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The Table Video

Miroslav Volf

The Dark Side of Hope (Miroslav Volf)

Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology, Yale Divinity School / Founding Director, Yale Center for Faith & Culture
February 7, 2018
Theologian Miroslav Volf and CCT Director Evan Rosa discuss the frustrating lack of understanding that frequently accompanies experiences of suffering. We often seek to gain control over our pain by grasping at possible explanations. However, Dr. Volf highlights the importance of not rushing to conclusions about our experiences. Instead, we should allow suffering to form and shape us, even in the midst of our pain, doubt, and confusion.


There’s one element of response to suffering that is, as we have been discussing agency. That’s so much in the moral realm. It’s in the realm of action and human attempts at control. What if we could transition here a little bit to another kind of response to suffering and now is the kind of attempt to understand. The kind of knowledge. And some of your recent work in interpreting Job’s kind of a psychic destruction and demolition. The kind of suffering he undergoes in his life that we learn about in the scripture. It leads to a kind of silence, you say. A kind of unknowing and so, I wonder if you might talk about the nuances there about how can approach, a response to suffering that might have something to do with unknowing inner silence in the wake of it.

Yeah, yeah. Suffering is always a major challenge to our knowing. Challenge in terms of what’s going on and in particular, challenge in terms of what’s going to happen. What can I expect as I’m undergoing the suffering? What are the hopes and so the kind of fate of hope and faith of an understanding of what’s happening and what’s gonna ensue, is what challenges us in a profound kind of way. And, I think we sometimes want to explain suffering, want to control it by various kinds of means, practically sometimes we want to control it, all right, but we also control it intellectually. And often we come to quick of closures because we can’t quite project what it is. In fact, I think that we sometimes cannot in the suffering project rightly as to what would we want to decide. We don’t know what’s going on and we don’t know what ought to happen. We know what we want but it’s not always clear that what we want can happen or that it is a right and appropriate thing to happen. And I think this moment of not knowing is so fundamental. You see it in Job and Job realizes after this terrifying speech with God that he can’t quite understand his life, that he needs to live in the realm of trust. You see it with Jesus hanging on the cross. My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me? A kind of dashing of hopes that happens. You see it in Paul also which is very very fascinating but when he says, well we don’t know how to pray. Now, you think that person who suffers exactly knows how to pray. I know of what to ask, what.

You know, more connected to, like the person of Christ, in that.

But also in my suffering, I just get rid of this thing.


I can imagine a very different life very easily what’s gonna come. And yet, apostle Paul writes there, we don’t know what to pray, and this is kind of a sense of unknowing, which is I think a condition of possibility of growth. And he talks about unknowing in the sense of, every hope contains darkness. And, the sense of darkness of the future into which we go whether we are suffering or as a matter of fact whether we live just our ordinary life. Except we think that everything’s bright and clean and clear when we don’t suffer. When we suffer we know that the future is really problematic. But this darkness of the future, darkness of the hope, I think is a recognition of it and no one understanding in face of it, is fundamental.

Yeah. I mean there in the scripture, we see through a glass darkly.


We hope in things, that are not seen.

Yeah, exactly.

The dark side of hope.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

That we often speak in terms of glimmers of hope, right! Where there’s light but the dark side of hope is looking out into the dark.


And sometimes wonder hangs sometimes, when that dark is also silent.

Right, right. Because we tend to think of hopes, in the vocabulary of my own teacher, Ruger Maltman, we tend to think of hope in terms of optimism.

Of God’s promises for fulfillment.

Yeah, some kind of very specific outcomes that we’ll take us from here to what is there rather than hope being something that, something new that comes to us in a kind of surprising ways.

Would you say that’s a forward looking kind of hope as a looking from this vantage point, like from earthly vantage.

It’s a hope that’s given, whose reason has given attempts to extrapolate from what is now to what is going to be.

Okay, all right.

But the hope.


But this is actually eschatological structure of our lives of anticipations, true I think. Because, you know what you might want but I think we also know that hopes can be very much illusory, cons projections, constructs of our imagination and can kind of reinforce the oppressions that we are suffering in many ways. And so this, I mean I see it almost paradigmatic, I don’t know if experiences of love are really extraordinary and so you have hopes, right! You have kind of images of what the person with whom you fall in love will be and look like. And, so you kind of stretch yourself toward it.

You see the whole relationship before you.

But you kind of identified what that kind of is in your head and you kinda trying to match. But the most fortuitous and most fulfilling is, when you recognize something and you say, now I see what I was looking for.


All right. Kind of the fulfillment gives you the eyes to see what is it that you wanted as you’re seeking fulfillment, right! And, this isn’t a magical thing. That’s why love is magical in this way, right! Because it is not simply, oh! I have wanted this and I just got it. It’s kinda boring, right! But I’ve been transformed in getting what I was, hope.

Yeah. So again, in Paul, and perhaps Paul’s kind of awareness, of Job’s silence of non understanding, you say that honors great suffering in a way that, explanatory and justificatory speech cannot and that it is intellectually and morally more honest as a kind of silence of unknowing. Feeling the scope of any possible knowledge, we could have about both God and the world. Perhaps more importantly you say, Paul’s non theoretical approach, an approach without theodicy, towards suffering stands firmly in the tradition of Exodus, the pair dogmatic way of contending with suffering in the bible and this is, encapsulating comment, that God’s response to suffering was liberation not explanation.

All right.

And that is just, there is some profoundness there. I wonder if you just comment on what that means.

Yeah. So my sense is that, one of the things, a suffer, really doesn’t want an explanation. Just get me out.

Yeah. Do something.

Explanation, do something. Explanation kind of conforms me in the state in which I am. In that sense, there is it kind of with of putting up with suffering in a times to explain and to justify suffering. So that’s kind of one part of what I’m trying to say. The other part is, that, in order to understand what each of the events in my life means. In order to kind of fit it into some kind of a narrative. I need to be at the end of my life, in order to, because every as my years go, I reinterpret all the events and suddenly you realize all possible meanings of them. I think that’s the same as true with the entire human history. So that if the odd is possible, it’s possible from the end of history backwards.

Yeah, okay.

Because only then the clarity kind of comes. And I think that’s part of the reason why, whether in exodus, whether or apostle Paul, he doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to kinda of explain or justify. He’s very much resting on the hope of transformation.