We creatures of time are constantly moving into the future, and our eyes are usually facing forward. Hope is like headlights.
To be human is to be growing. We are all spiritually babies, and the most spiritually mature of us are the first to admit that fact. There are no grownups. Life is a continual pregnancy, and death is like birth. To live without hope is like being pregnant with a dead baby.
Hope is the life of the soul. A soul without hope is a dead soul. The Russian novelist Gogol wrote a story with the haunting title Dead Souls. I find the phrase unforgettable, especially when I look carefully into the eyes of some street people and also some very famous people. There really are such things as dead souls. Just as the body is dead when its source of life, the soul, is gone, so a soul is dead when its source of life is gone. That source is the spirit. The spirit's life-giving work in the soul is to give it a reason to live and a reason to die, in other words, hope. Hope is the soul's food. Without it the soul simply cannot live.
Freud says, sagely, that the two things everyone needs are love and work, and work means hope: a reason to get out of bed in the morning, a reason for doing anything. Our modern society finds it harder to find reasons for getting out of bed than any other society that has ever been. It also finds it easier to find reasons for getting into bed than any other society that has ever been. We know no reason to get out of bed and every reason to get in.
Hope is the forgotten virtue of our time because hope — real hope, the theological virtue of hope, as distinct from the vague sentiment of hopefulness, or optimism — means something scandalously transcendental, something offensively supernatural, to the modern mind. That mind dare not raise its eyes to the sky; its nose-to-the-grindstone worldliness cannot understand or respect the otherworldly goal. It can do nothing but invent sneering names for the goal like “escapism” and “pie in the sky bye and bye”. The New Testament appeals to heavenly hope on nearly every page. It is continually reminding us that our citizenship is in heaven. Modernity sees this not only as escapism and wishful thinking, but as traitorous: If our citizenship is not in this world, how can we be loyal to it? That is like thinking that if an unborn baby hopes to be born out of the womb, it is a traitor to the womb.
Hopelessness means living in a squashed, low, flat, one dimensional world, a ranch-style universe, where the sky is only a flat, painted ceiling a few feet above your head. Hope, on the other hand, means living in a universe in which it is possible to climb mountains and stand outdoors, where the terrifying and wonderful winds of heaven whip through your hair. The silliest of all the many superstitions of unbelievers is that Christianity is a dull, wimpy, boring batch of platitudes; that a Christian is something like a worm: flat and squashed and “humble” as Uriah Heep was “humble”. Rather, “we are never so tall as when we bow.” Hope gives us height, and room. It puts us outdoors, outside this stuffy little idol called society, in a cosmos that sprouts turrets and spires.
In an age of hope men looked up at the night sky and saw “the heavens”. In an age of hopelessness they call it simply “space”. Emptiness has replaced fullness. Where our ancestors heard “the music of the spheres” our contemporaries hear only “the eternal silence of those infinite spaces that fills me with terror”, as Pascal pointedly puts it.
The concept of hope has been hopelessly trivialized by the modern mind, just as the concept of faith has. just as “I believe” usually means merely “I feel”, so “I hope” usually means only “I wish” or “wouldn't it be nice if....” But Christian hope, the theological virtue of hope, is not a wish or a feeling; it is a rock-solid certainty, a guarantee, an anchor. We bury our dead “in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection”. Feelings are subject to every wind of chance and change, from politics to digestion. But Christian hope has a foundation. It is a house built upon a rock, and that rock is Christ. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”, we sing to the “little town of Bethlehem”, the “house of bread” from which our souls are fed.
For Christian hope does not come from us. It is our response to God's promises. It is not a feeling welling up from within, something we can whip up at will. It is saying Yes to God's guarantees. It is the alternative to calling God a liar. It is the simple and commonsensical acceptance of all God's promises on the ground that, as Saint Thomas Aquinas put it in the great hymn “Pange Lingua”, “than Truth's own word there is no truer token. “
The object of hope is God himself, just as God is the object of faith. The creeds formulate faith, and God's promises formulate hope. But hope's object is not the abstract promises but the concrete God, the person who made them. God is always first, always the initiator. Even our seeking him is the result of his first seeking us. Therefore hope too must be our response to his initiative. God is not the response to human hope; our hope is the response to him and his promises.
