Sun 6 Apr 2008
Of the three Christian virtues (faith, hope, and love), hope is the one least often discussed. Just as Faith is belief that goes beyond proof, and loves is care that goes beyond just deserts, hope is commitment that outruns our abilities. It is allowing our reach to extend beyond the grasp of intellect. Hope engages the will fully in a project to whose end our mind cannot see. Why is it a virtue?
A will that hopes will sometimes encounter successes that it could not have anticipated. If you are drowning in the middle of the Atlantic with no help in sight, if you continue to struggle to keep afloat to the utter end of your abilities, you are more likely to encounter a miraculous rescue than those who give up earlier. Yet this is not the source of hope’s value. After all, the help that is to save you is unanticipated (or else it wouldn’t be hope that kept you going, but rational calculation) and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, will not arrive.
The real value of hope is based upon the very nature of the human will and the values it establishes. Human reality consists of events that unfold in time and will not fully be what they are until completion. The sweetness of anticipation, established within the tension of the first few notes of a melody, only exists in relationship to the release of that tension in the melody’s resolution. All gestures, actions, and intentions project themselves forward in time to a completion that defines them. To care about something is to set your will towards the future. Yet the power of our minds and our actions to see and control the future is limited. Is it rational to leap where you cannot look? Each step towards the future is a step into darkness. Imagine walking in pitch darkness with no way of seeing when a solid wall would block our path or an endless abyss would open before us. Trapped in a dark cave with the possibility of walls and precipices at each moment, it might seem foolish to stride confidently in the direction of our dreams. Better to inch our way, toeing the line into the future cautiously to feel our way into what we cannot see. But to imagine a life like that is to see another level of rationality from which the leap of faith is the only rational alternative. For to never to proceed further than we can see, is to live a cramped, crippled life where the full scope of our values, radiating forward in time, cannot exist. The leaps and capers that define the type of caring and valuation that make us human would be impossible under those circumstances. A dancer who truly loved her dance, would find it necessary to leap into the darkness, for the very love of leaping, even if they could not know what lay ahead. Hope is a virtue because the very values that define us extend in time beyond the reach of our minds and bodies.
Just as Faith sees truths that will only unfold in the fullness of time, and Love sees beyond the reality of a person at a moment and into the person that might be; Hope gives itself over to the values that are always extending to the future. It is the nature of our loves and of our care, under the unlimited power of our will, to extend themselves beyond the limits of our power, to inspire us to reach beyond our grasp. To feel joy is to desire to feel it always. To grieve at the loss of a child, is to grieve for all the lost children. Though infinite in reach, our will finds itself impotent to always create the realities of which it dreams. Hope calls us to an impossible task and indicts us for our failures. To hope is to realize that the things you care about cannot be protected through your power alone, while resolving to care about them still. It is to see yourself as a creature in need of redemption. It is a cry for help, both to our fellow travelers and to the author of our travels.
There is also a fundamental part of our nature that fears false hopes. Our calls for help often go unheeded. There are many safe goods within the here and now that we must abandon if we are to leap into the darkness. Camus, in The Plague saw this danger well when he warned that for
those others who aspired beyond and above the human individual toward something they could not even imagine, there had been no answer. . . If others, however, Rieux could see them in the doorways of houses, passionately embracing and gazing hungrily at one another in the failing sunset glow, had got what they wanted, this was because they had asked for the one thing that depended on them solely. And as he turned the corner of the street where Grand and Cottard lived, Rieux was thinking it was only right that those whose desires are limited to man and his humble yet formidable love should enter, if only now and then, into their reward.
But this is to make an error that Camus, himself, recognized in other places: The formidable love that makes human life worth living, and which allows us to sometimes enter into our reward, is only possible by leaping into the future, into events that do not depend solely upon ourselves. Just as Camus saw that Dostoevsky was right that one cannot express and be true to one’s love of humanity by torturing humans, so one cannot keep alive our love of human values, which naturally pulls us beyond the moment, beyond what we can control, by restricting ourselves to what is only humanly possible. Love is not content with the possible but carries us beyond to will, for those we love and what we care about, things towards which we cannot see our way. Hope is the only condition under which beings like us, beings with infinite but impotent wills, can continue to care. For beings such as this, to fear false hope is to despair.