The Personalist Project

A fourth option for dealing with the miseries and pains of life is that of genuine hope.  How does this differ from mere optimism?  How does is compare to pessimism?  Well, it is an attempt to face the evils of life realistically while not succumbing to them as the last word (vs. pessimism); but, in order to do so, hope must break the bounds of just this world of space and time (vs. mere optimism) where “death comes as the end.”  Hope must find a genuine foundation on which to acknowledge misery without despair, but rather with a realistic possibility of breaking through to genuine happiness. 

That true foundation is ultimately the power and goodness of God; therefore, hope is based on some form of faith—either a groping “rational faith” as we find in Socrates or a faith based primarily in revelation wherein God reveals to us the beginning, the end, and the way.  In this light, if our life in this world is part of a meaningful passage and purification, if our pains (and even death) have some purpose, then our time on this earth is not just a terrifying and precarious existence surrounded by inevitably triumphant evils  requiring that I “steel myself” against it all.  Rather, our life  on this earth can be seen as a pilgrimage, a meaningful period of trial which can end in happiness--if I am allowed to participate in what will be the ultimate triumph of good over evil, of happiness over misery, in the end without end (through the power of the God of goodness). 

But how can pains and evils even have a place in a world created by an all-powerful and all-good God?  How could evil have ever been introduced into such a world?  Through (the misuse of) the gift of freedom which God gives to us as persons; we are not puppets, robots, or computers.  As G.K. Chesterton once remarked (Broadcast talk 6-11-35): 

The free man own himself.  He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling.  If he does he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog.

So with the gift of real freedom comes the possibility of its misuse or as C.S. Lewis says in The Problem of Pain, Ch. 5, speaking of the first sin and its heinousness: 

[An] act of self-will on the part of the creature, which constitutes an utter falseness to its true creaturely condition, is the only sin that can be conceived as the Fall.  For the difficulty with the first sin is that it must be very heinous, or its consequences would not be so terrible, and yet it must be something which a being free from the temptations of fallen man could conceivably have committed.  The turning from God to self fulfills both conditions.  It is a sin possible even to Paradisal man, because the mere existence of a self—the mere fact that we call it “me”—includes, from the first, the danger of self-idolatry.  Since I am I, I must make an act of self-surrender, however small or however easy, in living to God rather than to myself…. But the sin was very heinous, because the self which Paradisal man had to surrender contained no natural recalcitrancy to being surrendered.  [It] meant no struggle, but only the delicious overcoming of an infinitesimal self-adherence which delighted to be overcome—of which we see a dim analogy in the rapturous mutual self-surrenders of lovers even now. 

Now, after that terrible misuse of freedom, that rebellion of creature against Creator, of beloved against Lover, then the consequences we labor under now have followed: continued choices of ongoing evil, and the suffering and death which come in their train as both a justice (in response to sin) and a mercy (to recall us from a wrong path).  Not mere justice, but also mercy in a mysterious unity.  As Lewis says in Ch. 6 of The Problem of Pain:

We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shovelling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure.  But pain insists on being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.  A bad man, happy, is a man without the least inkling that his actions do not “answer,” that they are not in accord with the laws of the universe.

And yet, in light of the fact that “if God is for us, who can be against,” in light of God’s absolute goodness, mercy, wisdom, and power, we can hope to participate in the final triumph of goodness over evil.  It is goodness (God’s goodness) which has the final word in being, not evil as the pessimists would have us believe.  And, of course, especially in Christianity (compared to other traditions which may accept a God of absolute goodness and power), wherein we see our God (Emmanuel) dying for us on the cross to reopen a path to Heaven on our behalf, we find the most comprehensive answer to the problem of evil and misery.  The death of Christ (the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity) on the cross as the only adequate pay-back for sin takes evil even more seriously than does pessimism, yet without despair—for Christ is truly risen and our debt repaid.  As Bishop Fulton J. Sheen says in his book Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 11,

No other religion in the world gives to death the value of Christianity, because others isolated it from sin.  For all others, death is either unreal or a release of the spirit, or a dropping away of the body, considered as an obstacle to union with God.  But to Christianity death is at one and the same time a penalty for sin and a condition of eternal happiness, because through death, love accomplishes self-sacrifice which issues in self-perfection in eternal life.  Because it is love which saves, life must be lost before it can be won.

World religions touch on one or the other aspect of the Christian philosophy, as do modern philosophies of religion.  Some concentrate on pain and deny the reality of evil; others concentrate on evil, but make it social and unrelated to personal freedom; not many of them attempt to solve the riddle of death.  Few, if any, treat the subject of sin except as a “fall in the evolutionary process.”  The only religion which makes a synthesis of all these problems, then shows how one has resulted from the other, and how each of them can be used instrumentally in victory, is Christianity.  It does not give us a picture of defeat followed by victory, of pain followed by joy, or death followed by live, but as the conversion of one into the other.  “Your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”  Defeat becomes victory, sin becomes a felix culpa; death becomes eternal life, and “the sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared with the joy which is to come.”

No religion except Christianity gives meaning, not only to the joys of life, but also to its sorrows.

For much more on this topic, again see Bill Marra's Happiness and Christian Hope; also, see Dietrich von Hildebrand's chapter on "Hope" in The Art of LIving and Gabriel Marcel's chapter on "Hope" in Homo Viator.

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