Hope is thus definite and specific, not vague, because God has promised definite and specific things. That does not mean that these things are always clear rather than mysterious, or that they do not require a leap of faith or a lot of waiting or testing. But it means that God, who is not fuzzy and woolly but sharp and specific, makes promises that are not fuzzy and woolly but sharp and specific. The promises are written in Scripture, not just in our psyches. Hope is specified by a book, by words, rather than by feelings. If you had the time, it would be an amazing exercise to go through the whole of Scripture just noting and counting the promises. There are well over three hundred of them, three hundred distinct promises, many of them repeated many times in different forms.
Our God is thus a God of promises. And he keeps every one to the letter. Promises come true. The scriptural notion of truth is not, like the Greek notion, a timeless formula, something abstract and static. Rather, it is something that happens in history, it comes true. The Messiah is not an ideal but a person. Creation, fall, Incarnation, death, Resurrection, ascension, Second Coming — these are not myths or images or meanings merely, but actual events. Truth is dramatic; it happens; we see it. John begins his first epistle with words that still invoke awe at this incarnation of truth in time: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands ... we proclaim to you.”
Yet, though hope is not vague, it is universal. Though specific, it is also generic. There is a cosmic dimension to Christian hope that overarches and transcends and environs particular events. Gabriel Marcel, the French Catholic personalist philosopher, defines this hope as “the affirmation that there exists, beyond all data, all inventories, and all calculations, a mysterious principle [principium, source, origin, not abstract statement or formula] that is in connivance with me, that cannot but will that which I will if what I will deserves to be willed and is in fact willed with the whole of my being”. This rather obscure but profound definition means that our deepest needs, values, longings, and ideals, which flow from our God-given nature, from the image of God in us, are not just facts about us but also facts about objective reality; not just subjective blips on our mental screen but realities detected by our inner radar; not just flotsam and jetsam on the sea of the human psyche but rocket ships that really touch other worlds.
Hope means that the reason I must choose life is that at the heart of reality life is chosen. Hope means that when I say “it is better to be than not to be”, I am not expressing a prejudice or even a feeling but a fact; that all things that exist join me in a cosmic chorus of approval. Hope means that my implicit desire for God, however obscure or unconscious, is God's own trace in my being. Hope means that the agony and ecstasy of longing for a joy this world can never give is a sure sign that I was made by and for one who is joy itself, and him alone.
Thus when I hope against hope that my friend will recover from a disease the doctors assure me is fatal, I am not playing the game of predictions and statistical averages against the doctors but prophetically asserting something about the nature of ultimate reality: that it is on my side in willing life over death, that death is the rind or epidermis or outer appearance of life, not vice versa; that ultimate reality is not this indifferent cosmos but an infinitely caring and loving will.
One cannot overemphasize hope because the only alternative is despair, which is worse than death. Better to die in hope than to live in despair, as Charles discovered at the end of Dickens' classic A Tale of Two Cities, when he said of his chosen martyrdom, “It is a far, far better thing I do than ever I have done.” Despair is the silhouette of hope: it defines the shape of hope by its absence. You never appreciate a thing as sharply as when it is taken from you. For this reason we cannot be too grateful to the great despairers in literature, from Ecclesiastes (“vanity of vanities, all is vanity”) to Jean-Paul Sartre. One could almost construct a theology from the writings of the great atheists. The God who is not there is sometimes clearer than the God who is.
A revitalization of the forgotten theological virtue of hope would go far toward healing the tensions in the Church between liberals and conservatives. For liberals emphasize love, often at the expense of faith, and conservatives emphasize faith, often at the expense of love. Hope builds bridges between the two other theological virtues, thus between liberals and conservatives. If you start with love, hope prods you into faith, for if you love someone, you want the dogmatic, glorious, supernatural truths of the faith about human destiny to be true. And if you start with faith, hope prods you into love, for if you believe what the Church teaches about human destiny, your love for God must become also love for his image in your neighbor, who is destined to share divine life. Hope builds bridges — between faith and love, between conservatives and liberals, between present and future, between earth and heaven.
Kreeft, Peter. “Hope.” Chapter 29 in Fundamentals of the Faith. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 176-180.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Fundamentals of the Faith - ISBN 0-89870-202-X.
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.
He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press
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