Hope and the Facts: Sermon for the Commemoration of William Temple 2020

William Temple
The winners and losers are becoming clearer, but we knew fairly quickly on Tuesday about at least some of the losers in all this - the pollsters. Whether or not you accept Nate Silver’s Wednesday morning quarterbacking about them not getting it wrong, the point is that people obsess over polls wanting to see something factual and just can’t. Human behavior is not a matter of evidence but of values; decisions are not made because of facts, but because of aspirations.

Our frustrations about this and about many other aspects of this election concern the pointless search for meaning in facts themselves, and the corresponding invention of facts that seem to correspond to values. Polls are relatively benign versions of this, more pointless than malign; but we have been living in a situation where the "alternative fact" has offered itself as a false answer to this dilemma, a monstrous double to a truth that would actually set us free.

I would say these electoral mysteries are an instance of a deeper problem, which is both political and theological. We want the world to be a certain way, and when it is not, we experience forms of dissonance. We want to find our optimism nurtured by our observations, and sometimes as a result we choose just what to observe, or simply invent it.

In this strange time of continued uncertainty, the appearance of anticipated relief for many (but not all), a glimpse of something more like what is more desirable or normal, may tempt us to relax about the confusion of fact and wishful thinking. Even as a predictable swirl of lies and accusations creates dust and noise on its way out the door of leadership, we may attribute such confusions of the real and the desired only to others. Indeed these confusions have been a characteristic of the recent political scene, but we do well to consider them as a phenomenon deeper than something restricted to one side of politics, or one pathological personality.

Today the Episcopal Church commemorates in its calendar of saints William Temple, mid-twentieth century Archbishop of Canterbury, a notable theologian and social critic who advocated courteously for social justice in his native Britain, grounded in his incarnational faith. Temple once famously stated that “one ground for the hope of Christianity…lies in the fact that it is the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions.”

“The Word was made flesh” he said “where the last term was no doubt chosen because of its specially materialistic associations. By the very nature of its central doctrine Christianity is committed to a belief in the ultimate reality of matter and its place in the divine scheme.”

Temple here states one thing, and implies a second thing of course; that matter is unavoidably significant, but also that the incarnation of the Word makes a difference. 

Let me suggest we can extend his use of “matter” here to include not just the physical universe we think of hearing that term, but also to the concrete realities of our human lives and of society itself - to the facts. These too are matter, the stuff of reality. Christianity’s materialism embraces all this; but it does so not by wishful thinking about the facts, or by optimism about the nation or ourselves constructed by choosing or even imagining the facts we want, but by brutal honesty. Facts do matter, but they are not the bearers of meaning; facts matter, evidence matters, because knowing them we may then choose what to do about them.

The world is saved, in the story of the Gospel, not because it was being saved anyway, or because it deserved to be, but because it needed to be; not because the average of the polls about our world said we were OK, but because the real vote always makes clear we are not. As fact alone, the world is constantly disappointing; it is hard to sustain hope, if indeed that were really hope, except by self-deception. I suggest that is not actually hope at all, and that we need in particular to distinguish hope from optimism, as theologians have often done.

Hope is not what happens when the result comes out the way you want, hope is the reality with which you interpret the result. Hope is not declaring the glass to be half full rather than half empty; it is about what you think and say and do when you realize the glass is empty. Hope is the gift of God and the corollary not of facts but of faith.

Truth be told, some of us might say you were choosing recently between an empty glass and a broken one; but the power of hope given in Christ is no respecter of the empty and the broken. It promises fullness and restoration - yet also calls our attention to where they really come from.

When elections are done, the work of hope begins, whether it is thereby made easier or harder. The Word made flesh tells us of God’s uncompromising commitment to the fact of us, the fact of our fragile creation, and the fact of our divided communities. This is true hope.

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Sermon preached in Marquand Chapel and St Luke's Chapel, Yale Divinity School and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, November 6 2020.

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