The Fault in Our Worldview: According to the World of Modern Stories, There Really Is No Hope12:51 PM
I watched The Fault in Our Stars with a girlfriend because she'd watched it once and wanted someone else to talk with about its worldview. It was a lazy, cuddle-up, fuzzy blanket, stay-up-until-three-AM talking kind of night. (And, incidentally, also the night I learned my best friend got engaged.) We plugged a laptop into the dorm television and settled down for some entertaining philosophy. Because that's how you justify watching a movie you know you won't like: you call it a philosophical exercise. (That accounts for all the tears streaming down my face throughout the viewing, of course.)
Those tears came more freely at the beginning of Hazel's struggle with cancer. By the end of the movie, at the climax, at the (SPOILER) death of Gus, I was dry-eyed. By that point, I knew this movie would end as most modern movies ended: with no hope.
Objection: But it's a story about hope. It's about finding meaning in the life Hazel initially describes as empty, pointless, chaotic.
Actually, it's a story about love. Our story culture gets love -- its preservative effect on memories, its eternity, its power. Our story culture knows next to nothing about hope. Hope, as currently defined by Google, means "a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen"; as a verb, to "want something to happen or be the case." As an interesting aside, the use of the word "hope" peaks in the nineteenth century and steadily but dramatically drops during the twentieth century. Even its disuse shows its unfamiliarity. Hope is illusive and self-referencing. Its strength lies in the force of the wisher's desire, not in its certainty.
The theological virtue of hope obviously involves incredible longing, but its power comes from its certainty, from its object -- God -- who keeps all the promises He makes. When we hope in God and God's promises, we want them to happen, yes, but we desire them all the more because we expect and know for certain that those promises will come to pass. Hope is not a wish. It's a certain expectation that sustains long periods of waiting and wanting. This kind of certainty fascinates me. I wrote a historical paper on hope's place in the Protestant understanding of salvation, since it already possesses a rich history in Catholic salvation. Ever since then, I've been hooked on hope's potency.
If that's the definition of hope as a metaphysical virtue, not just colloquial usage, then any modern story that boots God out loses all claims to hope. The Fault in Our Stars is no exception. When Hazel defines the world as chaotic and unpredictable, she gets it right. That reality of the universe stays the same all the way through the end of the book. The pain of cancer and death intensifies without any purpose. The writers can't change that worldview reality. They can't offer hope. Gus mentions that he personally believes in an afterlife, but that comes across as just a pleasant dream that he hopes -- in the sense of wishes -- to be true.
What the writers can offer is love. The moral of Hazel and Gus's story is that being remembered by a loved one gives one meaning and purpose. Hazel doesn't need to be remembered and acclaimed by hundreds. She only needs the love of her family and friends. Human love becomes a refuge from the pain, emptiness, and purposelessness of a godless universe. Indeed, human love can become a substitute purpose to loving God and enjoying Him forever. Love's got the strength to do that, even love isolated from God. Love begets meaning.
Still, love cannot erase reality. And that's why The Fault in Our Stars still ends without hope. Its hopelessness provides the impetus to love: life is pointless, so love each other. If one's meaning exists only in relationship with another person, what happens at death, when the memory and the active love dies too? The living can only live in the past -- in past love, in past memory of the deceased. What happens if one grows old and abandoned, with no family and friends left to love him? What happens if friends and family forsake him regardless of any age? What happens to his meaning then? What happens to his refuge then? If it resides only in relationship with another human being who loves him and gives him meaning, then he's lost in the universe's chaos. Only God provides even the possibility of hope because God beat out death. Humans die, and with them go memory and past love -- unless it's preserved by future generations. Until humans beat out death, they've got no hope either. God also can provide hope because He's all-powerful and all-knowing. Humans are weak, fallible, limited, and subject to the pangs of life and death. They get whiplashed around by circumstances. God controls those circumstances and stands outside of them. Because of that, only He can redeem them and offer a permanent respite from them -- the afterlife. Indeed, only God can change and control all the pain and suffering in our lives. He holds the keys to hope. As long as humans die and remain subject to circumstances, they've got no hope at all.
I think that's why modern story culture emphasizes love, tolerance, getting along, family bonds, romance. Its only meaning comes from love. The universe makes no sense without love. We see this again in Interstellar -- from first-hand experience, the universe is empty and chaotic. The only meaning comes from human activity and relationships. (SPOILER) There is no "They," as the astronauts mistakenly surmise. There is only humanity protecting and providing for its own. With no "They" of any kind, Anne Hathaway tries to order the universe by making instinctual love a force as strong and accurate as science, one that gives meaning and direction. (If this example makes no sense, watch the movie. And then re-watch it. It's a Christopher Nolan, for Pete's sake. Everybody needs to see it.)
And that's also why our world and our stories carry on long after the philosophical death of God. Human love is powerful. Many people (thank God!) never experience an absence of love where all friends and family die or abandon them. Love provides a buffer against the feeling of a random, chaotic universe. As long as love is there, nobody feels the crushing despair and fear of a godless universe.
But if there really is no God, then there really is no hope. Love, yes. Hope, no. That's the metaphysical and theological front we must overcome: love cannot provide hope, no matter how good it feels. Love cannot overcome the stark naked random universe even if it can shelter from it. If we want hope, we must have a God. If we're not willing to allow a God, then we must continue live a hopeless life.