Our society and its intellectual forbearers historically focused on something called virtue. A virtue is a quality that makes something a good version of what it is. Take a knife as a simple example. A knife has certain virtues which make it a good knife. Sharpness would be a virtue for a knife according to its design. A virtue for a human being is a quality of character or quality of life that is typically a good thing. Vices would be qualities that are not so good.
Many thinkers have discussed character and virtue but none looms greater than the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle enumerated lists of moral and intellectual qualities that would be virtues for human beings and expounded upon these in his writings about the ethical life.1 Historically, the Christian tradition has also focused heavily on the transformation of life and the cultivation of virtues. The work of the theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas built upon that of Aristotle in that he too saw that we possessed moral and intellectual qualities which should be understood to be virtuous. However, as a follower of Jesus and a reader of the New Testament, Thomas had much more to say. He added a discussion of what he called the theological virtues.
1 Corinthians 13 is a passage of the Christian Scriptures that is well known to many people. It is a poetic treatment of love (or charity) and its centrality in the life of those who follow Jesus. You may have heard this read at a wedding or seen it reduced to some Hallmark card type saying. The section actually ends with the following: So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Aquinas saw these as unique theological virtues that emanate from the grace of God shown to human beings. Faith was our choosing to trust/assent to the gospel and the teachings of the Bible. Hope was the result of that faith in that we trust in God for our final happiness and joy. Finally, a love for God (and the corollary of loving one’s neighbor made in his image) which comes from knowing him as God is the deepest foundation of our lives. Someday faith will be sight and hope will be realized in the Kingdom of Heaven, but love and relationship with God will remain forever. 2
As a follower of Christ, hope is a virtue, but not one merely created by moral self effort. We do not muster up hope from within ourselves but rather hope comes from trusting that God is in control of our lives and that he is loving towards his people. Such hope arises as we are given grace to believe and trust in Jesus’ work on a cross to bring us into loving communion with the Father. Hope therefore is a by-product which is dependent upon the object of our faith. What we put our ultimate faith in, our trust in determines whether we live in enduring hope or fall into cynicism and despair.
The following diagram illustrates the relationship between faith, hope and love and how these are related to who/what is at the center of our lives.
When we place our ultimate trust in money, relationships, health, influence, status, etc. hope will languish if any of these are lost. Our future is not secure in any fashion when we place our ultimate trust in that which is unstable, fading and temporary. All of these things are good and can be received with thanksgiving, but if any are made the center of life, an empty soul will result. Life itself will ebb away as the looming inevitability of death consumes all, yet if God is at the center, our faith in him births perpetual hope. Though life and money and health and status may fade and oscillate we have in Christ a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul (See Hebrews 6:13-20).
As we traverse our lives we must not give in to the ideas that say we must build on the foreign tongue of unyielding despair to find safe habitat for the soul. Rather we find our home in God and we speak the language of hope to our world. Our message is that God is reconciling people to himself through Jesus Christ, a message of hope for all who will believe.
- See Books II-VI of Aristotle, W. D. Ross, J. L. Ackrill, and J. O. Urmson. The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford (Oxfordshire) ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- A summary of Thomas’ moral philosophy and the theological virtues may be found here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/aq-moral.htm