Soul Food Talk # 11 – The Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity

SOUL FOOD Talk #11: Faith, Hope, and Charity – The Theological Virtues
[All three of the theological virtues have several components: spiritual assent/response of our whole being to the whole being, Trinity & Unity, of God; intellectual; and emotional—which may even elicit a physical response, for example, in the gift of tears.] The sources below are quoted, with minor changes or omissions, almost verbatim.
FAITH by Peter Kreeft []

1. Faith, hope, and charity are, quite simply, the three greatest things in the world: the three legs of a single tripod that supports the whole Christian life. We cannot possibly overemphasize their importance. Together they make up the “one thing necessary”. We must speak of them in the same imperious and imperative terms Jesus used when he said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Nothing is more important than faith, hope, and charity because they make the difference between heaven and hell, eternal life and eternal death, and there is no difference as great as that.

2. They are called the three theological virtues because they have God (theos) as their object. They are the glue that attaches us to God. They are the three-doored entrance to heaven. It is not that God refuses entrance at heaven’s gate to anyone; these are heaven’s gate. Anyone who has no faith in God, no hope in God, and no love of God cannot go to heaven because heaven would be hell to him. He could not endure or enjoy the presence of God after death anymore than he did before death.

3. Faith, hope, and charity are the three legs of a single tripod that supports the whole Christian life. Each leg depends on the others. Faith without the works of love is dead, according to Scripture, and false — not real faith at all. Love not motivated by faith is not agape but mere feeling and sentimentality (often masked by the code word compassion), dependent on the whims and winds of human change. Hope without faith is mere wishful thinking, “the power of positive thinking”, optimism. Hope is not the same as optimism; some of the great hopers are pessimists by temperament. Hope’s opposite is despair, which is a deadly sin, not pessimism, which is a psychological trait. Love without hope is desperation. Hope without love is isolating and selfish; it is the Phariseeism and self-righteousness of every tyrant. Faith without hope is simply impossible, for the God we believe has given us an astonishing bag of promises.

4. This tripod is the foundation of all other virtues. The other virtues all depend on these three because these are the key to the very life of God within our souls, and all other virtues are characteristics of that life, not self-improvement programs that we whip up within ourselves. Honesty, justice, patience, chastity, self-control, even love of neighbor, all come from the prior presence of God in us, which in turn comes only through faith, hope, and charity. We do not practice the virtues in order to get to heaven; we practice the virtues because heaven has already gotten to us. Love of God, for instance, will always send us to love of neighbor, while love of neighbor will not always send us to love of God, for God always sends you to your neighbor, but your neighbor does not always send you to God. Both commandments are absolutely necessary, but there is an order — not of importance, for love of God without love of neighbor is just as worthless and false as love of neighbor without love of God — but an order of priority, of precedence. First things first. Foundations first. Back to basics.

5. It is appropriate for us to turn back to these basics of the Christian life now because the society we live in does not understand them. We live in a post-Christian world, and many of us are not sufficiently aware of that fact. Our modern world is in fact a clear countersign to these three virtues. Doubt, despair, and selfishness are the pillars of modern life, not faith, hope, and charity. Our world sees faith as naivete, hope as Pollyanna-style wishful thinking, and charity as weakness. We see around us a growing materialism, which is unbelief in practice; a rising suicide rate and depression, which is despair in practice; and a rising respectability for the me-first philosophy for which charity is a totally unintelligible alternative, a radical foolishness. It is therefore high time for us to go back to our spiritual basics, lest we sink into the dark waters that surround us and disappear into me-tooism, lest our salt lose its saltiness and deserve only to be trodden under foot, like rock salt thrown on snow or ice.

6. Kant said that there are only three absolutely necessary questions that everyone must answer, implicitly or explicitly: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope? The three theological virtues are God’s answer to these three most important human questions. We can know God and all that is necessary for our salvation by faith in what God has revealed to us; we can know our essential moral obligation as charity to God and neighbor; and we can know what to hope in by what God has promised us.

7. These three virtues are also called the supernatural virtues to distinguish them from the natural virtues, the virtues that do not require the saving presence of God’s own life in the soul for their existence (though they do require that for their perfection). The four cardinal, or “hinge”, virtues in the natural order are prudence (practical wisdom), fortitude (courage), temperance (moderation), and justice (fairness and harmony within and without).

