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Ethics and Morality

Do We Need God to Have Hope?

Some religious people say that you can't have hope without God. Is this true?

Key points

  • Religious or not, we all need to be able to practice the virtue of hope, to move toward the good.
  • Iris Murdoch's "sovereignty of the good" offers a non-religious conception of hope.
  • If we don’t make a habit of moving toward the good, we may never discover whether the good is, in fact, God.

Pope Benedict XVI once said, “A world without God is a world without hope.” But is he correct? Do we need God to have hope?

Defining Hope

Let’s start with a classic (religious) conception of hope. The medieval intellectual giant Thomas Aquinas wrote that the virtue of hope leans on God’s help to obtain the future good of eternal happiness with God in Heaven, and since God’s very essence is goodness, final happiness comes from union with this infinite good. That’s a mouthful.

But if we break this down into its components, Aquinas’ virtue of hope could be said to require:

  1. God’s help, or divine grace
  2. An infinite good as its object
  3. Future fulfillment

The question then becomes whether we can find a satisfactory non-religious accounting of grace, the infinite good, and future fulfillment that can do the work of this theological virtue of hope.

The philosopher Iris Murdoch was interested in the possibility of an infinite good separate from religious notions of God. Let’s now consider how Murdoch might explain each of these three components of the virtue of hope using her non-religious concept of the sovereignty of the good.

Grace Can Precede and Follow Hope

First, in religious parlance, "grace" is often defined as unmerited favor, goodwill, or blessing. In her book The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch says that the “concept of grace can be readily secularized,” by which she means that we can expect to “receive a return when good is sincerely desired” that does not come from the divine. In contrast to Aquinas, who suggests that divine grace precedes the human ability to hope for the good, Murdoch seems to suggest that the orientation of human hearts toward the good results in grace as a sort of return on our investment in the good.

Although this grace is post hoc, I here suggest that there’s no reason to assume that the recipient of such post hoc grace can’t “pay it forward,” thereby facilitating the hope of another. For example, if a child witnesses the grace in her mother’s life as a result of her mother’s hope for the good, that child can build from that foundation of grace in her own hope for the infinite good. Murdoch’s notion of post hoc grace can thus become the grace that precedes another’s habit of hope.

The Infinite Good is Hope’s Object

Second, the virtue of hope requires the infinite good as its object. Murdoch says, “Good is the focus of attention when an intent to be virtuous coexists (as perhaps it almost always does) with some unclarity of vision.”

Although she does not here speak specifically of the virtue of hope, she is discussing the virtuous life more broadly—that is, the life oriented toward human happiness—and she ties it to an ill-defined future good. She anticipates that some might say,

"It makes sense to speak of loving God, a person, but very little sense to speak of loving Good, a concept. ‘Good’ even as a fiction is not likely to inspire, or even be comprehensible to, more than a small number of mystically minded people who, being reluctant to surrender ‘God,’ fake up ‘Good’ in his image, so as to preserve some kind of hope."

Murdoch says that she herself is half inclined to think in such terms. Yet, she continues to believe that “there is more than this,” and that some “very tiny spark of insight” is real. Although she says she refuses to believe that the Idea of the Good exists “as people used to think that God existed,” she nevertheless insists that “[t]he image of the Good as a transcendent magnetic centre seems… the least corruptible and most realistic picture for us to use in our reflections upon the moral life.” Murdoch’s infinite Good is not God, but it can indeed be the object of human longing and attention, and it can, she suggests, provide moral clarity.

Hope is Fulfilled in the Future

Third, the virtue of hope requires future fulfillment. Since futurity is neither theological nor secular, we need not flesh it out further. However, a metaphor from Murdoch helps to pull together the whole account of a secular virtue of hope.

Recall again the idea of habituating to hope for a future good that is arduous but possible to attain. This future good is infinite and poorly defined, but draws us toward it. Hope, then, can be understood as the habit of orienting time and time again toward that supreme good, recognizing that some sort of good grace will return to us even as we practice leaning in toward the good.

Murdoch says this is very much the action of the artist, who “is obedient to a conception of perfection to which his work is constantly related and re-related in what seems an external manner.” The artist works toward the ill-defined good that “lies always beyond, and it is from this beyond that it exercises its authority.” The artist has cultivated the virtue of hope that holds out for a future good that is elusive yet possible to attain.

Murdoch, born into a religious family, is never very convincing in her rejection of the possibility of God. But Murdoch’s Good—in contrast to Aquinas’ God—is not knowable. It’s very clearly not a god who invites his creatures into a relationship of eternal happiness. Still, Murdoch maintains that “there is a place both inside and outside religion for a sort of contemplation of the Good.” Hope for the Good is not a mere platitude. Rather, she says, it’s hope for “a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue.”

Religious or not, we all need to be able to practice the virtue of hope, to move toward the good, even if it takes hard work and even if it is difficult to attain. Anything less is to leave people to despair, which serves no one.

Whether the infinite good is ultimately unknowable remains to be determined by each of us in our communities. But one thing is nearly certain. If we don’t make a habit of moving toward the good, we may never discover whether the good is, in fact, God.

This piece derives from a longer published essay titled “The Virtue of Hope in the Face of Death.”

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