A Collective translation reviewed and corrected by Filip Maj
|Table of Contents|
|Man's Hope for Eternal Life|
|I. Hope as the Base of Human Existence|
|II. Man's Hope for a Happy Life<|
|III. Hope and the Question of Man's Freedom|
|IV. Hope and the Traps of Human Suffering|
|V. Hope and Prayer as a Language of Faith|
|VI. Man's Hope for Eternal Life|
As the critics of Christianity say, the economy of the sacred functions in a similar way to material economy. It presupposes that there are an unlimited number of needs, which should be fulfiled by means of specific, though limited means. This type of economy of the sacred presupposes that there is an infinite force that could fulfil these needs. In any case, it is a "Divine Being", and in monotheistic religions, simply God.
Others think that Judaeo-Christian metaphysics presupposes a subjective character of God as will, which facilitates the identification of each human will with some ideal conception of will that encompasses the whole world and rationally manages the lots of the world. Here, Jacques Derrida introduces his "telephone metaphor", according to which God calls his people from a long distance and says: "I demand this and that." But part of the possible solutions must be ruled out. Due to this there is a tendency to "deny" the inconvenient contents of human consciousness.
Such an "economy of the sacred" functions like a systemic education (socialized violence) in respect to content which is recognized as improper. Psychiatrists and lawyers have proved that repressed contents subsequently become an object of psychiatric treatment, or rehabilitation in prison. Understanding religion as an internalised "will of God", leads to an artificial sacralization of man and the world. Today, a sort of religion which is universal, holistic is promoted; it is a combination of theories of natural, magical and theological belief, resembling archaic religions. Such an image of the deity that either wants or does not want something, has its origins in social psychology, and not in the Revelation.
In this context the encyclical by Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, appears to oppose the post-modern divination. It shows us the meaning of Christian hope for building a life of faith. Hope becomes a premise of faith, and faith - a premise of hope for the future. The teachings of Benedict XVI concerning love, hope and faith are a reminder of the biblical, theological, pedagogical or philosophical statements known in the history of the Church. It is a pedagogical-theological work, which, without passing over the historical details, endows the encyclical with a directive character. It is not a text which will be easily received in Protestant Europe, and even in Catholic Europe or Orthodox Europe, not to mention lay Europe.
There are various approaches to faith, hope and love. In the encyclical Spe salvi there prevails an exegetical, linguistic and casuistic approach. The starting point is a biblical passage (Hbr 10: 22-23), where an identification is made of the words "hope" and "faith" with "full faith" and the "unwavering profession of hope". The second source of the exegesis is the First Letter of Peter (cf. 3:15), where the word "hope" corresponds to the word "faith". Subsequently, a negative source appears. St Paul suggests to the Ephesians that by not knowing Christ they have lived „without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12).
In the words directed to the Thessalonians, Paul repeats the element of the doctrine of hope (1 Th 4:13). He emphasizes that their grief has the same psychological origin as the grief of all those "who have no hope". These short remarks concerning hope can be interpreted and explained in a number of ways. Hope strengthens the confidence of attitudes towards life. It is a condition for the assertiveness towards the most extreme dangers of life. The most important are: sin, catastrophe, loneliness, illness, misery, slavery or death.
Hope is not only a psychological attitude; it is also a theological value, a superstructure above other, also historical, conditions of hope. Its theological function consists in saving, that is, freeing from all the empirical bases of despair, in the saving act which is discussed only by theology.
The theological subject of the new encyclical by Benedict XVI can be the cause of its misreading. Its true message is not only faith and hope, but the question of salvation. The saving nature of faith, hope and love is the key for the theological interpretation of the encyclical. It is an encyclical on salvation in hope and thanks to hope, which is identified with faith, saving through the belief in the Saviour.
The bases of this faith exist in the „Good News”, which "informs" the believer about something that is not included in the "common news". Good News consists of three layers: the informational, the axiological and the praxeological. The Gospel is not only an intellectual message. A physical and metaphysical fact arises from the Holy Word.
