Though the Fig Tree Does Not Blossom–Dr. Ellen Ott Marshall

Though the Fig Tree Does Not Blossom, a phrase
from Habakkuk 3:17-19, is the basis for Dr. Ellen Ott Marshall’s consideration
of hope.

I picked up Dr. Ellen Ott Marshall’s new book “Though the Fig Tree Does Not Blossom,” because it is about hope in the Christian tradition. I thought reading about hope during the Advent season would be a helpful discipline. The book, however, is not a layperson’s guide to hope. It is, instead, an academic exploration of hope written in the language of the academy. This doesn’t diminish it, but I must note that it is a theological exploration of the value of hope, its relationship to everyday reality and the difference between hope, as understood from a biblical perspective, in contrast to optimism. The latter lacks the depth and balance offered by biblical hope, mainly because biblical hope takes seriously human suffering, Dr. Marshall writes. This roots biblical hope where optimism is essentially rootless.

The title, of course, comes from the short meditation on hope and anguish by Habakkuk in the Jewish Bible. Dr. Marshall probes the depths of Habakkuk telling us that the three chapters reflect different genres. The first two give us Habakkuk shouting and taunting God while the third reveals a quietude in which Habakkuk “reaches beyond his present situation, replete with causes for despair (God is preparing the destruction of the Hebrew people at the hands of the Babylonian army), to find a source of sustenance, a cause for hope.”

It is between these two states of our existence–conditions that lead to despair and connection with a sustaining source of strength–that hope is formed and we endure and flourish. Our relationship with God, based on mutuality and a model of divine power that demonstrates God’s concern for creation and is the norm for human behavior. This relationship empowers us when we most need hope. But we must always remain in touch with both the anguish of life and the sustaining source. This connection between the reality of anguish and the “seed-like presence of that which we hope for” (Tillich) orients, empowers and sustains us. The source is God whose presence never fails us and has no boundaries.

Dr. Marshall walks us through a host of thinkers (Aristotle, Aquinas, Rauschenbusch,Tillich, Niehbuhr, Moltmann, Suchoki, Reuther and several other liberationist and feminist theologians) as prelude to describe how we can practice hope in a world of suffering that makes it seem futile. She seeks to provide a theology of hope based in process and liberationist theologies, and that alone makes for interesting reading.

She writes: “God moves us toward flourishing, and we have the freedom to respond to and resist that movement. The restoration of hope does not require a faith in a God who hurts us for our own good. Rather, it requires receptivity to the hand that is on our back as we grieve. And the practice of hope does not require faith that acquiesces to all as an act of God. Rather, the practice of hope requires that we discern the life-giving movement of God within this death-dealing world.” (p. 97)

And she provides a corrective to the rampant individualism that exists in Western culture: “…hope is virtuous when it orients us towards the flourishing whole, and this requires me to see my well-being as wrapped up with yours, not something to be sacrificed on your behalf…hope requires identifying shared interests rather than advancing individual positions.” (p. 98)

Dr. Marshall is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, CA. The book is Though the Fig Tree Does Not Blossom: Toward a Responsible Theology of Christian Hope, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 2006.

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