8. Without the supernatural virtues, the natural virtues cannot flourish. It is very difficult to be courageous without hope of heaven. Why risk your life if there is no hope that your story ends in anything other than worms, decay, and forgetting? Also, no one can be truly wise without faith, for faith sees higher and farther and deeper than reason or experience can. It sees “through a glass, darkly”, but it sees truly. And no one can practice temperance or self-control without God’s grace, for we are all addicted to sin and self-indulgence, and it is very difficult to break an addiction by just trying a little harder without help from without.

9. The point is simply that without God’s grace, which comes only through faith, hope, and charity, no one can be very good. Without love, justice turns to cruelty. Without hope, courage turns to blind despair and rage.

10. Faith first, because it is first. Faith in the biblical sense of saving faith is the act by which we receive God’s own eternal life (or “sanctifying grace”, in technical theological terms). It is our fundamental option of saying Yes instead of No to God with our heart, our will, our personal center. To believe in this sense is to receive (Jn 1: 12 parallels the two terms), to receive God himself.

11. Saint Paul argues in Romans that faith (in this sense) was even in Old Testament times the condition for salvation, for our justification with God. Abraham was justified by his faith. Go back even farther: the fall was first of all a fall of faith. Faith is the root of obedience; the lack of faith is the root of disobedience. If we totally believed that obedience always worked to our blessedness, we would not disobey. Only because we must pray “Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief” do we sin.

12. Saint Paul contrasts faith with sin when he says, “Whatever is not of faith is sin.” We usually think of sin as the opposite of virtue, and faith as the opposite of doubt. But virtue is a moral term, and doubt is an intellectual term. The opposite of moral virtue is moral vice, and the opposite of intellectual doubt is intellectual belief. Faith is deeper than either moral virtue or intellectual belief. Sin is deeper than either moral vice or intellectual doubt. Faith is a fundamental Yes to God with the center of our being, and sin — the state of sin as distinct from particular acts of sin — is the fundamental No to God with the center of our being. Faith is the opposite of sin. Faith is to sin what light is to darkness.

13. Belief is an intellectual matter. I believe the sun will shine tomorrow: I believe I am in good health, I believe my textbooks. This is mere opinion. Faith is not mere opinion. Opinions do not save us. Trust is an emotional matter. I trust my surgeon or my psychiatrist or my children. This is a precious feeling, but it is a feeling. Faith is not feeling. Feelings do not save us. Faith, however, results in or expresses itself in both belief and trust, for the prefunctional root that is the very essence of the self expresses itself in the two branches or functions of the intellectual (belief) and the emotional (trust). But faith is deeper. That is why even some people who seem on an intellectual level to be unbelievers may on this deeper level be believers, and we may be surprised to see some famous so-called atheists in heaven. And it is why some people who seem to have very little emotional faith — little trust, serenity, consolation — may nevertheless be people of great, even heroic, faith. Only God sees hearts.

14. The most specific, most technical sense of faith is the sense we learned from the Baltimore Catechism. Faith is the act of the intellect, prompted by the will, by which we believe the truth of all that God has revealed on the basis of the authority of the one who has revealed it. This is essentially the definition used by Saint Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholastic theology.

15. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, each side used a different language system, and the most important and tragic split in the Church’s history resulted. Protestant reformers, using faith in the biblical sense, as saving faith, insisted that the Bible clearly taught that faith alone was sufficient for salvation. They formulated their slogan sola fides (faith alone), on the basis of Romans and Galatians. They thought that the Catholic Church’s insistence that good works were also necessary for salvation was a pagan doctrine, a compromise of the very essence of the gospel. Most evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants to this day justify their disagreement with the Catholic Church more fundamentally on this basis than on any other. They sincerely believe that Catholicism is another gospel, as Paul called Galatian legalism, and many wonder whether Catholics are even Christians.

