In his recent book, The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology, Vincent Lloyd boldy argues that hope is not a theopolitical virtue.1 More boldly, he argues that it is not a theological virtue, and further, that hope is not a virtue at all. Lloyd’s claim is controversial, and predictably creates anxiety in the hearts of orthodox Christians who have long cherished the three-part harmony of faith, hope, and love—the theological virtues. To destroy or negate the significance of any one of these integral virtues is tantamount to the whole account falling apart. For Lloyd, however, this perfect picture of the harmony between faith, hope, and love, is an ancient myth that contributes to its own destruction. Hope is not a virtue, and insofar as it remains within the classical triad of theological virtues, it denigrates the true unity of faith and love, which Lloyd calls the “diptych of theopolitical virtues.”2 The negative purpose of this paper is to systematically disagree with Lloyd’s dismissal of hope as a theopolitical virtue. Constructively, I intend to reconfigure hope in order to reclaim it from its secular appropriation and its failed or incomplete theological articulations. My argument hinges on an agreement with Lloyd that something is fundamentally distorted with the way hope has been, and is being, conceived politically. The locus of this reconfiguration, however, is not an attempt to redefine hope in some fashion counter to Christian metaphysics (as Lloyd does with his account of Gillian Rose) but to reconfigure a particular mode of hope as the necessary or faithful conclusion of a proper Christian metaphysic.
This essay is divided into three respective sections. The first deals with Lloyd’s treatment of hope with the intention of highlighting its strengths and shortcomings. From that point, I will provide a basic reconstruction of the theological virtues, and in particular, the classical conception of the role of hope. Contingent upon the conclusion of the first section that hope is a virtue of, or in, temporality, section two is an attempt to buttress that definition with the metaphysics and cosmology of temporality as such. By drawing from the work of the Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor, I will argue that hope’s proper teleological object of redemption is not radically displaced from the present creation, but is always and at every moment intertwined with God’s continual and providential act of creation. The last section, expanding on the conclusions of the first two, will bridge Maximus’s insight with the realm of the theopolitical, arguing that Maximus provides the metaphysical substance for hope to be redefined as a necessary virtue for intelligible political action. Drawing on the work of Rowan Williams, I will argue that: 1) theopolitical hope reimagines the present political task as radically stretched between past, present, future, and eternity, by situating itself self-critically within the divine cosmological and historical order; and 2) the hopeful orientation towards the perfection of creation necessitates our participation in that ongoing work in each moment. The Church, standing as a parable for God’s active redemptive work in creation, is the primary witness and bearer of these dual commitments as the place in which we, as Christians, truly receive and participate in who we are.
Before moving to the positive task of the paper (to reconfigure hope as a theopolitical virtue) Lloyd’s account and dismissal of hope must be properly analyzed. The problem with Lloyd’s dismissal of hope is not the dismissal as such, but rather, the definition of hope that leads to the dismissal. Hope is, for Lloyd, quite simply the orientation of one towards some future object, either within or outside of time. Like melancholoia’s projection of a lost object into the past, hope projects a lost, or presently unattainable, object into the future.3 In this process of projecting an object into the past or future, the past and future are ontologically reified at the expense of the now, or what Lloyd calls the ordinary. The exact nature of the ordinary is not the focus here, but it can be simply understood as the location of the political. Politics, in Lloyd’s view, is the precarious and tragic navigation between norms—what we ought to do—and practices—what we do.4 The problem with hope, then, is that it defers the difficulty of politics and the ordinary onto some certain and secure object in the future. By directing one’s teleological attention towards an object in the future, the present is “enchanted” and the tragedy of political life (the ordinary) can be dismissed.5 Lloyd’s hope is optimistic, unequivocal, distracting, free from tragedy, and free from law. And if virtue is constructed as practices which allow one to habitually navigate the ordinary, hope is a mere rhetorical tool that denies the very task of life.
One main target of Lloyd’s attack is the pragmatist and postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty, a secular practitioner and proponent of hope, as particularly manifest in his popular book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America.6 But Lloyd also extends his argument to the nature of hope as articulated in Augustine and Aquinas, as well as the Messianic and Exodus-based theological formulations. One clear problem in Lloyd’s argument is his re-definition of virtue as such. He manifestly departs from the classic conception of the theological virtues as habits which dispose one towards God. In contrast, he gives a definition of virtue with no theological root as a habit that forms one to navigate norms and practices (the political). This is already a vague and potentially shaky foundation on which to build the virtues, and thus his account of faith as the perseverance through the tragedy of the ordinary is general enough that it subsumes the best accounts of hope as faith with a different name. In other words, when hope is at its best, it is faith.
