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The Encyclical on Hope: On the "De-immanentizing" of the Christian Eschaton [1] | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | December 3, 2007

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"Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living forever—endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable." -- Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, #10.

"Good structures (of society) help, but of themselves they are not enough. Man can never be redeemed simply from outside. Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that modern Christianity, faced with the success of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of it hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task...." -- Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, #25.


Modern philosophy, particularly political philosophy, has been characterized by mislocating the supernatural virtue of hope. Philosophy endeavored to incorporate the transcendent order within the world. It gave man, so it surmised, a practical "hope" of a fully happy life as a result of his own efforts through the sciences of man and nature. Thus the virtue of faith became "belief" in progress. The virtue of charity became the effort to rearrange man, family, and polity so that all that separates man from man would be eliminated through no personal effort of the human subjects.

As a result of this tremendous effort of modernity to make philosophy "practical," the classical notions of the last things—death, purgatory, heaven, and hell—were likewise relocated within this world. The result has been, at every level, a distortion of man and a failure to understand his real dignity and destiny. The greatest aberrations of human history have resulted from this effort to reject the Christian understanding of the proper worldly and transcendent purpose of man. Heaven, hell, purgatory, and death appear in new forms.

In Spe Salvi, the present encyclical on hope, Benedict XVI, with his usual insightful brilliance, reestablishes the proper understanding of the eschaton, the last things. The place of hope in our lives is grounded in the transcendent destiny of man. He is ultimately to become personally a member of the City of God. Death and suffering remain realities within the human condition. Both can be redemptive. The actual plan of salvation included them, once the Fall occurred.

In a famous phrase, Eric Voegelin characterized the intelligibility of modernity as the "immanentization of the eschaton." By this complicated phrase, he meant that far from rejecting Christianity, modernity attempted to accomplish the transcendent ends of man, still present in the modern soul as secular hopes, including the resurrection of the body, by means under his own power. Much of the energy devoted to science had this aim as its not so hidden purpose.

What Benedict does in this encyclical is, to coin a phrase, "de-immanentize" the eschaton. That is, he restores the four last things and the three theological virtues to their original understanding as precisely what we most need to understand ourselves. These things have been subsumed into a philosophy that denies a creator God. It replaces Him with human intelligence and inner-worldly purpose as the proper destiny of the human race in the cosmos. This effort has simply failed, as Benedict shows in numerous ways. Thus, it is proper to re-present the central understanding primarily of hope. Benedict had already attended to charity in his first encyclical and to logos, (reason) in his Regensburg Lecture.


John Paul II, among other encyclicals, wrote three devoted to God—one on the Father, one on the Son, and one on the Holy Spirit. Benedict XVI's first encyclical was Deus Caritas Est, "God is Love". His second encyclical, published on the Feast of St. Andrew, November 30, 2007, was on hope. Its opening Latin words quote from Paul's epistle to the Romans, "By hope we have been saved."

Logically, we probably can expect a later encyclical on "faith." "These three, faith, hope, and charity, but the greatest of these is charity," as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul is central to the present encyclical on hope. The basic questions are: "Is there anything to hope for?" and "Are the alternatives to Christian hope tenable?" The answer to the first question is "yes," and to the second "no."

Such a consideration on hope is particularly timely. During the Marxist era, there was a brief period, with the publication of books by Ernest Bloch and Jürgen Moltmann, in which hope was of particular ideological currency. This interest was largely because of the Marxist effort to transfer the transcendent object of hope to this world. Even many Christians were tempted to shift their focus from God to this world. The "eschaton" was to be "immanentized," to use Voegelin's phrase. That is, following Feurerbach, the Christian idea of everlasting life was all right—its location was just misplaced. It could be achieved in this world by human efforts alone, or so it was thought by not a few great intellectuals. We have no need of a "redeemer" or of "grace."

With Spe Salvi, Benedict returns to this topic of hope. He is not now so much reacting to a Marxist inner-worldly utopian claim. He is rather looking for a way to straighten out our minds about the purpose of man both on earth and in his transcendent dimensions. Benedict wishes to rejoin hope both to its inner-worldly and to its primarily transcendent meanings. He wishes to put to rest once and for all the idea that Christians, by virtue of their transcendent end, neglect the world. It is quite the opposite, as he also shows in Deus Caritas Est. What is most needed in the world for doing what can be done there is precisely charity and hope.

