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Shallow Optimism, Vain Hopes & God’s Absent Presence
by R. V. Young
And who is he that can hurt you,” St. Peter asks, “if you be zealous of good? But if also you suffer any thing for justice’ sake, blessed are ye. And be not afraid of their fear; and be not troubled. But sanctify Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you” (1 Peter 3:13–15).
Calling for fortitude in a time of trial, Peter’s first epistle has an obvious bearing upon our lives at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Although Christians in this country do not face overt, violent persecution—at least, not yet—we are, if true to our vocation, estranged in many ways from the dominant culture that surrounds us and subject to misunderstanding, disdain, and sometimes outright hostility.
And while none of our politicians seems so wicked as the Roman Emperor Nero, author of savage persecution against Christians, including the martyrdom of the Prince of the Apostles, in some ways our current situation seems even more hopeless, since the last four decades have marked a precipitous decline in the prestige and influence of the Church in American society, and in the unity and practice of the faithful, insofar as such things may be outwardly perceived.
The hope of Christians, however, never changes or wavers; it only seems so when we confuse it with the shallow optimism of worldly expectation: the “hope” of acquiring earthly success, prosperity, and comfort or at least of escaping physical suffering, emotional turmoil, and moral temptation.
The hope of which we must always be ready with a reason is a specifically Christian, or “theological,” virtue, and it has but one source, designated by St. Peter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy hath regenerated us unto a lively hope, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). The virtue of hope, then, rests on the virtue of faith, faith in the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead, and the virtue of charity grows out of these two and perfects them (see 1 Cor. 13:13).
Hope & Fear
To lack altogether these virtues is to be in a state of mortal sin; that is, in the state of the pagan Ephesians before their conversion, as described by St. Paul: “You were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the conversation of Israel and strangers to the testament, having no hope of the promise and without God in this world” (Eph. 2:12).
The ancient pagan world into which the apostles brought the gospel was thus faithless, hopeless, and loveless—that is why their message was the gospel, the “good news.” Our contemporary society seems to have reverted to this pagan condition, and the prospects for its reformation by any means that we can manage—political, educational, cultural—seem dim. This situation serves, nevertheless, to highlight the luminous reality of Christian hope in the face of worldly hopelessness.
It is helpful to notice that in secular terms the opposite of “hope” is “fear.” The point is made succinctly by Cicero during the century before the birth of our Lord in the Tusculan Disputations: “And if self-confidence, that is, a firm assurance of the mind, is a certain knowledge and sober opinion not rashly to be given, a lack of this confidence is also a fear of anticipated and looming evil; and, if hope is the expectation of good, the expectation of evil is necessarily fear.”
This is hardly the Christian view. For Cicero, “hope” lies within a man’s own capacities, within his reliance upon himself. Where this view of hope as the opposite of fear leads eventually may be perceived in the work of Cicero’s contemporary, the poet Lucretius, a follower of Epicurus, who attempts to free mankind from the fear of divine punishment in the afterlife by maintaining that death is absolute and final, that our soul with its conscious mind does not survive the dissolution of the body:
Nothing at all have we to fear from death;
He who cannot exist cannot feel pain,
Or care if he’s never born again, once death
That does not die has seized his dying life.
The “hope” of Epicurean materialists is thus a brief, meaningless life avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure that ends in utter oblivion and nothingness. The satirist Juvenal, writing at the end of the following century, provides what seems an ironic comment on Cicero and Lucretius both: “The most enduring hope of man is supper.” It is hard to see that the aspirations of our modern “scientific” materialists are appreciably more exalted.
Hope & Despair
For Christians, however, the opposite of hope is not fear, but despair, and the difference lies in a different apprehension of hope. We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not” (11:1), and in the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul declares, “For we are saved by hope. But hope that is seen is not hope. For what a man seeth, why doth he hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, we wait for it with patience” (8:24–25).
The object of the hope of Christians, then, is neither the comfortable oblivion of Lucretius nor the free supper of Juvenal’s Roman client. It is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, a “supper” that we cannot see or even imagine: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
In fact, the despair that is the true opposite of hope amounts to giving up on the prospect of God’s promises, which have their “substance” in faith. Hence, it looks a good deal like Lucretius’s Epicurean repudiation of a spiritual life transcending the realm of the senses and escaping the meaningless movement of matter.