Without the fact of revealing the "power of the Word", one cannot talk about salvation. Even the fact of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ would be unintelligible, if it was not inscribed in the reistic layer of the word. The informational layer is inscribed in the form of the saving fact of man.
In the encyclical, an example of the transformation from the slavish status into the status of free man thanks to faith, is the lot of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II; a slave that had been maltreated, sold, baptized and later admitted to the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters. Devoting oneself to serving God, a person repeats his or her social status. Simultaneously, he or she changes it by becoming a slave of faith on the plane of metaphysical freedom. Salvation has its proper, special form on earth, which Benedict XVI associates with the individual and communitarian experience of faith in hope, and love in freedom.
Hope in faith and love in freedom have a saving power, they liberate man from negative life situations. It is the path of redemption, which leads to salvation and directs the whole of Europe in the period of nascent Christianity. At the turn of history, the information about salvation becomes not only a power of the consciousness, but also a power of the transformation of personality and culture. Some projects of salvation appeal to revolutions, to fight, which, similarly to a cosmic apocalypse, supposes the destruction of old structures in order to change something radically in the situation of man.
Examples of the functioning of man's apocalyptic tendency are the methods proposed by, e.g., Spartacus, Barabbas Bar-Kochba and in the modern times, the French Revolution, communist revolution, numerous political coups and slaughters, especially in Europe, Asia and Africa. In comparison to this, the contemporary propositions of Christian change seem to be truly humanistic, competitive and alternative. Because Jesus was not a revolutionary, a people's tribune, a prince, a president or chief.
St Paul, at first his fervent opponent and later his fervent follower, develops the message of faith on various planes, including the social one. When in prison, he writes the Letter to Philemon and entrusts it to the runaway slave Onesimus to deliver it to the addressee. By sending the runaway slave to his master, he could have expected the worst.
Paul asks the addressee of the letter to treat the slave in a humane way, as a "child" who was born in chains, but has now become the "heart" of his master. And he continues: Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother [...] (Philemon 1:15-16). The slave is presented here as a "child", "heart" and "brother". The division into "masters" and "slaves" was questioned here.
Anthropological divisions based on economical or political subordinations disappear. The brotherhood principle and the family principle decide about the entire Christian anthropology. For ages, the political practices did not allow the change, the Christianization of the principle based on conflict and submission.
Descriptions of the same "master - slave" relation, which exists in the Gospels, can also be found in a laicized form in 19th century German philosophy, e.g., in W. F. Hegel's „Phenomenology of Spirit”. This description was used by Karl Marx, whose analytical talent is praised by Benedict XVI in his encyclical, but whose pertinence is denied.
It is impossible, even on the basis of thorough economical or sociological diagnoses, to make changes for the better, without taking into consideration the anthropological and metaphysical foundations. Ignoring them, leads to a social catastrophe, which is causedin the name of an erroneous project of man's salvation, which disregards man himself and focuses only on the structures. Neither the error of structural reduction made by the early Church, nor the error of the personalistic reduction made by the contemporary ideologies of man's social liberation, has brought the expected results.
On the praxeological plane, what is "informing", is at the same time "forming". The word is the substance of spiritual transformation. Through the words of the Gospel, a physical and metaphysical transformation takes place in man and in the world, which is not immediately visible to the naked eye. It is a change hidden in the heart of man. It takes place in a prayer, suffering, and according to the eschatological perspective, in the Last Judgement.
The mere gestures of faith are visible, but their inner dimension is concealed. In hidden anthropological spaces, a miracle of change takes place. A process of salvation is in progress initiated by baptism, which revives and fills with the Holy Spirit those becoming members of our "Lord's Body". Believers become lords among the lords who serve each other. Thereby, they are servants of the servants who guide themselves according to the rule that another man is what he is: a "Child", a "Heart", a "Brother". The words of the Letter to the Hebrews stating that Christians do not have a permanent homeland here on earth, but are searching for a future one (c.f. Hbr 11: 13-16), are always true.
