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NCC official says Pope Benedict’s
encyclical on Christian hope
New York, December 14, 2007 – The second encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), addresses important truths that will be affirmed by Christians in and outside the Roman Catholic Church, a National Council of Churches spokesperson said today.
Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, the NCC’s newly elected Senior Program Director for Faith & Order and Interfaith Relations, said the encyclical, based on Romans 8:24, “For in hope we were saved,” (NRSV), asserts that basic Christian beliefs have been obscured by modern developments, and that this situation has caused today's Christianity to forget the centrality of hope.
Benedict’s declaration that hope is based on our encounter with the living God in Jesus Christ has “significant implications” for contemporary Christians who may have lost their moorings, Kireopoulos suggested in a reflection on the encyclical.
“It means that God is with us in our suffering, even to the point of death,” he wrote. “It also means that, as Jesus was vindicated through the resurrection, we have hope in the same resurrection.”
Kireopoulos asserts thatall Christians should share the concern that modern Christianity, as Benedict sees it, “has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task.”
“This self-limitation is indeed a cause for concern among churches across the ecumenical spectrum,” Kireopoulos said. “We can therefore be thankful that the Pope has reminded us of the limitless nature of the hope that is within us.”
The full text of the Pope’s encyclical can be found here.
The full text of Kireopoulos’ reflection follows:
Pope Benedict XVI’s
On November 30, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical, Spe Salvi. On the importance of Christian hope, it seeks to answer the question, “What sort of hope could ever justify the statement, on the basis of that hope and simply because it exists, we are redeemed?” (par. 1). Intended as a teaching tool for the faithful of the Roman Catholic Church, this encyclical is to be warmly welcomed within the wider ecumenical community, both for addressing this critical topic as well as for raising urgent issues regarding Christian self-understanding.
The Pope bases his encyclical on this scripture: “For in hope we were saved” (Romans 8:24, NRSV). He defines Christian hope as a certainty of one’s future that is based on knowledge of God through the encounter with God in Christ. It is the kind of experience that, while in fact pointing to the future, more so determines how one lives one’s faith in the present. As he writes: “it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well” (par.2).
It bears emphasizing that this hope is based on the crucified and risen Christ. Because we believe the apostolic testimony that God raised Jesus from the dead, we also therefore believe that God was revealed in the cross. This has significant implications: it means that God is with us in our suffering, even to the point of death; it also means that, as Jesus was vindicated through the resurrection, we have hope in the same resurrection.
Based on this hope, Christians can live genuinely human lives: in relationship with God and one another in a way that transcends division, isolation, and death. His Holiness’ lament, and the reason for this encyclical, is that “We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God” (par. 3). The consequences of this forgetfulness, he rightly believes, are dire.
In some ways, Pope Benedict’s articulation of the problem recalls his frequent critiques of secularism. Here, he faults modernity’s faith in progress – scientific, political and economic – as that which caused this Christian amnesia. As a result of putting faith in progress, Christian faith – the substance of hope (par. 10) – has been relegated to the private sphere and therefore largely irrelevant outside the bounds of one’s personal experience. “This programmatic vision,” he writes, “has determined the trajectory of modern times and it also shapes the present-day crisis of faith which is essentially a crisis of Christian hope” (par. 17).
To someone who understands salvation, in line with the historic and living doctrines of the Church, to be communal as well as personal, this “crisis of Christian hope” demands “a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots” (par. 22). This need for self-reflection, constituting the first issue of urgency raised by this encyclical, has implications for prayer, proclamation, and witness. Ultimately, it means a move away from self-reference to openness to God, away from political liberation to transfigurative justice, away from escapism to compassion and consolation. While some readers might find these distinctions unhelpful, others will see in them a worthwhile attempt by the Pope to invest the deepest of human yearnings with the fullness of divine meaning.
A second matter of urgency has to do with understanding who Christians are as the Church. The change in one’s self-perception caused by hope – certainty in one’s future determining one’s present – means that the Church itself becomes the vehicle by which the world is transformed.
