In our modernist, enlightenment world, faith and hope seem to be of a different species than knowledge. Hope points to the future, which is not something about which we can have any knowledge. Faith seems built on unverifiable first principles–that God exists, or even that through reason we can know anything at all. Knowledge is the only thing that seems grounded in any sort of empirical reality, the things we can see, taste, touch, smell and hear, the things of which we can have personal experience. But are the differences so stark? Is there some sort of relationship here that we can tease out? Is it possible that it is faith that bridges for us the sphere of knowledge with the future of hope?
Let’s first try to distinguish, if we can, between these three things, and to distinguish them in a way which simultaneously also relates them to one another. I think we will see that the relations between them can be instructive.
We’ll begin with knowledge. Knowledge, of course, begins with observation. We’ll leave aside discussion about the first principles from which knowledge proceeds, necessary though those are. More basically we will simply call to mind that we observe or experience something–the sun shines down on us for a certain length of time and we begin to feel hot and our skin begins to turn pink. If we consistently observe or experience similar events over a course of time, under similar or even different conditions, we begin to draw conclusions. If I expose my skin to direct sunlight for a certain amount of time, I get a sunburn.
The point here is that knowledge depends upon an accumulation of past observations and experiences. If something new happens to us in the present, which does not immediately fit into any other categories of our previous experiences, we may experience wonder, perhaps fear, but we will seek to integrate that new event into the grid of our past experiences which we access through our memory.
Hope, of course, is future-directed. We do not hope for something that has already happened, nor for something that we have in the present. All our hopes indicate a future-oriented desire. We look forward to coming home from work and being with our family, and hope that the evening will be peaceful and filled with loving relationships. We further have a basis for believing that what we hope for will come to pass. Hope, that is to say, has its reasons.
This is how hope differs from optimism. Optimism is simply a frame of reference, a mindset in which we will put the most favorable interpretation on circumstances or events. There may or may not be any reason whatsoever for such a favorable interpretation, but the optimist nonetheless chooses to believe in a positive result or outcome. Optimism, in short, believes in a good outcome on the basis that it has so chosen such a belief. Optimism is mostly divorced from history and experience and usually boils down to the preferred state of mind of the individual. It can even become a sort of “magical thinking”: if I’m optimistic, good things will happen, simply on the basis of my belief that good things will happen. Optimism is fueled by the desire for a good outcome, even if such an outcome is not forthcoming. The optimist believes that before he falls the full 600 feet to the ground, he will somehow be snatched from the grip of gravity and a crushing death. It may be a more pleasant way to die than to shriek in terror down the sixty flights, but it likely has no bearing on the outcome.
The hopeful individual, however, has a basis for hoping he will not die in such a fall: he is tethered to a super-strong cable attached to a dynamic breaking mechanism which will progressively decelerate him before he hits the ground. This device has a history of stellar safety, and he himself has done this fall several times without injury. He also has hope that he’ll have earned his paycheck as a stuntman for the day.
Faith, then, is what bridges the gap between knowledge and hope. Based on our accumulated experiences and observations, which we have, perhaps without realizing it, arranged in an orderly body of knowledge in our memory (in other words, this is our “science” of experiences), we then project a desire into the future, hopeful that such a desire will be met. It is faith that says “The things that have held true in the past are likely to hold true in the future, and therefore I will make the connection between knowledge and hope on the basis of that faith.”
Faith is the evidence of things not seen, the substance of things hoped for. That is to say, rationally we can analyze our experience and quite logically come to the conclusion that even though we have had these consistent experiences in the past, there is no necessary reason as to why we should believe that they will happen again in the future. My hope may indeed be misplaced, things may turn out differently. We do not assume that simply because we hope for an outcome, that it will happen. Rather, on the basis of previous experiences, our faith tells us that what we hope for we can be confident we will receive.
But there is another factor in this dynamic that we must also elicit: that of love. According to Plato, one of the most basic qualities of knowledge and the quest for knowledge is eros, love, or desire:
About philosophic natures, let’s agree that they are always in love with that learning which discloses to them something of the being that is always and does not wander about, driven by generation and decay. (Republic 485a-b, Bloom translation)
How much more true for the Christian in which the fundamental knowledge on which rests all our hope is God himself, whom we love and who has consistently demonstrated his love to us? Again and again, the Israelites are called to remember the mighty acts God has done for them, even and especially when they don’t deserve it, and how they can hope that God will once again deliver them.
Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah
Then I said, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. (Psalm 76 :9-12)
Indeed, God, himself, is called to remember his own deeds: “Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old” (Psalm 24 :6).
The knowledge here is of a Person, and of the relationship of love he has cultivated with us. This knowledge of his acts is founded in love, and through that intimate experience we develop a confidence about the future, a hope. We believe that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him. We accumulate observations and experiences of how God deals with his children through a steady diet of the Scriptures, of worship, and of our own personal lives and service to him. We remember, our love draws the past into the present and our faith connects our present to the future, a future of hope.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. . . . What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:28, 31-37)
[Note: Next time–on what Jairus must have been thinking when Jesus stopped to heal the woman with a flow of blood and it was told Jairus that his daughter had died.]