The exclusive theological approach can be treated by some believers in a psychological way, leading them to escapism, the escape from the world, which is not perfect. The confusion of the planes of cognition is a human thing. For this reason there is a need for a proper theological explanation rectifying psychological or political attempts of interpretation. Christian theology is appealing, but its eschatological message can be easily interpreted in a realistic way.
There is still a vast tendency to interpret the Biblical message in a mythological way. The consequence of an interpretation "at one's own request" is an erroneous, mythological understanding of the Good News. The Church is aware of this, and from the beginning it has been trying to do something about it. The Holy Spirit does not only encompass the best emotions or the loftiest thoughts of man; it is the substance of the God-Trinity, who incessantly personifies himself in the world.
Personifying the substance of God in Christ and in those who believe in him, gives the bases for the hope that thanks to the sacraments, man participates in the process of the re-theisation of the human being. This act and process is ensured by the faith in the God-Trinity, in whose life man actively participates. Hope and love are the bases of the faith described in the Gospels. The Christian model of salvation (i.e. re-theisation of man) presupposes their complementation by choice and freedom.
The basis for choice and freedom is not just pure knowledge, but also man's faith and consciousness. The First Letter to the Corinthians (1:18-31) tells us that many of the early Christians belonged to the lower social classes. The degree of their hope was determined by unconsciousness. It is a basis of natural hope and unconscious fascination, which is a component of a myth, and not a component of the revelation.
Magic belief caused the Roman religion to become a "poor political religion". On some territories, Christianity also became a "poor local religion", not a conscious faith based on the judgements of reason. Christianity was forced onto the defensive by doctrines of salvation based on activism and hedonism promising an easy, light and pleasant life.
As in the ancient times, „Philosophical rationalism had confined the gods within the realm of unreality” (Encyclical, n° 5), similarly today, it has confined Christianity within the margin of social doctrines. Its message is treated there as a popular psychology, not as a psychology of the elites. Today the situation repeats itself. The elites have their small and great gods (science and technology), and people have their own (power and money).
Abandoning magical thinking is a constant process. St Gregory Nazianzen claimed that when the Magi, guided by the star, adored Christ the new king, astrology came to an end. He believed that from then onwards, the stars began to move in orbits determined by Christ. The Pope writes: "This scene, in fact, overturns the world-view of that time, which in a different way has become fashionable once again today." (Encyclical, n° 5).
The magical approach to faith is an ineffaceable way of accustoming oneself to new things, those difficult to understand. Man begins from magical cognition (e.g., a child) to strive with difficulty to reach realistic cognition (an adult, a parent). The basis for realistic cognition is reason, will and love, i.e., the Person. It is a truth on the level of revelation, not a truth on the level of physics, chemistry or psychology. The laws of matter and evolution are not the laws of the whole world.
The laws of nature play an important role in the life of man. Above them, „there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love” (Encyclical, n° 5). From the theological point of view, man is free as a person. Man, in nature's perspective, is merely a blend of intelligent matter or a patchwork of pulsating consciousness, which for a several dozen years is united with an individual body of a certain man.
Benedict XVI writes about the art of living and dying. In antiquity, it was taught by philosophers. But their knowledge was not easily accessible to "shepherds". They had a different kind of knowledge concerning life and death, the first were looking for an answer in city and palace life, the second, in country wisdom. This cultural chasm had to be filled, and it is done by someone who is neither an educated philosopher nor a shepherd, and in spite of that he can join together these two kinds of knowledge, these two ways of living.
The model of the Christian way of living is a shepherd and philosopher who knows how to inspire people with courage. He also knows how to overcome fear without fighting. He also knows how to fulfil all the shortfalls in life, having no possessions himself. A shepherd and philosopher becomes a brother of man — for thou art with me (Ps 23 :1, 4). This man, uniting in himself, the philosopher and shepherd, is the Christian — God, Lord, Brother. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want [...] Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me (Ps 23, Ibid.).
