Failed hopes and faith

By , 15 May 2009 7:39 pm

Let me begin by a little bit of background. Around 10 years ago Wales was granted some degree of independence within the complex geographical unit that is the United Kingdom. Its governing body, the Assembly (which seems to increasingly bear less and less resemblance to the benign and competent Assembly of my novels), has both jurisdiction and funding control over a few limited areas. One of those areas is education. Recently, partly due to pressures caused by the recession and partly due to what seems to be incompetence, they have managed to cut funding to many schools and colleges that provide education for our 16- to 18-year-olds. One of those badly affected is my college, where we have something like a £400,000 shortfall.

I hasten to add that our academic record is exemplary, but these days being good doesn’t seem to be enough. (Actually, it seems that you are better off being a poor performer because the trend is to throw money at failures rather than successes.) Well this week we were told that there would have to be major cuts and various drastic measures including increasing class size and reduced course options. I have been moderately badly hit by this. From teaching almost nothing but geology I will now have to diversify into geography and a wider area of environmental studies. And, on current numbers, I will have class sizes of around 24. Now of course all this may change (prayers are welcome) but the mood has been pretty glum in college and I have to say I have felt pretty discouraged. Had it been financially feasible I might have been tempted to hand in my resignation this week on the grounds that educational standards are likely to be compromised. But it wasn’t feasible. I consoled myself with the thought that I once ran an academic department that survived a direct hit from a tank shell, an assassination and an invasion. So I will try to grin and bear it.

Anyway, what I have found interesting is that a number of people who are more badly affected than me are less fed up about it. Some of them are not, as far as I know, Christians or believers in God. This raises an issue that I have noticed before: Christians can get upset and worked up over things that other people are largely unaffected by. In fact it may even be – I have no figures to prove it –that there are slightly higher numbers of depressives in Christianity than outside. What’s going on here? How does this square with our songs of joy and our talk of victory?

A full answer would require a book and a lot of time. I suspect though that a major factor is that we very easily fall into a gulf between the world as we believe it ought to be and the world as it actually is. Let me explain what I mean. Imagine you are an atheist of a Dawkinisian hue: how do you view the world? I suspect you would see it is as an imperfect place full of temporary ad hoc solutions due to working of that interminably slow, blind and extraordinarily clumsy giant Evolution. On such a view the failure of an educational policy, the triumph of bad over good, the destruction of something – or someone – worthwhile is just one of those things that happens in a messy meaningless and godless world. ‘Things are a mess!’ we protest, but our Evolutionist simply responds: ‘What right have you to expect anything otherwise?’ As Shakespeare has Macbeth say: ‘life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’

The Christian, however, takes a different view. For one thing, we have higher hopes; we believe that good should triumph, that evil should be punished and that in every way things ought to get better. I am not here being rude about atheists (although if you ask me nicely I will be) but I do believe that we Christians dream higher dreams. So our expectations are higher. We would, though, go even further. We believe in a God who has not only created the universe but also supervises it. On this basis we have feel certain that when some dirty deed is done, God as the cosmic referee will blow the whistle and cry ‘foul!’

On this basis you can see that we expect life’s little tales to have happy endings. And, all too frequently, they don’t.  If you understand this you can see why perhaps we more easily get depressed when unrequited nastiness occurs or unjudged stupidity triumphs.

There are two answers to the conundrum we find ourselves in. The first is to lower our expectations – and that I am reluctant to encourage; I feel we must always aim high and hope for the best. The second is to remind ourselves that we do not here see the full picture. As the old image goes, what we see is merely the back of the great tapestry and here there are many random and tangled threads. We have not yet seen the real end of the story.

I am not of course defending depression; if you are suffering from it I wish you a speedy recovery. But if it is the depression caused by the gap between high idealistic hopes and a dismaying reality then you deserve every sympathy. Far better to dream and be frustrated than not dream at all.

Have a good week!

4 Responses to “Failed hopes and faith”

  1. Catherine Brislee says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post. It’s really interesting to notice how our belief system affects our reaction to things going wrong. As I work for a New Age organisation and a Buddhist retreat centre (among others), I offer a couple of other examples, just for fun:

    New Agers: Earnest optimists. The world is getting better all the time. Humanity is evolving towards perfection and if anything goes wrong it’s just a temporary setback. So work hard at a project which makes the world a better place and you’re on the right track.

    Buddhists: Cheerful pessimists. The world is full of suffering and we all want to achieve enlightenment and escape. So be loving and compassionate to everyone but don’t get too stressed about making a difference because you have many lifetimes to learn and the universe is going to be around for millions of years, so no hurry!

    Good luck with all the changes.

    All the best,

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Chris,

    It is very sad to hear what is happening in the college. I am one of your students who was very lucky to be taught by you and it will be very bad indeed if the quality of teaching is lost due to the changes.

    On the issue of people being less vocal about the changes than you expect I would have thought that they think there is nothing that can be done. If you show them a way of getting out of the mess then I am sure most of them will listen.

    I am an atheist and I have a very pragmatic world view. If I face a problem then I will look at the ways to solve it. If I find a way out and if it worths the effort then I will never give up no matter how hard and diffcult it is. On the other hand I never try to waste my energy if I know it will get me nowhere.

    I think frustration, anger and depression not only don’t solve an issue but will make it diffcult to face other challenges in life. I don’t mean one should live with injustice but one should not waste one’s effort and energy if one knows it gets one nowhere. I think everyone hopes for the better Christian or not (it is certainly the case for me). However, having the hope doesn’t mean one should involve excessive unproductive emotions to realise it as the emotions will never help.

    I hope things work out for you and please don’t be discouraged because you are a great teacher.

    All the best and take care.

  3. Bill says:

    Hi Chris,

    Greetings from Colorado!

    I wonder sometimes if instances of depression among believers may be linked to unrealistic expectations of smoothness in the Christian life merely because of one’s belief. Scripture clearly teaches that the life of a follower of Jesus will be full of challenges – some far more severe than others. At the same time, Christ makes a promise to see us through (not around) the difficulties to come.

    If I had to point to something that seprates the believer from the non-believer, it would be the sense of hope (in an eternal sense) that Christ gives to the believer. “Remember always to give an answer for the HOPE that lies within you…” I truly wonder what it is that the non-Christian hopes for that gives meaning and purpose beyond self-serving satisfaction.

    On a professional level, I do not envy you having to deal with more crowded classrooms. However, from the opportunity of living out your faith among young skeptics, it sounds like a target-rich environment :)

    I have fond memories of our one-on-one talks and of being challenged by you from the pulpit. I have no doubt you’ll find a way to thrive in more challenging circumstances.

    Keep living your Hope, and don’t dispair!


  4. Chris says:

    How fascinating!
    Three very different responses from very different people in very different situations. but all making valid points.
    Bless you all


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