In his latest encyclical, Spe salvi, Pope Benedict take us on an examination of Christian hope. He offers insights on the importance of hope not just to Christians, but to all people, and reminds us how hope can only truly be found in Jesus Christ.
He begins by discussing the tight relationship between faith and hope. For me, the key quote in this section was “Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well.” This really hit home to me as a warning to our culture and other Western societies. Despite the fact that many of those urging a more secular, pleasure driven lifestyle might make the claim that they are living for today, they are actually trying to avoid today. Rather than facing the reality before them, they are seeking to lose themselves in the pleasures of wealth, pornography, lust, drugs or any of the other large number of physical pleasures that our world offers. These, unfortunately for their partakers, can only deny reality for a short time, providing only a temporary escape. We see this especially in Western Europe, where the birthrate is declining so rapidly that population decline is imminent. Having abandoned their faith in Christ, Western Europe has lost their hope for the future and so is seeking their fulfillment in the temporary and transitory pleasures of the world, abandoning the true joys of love, through their failure to have children.
Benedict then goes on to contrast this despair with the hope Christians have in Christ. Using the example of Saint Josephine Bakhita as a transition, he shows how this formerly cruelly treated African slave found the love of Christ through the example of some loving and generous owners and found hope for the first time, ultimately joining a congregation of nuns. Benedict points out that Jesus was not involved in a fight for political liberation (contrary to the claims of “liberation theologists”), but instead but instead brought “an encounter with the Lord of all Lords, and encouter with the living God and this an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within.” The Kingdom of God is not an earthly Kingdom; it begins within the hearts of each of us, and is made ever more real and present as we share our faith with others. Referencing the letter of the Hebrews, he reminds us that we are not in our homeland now, but awaiting the day when enter our true home of Heaven.
He points out that it is faith that truly enables us to build a better world, by giving hope for a better future. That hope spills over into the present day, encouraging us to build toward that better future:
Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a “proof” of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a “not yet”. The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future.
He continues on to discuss eternal, making clear it is not just some dreary extension of this life, which he believes causes many people to fear it. It instead is life in the full sense, much more than we could possibly imagine, “a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.” He takes pains to point out, though, that Christian hope is not individualistic. Reminding us that the letter to the Hebrews, refers to a “city” of God, he points out there is necessarily a communal aspect to salvation. That we must work not just for the salvation of ourselves, but of others as well.
He then explores the development of the idea that salvation can be achieved on this world, tracing its genesis back to Francis Bacon (mmmm…..Bacon) who argued that the Scientific Revolution would enable man to solve his problems on this world, which leads the conclusion that we have no need of salvation or the next world. He continues to show how this train of thought led Marx to develop the theory of Communism:
After the bourgeois revolution of 1789, the time had come for a new, proletarian revolution: progress could not simply continue in small, linear steps. A revolutionary leap was needed. Karl Marx took up the rallying call, and applied his incisive language and intellect to the task of launching this major new and, as he thought, definitive step in history towards salvation—towards what Kant had described as the “Kingdom of God”. Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now.
Thus, having accomplished the revolution, Lenin must have realized that the writings of the master gave no indication as to how to proceed. True, Marx had spoken of the interim phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessity which in time would automatically become redundant. This “intermediate phase” we know all too well, and we also know how it then developed, not ushering in a perfect world, but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction. Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.
He continues later:
On this subject, all we can attempt here are a few brief observations. First we must ask ourselves: what does “progress” really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. In the twentieth 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. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.
While not using the word, Benedict is pointing out the error of Utopian thinking. No utopia is possible as long as Man remains Man, prone to error and sin. That was the quick discovery of the French Revolutionists: that the nature of Man did not match their assumptions. They quickly turned violent and oppressive, as did the Communists after them, in attempting to remake Man in their image. Utopians, be they radicals, progressives, Communists, socialists, libertarians, hippies, or whatever, overlook the way things are in favor of their vision of the way things ought to be, without really examining the question of why they aren’t that way. They tend to fall into a belief that some secret conspiracy is keeping their view of reality from occurring, and begin casting aspersions on those who disagree with them. They try to achieve a perfect society here on earth, as if a perfect society could be achieved when made up or led by imperfect beings. Hence, the conservative saying “Don’t immanentize the eschaton”, which is just a snobby way of saying “Don’t try to build heaven (or hell) here on earth.” Attempts to build heaven on earth are guaranteed to failure due to our imperfect nature. And, who would want to build hell?
More after the break…