As commonly used, the word “hope” has two components: to desire a thing, and to believe its attainment possible. Emphasis is usually placed on the second condition–when a man is said to have “lost hope” we assume that he has lost belief, not that he has lost desire. Thus it is said that the opposite of hope is despair. I believe, however, that the first component is the more crucial one. The opposite of hope is resignation.
There are many schools of thought–ancient, stern, and respectable–that hold resignation as an ideal. Much Eastern spirituality prizes the extinction of desire, the performance of duty for its own sake with indifference to outcome. Western Stoicism believed the same. Christianity’s embrace of hope is a radical disagreement with what most of the world thinks as wisdom.
Surely one of the most bitter things to resign oneself to is death, the prospect of one’s own psychic extinction. Secularists pride themselves in having come to accept their own mortality, in thinking a normal mortal lifespan enough and desiring nothing afterward. Whether or not one believes that these men truly have achieved such a degree of philosophical detachment, most would agree that it would be an admirable thing to have, a mark of wisdom, courage, and maturity.
A notable dissenting voice was the Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno, who in The Tragic Sense of Life takes the desire for eternal life to be the mark of the Catholic attitude. The Catholic looks to Christ to save him from death and to eternal life, while the Protestant looks to Christ to save him from sin and to salvation, and rationalists pretend to have overcome the most elemental of dreads. Even to question the superiority of detachment in the face of death is remarkable and rare, but Unamuno clearly embraces the “Catholic” attitude. He even denies that the attitude of detachment has a superior ethic. While the detached call us to live so that we will not fear death or regret lost opportunities, Unamuno’s “tragic” ethic encourages us to live so that our horror of personal extinction will be objectively justified.
Christianity teaches almost nothing about heaven, and what the saints and mystics say about it appeals very little to regular folk. One almost suspects that the actual existence of such a place and state of soul is not really the point of the doctrine. Does it rather exist to show up the hollowness of all sophistries, all psychological auto-manipulation about one lifetime being enough and oblivion being nothing to fear? Is the point of the idea of heaven to close off the path of resignation from the Christian? Not to help us reconcile ourselves to death, but to keep us from reconciling to it, to keep alive the authentic horror of death which is the other side of hope.
Saint Paul says that the purpose of the Law is to condemn us, to hold out an impossible ideal of righteousness that will keep us from becoming complacent with ordinary, respectable levels of virtue. The unbelievers all seem quite pleased and satisfied with themselves, but we Christians are condemned to hope for holiness. It would be easy, so easy, to be satisfied with “the most God could reasonably ask for”, but we cannot unsee the horizon of holiness that we have been shown.
For what are we to hope?
Somewhere (I think it was in the Enchiridion), Saint Augustine toys with the idea that morality consists in willing what God wills. He rejects this idea with the following counter-example. An old man is ill, and his son hopes for his recovery. However, God has ordained the end of the man’s life and wills for him to die. Should we say that the son should prefer his father’s death? No, the son should will not what God wills (which the son can’t know anyway) but rather what God wills for him to will, in this case the prompting of filial love that he should desire his father’s recovery.
So while it may seem pretty clear that God has prepared the defeat, humiliation, and utter ruin of His Catholics, our duty is still to hope for our continued existence. If we find avenues to take a detached view and accept the death of our religion with philosophic tranquility, we must not take them. Resignation is the sin against hope. We must remain psychologically invested, although it means only continued dejection. This is our duty, and thus it is His will for our will. We must accept His fate for us without resentment, but still resist it as He wills us to do. Resentment is illogical because no creature has a claim on God. Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod has argued that Gentiles should not resent God’s preferential love for the Jews, should not wish that God had been “fair” and loved everyone equally, because real love is particular and partial, and we can comfort ourselves knowing that God’s loves, being thus, are real loves. Perhaps God means to work some good through the dedication of His Catholic remnant or to benefit us spiritually by such trials. More likely He only wishes that our anguish make the victory of His favored ones the sweeter. Why not? We are His to do with as He pleases.
I have many vices, but equanimity at least is not one of them. Indeed, to my knowledge I’ve never in my life derived a moment’s comfort from religion and have often thought that I would have been happier as an atheist and on the winning team. For me, the nerves are still exposed. But this is half of hope.
Wyschogrod is a wonderful thinker who deserves more exposure in the Christian world.
