Saved by Hope
Having just finished my first reading of Pope Benedict’s second encyclical, Saved by Hope (Spe Salvi), I can pass along a summary of its riches, without obscuring them through excessive personal commentary. As the title indicates, this encyclical is devoted to the signal importance of hope to God's plan. Benedict’s central thesis is that Christian hope utterly transforms human life.
Hope and Faith
The Pope begins by remarking on the close relationship between hope and faith in Scripture. The Letter to the Hebrews links the “fullness of faith” (10:22) to “the confession of our hope without wavering” (10:23); in his first letter, Peter urges Christians to be ready to give a reason for their hope (1 Pet 3:15), that is their faith; and St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that before Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Benedict points out that from the first a “distinguishing mark of Christians” was “the fact that they have a future” (#2).
The pope notes the electrifying impact this had on people in the earliest period as they abandoned the various pagan religions, which offered no credible claims about the ultimate destiny of man, in favor of Christianity. The same is still true today for many who can find no ultimate meaning in life until they encounter the light of Christ. Benedict further insists that the role of hope is vital, for faith can be interpreted (wrongly) in a merely informative sense, whereas genuine hope always goes beyond the informative to the performative. Hope brings a change of life and an active commitment to whatever leads to this ultimate future, this salvation, this fulfillment and happiness.
The Pope argues persuasively that Christian hope should have the same dramatic impact on the contemporary world that it had on the equally materialistic world of the ancients. In one of many particularly fine passages he writes:
It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love. (#5)The Reality of the Kingdom of God
In the course of his discussion, Benedict develops the important point that faith, by opening us here and now to what we hope for, enables us to experience the reality of God’s kingdom in this present life. This experience in turn becomes the final proof to us that what we hope for is real and true. The pope thus explicates the seemingly illogical power of faith to confirm itself. Because faith enables us to experience and participate in that kingdom for which we hope, we are able actually to know from this present experience that God's promises are true. This, Benedict argues, is no mere wish fulfillment, but a legitimate fruit of faith, which is already in some measure the substance of things hoped for.
Another important aspect of our participation in the Kingdom of God is that our hope is not purely individual, but directed always toward a union with Christ, and through Christ to one another. For the Christian, salvation is always a social reality. The inexpressible fulfillment and joy promised by our hope is made possible precisely by a community of love. We cannot prepare ourselves to receive this gift unless we abandon our own self-centeredness and open ourselves to the Other and to others.
This is an important point for Benedict because he sees clearly that religion has retreated in the modern period into a sort of private world. He explains that modernity has put its faith in technology and politics as the means for the perfection of the world, leaving only private and other-worldly considerations to the domain of religion. Infected by these same attitudes, Christians have too often learned to frame their aspirations and activities in personal, individualistic and private terms. Then secularists turn and accuse Christians of seeking only a private and selfish salvation. But the restoration promised by Christ is not a private and individualistic restoration, for Christian hope always has a corporate dimension.
The Pope reviews the ways in which first rationalism, then science and technology, and finally politics have become vehicles of corporate hope, vehicles which cannot ultimately go where they need to go to satisfy both the necessary freedom and the intrinsic longing of the human person. He notes that in the course of time “it has become clear that this hope is constantly receding. Above all it has become apparent that this may be a hope for a future generation, but not for me” (#30). This brings Christian hope back to center stage.
Settings for Hope
The pope identifies three “settings” for learning and practicing hope. The first is prayer, in which “we must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God” (#33). While lesser legitimate hopes are also important to us, we must ultimately move beyond even these to the ultimate hope which grounds our faith in God.
The second is action. Benedict sees a serious and important relationship among hope, suffering and significant action. He notes that only those who are full of hope can accept suffering, and even turn it into a hymn of praise. Therefore, it is hope that enables us to bear witness to the truth for the good of man, despite the suffering this may bring. Moreover, a society whose members are incapable of accepting their own suffering will also be incapable of any sort of solidarity with the suffering of others. Only those strengthened by hope can both accept their own sufferings and also share in the sufferings of others, in an extension of Christ’s redemptive love.
The third is Judgment. Benedict argues that the Christian notion of the Last Judgment is rooted not in terror but in hope, hope not just for individual salvation but for the restoration of the entire order of things. This hope can be fulfilled only by God, for the programs of mere men cannot usher in a perfect world without eliminating human liberty, and even then the sins of the architects would ensure the world’s continuing imperfection. In contrast, hope in future justice can fulfill man’s deepest desire while providing a spur to the conversion of hearts here and now.
Near the end of the encyclical, Benedict incorporates a highly relevant explanation of purgatory, which is an essential component of Christian hope precisely because many people’s lives are characterized by a desire for the good that is never completely extinguished, despite many weaknesses and sins. Few of us, perhaps, are perfectly ready for God or have completely rejected him, and so we hope also in a final period of purgation, in which even our hopes will be purified. Benedict also weaves our very prayers and sacrifices for others, including those in purgatory, into his thesis on hope: “Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too” (48).
As is frequently the case with documents of this type, the Pope concludes with an invocation to Mary. This takes the form of a moving prayer highlighting Mary’s own personal hope, the hope that enabled her to embrace her new role as the Mother of the Church, even when all seemed lost at the foot of the cross. Benedict concludes by reminding us that Mary is indeed the star of hope, asking her to “shine on us and guide us on our way!” (#50)
Spe Salvi is a rich reflection on hope in a relatively small package. The entire encyclical can be read in an hour, though an extended meditation by way of spiritual reading would certainly be appropriate. Its theme of hope as the key to salvation is particularly relevant and reassuring in our own times, which might truly be described as an age of false hope, or even of hopelessness.
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