Chapter 3: The Hope of Life

or

What Is There Really To Look Forward To?

 

The teachings of the Lord are three: hope of life, the beginning and end of our faith; righteous life, the beginning and end of judgment; love from joy and gladness, the witness of the works of a righteous life. 

 

The above summary of the teachings of Jesus found in the late first or early second century document mistakenly attributed to Barnabas (1:6)—St. Paul’s missionary companion—has long intrigued me, especially if one has become convinced, as I have, that the biggest obstacle that Christianity must overcome is the sheer number and complexity of its beliefs.

Nevertheless, if we follow the reasoning of “Barnabas”, whoever he may have been, we see the first two terms of the usual order of the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity reversed. Originally it was my intention to focus only on the first of these three teachings, the hope of eternal life, which is what most interpreters assume the author was talking about.  Otherwise, why would he characterize this hope as being not only the “beginning” but also the “end” of faith?

The word end—which here is used to translate the original Greek word telos—can itself have several meanings.  One is merely temporal, that is, referring to the cessation of time. Which is true, when hope ceases, then most likely also will faith. 

Another meaning refers to a conclusion or final component, in this case the final phase of history, or even of one’s individual life. However, there is still another meaning, one which probably comes closest to what the author of the letter meant, and that is the aim, purpose, or goal of faith, in other words, to be able to pass from a vague hope, through a firm faith, to something better, even to the possession of everlasting life. So instead of thinking of hope as a product of faith, or thinking of it as some kind of weak replacement for faith, maybe we have to place it first and foremost, with the implication that without it, there also can be no faith.

       In defense of this same point of view, we could also take an example drawn from the passage in First Corinthians (15:12-19), where St. Paul speaks very strongly, in what is a kind of reverse logic about the relationship of the resurrection of the just to the resurrection of Christ. In effect, he appears to be saying that if we don’t believe—which is surely more of a hope than a belief, since it hasn’t happened yet—that the just will rise, then there is no point in believing that Christ in fact has already risen from the dead.  And if that is the case, then “your faith has been in vain.” And thus, Paul concludes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people the most to be pitied.”

Yet, if this is really the case, then are we not opening up ourselves to the criticism that faith is nothing more than an “illusion”, the product of “wishful-thinking”, as was claimed by Freud in his famous 1927 book on The Future of an Illusion? Thus Freud, despite his admission that religion is one of humanity’s highest cultural achievements, believed that religious belief now needs to be cast aside as science advances with the correct answers to the questions that formerly religion attempted to provide.

I will have more to say about this immensely influential book, even though such a shrewd and admiring citric as Walter Kaufmann (1952, Section 42) felt Freud’s view that this illusion was based merely or even mostly on wishful thinking was far too simplistic. Instead, I will take the position that not only has religion been one of humanity’s highest achievements, but that it will, precisely because of the hope it offers, continue to be. In fact, I will argue that nothing really worthwhile in human life or history has ever been accomplished without some strong element of hope—something that Kaufmann (1963, Section 98) rather strangely, even seventeen years before the end of his life, regarded as being more a vice than a virtue!

I realize, at least for some, there is a real stumbling block here. One often hears complaints from atheists and other critics of religion that believers prove themselves to be selfish or egotistic individualists when they do good or even just behave themselves to earn some reward in the next life. And do we not have to admire the self-forgetfulness, however exaggerated it may seem, as expressed by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (9: 3) or some other great saints who went so far as to claim that they would be willing to be damned or themselves lost if thereby they could save others? 

At the same time, we must admit that religion has been given a very bad reputation by those who believe, like suicide-bombing Islamic fundamentalists, that by sacrificing themselves to kill “infidels”, that their own “martyrdom” will guarantee them a place in heaven. But we must ask, how is this all that different from the Crusaders who embarked on war-like expeditions in order to have all their sins, which were no doubt many, forgiven or others who have embarked on “suicide missions” for some great cause, however ill-conceived it may have been?

       Yet it would seem to go against reason and nature itself to think that there is something basically wrong to imagine that somehow the idea of a reward or incentive taints or even destroys the value of a good deed or worthwhile action. Think about it: would people bother to eat what they need, or get enough sleep, or even go through all the bother of begetting and raising children—especially if none of these activities were not pleasurable or satisfying? I very much doubt it.  So too, if obeying God’s commands, or even just behaving as a good citizen, did not earn us it least the admiration of one’s fellow believers or the respect of one’s fellow citizens, I suspect that society would soon fall apart. True, some people may do these things more for negative reasons, such as fear of some punishment or disapproval, but in today’s permissive society, this has become less likely than in previous times. 

