Faith, Hope and Love.
Saint Paul wrote about these over and over, perhaps most famously in 1 Corinthians 13: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three:” (1 Cor. 13:13 RSV.) Do Christians really understand what it means to treat these things as virtues, as things to practice and live by? I’m afraid many would consider “faith” to be merely the Christian faith, and “hope” in the sense that, “I sure hope this is all true!” As for “love,” well, just exactly how are we supposed to love those people we don’t even like?
In his great book, “On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis,” Professor Louis Markos goes over these and more in the section titled “The Theological Virtues.” He also gives us a bonus by adding “friendship” to the mix. At first I wasn’t sure about this being a theological virtue, but now I think I may understand and I’ll try to explain further along.
Louis Markos is an English professor, so he views faith and hope, like the other virtues, through the lens of literature. More generally he analyzes them via the form of story. Given that the biblical message of salvation is told in a series of stories, this makes perfect sense. Faith and hope are well suited to this format and what better stories to frame them in than the tales of Tolkien and Lewis?
First off, we must understand that faith and hope go together. As Markos quotes from Hebrews, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for. . . ” (11:1.) One needs the other to be fully understood and to work the way they were meant to. Together.
In The Lord of the Rings, the characters and events are driven forward toward some unknown but grand conclusion, as is the case in most of the great stories of literature. Here, the quest is to deliver the One Ring to Mordor and destroy it in Mount Doom. This quest has been foretold in ancient prophecy which most of the main players are aware of. Yet they are not certain of the exact outcome nor the circumstances that will lead to it, only that the prophecy promises a resolution. So the Fellowship moves ahead, trusting in the promise and believing the resolution will be just. Except for poor Boromir, who never had full faith in the promise. He tries to take matters into his own hands, with disastrous consequences.
Markos rightly points out that faith is more than just a virtue; it is a way of looking at the world that allows us to live with assurance and confidence. When faith is lived, we can see that the world is actually a place full of meaning and that there is an active providence that guides events according to a transcendent plan we can only glimpse. To live in faith is to trust that the universe has meaning and purpose. That today’s world has lost this view of life is undoubtedly behind many of the problems we face.
If faith is the way to look at this universe, hope is what we are looking toward. It is the Happy Ending that we look forward to even though we may not see the way to it clearly. Markos likens it to a term Tolkien coined in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories.” The eucatastrophe is “the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’.” To live in hope is to live in expectation of this joyous turn even if the circumstances are less than promising.
Next comes love and love is the greatest of the three theological virtues. Just ask St. Paul. I was so happy to see professor Markos use the word charity, from the Latin “caritas,” to describe how love is used by Paul in the famous love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. Charity is the word used in the King James Bible, and is a fitting translation of the Greek agape. Unfortunately, many Christians, including some theologians, think of love as that warm fuzzy feeling accompanied by Disney animated birds flying around one’s head. Nope. The love Paul speaks of is more an act of will than an emotion. It involves self-sacrifice and a “movement out of narcissism,” as Markos puts it. He rightly describes it as the most active of the three virtues. Faith and hope can change a person, but love can change a person and the world around them.
It is this agape love that plays the central role in true friendship and lifts it to the level of a virtue. Indeed, real friendship acts as a model of this love and helps us learn to apply it. There are so many things to say about this that I am going to do a separate post on the theological “virtue” of friendship. Markos has hit on something important here and I want to do it justice. Until then, think about your important friendships and how they reflect what love should be.