[Editor’s Note: David Elliot is Assistant Professor of Moral Theology and Ethics at the Catholic University of America, and Research Associate at the Von Hügel Institute, St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. His research focuses on virtue ethics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas; including work on the theological virtue of hope, Scripture and ethics, and the art of dying. Elliot has worked on ethical and social issues with the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales and is an ethics analyst for the BBC. His first book is Hope and Christian Ethics, which came out this year. He spoke to Charles Camosy about hope in today’s world.]
Camosy: Lots of folks who simply watch the news, or scroll through their social media feeds, are struggling to find reasons for hope. What does your book add to how we think about hope and try to live it out?
Elliot: The most important question is what is the ultimate source of our hope? As we have recently seen, the alarming rise of political decay, civil disorder, ecological bad news, global instability, terrorism, and so forth, have left many wondering how strong our hopes will be. Rather than a myth of progress or feelings of optimism, the hope I discuss – and argue that we need – is the theological virtue of hope. Virtues are resilient; Scripture calls hope a “helmet” (1 Thess 5:8). But its strength is proportionate to reliance on divine aid.
Throughout the Old Testament, hope in God kept the Chosen People going despite the crushing blows of history. In Christ’s time, religious hopes reached fever pitch, but the bleak desolation of Good Friday threatened ultimate despair: The Messiah appeared to have lost. Against that grim background, the Resurrection of Christ surprised his disciples with dazzling intensity as the ultimate vindication of hope. It was “hot ice and wondrous strange snow,” in Shakespeare’s phrase; and it inspired the belief that nothing – not even death – could prevent the coming of God’s kingdom.
Based on this, the early Church showed a confident, jubilant, and triumphal hope even amid persecution and the social collapse that was the fall of Rome. Far from just being a past event, the Resurrection is the first fruits of the inbreaking kingdom. It’s ahead of the times, so to speak, and not just “good” but (what we too easily forget) “news.” From the perspective of salvation history, it’s incomparably newer than today’s headlines.
My book is about renewing a way of life rooted in this ultimate source of hope, and it addresses topics from resisting despair and “rejoicing in hope” to thinking through our earthly allegiances and reviving the “art of dying.” To that end, I draw heavily on the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and a wide variety of sources, from literature to the liturgy.
Does a focus on the afterlife diminish this life in this world? If hope ultimately looks toward heaven, does it distract from earthly concerns and deflate social justice?
I argue that virtuous hope does not detract from this life and world, but acknowledges their integrity and honours their goodness. As mediated through charity and applied to justice, hope seeks happiness not just for oneself, but for the whole community, and so is not a “selfish” virtue.
Indeed, the vice of presumption opposed to hope consists partly in refusing works of social justice and mercy in the “presumption” that the common good is optional to those seeking eternal life. To show what this hope looks like, I examine the beatitudes of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. I suggest that the beatitudes depict the exemplary form of the hopeful life: One in which we pursue the future kingdom in a life of justice and mercy.
Following up on that, in what ways can Christian hope, with its focus on God and the afterlife, care about and benefit earthly society?
The goal of theological hope is eternal life in God, but earthly causes are taken up by hope as part of our overall movement to the beatific vision. Hence many Christians conspicuous for theological hope were also conspicuous for social hopes – for example, the great medieval saints who tirelessly advocated and worked for the poor, the British evangelicals and Quakers whose efforts helped abolish the slave trade, and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement.
Such reformers sought first the kingdom of heaven, and yet they contributed to the earthly city in extraordinary fashion, continuing to respond to setbacks with forgiveness and resilience, “hoping against hope” (Rom 4:18) long after the conventional optimists of their context had called it a day.
Though the hopeful should avoid secular “worldliness,” they should be invested in society. It has been suggested that the resurrection of the body may include the resurrection of social identities as our “larger body;” that the nations, for example, will be “healed” (Rev 22:2) in the eschaton. If so, then while William Blake’s Jerusalem may tell an apocryphal story of England’s past, what it gets right is the idea that Christ will redeem the peoples in their created particularities.