Benedict XVI is far and away the most learned and incisive mind in the public order anywhere in the world today. He is quite dangerous to public orders and religions that will not see themselves against a criterion of logos, of truth. His initiatives (as this encyclical is one and his "Regensburg Lecture" another) are magisterial. They all include historical, philosophical, theological, and scientific dimensions. He covers the whole sweep of intellectual history. His knowledge of scripture and tradition is profound. For those unbelievers who are weak in their chosen faith, it is best not to read him.

There is nothing that the unbeliever has thought that Benedict has not also thought and, indeed, spelled out in terms at least as clear as any unbeliever himself has set down. He is like Aquinas in this sense. The atheist has nothing to teach him that he has not already thought about and analyzed. His thought has that Germanic thoroughness and clarity that make us aware that he has seen issues in their whole sweep.

This encyclical cites words in Greek, Latin, French, and German, usually words he needs to spell out in technical terms to make a point. In addition to St. Paul and Scripture, it cites—by no means at random—Dostoyevsky, Francis Bacon, Marx, Kant, de Lubac, Horkheimer, Gregory Nazianzen, Adorno, Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux, Aquinas, the Fourth Lateran Council, Saint Hilary, Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Paul Le-Bao-Tinh, pseudo-Rufinus, St. Benedict, Frederick Engels, St Ambrose, Plato, and Josephine Bakhita, a former slave from the Sudan. He already cited Aristotle in the "Regensburg Lecture," so he can be excused. He manages to touch on the history of slavery, the notion of modernity, the importance of prayer, and the revitalization of the teachings on Purgatory and Hell, all in one relatively brief document.

In a recent review in Asia Times (November 7, 2007), "Spengler" remarked that Benedict is the most important man in the world public order today. He is the one man capable of seeing political problems in their theological and philosophical origins. To see politics only as politics is in a way not to see it all. He provides in the public order, as I like to put it, precisely what it most lacks, namely, the intelligibility of what is going on with man in the world. Get this wrong, as we do, and everything else turns against man. It has been clear for some time, as I have written elsewhere, that Benedict is the one who explains what the most fundamental issues are that face mankind. Islam is only one of them, though it is a central one. The most important one is the very soul of the West itself and its rejected Christian roots. This act has far more consequences than we are wont to admit.

We are in political confusion because we are in an intellectual and moral confusion. In the "Regensburg Lecture," Benedict traced the main issues in modern time back to a Europe that is in the process of losing its understanding of itself by its failure to see the relation of revelation to reason. The Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and medieval traditions are fundamental for knowing what and where we are. Modernity rejects this tradition because it chooses to do so. There is nothing "inevitable" about it. Evidence that it ought not to do so, however, abounds, especially in its own declining populations. And Europe chooses to do so because it rejects the traditions of reason and revelation out of which it arose in the first place.


The burden of this encyclical is on restoring order to the mind of our kind in thinking about its own destiny.

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 truly the inexorable power of the material elements no longer have the last word; we are not slaves to the universe and of its laws, we are free. (#5)

What this encyclical is about, in part, then, is the untenableness of other versions of what man can hope for, particularly modern versions supposedly deriving from science. This "future," I believe, was what Kant asked about. And Benedict in this encyclical pretty much shows the impossibility of Kant's version of an inner worldly alternative to eternal life as the destiny of man. (#19-20)

In a remarkable analysis of both Horkheimer and Adorno, the two famous Frankfurt school thinkers whom the popes treats with great attention, Benedict shows how they, in a way, reinvent Christian concepts of God and eternal life. They even recognize the need for the resurrection of the body, yet in a specifically un-Christian context (#22, 42-43). The pope suggests that modern thinkers could not get rid of Christianity except by reinventing it in some odd and contorted manner. The result was never superior to the original. It is time to look again at the original. This is what this encyclical is about.

The pope makes the same point about the Christian background to modern thought in another way by citing Dostoevsky, himself one of the great prophets of our destiny:

Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Evil doers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction as though nothing had happened (#44).

In Benedict's view, Plato, in the Gorgias, had essentially the same idea (525a-24c). Both of these citations relate to the good sense contained in the too much maligned doctrine of Purgatory and the hope it implied, a hope that did not overlook the heinousness of our sins, even when forgiven. This was Dostoevsky's point about the banquet.

The primary candidate in the modern world for what replaces the Christian idea of hope is "progress." This term has both a tenable and an untenable meaning.

Part One | Part Two


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