Modern culture, for all its rhetoric of progressive uplift, contains a deep current of ambivalence and pessimism. Modern man at once fears death and dreads life. He turns to defiant technology to extend life at one moment, then considers suicide in the next. And while man, thinking himself self-sufficient, celebrates the death of God, he appears equally willing, once his projects go awry, to champion his own disappearance. The cultural elite alternate between approving Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and cheering Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us.
Hostility towards the past, boredom with the present, and fear of the future seem to define man’s condition. Abortion and contraception are modern man’s most obvious votes cast against the future, but so, too, is his general contempt for all suffering. Without a happy future, man reasons, what’s the point of bearing pain? The “final solution,” which haunted the 20th century and continues into this one, is always death.
Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical released late last November, Spe Salvi (which comes from St. Paul’s saying, “In hope we were saved”), addresses this malaise of modern times. Does man have a future? Yes, says the Pope, if he realizes that redemption comes not from his powers but from God’s.
At the root of man’s hopelessness, he writes, is his rejection of dependence on God. Where faith in Christ begets hope, faith in man’s powers begets despair, for humans, no matter how elaborate their plans, cannot save themselves.
Pope Benedict examines the disappearance of Christian hope and the emergence of a false hope that ends up as disguised despair—a “faith in progress” without God to guide it that produces “progress in evil.” He traces these developments to the subtle philosophical shifts of the Enlightenment, which gradually eroded the theistic foundations of reason and freedom.
Out of this overreaching ethos came a tragic “kingdom of reason,” he writes, that damaged knowledge and faith simultaneously. “Reason” became an instrument of irrational rationalism, while religion, surrendering any claim to universal philosophical truth, reduced itself to self-regarding private belief. After this Enlightenment turn, man saw no reason to open himself up to faith, and an increasingly subjective Christianity saw no reason to offer it to him.
Here we see the Pope return to the fundamental theme underlying his famous speech at the University of Regensburg in 2006: the rupture of reason and faith and the catastrophic consequences that followed from it, both for civilization in this world and souls in the next one.
“Reason” without faith has led to despair; faith without reason has led to religious fragmentation. Spe Salvi argues for the urgency of repairing that rupture, as it was reason and faith together that formed Christianity into a universal religion and awakened man to the need for theological virtue.
In his account of Spe Salvi, Christopher Howse of the Telegraph in Great Britain reported that a “colleague, staring at the Pope’s latest encyclical, remarked, ‘There’s no news here. It’s all about God.’” But God is news—the most important news to humans trapped in self-inflicted misery.
In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict is reiterating what the Church has always taught: that it is the limitation of reason itself that makes it unreasonable for men to hope in their own self-sufficiency and reasonable for them to receive revelation from a God who comes to them. Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.
Writes the Pope:
This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety . . . His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is ‘truly’ life.
Against this vision, “faith in progress” is a destructive illusion, which sound philosophy exposes and grim history confirms:
Given the developments of the modern age, the quotation from Saint Paul with which I began (Eph. 2:12) proves to be thoroughly realistic and plainly true. There is no doubt, therefore, that a “Kingdom of God” accomplished without God—a kingdom therefore of man alone—inevitably ends up as the “perverse end” of all things . . . Reason therefore needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and faith need one another in order to fulfill their true nature and their mission.
It is telling that Pope Benedict begins his discussion with the Enlightenment scientist Francis Bacon and ends it with the Virgin Mary. Rejecting philosophy and relying upon a narrowly defined science, Bacon did not want to know or serve reality; he only wanted to dominate it. This model of hope has proven pitiless. But hope in Christ hasn’t, and the Virgin Mary is the preeminent symbol of it. She is proof that salvation comes not through human sophistication and domination but through simple obedience.
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