Jeff Loken is a friend and blogger over at Real, Live, Actual Blog. In this guest post, he shares with Christians how we can find common ground with those of other backgrounds by embracing hope and the uncertainty that comes with it. I hope you enjoy his writing and find his perspective on hope and uncertainty engaging. 🙂
The Shawshank Reconciliation
Hope is the one thing that can bring us together.
Let me explain…
Well, first, I should go back. I should go back to a few things, I guess.
I got a message from a friend and fellow blogger: “I’m looking for guest posters for my blog! My blog is about simplifying your life to prioritize what really matters, but I also write about faith and being an introvert. If you have an idea for a guest post, please let me know. I was specifically wondering if you would be interested in writing a post about reconciliation, as you see this as your goal and I am intrigued by that.”
I guess I should go back a little further, even…
I’m an agnostic, but not just any agnostic: I used to be a devout Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian. (You can read more about that here). I use all those terms because they probably mean something to most of you, and they encompass a broad range of ideologies devoted to a singular truth claim.
Maybe that’s too many vague meanings for one statement. Let’s try this:
I used to believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Now, I’m not sure there is even a god.
So, when one of my Christian friends asked me to write something for her site… Well, to be honest, I had a little existential crisis. Aside from the obvious ideological differences, there were other reasons why I didn’t necessarily like the idea of blogging again. My first foray into online based writing yielded some pretty controversial results. I naively thought I could handle it, so much so that I proclaimed my ultimate goal of reconciling all world religions. Yeah, it didn’t go so well. Shocker, right? I actually quit Facebook and scaled back my social schedule extensively because of the backlash. I struggled with depression and loneliness. It was the hardest year of my life, and writing about it publicly was not bringing out the best in me or other people.
I learned valuable lessons in the ordeal. I’m not done learning. I’m not done writing. I’m not back online yet either (apologies to both of my fans).
But, here I am.
I finally messaged her back, “So, you want an agnostic to write a guest post on your sometimes faith-based blog?”
“…To give us some perspective?” she asked.
I could not disagree. The world absolutely needs some perspective, regardless of some petty differences I may have with family, friends, acquaintances, or complete strangers who may be reading this. Maybe, in some way, that’s what I’ve been trying to say all along.
But, what is “hope,” anyway?
“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
-Andy Dufresne, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’
I keep going back to ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ as anyone one who channel-surfs past TNT will eventually do. Maybe it’s because of some of the best cinematic production of all time. Maybe it’s because of one of the greatest musical scores of all time…
(I think it would be pretty cool if you play that song while you read the rest of this, you know, for dramatic effect).
Or, maybe it’s because it illustrates a deeper truth that we can all tap into, regardless of our human experience or ideology. Maybe a story of wrongful conviction, friendship, struggle, loss, grief, futility, and ultimately… of hope, maybe that spotlight connects us all in a way no religion ever could.
(It should go without saying that at this point if you have not seen ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ you should do so immediately. It will make you a better person. It will also help you understand what I’m saying here—the former being more important.)
Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian hope is very different, as I have discussed here. Sure, you hope that your beliefs give you eternal life, and that is a great thing, maybe the best of things, but really only for people who believe the right things. And the facts are that billions upon billions of people have not and do not believe those things, through no fault of their own, and that makes your “hope,” well, less “hopeful.”
And, I know you don’t really hope people are going to burn in hell for eternity. That wouldn’t be a good thing. That wouldn’t be hope. I also know that’s a touchy subject, so let’s not go there. That’s not what I want to talk about anyway.
I want to talk about Andy Dufresne.
(This is where I would issue a spoiler alert about a movie that came out 23 years ago. But I’m not going to do that. That would be ridiculous.)
“Hope is a dangerous thing, my friend, it can kill a man.”
