Among the three theological virtues, hope sometimes seems like it gets short shrift.
We talk about faith all the time. It’s impossible not to. The creed is a faith statement. When we speak of salvation, coming to a fundamental faith in Jesus is understood to be a most basic first step. Love is of supreme importance as well. It’s the greatest of the three as St. Paul tells us. God is love, according to John. And historically speaking, the great debate of the Reformation hinged on how we understand the relationship of faith to love.
How does hope fit into that picture? If love is the greatest of the virtues is hope the least?
The least of the virtues?
Again, sometimes it seems like it is deservedly so.
In ancient Greece, hope actually was viewed as negative passion. To hope for something was to have a false grasp on reality. Cities or individuals facing impending doom of one or sort or another were said to be inflamed by hope. Then again, the ancient Greeks had a very pessimistic outlook on life and had very little to hope for in the afterlife. In the time of Homer, for example, all went to the same place, Hades, where they existed as shadows of their former selves.
The early Christians obviously had a different perspective on hope, but it sometimes seems to have a second-tier status nonetheless. This perception is reinforced by verses like Hebrews 11:1, traditionally translated as: “Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for.” That makes it sound like faith is more substantial than hope.
Even in contemporary speech this distinction seems to hold. If I say, “I have faith in her love for me” that sounds like I have a much higher degree of confidence in my statement than if were to instead say “I hope she loves me.” We hope for the resurrection of the dead, but don’t we do more than this? Don’t we believe in it?
Yet, in his sermon at Pentecost, Peter, in quoting the Psalms, calls on us to ‘dwell in hope’ (Acts 2:26). And Romans 8:24 says that we were ‘saved in hope,’ as Pope Benedict XVI noted in his encyclical Spe Salvi.
And read closely how St. Paul couches their interrelationship in Galatians 5:5-6:
For through the Spirit, by faith, we await the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
It’s clear in the hope is not just a shadow of faith. There is something distinctive about it. It is different and seems to function in a way that complements the other two theological virtues in the life of a Christian.
So perhaps there’s to hope than meets the eye, so to speak. For this, a dive deep into the heart of the Summa Theologica will be illuminating. (The particular interpretation Benedict offers in Spe Salvi deserves its own treatment and, this author submits, may be not be the best starting point.)
First, it is helpful to remember how Aquinas conceives of the soul. We don’t need to exhaustively map out the soul here. For our purposes now it is sufficient to note that there are two ‘powers’ of the soul relevant to our discussion: the intellect, which is concerned with knowing things, and the will, or the ‘rational appetite,’ which desires things.
Aquinas associates faith with the intellect, while hope and love belong to the will. Here’s how he puts it in the Summa:
First, as regards the intellect, man receives certain supernatural principles, which are held by means of a Divine light: these are the articles of faith, about which is faith. Secondly, the will is directed to this end, both as to that end as something attainable—and this pertains to hope—and as to a certain spiritual union, whereby the will is, so to speak, transformed into that end—and this belongs to charity. For the appetite of a thing is moved and tends towards its connatural end naturally; and this movement is due to a certain conformity of the thing with its end (ST I-II, q. 62, a. 3, c).
In the above, Aquinas is making some incredibly helpful distinctions. It is through faith that we come to know about our supernatural end—our life in Christ now and our eternal life in the world to come. We know about our supernatural end through faith. We long for such an end, in the sense that the will is the ‘rational appetite,’ through hope.
This simple distinction clears away much potential confusion. Through faith we come to know about the resurrection of the dead and the crown of righteousness that awaits us. It belongs to hope to long for such things. Rather than take a backseat to faith, hope complements it. We couldn’t hope for something we didn’t know about and it certainly wouldn’t make much sense to know about the resurrection and not long for such a thing! If faith is the compass, hope is the rudder.
One important implication is that hope is no less certain than faith. In fact, quite the contrary, both have the same degree of certainty. As Aquinas later puts it, “hope tends to its end with certainty, as though sharing in the certainty of faith which is in the cognitive faculty.”
Hope and love
When it comes to hope and love, Aquinas posits an intriguing relationship between the two in the above excerpt. To the extent that our will is directed to a supernatural end, hope is involved. To the extent that we are actually transformed into that end, we’re talking about love. Hope longs for a certain end while love seems to latch onto it. The difference here seems to be one of distance—distance between the person hoping and loving and the ‘object of his desire.’
There’s a bit more to it than that—actually a lot more—and it’s worth exploring this relationship somewhat further. For that, we have to dive deep into the sections of the Summa that deal directly with the virtues.
There, Aquinas makes several important clarifications. The first is what is that we hope for. According to Aquinas, we hope for nothing less than eternal happiness:
Wherefore the good which we ought to hope for from God properly and chiefly is the infinite good, which is proportionate to the power of our divine helper, since it belongs to an infinite power to lead anyone to an infinite good. Such a good is eternal life, which consists in the enjoyment of God Himself. For we should hope from Him for nothing less than Himself, since His goodness, whereby He imparts good things to His creature, is no less than His Essence. Therefore the proper and principal object of hope is eternal happiness (ST II-II, q. 17, a. 2, co.).
Notice that there is a twofold aspect to what we hope for: yes, eternal happiness is at the forefront, but we also hope—that is long for, or desire—the assistance of God in getting there. As Aquinas himself later states at the end of Article 6 in the above question, “Hope makes us tend to God, as to a good to be obtained finally, and as to a helper strong to assist.”
In Article 6, Aquinas also helpfully elaborates on the interrelationship among faith, hope, and love:
[H]ope and faith make man adhere to God as to a principle wherefrom certain things accrue to us. Now we derive from God both knowledge of truth and the attainment of perfect goodness. Accordingly faith makes us adhere to God, as the source whence we derive the knowledge of truth, since we believe that what God tells us is true: while hope makes us adhere to God, as the source whence we derive perfect goodness, i.e. in so far as, by hope, we trust to the Divine assistance for obtaining happiness. …
[C]harity, properly speaking, makes us tend to God, by uniting our affections to Him, so that we live, not for ourselves, but for God.
Here we see a series of critical distinctions restated a new. First, through faith we come to know of the eternal happiness that is our supernatural end. In hope, we long for this end and also trust in the help of God to achieve it. Faith and hope imply a certain distance, and therefore are together distinguished from love. Love is special in that it unites us to our sought-after end, which is God Himself.
We could think of faith as illuminative, hope as appetitive, and love as unitive. Or, put another way: if faith is the compass and hope is the rudder, love is the harbor. This is why Paul says love is the greatest of the three and the one that will endure in eternal life.
In this life, however, hope is indispensable. Without it, our lives would be rudderless.