Hope and 9/11

An excerpt from Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times by Charles Mathewes.

Republic of Grace
Republic of Grace

Cultivating hope is the central political task of today — of every day, in fact. But hope is harder to cultivate than we think, and since 9/11 its absence seems to me increasingly palpable.

Part of the problem is simply the challenge that living in this new age puts to us. Many of us, myself included, have not managed fully to move past the events of 9/11. It has been more than eight years [now, ten years] since that day, and yet many of us have yet to see 9/12. My memory of that morning is still fresh. I remember it all — the phone calls, the first images, the way the day turned from a bright and fair late summer day to rain by nightfall. Don’t you?

And those not stuck on September 11 are still caught, it seems, on September 10. Books flood the market talking about life after 9/11, but most of them are simply variations on “this just demonstrates what I’ve been saying all along.” This is not just manifestly false, it is actually destructive of the possibility of knowledge: such attitudes are not responses but mere reactions—consolation devices for those who can’t bear the reality of the situation. For it is hard to bear. Hope helps us bear it, and so come better to understand what is going on in the world.

Understanding, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, is knowing how to go on. Such a “knowing how to go on” is a kind of “understanding” that presumes no total comprehension of reality, or even of a single event, in all its fullness and detail; such comprehension is not ours in history. Henry Kissinger once asked Chinese leader Chou En-lai what he thought of the French Revolution, to which the premier replied, “it’s too soon to tell.” As with all events, the meaning of 9/11 will be revealed in its full effects; what those effects are, is still being determined by the actions of people all over the world, and will be for some time to come. An apocalyptically final understanding is beyond us at present. But we can at least attempt to acknowledge the event, and go on from it, into the future.

Hope has had a hard time since September 11. But things were not so good before then, either. In fact, true hope is more rare than we realize. After the end of the Cold War, a curious kind of vapid smugness took over public life, infecting everyone with its vacuous giddiness: a complacency with no fears about the future because it refused to admit that there would be a real future — that anything genuinely new would ever happen again. The general attitude seemed to be, “now we can all have more of the same forever and ever!” Such bovine placidity pleasantly complemented the hysterical optimism at the core of American civil religion. But it was not hope.

We can do better than this. We must: after all, ours is a political world, and many of our most urgent problems are political — caused by decisions we have made and hence to some degree amenable to our correction. After all, we need not be victims of the rulers anymore. We are not subjects of kings, we are citizens of republics, sharing in our common sovereignty; genuine participation in the governance of our world is possible. Because of this, we have reason for hope. Indeed, I think the hope for today is more profound, and more profoundly insightful to the metaphysical truth of our condition, than are the anxieties that occupy so much of the surface of our lives. Despite our despair, there is much to be hopeful for today.