Saturday, August 4, 2012

That Was Then, This Is Now

“Hope” is a key word in Biblical faith—so much so that in several passages the words “faith” and “hope” seem interchangeable. Thus the Letter to the Hebrews closely links the “fullness of faith” (10:22) to “the confession of our hope without wavering” (10:23). Likewise, when the First Letter of Peter exhorts Christians to be always ready to give an answer concerning the logos—the meaning and the reason—of their hope (cf. 3:15), “hope” is equivalent to “faith”.

We see how decisively the self-understanding of the early Christians was shaped by their having received the gift of a trustworthy hope, when we compare the Christian life with life prior to faith, or with the situation of the followers of other religions. Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future. In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus (How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing): so says an epitaph of that period. In this phrase we see in no uncertain terms the point Paul was making.
Spe Salvi 2

Reflection – It is significant that the last thing we know about the pagan world of antiquity is that it willingly sought baptism. The myth that Christianity was forced at the point of the sword on an unwilling populace is unhistorical, at least in this period.

Paganism was insufficient. The gods, and the myths surrounding them, had clearly lapsed into ahistorical unreality; the consolation of philosophy was available only to a small elite, and even for them was hard-won and tenuous. Christianity, its claims firmly rooted in history, time, place and filled with all the vibrancy and enthusiasm of an entirely new thing in the world, was profoundly attractive.

And the pagan world was attracted. And they came for baptism, by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions. Over a period of some centuries, for most of which time the Church had little or no political power, the pagan world became steadily, increasingly Christian. I’m no expert in history, but offhand I can’t think of a parallel to this kind of religious transformation of a civilization over a relatively short span of time. No matter what your opinion of it might be—was it the bringing of the good news to the nations or a tragic descent into superstitious darkness and obscurantism—it happened, and it happened in an extraordinary way.

Well, that was then, this is now. Christianity does indeed seem to have meant ‘hope’ for a decadent paganism. It does seem to have brought a vitality and energy, a historical validity and a universal appeal to the world of late antiquity. What about now? People have abandoned Christianity in such vast numbers, either for nothing at all or for an eclectic mélange of neo-paganism and New Age practices. Religion for so many people is a dirty word. What is the message of hope the battered old Church, no longer quite so new and vibrant, brings to the year 2012?

This is a question of some urgency. I would suggest that this cannot be a question left to the Pope, the bishops, the pastors alone. The question really is – do you have a logos for your hope? Does your faith bring you hope, and if so, why?

We need to dig into the depths of our Christianity for this, and it really is a matter of some importance to do so. The world truly thinks (largely) that Christianity has been basically discredited and that we are all better off living without religion. This is the essential view of secularism.

But I believe many people are, in fact, living ‘without God and without hope’ in the world today, or with species of hope that are so unreal and fragile that a stiff wind can destroy them. Do we have something better to offer them? Do we believe it ourselves? On the answer to those questions lies much of the success or failure of the New Evangelization today. And, I repeat, it is not so much a matter of the pope, the bishops, the pastors. It is you and me and the real hope we bear in our heart, and our ability to bear witness, to give the reason for that hope to those who are seeking for it.