John Fea of Messiah College has invited me to contribute a post to the Hope blog relay begun by Ed Blum, religion historian at San Diego State University. Dr. Fea is a gentleman and a scholar, and an engaging and incisive historian as anyone can see in his books. In the introduction to his most recent book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, he asserts that the study and practice of history “has the amazing potential to transform our lives” (xxvii). Keep an eye out for his next project, forthcoming in the next year or so, in which he will develop this helpful theme more thoroughly.
In that spirit, allow me to share a personal anecdote as I begin these thoughts on hope. I am trying to teach my oldest daughter, aged 7, about overcoming doubts and fears. Over the summer, she set her sights on the high dive at our pool. She would climb the ladder to the top of the diving board, and then find herself terrified, unable to jump. She then would miserably climb back down the ladder, defeated.
She didn’t want to be defeated, but she was. I told her that it was OK to be scared. Everybody is afraid of something. The difference between courage and cowardice is that the courageous person overcomes her fears while the cowardly person allows her fears to control her. A few days ago at the high dive, my little girl climbed that ladder and ran off the diving board into the pool without hesitating. She found out, in her small but significant way, how to overcome a fear that had previously gripped her. She found hope in the face of the yawning chasm of fear that was before her.
One of my heroes is Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth president of the United States, 1901-1909. (By the way, his name is Theodore, not Teddy. Few dared call him “Teddy” to his face.) His life contains one story of hope against adversity after another. As a young boy, he almost didn’t survive violent bouts of asthma. He lost his mother and his first wife on the same horrible night, February 14, 1884. His younger brother Elliott became an alcoholic and committed suicide at the age of 34 in 1894. But Roosevelt looked past these and many other adversities and is known as one of the most courageous—and hopeful— men ever to lead this country.
Everyone knows about Roosevelt’s leadership of the First US Volunteer Regiment, the Rough Riders, in the Spanish American War. Most know also that Roosevelt was the first president to invite an African American, Booker T. Washington, to dine at the White House against the howls of Southern Democrats. He saved the nation from disaster by negotiating the end of the 1902 coal miner’s strike. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the warring Japanese and Russians together in 1905. His list of accomplishments is overflowing and inspiring.
He said in his autobiography that there were two types of successes. The first type of success comes to a Washington, a Nelson, or a Lincoln, he said. This type of success is rare, and comes only to those with exceptional gifts. But the second type of success comes to ordinary people, and Roosevelt included himself in this group. He said, “It is the kind of success which is open to the average man of sound body and fair mind, who has no remarkable mental or physical attributes, but who gets just as much as possible in the way of work out of the aptitudes that he does possess. It is the only kind of success that is open to most of us.”
Herein lies the essence of hope seen in Theodore Roosevelt’s life. He wrote further, “Having been a rather sickly and awkward boy, I was as a young man at first both nervous and distrustful of my own prowess. I had to train myself painfully and laboriously not merely as regards my body but as regards my soul and spirit.”
One of the methods of this training was the discipline of overcoming fears. Roosevelt’s way of finding courage was to consider that of which he was afraid, then act as though he was not afraid. Then, he acted decisively. “There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first,” he wrote, “ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”
Owen Wister, the great Western novelist and author of My Friendship with Roosevelt: 1880-1919, described the kind of man Roosevelt was with these words:
In 1912, he is shot close to the heart on his way to make a speech, nobody can stop him, he speaks for an hour and a half, and then goes to the doctors. In 1913, he wins a libel suit for ten thousand dollars against an editor who had published the favorite falsehood of his drinking. He waives the damages. Defendant in a libel suit brought by a political enemy during the Great War, and with a jury containing Germans, he denounces the sinking of the Lusitaniawhich happened during the trial, regardless of how this may affect the verdict. At the Convention of 1912, approached by the emissary of thirty disgusted Taft delegates with an offer that would put the Republican nomination in the hollow of his hand, he sends the emissary back, explosively. “This is a crooked convention,” he exclaims, “and I don’t touch it with a forty rod pole.” In 1912, upon our entering the Great War, he offers to raise a division himself, and go over and fight. Cannot many who knew the man, match these instances with a score of others?
Roosevelt’s hopeful perspective is seen in something he said to Wister just shortly after the death of his youngest son Quentin in the skies over France in 1918, and a few weeks before his own death. “It doesn’t matter what the rest is going to be. I have had fun the whole time.” This perspective, defined by hopeful expectation, brings out the meaning of hope as a certain expectation of something wonderful to come. Christian theology teaches us about that kind of hope. History does too, through those who lived hope’s meaning in a myriad of ways, and overcoming legions of fearful challenges.
Now, I pass the baton on to my friends and colleagues–
Rich Holland, philosopher and theologian who is a friend of wisdom
Tom Foley, intrepid Christian missionary to Eastern Europe and one of the wisest men I know
Evan Lenow, ethicist and dear friend and colleague at Southwestern
Josh Bush, chemical engineer who deftly shows connections between faith and science
Nathan Finn, insightful historian and theologian at Southeastern