The recent Encyclical letter of Pope Benedict is a deeply thoughtful reflection on the importance of Christian hope and on how to sustain it. Throughout he returns to the scriptural phrase, 'Without God there is no hope'. This has implications for the way in which Christians judge the hopes that sustain their fellow human beings.
Pope Benedict's account of hope within the contemporary world characteristically includes an intellectual history. He sees Francis Bacon as the seminal figure. Bacon initiated a process by which Christian hope was confined to the private faith and the inner world of the individual. Hope for a better world was placed in reason. Later reason was defined as scientific reason, which in Marxism could be identified with politics.
Benedict argues that, like the hope we place in our own flourishing, in family and friendship, in work and in personal relationships, so the hope we can place in science and politics is important but limited. They will inevitably disappoint us. We look for something more, which Benedict describes as the known unknown. He identifies it with the love of God.
This approach grounds a deep and subtle exploration of Christian experience. But it is less successful in helping to explore the way in which many of our contemporaries and our societies are sustained and enlivened by hopes that they do not identify with God. These hopes are inevitably seen to lack something crucial and therefore as bound to fail.
Another Christian approach can be helpful in affirming the ordinary hopes that sustain people. It argues that such hopes are deepened, not supplemented, by reference to God. It also argues that the path taken by Francis Bacon has its roots in the weaknesses of the earlier Western theological imagination.
Early Christian hopes implied a distinctive way of imagining the world. The image central to this hope was the resurrection of the body that has a prominent place in early Christian creeds. They did not imagine the resurrection of the body simply as something to do with the future or with the individual. They linked it to other connotations of the body: to Christ's bodily life, to his bodily resurrection, to the Eucharist and to the Christian community as Christ's body, and to the ways in which they committed their bodies — particularly in martyrdom and later in monastic practices. Their distinctive faith in God affirmed, integrated and deepened the various hopes by which they lived their daily lives.
This view of the world was later challenged by a more analytic imagination that emphasised the boundaries between past, present and future, between God and the world, between body and spirit, between practices and their meaning. It is reflected in a conflict in Eastern monasticism. The great spiritual teacher Evagrius saw practices, rituals and images as gateways to contemplate an incomprehensible God. His opponents thought that this minimised the importance of the body for Christian belief in the Eucharist and the resurrection of the body. But in the debate both sides emphasised the gap between body and spirit, visible and invisible, God and the world.
This conflict was reflected also in early Western debates about the Eucharist, in which all parties saw a gap between what is seen and touched and what is real. Even though this view was corrected in the work of the best theologians, in the Christian imagination the divine reality was seen to lie behind what was seen. It was the 'more' that made the bodily appearances seem unimportant. In defining Christian hope, too, attention turned to the destiny of the individual's invisible soul and not to the resurrection of the body.
The deficiencies of the theological imagination led Bacon and others to leave to theologians the invisible 'more' of the world and its hopes, and to focus on the world that was seen. In Pope Benedict's succinct account, meeting our hopes for the tangible world were the business of science and political activism, while religious faith touched only the invisible, individual world.
But the fragmentation of hope involved in this settlement will not be addressed simply by the secular world adding God to its limited hopes. It will require the nurturing of a Christian imagination that overcomes the breach between divine and human, between past, present and future, between body and spirit, and between visible and invisible.
This will entail taking our ordinary human hopes seriously and finding God in their depths, not in adding God to them. There is no human hope that does not have God within it.
Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.