In Creator Spirit, Steve Guthrie contrasts Platonic and biblical metaphors that express the spiritual journey. “The Platonic vision . . . uses the spatial metaphor of ‘ascent’.”
The language of ascent, of course, suggests that the realm of Spirit/spirit is above and other than the realm in which we reside. The realm of true Being, the really Real, is not here, but “upwards” in “heaven.”
The Christian tradition, however, turns the contrast of “heaven above” and “earth below” on its side, speaking much more naturally of “this present age” and “the age to come” (see, for instance, Mark 10:30; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:21; Titus 2:12). The Christian hope, strictly speaking, is not “going to heaven,” but for a new creation and a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2, emphasis added). God’s people, then, do not desire to ascend (to what is above) but long for God’s reality to arrive (from the future). They do not aspire; they hope.
From this perspective, then, the glory that we perceive in the material world is not a signpost directing us to journey above or some dim participation in a heavenly reality. Rather, we see in the world around us intimations of its own transformed glory. And we look with longing, not to some ideal realm beyond the skies, but for the inbreaking of God’s promised future (p. 66).
Guthrie’s distinction between the Christian posture of hoping and the Platonic posture of aspiring has great potential for discerning various ways that Platonism has hijacked and perverted Christian theology and spirituality. Here are just a few random observations provoked by his statement that God’s people “do not aspire; they hope.”
Aspiring leads to dissatisfaction with present circumstances and relationships. Focusing on ideal people and fantasizing about ideal relationships fosters disappointment in my actual relationships. The biblical posture of hope calls for us to bear with circumstances, relationships, and actual friends and family. We can acknowledge that we’re all broken in various ways and be set free to actually enjoy one another.
Aspiring prevents us from freely and effectively receiving God’s grace. Focusing on ideal attitudes and states of mind fixes our gaze on how far short I fall from such ideals. I wonder if the strong Platonic impulses within evangelicalism account for so much misplaced evangelical guilt. Hoping, however, focuses on God’s love and his promises of restoration. This enables a vision of ourselves through the lens of God’s redeeming grace and magnanimous love.
Aspiring fosters individualism. Just look at the burgeoning evangelical self-improvement industry. Hoping orients us toward others and creation, yearning for God to fulfill his promises to restore creation and us so that we can once again flourish.
How else might this distinction between aspiring and hoping change the way we conceive of Christian discipleship?
7 thoughts on “Aspiring vs. Hoping: Turning Platonized Spirituality Sideways”
“Aspiring fosters individualism. Just look at the burgeoning evangelical self-improvement industry. Hoping orients us toward others and creation, yearning for God to fulfill his promises to restore creation and us so that we can once again flourish.” This is excellent! Thank you!
Let me try this as an example of discipleship today. Last night I shared my thoughts on Luke, Romans, social justice, and God’s restorative purposes in Christ, with a class of theological students. As we discussed some students shared their own stories of tragedies and hardships. We learned to embrace one another as a community of disciples. We prayed and we wept. In all that we find hope through the comfort of Christ and the Spirit. There were no individualistic self-improvement formulas. Instead, we sought to find hope together as a bunch of followers of Jesus through the Spirit of Christ. For me, last night was a profound Spirit-moment.
Those times are powerful out-breaks of Kingdom life!
I was thinking that aspiring makes me focus on myself and can even lead me to see how others are an obstacle to my spiritual ascent. Biblical hope, however, focuses on God and on our need of him and his always-arriving presence among us. Further, we gain courage from one another to continue to hope against hope in God’s coming restoration. Hope strengthens the bonds of community; aspiration sees community as an obstacle.
I enjoy the discussion, Tim. Sounds like a great book. I’ll put it in my list.
Aspire vs. Hope. That is rich with content!
What comes to mind right away is my view of others, especially my enemies. If I aspire, I do so for myself and those closest to me. I am then free to condemn my enemies because I am literally above them. However, in hope I look forward to the redemption of all including myself. People and things that are undesirable are no longer put behind me. They are placed squarely in front of me for prayer and renewal.
Hmm: There do seem to be a few psalms of “ascents” between 120 and 134. Is there also a Hebrew (non-Platonic) understanding of the spacial metaphor?
Good question, Allen. The psalms of ascent have to do with psalms or worship songs that pilgrims would sing or rehearse on their way to Jerusalem, “going up” to the holy city. That’s quite different from individuals longing to leave this physical world or somehow get beyond it to spiritual realities that are superior to this material world.
There do seem to be “aspirational” notes in the Psalms, like in 119, where the psalmist longs for a greater obedience and greater love for God and the Law. But this, again, seems quite different from an aspiration to leave the mundane.
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