16. But James clearly says in his epistle that faith without works is dead and that we are justified by works (good works, the works of love) as well as faith, working together with faith. James and the Catholic scholastic theologians were using faith in its narrowest sense: as just one of the three theological virtues. In this sense, hope and charity must be added to faith for salvation. Paul and the Protestants were using faith in its broader sense: as the root or center of all three theological virtues, not as an act of the intellect (as in the Baltimore Catechism definition) but as an act of the heart (in the biblical sense) or spirit or personal center. Both sides were (and are) right, as Pope John Paul II made quite clear to the Lutheran bishops of Germany on his visit there in 1983. In other words, the essence of the Protestant Reformation was a misunderstanding. What hope for reunion lies in that fact!

17. To clarify the different meanings of faith in another way, remember that we exist on three levels. Saint Paul in two places in his letters refers to them as “spirit, soul, and body”. Body is our relationship with the physical world, the level of reality that is less than ourselves. Soul is our relationship with ourselves (self-consciousness) and with others, our equals. Spirit is our relationship with God, the reality that is greater than ourselves. There is a form of faith on each of the three levels. Faith in the bodily sphere is the works of love and obedience without which, according to James, faith is dead and false. This is the aspect emphasized by the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews in the classic chapter on faith, chapter 11. The faith of each of the Old Testament heroes was defined or manifested in what they did. Faith in the sphere of the soul includes both intellectual belief and emotional trust. Finally, faith in the spirit, where faith begins, is the basic Yes to God that is the condition for salvation. This is an act of the will, but it is not always consciously rational and intellectual.

18. Saint Thomas, like the New Testament, sometimes uses faith in the technical and intellectual sense, as an act of the intellect. But sometimes he uses faith in the broader and deeper sense, the Pauline sense, just as the Protestant reformers did — for instance, when he says that “the object of faith is not a proposition but a person.” In other words, God himself is the object of faith; the propositions in the creed express its content. We believe not just ideas about God but God. It is essential to know things about God, but it is more essential to know God. “This is eternal life”, says Jesus in his high priestly prayer in John 17:3, “to know Thee, the only true God.” The creeds are like accounting books, God is like the actual money.

19. Though the root of faith is not intellectual, one of its fruits is. “Faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum) was the operative slogan for a thousand years of Christian theology.

20. “Unless you believe, you will not understand” — faith first. Then, “In thy light we see light” — understanding follows. How accurately the saints know God; how foolishly mistaken are the unbelieving geniuses! Reason may run ahead of faith, as John ran ahead of Peter to the empty tomb, but faith first enters the secret of understanding, as Peter first entered the tomb. Faith is more active than reason. Reason passively reports data, like a camera. Faith takes a stand, like an army. Faith leaps into God’s arms, answering his proposal of spiritual marriage.

21. There is a kind of faith that Saint Paul lists as one of the charismatic gifts. This is special, miracle-working faith. It is available to all but found in few. When we have this kind of faith, we do not pray from the human platform of uncertainty and pleading but from the divine platform of operative certainty. The word of this kind of faith is not “please” but “be it done.” Many radio and television preachers have confused listeners by confusing this special kind of faith with ordinary saving faith, making listeners think they are guaranteed miracles and if miracles do not happen they just do not have real faith at all. This may be an honest mistake, but it is a cruel one. Jesus’ own disciples had faith smaller than a grain of mustard seed, Jesus said. Yet they were accepted. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” is a good, honest prayer, like the prayer of the publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Let us be content to run before trying to fly.

HOPE (from Conchita, p. 152)
22. “The virtue of hope is one which does not linger to desire nothing or to ask nothing of the earth, neither personal prestige, riches nor honors. It has set its flight higher: it expects the possession of God Himself not due to personal merit of the soul but on account of the superabundance of My infinite merits. The soul which possesses holy hope, rejoices not for its own good which will come about for it eternally. It goes beyond its personal, legitimate and permissible good, but it rises higher, and it does not stop at its own glory but at the glory which, through it, God Himself will receive. The virtue of supernatural and perfect hope consists in yearning constantly for the possession of the Beloved, not for itself but for the glory of God, working efficaciously to obtain it, choosing and embracing the way of the Cross.

LOVE by Peter Kreeft []
23. Without qualification, without ifs, ands, or buts, God’s word tells us, straight as a left jab, that love is the greatest thing there is (1 Cor 13: 13). Scripture never says God is justice or beauty or righteousness, though he is just and beautiful and righteous. But “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Love is God’s essence, his whole being. Everything in him is love.