Drawing upon St. Paul, the Pope argues that baptism into Christ brings about a society’s change from within even as social structures remain unchanged. Again, this is due to one’s certainty in the future, but more so refers to that certainty’s effect on the present: “this does not mean for one moment that they live only for the future: present society is recognized by Christians as an exile; they belong to a new society which is the goal of their common pilgrimage and which is anticipated in the course of that pilgrimage” (par. 4). In considering accession to genuine Christian hope, the Pope in fact points to the sacrament of baptism: “[I]t is not just an act of socialization within the community, not simply a welcome into the Church. The parents expect more for the one to be baptized: they expect that faith, which includes the corporeal nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child – eternal life” (par. 10).
It is here that some Christian readers outside the Roman Catholic Church might feel uncomfortable, especially in light of last summer’s Vatican statement on the doctrine of the Church. That statement equated “the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church” while seeing the ecclesial nature of other churches on a sliding scale (“Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church”). Given this, the Pope would understandably believe that entry into the Roman Catholic Church (as compared to entry into another church) brings about a more perfect faith. Though it would be right at some point in time to pursue the implications of such a belief, such discomfort should yield now to consideration of his question as to whether or not the Church has remained steadfast as the locus of divine hope.
Here again, the communal nature of salvation comes into play. “‘[R]edemption’ appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers” (par. 14). This recalls the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order statement, “A Common Account of Hope” (1978), which calls the Church “a communion of hope,” and states: “To those who put their faith in [Christ], He gives a communion of hope, and He sends them as a sign of hope for all humanity. They share his own divine life, the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God whose own being is mirrored in all creaturely love. In the Christian community of faith, sharing in the confession of the apostles, gathered around God’s Word and partaking of the sacraments, we are given the power to share with each other. We can rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We can bear one another’s burdens. It is in this communion that we also learn to share one another’s hopes.”
A third urgent issue has to do with interfaith relations. Early in the encyclical, when outlining the importance of hope to the Christian community, Pope Benedict writes: “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” (par. 2). Citing Ephesians 2:12, and referring to those at that time who believed other gods and thus were “without God,” he finds the importance of Christian hope. In short: “To come to know God – the true God – means to receive hope” (par. 3).
Although His Holiness does not apply these statements to believers of other religions today, to avoid such a misapplication by some readers, one wishes he had included references to recent Catholic (and ecumenical) theological developments that affirm the working of God through the Spirit in other religions and cultures. (See, for example, Nostra Aetate: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.”) Without such references, some Christians inclined toward the denigration of other religions might read into his statements a justification for their own dismissiveness when it comes to their neighbors of other faiths. And if the message of Christian hope is to bring the eternal love of God into our everyday relationships with others, such a temptation to dismissiveness invites the neglect of this precept.
Nevertheless, the mention of other religions in this encyclical does invite a necessary consideration of how Christians approach interfaith relations. Oftentimes, Christians are the first in interfaith dialogue to be reticent in affirming their respective truth claims. Ultimately, this is not helpful, because it prevents an honest dialogue on theological differences. More to the point, however, is how such truth claims are expressed in dialogue with others. One of the greatest challenges today for Christians engaged in interfaith dialogue is discussing their own theological beliefs, or to give “an accounting for the hope that is in [them]” (1 Peter 3:15, NRSV), in a way that is neither triumphalistic nor dismissive of others’ beliefs.
Immediately before Paul states “for in hope we were saved,” he affirms the following: “I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18, NRSV). He can say this because of his experience of the crucified and risen Christ. This experience transformed Paul, who then sought to share it with others. It is an experience that, through those who have embraced the Gospel, is to be continually offered to the world.
Some forty years ago, in his seminal work, Theology of Hope, Jürgen Moltmann wrote: “[T]he hope of resurrection must bring about a new understanding of the world. This world is not the heaven of self-realization…This world is not the hell of self-estrangement…The glory of self-realization and the misery of self-estrangement alike arise from the hopelessness in a world of lost horizons. To disclose to it the horizon of the future of the crucified Christ is the task of the Christian Church.” Pope Benedict XVI writes in Spe Salvi that modern Christianity “has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task” (par. 25).
This self-limitation is indeed a cause for concern among churches across the ecumenical spectrum. We can therefore be thankful that the Pope has reminded us of the limitless nature of the hope that is within us.
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