Monday, June 6, 2011

The Theology of Hope

Christian Hope

To the Christian, Hope is not an option. It is, in fact, one of those elements at the core of what it means to be a Christian. When writing to the Corinthians, St Paul gave a wonderful treatise on the Christian life. In a chapter often heard at weddings because of the profuse use of the word “love” he provides a wonderful meditation on the character of Christ and a challenge to the Christian.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13:4-13)

Faced with this text the Christian must ask himself, am I patient and kind or am I jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude? Do I insist on my own way? Am I irritable or resentful? Do I rejoice in what is wrong or what is right? Do I bear all things? Do I believe all the Church teaches? Do I hope in all of the promises of the Gospel? Do I endure all temptations to sin and doubt?

This meditation is able to bring the Christian clarity as each question is rhetorical and need only be answered interiorly. We know that God is love[1] and we, with our fallen nature are incapable of living up to the demands of faith, but we also know that “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth”[2] and so, what is impossible for us on our own, becomes possible through Christ who lives within us[3]

The life we live now as Christians, imperfect though it is, is the life of Faith and Hope in Love. The life we hope for is the life of Love in its purest form. The Christian has no need for harps or clouds, for the heaven that we hope for is not a relentless millennia upon millennia of life bound to time as we know it. It is, rather, rather a rapturous and ecstatic moment which endures out of time where we are held in an enveloping, beatific embrace with pure Love Himself. This is what we were made for. This is what each soul yearns for, though we can no longer articulate it because our ability to understand the needs of the soul was damaged by original sin. 

The Object of our Hope

There is an innate desire in each of us that drives much of our life. Left to ourselves this desire is unable to be named or explicitly known. We do not know how to satisfy it, and we try all kinds of ways to do just that, but we always know, in our heart of hearts that it remains unfulfilled. We seek it in our loves and passions. We look to fill it in our family and friends, our spouse, our hobbies and our work. Each of these things do in some way satisfy a need and provide us with some happiness, but they do not, individually or collectively, fulfil that fundamental desire that each of us harbours in the depths of our soul. That desire is the one lasting thing in our lives, and it is the only thing that will remain with us at the moment of death.[4]

The human’s fear of death arises not so much in its finality, but is rather a fear that this most innate desire will remain unfulfilled. As death approaches our soul cries out, “Isn’t there something more?” We were made for something, but it is elusive and unattainable in this life. The Christian has the grace of knowing that it is the intimate union with Divine Love that we desire. This knowledge gives his heart Joy and his soul contentment. He knows that as long as he is willing to stop trying to fulfil his innate hunger with other things like sex or wealth or power, as long as he embraces the life of divine love, he has the assurance of attaining that secret desire for which he was made.

The Christian is asked to become a sign of contradiction[5], a grain of wheat that dies[6] so it may gain a new life.  We are being asked to give up the quest of self. We are asked to put ourselves in the lowest place at the table[7], to not seek our own honour or the gratification of our every desire. We are asked to humble ourselves[8], to repent of our sins[9], to pick up our cross[10], to make ourselves holy[11] and perfect[12], to love our neighbour[13] and our enemies[14] and in return we are given an assurance that the innermost desire of our soul will be perfectly fulfilled. God has made each of us for Himself, and “and our hearts are restless until they rest in” Him[15].

Each of us has been custom moulded to fit that place that Christ has prepared for us in heaven[16]. Nothing else will satisfy our innate desire for love. If we try to fit other love into that place with God then like a stone in a shoe it will have to be removed before we can ever be happy. No other love can satisfy us or will satisfy us. We are asked give up all loves that would take the place reserved for Divine Love. The hope of the Christian then is based on the assurance that we will be truly satisfied and our soul need never cry out “isn’t there more?” for we already have the emphatic answer “Yes!”  At the moment of death, the Christian soul cries out “I desire Devine Love!”

The Consequence of our Hope

Hope itself does not sustain us in our own love which tends towards that Divine Love for which we long. Unfortunately, humans have become fickle creatures. We were not made that way, but because of the original sin our natures are wounded and we are inclined to be ignorant, we tend towards evil, we are weak willed and prone to concupiscence.[17] We need to constantly battle with ourselves to live as we ought.[18]  If hope is the assurance of our future union with Divine Love, then faith is the means of attaining that for which we hope. But hope and faith are insufficient to sustain love. Rather it is love that sustains our faith and hope, this is why St Paul finishes his meditation on the Christian life [cited above] with “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Only by cultivating a relationship with Divine Love revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ, are we able to grow in faith, increase our hope and perfect our love. Each one of us is called to a vocation of love with love. We must turn our gaze away from ourselves, away from the obsession of our unknown innate desire, and look outwards to love others, neighbour and God. The Christian echoes the words of St John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”[19]

It is in sustaining this outward view, that the Christian encounters the world around him. In looking to Christ he sees the poor, the blind, the hungry and the lame. The widow and the orphan become other Christs for him to love, and his love compels him to tend to their needs. He looks at strangers not as rivals to compete with but as souls to love; souls to whom he can introduce Love himself. His Love feeds his faith, because it provides tangible evidence of the Divine Love in whom he has faith. His hope grows stronger because he knows that the promise of Divine Love has begun to be fulfilled here and now.

