The Encyclical on Hope: On the "De-immanentizing" of the Christian Eschaton  | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | December 3, 2007
Part Two | Part One
Up to that time, the recovery of what man had lost through the expulsion from Paradise was expected from faith in Jesus Christ: herein lay 'redemption'. Now, this 'redemption,' the restoration of the lost 'Paradise' is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis. It is not that the faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level—that of purely private and otherworld affairs (#17).
The kingdom of God is now said to be on earth and a product of man's own efforts. Even Kant, the pope noted, suspected that this new kingdom might in fact turn against man (#23). It is very nice to have a pope who reads Kant carefully.
Early in the encyclical, Benedict says that the Christian message is not only "informative" but "performative" (#2). What does he mean by this? "The Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing." Revelation is, of course, also "informative." In a very touching comment about parents bringing their child to baptism, the pope recalls what parents ask of baptism. The answer is specifically "eternal life." That is, the parents want to know the real destiny of a real child born into this world whom they know and we know will die. Eternal life is not an abstraction (#10). Continued life in this world, as I cited in the beginning from the same paragraph, simply won't do on its own grounds.
The virtue of hope is a "perfomative" virtue. It is utterly realistic. It sees that the hope we want is for this individual person. While we want the salvation of all, we want the salvation of each of us. This is not "selfish" but what we are to hope for, precisely death, resurrection, eternal life. This is our sole real end. "In this sense it is true that anyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life" (#27). Here Chesterton's point that the only real charge against Christianity rings true. It is too good to be true, for it offers what we would want, if we could have it. But it does not promise any other way or route than the way that God has offered to us in Christ, that is, in freedom and suffering. We must choose it.
Socrates says in the sixth book of the Republic: "Nobody is satisfied to acquire things that are merely believed to be good, however; but everyone wants the things that really are good and disclaims mere belief here" (505d). Benedict's presentation of the virtue of hope is entirely in conformity with what Socrates says here (#2). What we believe to be true is true. The guarantee is the presence of Christ in the world.
In a very Augustinian passage, Benedict puts it this way, now in terms of the very education of youth of which Socrates was so concerned:
Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or so some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives. When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole. It becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him..." (#30)
The story of modern youth, in this sense, is the story of disappointment over any alternative but the one that lies at the origin of their creation, that of eternal life.
The alternative utopias and destinies do not cohere. "This is simply because we are unable to shake off our finitude and because none of us is capable of eliminating the power of evil, of sin which, as we plainly see, is a constant source of suffering. Only God is able to do this; only God who personally enters history by making himself man and suffering within history" (#36). Here we find that the actual hope given in revelation when spelled out describes our condition better than any "rationalistic" alternatives: eternal life (#12).
Let me conclude these preliminary remarks on the encyclical on hope by pointing out how Benedict distinguishes progress in terms of science and the same idea in the field of morals and ethics (#24-25). There can be no "progress" in the field of ethics or politics because each person must himself decide what he will do. We do not exist as one "corporate" being, but as many within the same nature. "Man's freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew. These decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others—if that were the case we would no longer be free." Human beings in each of their acts are free. They could choose to do otherwise. If they are bad, they can choose to be good, or to be bad.
"Freedom presupposes that in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning. Naturally, new generations can build on the knowledge and experience of those who went before, and they can draw upon the moral treasury of the whole of humanity. But they can also reject it, because it can never be self-evident in the same way as material inventions." The very doctrine of the eternal salvation of each individual person as an acceptance or rejection of what is given to him depends on this basic principle.
Benedict is careful not to place himself in an individualist position. Man is a political and social animal, even in his salvation. But structures alone cannot save him. The hypothesis that they can, one of the tenets of modernity, is precisely a denial of the freedom that makes eternal, not to mention daily, life worthwhile. "Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man's freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all." It is at this point that Benedict cites Francis Bacon in the passage found at the beginning of this essay. To repeat, "man can never be redeemed simply from outside."
What is perhaps amusing about this encyclical is that Benedict simply takes the oft-derided notion of Purgatory and shows how and why it is a perfectly sensible doctrine, one that has sensible philosophical and psychological origins. Most of us, he recalls, are neither wholly good nor bad, and we die that way. It is not irrational to think that a period of purgation is not good for us, in view of our final end (#45). Nor have we gotten rid of the notion of hell. We just reinvented it in our thinking of totalitarian regimes, themselves the product of the darker side of modernity.
Again let me recall the spirit of this encyclical: "In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgment has faded into the background. Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer's own soul, while reflection on the world history is largely dominated by the idea of progress. The fundamental content of awaiting a final Judgment, however, has not disappeared; it has simply taken a totally different form" (#42).
Spes Salvi is given to us to show that the original form remains the really reasonable one. Benedict has indeed "de-immanentized the eschaton." He has returned politics to where it should be in this world as a limited effort to do what we can for one another, now motivated by a caritas and a gratia that did not exist without the divine intervention. But our end, for each of us, remains transcendent. We seek not just our personal salvation and resurrection, but also that into eternal life, the City of God. "Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were 'without hope and without God in the world' (Eph. 2:12)." (#2)
We have failed to understand the "greatness of our task" (#25). We are not without hope in the world because we are not without God. By testimony of the futile search in modernity for the "immanent eschaton" itself, no other alternative exists but that of our hope to be saved. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians, we are not to "grieve as others do who have no hope." How unerring is Benedict's sight to see that it is precisely the virtue of hope that gets the bottom of what most unsettles the modern mind.
 "It commits the mistake of immanentizing the Christian Eschaton, i.e., of treating faith symbols as though they represented immanent reality rather than the transcendental reality of man's supernatural destiny." Ellis Sandoz, The Voegelinian Revolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), 109.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is On The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007).
Read more of his essays on his website.
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