A brief reflection on the Eve of the Inauguration

Tomorrow morning, Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the next President of the United States. Someone noted in a conversation earlier today that there is a great weight now resting upon his shoulders as the expectations of Americans and the world are fantastically high (there are plenty of news articles – e.g., see here and here) – and without a doubt, impossible.

Americans are expecting Obama to fix the financial crisis, restore economic confidence, transcend the divide between Democrats and Republicans, bring the troops home, defeat terrorism, heal the wounds of race relations and end racial conflict once and for all, improve education, create jobs, regain the world’s respect for America, make way for further technological and scientific advancement, increase tolerance, make America more secure, change the world and fulfill all our hopes. Like I said: fantastically high.

But I also said, impossible. I agree with Graham Ward when he says in his Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice, “From Christ and of Christ and in Christ theology speaks to the cultural of that which the cultural misplaces for the most part, even while simultaneously haunted by the absence it engenders and maintains.” What is it that culture is misplacing; what is it haunted by? “The Freudian term for this cultural activity is Verdrändrung or ‘denial’ – [culture] expressively denies that about which the soul dreams–redemption.” (58-59) In all of the presenting factors I listed above of America’s hope for Obama, I think Ward’s thought captures the nature and desire of what truly underlies them–people need and want a Savior. America’s hope and expectation for Obama are nothing other than a new messianism.

Impossible. It is impossible for Barack Obama ever to ultimately fulfill America’s — or the world’s — expectations. While few may admit it (hence Ward’s comment about denial, misplacement, and the engendering of absence), the cries of the heart emerge from a place that cannot be fulfilled by any change the new administration may achieve. We can hope beyond hope, but our hopes will only fall short.

In one of the classic Christmas hymns we’ve all probably forgotten about until next year, we read of the expectations the world felt at the birth of Christ: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” American culture may be exhibiting a cry for a Savior, but the kind of Savior it is really looking for is the Messiah of the Christian narrative, for only in the real Messiah will the cries of our hearts be answered. As Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself O God, and the heart of man is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”