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"God is the foundation of hope"
on April 21, 2008
So says Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi (paragraph 31), his second encyclical, and the entire elegant and closely reasoned essay is an argument in defense of the claim. As is typical of papal encyclicals, references in Spe Salvi tend to focus on scripture, the patristic fathers, and a handful of medieval theologians. But it also strikes me that Benedict's reflections on hope are informed as well by the 20th century's greatest Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, although Rahner is never explicitly referenced.
It's no accident, Benedict argues, that in early drawings Christ was often depicted as a philosopher. Philosophy in the early centuries of the Christian era wasn't an academic discipline so much as a search for the proper way to live. Early Christians saw Jesus as offering the best way, one that made sense of the present by looking to the future. The good news brought by Christ, writes Benedict, was thus not only informative. It was also performative: that is, it provided an incentive and purpose for a particular lifestyle.
Faith, argues Benedict, is a "reaching out towards things that are still absent," but it also "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" (paragraph 7). This is the basis of the hope offered by Christ: that the future, although it can't be known, is nonetheless laden with promise, and that the awareness of this affects the way in which we live in the present. Hope, then, based on faith, isn't merely a yearning for the future; it's a present mode of living that's informed by hope in a positive future (shades of Rahner here).
This hope needs something infinite to ground it, to make it genuinely worthy of hope, and that infinite something is, of course, God (again, this is reminiscent of Rahner). The hope, furthermore, must be both personal and collective: that is, hope, like faith must be that which sustains the individual and binds together the community. In showing how this double movement is possible, Benedict does an especially fine job of arguing against private models of hope (such as those endorsed by some evangelicals) on the one hand and collectivist models (such as those endorsed by secular utopians) on the other (paragraphs 13-23). In the process, he also shows that Christian hope is compatible with human freedom, which always makes the future contingent, and human suffering, which is always voluntarily shared by God (paragraphs 24-31, 35-39).
This is Benedict at his finest: holding contraries in a creative tension, rather than rejecting one for the sake of the other to achieve logical neatness at the expense of theological depth. The personal and the communal, the present and the future, uncertainty and hope: these, the antipodes of human existence, are also the compass points Benedict wisely uses to help us better understand the manner of living taught by Jesus the philosopher.