By contesting Lloyd’s reconfiguration of virtue, the intention is not to completely depart from Lloyd’s criteria, but to step aside from his conceptual apparatus to reclaim the nuanced linguistic and conceptual home of hope. It will be important to demonstrate that Lloyd is not only wrong about hope from a reconfigured account of the theological virtues, but that he is also wrong based on his own criteria. In other words, while Lloyd provides an insufficient account of the virtues and equivocates the definition of faith, the downfall of his project is his definition and understanding of hope as such.
Virtues are habits that dispose us towards a particular end. The end of a particular virtue may be relative, but generally speaking, virtues are ordered towards what is good. For Aristotle, the final end of virtue was happiness; for Aquinas, drawing on Aristotle, the final end of virtue was union with God. A theological virtue, however, is not just a virtue that disposes us towards God, but is a virtue produced or infused in us by God.7 Traditionally, a level of interdependence has been emphasized between the theological virtues. In the work of St. John of the Cross, for example, each theological virtue was associated with a particular mental faculty: faith being a virtue of understanding/intellect, hope a virtue of memory, and love/charity a virtue of the will.8 As Rowan Williams has put it, the unity of these three virtues and faculties creates “a perfect picture of where we start and where we finish. . . To grow up as a Christian is to take that journey from understanding, into faith, from memory into hope and from will into love.”9 Particularly interesting here is hope’s association with memory. After dealing with Lloyd’s account of hope, we might expect that hope is precisely the opposite of memory. What, then, is meant by hope’s association with memory, especially if hope is supposedly a virtue of future confidence?
Simply, hope is not primarily a virtue concerned with the future. Hope’s domain, so to speak, is temporality as such, and in particular its relation to eternity. This means that hope is not about any specific time—future, past, or present—at the expense of another, but the proper navigation between the temporal and the eternal. As Williams has delightfully put it, “hope is not just a confidence that there is a future for us, it’s also a confidence that there’s a continuity so that the future is related to the same truth and living reality as the past and the present.”10 If we take seriously Williams’s claim that hope is “hope in relation,” we may begin to see that any account of hope which pits temporal modes against each other cannot properly be called hope.11 Hope is a virtue that holds together the temporal modes of past, present, future, and eternity.
To add another aspect to the conversation, to live with hope or to be hopeful is not just to situate oneself in this vast and interdependent temporal landscape, but, in James Alison’s words, to be “stretched” by it.12 The temporal stretching of the human in hope, like the potter’s hand shaping the spinning clay, forms us into who we are. Hope is the temporal stretching of our self which allows us to receive who we are from God, the one who makes intelligible and reveals himself in creation’s past, present, and future. As Alison writes, “hope is how God’s narrative comes to be lived out in our lives as a stable human reality. It is how, if you like, God, who is without time, befriends the human narrative structured by time.”13 Put succinctly, hope names a form of the divine convergence of eternity and time.
In Lloyd’s argument against hope, he draws on Gillian Rose to claim that hope, as classically understood, is the choice of eternity over time. It is to devote oneself to the redemption of some eternal order that will rescue us from the insecurities of temporal living: “Eternity offers an alternative to time, where time is understood (counter-intuitively) as stasis. For Rose, eternity is present in the freedom made possible by faith.”14 This leads to Lloyd’s conclusion that “to believe in eternity means to refuse both hope and melancholia.”15 To believe in eternity, for Lloyd, is to believe in the now, the ordinary, and the theopolitical. Paradoxically, we have seen that in the articulation of hope by St John of the Cross, Rowan Williams, and James Alison, hope’s object in eternity comes not at the expense of time, or at the expense of the present, but at the holding together of temporality (past, present, future) in God. These authors, I suggest, want to join Rose in calling for every moment to be understood as, or in, eternity, and yet this commitment is exactly what won’t let them reify the “now” ontologically. In Lloyd’s inability to take the past and future seriously, he ends up making the same mistake as secular hope and melancholia—he reifies one particular temporal mode at the expense of another. Instead of dismissing past and future as dangers for distracting from the “now,” Williams and Alison affirm that the past and future are necessarily contained in the present, which is, in turn, contained in eternity. In structuring the present with the receiving of the “not yet” and the narration of the past, “only the present exists. It is hope that empowers memory to enable us to live with a rich present, for that rich present is the only access we have to God.”16 The present is all there is, and thus this present is eternity, but this eternity is not the reification of the “now” over against the past and future, but the present’s formation by it.