The journey of life has a precise course, it leads to death. The "valley of death" always appears as a fragment of the existential journey. It must be passed when descending from the highlands and heights of human life. It is characterised by ambivalence, sometimes it is "bad", sometimes it is "good". But the stretch of the "valley of death" always prompts fear and is experienced as evil. There must be someone who is not afraid of death and does not treat it as evil, someone who is beyond fear and evil. He can be a great shepherd who knows the journey of life and death from the beginning to the end.
Human life is full of collective joys and solitary cares. In worries and in pain, man is always alone. There are family, cultural and social models of caring. There are models of psychological, medical and economical care etc. But a comprehensive model of eschatological care is provided only by Christianity. And this is a novelty. It shows that man, even in the "valley of death", is not alone. There is somebody next to him, who has gone through many valleys of suffering, sorrow and loneliness etc.
Man is born alone and dies alone. Existential loneliness stands above psychological, biological and cosmic loneliness. Christ sends us the Holy Spirit in order to give man a companion in the journey of life and death and after death. That is the one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path (Encyclical, n° 6). The theological model of a complete eschatological and saving journey is the life of the Trinity-God.
Nobody is able to cure us of the illness of death, except he who has cured himself of it, who has come through the "valley of death" and is well. Only he can be a source of hope. Similarly, only he who has dealt with his own suffering and wounds by himself gives hope that he will be able to help others who are in a similar situation. Ordinary knowledge as well as mere reading is not sufficient here. A personal experience that broke through suffering and "is fine" now is needed. This is the knowledge that brings salvation.
The hope for salvation does not come easily. Its psychological condition is trust, which is built in the first year of life. It has been aptly presented by an American psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson. He described eight existential crises, which man has to go through during his whole life. The first of them, is the crisis of trust, faith and hope, which appears when the child does not experience care, warmth and food, when it is neglected, starved, abandoned or battered.
The experience of hope emerges together with the experience of trust in the mother. This happens when a hope emerges in the child that it will live and it will live well. It will not die at birth; what is more, it will live through its entire life span given in a natural way. A child, who has a negative and necrophilic and not a biophilic experience with its mother, will always feel endangered.
The metaphor of the Psalm 23 indicates that man's living place deprived of hope is a "valley of death" stretched over his entire life span. In such a situation, it is possible to be afraid and to frighten others, to kill oneself or kill others, to be ill or to pass one's own "illness of death" onto others in order not to feel lonely and excluded. Infecting oneself with death, reinforcing its results in oneself and in others is a form of psychological defence. By doing so, people can defend themselves from real or imaginary evil.
Christianity presents a project of life and death in which faith and hope, despite a psychological wound, can overcome the feeling of hopelessness. It calms the death instinct which looks for its realization in suicide. Hope has its anthropological and metaphysical origins in Christianity. It is a fragment of theological cognition which reaches to the saving revelation. The teachings of Benedict XVI refer to it.
The revelation of the Trinity-God constantly reveals itself to man. New fragments reveal themselves and they are slowly comprehended by our reason. Sometimes it seems too slow. The first theologians had a problem with understanding the revelation; they debated on what faith, hope and love are and how to understand them. What is salvation and what are the possibilities of saving a man who lacks faith, hope and love?
In the discussions on the basic categories of cognition and faith, the paths of the discussants split repeatedly, and this split still exists. Christianity today, consists of several fragments: the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Protestant Church and other smaller divisions. These fragments emerged because of disputes over the letter of the law and the words of faith, as well as their spirit. Benedict XVI does not pass over this aspect, showing how religious faith is understood in different denominations of Christianity.
Salvation is a problem that is not only dogmatic but also ecumenical. Its understanding is an object of analyses required to obtain a common interpretation. In the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:1), St Paul gives a definition of faith: Faith is the guarantee (hypostasis) of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. The word hypostasis has been translated into Latin as substantia. Thus faith, in this perspective, has an ontological character.
Many centuries later St Thomas explains the word "faith" associating it with the term habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. (Encyclical, n° 7) This cognitive ability is the key to understand Christian faith, which is different from the magic faith based on unconsciousness. Only reason clarifies and reinforces theological cognition in a way that is equivalent to theological revelation.
