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…
He concludes this section by pointing out the inter-relationship between reason and faith:
There is no doubt, therefore, that a “Kingdom of God” accomplished without God—a kingdom therefore of man alone—inevitably ends up as the “perverse end” of all things as described by Kant: we have seen it, and we see it over and over again. Yet neither is there any doubt that God truly enters into human affairs only when, rather than being present merely in our thinking, he himself comes towards us and speaks to us. Reason therefore needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and faith need one another in order to fulfil their true nature and their mission.
Reading this brought to mind Einstein’s quote: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” We need both science and religion in order to progress. Shutting one or the other out leads to trouble.
Benedict continues to discuss the true shape of Christian hope arguing that mere human structures can never meet the expectations of those seeking to perfect humanity. Politics and science can improve our situation and make us more human, “yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lay outside it.” So, “it is not science that redeems man; man is redeemed by love.” And the love that we can never lose, that unconditional love, comes only from Jesus Christ. It is He who has redeemed us and He in whom we must place our hope.
So how can we learn and practice hope? First, we can best learn hope through prayer. It is through prayer that we can free ourselves from lies and attachments here on earth that separate us from our Father in heaven and grow closer to Him and therefore have more hope in him. We can also develop hope by putting our faith into action. Suffering, too, can become a short of great hope for us:
We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.
By accepting our suffering and uniting it with the sufferings of Christ, we can become closer to Him. He points out that a society that rejects suffering is a cruel and inhuman society, prone to putting away those who are in pain or agony. It shuts them out, rather than joins with them in compassion. It is embracing those who suffer that we become more human and more compassionate.
Even the judgement of God is a reminder that we should have hope; the evil will be punished and the good rewarded. He points out that the atheistic claim that a good God would not allow injustice does not stand as it is the atheistic societies in our world that have created the greatest injustices:
The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested. Since there is no God to create justice, it seems man himself is now called to establish justice. If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.
If there is no ultimate reward or punishment, then it is upon this world to establish justice. However, this world’s justice inevitably leads to “might makes right,” and often descends into cruelty. Unless that justice is tempered by something external to Man, we’re left without hope of anything better.
He then discusses Purgatory as a source of hope. Which makes perfect sense to me; after all since nothing unclean shall enter Heaven (Rev 21:27), most of us will be in trouble if there’s not some cleansing process before we get there. If we have to be spotless upon the moment of our death. We not only have to be free from sin, but attachment to sin, which is a tall order for a person. Some make it; most won’t. I’m sure I won’t. I want Purgatory to exist, because if I have to achieve perfection in my time on earth, I may not pull it off. I’m not that strong. So Purgatory offers us hope:
For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil —much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15).
In the next paragraph, Benedict continues:
Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves
This parallels something I’ve often though: what if Hell is just the absence of God, after having been exposed to Him? If Jesus Himself is the “fire” we experience in Purgatory, then those who go to Hell are those who are completely consumed and left with nothing to experience God with. A weak analogy at a mystery we won’t completely understand until we experience it: in the afterlife, our sins and sinful attachments are something flammable like straw, while our good nature is something like a diamond that can’t be burnt. If all we have on us is straw, we’ll be burned until there’s nothing left of us that can be with Jesus, just the memory of what we would have had will be left with us, and that memory and feeling of loss is Hell. Any diamond left, no matter how small, will be able to be in the warmth and love of Jesus for eternity. The higher percentage diamond content we have, the larger the diamond left and the greater the enjoyment we’ll have in eternity as there will be more of us left to enjoy it. A not-so-hot analogy, I know, but it’s a finite analogy to an infinite mystery.
He closes with a discussion of how the life of Mary can provide us with a great example of Christian hope, as her entire life was spent trusting in God and her Son, and therefore having a grounded hope for the future.
It’s an excellent encyclical, and I enjoyed it even more as I reviewed for this post. It’s definitely worth taking the time to read on your own. Don’t depend on my summary of it; Benedict’s version is much better.