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CCADD International Conference, 19-23 September 2008

Cathedral College at the Washington National Cathedral




Karel Blei


It is a good thing that a section on Christian hope has been included into our CCADD program. We are dealing with burning political and military issues. And we meet here as Christians. How do these two go together?

We realize that political decision makers and military authorities are doing their job in hope; viz.: in the hope that it might make sense, that it might help create better life conditions in today’s world, at least that it might help prevent a (further) deterioration of life on earth. Sometimes, a politician explicitly gives account of that hope. So Barack Obama, in his bestseller under the remarkable title The Audacity of Hope, in which he as presidential candidate unfolds what he has in mind for America, an America that should be different from what it is now. Likewise, his opponent, John McCain, speaks of a change he aims to realize, provided he will be the new inhabitant of the White House; that is hís hope. Now, both, McCain and Obama, present themselves as Christians (hopefully not only for electoral reasons!). How does the hope they foster and proclaim as politicians relate to the hope they share as Christians? To put it more generally: how do political and military hopes (and aims) relate to Christian hope? Is there any relationship between those two?

Indeed, Christian faith also speaks of hope. A hope (as it is said in the Apostles’ Creed) for our Lord Jesus Christ, who, being “seated at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty”, “will come to judge the living and the dead”, and for “the resurrection of the body and the eternal life”. Thus the biblical message on final destination of history has been summarized there. Does this somewhere interfere in our politics and strategies? Is Christian hope a basis for politics?


Hope is also the subject of the latest encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI, issued November 30, 2007, under the title Spe Salvi, “in hope saved”, a quotation from Romans 8,24. Frantisek Abel, in his paper, already referred to this encyclical. Let us have a closer look.

In its first part, the encyclical is a careful explanation of the New Testament message on hope. In the New Testament, hope is considered equivalent to faith. A remarkable text, repeatedly quoted in the encyclical, is Ephesians 2,12, in which it is said to the readers that they before their encounter with Christ were “without hope and without God in the world”; which means: (despite their religions!) without the true God and therefore without true hope, because this God guarantees their future. As it is stated in the encyclical (nr.3): knowing God means knowing that “I am definitely loved and whatever happens to me, I am awaited by this Love.”.

Remember, says the encyclical (nr.4, referring to Paul’s Letter to Philemon), this hope is to be distinguished from any particular political hope, and yet it has its impact on social life. “Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution... Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation”, he “brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords and thus an encounter with a hope.. which transformed life and the world from within”, “even if external structures remained unaltered”.

This was important, (nr. 5) not just to people from the lower social strata (like those in slavery), but also to those belonging to the aristocratic and cultured circles, since they too were living “without hope and without God in the world”. Which becomes clear if we realize that in the time of the New Testament “myth had lost its credibility; the Roman State religion had become fossilized into simple ceremony” and that “philosophical rationalism had confined the gods within the realm of unreality”. “A God to whom one could pray did not exist.” Here, the Christian message was something completely new. As it is said in Colossians 2,8, life “according to Christ” replaces life under the dominion of the “elemental spirits of the universe”. So, “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... we are free”.

In those times, in the beginning of the Christian era, “philosophers” were around, pretending to present the true philosophy of life. But (nr. 6) “it had long been realized that many” of those so-called “teachers of life were just charlatans.. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after”. To Christians, that true philosopher is Jesus Christ. So, since the end of the third century, on sarcophagi in Christian burial-places the figure of Christ is represented “holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher’s travelling staff in the other”. That means: “the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain”. This is “what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life.”

Knowing Christ ultimately means: hoping for “eternal life”. That, according to the encyclical, is the quintessence of Christian hope. But: what exactly is that? As Augustine said, it is  a wording for what we cannot describe adequately. Remember Romans 8,26: “We do not know what we should pray for as we should”. The encyclical says: (nr. 12):  “Eternal life” “is  a... term, that creates confusion. ‘Eternal’.. suggests.. the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; ‘life’ makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though it very often brings more toil than satisfaction.” So, to understand what it is, we have “to imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality”. But such an imagination “we can only attempt. Il would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time – the before and after – no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense”; it is: being “overwhelmed with joy” (cf. John 16,22).

Is this Christian hope for eternal life individualistic? Not at all, says the encyclical (nrs.13-15). Anyway, that was not its original meaning. Just like sin is understood by the Church-fathers as fragmentation and division, so redemption as “the reestablishment of unity”, which begins to take shape “in the world community of  believers”. The Christian view of the “blessed life” is “community-oriented”. And “it also has to do with the building up of this world”. Look what role was played in the Middle Ages by the monasteries, re-organized by Bernard of Clairvaux. They were not “places of flight from the world”. On the contrary, they were aimed to be points of departure for taking care of the whole Church and hence also of the world.  As Bernard states, it is true, the monastery cannot “restore Paradise”; yet, “as a place of practical and spiritual ‘tilling the soil’ it must prepare the new Paradise”. In a metaphor: the ground has to be prepared “so that bread for body and soul can flourish”. The encyclical here emphasizes the “soul”. It asks: “Are we not.. seeing once again, in the light of current history, that no positive world order can prosper where souls are overgrown?”


