While there is life, there is hope. – Marcus Tullius Cicero
A ship should not ride on a single anchor, or a life on a single hope. – Epictetus
When hope is taken away from a people moral degeneration follows swiftly after. – Pearl S. Buck
A great Hope fell
You heard no noise
The Ruin was within.
– Emily Dickinson
So, now, faith, hope and love remain, these three; and of them, love is the greatest. – Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul.
(Photo credit – Wikipedia)
Life without hope is the slide into despair. Anyone who has lost hope for any length of time has discovered that road. Whether small or great, millions feel it. Winston Churchill called it “the black dog”. Abraham Lincoln confessed to times of deep despondency during his Presidency, particularly after the death of his youngest son.
The devastating disappointments and betrayals of life drive people into emotional dark depths where they find themselves in the pit of despair. Occasionally it can be turned around by a momentous event or revelation of why there is reason to hope. Churchill’s refuge of hope was his wife’s rock-solid faith in him and his deep faith in his sense of a Providential calling to play some great role in the world. Knowing large swaths of the Bible by heart and many passages of classic literature gave him deep reserves to call upon. He typifies Epictetus’ wise dictum that we need more than one anchor to get through life’s roller-coaster.
Cicero, Epictetus, and Paul were Roman-era thinkers of very different backgrounds. Buck and Dickinson are great writers of the 20th Century.
Cicero, one of the great orators of all time, was also one of Rome’s truly original philosophers. He believed in the essential benevolence of the Creator. While observing and performing the public forms of Rome’s polytheistic religion, he personally believed that there was really but one great God. He held that this Creator was fundamentally benevolent in creating a good world and giving us life in the first place when He had no obligation to do so. Life is thus a declaration of hope that there is goodness in the world even in the midst of evil. When death came to him by a vengeful Caesar Augustus’ assassins, he met it in keeping with his convictions.
Epictetus was a second century CE Stoic philosopher much admired by his contemporaries. He inspired Rome’s unique philosopher-Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (d. 181 CE), whose Meditations are much read to this day. The Stoics were not optimists, but strongly believed in a created order in which one must find and live by one’s calling and do one’s duty within that calling. One must do as much good as possible for the greatest number and obviate as much as evil as possible.
Stoics believed that since suffering and death are inevitable, it is one’s allotment to live well, suffer well when that time comes, and die well in the end, offering example and inspiration to those who follow. They also believed in one Creator presiding over all, although not opposing the observance of polytheistic religious conventions for the sake of maintaining public unity and order. The “Good Emperors”, from Trajan (98-117 CE) to Marcus Aurelius (161-181 CE), presided over the the second half of the Roman Empire’s “Golden Age” of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). They were Stoics. Under them, the persecution of Christians was sporadic and largely confined to specific localities. Marcus Aurelius found any form of persecution distasteful and inconsistent with his philosophy, but, as a Stoic with a higher duty to the Divinely sanctioned Empire, felt compelled to restrain the growth of this counter-culture which contradicted the Order of the world that Rome embodied. For him, hate played no role; it was nothing personal.
Marcus Aurelius’s successors proved to be far more interested in enjoying their power and playing god than being philosophical. Buck’s comment (see above) about moral degeneracy resulting from the removal of hope had been seen previously under the worst of the early Emperors (notably Caligula and Nero) before the Antonines (Aurelius being the last of them). It truly came to light during the next centuries when Rome drifted into constant internal and external strife. Since then over the last 1800 years, societies everywhere in the world have played true to Buck’s observation. By many appearances, the West of the 21st Century is acting out its own version of this drama.
Dickinson’s poignant lines tell us that the worst form of death is the ruin of the soul. Inevitable physical death is not the worst fate. It does not at all mean the internal ruin of the person. Moral ruin within is really a far worse death, for it renders life itself futile, meaningless. To die well with hope that life means something and one’s own life has meant something takes away some of its sting.
Which brings us to Saul of Tarsus, better known as the Apostle Paul. His statement is immortal. It is among the most oft-quoted in history, even among those who know and care next to nothing about the Bible, from which it is taken.
Paul marries three of the great, “Divine” virtues that transcend worthy lesser ones such as honesty and valour. It is hard to segment virtues in some sort of hierarchy, for the “greater” and “lesser” are really quite interdependent, giving life to one another. But the “Higher” virtues are perhaps more readily linked to the core of how we are made in the image of God, at least in Christian theology. One does not need relationship with God to understand the value of honesty and integrity, or even courage, for example. It is even possible to find some degree of faith, hope, and love outside of consciously striving for relationship with the Maker.
But Paul’s point is about how such virtues can only be truly fulfilled and lived in their highest and best expression in relationship to the One who completes all faith aspirations, fulfills all hopes, and perfects love. Over and over again, we have referenced the essential hopelessness of a vision of the Universe as an accidental congruence of totally improbable events for which we can provide no reason. Lately we are seeing quite respected and respectable scientists admitting that the Cosmos not only superficially appears to have come into being as a result some intentional design, but consistently has behaved that way since its very first instant.
