And the Greatest of These is Hope
Jaroslav Pelikan

There is something audacious, even presumptuous, about labeling an entire series of lectures "Toward the Year 2000." Predictions about the future have long been notorious for being no more than projections into the future of the beliefs and prejudices of the prophet. Doubly is this true at a time such as ours. Changes that used to take decades or even centuries happen in a year or two. If one were to chart the graph of change in relation to the sequence of the years, it would surely describe a radical upswing during the first two thirds of this century, when the invention of the airplane in 1903, the formulation of the general theory of relativity in 1913, the work of Picasso and Joyce and Stravinsky, and the Second Vatican Council have all changed forever the world of thought and value that was current when this century began. Who would be so bold as to maintain that this acceleration of intellectual change will not itself be accelerated beyond recognition or prediction in the final third of the twentieth century?

Moreover, if anyone has the right to speak about the twenty-first century with confidence, it is probably not the historian of the development of Christian doctrine. With some outstanding exceptions, historians of any kind have a well-earned reputation as unreliable guides to the future. Even though they are chroniclers of the changes that have shaped the world of the present, they are, for some reason, not equipped by their scholarship to cope with the prospect that the future will bring not only further change, but perhaps the revision or even the rejection of some of the convictions and beliefs that have underlain all the changes of the past. It is one thing to describe the changes that have gone on within a given system of presuppositions; it is quite another thing to contemplate the possibility that these presuppositions will themselves be questioned and discarded as no longer fit to account for reality as man experiences it. The historian of Christian doctrine suffers from a special embarrassment; for the body of Christian belief and doctrine, whose changes in the church's past he seeks to analyze and record, is the very system of presuppositions that is now regarded as obsolete and superseded in its effort to describe the ways of God with his creation. If the task is to look "toward the year 2000," what right does a historian of doctrine or any other Christian theologian have to speak?

That challenge has been addressed to Christian theology with mounting stridency since the seventeenth century, when the new man of the Enlightenment first became aware of his powers and began to question the need for grace to supplement nature or for revelation to supply what human reason could not discover for itself. Confident of the powers of reason to draw the plans for "the heavenly city of the eighteenth-century philosophers" and of the capacity of the human spirit to build that city, rationalists such as Thomas Jefferson and Edward Gibbon found the supernatural content of the Christian faith increasingly irrelevant to their conception of the future and to their hope for achieving it. During most of the period that has styled itself "modern," the Christian message has been attacked as excessively gloomy and pessimistic, with all its talk about sin, hell, and the wrath of God. Nothing seemed to make less sense than the apocalyptic language of the Old and New Testaments, for the future was shiny enough by itself, without having to be illumined by the brightness of the great day of the Lord.

That mood has been fundamentally transposed during the first two thirds of the twentieth century. Now the Christian message is being attacked as excessively optimistic and comforting, with all its talk about grace, heaven, and the life everlasting. It is not the Christian message that has changed; it is the temper of the times. Grace and the forgiveness of sins used to seem unnecessary; not they seem impossible, and the Gospel is too good to be true. Thus the apocalyptic language of the Bible has begun to make a grim kind of sense—not as the harbinger of hope, which it was for earlier Christian believers, but as the voice of doom. The reverse Utopias of Huxley and Orwell bespeak a loss of appetite for the future, a failure of the capacity to hope, a paralysis of expectation. The paralyzing apocalypticism of our time has elevated to a dominant position some of the very accents in Christian thought that seemed permanently obsolete at the turn of the century, even as it has turned away both from the Christian expectation of the life of the age to come and from its secular counterpart, the doctrine of progress.

The secular doctrine of progress may be seen as the attempt to affirm the Christian hope of the future without the Christian faith in the past. It saw the processes of history as self-redeeming and as moving inevitably toward the achievement of their inherent goal, but it did not believe that the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ were necessary either for the achievement or even for the discovery of that goal. As it was with the goal of history, so it was with the destiny of the individual. His hope for a future life beyond the grave was not contingent on the cross of Christ and the empty tomb, but was the natural possession of his immortal soul. Thus, in Lessing's famous formula, "contingent truths of history can never become proofs for necessary truths of reason." And so it came that the hope of the future was disengaged from the faith in the events of the past. Destiny was independent of history. At most, the biblical story of the covenant of God with Israel and with the church could be seen as a helpful preparation for an age of spiritual maturity, in which man could himself become, in Emerson's phrase, "a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost," who did not need historical revelation, and a bearer of his own fulfillment, who did not need historical redemption. The sacraments of the church were, at best, symbols among other symbols of the way things are, rather than channels through which the grace won in the death and resurrection of Christ is communicated.