Therefore, the disposition of the soul towards faith (doxa) is primeval. The genius of Thomas of Aquinas notices that man in his nature is a believing subject. There are no non-believers. Faith is the basic ability of the soul, which allows man to exist in the world. Reason adapts to this natural disposition and assesses it. Thus, it is possible to talk about "natural faith", which is magical, and about "real faith", which is theological.
Christianity refers to "real faith", based not only on the unconscious attitudes of the soul, as it was considered in the antiquity (e.g., in Plato), but mainly on the judgements of reason, which determine humanity. Benedict XVI writes: through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say „in embryo”—and thus according to the „substance”—there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. (Encyclical, n° 7)
The idea of St Thomas is interpreted in a material way (reistic, Aristotelian) but it can be interpreted in a spiritual way (psychological, Platonic). The Protestant thinkers, e.g., Martin Luther, understood the term hypostasis in a subjective sense, as an expression of an interior attitude, which he specified using a Latin word argumentum. And it must be admitted that in the twentieth century this interpretation gained recognition.
At present, a debate is being held whether the Catholic or the Protestant approach of understanding faith is better. Or perhaps another approach based on different principles of faith? Interestingly, these approaches are not mutually exclusive; they complement and enrich each other. The point is that one emphasizes the ontological approach and the other emphasizes the psychological approach. Benedict XVI is inclined to support the reistic approach (ontological), assuming, perhaps justly, that it stresses the permanent character of faith, whereas the exclusively psychological approach stresses its variable character.
It is a known fact that today there coexist two understandings of faith. They have an influence on the more optimistic understanding of salvation (the Catholic understanding) or the more pessimistic understanding of salvation (the Protestant understanding). The believer or "non-believer" has to choose the understanding he prefers. The choice is influenced by culture, tradition and man's personal experience. Benedict XVI, as an authority of faith in the Catholic Church, points out the advantages stemming from adopting the objective perspective.
It does not mean that the subjective perspective is of no importance here. Just the opposite, every single personal testimony is a content of Christian faith. It has its positive and negative dimension. For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one (Hbr 10:34). Earthly things make up the economic substance of human life. Its loss is perceived by man as a loss of the bases of life. Such is the nature of the "impermanent substance". There is also, however, the "permanent substance", which cannot be lost.
The substance of faith is stronger than the economic substance because it is permanent, whereas, the economic substance is impermanent. It is easy to lose. And it is easy to lose the psychological and economical faith, if it is treated as a permanent substance. Faith based on various psychophysical functions is frequently independent of man's will. It is not associated with freedom, which is the basic value of human life.
Freedom distinguishes the life of man from the life of other creatures. Benedict XVI does not simplify the problem. He thinks that faith and hope have their internal competitor — freedom. If there was no freedom, faith would be related to compulsion, it would be blind and unconscious. And it would not be an exclusive connection with God. Man would be doomed to faith, and this is not true. Faith can be accepted or refused only in the aspect of freedom.
If it is assumed that man is free, he/she must have in his nature some measures of freedom. These are faith, hope and love. They are the real criteria of freedom, they verify it, identify with it, or constitute alternative ways of living which must be chosen. Faith, hope and love also have the nature of freedom. They have to be chosen. They cannot be imposed. Otherwise they would merely become other forms of captivity. Perhaps they would even be noble, but would not give man a chance to choose his own way of life.
The economy of life and the economy of faith are mutually either opposite or coincident. Hope dissociates man from economy and economy dissociates man from faith, or they both coincide. The first and the second kind of life relativize each other mutually. Matters are becoming complicated, it is necessary to chose something in life in order to live well. Faith, hope and love as a real substance of life give a new kind of freedom.
Freedom verifies itself in the experiences of love, ideological or political violence and in the sacrifices which shatter and restore the world. Wars, uprisings, ethnic cleansings, communist or national socialist dictatorships, holocausts etc., in an apocalyptic way, show the nature of human freedom. They do not allow the possibility for freedom to exist as a metaphysical power, even though it is displayed in various heroic deeds, different kinds of fighting for freedom and the utmost sacrifices.