There are two kinds of contraries, St. Thomas Aquinas points out, involving things that change. Love and hate, for example, are contrary insofar as the one is a response to something desirable, the other to something repugnant. Hope and despair are contrary, however, as a matter of contrary responses to the same object.
“Despair,” writes Thomas, “does not pertain to something evil in its own right, but at times it considers something contingently evil inasmuch as it makes that good impossible of attainment. Indeed despair comes about only from a super-excess of good.” God is, of course, the ultimate “super-excess” of good—God and his ineffable divine promises to the faithful. Despair means turning away from the good that is God.
One may fall into despair because God seems too good to be true, or because he seems too good for the wickedness or mere unworthiness of a human being, or because the infused virtue of Christian hope entails our being transformed by grace, while the pride of our fallen nature—our self-centered egotism—clings to its illusion of autonomy; that is, to our sins and our misery.
Certitude & Peace
Lucretius offers his philosophical master Epicurus as a secular savior who freed man “when before our eyes man’s life lay groveling, prostrate,/ Crushed to the dust under the burden of Religion.” The result of this turning away from God is manifest to us now in the frantic consumerism, the sensual depravity, and the vain speculation of modern life, in which all the lineaments of despair are displayed.
Despair is, then, a term neither for melancholy or a depressed emotional state nor for an attitude of pessimism toward the course of this world. An optimistic assumption that the natural conditions of our existence are necessarily becoming progressively better seems to fly in the face of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, though sinful men may find temporary elation in the gratifications of satisfied avarice, ambition, lust, or curiosity. The current debasement of the word gay is a sufficient indication of the human capacity for illusory bliss.
By the same token, the Christian virtue of hope may not always be manifest in a routinely cheery disposition. Hope is rather a certitude and peace of soul that rest in the assurance of the supernatural means and end of that virtue. St. Thomas explains that our hope is defined by its goal, eternal beatitude, and its cause, Almighty God:
It is fitting that an effect be proportionate to its cause. Therefore the good that we properly and principally expect from God ought to be an infinite good, commensurate to the power of God’s help: for it is appropriate that an infinite good proceed from an infinite power. This good is eternal life, which consists in the enjoyment of God Himself: for we should hope for nothing less from Him than Himself, since no less is his goodness, by which he communicates good things to the creation, than His very essence.
Eternal beatitude is thus the “super-excess of good” to which hope and despair are contrary responses, and the theological virtue of hope is precisely the certitude that through God’s help—that is, through the power of grace—this otherwise inaccessible goal of eternal joy in the presence of the Holy Trinity may be attained. Despair is giving up on this hope of blessedness and settling for some lesser good. Whether the flight from God be undertaken with ruthless calculation, reckless abandon, or relaxed indifference does not alter the substance of the sin.
While eternal beatitude is the focus of hope and ultimately its only object, we still may hope for specific good outcomes in the events of this world, and we may even in a qualified sense “put our hope in other men.” In answering an objection to the question, “Whether eternal beatitude be the proper object of hope?”, St. Thomas remarks that “we should not seek from God any other goods except as ordered to eternal beatitude.” In answering the question, “Whether someone can lawfully hope in a man,” he sums up the entire issue:
Just as it is not, therefore, allowable to hope for some good besides beatitude as an ultimate end, but only as something ordered to the end of beatitude; even so it is not allowable to hope in a man, or in any creature, as a primary cause bringing one to beatitude; still it is allowable to hope in a man, or in another creature, as a secondary or instrumental agent through which someone is helped to some consequent goods ordered to beatitude.—And in this way we turn to the saints, and seek some things from men, and censure those on whom no one is able to rely for bringing aid.
Here we see how hope plays a definitive role in what is distinctive about the life of Christians, a life that is, in the words of St. Paul, “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). We move through the temporal world, involved in its contingent events and interacting with men and women, but we do so as pilgrims, as citizens of the divine rather than the merely human realm. Our earthly hopes must always be ordered, as St. Thomas puts it, toward the hope of blessedness, and we should strive always to bless the others whom we meet and consecrate the tasks that we undertake.
Christians are, in this sense, the ultimate countercultural revolutionaries, “God’s spies,” in the fine phrase that Shakespeare gives King Lear, seeking not to overturn the established order by violence or subversion, but to transform it by sacramental grace and the hope of heavenly glory.
The contrast is nowhere more vividly dramatized than in a debate poem, “On Hope,” in which the seventeenth-century poets Richard Crashaw and Abraham Cowley write alternate stanzas disparaging and celebrating hope. The poem was probably written when the two men were both students at Cambridge in the 1630s, though the occasion is uncertain.
Crashaw, who fled to Europe after the Puritan victory in the English Civil War, died in Italy as a Catholic priest. Cowley, who remained a royalist member of the Church of England, retained his devotion to Crashaw’s memory and later praised him as “Poet and Saint.”
We do not know why Cowley wrote the stanzas of the poem attacking hope from the perspective of worldly disillusionment, but Crashaw’s stanzas are perfectly in character with the devout orientation of his religious verse. It is arguable that Crashaw does not really answer Cowley’s argument in the manner of a debater. Instead he transforms the terms of the question by raising hope above mere temporal concerns, embodying the theological virtue in rich imagery and figurative language.
Cowley begins by depicting a world under the sway of “the Fates”: in this realm, hopes are mere vain aspirations that things will turn out well, that we shall be “lucky.” If we succeed, we are elated and forget how fragile and contingent our expectations were; if we fail, we curse the hope that drove us on.
Fatum in Latin is the past participle of the word for “to utter” or “to decree” or “to predict.” Fate thus allows no room for hope. The “dilemma” of earthly hope under the regime of Fate’s iron laws is that it is always false and always disappoints: If the wish is fulfilled, then fulfillment was inevitable and not dependent upon hope; if unfulfilled, then hope was never more than vain expectation.
Dowry & Debt
In the answering stanza, Crashaw changes the terms of the argument by reminding us that in the Christian dispensation there is a mutual interchange between earth and heaven. The chosen faithful on their earthly pilgrimage are like a betrothed woman awaiting her wedding day. Hope is the “dowry” that she offers the heavenly Groom, but it is also the “debt” he owes to her: the “things God hath prepared for them that love him.”
Hope as a theological virtue is, then, a relationship based on a promise rather than a decree; it assumes God is a person rather than a system of necessity governing a whirl of chance or hazard. Crashaw anchors this conception in vivid scriptural imagery when he alludes to God leading the children of Israel out of Egypt by a “Faire cloud of fire, both shade, and light” (Ex. 13).
Cowley’s rejoinder picks the nuptial imagery from Crashaw’s stanza and treats it in sardonic terms as a symbol for the lack of patience that leads fallen man to demand the immediate fulfillment of all his desires and thus spoil them by importunity: “The joyes, which wee entire should wed,/ Come deflour’d virgins to our bed.”
This tawdry image, in conjunction with those of the encumbered inheritance and the wasted wine that precede and follow it, provides an uncomfortable admonition regarding our susceptibility to disappointment when we lose sight of our real situation and anticipate complete contentment from any earthly satisfaction.
In his answer Crashaw redeems the nuptial figure by recalling that the love of our Lord is such that even on earth we are afforded true and holy, howbeit limited, joy:
Nor will the Virgin-joyes wee wed
Come lesse unbroken to our bed,
Because that from the bridal cheeke of Blisse,
Thou thus steal’st downe a distant kisse,
Hopes chaste kisse wrongs no more joyes maidenhead,
Then Spousall rites prejudge the marriage-bed.
Crashaw’s analogy in this stanza embodies in a crisply articulated metaphor the condition of Christians living in hope, in faithful anticipation of the Beatific Vision.
The Christian is like an engaged woman who must forswear the blandishments of other suitors—the temptations of the world—as she longs for the arrival of her marriage and full possession by the Bridegroom. She is incomplete, her life not perfected, but she is not miserable. While she must willingly defer her full joy, she is not without consolations: the “chaste kisse” of courtship, the “Spousall rites,” are not prejudicial to the honor of marriage.