I would recommend Wyschogrod’s “The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel” to all Orthosphere readers. There is a particularly memorable defense of Temple animal sacrifice early on. A while back, he had an article on First Things arguing that Israel should declare itself a monarchy, with the current government serving merely as regent until the heir of David should return. This is my kind of Jew.
Agree, The Body of Faith is excellent. The point about God’s love being preferential because love is always particular and thus making Him a true father was an especially memorable insight.
The one negative about Wyschogrod’s book is that it is interspersed with Heideggerian ontology, which mostly just reads like gibberish to me, although perhaps that just indicates my philistinism more than anything else. The last chapter of the book starts off with more of this continental being & non-being stuff, and in the used copy I own, a previous owner of the book wrote in the margin: “I am so tired of this…”. So at least I got a chuckle out of that.
The other thing I found both interesting yet slightly exasperating is that Wyschogrod describes different strands of Jewish thought in ways that seem so clearly to find their apotheosis in Christ, yet he of course stops short of embracing Him.
Bonald, you should write a review of this book.
‘Abraham’s Promise’ is also an excellent collection.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light!
Forgive me for mentioning Rene Girard, but I studied with him and it changed my life. In one of his books Girard writes that the effect of Christianity is not to make life easier, but to make it more difficult. Your argument and Girard’s are convergent.
P.S. Bonald — I hope that you return regularly to The Orthosphere.
Thanks, Prof. Bertonneau.
I keep resisting Girard’s idea of scapegoating being at the heart of social order, but the modern world keeps piling on evidence in its favor.
Answer: Rene Girard, Stanley Jaki, and E. Michael Jones.
Question: Name the 3 writers most responsible for getting SebastianX1/9 back to the Catholic Church, remarried with a family, and looking for a fight with a demon or two?
Welcome back. Jaki is a genius and Jones a great bare-knuckle fighter. I must read Girard (so many books, so little time).
While I was more a bad Catholic than one who actually left the Church, it was C. S. Lewis who straightened me out and Piers Paul Read (Hell and Other Destinations) who took me the final steps to attempting to be some kind of a proper Catholic.
Dear Prof. Bertonneau.
I have a very specific question about René Girard’s thought and I haven’t found anybody or anything to answer the question. I think it must be easy stuff for somebody like you
Could I ask it to you? You are not forced to answer but it is something that has intrigued me for years.
Bonald, good post. This is how you should write your perennial “Catholics should be more tribal” posts. Much more effective, I think.
Thank you for this post. I was remarking to regular commenter here Scoot in my own comboxes something to this post earlier today. I recently re-read Goethe’s Faust. And whenever I read Faust I have to gird up my loins if you will against being overly fearful of the demonic. Not being a particularly virtuous person, I identify all too easily with Gretchen and how terrifyingly rapid our lives can fall apart by entertaining the devil and the devil’s friends. Paraphrasing a bit, I would say all the civilizational is personal. My own experience is that while resignation to sin is a rather wretched state to find oneself in, that experience in no way offers comfort that one will necessarily be found among the righteous when the brimstone begins raining. I often see the current state of the Church as tracking this experience closely. I cannot describe it well – so I won’t try – but these more psychological considerations of mine have lead to more awe in the sacraments. The sacraments against what is my single best description of modernity and all its manifestations: the “tenuous.” My personal prayer for Advent – and for all the folks reading here – will be for an increase in hope. Thanks again.
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I’ve just been looking at various translations of Hebrews 11:1, which would seem to be the locus classicus. It’s striking how much more childish the modern translations are. They say, essentially, that faith is the knowledge that all your dreams are gonna come true. A translation from a more serious age says that faith is the substance of things hoped for. I take the word substance to mean ground or basis, and the whole proposition to mean that the hopes of a person of orthodox faith are not groundless. Correct faith is the condition under which hope has epistemic value.
This is relevant to the item Richard just posted about nihilistic movies, since one message of those movies is that every hope is vain. They depict a world of radical hopelessness. So we have on the one hand the sugary doctrine that all your dreams are gonna come true, and on the other hand the sour doctrine that every hope is vain. I think St. Paul inclines to the sour, but says that some hopes are premonitions.
To paraphrase Chesterton, “hope is hoping when things seem hopeless”.
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“Gentiles should not resent God’s preferential love for the Jews”
How odd of god to choose the jews.
I think im starting to smell the rot, and i havent been around here for long.
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