And now faith, hope, and love abide.
Paul ends a well known passage of Scripture with these words. He goes on to claim that the greatest is love, but the three taken together — faith, hope, and love — are known as the theological virtues. They are virtues that go above and beyond the classical virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, courage), derived not from the natural state of human life but from a developing relationship with the divine. Today, it would seem odd to call these virtues, and even more odd to call them theological, since does not hope (or love or faith) abide in cultural without the need for God? To begin to understand this, we must begin with time.
In the understanding of the ancients, time was cyclical. This arose out of the connection of the technology of time to the seasons, but also out of the creation myths of many cultures. There was always a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In this understanding of time, is there a way to understand hope? There is only inevitability. The Fates, for the Greeks, are above the gods. In order to understand hope, we must understand time differently. In the Greek world, all that was and all that ever would be was in some senses decided. Time was laid out already, and it would circle back around on itself.
Within this context, a new understanding of time emerged. Within Christianity, the understanding of the parousia of Christ, that is, his return, time was projected as linear. There was a beginning, there has been an entrance into time by the divine, and so there will be a return of the divine into history to bring an end to time and history. Eternity will then take place. Justice and righteousness will hold sway, and all accounts will be settled. This is the birth of hope, as a virtue. It is a witness to the faithfulness and righteousness of God, who will not defer the Kingdom forever, but it will be brought in full some day, and it is already being brought forth by the people of God. Hope is not merely an expectation; it is a virtuous activity.
Hope, as a virtue, is not merely a wish for escape, but a longing for justice and the completion of God’s Kingdom. It produces an activity of service, one of faith and love. Hope is the engine of change, and as a theological virtue, it is the engine of the Kingdom. This was how it was in the beginning of the Christian era, and as these ideas and concepts have been embedded into cultures, hope has become a general virtue; if not so much a virtue, then a mode of thought.
In all hoping, there is a trace of the expectation of something apocalyptic, something that enters into time and changes how it is structured, changes society, history. This has been birthed by Christianity. It is something beyond it now, but hope in the deepest sense still communicates something of the divine. It is still, in mysterious ways, a theological virtue.