-Ellis “Red” Redding, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’
I can only imagine the kind of hopeless feeling that accompanies a life sentence. At some point, I would imagine that the oblivion is gradually painted over by “institutionalization,” coat after coat, yet there is always a shadow of the spot on the wall beneath a new layer of matte prison gray. Maybe someday it vanishes completely from memory, until an unexpected flake chips away, revealing a white concrete of actuality, a hope unexpected. I think this is what caused Andy to act out on his dream of freedom. He was innocent, and the proof was taken from him, maliciously. He had to do something.
But before all that, before lovely Raquel, before Red, before beers on the rooftop, before the library, before Tommy, before the prospect of acquittal and freedom, Andy had purpose. His existence was a meaningless life sentence, yet he chose to survive, to try and overcome amid insurmountable odds.
Before he even thought he could get out of Shawshank, he ordered that rock-hammer.
He did not hope in a destination beyond prison walls, but in an existence with meaning, even a minuscule one like polishing and collecting rocks. He accepted where he was and he hoped in his life there.
I guess, if the story ended in Shawshank, it wouldn’t make for good cinema. If Red dies in prison with Andy at his side, sure, it’s a great friendship story, but it doesn’t beat Zihuatanejo.
Even though the beauty of the story culminates and is perhaps even perfectly captured by the moment Red strolls down the beach and embraces his friend, as the camera pans out and Thomas Newman’s now infamous ‘So Was Red’ theme plays in the background, his narration is more apt to the thesis of the story:
“I find I’m so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at a start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
-Ellis “Red” Redding, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’
There’s a key word in that quote, and it’s not “hope,” at least not totally. It’s the word “uncertain.”
The smile on Red’s face as he rides window-side on a bus down a country highway toward Fort Hancock, Texas, wind bristling his graying hair… that smile is in the face of uncertainty. True hope must be uncertain. And that is the only hope we, as people of all ideologies, religious or non-religious, can share.
The anonymous author of Hebrews in the Bible points out in the first verse of the 11th chapter of his letter that “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” For all you Greek nuts out there, the key words that are often interchanged in this verse are “assurance” and “conviction.” Depending on the translation, you can get a bunch of different words that can mean different things. But one thing is certain, your Christian faith is not in what you can see. Your faith is your proof, it is not anything that can be verified with the senses.
We may not agree that faith is a good measurement of truth, sure. But, in the spirit of reconciliation, I am willing to admit that it is something. It is a thing that is shared by billions of people. It is not proof for anyone but the person who has it, and that’s ok. Any good pastor will tell you, it is your uncertainty that should drive you to faith, not empirical evidence.
In the same way, we non-theists are uncertain, too. Many of us, agnostics like myself, remain uncertain about the existence of a god. A lot of us are pretty certain that it is not the Judeo-Christian God depicted in the Bible. But even atheists will admit uncertainty about the existence of, well… existence. For many, “why?” isn’t really the question, but “how?” And even there, uncertainty is the only honest position, so far. Science can only be as certain as the testable evidence allows.
So how do we reconcile our ideologies? One based on faith, the other on what we can see and prove…
Embrace the uncertainty.
Hope that we are all as uncertain.
All across the world, billions of people in thousands of different faith traditions are praying and worshiping and committing their lives to their deity. Most of them are probably as certain about their truth as you are about yours, even though they are completely different. Even within Christianity itself, there are countless denominations and doctrinal differences, so much so that your personal perception of God cannot be the same as any other given Christian. You cannot control the information that has been given to you. You cannot control your life experience that led you to this spot.
The only thing you can control is how you react to every person you meet. You can be uncertain. You can have faith. You can hope for an afterlife. You can do all this and love everyone you meet no matter what their political party, religious ideology, or sexual identity.
And most importantly, you can hope to be treated the same way in return.
That is my hope. That is what we can share.
Sure, at times, it may feel like tunneling through the walls of a prison with a rock hammer and then crawling through five hundred yards of sewage, but it could be our only shot.
I am uncertain you will agree with any of this…
But I’m betting on you, anyway, humanity.
So what do you think of Jeff’s idea of finding commonality through hope and uncertainty? Share any thoughts or questions for Jeff in the comments below!