homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

Ask Dr. Time: In Praise of Hope

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 30, 2018

DOCTOR TIME.png

This week’s edition of Noticing, the Kottke.org newsletter, features the return of Doctor Time, the world’s only metaphysical advice columnist. In this case, the good doctor tries to explain the difference between faith and hope, and tries to understand what hope might mean in the absence of God. Here’s the section in full. For more thoughtful goodness, subscribe to the newsletter! I write it just about every week; if you like my posts or Jason’s posts at all, I think you’ll like it.

* * *


What’s the difference between faith and hope?


Okay, to be fair, nobody actually asked this question in this way, but the distinction came in conversation more than once this week, and for lots of reasons, it’s worth talking about right now. For the answer, we’re going to start with an excellent podcast episode from the BBC’s In Our Time, all about the philosophy of hope.

The episode starts its genealogy with Hesiod, who right away poses the problem of Pandora’s Box and/or Jar: Hope is sealed up in the jar of all the evils in the world, but does that make it one of the evils Zeus sent to punish humanity with, or is it a good in our pantry that helps us deal with all the other evils? Even the Greeks seem split on this: Hesiod’s original story is decidedly pessimistic, and Plato and Aristotle didn’t set much store by hope, but one Greek-speaker, St. Paul, thought enough of hope that he put it with faith and love as part of a second Holy Trinity of Christian virtues. (I guess if faith is God the father, and love is Christ, hope is the holy spirit? Probably not worth mapping them onto each other too closely.)

Anyways, the really great thinker on hope is St. Augustine, who is MY MAN for many, many reasons. (I’m not Catholic or Christian any more, but I love the way the great theologians think about the universe and its problems, and Augustine is the very best one.) For Augustine, hope is first and foremost about the second coming, and the ultimate fulfillment of human beings and their potential. So you have faith, a belief that God is real and salvation is possible, which is given to you by God, you can’t manufacture it. You have love — also caritas, or charity — a kind of selfless outpouring of affection and righteous deeds towards God and all His works, especially other human beings. And then you have hope, which is this imaginative representation of being fulfilled and made whole at the end of time.

Time is important for Augustine, and hope becomes a kind of ontological structure for understanding time. Augustine thinks of temporality as a kind of eternal stretching of the now, from the beginning of time in the creation through the end of time in the resurrection, and hope is also imagined as a kind of stretching. This is how he puts it in his tractates on the first letter of John:

The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.

Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.

So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled. Take note of Saint Paul stretching as it were his ability to receive what is to come: Not that I have already obtained this, he said, or am made perfect. Brethren, I do not consider that I have already obtained it.

It’s kind of sexy, isn’t it? Holy desire! Stretching ourselves to be filled up! Utter satisfaction! It’s a kind of religious tantra. And every kind of hope or desire, no matter how base, is a prefiguration of (and ideally, subordinate to) that ultimate desire: to be reconciled with the universe in the godhead. We imagine, i.e., represent to ourselves, the satisfaction of our desire by stretching ourselves across time to the endpoint of our fulfillment.

And hope, like faith, is a thing that happens to us. We don’t will it; it’s inflicted on us and we receive it, make it manifest, and figure out what to do with it. This bothered the classical Greeks tremendously, because their virtues were virtues of control and mastery. But for Greek-speaking Jews and the Christians that followed them, the passive nature of hope was itself a virtue. It left room for the Messiah to walk through the door.

It also means that hope has a secular dimension that faith just doesn’t. Any object can be an object of hope. Hoping for ordinary fulfillment trains us to hope for spiritual fulfillment. It stretches us out. It makes our hearts bigger. It makes time intelligible for human beings. For all these reasons, hope, more so than faith and even love, is my favorite theological virtue. It’s the most powerful. It’s the easiest one to lose. And we are at our best and most human when we find room to hold holy our deepest hopes.