Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 13th May 2012
13 May 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
Can a dog be an optimist? (or for that matter a pessimist?) Can a dog hope? The philosopher Wittgenstein seemed to think not, because hope requires a sort of thinking which can frame language and concepts like ‘past’ and ‘future’, a capacity animals do not have. He may be right. I don’t know. I wouldn’t presume to know what my dog can and cannot imagine about the future. But whether or not it is a canine capacity, there is no doubt that we have it: we do imagine a future, we do hope, in fact we almost always hope - even against all odds. Hope is so core to our life that it sometimes seems like a definition of human life itself: ‘hope is my soul, the very breath of my life’, said an ancient Greek poet. And when a more recent poet, TS Eliot, in a fit of Lenten austerity, demands that we ‘wait without hope because hope would be hope of the wrong thing’, he is asking a hard thing, almost impossible: hope is a vital condition of being human, and a vital virtue.
It is very like faith, for hope and faith are close cousins. Both involve trust in something that we cannot yet see or know for sure – at least not in the same way that we can see or know some other things. Both are core human dispositions (for just as we all live by hope, so too we almost all live by faith: faith in something, or someone, even if not God). And both are usually considered to be virtues. They are certainly reckoned as Christian virtues: they are both part of that celebrated trio of the greatest Christian gifts and virtues: faith, hope and love – the theme of this series of sermons at Matins in May. Last week I looked at love, in particular love as fidelity. This morning I want to say more about hope and faith.
Hope, first. What really is Christian hope? It’s not just having an optimistic temperament by nature, just being by nature a glass-half-full rather than glass-half-empty sort of person. It’s not just a quirk of our temperament, something which affects the top of our mind or the froth of our feelings: it’s a response to something outside us, which enters into us to shape our whole being. It is a deep disposition of the soul, not just a capacity of the mind. It goes beyond merely holding a conviction about, say, progress in life: it’s not simply a belief that all will automatically always get better (in fact neither scripture, history, nor experience, give any assurance of that sort of progress anyway). Christian hope goes much deeper than that. It is the instinct of a more profound truth: namely, that whatever the future in this life holds, that future is not just of our making, nor is it just the future made by blind forces of nature, or chaos: it is also of God’s making. It is the conviction that, somehow, whatever raw material we, or others, or nature, or chance, throw into the uncertain melting pot of the future, God is always able to accommodate it, has power to shape and redeem it and, ultimately, to make that future our home. So it is the conviction that, through God, whatever the future holds, we are always in fact on a journey home, and to a good home.
This longing for home is something all humanity shares, whether Christian or not, whether we are satisfied in this life or not. I see it everywhere, said writer Penelope Fitzgerald in her autobiography: on the faces of both the privileged and the dispossessed and displaced; even on the haunted faces of children who have never had a home. Like the longing for love, the longing for home can be felt even by those who’ve never experienced it. What Christian hope does is to take this universal human longing, and tells us that it will be satisfied: tells us that because the future is God’s, there is a real source and goal to this longing in us; tells us, in the words of the epistle to the Hebrews, that there really is a better country ahead of us. It is, then, a teleology of the soul far deeper and more resilient than even the most powerful instincts of biology and evolution (something indeed that even the most cheerful dog may not really have!). It’s something Plato hinted at centuries before Christ, but which Christianity can celebrate so much more solidly, because it grounds it in Christ and God. And its fruit is obvious: it invigorates us, keeps us pressing forward, prevents despair and fatalism; prevents the crippling cynicism which comes from no longer believing there is any ultimate goodness. Christian hope simply does not permit that - for it has heard this goodness calling us, calling us home…
And faith? Faith tracks hope every step of the way, but goes just one crucial step deeper. For faith is not only hope in a future state of affairs; faith is also trust in a person whom, in some sense, we have already met – the person of Christ. Hope, for all its resilience, still lacks some assurance, for it still has to defer wholly to the future. But faith, faith in a person already met and known, as Hebrews says, is ‘the assurance of things hoped for’. And though such assurance still does not mean intellectual certainty, or proof of its beliefs, although it can be held alongside doubt, it is nonetheless persuasive and compelling, an even more real and reliable disposition of the soul than hope. For - I repeat - it is not just trust in the call to a future homeland, it is experience of that home now.
How do we find such Christian hope and faith? By praying for them; by immersing ourselves in the great founding stories of faith in scripture; simply by being willing to receive them, and live by them. Love, too, is a way of finding hope and faith - just as hope and faith in turn often lead to love. Not surprisingly - for this great trio of faith, hope, and love, belong inextricably together: three of the greatest dispositions for human living; together they set a unique course for life - and a sure route home.