A Citadel of Hope

In his celebrated work, Moral Man and Immoral Society, the 20th-century theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Religion is always a citadel of hope, which is built on the edge of despair.” It came to mind a couple of weekends ago when I went to see Dune: Part Two on opening weekend.

The film, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction magnum opus of the same name, tells the story of a young aristocrat, Paul Atreides, whose father, Leto, has been given as a fiefdom the inhospitable desert planet Arrakis. There on its sandy surface is the spice melange, harvested like oil to power travel across the known universe. Its indigenous people survive the harsh conditions of the planet with a deep reverence for water and the massive worms that move through the sand like sharks in open water.

Paul’s mother belongs to a secretive group that plays universe-wide politics from the shadows. They have been at work on Arrakis for years, preparing the native population through a prophetic promise to expect a messiah that would come to save them. When Paul arrives, many see him as the fulfillment of the prophecy.

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that Paul decides to play the part. The story continues in subsequent novels, and Paul’s followers unleash their radical devotion in horrific ways across galaxies. Herbert’s message is clear: be careful following messiahs who promise to save you.

There are many messiahs who call for our allegiance. Even those of us who follow Jesus Christ are tempted by the voices of those in religion, politics, economics, and the like who entice us with their cry as the vehicle for salvation. But as a recent primer on Christian ethics notes, “The Bible assumes that all persons are moral agents.” Created in God’s image and recipients of God’s grace in Christ, we are all endowed participants in the restoring acts of God in creation. We have already been found by the Messiah, and our job now is to live like it.

I’m grateful for that on days when the world seems to spin with all its madness, wondering if we aren’t all just one step away from being swallowed by a giant sandworm. Together, we caution one another and quell our excesses. We temper our extremes and moderate our self-righteousness. We share in each other’s joys and bear each other’s burdens. We make of our inhospitable culture of individualism a new kind of community we call the church; a citadel of hope built on the edge of despair.