A milder indicator of the substantial importance of faith, hope and love are renunciations. They can be seen in the acts of ancient hermits and monks of the Middle Ages up to Saint Francis of Assisi. People who are capable of living in this sort of freedom enter modern religious Institutes and movements and leave everything for love of Christ (Encyclical, n° 8). And thanks to this they are able to bring to men and women faith and realize the transcendental love. That is, assuming that they themselves recognized the substantial freedom, which liberated them from the captivity of the material promises of life.
It is also possible that people enter monasteries to shelter from social, economic or political enslavement or from clan, sexual or racial violence. Monasteries only function correctly when they act as spiritual clinics of theological freedom. When they are places where freedom is connected with human dignity. And where freedom finds its higher level in the Christological vision. Otherwise, we are dealing with appearances and a masking of the economical motives needed for a "comfortable life".
People who recognize theological freedom are able to bring help to others thanks to getting rid of their own sufferings. Ex-victims are able to heal others thanks to their own physical and metaphysical healings. Thus, it can be said after Benedict XVI that: from the hope of these people who have been touched by Christ, hope has arisen for others who were living in darkness and without hope (Encyclical, n° 8). In them, the "touch of death" was transformed into the "touch of life".
Benedict XVI points at two kinds of the substantial human attitudes — the hypaxin/ substantiam type — it chooses better and permanent things, and the hyparchonta/ bonorum type — it chooses material and variable wealth. The choice of one of these two substances is connected with two different ways of living. In Hbr 10:36-39 two notions appear: hypomone and hypostole. The first of them means constancy, perseverance and patience (cf. Węclewski 1929: 656). The second notion means shrinking back, fear, cowardice, mean-spiritedness (cf. ibid, p. 659).
A Christian has to act according to the hypomone principle. God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control (2Tim 1:7). Nobody is born a Christian; nobody is a Christian in a natural way. Christianity is not inherited but is personal and chosen. And what God gives, man can take but there is no obligation. Choice and freedom are important components of the Christian lifestyle.
What man receives from the Trinity-God can be accepted or rejected. What is chosen and what is rejected by somebody indicates the kind of substance that in a prevalent way fills his existence. Man chooses what gives him faith, hope and love in life, what in his opinion, strengthens and does not weaken him. And he is convinced that these substances of life are eternal. In any case, he would like them to be so.
Benedict XVI attempts to explain in his encyclical Spe salvi how it is possible to connect one's own freedom with eternal freedom. He ponders over the question what eternal life is. And he stresses that we are referring not only to the past: the entire reflection concerns living and dying in general, and therefore it also concerns us here and now (Encyclical, n° 10). These words are pronounced in a situation in which the Christian model of salvation is questioned.
The problem is urgent and important: we must ask explicitly: is the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and life-sustaining hope? Is it „performative” for us—is it a message which shapes our life in a new way, or is it just „information” which, in the meantime, we have set aside and which now seems to us to have been superseded by more recent information? (Encyclical, n° 10). Many people see it as Benedict XVI does.
The Pope begins his reflection on the substance of salvation from showing the mysterious meaning of Baptism. This ritual is a basic model of initiation into the eternity of life and God. The baptismal initiation is based on a dialogue in which parents choose a name. The child enters the community of Christian faith, the Church of the faithful, which holds in its hands the keys to the "eternal life".
The parents expect not only verbal and ceremonial gestures from the priest: they also expect that the corporeal nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child—eternal life (Encyclical, n° 10). Their faith is based on hope, and faith, after all, is the substance of hope. Natural life is a fragment of eternal life, in which it is adjusted to the temporal character of the material structure.
From the perspective of the temporal structure of life, it does not actually seem that man expects eternal life. To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift (Encyclical, n° 10). Many people would wish to postpone death for as long as possible. They experience fear of the unknown, they are afraid of the confrontation with eternity. Eternal life on the physical plane would have to be similar to the life of the beings that have been fossilized like geometrical figures or mountain ranges, which stand still for thousands of years. What would such "life" mean for man?
