"Hope." Like the word "love," it's overused today, but that's the fundamental theme of Benedict XVI's new encyclical Spe Salvi. Just as his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est explored the subject of love, Catholicism's theologian-pope has chosen to focus on an indispensible dimension of the Christian message.
Today hundreds of theologians insist upon talking about everything except the essences of Christian faith, regarding such matters as "not relevant" to contemporary concerns.
In Spe Salvi, Benedict demonstrates — perhaps without intending to — how wrong such assumptions are. A powerful theme of this encyclical is that a world without hope, or which reduces hope to creating earthly utopias, facilitates a view of politics that not only enslaves, but kills.
Benedict begins by observing that Christianity's hope of life after death presented a radically different view of human destiny compared to the Roman Empire's pagan religions. "[N]o hope," Benedict writes, "emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were 'without God' and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future."
But Christianity's insistence upon the possibility of eternal life, says Benedict, fundamentally re-orientated human history. It saved pagan Europe from an understanding of life as essentially purposeless. Christianity encouraged people to view the world as one in which things made sense. The same God who gave man hope of eternal life was understood to be a thoroughly rational deity — the Logos — rather than a willful, capricious divinity.
Thus astrology began giving way to astronomy, as humans accelerated their quest for truth, confident humanity's existence was not the work of mere chance or a master clock-maker, but rather came from a God who was simultaneously Love (Caritas) and Truth (Veritas).
From Benedict's point of view, however, things started to go wrong with the Enlightenment. It's not that he adopts "the-Enlightenment-is-the-Devil's-work" argument often found among uber-traditionalists. Anyone familiar with Benedict's writings knows there is much about this diverse intellectual movement he admires.
What Benedict means is that some Enlightenment thinkers, such as the scientist-philosopher Francis Bacon, believed human reason could eventually solve all of humanity's problems.
This ideology of progress, Benedict suggests, resulted in people imagining it was possible to realize the Kingdom of God on earth. The French Revolution, Benedict holds, was the first political attempt to implement this ideology. It ended in the guillotining of anyone regarded by the Revolution's secular high-priests as obstructing the way to liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Unfortunately, the progressivist faith in humanity's ability to create earthly paradises through politics has not diminished. It was, as Benedict notes, central to the Marxist project that ravaged the 20th century.
In Benedict's view, Marxism could not help but leave behind "a trail of appalling destruction." Marx, Benedict says, was virtually silent about the end-state of his promised heaven-on-earth because he "forgot man and he forgot man's freedom." In other words, once you accept the reality of human liberty, you know society can never be static, never perfect. There is no human-engineered "end of history."
Marxism's denial of liberty meant its politics could never get beyond the "dictatorship of the proletariat" phase. Ironically, Benedict states, "having accomplished the revolution, Lenin must have realized that the writings of the master gave no indication as to how to proceed."
Christian hope, in Benedict's opinion, offers a different understanding of politics. It also differs significantly from that of theocrats of all faiths, most liberation theologians, and, sadly enough, some Christian social justice activists.
"Christianity," Benedict writes, "did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar-Kochba."
Instead Christianity relativizes politics.
Yes, Christians — indeed everyone — should work to make society more authentically free and humane. Politics can contribute to this end. But to assume political activism can potentially create a perfect human society is to deny the truth of human liberty and imperfection and put Man and Earth in the place of God and Heaven.
"Hence," Benedict concludes, "while we must always be committed to the improvement of the world, tomorrow's better world cannot be the proper and sufficient content of our hope."
This is a sobering message about politics. It's unlikely to be well-received in a number of circles — Christian and non-Christian. Spe Salvi, however, gently reminds us not to allow politics to succumb to hubristic tendencies from whatever source they arise — religious or secular.
That's one political message surely worth hearing.