One of the most profund aspects of the new encyclical Spe Salvi is the way the Holy Father distinguishes the Christian virtue of hope from the secular concept. Christian faith is not simply a looking forward to the future, but something that we interiorize and allow to change us here in the present. It is not simply information about doctrines and dogmas and events that we intellectually believe will occur in the future. As Benedict says, Catholic faith and hope are "not just "informative" but "performative" (SS 4). It is a vibrant hope that the Catholic (by the very act of faithful hoping) actually changes himself in Christ and brings himself closer to the very object of his hope. We do not hope for heaven in a merely future looking way, but by hoping for heaven we actually bring heaven closer to us and in a way participate in it here and now. Consider this quote:
"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" (SS 7).
Constrasted to this theological, substantial hope is the prevalent secular hope, which is an empty, forward looking hope that can be reduced to a longing for something that at present does not exist. In secular culture, this "hope" is manifested in the cult of progress, the belief that man will by his own ingenuity find a solution to all of the world's problems through science and politics. While Christianity has been criticized by many for focusing men's minds too much on the future and not enough on the world's present ills (Nietzsche), Benedict says it is actually the other way around: it is modern man who by his focus on an illusive better world to come actually loses sight of the giftedness of the present. The Catholic, though seeking a heavnly homeland, is not in the least way unconcerned with what happens in this world, as the atheists argued. Benedict says:
"Even if external structures remained unaltered, this changed society from within. When the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christians here on earth do not have a permanent homeland, but seek one which lies in the future (cf. Heb 11:13-16; Phil 3:20), this does not mean for one moment that they live only for the future: present society is recognized by Christians as an exile; they belong to a new society which is the goal of their common pilgrimage and which is anticipated in the course of that pilgrimage" (SS 4).
Christian hope changes its possessor and allows the goodness of heaven to spill out into this life, manifesting itself in the joy of the Christian life and in the way that joy in Christ's salvation procured for us is allowed to transform all of society even as it transforms our own souls.
Another good point of Spe Salvi is that it disentangles Catholic hope from the slang way in which the term is used. For example, "I hope to win the lottery," can be translated as "That would be nice if I won the lottery, but you and I know it will never happen." In the slang usage, the word "hope" almost is used as an antithesis to "certainty." If I were certain I would win the lotto why would I hope? I only hope because it is far from certain. Not so with Christian hope. Hope, Benedict tells us, has a real "substance" to it, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells says (Heb. 11:1). It is not opposed to certainty but in fact establishes our certainty, though in an embryonic form:
"Est autem fides sperandarum substantia rerum, argumentum non apparentium—faith is the “substance” of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. Saint Thomas Aquinas, using the terminology of the philosophical tradition to which he belonged, explains it as follows: faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of “substance” is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say “in embryo”—and thus according to the “substance”—there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this “thing” which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not “appear”), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence" (SS 7).
For me, this is one of the most profound parts of the encyclical and I know I will be studying and rereading it many more times to make sure I really get it. But it is so important for us to be able to define Christian hope as being very different from worldly, empty hope. Our hope has substance and establishes our certainty in the promises of God; worldly hope is said to be hope precisely because it has no certainty. Our hope is a proof, "not only a reality that we await, but a real presence" (SS 8).
In paragraphs 10-15, Benedict then goes into a very interesting and pertinent discussion on hope in its relation to eternal life and whether or not Christina hope is too individualistic. I will examine these parts of the document next time.