Time and Eternity; Creation and Redemption
For the Word of God and God wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment. – St. Maximus the Confessor.17
Hope is a virtue that relies structurally on the relation between the temporal and the eternal, between time and eternity. To avoid ambiguities and confusions, it is necessary to properly analyze this relation within the context of Christian metaphysics. As we have seen, Lloyd critiques hope because it is plagued by a rhetoric that privileges eternity over time, in some cases going far enough to defer responsibility for the present altogether. On the contrary, Alison, Williams, and St John of the Cross have proposed conceptions of hope that don’t place temporal modes into an irreducible conflict, but rather, place them in a fundamental, yet stretched, unity. One of the factors in this difference between Lloyd and Williams/Alison is their distinct conception of what hope really is, but I want to suggest that the underlying problem is the differing conceptualization of time in relation to eternity. Therefore, the task is to explore a specifically theological account of time in order to more clearly articulate the temporal role of hope as a virtue that is stretched or suspended between time and eternity.
While it is true that hope is not about the future, or merely directed towards it, the object of its gaze, as it were, is in the future and perfect redemption of creation. Importantly, however, the object of redemption is, for the 7th century Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor, not simply some future and far off event, as we may be tempted to think. When conceptualizing the history or temporality of the cosmos, the implicit or mainstream tendency is to think of theological events as compartmentalized irruptions. Creation, we may say, was an arbitrary action. Incarnation was the decision of God to become man. Redemption is the final act of God whereby faithful humans are saved from their fallen state. For Maximus and the orthodox tradition, however, incarnation or embodiment have always been essential to God’s act of creation. In a recent doctoral thesis, for example, it has been argued that, for Maximus, creation is incarnation (in that the logic of God-become-man is the very same logic that animates creation).18 Against the assumption that creation was a blind act intelligible in itself, Maximus cosmologically reconnects primordial creation and historical incarnation, following the orthodox conception of the incarnate Jesus as pre-existent with God. If the incarnate Word is pre-existent with God, the separation between creation and incarnation as separate acts would disrupt God’s providential order. As Paul M. Blowers has put it in summarizing Maximus, “the primeval act of creation is not simply the temporal beginning of the divine oikonomia but even more basically a staging point on the way to revealing the fullness of the Word and Wisdom of God, Jesus Christ.”19
In Ad Thalassium 22, Maximus makes a key distinction in time between two ages: the age of incarnation, and the age of deification.20 Or in other words, the age of creation and the age of redemption. The former has already come upon us and reached its end, so to speak, in the historical incarnation of Christ. The latter is upon us in potentiality but not yet in actuality.21 Importantly, however, this age to come is not some future event in the chronological sense, but is always and simultaneously realized: “there is an overlap between history and eternity.”22 In this sense the division in the first place is superfluous (but helpful for epistemological reasons), because “the incarnation of Christ, far from putting a chronological end to a series of ages that are now destined simply to give way to a new series, is the final goal of the totality of time.”23 In Maximus’s own words, “since our Lord Jesus Christ is the beginning, middle, and end of all the ages, past and future, [it would be fair to say that] the end of the ages—specifically that end which will actually come about by grace for the deification of those who are worthy—has come upon us in potency through faith.”24
Thus the finale of the historical incarnation/embodiment is not really a finale,
for the age of divine embodiment began at creation and continues even after Christ’s advent since the Creator is always working to deify the creation until the final consummation of the world. The ages of deification, moreover, cannot be relegated purely to a trans-temporal eternity since deification has been the operative goal of divine embodiment and creativity from the beginning.25
In other words, the age of incarnation and creation cannot be merely reduced to the temporal (the beginning and middle of the ages), and the age of deification and redemption cannot be reduced to the eternal (the end of the ages). Incarnation and deification are always already intertwined, and thus, creation and redemption (salvation) are always already interdependent. This then suggests a fundamental unity between time and eternity, between the historical situatedness of temporal beings, and the cosmological realization of the eschaton which is, for Maximus, interdependent with creation.
