Hope and Faith and Doubt

I discovered an essay titled “Hope” almost a month ago. I do not normally write in response to other people’s writing, and I am reluctant to even post this now, but the tone of the essay bothered me because it seemed to pit hope and faith against each. I agree with many of the statements in regards to faith, but many of the attributes assigned to hope are better suited to doubt. (What follows comes from an email I sent to the author.)

Faith does not struggle with hope. Faith is not tested or refined by hope. It is doubt. It is doubt that “scrutinizes faith, its object.” The object of hope is outward, upward, onward, forward. It is doubt that “doubts the vehicle of faith long before even looking at its content.” It is doubt that pursues “abstractions and test hypotheses offered by faith, offered on faith.” And it is doubt that whithers away at the plausibility of faith’s statements and weakens its ties to authority, to the past, and to the collective.

Faith must have a boundary upon which to form itself like the banks of a river, to resist and push against. Doubt, not hope, is this boundary. Doubt is the edge, the friction that shapes and sharpens faith. It is doubt that whittles away much of the content of faith until it is tested, purified like gold in the furnace. Doubt reminds faith that it cannot guarantee anything, and an honest faith learns and knows this. It is hope that pushes or pulls faith back into the struggle with doubt.

Hope, pure hope that is, has no “intellectual and intuitive content.” It just is. Hope has no past; it lives only in the now, in the present moment, and looks toward the future. As the original essay points out, the past is part of where faith draws its strength. It is hope that keeps faith alive when faith’s reliance on authority and the past dissolves from inconsistency and paradox.

At times, hope blazes bright as the noonday sun. At other times, hope is the tiny spark of light in a cave of total and complete darkness. Hope lights the path for the weak legs of faith to walk, often with barely enough light for the next step. And when there is no light for hope to lead by, it is the strength of faith that takes the next step into the darkness until hope is rekindled.

Yes, “hope is more difficult to maintain than faith.” And yes, hope would conclude that “only in suffering and anguish can anything authentic emerge.” But hope knows this is what helps purify itself and its friend faith.

Faith and doubt face each other in opposition. Faith and hope stand shoulder-to-shoulder together, as a team, looking onward, looking forward. Often faith wants to look back, and that is when doubt slaps faith in the face or causes faith to stumble. Hope reminds faith to keep looking forward. When doubt overshadows faith, hope lights the way for faith to see. When doubt overshadows hope, faith carries hope while rekindling its flame. Hope keeps faith alive and gives direction; faith rekindles hope when all seems lost.

Sören Kierkegaard wrote, “When a spider plunges from a fixed point to its consequences, it always sees before it an empty space where it can never set foot, no matter how it wriggles.” It is the combination of both faith and hope that sees into the empty space and lets the spider take the plunge. If the spider was either faithless or hopeless, it would be helpless.

My apologies if this response is not received with the charity and compassion it was intended. It is written by one who has been at one time hopeless, and at another time faithless.

Keep hope alive. Dare to move faith to trust.

P.S. For another perspective on faith and hope, I recommend Charles Péguy’s marvelous poem, “Master of the Three Virtues”.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him, that in the end, the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (p.901)