And this brings us back to hope. Evidence says more and more convincingly (allowing us to live with conviction) that there is a true and real design inherent in the very fabric of all that is. Denying it harder and harder will not make it go away.
We are now closing the circle that began, in the Enlightenment mythology of the emergence of modern science, with Galileo being persecuted and silenced by the willfully blind and ignorant dogmatists of the Catholic Church’s established hierarchy. It is now the hardline dogmatic rationalists to refuse to see what the evidence more and more clearly declares about the probable existence of a Personal Designer. There is a diminishing number of real active scientists who say “it does not move”, while the scientific “heretics” are coming out of the woodwork and no longer whispering, but saying more and more boldly, “And yet it moves.”
Why is all this hopeful? Because when we have gone as far as reason can take us, we find there is much more to learn and experience beyond that boundary. We can begin to accept the testimony of humans from all of our history that there is a Maker, there is a Creator who has put us here for a reason – to know and relate to Him/Her and to discover that wonder and majesty of all that He/She has made. And within that incredible outpouring of His/Her glory, we discover who and what we are and have always been intended to be and become.
All human existence testifies to the incredible power of love to inspire, to move us to great things. Behind all that is, is the Power of an infinite Person, not an abstract principle, calling us to know and be known in relationship to Him/Her, and through the One who is, to know and be known by one another.
And out of this understanding comes that which we began this series with – Trust-Faith. For knowing the Maker, the Creator who is really and truly there, and even incredibly here and near (as close as your jugular vein in the graphic phrase of the Quran), grants us a real ground to hope, to love, and to trust.
As we conclude this series, let us reflect for a moment on why Saul-Paul said “the greatest of these” (the three paramount virtues – faith, hope, and love) is love.” It goes back to what the Creator has done out of sheer love, without any obligation to any other. The Maker of all that is needed nothing or anyone. Out of sheer selfless love, He/She chose to make a universe where His/Her love could be given out without limit, like a super-explosion (Big Bang anyone?), and freely offered to creatures made in His/Her own image, who could choose to love back and love one another and manifest the nature of the Maker in themselves.
That, essentially, is the Judeo-Christian story which for most of two millennia anchored the West and gave it reason and even enabled it to produce some pretty amazing advances in shedding some of the worst aspects of what happens to people without that kind of faith, hope, and love.
We will finish this series with an allusion to a very old story from Christian tradition.
It is said that, in the early 60s of the First Century CE, after many adventures, the Apostle Peter had made his way to Rome. When 60-70% of Rome burned in the great fire of 64 AD, the mad Emperor Nero blamed it on the Christians in order to deflect the blame the populace was laying on him. A terrible persecution of Christians broke out and thousands were being put to death in a series of great spectacles to divert the outraged populace.
The Christians of Rome urged Peter to leave the city to escape so that he might continue to minister and witness to Jesus elsewhere. Peter headed south along the Via Appia, Rome’s equivalent to the I-95 in the eastern US or Highway 401 in Canada. Somewhere along the way, the resurrected Jesus met him. Jesus was walking towards the city.
Shocked and trembling, Peter asked him, “Quo vadis, Domine? – Where are you going, Lord?”
Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again with my people, for you have abandoned them.”
Struck to the heart and weeping, Peter went to his knees and repented. Jesus comforted and reassured him that He would be there with him. Peter got up and hurried back. Soon after he was arrested and crucified, having brought great comfort and renewed faith to the condemned. The Apostle asked his killers to be crucified upside down because, “I am not worthy to die in the same way as my Lord.”
This very likely true story illustrates all that we have been trying to say about faith, hope, and love – and the assurance and conviction that give the strength to live by what one says about believing and acting. The source of Peter’s trust in Jesus was a living personal relationship rooted in experience of his Lord’s love for him and for the people he too loved. The source of Peter’s hope was this personal love and experience in seeing that this was the real deal, and that he would not be abandoned and proven deluded. Conviction was part and parcel of it all. Trusting what his Lord had promised, Peter fully committed himself to die well. His conviction was based on what he knew already and what he had good reason to believe would be fulfilled in the future according to his Lord’s promises.
The Christian story is not about “pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by”. A future wonderful renewed world and an afterlife of bliss is all well and good, but the life we have today is to be lived in trust and hope that even now, we have good and sufficient reason to know we will have the strength to be a light in a dark world, even when that means figurative and literal crucifixion.
If you are not a follower of Jesus, you have no less need for that kind of trust and hope to make it through the inevitable trials life will bring you.
 I am referring the (in)famous trial of Galileo before the Inquisition in the 1640s, when Galileo, under threat of being burned as heretic, recanted his statements that the planets moved around the sun and the whole universe is in motion, and that the earth is not the center of the Universe.