We have, in Maximus, no bifurcating force between the act of creation (which again cannot be understood merely as a blind act, but a continuing providential action of creation) and the act of redemption. To again borrow the words of Blowers:
creation and salvation are ongoing, seamlessly interconnected aspects of the single divine initiative, or ‘energeia’, God’s urge to share his glory with an ‘other.’ Embodiment, in turn, is the Creator’s primary strategy to preserve, renew, and transfigure that created other, drawing it into the ever more intimate communion with himself that is deification.26
If the object of hope, then, can properly be called the perfection of creation in salvation or deification, Maximus makes manifest the sense in which that object cannot be abstracted or separated from the cosmological order of all of creation, history, and time.
Political Theology: Intelligible Action as Hopeful Action
To return to the task of reclaiming hope as a theopolitical virtue, the challenge ahead is to weave the thread of Maxmius’s metaphysics into the logic of political theology. First, however, the function or definition of political theology needs to be clarified. My criteria for what constitutes political theology will not be Lloyd’s conception of political theology as navigating norms and practices (the ordinary), but a definition of political theology as influenced by another, yet clearly differing, interpreter of Gillian Rose—Rowan Williams. Williams, like Lloyd, refuses to define political theology in the classical sense as inherited by Carl Schmidt—the application or transfer of theological concepts onto political realities, or vice versa.27 Instead, political theology is framed as a performative discourse of intelligible action. Intelligible action is positioned against a different conception of action, particularly any political theory or theology that’s emphasis is on the power of one voluntary will—or a collection of wills—against another. Harkening back to a logic of “might makes right” espoused by Thrasymacus in Plato’s Republic, this conception of political action presupposes that the end of political action is success or effectiveness.28
What makes such a theory—if it can even be called a theory—tenable is a very particular understanding of history as it relates to the “now”. This attitude towards the “now” could be described as a reification of the truthfulness or finality of the “now” in relation to history—the “now” as “a moment that is presented as timelessly and obviously true.”29 What comes to mind is a particular form of progressivism that understands the “now” as irreducibly superior to what came before it in a basic historically linear sense. If politics is founded upon some privileged epistemological access because of the linear progress of historical consciousness, the practice of politics ultimately becomes the exercise of one will against another, each will claiming possession of this timeless privilege and thus exercising that right over another.
Intelligible political action, on the other hand, is political action that self-critically situates itself within a historical and temporal narrative, but one that is not marked by privileged epistemological access and obvious progression.30 Drawing from Rose’s extensive project of re-interpreting Hegel against readings which would presuppose some privileged, final, and totalizing “now,” Williams describes politics as such: “Hegel’s thinking insists not on a return to identity but on the ‘speculative’ projection of a continually self-adjusting, self-criticising corporate practice—which can, from another point of view, be described as a politics.”31 The progression of history, for Williams’ and Rose’s reading of Hegel, is not the linear progression of some totalizing truth, but the flawed process of coming to learn by constantly staking oneself by making a claim on truth.32 Liberalism is the understanding of history as self-evidently growing in truth, but true Hegelianism is to situate oneself within history self-critically, as epistemological and political agents who are participants in a narrative in which we learn by risking failure. In other words, liberal progressivism is only able to acknowledge the “now,” whereas Rose’s Hegelianism intends to acknowledge the “now” as a contingent product of flawed historical processes—processes, in Hegel’s terms, laden with contradiction.
Put in simpler terms, intelligible action is action which participates in something greater than itself—the self-evident “now”—by temporally situating itself within a non-totalizing historical narrative. Theopolitical intelligibility is then derived from a particular situatedness in a theological narrative: “Theology claims that what intelligible action is ‘after’ is divine action whose gratuitousness (or love) motivates and activates an unlimited process of representation without simple repetition.”33 To return to the language of Maximus the Confessor, theologically intelligible action looks like the situatedness of the Christian person and community within the cosmological narrative of Christ—a narrative stretched between time and eternity, creation and redemption. If theopolitical intelligibility is dependent on this cosmological situatedness, it becomes clear that the virtue of hope is necessarily theopolitical. As already articulated, the object of hope is the perfection of creation (redemption/salvation/deification), which is in no way abstracted from the beginning, middle, and end of the ages. The perfection of creation is the perfection of every moment. This moment, however, is not self-evidently privileged but stretched between creation and the eschaton, between time and eternity—and yet also actively participating in time and eternity. To clarify, there are then two essential parts of theopolitical hope: first, the temporal situatedness of the political agent within the cosmological economy of creation; and two, the orientation towards the perfection of creation which constitutes our participation in that ongoing work. This is to make the reality of the ordinary (the present in which we are political agents) and the reality of the cosmological (the historical story in which we as Christians take part) inseparably interdependent. Lloyd dismisses hope insofar as eternity distracts from the now, and in doing so fails to see that the “now” and eternity are always already held together in the cosmological drama. Lloyd’s account of hope fails because he fails to see the ways in which theological hope proclaims the necessary infusion of the cosmological in the ordinary, and vice versa. Theopolitcal hope, then, is the methodological and practical qualification of all Christian political action.
