow the advice of Jacques Ellul and be ready to part company with a movement or a party when it move in the wrong direction. Christian realism and humility can lead us to two important conclusions. First, humility leads us to admit that our convictions and opinions might be wrong and that those with whom we disagree might be right. Second, realism leads us to an awareness of our fallibility, of how our best laid plans will fall way short of perfection.
Our awareness of our fallibility should not lead us to inaction. We are called to discipleship by One who knows our frailty, who asks us, not for perfection, but for faithful following. Discerning where God is at work in the world and how we can share in that work is no easy matter, but in the world where optimism has died, we are called to hope, not in our own efforts, but in God's love and providential care of creation.