Human nature is different from the nature of minerals, plants and animals, the four elementsand forces which fill the space of human life. Without it, it is saturated with monotony, boredom and faintness. In this context, death seems to be a necessary event of change providing life with a negative as well as positive dimension. St Ambrose noticed that although death is not part of nature, because God did not decree death at the beginning, nevertheless, in case of the bad use of the gift of freedom it was prescribed as a remedy (Encyclical, n° 10).
St. Ambrose wrote under the influence of the experiences connected with his brother's death: Human life, because of sin ... began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing (De excessu fratris sui Satyri, II, 47: CSEL 73, 274; qtd. in: Encyclical, n° 10). It is impossible not to think about poverty, hardship and weeping, which are constant components of human life.
A limit to all these components of life is put by death, which frees man from the danger of eternal life corrupted by evil. Fate created through a bad relation with God is an unchanging addition to human life. It is the effect of a negative confrontation of man and God, who applied a painful strategy of preventing people from a wrong choice. Since then, freedom has also been divided into two parts — good and bad. It is known as "freedom from" and "freedom to", which was described by, e.g. Erich Fromm.
In order to reintegrate freedom into human life, grace is needed, which can change or replace a negative fragment of freedom. Such reintegration occurs in life, in death and after death. The fragment of freedom that is turned toward evil must be transformed through human actions, in God's grace. The substance of God is his grace, which together with freedom saves man.
Now St Ambrose's statement becomes clear: Death is, then, no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of mankind's salvation (De excessu fratris sui Satyri, II, 46: CSEL, 73, 273; qtd. in: Encyclical, n° 10). Death is the cause of salvation, but it is a mystery beyond which the grace of God exists. Man is sentenced to freedom and, unfortunately, it is not solely a positive freedom. Thus, the very act of salvation also remains a mystery.
As human nature is divided, the relation to immortality is also divided. It is a constant motive impeding the understanding of human behaviour. The paradox, ambivalence, ambiguity and contradiction of human actions stem from this divided nature. It is the source of conflicts, violence and anger, which are intertwined with the natural need of peace, freedom and goodness. God's individual intervention is needed to reconcile the divided nature of man.
Benedict XVI sees an internal human contradiction in the extreme expectations from life. He sees a difficulty in finding a simple answer to the question what we actually want. An answer to such questions cannot be given on the basis of observations of human behaviour from the outside. It cannot be unambiguously determined, without asking about the nature of the life itself. A question arises: „What, in reality, is life in the context of eternity?” It is not simple to answer this question because there is no clear answer to the question what life is according to science.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1973, vol. 13) gives various definitions of life, e.g. a physiological, metabolic, biochemical and thermodynamic definition. Life is defined as:
1) any system capable of performing functions such as eating, metabolizing, excreting, breathing, moving, growing, reproducing, and responding to external stimuli;
2) exchanging energy with the surroundings;
3) any system containing reproducible hereditary information coded in nucleic acid molecules that metabolizes using enzymes;
4) a capability of evolution by natural selection;
5) a process of continual organization etc.
The theological approach to life is not uniform, since life itself is a mystery. Christian theology attempts to determine nature on the level of the revelation of life in the Trinity-God. Benedict XVI, referring to the theory of values, stresses the axiological aspect: There are moments when it suddenly seems clear to us: yes, this is what true „life” is—this is what it should be like. Besides, what we call „life” in our everyday language is not real „life” at all (Encyclical, n° 11).
None of the definitions of life thoroughly describes the components or dimensions of life in an empirical or even in a metaphorical way. It is not possible to describe life in a way that would include all the aspects respecting its essence. Life is a composition of various threads of the spirit and matter interwoven in a personal existence. From the theological perspective, an important question is "what is real life like?" as well as "what should it be like?” The images of life seen from the outside and from the inside are different.
Benedict XVI in his encyclical replaces the question about "real life" with a question about the "blessed life". He follows the steps of St Augustine, who wondered "what we want" in life. The Pope answers: Ultimately we want only one thing—”the blessed life”, the life which is simply life, simply „happiness” (Encyclical, n° 11). What happiness is, is not easy to say. It is shown in a several hundred page work of the Polish philosopher Władysław Tatarkiewicz titled Analysis of happiness, which was written during the Nazi occupation in Warsaw, a period that cannot be classified as happy one.
