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.