you are shipwrecked, all alone, on a desert island, emaciated by
hunger, parched with thirst, mind reeling on account of your
isolation from human company. You walk along the beach, searching the
horizon. Something sparkling in the surf catches your eye. You hasten
towards it and find a bottle, floating towards the shore, carefully
corked to protect the message rolled up inside. You grab the bottle,
open it and unfurl the handwritten scroll to read: “HELP ON WAY:
loneliness and despair are overcome by expectation, great interest in
your rescuers, longing for salvation, and the hope to finally return
home. No longer alone, you already feel protected by the affection of
those coming to save you. Hope, like falling in love, transforms
everything. All is bathed in a new light. Your world is changed by
the arrival of the good news.
an essay entitled
Message in a Bottle
the Louisiana novelist and philosopher Walker Percy explained the
difference between “information” and “news” with the
shipwreck example. In Spe
Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical on Christian hope, he offers a
deeper distinction by contrasting that which is merely “informative”
with that which is “performative”. Like Percy’s “news”,
Benedict’s use of the term “performative” emphasizes the efficacy
of Christian hope.
from British philosopher of language J. L. Austin and his theory of
“performative utterances”, Benedict proposes that Christians tend
to under-appreciate the vitality of their own hope because of
habituation, almost as though it were a drug whose effects wear off
with time. Due to such habituation, Christians can fail to appreciate
the greatness of that in which they hope and therefore sometimes set
their sights on a less lofty goal. In doing so, they miss the whole
point of Jesus’s message. They set their sights on salvation in this
world rather than the next. To use the phrase made famous by
political philosopher Eric Voegelin, they “immanentize the
eschaton”. Hope in this world is no Christian hope.
primarily for bishops, Benedict addresses an audience much broader
than the Catholic Church. In fact,
Spe Salvi challenges
nearly everyone on the planet, from agnostic secularists who set
their sights on economic development and scientific progress to
Marxist revolutionaries, and everyone in between, including Lutherans
and neo-pagan environmentalists.
perhaps Benedict’s most challenging, yet affectionate, critique
regards the traditional Lutheran conception of hope more as a
personal conviction than the possession of an objective proof.
Benedict’s analysis addresses the difficulty of translating a Greek
used in the New
Letter to Hebrews. It
shows the deficiencies of the German word Feststehen,
or standing firm in one’s own convictions, and the comparative
advantages of the term “substance”, to express how Christian hope
is rooted in objective faith and maintained with objective proof.
Christian hope and faith regard something real already present within
the believer, even an embryo of eternal life held inside oneself,
Benedict thereby challenges a central issue for the dialogue among
Catholics and Protestants. Is Christian faith just about one’s
personal convictions? Is it merely one’s certainty that saves? Or, is
faith something objective, really held, to be performed through
works, and received through sacraments that effectively convey the
grace of salvation? Benedict responds: “Faith is not merely a
personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally
absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the
reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for
us a ‘proof’ of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the
future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet’.
The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is
touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future
spill over into those of the present and those of the present into
those of the future.” (Spe
Benedict refers to the Sudanese
slave girl, Saint Josephine Bakhita, who, after being bought and sold
among slave traders, brutally beaten and flogged, was bought by an
Italian diplomat. Years later, after having been brought to Italy and
having received the Christian faith, Bakhita discovered that she now
had a new master, the best one imaginable, one who waits for her with
love. Once enslaved by those who saw her only for her utility, she
was freed by faith in a loving God who promises eternal life.
comments that some are not interested in Christian hope because of
their lack of interest in the promise of Christian faith, namely, eternal
life. For some, eternal life sounds like an endless continuation of
this life, just more of the same. For others, eternal life sounds
like something foreign and difficult to imagine. Many would like a
continuation of this life, but with a few improvements. With Spe
Benedict proposes a robust version of Christian hope in an eternal
life that includes all of the best, all at once, and forever.
hope of science
advancing the objective of Christian hope, Benedict refers to the
Magi who set out from Persia to the Holy Land in search of the
newborn king of the Jews and found him lying in a crib at Bethlehem.
A star guided the Magi. At the very moment in which they knelt to
adore the baby as king, “astrology came to an end, because the
stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ” (Spe
5). Astrology was overcome and astronomy was set free.
Benedict, the coming of Christ opens nature to scientific study.
Nature is no longer governed by fate, senseless destiny, or pagan
gods fighting among themselves. For many pagans, the heavens
determined human behavior. For some contemporary scientists, human
beings are determined in their actions by the laws of nature, such as
those propounded by moral and social Darwinism. But for Benedict, we
are free because we live in a universe directed by a personal God,
therefore, “reason, will, and love” govern the stars, not
senseless fate or the blind laws of physics and genetic biology.
to the God discovered by the Magi, Benedict writes: “And if we know
this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of
material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of
the universe and of its laws, we are free… Heaven is not empty.
Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter,
but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is
a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself
as Love.” (Spe
5) Because of faith in a reasonable and loving God, the Christian is
challenged to find meaning in nature through study and scientific
Science, therefore, is to serve
the human being by achieving deeper understanding of nature and new
techniques to better our life in this world. Science should always
serve the human being and should never be pursued at the price of
destroying human life. Scientific progress is good in itself but
inadequate and dissatisfying as an object of ultimate hope. Those who
set their hope on progress, whether scientific or economic, anything
merely material, diminish their own humanity with their deficient
desire for something so limited and thereby lay the groundwork for
attacking the dignity of others.
For example, to pursue a new cure
for diabetes by destroying human embryos would be to take advantage
of one human for the sake of another. To cannibalize an embryo for
the sake of medical treatment entails a depreciation of the value of
all humans, even a kind of slavery. One person is expended for the
sake of another.
as Christian faith is “performative”, so too the encyclical. One
cannot read it and remain indifferent. The shipwrecked man on the
desert island has a choice to hide from the arriving rescue ship or
to prepare and look forward to going back home. In the last analysis,
however, the comparison fails. The Christian is quite different from
the shipwrecked man insofar as the Christian hope for salvation does
not remove the believer from this world, but rather challenges the
Christian to make this world better, while hoping in a prize beyond
our wildest dreams.
Rev. Robert A. Gahl, Jr., is
Associate Professor of Ethics at the Pontifical University of the
Holy Cross, in Rome.