All of this makes for a radiant hope and a serene expectation of the life to come—or, at least, it does for a while. But the Christian hope of the future is tied inseparably to the Christian faith in the past. The Christian declaration, "And I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come," appears as the end and the climax of a creed whose central content is the eternal being of the Blessed and Undivided Trinity and the historical incarnation of Jesus Christ. As in Bach's Mass in B-Minor the words, "Ex expecto resurrectionem mortuorum," repeat the majestic leitmotiv of the earlier, "Et resurrexit"'; so in Christian confession the faith in the heavenly origin of Christ is the ground for hope in the heavenly destiny of man, and the historical death and resurrection of our Lord enable the believer to pass through his death to resurrection. The sign of this connection in the New Testament is the second advent of Christ, which stands in continuity with his first advent and yet differs from it as glory does from lowliness. "This Jesus," says the angel in Acts 1:11, "will come in the same way as you saw him go." Likewise, the sacraments are a bond between the church and the history of Christ. Baptism is a baptism "into his death" (Rom. 6:3), and of the eucharist the apostle says in 1 Cor. 11:26: "As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup (in the present), you proclaim the Lord's death (in the past) until he comes (in the future)."

From these affirmations it seems to follow that, in the Christian sense of the words, one cannot keep the hope without the history, and that the road to a future with God lies through a past with Jesus Christ. And as this axiom applies to the ultimate hope of life beyond the grave, so it applies also to the lesser hopes and proximate goals toward which the human spirit looks. For the Christian and the church, the way also to these proximate goals this side of the great hope leads "through Christ our Lord," as the collects say. These lesser hopes are what a collect calls "those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ," who gives us the right to pray and the grounds to hope. We pray for these hopes and work toward these goals as we give "a cup of cold water" (Matt. 10:42) or whatever else may be needed to aid and support the life of a humanity for which Christ died. "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40): these words, spoken in the context of an apocalyptic message about the coming of the Son of man in glory and all the angels with him, consecrate the time between his first advent and his second to the service of the neighbor and to those hopes which, while less than ultimate, are no less a part of the future toward which the church looks and moves in the name of Christ.

What happens to that future when that name falls silent, and where is the hope without the history? For a while, perhaps, very little happens, as an individual or an entire culture continues to affirm the ancient hope without the ancient faith. But eventually the loss of history takes its revenge in the form of a loss of the sense of purpose and direction in history. When this happens to those who are old and tired, it produces cynicism; but in the young it produces nihilism, for it robs the young of that openness toward the future and eagerness for what is yet to be which are the prerogative of youth and its gift to the cynical world of its elders. Many of the martyrs of history have been the young, who had not yet learned the sly arts of compromise with evil and who were willing to sacrifice their own private futures for the sake of the great future. Zeal for martyrdom, like chastity, is a virtue only in those whom it costs something. But young people who are so completely the captives of the present moment that they can neither recognize the accents of the past nor open themselves to the possibilities of the future have also lost the capacity for martyrdom, replacing it with a senseless and nihilistic anarchy. "There is a time," said one of their spokesmen in an attack on his university, "when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even tacitly take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop."

The tragedy of that young man and of the sullen nihilists to whom and for whom he was speaking is that the violence of his moral indignation has issued in a negative and destructive whine of protest, instead of leading to the kind of creative revolution which both society and the university need so desperately. Many of the student revolts of the 1960's are just not revolutionary enough, because they are animated by a resentment of the past more than by an affirmation of the future. Such a hopeless revolt simply cannot match the devotion and zeal of the Marxists, who know what their hope is for the future and who are committed to its historical actualization. It only serves to confirm the moguls of the establishment in their smug belief that the younger generation cannot be safely trusted with the future. Thus the university is deprived of its creative and revolutionary function. For just as there are places on the earth where tomorrow's weather is being formed today, so there must be places in the culture where tomorrow's life and thought are being formed today. Two such places are—or ought to be—the university and the church, both of which are charged in a unique measure with responsibility to the future. Something is radically amiss when either the university or the church or both have lost the capacity to point the young toward that future in a way that speaks to their condition.

