To have hope

By 
  • December 7, 2007

{mosimage}With the release of his second encyclical, Spe Salvi (on Christian hope), Pope Benedict XVI offers less a dogmatic pronouncement than a university lecture, rewarding the careful reader with profound insights into why Christians have hope in the face of a world that appears to be hopeless.

Spe Salvi is also a penetrating look at the ways in which the modern world has sought to replace hope in God’s redemption with our own hope in infinite progress for the human race. As Pope Benedict says, this latter is truly a “fool’s hope,” one that can lead only to despair.

Through his text, Pope Benedict challenges popular notions about the meaning of salvation, redemption, eternal life and heaven. For many today, the promise of eternal life appears a rather naïve and barren notion, possibly because we still have a highly immature image of what this means.

“Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living forever — endlessly — appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end — this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable” (no. 10).

Fortunately, the Pope writes, our human notion of eternal life as simply an extension of temporal life with all the nasty bits removed is far from the truth. Rather, eternal life is merely the human term given to the great unknown moment, outside time, in which we are embraced by God’s love in its overwhelming totality. “It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and the after — no longer exists” (no. 12).

Our “hope,” then, is a deep longing for this “unknown,” this greatest of gifts promised by God.

Benedict also points out that it cannot be individualistic. Rather, by its very nature, salvation is a social reality. “No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve” (no. 48).

Moreover, this hope is a powerful and unquenchable challenge to the secular notion of hope in human progress. From Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to the present day, we have developed the idea that humanity, though science, will ultimately solve all the world’s ills, bringing about an era of peace and justice. But history, the Pope observes, has time and again shown this hope to be false. The bloody history of the 20th century alone stands as testimony to the reality that each generation must once again embrace an ethical life or be immersed in murder and oppression.

For Benedict, this kind of hope does not defy reason. Nor is it a fatalism that leads to inaction in the face of the world’s evils. “All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action,” he says.

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