And the second greatest of these is…
by Steve Douglas
November 21st, 2011 | 2 Comments
When people quote 1 Corinthians 13.13, “Now these three things remain: faith, hope, and love,” the odd man out is almost invariably hope.
Preachers and other exegetes tend to read too much into serialized lists like the one there at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, imagining that the things listed have been presented by the author in a super-humanly insightful, divinely inspired order of importance; then they tend to turn those suppositions into sermons or doctrines. I, in turn, tend to cast such speculations out as the fanciful effects of a too-mystical, Bible Code-esque view of Scripture.
But in this case, I really can imagine that the order of “faith, hope, and love” was intentional after all. Paul certainly identifies the most important member of the group, which happens to be the last listed and could imply that the list is in order of “great, greater, greatest”. This would mean that hope is next to love, and that faith, without which it is reportedly impossible to please God, is somehow not as “great” as hope. But could that be?
I don’t know if Paul meant to imply that. But as far as I’m concerned, hope is at least as important as faith — in one sense, maybe even “greater”.
Love is the basis of my faith and the object of my worship. Above all, it is in Love that I trust and in whose interests I seek to act – the biblical understanding of “faith”. I find a denial of the objectivity, universality, and absoluteness of love’s existence and importance wholly unsatisfactory to my observation and experience, and I worship the Judeo-Christian God insofar as I believe He is Himself love personified. I believe that it is love in which we live, move, and have our being. So my faith is in love, specifically the sort described by followers of Jesus since the first century.
But this doesn’t mean that hope is some strange third wheel: it’s where I live. My faith – what I seek to live by – is energized by my hope in love; in other words, faith is how I live, and hope is why I live that way. I abide in the hope that way, way down there, below all those turtles, is Love. And it is hope that keeps me believing and acting out my faith. My commitment to living out my devotion to the absolute values of love and goodness is energized by my hopeful expectation that this kind of life will not be for naught. It keeps me carrying on in the darkest days of doubt.
Unfortunately, our particular set of guiding beliefs and expectations is what most Evangelicals refer to as faith. A lack of certainty is seen as an enemy of faith. In removing the intrinsically unfulfilled aspect of hope from the equation, they are left with an understanding of faith as assumed certainty. But, as Paul once wrote, “Who hopes for what he already has?” We can live in anticipation, expectation, and even confidence of something without feigning certitude of it. It is those who force themselves to come to grips with the extremely tentative nature of our beliefs, ideals, and expectations who best understand the Christian hope and, as a result, faith.
Be that as it may, all the talk about the virtue of Christian doubt among the progressive/liberal sort of Christians, myself included, understandably leaves many cold — again, myself included. Even while affirming the necessity of healthy skepticism, I have been discouraged to see a rising preoccupation with doubt among many of my fellow sojourners: doubt has become the stereotypical post-Evangelical replacement for faith. Entire blogs have turned into doubt vs. faith zones, not necessarily because the authors really think that faith and doubt are opposites (although some probably do), but because in overcompensating for the problem of a steadfastly uninformed faith, they have forgotten that doubt is not its own recipe, but merely an ingredient of a greater virtue, that “sunnier side of doubt” to which Tennyson alluded: hope.
Doubt is not a substitute for faith: it’s a corrective measure for a faith characterized by artificial certitude. Doubt has no positive existence worth celebrating; it is a side effect of humility, which begins in discomfort, settles into euphoria, but usually leaves those dwelling in it too long feeling hungry for more certainty. A healthy skepticism says, “I’ll step lightly until I know this is true,” whereas the unhealthy form of it I see too much of these days says, “I’ll go around looking for things to debunk.” Although the widespread misunderstanding of “faith” as blind belief among Evangelicals is legitimately critiqued by a humble recognition of our fallibility and potential for self-delusion, this deficiency is not necessarily remedied by either a similarly conceited disbelief or a similarly blind default stance of skepticism. When certainty eludes us, we must avoid manufacturing it in any direction; I am suggesting we would do well to remember the under-appreciated virtue of hope.
My hope, more than my credulity, is in the Christian God. Do I believe in God, Jesus, the ethic of love articulated by my forbears in the Christian faith, etc.? In a sense, but primarily because I hope in them. Hope steers my faith, not the assumption of certainty that masquerades as “faith”. My theological speculations are an explanation of how I expect my hope to be realized by love’s final victory, and my faith is merely how I go about fulfilling my theology. My hope is that which I commit to build through my life of faith. It seems to me, then, that hope is closer to love than either one is to faith.
With the tendency to conflate a reasoned and conscious hope with the make-believe of those in stout denial of reality, many who have come down this road with me have decided that they are content to rest in disbelief, a ready shelter from the turmoil of doubt. To be sure, getting one’s head out of the clouds and finding the beauty where we are on the ground is a laudable task, and I will listen to what they teach me and respectfully wish them well; but hope calls me deeper.
Have you been half asleep
And have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name
Is this the sweet sound
That calls the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same
The moment we begin our exploration of the expanse beyond the turtle our world sits upon, we become like aliens. Faith is my commitment to step out of my capsule of unquestioned certainty and into that unknown world, knowing full well that what I inhale has every chance of being incompatible with my constitution. For after all, the air where I’m headed can hardly be any more unhealthy than the air I’m leaving behind. It’s either stay and suffocate while I try to convince myself to be satisfied in this world or dare to suppose that my difficulty in breathing here is due to the fact that, in Lewis’s words, “I was made for another world.” I will embrace even the faint opportunity to fill my lungs with a purer air so that I am more fit to offer something to this hurting world.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it
It’s something that I’m s’posed to be…
So in hope, my act of faith in a love still largely unrealized, I take a deep breath, and descend the ladder to place my foot on the back of the next turtle down…