Granted, that such concerns for reward or worries about one’s own individual destiny often have an element of self-centeredness. Historians of Western civilization tell us that before the rise of ancient Greece and Rome, most people didn’t think much of their own personal identities, but mostly thought in terms of their clan, tribe, or nation.  The most ancient parts of the Bible are a good example of this almost exclusively group mentality.  In the biblical realm, only some of the later Old Testament books and the New Testament evidence much interest in the fate of the individual.  In fact, what seems to have taken place over the past few millennia has been a slow evolution of human self-consciousness, moving from the ancient philosophical interest in what is needed in order to lead a worthwhile life, to the Christian concern to obtain life-everlasting, and finally, nowadays, to an excessive quest for personal happiness and self-satisfaction, often with complete disregard for the well-being of others. So, not all of this development has been entirely good. And I have some sympathy for those who criticize some contemporary forms of Christian piety or the kind of economic policies that seem or even claim to have been partly inspired by them. That things would come to such a pass was also foreseen by Freud, who, although he saw religion as being bulwark against both nature and the self-destructive drives of humanity, also saw it as form of collective narcissism, in other words, a worship of one’s own self as special. Freud, in the conclusion of Chapter 3 of The Future of an Illusion even saw this self-worship especially exemplified in Western Christian civilization and even more in what is now being called American “exceptionalism”. Nevertheless, most people would judge the emergence of persons as individuals, along with the recognition of the basic human rights that must be accorded to each, as a positive thing.

No doubt, hope can often be misleading. Many lives have been wasted, or even lost, in the hopeful pursuit of goals that turned out to be false. Yet consider the alternative. How much would have been accomplished had there not been some imagined goal or purpose to spur one on? A case in point would be Columbus’ discovery of the New World despite the fact that he only wished to find a short-cut to eastern Asia and even thought for some time that he actually had arrived there!

Obviously, hope, whether misplaced or not, is a key ingredient here. Where hope is absent, so too is faith, at least in the sense of a trust or confidence that all can turn out well for us in the end.  Nor is this hope exclusively a Christian phenomenon. We can also find it in the writings of the ancients who lived centuries before the time of Christ. Certainly it is to be found in Plato’s famous account in his Dialogues (42B) of the defense and final words of Socrates, who argued that either death is an undisturbed and therefore pleasant sleep, or else an awakening to another life, and that “Which is better God only knows.”

 Human nature being what it is, I doubt that few even in the remote past, were likely to have believed in the gods, or even more in one God, unless there seemed to be some advantage in believing, even if that advantage was seen in terms of this life only. Certainly this “hope for life” that Jesus appeared to offer explains, more than any other factor, the conversion of much of the ancient world in the face of brutal persecutions launched  against the first Christians. Nor would the attraction of Christianity today be so strong, particularly in the developing world, where it is still growing exponentially, unless it included some sort of promise or reward for a life well-lived—this despite all the material attractions or distractions of a higher standard of living. So while it may seem that the existential angst and questioning that gripped the world in the dark days during and immediately after World War II may have diminished somewhat, I suspect this apparent self-content is largely an illusion.  Hope, even when misdirected, is the mainspring of life, and if hope is lacking, then life itself too easily becomes a burden, a realization that is graphically portrayed in Dante’s vision of hell where a sign over the entrance bids one to “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” 

However, the more I have thought on this subject, the more I have also seen how perhaps love plays an even more important role.

In the quote with which I began this chapter, love is seen as the fruit of hope and faith and a life well-lived. In this case, the author was obviously thinking of love in the sense of charity, understood as the love of God and the love of neighbor commanded by both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. 

That some critics of religion today find the idea that love can be commanded at all, or even to be ridiculous, perhaps indicates the poverty of the English language more than the confusion such language is apt to cause.  It also probably explains why, as the Oxford scholar and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis explained, the Greeks had four different words to express quite different forms of love.

This is also the reason why, despite all this talk about human hope, and now love, that I decided, in the subtitle of this book, to use the word quest as more characteristic of the whole evolutionary process.  It is more characteristic of the dynamic struggle between eros—not just in its narrow sexual sense, which is only one aspect of the instinctual drive for life or existence—and death, which was one of the great themes of governing Freud’s view of human psychology. As it was expressed in Part VI of his 1927 book, Freud saw this conflict as operative in all forms of life and in the whole story of biological evolution. Understood this way, we can better grasp the role that both hope and faith play in human evolution.

Faith, as we shall eventually see, also has several different meanings, but in this case, what links it most closely to hope, on the one hand, and to love on the other, is the meaning of its Hebrew counterpart emunah, with its emphasis on God’s faithfulness and the New Testament emphasis on faith as a loving trust in God in return.

