What Not to Hope In
BY The Editors
December 9-15, 2007 Issue | Posted 12/4/07 at 1:48 PM
Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical is Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope). It has a lot to say about what hope is, what the highest hope is, and how we can grow in the virtue of hope. But it also includes, along the way, a list of things that we should not put our hopes in.
Listing what we shouldn’t hope in is a helpful exercise, especially for Americans.
Our standard of living can easily lead to a false hope in this world. Technology has made our lives more comfortable than kings and queens in ages past. We can travel great distances quickly. We can buy tomatoes, oranges, apples and avocados from around the world year-round in our corner store. We can get in touch with almost anyone almost anywhere at almost any time — and we can fill our every waking moment with sophisticated entertainments.
Pope Benedict’s prophetic message is that much of what we hope in will fail us.
Don’t hope in progress, says the Pope, in the main critique of his encyclical.
He traces the history of this false hope starting with Francis Bacon, who “even put forward a vision of foreseeable inventions — including the aeroplane and the submarine” (No. 17). He sees it in Immanuel Kant, who saw progress as one day eclipsing Christianity. He refers to how Karl Marx hoped to build a human version of the Kingdom of God on earth, and how Vladimir Lenin took this hope to its logical and frightening conclusion.
He sums up: “In the 20th century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: He said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. … If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world” (No. 22).
Don’t hope in political liberation, says the Pope.
“Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar-Kochba” (No. 4), he points out.
Political answers never last, writes Benedict. “The moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are” (No. 24). That includes democracy. Self-government on a national scale only works if the members of each new generation are committed to governing themselves through moral living. “Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world,” says the Pope.
Don’t hope in social position or material goods, Benedict writes.
Social position doesn’t fulfill your need for meaning, says the Holy Father. “Many of the early Christians belonged to the lower social strata, and precisely for this reason were open to the experience of new hope … Yet from the beginning there were also conversions in the aristocratic and cultured circles, since they too were living ‘without hope and without God in the world’” (No. 5).
Material goods can be lost far more easily than they can be gotten. The Pope quotes the Letter to the Hebrews, which he says “speaks to believers who have undergone the experience of persecution and he says to them: ‘You had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one’” (No. 8).
Don’t hope in astrology, the Holy Father even says.
He includes a beautiful quote from St. Gregory Nazianzen who “says that at the very moment when the Magi, guided by the star, adored Christ the new King, astrology came to an end, because the stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ.”
Don’t hope in philosophy, writes Benedict.
In the days of the early Church “The philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human. … The true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after.”
The Holy Father says Christ is the true Philosopher: “He shows us the way, and this way is the truth” (no. 6).
We don’t hope in this life at all, says the Pope.
“Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive,” he says. “What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living forever — endlessly — appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end — this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable” (No. 10).
So, what can we hope in? Not simply “eternal life,” says the Pope — but redeemed life.
He sums it up in an astounding paragraph-long meditation on heaven. Eternity “is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality — this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.” He quotes Jesus (John 16:22): “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’” (No. 12). Amen.
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