The responsibility of the Church in the midst of this theopolitical construction is as the primary bearer of this hopeful identity. As a community which receives its identity from this cosmological narrative most potent in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the Church is a participating witness in the continual creative action of God. As cited above, Maximus affirms that God’s creative and salvific activity is manifest and poured out into an “other;” this “other” can be broadly understood as the entirety of creation, but can also be understood more concretely as God’s befriending of a particular historical community, echoing the words of Alison and Williams. As Williams writes in unity with the insights gleaned from Maximus, “the concrete articulation of divine (founding, creating) action is in what is other to the divine, in the life of the covenantal nation, in the life of the human agent who carries the divine meaning.”34 Or as he puts it succinctly elsewhere, “[the Church exists] to speak of and enact the patterns of self-displacing and self-risking invited by the story of the self-displacing God, who elects to live in the life of the radically other (contingent and historical humanity, mortal vulnerability).”35 The Church—which stands finitely as a parable for God’s redemption of all creation—is then fundamentally an eshcatological community of the ordinary, a community which bears the historical promise of God’s kenotic action in another by consciously and self-reflexively situating itself in God’s cosmological plan, and furthermore, by participating in that plan’s perfection of creation in its present potentiality.
By reflecting on the nature of hope and its relation to a metaphysics of temporality grounded sufficiently in Christian theology, this paper has attempted to reclaim the theopolitical potency of hope from its secular practitioners, failed theological articulations, and outright rejections. Theopolitical hope, properly construed, is not a deferral of the ordinary present into some future expectancy, nor a reification of the ordinary, but a situating of the ordinary practice of politics within the cosmological drama of Jesus Christ—which stretches the ordinary between the beginning, middle, and end of the ages.
- Vincent Lloyd, The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 70.
- Ibid., 71.
- Ibid., 72.
- Ibid., 63.
- Ibid., 73.
- See Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).
- James Alison, “Taking Cinderella to the Ball: How a Mimetic Anthropology Restores the Theological Virtue of Hope,” Presentation for COV&R at SLU, St Lous, Missouri (8 July 2015).
- Rowan Williams, “Faith Hope and Charity in the World Today,” ABC Religion & Ethics, October 11, 2010, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/faith-hope-and-charity-in-the-world-today/10102038.
- Alison, “Taking Cinderella to the Ball.”
- Lloyd, The Problem with Grace, 72.
- Alison, “Taking Cinderella to the Ball.”
- St. Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, trans. Paul. M. Blowers (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 60.
- Jordan Daniel Wood, “That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor” (PhD diss., Boston College, 2018).
- Paul M. Blowers, Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 139.
- Maximus the Confessor, “Ad Thalassium 22,” in On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Response to Thalassios, trans. Fr. Maximos Constas (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 150-154; Blowers, Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World, 140.
- Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 117.
- Blowers, Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World, 140.
- Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 117.
- Blowers, Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World, 140.
- Ibid., 139.
- Lloyd, The Problem with Grace, 9.
- Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (New York: Penguin Books, 1955), Bk I.
- Rowan Williams, “Overcoming Political Tribalism,” ABC Religion & Ethics, 2 October 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/rowan-williams-overcoming-political-tribalism/11566242.
- Rowan Williams, Introduction to Theology and the Political: The New Debate, eds. Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Zizek (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 1-2.
- Rowan Williams, “Between Politics and Metaphysics: Reflections in the Wake of Gillian Rose,” Modern Theology 11, no. 1 (January 1995): 14.
- Ibid., 15.
- Williams, Introduction to Theology and the Political, 3.
- Williams, “Between Politics and Metaphysics,” 19.
- Rowan Williams, “Beyond Liberalism,” Political Theology 3, no. 1 (November 2001): 71.