Feast of the Nativity of the Forerunner John the Baptist and of St Elizabeth, Mother of the Forerunner
“GANDALF! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?" “A great Shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. ~J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
Along with faith and love, hope is one of three theological virtues in the Christian tradition (cf. 1 Cor. 13). Hope here is what we might call ultimate hope—akin to what the nineteenth century neo-Thomist Josef Pieper called fundamental hope—not just any old hope for any old thing, like hoping it will not rain tomorrow. Ultimate hope has as its object—that which is hoped in and for—God and the consummation of His Kingdom, coming on earth as it is in heaven. It is hope for the dark shadows of sin and death to be swept from our world, for the lasting triumph of good over evil, of the Shire, Rivendell, and Gondor over Mordor. It is a Samwise Gamgee kind of hope that everything sad in our universe will someday come untrue. It is a Holy Spirit-cultivated hope that looks beyond one’s own moral and existential resources, resting in Jesus to fully and finally bring one safely into His consummated kingdom.
Scripture commends this kind of hope as a virtue that Jesus’ followers ought to cultivate under the tutelage of the Spirit. It may sound odd to our ears to hear that we ought to hope. But as a virtue, hope helps to orient (and continually re-orient) our beliefs, affections, expectations, motivations, volitions, and actions around the true, the good, and the beautiful—around the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The objects of our deep hopes influence our lives in profound ways. We tend to orient ourselves around that which we hope for most. Recall what it was like to be “in love” for the first time, hoping to be with your beloved forever. Or take the deep hope to attain great riches and worldly success. Such a hope will influence you to think particular kinds of thoughts, experience uniquely shaped emotions, and act in specific ways. Deep hope leaves no part of our lives untouched, for good or for ill. The object of such hope, therefore, must be the summum bonum, the highest good.
This cosmic-redemptive, ultimate hope entails that we also hope for all that is sad about our own lives, including and especially the evil for which we are culpable, to come untrue as well. Ultimate hope implies the desire for personal moral transformation, itself part of the larger story of redemption. The personal and the cosmic inevitably intertwine.
When faced with the horrendous evils of the world along with the grueling personal struggle for real moral progress, pessimism (maybe even despair) sometimes lurks just around the corner. How can it be rational to hope for all of this to come untrue? Surely this is wishful thinking at its height, profound evidence of the human tendency towards the optimism bias. Concerns about the reasonableness of hope apply, a fortiori, to ultimate hope, do they not? After all, ultimate hope is hope for all that is sad to come untrue—nothing less than a perfect ending to the story of the cosmos. This surely is as far-fetched as hopes come.
I urge a bit more patience though with this idea of ultimate hope. Compelling evidence of many forms is available that points to the existence of the ultimate object of our hope—God and the promises of His Kingdom (for starters, see the immense theological-philosophical-existential corpus of the Christian tradition). Though I do think ultimate hope is on good epistemic footing, this is not the approach I want to take in commending the reasonableness of ultimate hope here in closing.
I want to instead offer a brief practical defense of ultimate hope. Such hope embodies our deepest good longings as human beings for moral transformation, redemption, ultimate justice, lasting love, and full human flourishing, all to the glory of God, to be the final (teleological), indelible words of our universe’s story. With Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, we say, “. . . no matter what happens, God will have the last word.” Our ultimate hope is that these realities are the deepest, most fundamental, and abiding in our world. Indeed, we ought to hope for such things. Even if you sometimes struggle to believe such things will come to pass, why not at least strive to cultivate hope for them? Why not prayerfully hope for such unquestionable goods? Of course, in doing so, we also incur moral demands on ourselves.
Not to detract from the practical argument above, but what if the presence of ultimate hope, the very fact that most (or all) of us have deep longings (even if not always the full-blown theological virtue of Christian hope) for perfect shalom—for everything sad to come untrue—is itself a clue that sadness, death, and dissolution will not have the last word? The ubiquity of at least a seed-form of the virtue of ultimate hope is a cloaked hint of something more. The Samwise Gamgee-shaped hope in us, says C. S. Lewis, is a clue of a greater, glorious reality:
We remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? “Nor does being hungry prove that we have bread.” But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. ~C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Josh Seachris is Program Director at the Center for Philosophy of Religion and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He lives with his wife, Sarah, and their three sons, William, Owen, and Evan in Granger, IN. A native Kansan, he misses Kansas sunsets.