Christians are Called to Hope Together
Faith, hope, and love—these three virtues form the bedrock of Christian theology. Unlike courage, patience, moderation, and many other qualities that society lauds, these theological virtues concern our relationship with God. Most people think about these qualities in the limited context of a one-on-one relationship; it’s between us and God. Either we have the right faithful, hopeful, loving attitude toward God or we don’t. Other people do not factor in. Although others might benefit from the overflow (for example, our love for God helps us love others better), others do not participate in our living out the theological virtues.
Or do they?
I contend that our relationship with God is not insular, occurring only within the soul, but rather in community with fellow believers. A parallel example helps illustrate my point: We typically think of memory as insular—there is me and there is my memory. Having a good memory is like having a well-organized filing cabinet that one can search as needed. For those with less-honed powers of recall, there are external helpers, such as calendars, computers, phones, etc. What may be not as obvious is that other people can help us remember as well.
Memory: Dorothy and Irving, married for 40 years, have developed their own ways of telling stories from their common life together. When either recounts one of these stories apart from the other, the story gets told in a somewhat selective, distorted way reflective of the interests, biases, and habits of the storyteller. When they tell their stories together, however, their patterns of interaction suppress some of those biases and interests while at the same time cuing, refining, and highlighting aspects of their stories. As a result, the stories told together are different from, and often more accurate than, those told alone.
Remembering in common does not merely involve two simple parallel processes (individual performances of the same insular task). Rather, it involves a kind of interactive, responsive, dynamic agency. Remembering takes a different form when it is enacted socially. This difference can be clearly seen in the example of dancing.
Dance: A gifted dancer, Sofia is competent in many styles, but her talents find their best expression in ballroom dancing. She moves fluidly, attuned to her dance partner, but as she specializes in the role traditionally belonging to the woman in a ballroom pair, what she does on the dance floor depends on the skill of her partner. The better the partner, the better she can manifest her own excellence. While Sofia’s performance is far from passive, the exercise of her gifts of attunement, poise, and dexterity depends on a certain kind of dynamic social environment.
What if we viewed the theological virtue of hope in the same way—as something meant to be enacted socially? How could hope involve certain ways of being attuned to and responsive to others? As a first step, we can think of liturgy, Scripture, and the life of the Church as providing cultural scaffolding that supports the faithful in hope. In the Scriptures and the lives of the saints, we encounter stories that portray what it means to live with hope through challenging, seemingly hopeless, circumstances. We witness people striving to live lives of hope, including those who are older, wiser, and further along on their pilgrimages of faith.
In liturgy, we learn to work corporately through the darkness and doubt of a human life within a context that inevitably points to Easter. The corporate spiritual life offers us the hard-won insights of others, the rhythms of faithfulness that have sustained others, and companionship along the road. In all these ways, the Church provides a cultural framework for hoping in God. The message does not preclude the notion that individuals can hope on their own; rather, it emphasizes that the Church provides an enhanced context for enacting hope in God that allows our hoping to express itself most naturally and fully.
One of the things the Church provides scaffolding for, though, is a shared spiritual life. The hope of each believer may begin as focused entirely on the individual, but progress in faith should lead to a broadening of what one hopes for that leads to the enfolding of other persons in one’s hopes. It should lead to caring about what God cares about, which includes other people, and partnering with God in what God wants to do through His people, a.k.a. the Church. In other words, growing in the faith should come with an evolution of our narrative identity. Pursuing union with God cannot be tacked onto any arbitrary understanding of our life.
When someone conveys something related to his or her hope for the Kingdom of God, this automatically bears on what I also hope for; and when that person hopes effectively, I share in the experience. As my practice of faith becomes integrated with my community’s and the relationships I develop within it, it can become socially enacted. There is a dovetailing between the way in which my fellow believers and I manifest our hopes. The act of community becomes a way of manifesting the dispositions of hope, of enacting hope. Thinking this way about religious community and the life of faith involves reconceiving the life of faith as one that is symbiotic in character. Rather than thinking of the theological virtues as byproducts of a community, we can begin to think of community as serving the function of practicing faith, hope, and love together.
Shifting our thinking in this way has several implications; here are two. First, we realize the folly of believing that hope is a solo act. If we think about hope as an insular activity, as one’s private confidence in the great truths of the Gospel, then what follows when your hope falters? I could nag you. I could cheer or threaten from the stands, but ultimately I am on the outside. From this perspective, everyone floats around in their own dinghy of faith, and the storms of life will test the seaworthiness of each vessel on its own merits. But what if that’s not the way this is supposed to work? What if the Church is meant to be more of a shared journey than a convoy of independent wayfarers? If hope is to be done together, if it is meant to be worked out at least in part through our common life, then I might be able to hope for you when you find that you cannot hope for yourself, and vice versa. We are caretakers of a common story, a common story that is meant to enfold each of our individual stories. Just as a couple may remember different parts of a shared past and in tandem be able to stitch together a coherent story, so our imperfect, oft-failing individual attempts to hold onto the promises of God can add up to something that can sustain a sure hope in a common future.
There is, however, a second and more somber application. The import of a moral scandal in the Church takes on a different tenor when one takes seriously the idea that the life of faith should express itself in shared agency. When persons of the cloth abuse their positions of power, for instance, they do not simply shame the Church in the eyes of outsiders. They do not simply give us one more instance of a trauma with which our fallen world is fraught. They do not even merely disrupt the ability of faithful, hopeful people to organize their efforts by calling the integrity of our institutions into question. Something deeper is at play. The perpetrator scars the bonds of trust that allow a community to enact their faith and do hope together.
The Christian tradition has always affirmed that hope is social. It is a relational attitude directed at God. But there is another layer to the social character of hope that we often miss. In my view, one receives the seed of hope as a gift, and our immersion within community provides us with the resources to grow that seed. In the same way that the child’s hopeful agency is nurtured by a caring parent, hope in God and His redemptive work is something into which one grows through the help of others. Through relationships mediated by creed and cup, one taps into the hope of those who have come before and those who are journeying now. This support provides a tangible form of grace as we work out our hope in dynamic interaction with a community that shares our hope—a hope for union with God, and through God, for union with each other.
Posted: August 2, 2018
Adapted from Aaron D. Cobb and Adam Green, “The Theological Virtue of Hope as a Social Virtue,” Journal of Analytic Theology, Vol. 5 (2017).