Ultimate Hope 101

In the last post, we saw that hope, at least in this world, is described well by the deceptively simple formula of psychologist C. R. Snyder: “hope = agency + pathways.” This allows you to unpack someone’s sense of hope and come to a more nuanced understanding of it. Do you feel you have the power to do something (agency) but don’t know how (pathways)? Great, then we know what to work on!

But as brilliant as that understanding is, it falls short in the end. I’ve talked before about how tempting it is to cheapen the word “hope.” We know in our guts, maybe even in our bones, that Emily Dickinson is on to something when she says, “Hope is a thing with feathers.” The even better example comes from Václav Havel, the political dissident and first President of the Czech Republic. I’ll quote his brief but exceptional essay again:

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

We’ve moved to a completely different place than “agency + pathways,” haven’t we! Of course, this more philosophical type of hope is also the realm of theology. We need a bridge to connect the simple-but-useful idea of practical hope to this more ”ultimate” sense.

Bridging Hope

Recent hope research shows a deep connection between Snyder’s conception of hope and the idea of “meaning.” That means that practical hope is connected with how people “make sense of, and find patterns and significant in, life events.” (Now we’re sounding more like Emily Dickinson and Václav Havel!)

For me, though, there’s no better place to turn than Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a Jew who was working on his contribution to psychology when he was sent to a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. They took away his manuscript, but he saw his theories about the role of meaning in life play out before his eyes.

If you’ve never read his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, you should. Frankl observed how in the extreme environment of a concentration camp, a loss of hope and meaning quite literally made the difference who lived and who died. It is impossible to describe the physical and psychological suffering without reading the book. But suffice it to say that Snyder’s theory in its most rigid form would say that people in that situation could not possibly have hope, as not only was their agency— their power to act on their life— totally removed but that there came a point where they couldn’t even imagine a pathway out.

Yet Frankl saw that some felt a sense of responsibility to stay alive as long as they could for the sake of something outside themselves— a loved one or, in his own case, also his work. One could say that this is an example of agency and pathways within their own selves, a choice of attitude that even the Nazis couldn’t take away. But at the same time, one also has to see that their inner agency and pathways were being generated not by the circumstances of their life but from something that transcends it. They did not have the power to reach their outside goal, but it nonetheless generated inner hope.

Ultimate Hope

Now our definition of hope is complete! Agency and pathways give us a nuanced understanding of hope when it comes to the goals of this world, but we also understand how hope can come from beyond us.

From here, it is a short leap to theology: who among us has hope— agency or pathways— of earning our own salvation? Paul gets so frustrated, as do we all, that we keep doing what we do not want to do! Yet God, who has agency over all things and pathways to boot, gives us ultimate hope. And when we look at the sheer magnitude of poverty, violence, and evil in the world and are dwarfed by the smallness of what it seems we can do about it, the God who is “making all things new” gives us hope from beyond.

Completing Our Hope

Now we have multiple ways we can examine someone’s hope. It’s important to remember that there is actually no dividing line between practical and ultimate hope— in the end, hope is hope, and you can’t have one without the other, or else what you have isn’t really hope. But that’s also the whole point: if someone manages to trust in God’s victory (ultimate hope) without a connection to this world (practical hope), then what they have isn’t really hope at all. If someone manages to think they can save the world but lacks the transcendent, then that’s not really hope either.

If you saw my story of what inspired my research, it’ll make even more sense now. Being able to pick apart the pieces of our hope, agency and pathways, practical and ultimate, allows us to not only to diagnose the problem but to work toward fixing it. Our understanding is itself a pathway toward restoring and completing hope in ourselves, in the church, and in the world.

So what do you think? Is your hope well balanced, or is it less complete than you thought? Have you encountered any good examples of incomplete hope?


David B. Feldman, Meenakshi Balaraman, and Craig Anderson, “Hope and Meaning-in-Life: Points of Contact Between Hope Therapy and Existentialism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Hope, ed. Matthew W. Gallagher, Matthew W. and Shane J. Lopez (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 341. 

Picture: Viktor Frankl by Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons