Always be ready to give a reason for your hope. (1 Pet 3:15)
As children of God, all Christians are called to proclaim boldly the truth of Christ. Far too often, however, Christians are reluctant to explain the Church’s teachings. We are found apologizing for or even watering down the truth, especially those truths relating to morality and man’s search for love. What is the reason for this reluctance? Perhaps modern man seems too faithless to receive the truth. Perhaps the Church’s teachings seem too difficult to accept. Or perhaps we have forgotten that to give truth is the greatest charity. Perhaps we have forgotten that with every invitation to virtue, God gives us the strength to achieve greatness. Perhaps, we have forgotten hope.
St. Thomas Aquinas defines hope as a theological virtue by which man, relying on God’s strength, seeks an arduous but possible good. In a fast-paced society of immediate gratification, man’s appreciation of the arduous or difficult good has fallen by the wayside. He prefers immediate pleasure to future greatness. The Church’s teaching on morality is a call to greatness. It is good, but it is not easy; it demands hope. Modern man must rediscover the value of seeking an arduous good and rekindle the theological virtue of hope, which far from giving us a merely human optimism, offers us confidence in the help of an omnipotent God.
Rooting this essay in the thought of St. Thomas, I will first elaborate on the distinctions between natural and theological hope in order to demonstrate modern man’s need for the supernatural virtue. Second, I will explore some of the reasons for a lack of hope in modern society and, finally, offer practical suggestions towards inspiring hope in the modern era.
What is hope?
If you were to look up the noun “hope” in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary you would find the following definitions:
- a feeling that something good will happen or be true;
- the chance that something good will happen.
But to understand hope only as a feeling is to exclude it from the realm of human morality and action. For while hope is undoubtedly a feeling—or as Aristotle and St. Thomas call it, an irascible emotion—it is also a theological virtue.
In the Prima Secundae of his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas explores the emotion or passion of hope. As a passion, hope is a movement, a bodily change, experienced by man when he perceives a future, difficult but possible good. Each of the three adjectives describing the good is important. First, hope is triggered by a future good—a good not yet obtained. Second, by a possible good—a good that can be obtained. Third, by a difficult good—a good that, while possible, can only be obtained through difficulty. Because this passion strengthens man to endure the difficult in pursuit of the perceived good it is listed among the irascible emotions.
It is important to note that not all desired goods evoke the passion of hope. Some goods are easy to obtain, and so in a certain sense they bypass hope. The passion of desire is enough to move man towards these easily acquired goods. For example, the emotion of simple desire is enough to prompt me to take a sip of water from a glass already in my hand. Hope, however, is for the arduous goods—the goods which do not come easily. In a class I recently took on hope, my professor offered the example of the claw game found at video arcades. It is the passion of hope that moves us to keep putting quarters into the machine expecting that we can, against all odds, grasp the stuffed teddy bear with the mechanical claw. If this natural passion of hope can motivate us to overcome difficulty, how much more can the supernatural virtue of hope strengthen us?
In order to understand hope as a virtue, it is first essential that we understand it as a theological, rather than a moral, virtue. It would seem that since hope aims at man’s achieving a difficult good, it would be a moral virtue akin to fortitude. St. Thomas, however, identifies this moral virtue as magnanimity. It is magnanimity which disposes man to pursue an arduous good by his own strength. This greatness of soul is certainly admirable and needed in the moral life but even this is not hope in its truest sense.
The hope that modern man so desperately needs to rediscover is a theological virtue. Like the emotion of hope, the theological virtue is concerned with an arduous or difficult good. Like the moral virtue of magnanimity it is a habit which disposes man to strive towards this arduous good. What makes the theological virtue of hope unique, however, is that it depends not on a man’s own strength or greatness of soul but on the power of an almighty God. Hope allows man to pursue an arduous good by God’s strength. Because of this dependence on God’s help, hope can aim with confidence for the greatest good—the infinite good that is otherwise beyond man’s reach.
If we reduce hope to a feeling of desire, then we can hardly suggest that modern man lacks it. It would even be wrong to suggest that modern man lacks the moral equivalent; on the contrary, man seems quite convinced that he can reach new frontiers if he works hard enough. Consider the number of runners who train for marathons or the amateur hikers who aim to summit Mount Everest. But theological hope—a firm confidence that God will help man reach the height of happiness, of beatitude—has widely been forgotten. What has caused this forgetfulness? What has contributed to modern society’s lack of this theological virtue?
Why does modern society lack hope?
I would like to consider two possible causes for modern man’s lack of hope: immediacy and individualism.
When I was young I recall seeing an advertisement for “Instant Gratification Sundays” on one of the major broadcasting channels. The premise was simple. The station would comb through past seasons of classic sitcoms and select episodes that ended with those torturous three words “To be continued. . .”. So what was the draw? On “Instant Gratification Sundays” you could enjoy viewing the sequel to the episode immediately. The idea was an attractive one. Many can relate to that urgent desire to get to the ending—waiting a week for the next episode seemed like an eternity. Then again, isn’t that feeling of anticipation the whole point?
We live in a world of instant gratifications, fast food, minute-to-win-it games, and high speed Internet. We’ve got the entire world at our fingertips right now. While there are undoubtedly advantages to these new technologies and trends, we must be honest enough to admit their negative consequences as well. Our hyper-focus on instant gratification has caused us to lose sight of the goodness of waiting, the pleasure of the journey, and the fruit of a long struggle. We prefer convenient short cuts and immediate success to the long struggle for true greatness. We have obscured the reality that as human persons we are in a state of becoming—of being on the way.
In his theological treatise On Hope, Joseph Pieper considers this “status viatoris” (state of being on the way) as foundational to man’s creatureliness. He writes:
It would be difficult to conceive of another statement that penetrates as deeply into the innermost core of creaturely existence as does the statement that man finds himself, even until the moment of his death, in the status viatoris, in the state of being on the way.
For Pieper, the human condition is primarily characterized by the truth that we are made for heaven, and it is only there that we will experience complete fulfillment. Recognizing the truth that we are made for something even greater than this earth is a necessary prerequisite to rediscovering true hope. No matter how great our happiness on this earth, we will still not yet be in heaven. And as long as there is a not yet, we need hope.
Pope Francis brought this basic tenant of the Christian faith to the foreground in declaring an extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy and inviting the whole world to make pilgrimages of mercy. In Misericoridae Vultus, the bull of indiction for the holy year, Pope Francis writes:
The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life. Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim travelling along the road, making his way to the desired destination. (Misericordiae Vultus, §14)
Recognizing the truth that we are made for something even greater than this earth is a necessary prerequisite to rediscovering true hope. No matter how great our happiness on this earth, we will still not yet be in heaven. And as long as there is a not yet, we need hope.
The Holy Father went to great lengths to ensure that every person had the possibility of making a pilgrimage through a holy door. Two pilgrims upon returning recently from Rome shared that they not only were able to walk through holy doors at all the major basilicas of the eternal city but also at the airport! The Pope wanted no one excluded from this year of pilgrimage. If you couldn’t make it to Rome, you could visit the holy doors of your local cathedral. The Pope has even spoken of the door of a prison cell as a door of mercy. The Pope is reminding us that we are all pilgrims—journeying towards the home of our merciful Father. None of us can arrive at perfect fulfillment in this life. And as pilgrims we need hope that the good coming is worth the arduous journey.
Having rediscovered that he is “on the way,” modern man must next overcome his obsession with himself. This is not a problem limited to modern man, but it is certainly one with which he too must contend. Following the sexual revolution, man seemed to become even more focused on his own pleasure, his own freedom, and his own power. This focus disposed him to the two vices opposed to hope. What are these “bad habits” that keep modern man from hope? The vices of presumption and despair.
Let’s first look at presumption. Presumption is a false hope. And while it can take many forms, it boils down to a self-assurance that “I can do it all myself.” Within a Christian context it might take the form of false confidence that “I can be forgiven without repenting.” Or that “as long as my intentions are good, I’ll be fine.” What is the problem here? The emphasis is on the “I.” When I can do it alone by my own power, I eliminate the need for supernatural hope—for God’s help in achieving true greatness.
The second vice opposed to hope is the more dangerous of the two and the most relevant for our context—despair. Despair arises when man loses hope in achieving happiness. This is seen first when man thinks that the desired good is not, in fact, attainable. Is it really possible to live the Christian moral life? And is it really possible for everyone? Despair says it is too late, too difficult, and too unreasonable; it is not possible for man to live that way. But despair can also arise when man loses sight of the good altogether. Interestingly, according to St. Thomas, this kind of despair arises from the sin of lust. In the fourth article of the question on despair, St. Thomas explains his argument:
The fact that spiritual goods taste good to us no more, or seem to be goods of no great account, is chiefly due to our affections being infected with the love of bodily pleasures, among which sexual pleasures hold the first place: for the love of those pleasures leads man to have a distaste for spiritual things, and not to hope for them as arduous goods.
In this way, he concludes, “despair is caused by lust.” Lust makes man so preoccupied with sensual pleasures that he loses his taste for heavenly ones. It is a little like the twelve-year-old child who makes himself so sick on Easter candy that he doesn’t even want to taste the Easter feast his mother has so carefully prepared. As a society, we are so busy stuffing ourselves with the instant gratifications of today that we have despaired of the infinite goods of heaven. We have lost hope. Where do we go from here?
How do we inspire hope in today’s society?
In the first letter of St. Peter, we are exhorted to “always be ready to give an explanation for your hope” (1 Pet 3:15). This passage of Scripture is often quoted by apologists and missionaries preparing to proclaim the faith to those who question. I dare to suggest, however, that if we don’t first manifest hope we will never be asked for an explanation. Paul VI famously wrote that the world does not need teachers but witnesses (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, §41). If we want to evangelize our culture, we must live hope. And we must live it loudly. Every era has its questions and its struggles. The moral struggles of our age do seem to stem largely from the sexual revolution and man’s subsequent loss of taste for the spiritual goods, but St. Peter’s advice is unchanging—live hope.
If we want to evangelize our culture, we must live hope. And we must live it loudly.
The first step to living hope is to rediscover the arduous good. Rather than settling for the instant gratifications of today, we must fix our eyes on the infinite goods our hearts were made for and embrace the struggle to pursue them. Difficult doesn’t mean bad; any athlete will tell you that excellence requires sacrifice. In 2008, the Harris brothers, both teenagers at the time, wrote a book called Do Hard Things. In the book they challenged their fellow youth to rebel against the culture that expects them to take the path of least resistance and urged the next generation to do things that require struggle, perseverance, and courage. The Harris brothers understood the arduous good. They understood that the hard things in life are the things worth doing. They also understood that it was God who would help them to achieve what is difficult. They explain, “The purpose of this book is not to brag about anything we’ve done, but to talk about something huge that God is doing. . . .”
The second step in living hope is to put first things first. St. Thomas is clear that the object of theological hope is union with God in heaven. Everything else is secondary. When we keep God as our primary goal, all other smaller hopes fall into place and act as steps leading towards the ultimate goal. On the other hand, when we allow our individualistic or worldly goals pride of place, we find ourselves not only incapable of achieving the happiness we truly seek, but also dissatisfied with the secondary things achieved. In a brief and poignant essay entitled “First and Second Things,” C.S. Lewis explains the inevitable consequence of losing sight of the greatest good. He writes:
This law has been discovered before; but it will stand rediscovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made.
When we mistakenly perceive the goods of this earth as the most important, we not only miss our opportunity to achieve true greatness but end up losing the goods of this world as well.
The object of theological hope is union with God in heaven. Everything else is secondary. When we keep God as our primary goal, all other smaller hopes fall into place and act as steps leading towards the ultimate goal.
The world we are called to evangelize needs hope. We’ve become distracted by instant gratifications and lost our taste for the arduous good. We tend to set ourselves and our petty, selfish goals at the center and thus either presume that we don’t need God’s help or despair of ever finding it. Hope is the remedy, but we as evangelizers can’t give what we don’t have. We need hope that the truth we proclaim, though challenging, will in fact free men’s hearts for the one thing they desire most: authentic love. Living Christian charity is difficult, but hope reminds us that with God nothing is impossible. As we allow this theological virtue to flourish in our lives, our contemporaries will begin to “ask the reason” . . . and together we will rediscover hope.
Featured Image: George Frederic Watts and Workshop; Hope, detail (1886); courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae [hereafter ST] II-II, q.17, a.1.
 ST I-II, q.40, a.1.
 Ibid, II-II, q.17, a.5.
 Joseph Pieper, On Hope (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 12.
 ST II-II, q.20 and q. 21.
 Ibid, II-II, q.20, a.4.
 Alex and Brett Harris, Do Hard Things (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2008), 25.
 ST II-II, q.17, a.2.
 C.S. Lewis, “First and Second Things” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1970), 280.