St. Paul famously tells the Corinthians that there are “three things that last: faith, hope, and love.” At this Pauline prompt, the Christian tradition has identified these three as the “theological” virtues, meaning those features that come as a unique gift and (from?) God and that serve as the structuring elements of a properly spiritual life. They are also today massively misunderstood, and this misunderstanding has, I would contend, contributed mightily to the dismissing of religion in many circles of our increasingly secularist society.
The theological virtue that causes the most trouble is faith. This is because, in our culture besotted with the physical sciences, faith is construed as simple-mindedness, credulity, and superstition, a poor pre-scientific substitute for real knowledge. As I have often argued often before, authentic faith does not lie on the near side of reason; it doesn't fall short of reason’s demands or lurk in a subrational or irrational darkness. Rather, real faith is a surrendering on the far side of reason, a leap into darkness to be sure, but a darkness beyond, not prior to, the illumination of the sciences and philosophy. This implies, of course, that the person of real faith reverences reason in all of its forms and refuses to accept the myth of a “war” between religion and science. Moreover, scientists who are religious believers as well—think of Georges Lem Maitre, or George Coyne, or Stanley Jaki, or John Polkinghorne—readily accept the fact that reason is surrounded on all sides by something akin to faith. No scientist could get her work off the ground unless she accepted on faith the proposition that the world in its entirety is intelligible; and she couldn't move forward with her projects unless she accepted, without personal verification, the findings, research, and experiments of thousands of others; and she couldn’t bring her studies to fulfillment unless she conceived of an intellectual goal that was not entirely available to her rational gaze. Therefore, the theological virtue of faith involves absolutely no sacrifice of the intellect.
In the wake of an event such as the Newtown tragedy or the Christmas tsunami of 2004, many will wonder how Christians can possibly exercise the virtue of hope. The deaths of innocents at the hand of a madman or of hundreds of thousands through natural disaster would seem to preclude the possibility of hoping in a loving God who actively cares for the world that he has made. But hope, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, has little to do with conventional optimism. The person of authentic hope is not compelled to hold that suffering, tragedy, conflict, and the deaths of innocent people will simply disappear through the intervention of God. Take a good hard look at the Bible. Every page of the Scriptures was written by someone who believed passionately in God, yet the Bible is filled with accounts of tragedies and disasters of all stripes: rape, murder, genocide, military collapse, political distress, etc. Jeremiah hoped in the Lord, and he watched the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians; David hoped in Yahweh, even as he was relentlessly pursued by Saul; Paul hoped in God, and he himself was mocked, tortured, and finally put to death. An optimist might think that God’s existence is irreconcilable with evil, but a person of hope never assents to such a naïve proposition. To hope, in the theological sense, is to know that God finally is the sovereign master of the universe and hence that the drama of both nature and history is, at the end of the day and despite all darkness, a divine comedy. When the great English mystic Juliana of Norwich said, “All will be well, all manner of things will be well,” she was not chirping optimistically about the disappearance of evil; she was exhibiting hope that God’s triumph is assured.
The third theological virtue is love, and like its counterparts, it too is often flattened out and trivialized. For many, to love is equivalent to being a nice guy, or in Flannery O’Connor’s formulation, “having a heart of gold.” In his great autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton remembered a professor of his in England who said that love was, essentially, “being a gentleman.”
Now there is nothing in the world wrong with being a nice guy or having a heart of gold or being a gentlemen, but you can easily achieve all three of those states and not have love. For love is not really about fitting in and being friendly and getting along; it is willing the good of the other as other. It is truly wanting what is best for another person and then concretely doing something about it. And this means that real love can be as tough as nails or as disagreeable as a slap in the face, indeed, in Dostoevsky’s phrase, something “harsh and dreadful.” Compelling an addict to get help, or questioning a dysfunctional style of life, or calling someone to real conversion all involve the willing of the good of the other—and none will cause people to characterize you as a nice guy. This is why, by the way, the God who is love is not a kindly Santa Claus who magically makes troubles disappear.
There are indeed three things that last: faith, hope, and love. A robust Christianity revolves around them. But we must be careful lest those terms lose their bite.