Essay / Theology

The Pope on Hope

On Nov. 30, Pope Benedict XVI issued the second encyclical of his pontificate. Spe Salvi, “saved by hope,” is a thoughtful and stimulating document by this elderly bishop of Rome. We shouldn’t expect anything less from Joseph Ratzinger, who would have been one of the major theologians of the 20th century even if he hadn’t become Pope.

In Spe Salvi, Benedict gleans some of the strongest statements of Scripture on the nature of hope. This is such a rich theme in the Bible that the encyclical is a compendium of invigorating biblical theology. He also goes on to cite some excellent passages from the church fathers on the same subject, and interacts with an impressive range of modern thinkers, from Bacon and Kant to Marx and Adorno.

Everybody should read this. Granted, there are several passages where the Pope veers off of a “mere Christian” message, and these are the places where predictably sectarian Roman Catholic ideas show up. He takes some swats at Luther and shadow-boxes rather irrelevantly with Protestant biblical scholarship in paragraph 7 –since he’s arguing against a German Bible translation tradition, his remarks won’t matter much to English Bible readers. There’s a nod toward created grace in 8, a presupposed normativity of infant baptism in 10, and some tendentious synergism in 35 that spoils otherwise good remarks on grace and salvation. Then towards the end comes an unconvincing attempt to simultaneously rehabilitate and demythologize the doctrine of purgatory in sections 44-47, and a meditation on Mary as the star of hope in 49, which turns into an extended prayer to her in 50. The prayer (“Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way!”) is supposed to be the rhetorical climax of the document, but speaking from my own evangelical sensibilities, it’s cringe-inducing and spoils the ending.

But there’s so much good stuff in Spe Salvi that it’s well worth reading. Benedict makes some of the points we’ve already come to expect him to be eloquent about. He remains one of the best public spokesmen for the main Christian message,one of the best Christian critics of dogmatic materialism, and one of the most cultured theologians who can get major media attention with a hefty meditation on a central biblical idea. He shrewdly links hope to themes of liberation and emancipation from slavery, and by the third paragraph he is telling the story of Josephine Bakhita, Sudanese Christian and freed slave (1869-1947).

In case you’re still wondering whether to make time for it, here are some of the best lines.

2. Christianity was not only “good news”—the communication of a hitherto unknown content. In our language we would say: the Christian message was not only “informative” but “performative”. That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing.

3. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God.

(Josephine Bakhita:) “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”

4. Jesus was not Spartacus…

Brothers and sisters—this is how Christians addressed one another. By virtue of their Baptism they had been reborn, they had been given to drink of the same Spirit and they received the Body of the Lord together, alongside one another.

5. Saint Gregory Nazianzen … says that at the very moment when the Magi, guided by the star, adored Christ the new king, astrology came to an end, because the stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ. This scene, in fact, overturns the world-view of that time, which in a different way has become fashionable once again today. 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.

6. The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through:

7. 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.

8. the things to come, the promise of Christ, are not only a reality that we await, but a real presence: he is truly the “philosopher” and the “shepherd” who shows us what life is and where it is to be found.

10. do we really want this—to live eternally? 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 for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift.

11. In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. … The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”

12. This type of hope has been subjected to an increasingly harsh critique in modern times: it is dismissed as pure individualism, a way of abandoning the world to its misery and taking refuge in a private form of eternal salvation.

16. How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?

17. “Redemption”, the restoration of the lost “Paradise” is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis.

18. The two key concepts of “reason” and “freedom”, however, were tacitly interpreted as being in conflict with the shackles of faith and of the Church as well as those of the political structures of the period.

21. (of Marx): His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.

22. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil.

23. Yes indeed, reason is God’s great gift to man, and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life. But when does reason truly triumph? When it is detached from God? When it has become blind to God?

Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.

Even the best structures function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order. Freedom requires conviction;

25. every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed.

Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it.

26. Jesus Christ has “redeemed” us. Through him we have become certain of God, a God who is not a remote “first cause” of the world, because his only-begotten Son has become man…

27. Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life.

Love of God leads to participation in the justice and generosity of God towards others.

28. Christ died for all. To live for him means allowing oneself to be drawn into his being for others.

31. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us.

33. To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well.

34. Praying must always involve this intermingling of public and personal prayer. This is how we can speak to God and how God speaks to us.

35. Certainly we cannot “build” the Kingdom of God by our own efforts—what we build will always be the kingdom of man with all the limitations proper to our human nature. The Kingdom of God is a gift…

We can uncover the sources of creation and keep them unsullied, and in this way we can make a right use of creation, which comes to us as a gift, according to its intrinsic requirements and ultimate purpose.

38. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society.

39. Bernard of Clairvaux coined the marvellous expression: Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis —God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with.

41. From the earliest times, the prospect of the Judgement has influenced Christians in their daily living as a criterion by which to order their present life, as a summons to their conscience, and at the same time as hope in God’s justice.

42. If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.

43. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life.

44. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope.

45. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge.

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