Message in a bottle to a weary world

The hope offered by Christianity can transform the world, says the Pope in his second encyclical letter.
Robert A. Gahl, Jr | Dec 15 2007 | comment  

Imagine 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: 2MORROW SHIP”.

Suddenly, 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.

In 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 Salvi, Saved in Hope 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.

Drawing 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.

Although 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.

Dialogue with Lutherans

Indeed, 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 word, hypostasis, used in the New Testament 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, already, now.

Pope 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 Salvi, 7)

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.

Benedict 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 Salvi, Benedict proposes a robust version of Christian hope in an eternal life that includes all of the best, all at once, and forever.

The hope of science

In 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 Salvi, 5). Astrology was overcome and astronomy was set free.

For 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.

Referring 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 Salvi, 5) Because of faith in a reasonable and loving God, the Christian is challenged to find meaning in nature through study and scientific experimentation.

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.

Just 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.

This article is published by Robert A. Gahl, Jr and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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