Today's essay by Dr Anthony Lowes is "theologically heavier" than yesterday's but is packed with a series of observations that merit quiet reflection and opening up in further conversation. You may enjoy Jürgen Moltmann's observation that the Middle Ages had a focus on the theological virtue of love, the Reformation on the theological virtue of faith, and the focus of the modern era should have been on hope. As Tony concludes though "one of the saddest religious scandals of the latter twentieth century is the way in which the Roman Catholic church, at least, has awakened briefly to the possibilities of hope and now is in very real danger of falling back once more into a conservative coma". ...Brian Coyne, Editor
Hope as an all-in wager...
The Christian response to the final future is to risk all as in a wager, not with the certainty of one who places a bet once the outcome of the race is known, but with the certainty of one who is led into the unknown on the basis of rock-solid promise and sure personal guarantee.
Such assurance enables the Christian to dare a third course beyond 'stoic apatheia' in the face of time's painful ambivalence and 'wild protest' at its cruel absurdity. Hope is that third course 'in love with its own fulfilment, desiring to become joy.'
Hope is most characteristic of what it means to be human. To be human is not merely to hope, but to be hope. Human hope is the point at which the world is changed. It is also the point at which genuine encounter occurs between the deepest aspiration of the human heart and the revealed Word of God.
It is therefore possible to see why church, defined broadly so as to coincide with the divine-human communion, and even the institutional church for all its disconcerting human imperfection, is the locus of hope in an otherwise hopeless world hopelessly infatuated, obsessed and eventually disillusioned by its myriad categorical futures.
Outlining Christian hope in this fashion demonstrates quite clearly that what we are talking about is definitely not a 'categorical hope' based on patent signs of present corporate ecclesial health. It is something fundamentally transcendent. Something which surpasses present or past indicators. (Though it must be said that, if we take indicators from the long view of Christian church history, the manifold profound crises which have failed to destroy and have yielded to subsequent survival or revival of the institution, do give some sort of 'categorical' encouragement about the possibility of its present and future resilience.)
Still, in the end it is through the cherished memory of Jesus' commitment to time and the processes of time, that it is possible to believe in, hope in the adventure of history.
An end-time virtue...
As one of the theological virtues, hope is only properly understood in a trinitarian context. Hope has been regarded in theological discourse as the least of the three theological virtues. It appeared chronologically after faith and love. It has also been regarded as least because of the more radical nature of its fulfilment, if, as it invariably has been, it is understood according to the deficit model of longing for fulfilment. Once fulfilment has been achieved, according to this model, hope is superseded.
In this sense it is inferior to faith, which transforms into knowledge and to love which endures essentially unchanged. But if all three virtues are considered to be the attitudinal and behavioural core of the human response to the three-personed communion within God in which humankind is encompassed through grace, then the three virtues themselves can only be understood as forming their own self-contained entanglement.
Thus faith becomes more than a blurred form of knowledge of being which is ultimately refocused in absolute clarity in the beatific vision. It becomes 'knowing' in the sense of personal encounter, it becomes trust and commitment. Hope within this framework becomes a hunger, and eager and confident expectation which goads the process of personal engagement; hope is essential interpersonal dynamism. It is not unallied in this guise to the most profound form of eros or primary interpersonal attraction.
It is true that hope in time is modally different from hope in eternity. The category of unfulfilment, of the not yet, is much more easily able to be articulated in the distended processes of time. Hope is very often spawned in the very moment when fulfilment seems most unlikely; when foresight, prediction and calculation seem most to contradict the possibility of the absolute future.
Love is the consummation of personal relationship; it is both end and beginning of a further rotation through the spiral of faith and hope and love. The virtues are theological not just because they stem from God and lead to God and have to do with God as their formal object.
I would contend that it is a key implication from my central argument that they are theological because they characterise the very communal existence of God in all eternity. They colour the 'interaction' between Father and Son and Spirit. Further, as the three divine persons emerge in time and encompass all human persons through the dual process of creation-redemption, these three virtues characterise the central human response to such an engagement.
The church as the locus of hope...
The current relevance of the virtue of hope is evident in Jürgen Moltmann's identification of hope as the hallmark of the present era, following previous eras which had been marked by each of the other two theological virtues:
I was trying to find a new fundamental category for theology in general: the theology of love in the Middle Ages and the theology of faith at the Reformation was to be followed in modern times by the theology of hope.
If the church of today is the locus of hope, it is because it is the custodian of the memory of Jesus (and solely because of this). Such a memory infuses the present through the process of reprisal. The point of this backward gaze is to empower the present to engage the future. Reprisal is meant to promote prognosis (forward projection). It is prognosis which gives point to the present.
The difficulty for the church lies in being in love with both the past and the future at once, so that the present can flourish. A church which becomes fixated in pre-critical consciousness, which chooses the past as its preferred period, can hardly speak with the conviction of one 'whose native language is hope'.
A church likewise whose counsellor is fear can hardly respond to the prompting of the Spirit, whose engagement with the other persons within the Trinity and with human persons in their personal history, is characterised by forward-thrusting hope.
Perhaps, as I have observed earlier, one of the saddest religious scandals of the latter twentieth century is the way in which the Roman Catholic church, at least, has awakened briefly to the possibilities of hope and now is in very real danger of falling back once more into a conservative coma. As Bruno Forte points out, 'no-one has the right to pine for the past'.
©2012Dr Anthony Lowes