By this statement in the form of a question (“no positive world order can prosper where souls are overgrown”), the encyclical returns to the theme, already addressed in the beginning (nr. 4), that Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution, that Jesus did not fight for political liberation, that he brought something totally different. Apparently, to Benedict XVI this theme is of key importance; it might well have been for him the main reason for taking up in this encyclical (his second one) the issue of “hope”. In his view, this issue is at stake now, because of misunderstandings that still need to be addressed. What the pope has in mind becomes clear in the central section of his encyclical (nrs.15-23). There he analyses and discusses the way in which the understanding of Christian hope in the modern age has been “transformed”(as he puts it). 

This “transformation” was, says the encyclical, essentially the result  of the  development of science and technology. The idea became dominant that human reason is able to establish redemption, to “restore Paradise”. Not Christian faith, but human reason was said to bring us to the future of salvation. This meant a total change of the character of hope. We should not, it was said, hope for the redemption Christ our Lord will bring us. Instead, we should believe in progress, scientific, rational progress; a progress in which we ourselves, step by step, will reach the ideal future, which then can be described as: the “kingdom of man”, the “kingdom of reason and freedom”. Basic principle in all this was (is) the idea that reason and freedom “guarantee by themselves, by virtue of their intrinsic goodness, a new and perfect human community”. Both concepts, reason and freedom, had at the same time a (tacitly) polemic character: they were 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”. So, “both concepts.. contain a revolutionary potential of enormous explosive force”. Where reason and freedom prevail, neither Church authority nor State authority (at least: this, 18th century, State authority) is supposed to be necessary any more!

The explosion came with the French Revolution, in 1789. That was “an attempt to establish the rule of reason and freedom as a political reality”. However, that was not yet sufficient. In the 19th century, by the industrialization (as a consequence of the increasingly rapid advance of technical  development), a new, low class of industrial workers emerged:  the “industrial proletariat”. Another, revolutionary change appeared to be required: after the bourgeois revolution of 1789 a “proletarian revolution”, that indeed “would shake up and overturn the entire structure of bourgeois society”. Karl Marx was the one who launched the appeal to do this “new and, as he thought, definitive step in history towards salvation.” “Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now.” “Progress  towards... the definitively good world”, it was said, “no longer comes simply from science, but from politics – from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution”.

In Russia, that real revolution took place indeed. And exactly there, says the encyclical, “Marx’s fundamental error also became evident”.  Marx “simply presumed that with the expropriation of the ruling class”- and of course after an “interim phase” of  the “dictatorship of the proletariat” – “the new Jerusalem would be realized”. “Then everything would be able to proceed by itself along the right path, because everything would belong to everyone and all would desire the best for one another.” In fact, things went into another direction. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” appeared to be anything but an “interim phase” that automatically became redundant, as Marx had predicted. It left behind “a trail of appalling destruction”. Marx was mistaken. What then was his fundamental error? “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.”

Nowadays, at least in Eastern Europe and Russia, communism has long lost its dominance. Yet, the pope apparently thinks that a thorough criticism of this Marxist ideology still is vital. In his view, Marxism/Communism was the consequence of modernity, and therefore its failure demonstrates the dangers of modern mentality itself. Reason is important indeed; Christian faith itself considers reason “God’s great gift to man”. But “when does reason truly triumph? When it is detached from God?” Is reason just: “capacity for action”? Is there nothing more to be said? Progress is real progress only when it goes together with “moral growth on the part of humanity”. Likewise, “the reason behind action and capacity for action is... urgently in need of integration through reason’s openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil. Only thus does reason become truly human.” Otherwise, the use of reason becomes a threat to humankind itself. In the same way, human freedom requires to be determined by “a criterion of measurement, which is the foundation and goal of our freedom”.

According to the encyclical, all this can be summarized in the short and simple statement, that takes up the thought with which the encyclical began: “man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope”. “There is no doubt that ‘a Kingdom of God’ accomplished without God – a kingdom therefore of man alone – inevitably ends up as the ‘perverse end of all things’”. “Reason therefore needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and faith need one another in order to fulfil their true nature and their mission .”


How then about social and political structures? Are they just irrelevant? No, despite his fierce criticism of Marxism/Communism, that is not what  the pope has in mind. Rather, he states (nrs. 24-25): like reason (and science), structures should not be overestimated. Given human freedom, man must always make his own, moral, fundamental decisions anew. As a help in the right direction, as a  “guideline for the proper use of human freedom”, good structures are important, even necessary. However, such structures “function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order”. That is why “the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world”. Structures that claim to “guarantee a determined – good – state of the world” are by definition not good structures at all, because their pretension is a denial of human freedom. Structures cannot of themselves bring redemption. “Man can never be redeemed simply from outside.”

