Josef Pieper, Ignatius Press, 2012.
Christians should dispel the widely held view that their beliefs are outdated prejudices and superstitions. Works like this compilation of three of Pieper’s books, originally published separately between 1935 and 1972, do this.
The discussion of faith is mostly concerned with generic belief (the German Glaube can mean both), which leads into religious belief in the following 3 chapters. Pieper says his argument is philosophical, not theological, because he is not discussing faith in relation to the ‘documents of sacred tradition’ (p57). Such a claim by a follower of Thomas Aquinas is strange. Pieper is engaged in what Thomas would call natural theology. Without invoking religious premises and having shown the nature of belief in non-religious areas, he presents religious belief as compelling.
Pieper contrasts belief with knowledge. Knowledge is the condition of belief because it is the acceptance of the testimony of someone who knows. Religious belief differs from all other kinds of belief because ‘the Someone on whose testimony the religious believer accepts a matter as true and real … is God himself’ (p56). God reveals himself, and faith in this revelation leads to belief in the two fundamentals of Christianity, the Trinity and the Incarnation. Pieper tackles the difficulties of religious belief and honestly confesses that the ‘outrageous’ claims of Christianity demand a leap, but then he says this: ‘Unbelief contradicts what man is by nature’ (p63). Our natures are apt for belief in God, but to have that belief is the work of grace. This is a nuanced explication of belief/faith which draws upon Newman, C.S. Lewis, and Karl Jaspers, but might easily have been indebted to Wittgenstein.
Hope is presented against an existentialist view of humanity on a journey of becomingness. Written in the 1930s, these chapters argue against the despair of nothingness—the kind found in the novels of Sartre. Hope is the salient virtue here, but it is a virtue only theologically. For the non-believer it is no virtue at all. Hence, these essays on hope, more than those on faith, emphasise the centrality of grace. Hope is the expectation and confidence of the journeyer toward a ‘not yet’ fulfillment of our nature by God. Pieper discusses the virtues of faith and love in connection with hope, thus enlarging his previous essays and preparing for those which follow. Those previous essays illuminate aspects of hope, such as the certainty of God’s omnipotence and mercy. Yet hope holds a dark possibility because Christians, being aware of how far they stand from God, could be tempted to despair. Existentialists are vulnerable to despair, but for Christians at least, ‘Fear of the Lord assures the genuineness of hope’ (p138).
Etymological analysis can be surprisingly revealing, and so it is in Pieper’s discussion of the vocabulary of love. That our language of love has been impoverished is demonstrated in the richness of these chapters. Love is presented as the will for a good possible only in the existence of the other. This is, intellectually, both Aristotelian and Christian, but Christianity knows that it is God ‘who in the act of creation anticipated all conceivable human love’ (p171). In unpacking what it is to love and be loved, Pieper reveals not only our conceptual poverty in dealing with love, but something of the sadness of our time – what it means to be unloved, and how fundamentally destructive that is for those so abandoned. These chapters on love are the best in the book.
Pieper takes an unfamiliar route in his exposition of faith, hope and love, but the journey is enlightening and shows how rich is our Christian legacy. And you don’t need a philosophy degree to enjoy it intelligently.
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