The Christian is compelled by the love that fuels his hope and faith to go out into the world and perform good works, works of mercy, compassion and charity. These works are done not as acts of philanthropy (i.e. to find a sense of personal fulfilment, or as a form of self-aggrandizement), but rather as acts of self-less love and even worship. The Christian tries to bring the face of Christ to those he helps, that they might know the unconditional love that God is and offers. But he also finds Christ in the faces of those he helps which enables him to love all the more.

This synergy between faith and hope bears fruit in the Christian community, and has been a positive force for the advancement of the world for nearly two thousand years. The charity and compassion towards the sick and poor (both Christian and non-Christian) is one of the defining marks of the Christian. Even the enemies of the Church such as Lucian (AD 130-200), Julian the Apostate (c. AD 360), and Martin Luther admit that it is this generous charity and compassion that sets the Church apart from all other groups[20].

The Hope of Christians has not only fed the poor and hungry of many generations, but has been this same hope that has given the world hospitals[21], schools and the university system[22], numerous scientific advances[23], the recognition of equality under the law[24] and many basic assumptions we have in our Western morality[25].

The Loss of Christian Hope

When we lose our hope there are several negative consequences both for ourselves and society. The loss of hope does not necessarily lead one to despair or make one pessimistic about the future, but it does turn our gaze inward once again. We become somewhat narcissistic, looking to gratify ourselves with fun and pleasure and good feelings. Our personal morality slips as we no longer accept the objective truth of faith, or the personified Truth that is Jesus Christ[26]. As we slowly embrace relativism, we become practically (if not overtly) less convinced of the equality of all men and an innate human dignity. Our esteem for others falters and we become more concerned with our own self-esteem.

We may continue to help the poor and hungry, but we look at them more with pity than compassion, or as a means of fulfilling a need for people to think well of us. When lose the hope of an eternity of perfect fulfilment, we begin to seek new ways to satisfy our every desire in this life. Those around me are no longer companions, fellow pilgrims on the road towards our true home, but they can become a means for me to satisfy my needs and urges.

A utilitarian worldview becomes predominant, and the primary question in a society without hope becomes “What is in it for me?” Employees become seen merely as a resource in the production process. Sex becomes inconsequential and fornication common place. The demand for respect and rights increases at the same time that fundamental rights and institutions become reviled. We live in a society that is characterised by a loss of Christian Hope and despite our technological and scientific advancements we are still asking that fundamental question as we draw our last breath, “Isn’t there something more?” The Christian knows the answer to that question, Christ is our hope.


[1] 1 Jn 4:8

[2] Ps 124:8

[3] Gal 2:20

[4] Lewis, C.S., Made for Heaven: and why on Earth it Matters. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005) cf. pp.16-20

[5] Lk 2:34

[6] Jn 12:24

[7] Lk 14:10

[8] Mt 18:4, 23:12, Lk 14:11, 18:14, James 4:10, 1 Pet 5:6

[9] Mt 3:2, 4:17, Mk 1:15, Lk 13:3,5, Acts 2:38, 3:19, 8:22

[10] Mt 10:38, 16:24, Mk 8:34, Lk 9:23

[11] 1 Pet 1:15

[12] Mt 5:48

[13] Mt 19:19, 22:39, Mk 12:31

[14] Mt 5:44, Lk 6:27, 35

[15] St Augustine, ConfessionsPenguin Classics Series (London: Penguin, 1961) Book I, 1

[16] Jn 14:3

[17] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, (Electronic Ed, Coyote Canyon Press) (Downloaded April 2011) [I-II, Q. 85, Art.]

[18] Rom 7:15

[19] Jn 3:30

[20] Woods, Jr. Thomas E., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, [Washington: Regnery Publishing Inc. 2005] pp.180-181

[21] ibid, p.176

[22] ibid, p.47

[23] ibid, cf. pp.67-114

[24] ibid, p.151

[25] ibid, cf. pp.201-215

[26] Jn 14:6

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