Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A few last words on the encyclical Spe Salvi

The last part of the document concerns those things which encourage Christian hope in eternal salvation. Prayer is one. As I mentioned yesterday, the acceptance of suffering is another. Judgment is a third.

By judgment Benedict means the Final Judgment: "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." The world is full of injustice. The wicked prosper and the innocent suffer. Such a world is inconsistent with a loving God unless there is some sorting out. And Benedict brings out all the old apparatus of sorting: the resurrection of the body, heaven, hell, praying for the souls in purgatory -- the works. Have hope, says the pope; if you feel put upon now, it will all be set right in the afterlife.

One reads with a bit of sadness as Benedict struggles to reconcile prescientific dogma with modern reason. He mentions with understanding the philosophers of the Frankfort School, Horkheimer and Adorno, who recognized the equal absurdity of injustice without Judgment and the resurrection of the flesh, and who rejected both atheism and theism as inadequate resolutions. Have faith, says the pope. We can only understand these things through the light of faith. Without faith, no hope.

Which makes me think again of poor old Huxley, whose biography by Adrian Desmond I have been reading again. "Large Victorian families were always edged with grief," writes Desmond. It was not uncommon for children and grandchildren to be carried off by disease, and the Huxley's endured their share of sorrow. Certainly, the old Darwinian war horse had ample reason to rail against the injustice of the world. In his late sixties, frail, going deaf, he would not allow himself to be comforted by the ecclesiastical establishment's promise that he and his loved ones would meet again in justice and judgment on the opposite shore. He puttered in his garden. "I find nailing up creepers a delightful occupation," he wrote. To the best of his ability, he carried on until the end with his insatiable curiosity, confident that love and knowledge offered humankind its best hope of alleviating life's ragged edge of grief, rejecting like Horkheimer and Adorno both atheism and theism, content in the face of the world's apparent injustice with the agnostic's "I don't know."