01 June 2007

the virtue of hope

In his quirky and obsessive, but often insightful work, Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy has a chapter on the "The Depressed Self," subtitled "Whether the Self is Depressed because there is Something Wrong with it or whether Depression is a Normal Response to a Deranged World."

Percy suggests that perhaps we're wrong to think of depression primarily as a symptom of an underlying illness, needing treatment. What if the unspoken assumption here is mistaken, the assumption that there's something wrong with the depressant? What if one is right to be depressed? Percy continues,
Assume that you are quite right. You are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed. No member of the other two million species which inhabit the earth - and who are luckily exempt from depression - would fail to be depressed if it lived the life you lead. You live in a deranged age - more deranged than usual...
I'm not sure I agree entirely with Percy's diagnosis of depression here, though he was himself a sufferer.

I suspect there is a segment of the population who suffer from a serious underlying bent towards depression that is as much a part of their physical make-up as a deformed limb or a chronic illness. We should be thankful for some of the medications that have been developed in recent years to treat depression, alongside centuries of sage advice, of course. The Desert Fathers recommended time in the sunlight and manual labor.

Still, I think Percy has a point. Whatever the underlying physical propensities, it seems clear enough that depression can be triggered and exacerbated by circumstances. The rates of depression in the overall population fluctuate over time and from place to place, and I don't think its just a matter of pesticides or something in the drinking water.

Evidence from literature, art, journals, letters, and other windows into personal agony and ecstasy strongly suggest that some eras and cultures have been significantly more depression-prone than others.

We probably live in such an era here in the west. A pastor friend of mine suggests, from his wide reading of the Puritans and their pastoral practice, that the 17th century was almost certainly another such era. (It would interesting to think through the implications of that as we seek to contextualize 17th century theology.)

So, why all this talk of depression? I certainly don't suffer in the way some do, but I have my dark moods and, as Percy suggests, there certainly is a lot to be depressed about and legitimately so - both in our wider world and within the closer circles of our cities, our communities, and our churches.

But I didn't sit down to write about depression. I meant to write about hope.

In Christian theology, "hope" has been regarded as one of the three theological virtues along with faith and charity. As virtues, these are regarded as habits, effects of grace, wrought by the Spirit, in the lives of believers. While faith's resting upon God's grace made known in Christ is primary, it is ever accompanied by charity and hope.

According to Thomas Aquinas - whose account of hope is a classic expression of Christian reflection upon the topic - hope takes as its object "a future good, difficult but possible to obtain."

For Aquinas, hope looks to the future and holds onto it, even in the midst of difficulty, darkness, frustration, and injustice. But hope is not just any sort of eye to the future. There are several central features of hope in Aquinas' account.

First, hope recognizes difficulties for what they are and counts the cost. Thus, Christian hope is not affixing a smile to one's faith and plowing forward with a false optimism. Nor it is an attempt to grin and bear it, come what may, supported by cheery devotional literature, overly-pleasant affectations, or endless hours of happy-clappy praise choruses in the CD changer. Hope is something rather more tough than all that.

Second, hope gets down to work, giving form to itself through actions. If hope is not a grin and bear it sort of thing, neither is it an aloof sort of Stoicism that coldly accepts the vicissitudes of our existence. Rather, hope moves forward even in the face of problems and difficulty, undertaking action because it believes some measure of success is possible, especially in the context of faith in a God for whom all things are possible.

Third, Aquinas emphasizes that hope is never solitary and individual. I am united to others in love and thus wish and hope for their good as I do my own - and they wish mine. Others come alongside me in my hope to act with me and for me.

For Aquinas, the theological virtue of hope is primarily eschatological, with reference to salvation - our final happiness, life together in God - so part of the point here is that the salvation of each of us is inextricably tied up with the salvation of others. If someone had not hoped for my salvation, I would never have heard the gospel and it is alongside and joined with others that we work out our salvation now.

While hope can be directed towards the eschatological future, it can refer to any good not yet achieved, understanding that every good exists to be taken up into God's eschatological purposes. Thus hope can refer to all the ongoing work of renewal and healing that is underway as God's kingdom comes to shape among us.

We hope violence and war can be overcome with the peace of Christ. We hope that broken families can be mended and find a renewed sense of familial love within the family of God. We hope that hearts hardened to the love of God in Christ will be melted by the Spirit through the Gospel. We hope that misunderstanding, intransigence, and false accusation can be cut through with charitable listening, patience, and a willingness to admit our own shortcomings.

We also shouldn't forget that every virtue has its opposed vices. According to Aquinas, there are two main vices opposed to hope: presumption and despair.

Presumption fails to recognize that the object of hope - even when that object is certain and even when it is a gift of grace - nonetheless requires perseverance to attain. Even the simplicity of faith, after all, is difficult and is easily drawn away from its object through temptations, trials, other cares, doubts, and suspicions. Presumption supposes that perseverance is easy and lets its guard down.

Despair, on the other hand, succumbs to the difficulties of faith, looking down the path of perseverance, and judging the goal to be impossible. It forgets that, even if difficult, faith is simple, a childlike dependence upon God who, after all, has already done everything for us in Christ, if only we take his word for it. Despair supposes that perseverance is too difficult and gives up.

But there are many little ways in which presumption and despair can creep into our lives, short of wholesale presumption upon God's grace with regard to our own salvation or, its opposite, utter despair of salvation.

There are all the little ways in which we presume upon God's grace, when we lack gratitude for his gifts, take the church and our relationships for granted, and fail to abide in Christ and his gospel. Likewise, we despair when we write off the possibility that a particular person will ever come to faith in Christ, or that a relationship can ever be mended, or that understanding will ever emerge among disputants.

More depressive moods can, I think, verge upon despair. They see the world through dark glasses, thinking the worst of others and their motives, expecting that things will not go well, giving up on making an effort when the future still remains open.

Percy is right, of course, that we often live in a deranged world. Perhaps depression is the best we can hope for, humanly speaking.

But the Christian virtue of hope embraces the deranged world, planting its feet firmly in the face of it, and gets to work, standing alongside many sisters and brothers who labor with us. We may not all wear smiles. We may not always enjoy the tasks God gives us. We may not have any idea how things will turn out in the short run. But we hope.

We hope against hope.