The truth of hope

An essential element of the Gospel proclamation

Patrick Henry Reardon, senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 

I submit that the Gospel is first directed to man’s native hope, that social hope attendant on his sense of being an actor on the stage of reality.

First, the primal source of hope is man’s persistent need to be a persona dramatis, to feel himself engaged in a story with a plot and resolution, to sense that his life pertains to a transcendent narrative, to believe himself homo historicus, and not a mere spectator.

Certain schools of philosophy would dissuade him from entertaining this hope. They would discourage him from taking his shabby little existence seriously. Modern science, especially, adopting the unsentimental standards of objectivity, hardly encourages man to think of himself as a significant actor.

No mere object

Man, however, is not a detached, disembodied intellect. He can know reality only as an actor within existence, where he is a participant. For a start, he cannot discern reality objectively, for the simple reason that he is part of it. And he cannot know himself objectively: the notion is self-contradictory.

Nor can man ultimately reduce even nature to a known, independent object, for the plain reason that the consciousness of the knower is the discerning part of nature. Above all, man cannot know God objectively, because he knows God only within the communion of God’s knowing him. The objectification of the divine is arguably the essence of idolatry.

In short, man has access to reality by existing as a participatory being within it. In other words, ‘Man is not a self-contained spectator. He is an actor, playing a part in the drama of being and, through the brute fact of his existence, committed to play it without knowing what it is’ [Eric Voegelin, Israel and Revelation].

To speak of this primal human disposition – the need for a man to be an actor – as a source of hope does not mean that it favours optimism. Optimism, after all, is not necessarily related to narrative, whereas hope invariably depends on a story line.

One suspects there would not be such a thing as theatrical drama, were it not for this human need to feel oneself as ‘playing a part’. The verb ‘play’ here means interpretive action, the human contribution – the particular scene – within a larger act, in the theatrical sense.

Playing a part

It is an important function of theatre to preserve and enhance man’s sense of being an actor. ‘In this sense the theatre acts as a brake on all tidy philosophies; it shows that this existential character is a part of the all-embracing reality itself. How it does this, and with what result, is questionable, but at least it holds fast to the question. And so long as the question continues to be put, we can still hope for an answer’ [Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama].

Second, let us speak of the Gospel with respect to that primal hope, for the Gospel is its correct object, more akin to theatre than to the philosophies of being, and infinitely more akin than the supposed objectivity of science. The Gospel invites its hearers to become personae dramatis – as though ‘compelling’ them to enter [Luke 14.23].

The Gospel beckons its hearers into communion with God, who redeems man’s primal hope through the medium of redemptive and revelatory history. The Gospel inserts its hearers as active participants in that history. There holy Scripture supplies both the foundational script and the dramatic mis-en-scène. Thus the Gospel is what makes existence truly existential. This is why the early Christians called it ‘the way’. ND

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