September 4, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Without God, we are a people without hope

Our modern age often proclaims the false hopes of politics, science and technology.

“Spe salvi facti sumus” is the way that Pope Benedict XVI begins his 2007 encyclical letter on hope. It is a quote from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and likewise to us, which means “in hope, we were saved” (Rom 8:24). For St. Paul, there is only one hope that saves, and that is hope in Christ.

Halfway through his encyclical, Pope Benedict summarizes our Church’s teaching on the theological virtue of hope: “Let us put it very simply,” the Holy Father writes, “Man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope” (“Spe Salvi,” #23).

This simple truth should be the banner headline of every newspaper. It should be streamed at the bottom of every television news program, and it should be an icon that is prominently displayed on every Internet Web site that claims to lead us to the truth of things. Without God, there is no hope.

We need to be reminded that God is the only authentic source of hope for us. In spite of the fact that human history chronicles all the ways that men and women have vainly searched for hope without God, we still follow the false leads of politics, science and technology.

We are still encouraged to think that happiness, peace and love can be found without reference to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. And we are still enticed to build a City of Man that we are to believe will be just as good as the City of God.

That way is a dead end. It leads to profound unhappiness, to cruelty and to despair. Consider the attempts that have been made during the past 200 years to create a perfect society by means of political upheaval, unfettered economic growth and the development of technological wonders. Good things have resulted, but evils have also been unleashed.

In “Spe Salvi,” Pope Benedict poses the question, “What does progress really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise?” The Holy Father continues, “We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth

[cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16], then it is not progress at all but a threat for man and for the world” (“Spe Salvi,” #22).

The pope reminds us that in the modern era humanity’s belief in progress has been tied to two fundamental concepts: reason and freedom.

Both concepts can be seen as essentially linked to our Christian understanding of the way God created us in his image and likeness, and endowed us with intelligence and free will. But when reason and freedom are divorced from God’s plan, they can become instruments of evil, “not ushering in a perfect world but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction” (“Spe Salvi,” #21).

The world witnessed this in the rise and fall of communism. Pope Benedict tells us that Karl Marx, the architect of communist theory, forgot that without God’s grace human freedom remains also freedom for evil.

Marx assumed that “once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right.” This is the false hope of materialism. As the pope teaches, “Man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favorable economic environment” (“Spe Salvi,” #21).

This should sound uncomfortably familiar to us today. We, too, have been guilty of the false hope of materialism, of believing that the solution to all our problems is simply to create a favorable economic environment.

But we have discovered that this way is also a dead end. As the Lord said in response to the devil’s temptation, “Man does not live on bread alone” (Lk 4:4). Hope lies not in material things, but in the grace of Christ.

Freedom and reason are gifts from God that must be used wisely in accordance with God’s plan. They are the tools we have been given to build up the kingdom of God. Without God, these powerful gifts become instruments of evil.

We have given in to the false hopes of our modern age. Too often, we place our hope in political figures, in scientists and in those who continually discover new forms of technology. When we do, we are disappointed.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, St. Paul wrote that without God we are alienated from one another and strangers to the truth, a people without hope. “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have become near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13). †

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