Yet, nor can he redeem simply himself, by his reason, through science (as was the idea of 17th and 18th century modernity). “Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet is can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it.” Here appears in the encyclical another “outside”; not the “outside” of the structures, but the “outside” of  God’s love (nr. 26). “Man is redeemed by love”, the love of God in Christ Jesus from which we cannot be separated any more (Romans 8,38-39).

So indeed, as it is said in Ephesians 2,12, “anyone who does not know God.. is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life”. Whereas whoever knows God and is moved by God’s love begins to perceive the meaning of the word hope and to understand what is “eternal life”. Here, the encyclical takes up again thought from the beginning. And again, it emphasizes (nr. 28):  this is not a matter of individualism. Because: relationship with God is communion with Jesus, and he is the one “who gave himself as a ransom for all”. So, “being in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into his ‘being for all’”.


So far, our overview of pope Benedict’s encyclical Spe Salvi. What follows are pastoral considerations and recommendations. Let me now give a few comments (in which I unavoidably will take up some points I already made).

First, the encyclical is an impressive document. This pope is not only a Church leader, he is also an eminent theologian. As such he presents himself again in this text.

Secondly, remarkably enough, in the paragraphs on the Bible’s testimony on hope there are only references to, and quotations from, the New Testament. It seems as if the witness of the Old Testament, say: the witness of the prophets, lies outside the papal scope. That, of course, is not the case. But apparently, the pope is of the opinion that the New Testament (as the witness of Jesus Christ) is the authoritative source of Christian faith, in such a way that now, in fact, the Old Testament has not any more its own contribution. Here, discussion is possible. This is not the place to enter into such a theological discussion. Let me just point out  that when the Old Testament disappears behind the New, we are in danger of understanding the Gospel too one-sidedly in an individualistic way. The pope himself feels the danger, as he repeatedly states that Christian hope should not understood as just individual hope, for individual salvation (and he then goes on that Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, cannot but be a life for others). Yet, this repeated warning is in itself a sign.

Thirdly, in the encyclical, Christian (and Biblical) hope is mainly understood as: hope for “eternal life”. That, however, is only one image, by which we try to word what we ourselves cannot grasp. It is a biblical metaphor, next to other metaphors. As we heard, the Creed mentions three more wordings: the coming (again) of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Last Judgment and the resurrection of the body. These are all: ways of human expression, human approach of the misery. But at least they show something of the cosmic, universal character of the Future that is promised to us through Jesus Christ. It is this cosmic, universal character that is also emphasized by the Old Testament prophets, when they speak of the messianic Kingdom, the Kingdom of peace to come. It is remarkable that these outlooks are absent in this encyclical. That could well be a consequence of its exclusive focus on the New Testament.

Fourthly, the encyclical seems to be motivated by concern about misunderstandings of Christian hope; misunderstandings that interpret this hope in a (too one-sidedly) political way. Although Marxism/Communism has long lost its dominant position, the pope still feels urged to fight it, in his rejection of the idea that social structures could establish redemption. Of course, structures alone are not enough to create a perfect and just world. Yet, structures are necessary, to create and facilitate human life. True: that is said in the encyclical itself, but almost in a reluctant way. Why not a more whole-heartedly recognition that it belongs to Christian life (and hope!) to participate in the struggle for better social and political structures? Such an exhortation is not to be found in the encyclical; and that again could be the consequence of the lack of attention to the Old Testament witness.

Fifthly, what strikes me is the fact that in the encyclical, even in the section on modern (European) history, nothing  is said on the issue of fascism and national socialism. Those ideologies were also expressions of human hope; hope for a perfect State and society. Do tendencies of nationalism and extremism not exist any more, in one way or another, as a danger to our society today? Should not Christian hope have been presented also as an opposition to such tendencies? And should not, then, more attention have been paid to the necessity of just structures?

Finally, the pope has a very negative view of modernity; too negative. It seems as if Enlightenment (by-the-way: that word does not occur in the encyclical) was/is a misunderstanding only. As if the French Revolution did not also bring about the end of a suppressive regime. And as if in modernity, in its proclamation of human reason and freedom, not indeed a just criticism of State and Church of that time was involved. I think, Christians need to be open for criticism from the world. Sometimes (often), such criticism is unjust; but we should not forget the possibility that it contains some (or many!) right elements. The encyclical does not take that possibility into account. That has to do with its (self-evident) Church-centeredness; a Church-centeredness that troubles me. As a protestant, I think that Church and Christian faith are not identical with the Gospel, rather subordinate to it.    


My opening question was: is Christian hope basis for politics? Can Christian hope have any impact on our politics? I would say: yes, in the sense that Christians could help politicians understand that our world, God’s world, is worth while and that it is safe in God’s hand. We may tell our politicians that it is never too late to engage in a struggle for a safer and more just society, a society in which power and authority should be used on behalf of the people, and not for the interest of the powerful themselves. We need not lose our courage or our hope that things may be better, in the future. That hope is not identical with the Christian Hope as such, but it is a consequence of it.