24. But no word is more misunderstood in our society than the word love: agape, the kind of love Christ taught and showed, storge (natural affection or liking), eros (sexual desire), and philia (friendship). It is agape that is the greatest thing in the world. Perhaps it is necessary to insist on the Greek word agape (pronounced ah-gah-pay) so that we do not confuse this most important thing in the world with something else and miss it, for there is enormous misunderstanding about it in our society.

25. The first and most usual misunderstanding of agape is to confuse it with a feeling. Our feelings are precious, but agape is more precious. Feelings come to us, passively; agape comes from us, actively, by our free choice. We are not responsible for our feelings — we can’t help how we feel — but we are responsible for our agape or lack of it, eternally responsible, for agape comes from us; feelings come from wind, weather, and digestion. “Luv” comes from spring breezes; real love comes from the center of the soul, which Scripture calls the heart* (another word we have sentimentalized and reduced to feeling). Liking is a feeling. But love (agape) is more than strong liking. Only a fool would command someone to feel a certain way. God commands us to love, and God is no fool. [Perhaps *heart” here means our deepest self immersed in God, the center of the soul flooded by the Holy Spirit. As mere human beings, unless we are touched by the Holy Spirit, I don’t think we are even capable of agape.]

26. Jesus had different feelings toward different people. But he loved them all equally and absolutely. But how can we love someone if we don’t like him? Easy — we do it to ourselves all the time. We don’t always have tender, comfortable feelings about ourselves; sometimes we feel foolish, stupid, asinine, or wicked. But we always love ourselves: we always seek our own good. Indeed, we feel dislike toward ourselves, we berate ourselves, precisely because we love ourselves; because we care about our good, we are impatient with our bad.

27. We fall in love but we do not fall in agape. We rise in agape.
28. God is agape, and agape is not feeling. So God is not feeling. That does not make him or agape cold and abstract. Just the opposite: God is love itself, feeling is the dribs and drabs of love received into the medium of passivity. God cannot fall in love for the same reason water cannot get wet: it is wet. Love itself cannot receive love as a passivity, only spread it as an activity. God is love in action, not love in dreams. Feelings are like dreams: easy, passive, spontaneous. Agape is hard and precious like a diamond.

29. This brings us to a second and related misunderstanding. Agape’s object is always the concrete individual, not some abstraction called humanity. Love of humanity is easy because humanity does not surprise you with inconvenient demands. You never find humanity on your doorstep, stinking and begging.

30. Jesus commands us to love not humanity but our neighbor, all our neighbors, the real individuals we meet, just as he did. He died for me and for you, not for humanity. The Cross has our names on it, not the name “humanity”. When Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, he said he “calls his own sheep by name” (Jn 10:3). The gospel comes to you not in a newspaper with a Xeroxed label, “Dear Occupant”, but in a handwritten envelope personally addressed to you, as a love letter from God to you alone. One of the saints says that Jesus would have done everything he did and suffered everything he suffered even if you were the only person who had sinned, just for you. More than that, he did! This is no “if”; this is fact. His loving eyes saw you from the Cross. Each of his five wounds were lips speaking your name.

31. A third, related, misunderstanding about love is to confuse it with kindness, which is only one of its usual attributes. Kindness is the desire to relieve another’s suffering. Love is the willing of another’s good. A father can spank his child out of love. And God is a father. It is painfully obvious that God is not mere kindness, for he does not remove all suffering, though he has the power to do so. Indeed, this very fact — that the God who is omnipotent and can at any instant miraculously erase all suffering from this world deliberately chooses not to do so — is the commonest argument unbelievers use against him. The number one argument for atheism stems from the confusion between love and kindness. [God’s love overrides his kindness, where necessary in the history of salvation. Sometimes it is necessary to be unkind in order to love—we call this “tough love.”]

32. The more we love someone, the more our love goes beyond kindness. We are merely kind to pets, and therefore we consent that our pets be put to death “to put them out of their misery” when they are suffering. There is increasing pressure in America to legalize, and this evil too stems from the confusion between love and kindness. We are kind to strangers but demanding of those we love. If a stranger informed you that he was a drug addict, you would probably try to reason with him in a kind and gentle way; but if your son or daughter said that to you, you would probably do a lot of shouting and screaming.

