Father James Schall on "Spe Salvi" (Part I)

Jesuit Scholar Points to Pope's Insights Into True Hope

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By Carrie Gress

WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 31, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Even though the modern world talks of the hope in terms of progress and social justice, these concepts are "inhuman" aberrations of the true meaning of the theological virtue, says Father James Schall.

The Jesuit professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University is the author of "The Order of Things," and "Another Sort of Learning," both published by Ignatius Press.

In Part 1 of this interview with ZENIT, Father Schall comments on how Benedict XVI, in his encyclical "Spe Salvi," defends the theological virtue of hope by showing that without God human fulfillment and happiness is impossible.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday.

Q: Why do you think that this consideration of the theological virtue of hope is particularly timely?

Father Schall: We might state the issue briefly, but with some irony, by saying that in fact the secular world is itself full of "hope." However, the intellectual origins or implications of the ideas it uses for hope are no longer recognized. The modern words used instead of hope are "progress," or "making the world safe for democracy," "social justice," or the "scientific" eradication of suffering and evil. The theological background for this "secularization" of hope comes from Joachim of Flora and Francis Bacon, among others.

The modern idea of hope always means dissatisfaction with the present in the light of some presumed future that is not only better, but is the man-made answer to what we mean by complete happiness.

Even the word "education" has overtones of hope. Stress on education as a solution also has a Socratic background. Socrates evidently thought that at the origin of all the human disorder we find "ignorance." Thus, education, both general and universal, comes to be considered a universal "cure" for the moral disorders manifest in human nature wherever and whenever it appears in our experience. If we can just eliminate "ignorance," it is "hoped," we will eliminate evil.

This view clearly presupposes that we know and define properly the nature of the evil that we seek to eliminate. Perhaps no ideology is more stubborn than this educational one. The fact is that it is not primarily ignorance that causes evil. Education as an ideology always refuses to face the core problem of evil, its relation to free will, virtue and grace.

Aristotle was clear that, while intelligence was indeed a major factor, there was a recurring element of "wickedness" in human nature. The most intelligent and well-educated were often the ones closest to the greatest evil. The classical tractates on tyranny always presupposed this relationship of the greatest evil to the greatest finite intelligence, angelic or human. Lucifer is one of the most intelligent of the angels, which is why he is so dangerous.

Following Augustine and Aquinas, we understand the place of will, free will, in our lives. Evil is not located outside of us. Aristotle had recognized that virtue and vice are acquired habits based on repeated choices. We do not become virtuous or vicious simply by knowing what virtue or vice is. We have to "do" them repeatedly.

Behind this emphasis on will, we find the doctrine of original sin with its relation to pride.

My point here is simply this: The billions of dollars of wealth that sundry modern states and private charities pour into education in order to improve the world are almost always justified by a version of hope that essentially maintains that what causes human ills is lack of knowledge. Since the whole story of human disorder includes more than knowledge, we must recognize that this modern enthusiasm for "knowledge alone" betrays utopian overtones of a this-worldly solution of ultimate human problems.

The point is not to abandon the valid aspect of education in our lives. No religion -- or philosophy -- is more dedicated to intelligence than Catholicism. The point is to put it in proper order. We should seek and know the truth. But it does not automatically follow that those who seek education necessarily choose to live by the truth.

What this Pope is able to do, in an almost revolutionary manner, is to sort out the unrecognized theological strands of hope that exist within the secular order.

Modernity's very search for its own self-sufficiency is charged with Christian overtones that exist in the culture, but are not recognized. One of the results of the loss of faith, itself a choice, is the sense of no longer knowing how Christian themes were implicit in the culture.

Students and faculties today, including often those in Catholic institutions, have little notion of the Christian origins and limits of their favorite enthusiasms. Ever since we stopped studying heresies as heresies, we have often adopted them in enthusiastic terms whose origins we no longer recognize. There is not only ignorance, but a willed ignorance.

We do not want to know that our most basic desires are best explained by a reasoned faith, which we have uncritically, without examination and virtue, rejected as untenable.

Q: You have made a connection between Eric Voegelin's phrase "immanentize the eschaton" and the encyclical. What does this phrase mean? How do what connection do you see?

Father Schall: Eric Voegelin was a German political philosopher who came to the United States during the Nazi period. He had begun a distinguished academic career in Germany that he continued at Louisiana State and Stanford Universities. His voluminous and profound writings are published by the Louisiana State University Press and the University of Missouri Press.

After long studies in philosophy, language, scripture, history and theology, Voegelin concluded that the main motivating force behind modern philosophic movements was their effort literally to achieve the transcendent goals found in classical philosophy and Christianity, such as heaven, happiness, but within this world. He called these efforts at systems "ideologies." He explained that their effort was to "immanentize the eschaton."

