Grasping at Hope

Hope is a word that is so familiar that it becomes unfamiliar… We all sort of know what it means, but sort of don’t. We hope in stuff and for stuff, but that is still only a grasp of all that is hope. My theological-man-crush Jürgen Moltmann looks into the future for hope, differentiating between futurum and adventus (riffing on the German Zukunft). The former defines what happens in the present as a result of the past. Adventus hope is that which comes.

This is a helpful framework for hope. It will be sorted in the end. The second coming of Jesus (parousia) is the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, therefore the now/not yet is now the now. This might not help people answer the why questions of suffering, but it does help by answering the what question: namely, what is God doing about my why question. Although we cannot answer the why questions in those critical and liminal moments between life and death, we hope that we will understand it all at the end. I appreciate this understanding and use it in my own theological understanding of hope. This view of hope is chronologically focused.  Life sucks now, but just you wait for the future!

However, what do you do in those why moments? What do you say in those moments when eschatology is inappropriate? I want to talk about topological hope.

Topological hope comes from the Greek topos or place (and is not to be confused with tapas, those Spanish delicacies that we all hope for…). Hope is located in events, locations, and places. This understanding of hope gives the person some agency in the moment. I see this type of hope often in our hospital’s (pediatric) hematology and oncology (Hem/Onc) unit. Cancer has been the proverbial dark passenger (any Dexter fans read this?) for most of this patient’s life (and family). Cancer sets the boundaries, determines the calendar, and reckons when its ready. Topological hope stands in the face of this.

My PhD advisor, Duane Bidwell, describes five pathways to hope (mentioned here), and I think this touches on a lot of what I experience as topological:

  1. Realizing connection
  2. Maintain identity
  3. Claiming power
  4. Learning wisdom
  5. Attending to God

I have ministered to patients and their families as they come to grips especially with numbers two and three. A topological hope allows a patient to maintain identity and stand in autonomy. The young adolescent who is admitted for chemo every five weeks is not defined by their prognosis; instead, they want to talk about prom or why the Chiefs just might do it this year. This isn’t denial, though. The patient is fully competent and aware of their prognosis, but this topological hope allows them to claim some power in the face of a disease that will take everything. Topological hope is resilience in the present.

Topological hope is more practical for the spiritual caregiver to highlight. A conversation around the present allows the patient to claim what they want these remaining days, months, or years to be like. This, once again, is not a denial of the illness; the spiritual care provider still addresses chronological questions (e.g., why is God doing this? What will happen to my parents? Why won’t I ever get married [really the question is always why won’t I be able to have sex?]), but topological hope allows the individual to emphasize what they want.

A couple of posts ago I discussed how to talk about death, and this is a great avenue to explore. That is the powerful aspect of number four above: learning wisdom. Help your child claim power, allow them to make decisions in their care (at least educate them), allow them to live as much as possible. You can begin talking about death by addressing things topologically. What do you want these years to look like; what sort of places/people/events/memories do you want to do (think bucket list).


2 thoughts on “Grasping at Hope

  1. danielleehintz


    I loved your article, thank you for reminding me of the importance of HOPE FOUND – not just hope expected. What is your impression of pathway #3 to topological hope: “claiming power”? What does this mean? My head tilted as I read it. Speaking from a Christian point-of-view, is this a spiritually responsible pathway to encourage? Perhaps it depends on where this “power” originates from; is it something that we conjure within ourselves in order to feel like we have control of our situation, or is it something we find as our hearts incline toward our Good Father? IDK…

    I’m not sure where you land, or what is meant by “claiming power? I’d love to know your thoughts!

    Merry Christmas!

    1. joshtmo Post author

      First, I love your picture! Great question! I guess you could substitute it as claiming empowerment. A patient (or counselee, or what have you) that is empowered to take some ownership of their care makes for a better patient. Some research (e-patient for example) points to patients have a higher probability of surviving some illnesses by taking ownership to the prognosis. So, for example, learning the side effects of a disease or learning the best practices for recovery can go a long way in providing healing. So not only is it practical, but it also helps the person claim some “power” over the illness. The patient gets to tell cancer what’s up!

      Spiritually, you’re absolutely right. Turn people toward their spiritual entity.

      Does this help?


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