Scripture hints that the nations will adorn the new creation: “the glory and the honour of the nations” shall be brought into the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:26). This helps to bury the view that hope, in the end, envisions the sheer destruction of our temporal and earthly identities, and therefore cannot be motivated to care much about them now. Such hope gives added reason to be socially invested and work for reform.
The lives of the saints suggest this may be done with a refreshing lack of cynicism that corresponds to the spiritual “youthfulness” (iuventas) traditionally ascribed to hope, and compared to which despair is a kind of spiritual senility. As social anxieties and cynicism rapidly mount, such hope is a much-needed resource.
It is interesting to think about vices opposed to the virtue of hope, such as presumption and despair. What are some real-world examples of these, and what can be done to resist these forms of hopelessness?
Aquinas describes the vice of presumption as a false and bloated hope that refuses to repent and be transformed, expecting “glory without merits, and forgiveness without repentance.” Not only does presumption raise cheap grace worries; it views God as rather an enabler. As a remedy, the tradition points to the Holy Spirit’s “fear of the Lord.” While many would rather return it unopened, I suggest that the gift of fear, understood with serious nuances, has a valuable role that rewards examination.
Hope’s other opposed vice is despair, which often results from sloth or acedia as a gateway vice. To many, “sloth” suggests mere laziness, but it’s far more complex, and better described as “sorrow at the divine good.”
The slothful resent the call to emerge from contented mediocrity. Like the rich young man, they register “sorrow” at the tasks of discipleship. Acedia may produce a dreary boredom whose outer symptom is physical laziness. It may equally produce what Gregory the Great called the “wandering of the mind after illicit things,” and which was later diagnosed by Pascal as the feverish search for “distraction.” In our era of smartphones and social media saturation, the concept of acedia suggests that the drive for perpetual “distraction” may partly be the attempt to deaden the pain of absent hope. As a remedy to sloth, I devote a chapter of the book to “rejoicing in hope.”
Another major temptation to despair is posed by our mortality. This has always been true, but dying and death are conspicuously hidden and denied in our youth, entertainment, and consumer culture. The afterlife charted by traditional eschatology has blurred for most, making death an impenetrable enigma whose approach often heralds bewilderment or despair.
One chapter of the book seeks to refurbish the place of hope in a contemporary ars moriendi or “art of dying.” Specifically, it sets forth a renewed ascesis of hope whose eschatological vision and practices keep us from despair and prepare us for a “good death.”
There are a lot of things we hope for. What, in the book, do you argue is the ultimate goal of hope?
In one liturgical formula, hope anticipates “those heavenly habitations, where the souls of them that sleep in the Lord Jesus enjoy perpetual rest and felicity.” But many models of hope – even of Christian hope – downplay the afterlife as an embarrassment. But this strikes me as disingenuous, and is of no use whatsoever. It’s incoherent to try and borrow the moral capital of Christian hope while pretending that the eschatology which supplies it just isn’t there. Others worry that their desire for what we loosely call “heaven” is weak or undetectable.
I vary St. Augustine’s theme of the “restless heart” to argue that we’re haunted by an elusive but ineradicable desire for complete fulfilment, or at least some ideal of personal or social good beyond what we can get in this life. With Bill Mattison, C.S. Lewis, and others, I read this inexhaustible desire as a kind of intimation or signpost pointing to the beatific vision that alone satisfies all longing.
Considered this way, life’s great moments of overwhelming accomplishment or occasional ecstasy, our richest relationships and profoundest solidarities, the little glimpses of something ineffable that are memory’s great treasure, may all be read as a faint foreshadowing of eternal beatitude. This greatly dignifies earthly realities while pointing us to something more than a vague afterlife: To perfect fulfilment in the beatific vision of God “face to face,” and to the new creation whose first fruits are the Risen Christ.