33. A fourth misunderstanding about love is the confusion between “God is love” and “love is God.” The worship of love instead of the worship of God involves two deadly mistakes. First it uses the word God only as another word for love. God is thought of as a force or energy rather than as a person. Second, it divinizes the love we already know instead of showing us a love we don’t know. “God is love” means “Let me tell you something new about the God you know: he is essential love, made of love, through and through.”

34. If God is not a Trinity, God is not love. For love requires three things: a lover, a beloved, and a relationship between them. If God were only one person, he could be a lover, but not love itself. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit is the love proceeding from both, from all eternity. If that were not so, then God would need us, would be incomplete without us, without someone to love. Then his creating us would not be wholly unselfish, but selfish, from his own need.

35. Agape is totally defenseless against an objection like Freud’s: “But not all men are worthy of love.” No, they are not. Love goes beyond worth, beyond justice, beyond reason. Reasons are always given from above downward, and there is nothing above love, for God is love. When he was about six, my son asked me, “Daddy, why do you love me?” I began to give the wrong answers, the answers I thought he was looking for: “You’re a great kid. You’re good and smart and strong.” Then, seeing his disappointment, I decided to be honest: “Aw, I just love you because you’re mine.” I got a smile of relief and a hug: “Thanks, Daddy.” A student once asked me in class, “Why does God love us so much?” I replied that that was the greatest of all mysteries, and she should come back to me in a year to see whether I had solved it. One year later to the day, there she was. She was serious. She really wanted an answer. I had to explain that this one thing, at least, just could not be explained.

36. Finally, there is the equally mind-boggling mystery of the intrinsic paradox of agape: somehow in agape you give yourself away, not just your time or work or possessions or even your body. You put yourself in your own hands and hand it over to another. And when you do this unthinkable thing, another unthinkable thing happens: you find yourself in losing yourself. You begin to be when you give yourself away. You find that a new and more real self has somehow been given to you. When you are a donor you mysteriously find yourself a recipient — of the very gift you gave away.

37. There is more: nothing else is really yours. Your health, your works, your intelligence, your possessions — these are not what they seem. They are all hostage to fortune, on loan, insubstantial. You discover that when you learn who God is. Face to face with God in prayer, not just a proper concept of God, you find that you are nothing. All the saints say this: you are nothing. The closer you get to God the more you see this, the more you shrink in size. If you scorn God, you think you’re a big shot, a cannonball; if you know God, you know you’re not even buckshot. Those who scorn God think they’re number one. Those who have the popular idea of God think they’re “good people”. Those who have a merely mental orthodoxy know they’re real but finite creatures, made in God’s image but flawed by sin. Those who really begin to pray find that compared with God they are motes of dust in the sun. Finally, the saints say they are nothing. Or else (Saint Paul’s words) “the chief of sinners”. Sinners think they’re saints and saints think they’re sinners.

38. Who’s right? How shall we evaluate this insight? Unless God is the Father of lies (the ultimate blasphemy), the saints are right. Unless the closer you get to God the wronger you are about yourself, the five groups in the preceding paragraph (from scorners to saints) form a hierarchy of insight. Nothing is ours by nature. Our very existence is sheer gift. Think for a moment about the fact that you were created, made out of nothing. If a sculptor gives a block of marble the gift of a fine shape, the shape is a gift, but the marble’s existence is not. That is the marble’s own. But nothing is our own because we were made out of nothing. Our very existence is a gift from God to no one, for we were not there before he created us. There is no receiver of the gift distinct from the gift itself. We are God’s gifts.

39. So the saints are right. If I am nothing, nothing that is mine is anything. Nothing is mine by nature. But one thing is mine by my free choice: the self I give away in love. That is the thing even God cannot do for me. It is my choice. Everything I say is mine is not. But everything I say is yours is mine. C. S. Lewis, asked which of his many library books he thought he would have in heaven, replied, “Only the ones I gave away on earth and never got back”. The same is true of our very self. It is like a ball in a game of catch: throw it and it will come back to you; hold onto it and that ends the game.



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