But the university and the Church are also charged in a unique measure with responsibility to the past. They live for the future, but they live by the past. Cultivation of the past for its own sake is the antiquarianism of those who commemorate the American Revolution by opposing all revolutions or the obscurantism of those who celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost by quenching any manifestation of that Spirit that takes place today without their authorization. We shall not be preparing anyone for the year 2000 if we permit the dead hand of the past to control either the witness of the church or the curriculum of the university. Archaeologists are continually finding the relics of institutions that were not ready to open the door when the future knocked and that were swept away when the future broke the door down. History has a way of burying those who make an idol of history. Rigid, doctrinaire, insensitive, and unimaginative—they not only lose the future, but they take their precious past down with them as they sink out of sight forever.

The most effective antidote for this idolatry of history is a deeper and richer awareness of history. The cultivation and preservation of this awareness is the special vocation of a university that wants to stand in the Christian tradition, not because it is afraid of the future or enamored of the past, but because a lively participation in our Christian and cultural heritage is the best possible preparation for the future. It is fatal to live in the past; it is equally fatal not to live with the past. I am not speaking here on behalf of some simple-minded notion of the lessons of history, which are thought to be derived from a careful study of the data unearthed by the historical scholar and to be applicable to similar situations now. For I do not find such lessons to be at all obvious in the results of my own scholarship, and I am increasingly impressed by the variables in each historical situation, which make a one-to-one parallel difficult to discover and any lessons of history difficult to apply. But I am equally persuaded that there is a wisdom about the affairs of men that can come from continued exposure to the story of man's long career on this planet, and perhaps only from this. For the eyes of Christian faith, that wisdom is a function of an obedient and thankful acceptance of the gifts of God, conferred in Christ and conveyed by his Spirit through his church and through the means of grace which she distributes. For since Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God, Christian faith sees him both as the power at work in the history of man and as the wisdom that enables us to share in that history meaningfully and responsibly.

No amount of historical research will give us new data about the year 2000 or enable us to chart some cycle that is scheduled to come full turn at the end of the second millennium after Christ. When the first millennium after Christ was about to end, some parts of Europe were aroused by the fervent expectation that the second advent of Christ, so often promised and so long delayed, was now finally to break upon the world. As so often, that expectation was disappointed: instead of the kingdom of God, they got the Holy Roman Empire! Although I do not anticipate a similar wave of hope in the parousia of the Son of man, I do believe that without some hope we shall move toward the year 2000 and beyond it as the playthings of a destiny that is uncomprehending and unresponsive. Neither the university nor the Church can stand by and watch this happen. But we shall not rescue this generation from pessimism nor (in the haunting words of Theodore H. White about President Kennedy and the young) "remove from them the slander of cynicism" by scurrying about for educational gimmicks or theological novelties. What the university owes its students and what its students owe their entire generation is a new and deeper sense of the revolutionary tradition of Christian humanism, which includes theology but is not exhausted by theology. It is the paradox and mystery of tradition that we shall do our descendants the greatest service if we introduce them to their (and our) ancestors. Bach found a fresh vigor of expression by cultivating the chorale; a new understanding of American history underlay the "new birth of freedom" a century ago; and out of the historical study of philosophy, literature, and architecture have come some of the most exciting creations of the twentieth century.

So shall we be of service to those whose lives and careers are pointing them toward the year 2000, and even the historian has something to contribute. The tradition of Christian humanism does not carry guarantees, not even the guarantee of its own survival. It is only against the church that the gates of hell shall not prevail, and even that is a promise rooted in eschatology. But the tradition of Christian humanism does carry the opportunity to face the revolutionary future as a part of the family of man and in the company of fathers and brethren. It makes us suspicious of easy solutions, but open to new suggestions; devoted to continuity, but unafraid of change; eager for the future, but not contemptuous of the past. At a time when loss of the past has cost so many their sense of the future and the destruction of continuity has deprived them of hope, we may, in all due reverence, restate the words of the apostle in 1 Cor. 13:13: "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is hope." For where there is no hope, love is a thing of the moment and faith is an idle fancy. But with hope, faith may dare to love, even amid the changes and chances of this present life, and to look forward to the fulfillment of perfect love in the presence of God.

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