We do not exactly know what life is and where we are heading. There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance (docta ignorantia) — as writes St Augustine, quoted by the Pope. Benedict XVI stresses the fact of human ignorance about the essence and values of life. He projects it on the practice of prayer, in which we ask God for something for us. After all: We do not know what we should pray for as we ought (cf. Rom 8:26). Because we do not know either the essence, or the real value of life.
Being in the state of "learned ignorance" about life and its values, we sense that there must be something we do not have and we unconsciously aim at: In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for (Encyclical, n° 12). We know that we do not know, but we want to know; this is the structure of hope.
Hope can be described from the ontological perspective. It precedes the biological, psychological and theological perspectives. Hope is a specific "thing" or "reality" existing beyond the limit of knowledge. This unknown „thing” is the true „hope” which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity (Encyclical, n° 12).
The structure of hope comprises: expectation and encounter, desire and fulfilment, joy and despair; it is positive or negative, authentic or unauthentic. Man can attempt to discover hope, but it is impossible to be discovered, it is a composition of the known and unknown fragments of knowledge. Such hope is a component of "eternal life", hidden in the shadow of knowledge. It refers to every possibility of man. Such understanding of hope and "eternal life" creates confusion.
Benedict XVI, as a thinker, puts us in a difficult situation. He does not comfort us but poses questions, he repeats them knowing that they bother every man. The Pope follows the path of questions that were posed by St Augustine, and he says after him: looking more closely, we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like. We do not know this reality at all; even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it, it eludes us (Encyclical, n° 11). We do not know what we want, and we want what we do not know. It is a situation that in modern psychology could be defined as the so-called „double bond". There is no good solution for such a situation — if one way is not good, the other is bad.
Logical thinking about salvation alone does not lead the thinker to a clear solution of the dilemma hidden behind the desire "of nobody knows what". It is as if we wanted to fulfil a dream of a child thinking that it is enough to reach out its hand in order to touch the moon. And something of the child's alogical thinking survives in every man, who dreams of having something that cannot even be touched and that is not readily achieved.
Plato, who in his dialogues describes the most important ancient projects of "eternal life", points out that souls posses an eternal life from the beginning. And only from time to time are they incarnated in human bodies, and even in animals, depending on their behaviour during each incarnation. Augustine Christianised the Platonic vision of the "life of the soul" creating an exclusive concept of salvation. Soul, as a property of God, returns to the owner after living its human life on earth. Nevertheless, this return — salvation — is shrouded in mystery.
Benedict XVI's approach emphasizes the anthropological aspects reflecting human desires and satisfactions. To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt (Encyclical, n° 12). In such an ultimate satisfaction all the human desires are realized. The Pope's anthropological model of salvation is an "oceanic love", a suspension of time (chronos) and the releasing of eternity (kairos). It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy (Encyclical, n° 12). The primordial experience of salvation is love, towards which every man is driven. Someone who has been loved wants to be saved according to the model of his experienced love. People who have not been loved, feel condemned and excluded, they experience "hell" and „purgatory” already on earth.
To understand the theological vision of Christian salvation, Jesus' words, recalled by the Pope, are important: I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you (Jhn, 16:22). The object and end of salvation is "seeing Jesus again", seeing not only with eyes of faith and hope, but also real seeing. As early as at baptism, the aim is to strengthen this "faith seeing", which at the end of man's personal history changes into a "salvation seeing".
The discussed problems and difficulties concerned with achieving salvation have their direction and reinforcement. Faith, hope and love make human life worth living. Salvation is not only a psychological question; it is a theological question that asks how to obtain eternal happiness. In order to make it sensible, it is necessary to refer to the patterns of salvation, to Jesus, who rose from the dead and through the mystery of the Trinity-God, reveals the way to salvation to believers.
Copyright © by ks. Jerzy Lewandowski
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