All this adds up to saying that to understand, even if merely on a  psychological level, the dynamics of faith, hope, and love, one must look at the last. Or as the French scientist, Pascal—of whom we will see much more later—said centuries ago, “The heart has reasons of its own” (Pensées, 227; 283-284)

       When all is said and done, the key to the quest for eternal life is not just wishful thinking about something  better—a kind of “pie in the sky when we die”.  Instead, it is one manifestation of a biological, even fundamental physical, force, the élan vital  about which  Bergson wrote so eloquently in his book on Creative Evolution, even if his mechanistic critics scoffed at his ideas.

       It could be that these critics had also failed to take into account the larger picture as well.  In that same footnote quoted (in Chap. 1 of this book) from Chapter 3 of his book, Bergson—speaking of the end of our own solar system—wrote, “Beside the worlds which are dying, there are without doubt worlds that are being born.”  True enough, but in the first half of the 20th century, neither Bergson, who won a Nobel Prize in 1927, nor his critics, could be expected to have a complete picture of the whole cosmos or universe. 

In fact, as we have just seen in the previous chapter, until Edwin Hubble’s observations with the then giant Hooker 100 inch telescope on Mt. Wilson were conducted during the years 1922-28, almost everyone thought that our galaxy, “The Milky Way” was the extent of the whole universe. Only a few more speculative characters, like the philosopher Immanuel Kant, had already, in 1755, suggested that some of these strange fuzzy clouds or “nebulas” might be other “island universes”.

Even though the Russian scientist Alexander Friedmann had already mathematically demonstrated, back in 1922, how Einstein’s equations logically led to an expanding, and then possibly collapsing, universe, and in 1927 the Belgian physicist and clergyman, Georges Lemaître, had begun to advance the idea of the universe expanding from a “primeval atom”, Einstein apparently was unaware of the first and ignored the latter. It was only after Hubble’s discoveries that many of the supposed nebulas were actually other galaxies, and later in that same decade, especially his measurements of their “red shifts” indicated that most of these other galaxies were racing away from our location in space, that our present understanding of this expansion became part of the generally accepted understanding of the universe. Even Einstein had to modify his own theory of General Relativity, which prior to that had a “cosmological constant” figured into it to account for the belief, which turned out to be mistaken, that the overall shape of the universe always had been and always will be the same—an idea that, according to his latest biographer, Einstein admitted later was “the biggest blunder he had ever made in his life” (Issacson, 2007, p. 356).

So was Freud, who died in 1939, or even Bergson, who died in 1941, aware of the implications of all of this for our understanding of our own place in the evolution of life and of the universe? If Freud was, apparently he decided to ignore it and confine himself strictly to what he believed were psychological phenomena within the human mind. Nor would it be surprising if he chose to ignore it, considering that some cosmologists, such as Fred Hoyle of Cambridge—who coined the phrase “The Big Bang” as a term of ridicule—were resisting the whole idea, even until the 1990s.

I have continued to stress this whole story of scientific advancement as an object lesson in how resistant we are so often to new ideas, particularly if they threaten our sense of meaning or, even more, our sense of self-worth.  This explains, perhaps more than any appeal to a literal understanding of the Bible, the opposition of churchmen centuries ago to the ideas of Copernicus and the discoveries of Galileo, which together effectively dethroned humanity from its imagined center stage place in the universe.  So too, the resistance to Darwin’s ideas, especially when his 1859 book on The Origin of Species led quite logically to his 1871 book on The Descent of Man. (One can only wonder: might not the reactions have been at least somewhat different had Darwin used the word ascent in the place of descent in the title of that latter work?)

In much the same way, I think we can also explain the psychological resistance to the idea of a universe that is, to all appearances, continuing to expand towards a state, if not quite of total nothingness, nevertheless will be unable to support life in any form that we know of. From this dilemma, the dreams of other universes or a “multiverse” are born, based mostly on mathematical flights of fancy more than on the basis of any hard scientifically testable evidence.

The reason for all this is quite easy to see. Once we have lost the hope for a future life for ourselves, we seek to find some hope for the lives of others for generations to come, if not for our own descendents, at least for the future of intelligent life somewhere else in the universe. And while there may well be such life on some far distant planet—indeed, I’m convinced that the odds in favor of this possibility are overwhelming—still, such life would also face the same cosmological limits that we do. So while such aspirations for lives or even other species other than our own are generous and noble, they are, I think, largely futile. They are, much like Freud’s opinion regarding religion, yet another example of “wishful thinking”.

Nevertheless, it is this aspiration or hope that leads us directly to the subject of the next chapter, where the knowledge of our evolutionary origins challenges ancient and cherished ideas about our nature as human beings and our hopes for the future.

 

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