Just so Christians are not called upon to be gloomy and censorious: moderate pleasures that do not detract from the full commitment that we owe to our Bridegroom, to our Lord Christ Jesus, are not to be despised. At this point Crashaw gets two stanzas in a row, and the one that follows drives this point home:
Thy golden head never hangs downe,
Till in the lap of Loves full noone
It falls, and dyes: oh no, it melts away
As doth the dawne into the day:
As lumpes of Sugar lose themselves, and twine
Their subtile essence with the soule of Wine.
Contrary to the popular slander, Christianity is not a dour, repressive religion. It seeks not to suppress the human longing for fulfillment, but to enhance it by keeping it within the appropriate bounds of our earthly condition and thus readying it for the boundless joy of heaven.
Having condemned human beings to the tyranny of Fate in his first stanza, Cowley abandons us to the anarchy of Fortune in the next. In terms of merely earthly life, the metaphor is apt: If in ultimate material terms the universe is a vast turning machine that sweeps us along with every other part of it along its inexorable track, in human perception it is, as Cowley puts it, “Fortunes cheating Lotterie,” a cosmic Las Vegas, in which individuals are offered an array of equally attractive and equally meaningless choices.
Indeed, when we consider the ominous resonance of the term choice in contemporary life, we ought to gain an increased appreciation for the ancient symbol of Fortune’s Wheel, with its glittering display of pleasure, which Cowley compares to “A cloud, which gilt, and painted now appears,/ But must drop presently in teares.”
Crashaw answers with a pair of daring oxymora:
Sweet Hope! kind cheat! faire fallacy! by thee
Wee are not where, or what wee bee,
But what, and where wee would bee: thus art thou
Our absent presence, and our future now.
To make these apparent contradictions good, it is only necessary to recall the verse from Colossians quoted above: “Your life is hid with Christ in God.” The late Jacques Derrida is usually credited with coining the phrase “absent presence,” but Crashaw and other Renaissance poets used it first. For Derrida it meant that no “full presence,” no fulfillment, was ever possible, but for Crashaw it is the paradox of hope: Even now, even in the temporal, perilous situation of fallen human beings, God is present even as he seems most absent. Our faith tells us that God is always present, and hope is the certitude of the veracity of this faith.
The two closing stanzas bring us back to where we began: Cowley, echoing Cicero, tells us that hope is the “Brother of Feare.” The vain hopes of mortals, seeking a permanent and perfect solace in anything but God are epitomized by the infatuated lover and the alchemist who attempts to turn base metals into gold, for endless wealth and power, and to find the elixir of life, for secular immortality. Both of these kinds of worldly hope and vain expectation are accompanied by fear, as one is lost in nature’s “endlesse Laborinths,” the other in the “turnes” of lust.
Crashaw counters by reminding us that true Christian hope rests not in the shifting sands or the tangled wilderness of this mutable, temporal world, but seeks to unite the creation with its heavenly Creator: “True Hope’s a glorious Huntresse, and her chase/ The God of Nature in the field of Grace.”
Lying behind this striking image is St. Thomas’s precept that grace does not abolish nature, but perfects it. Ironically, it is the man who yields himself wholly to natural “hopes” and desires and pursuits who ruins nature by driving it into the ground, exhausting it by demanding of something finite and changeable a permanent, infinite fulfillment.
Sources: Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 4.37.80; Lucretius, De rerum natura 3.863866; Juvenal, I.133134; St. Thomas, Summa Theologica I-II.40.4 ad 2; Lucretius, De rerum 1.6263; Thomas, ST II-II.17.2, II-II.17.3, II-II.17.2 ad 2, II-II.17.4; King Lear V.iii.17; Crashaw and Cowley, “On Hope” 4, 11, 15, 2526, 3540, 4550, 5758, 6770, 71, 7780, 8990. The quotes from Lucretius are taken from the translation by Anthony Esolen.
R. V. Young is Professor of English at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry (Boydell & Brewer), and he is currently at work on a book on Shakespeare and on a translation and critical edition of the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius?s De Constantia. He and his wife, who are parishioners at St. Joseph?s Catholic Church in Raleigh, have five grown children and eight grandchildren.