Realist philosophy and Christian theology are not, in this sense, "ideologies," though this is what they will often be called in universities. This is why, from a Catholic view, the defense of philosophy and revelation as such is so important. Their realism is what distinguishes them from ideologies. Neither philosophy nor revelation is merely a projection onto reality of humanly concocted ideas that have no further justification other than the construct in the mind of some thinker now transformed into political action.

The word "eschaton" refers to the last things. We traditionally call them: death, purgatory, hell, and heaven. We will quickly notice that these are the four things to which Benedict XVI addresses himself in "Spe Salvi." We are so used to writing off any serious consideration of these topics that we can't easily appreciate the depth of what the Pope is about. As I often like to point out, Catholicism is an intellectual religion. We had better be prepared to understand why.

I know the expression "immanentize the eschaton" sounds formidable. It is something only a German academic mind could drum up, I suppose. But it is apt. It has the advantage of accurately identifying what is going on in the modern mind as it seeks to find a human meaning outside of a realist philosophy to which revelation is addressed in a coherent fashion. In other words, it means that modern thought does not escape Christianity even when it tries to do so. What it does is to strive to relocate it within the world as a rejection of Christianity.

The brilliance of the Pope's encyclical is that he is also a German philosopher and reads German philosophy. He knows that the great German thinkers, upon whom, in fact, most of modern thought depends, simply bring back in Christian ideas, only now in some distorted form. They try to locate "eternal life" down the ages. They try to escape death by projecting ages of man to 200 years. They try to imitate paradise by ecological fantasies of eternal earth.

Q: Can you briefly philosophic sketch how our contemporary world has distorted the vision of man? How does this idea of "progress" fit into the Pope's analysis?

Father Schall: In the beginning, modern ideology often proposed a humanism that was supposedly independent of revelation. Now, classical philosophy is independent of revelation, even though, as the Pope said in the Regensburg Lecture, that already in the Old and the New Testaments we find ideas of philosophy and revelation that are directly related to each other, the principle ones being the notions of truth, love, being and happiness.

What revelation argues in the face of modern thought and politics is that "humanism" has gradually become more and more "inhuman." Chesterton often predicted this would happen. The concepts of the length of human life in terms of years, of love in terms of sex, of happiness in terms of individual creation of its own ends are aberrations, much like those found in book five of Plato's "Republic," which in the name of justice sought to eliminate the family and to produce perfect children by a combination of genetics and state education.

"Progress" is an idea coming from post-Enlightenment thought. J.B. Bury's famous book "The Idea of Progress" reads like a book on salvation history. I like your expression, "How our contemporary world distorted the vision of man."

The theological virtue of hope, the subject of this encyclical, is precisely the virtue that most directly involves modern philosophy whose main claim to fame is that it can in fact produce a better "humanism." Taking it at its own word, the Pope systematically shows that without God it is impossible, really, to give actual human men and women any hope for themselves and their kind.

The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, something that has intimations in Aristotle's notion of friendship, is the only real doctrine that addresses itself to the salvation of each individual in his own particular being, but within the notion of a community of love and friends, which is what we all want. What we hope for in the Christian sense is precisely that we see God "face to face." We already seek to know one another '"face to face." There is no guarantee that this condition can ever be realized outside of the hope that God exists and has saved us. We must include our sins and destiny.

The Pope reestablishes the importance of purgatory as a sensible position precisely because he knows, as we do, that few of us die with absolutely pure souls. There is nothing irrational about this much-maligned doctrine that alone addresses the fact of sins of the past and their proper atonement.

One almost has to laugh at this encyclical that boldly takes the eschatological doctrines -- heaven, hell, death, purgatory -- and shows us that they have direct meaning on our lives and culture. The encyclical is called "hope" but it is also "bold." It is bold precisely because it is intelligent and aware of the meaning of modern ideologies. Modern thought is, as was much of ancient thought after the Resurrection, an effort to avoid the truth of revelation. We cannot ever prevent anyone from rejecting this truth. Nor do we want to do so. This is what free will is about. The truth of God and of his purpose for man in the world must be chosen as well as understood.

What "Spe Salvi" does is spell out in lines too clear to miss the implications of rejecting the "eschaton" as it is presented in Christian faith. It is no doubt true that these doctrines must be understood accurately. Much of the heresy in history arises from a misunderstanding of what is actually taught.

This encyclical is a representation of what is actually taught. This is why it is so astonishing and revolutionary in itself.

Our eyes have not seen what our ears have heard because we do not want to receive what we are as a gift. We want to make what we are. And when we do, we find that we create mostly monsters. The Pope also sketches the monsters in this encyclical.