Est autem fides sperandarum substantia rerum, argumentum non apparentium. - Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen.
- Hebrews 11:1 - Translation from the encyclical “Saved In Hope (Spe Salvi)” by Pope Benedict XVI
Last night I read paragraph 7 of Pope Benedict’s encyclical several times, catching new insights each time and repeatedly kicking myself for missing so much. People have called the current Pope bookish, but I don’t think that quite covers it. A year or so ago, I picked up a few of his books written in his Cardinal days, one of which was Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World. I remember clearly that night which I read the chapter titled, “The Christian Faith and the Mystical Religions.” Afterwards, putting the book down, I felt a great connection to the Pope through his acceptance and his support of a metaphysical study of God. I learned from that short chapter that the Pope is more than bookish, he is deeply mystical and philosophical.
In the above quote from “Spe Salvi,” he chooses carefully to leave the word “hypostasis” untranslated, commenting briefly on the trouble it has caused biblical exegetes over the years. Indeed, in comparing the translations of that same passage by Martin Luther and by Thomas Aquinas, we see two very different interpretations. It was fitting that he would choose such a contentious passage for the organizing statement of his second encyclical. Not only does he bring it the fruit of his years of study and inspection, but he draws out of it a wealth of meaning beyond the points brought up by biblical scholars of the past. His evaluations go beyond literal translations and comparisons of grammatical structures. For Pope Benedict, the topic of Faith is not a question of semantics, it’s a question of metaphysics.
As I’ve mentioned previously, for St. Aquinas, the spiritual realm of faith as a virtue was a habitual and abiding disposition, granted to us through God’s grace, and practiced through repetition and the power of our will. Martin Luther, on the other hand, who was admittedly never a big fan of the Letter to the Hebrews, read the words to say that faith was “standing firm in what one hopes, being convinced of what one does not see.” (ibid.)
While both ideas are insightful and helpful towards spiritual understanding, they are quite different. Two differing lessons taken from the same sentence. What is it then, that makes up faith? Is it a habitual disposition, granted by grace? Is it the will’s power to stand firm to things we hope? Benedict explains that they each have a part of the truth.
Hope, as he explains, implies the desire for something to come. It is a focus on the future. Obviously, it makes no sense for us to hope things will happen in the past. Our hopes are undeniably focused forward, but faith brings something more to the equation. “Hypostasis,” a word meaning “substance” and so much more, leads the translation to suggest that faith is not a disposition of the subject, as Martin Luther suggests, nor is it simply a property of our disposition as Aquinas put forth. Faith is a wholly unique substance that replies to the concept of hope and provides a proof for things which we cannot see.
Faith, then, is a response to hope–granted by Grace, yes–that allows us to live our lives of hope today, rather than just for the future. We do not close our eyes to the world around us and say things like, “Judgement day will come, and God’s plan will be completed, so we can just sit on our butts until it happens.” We understand through faith that the things to come are already here, in part, through our faith. Christians understand that it is not the possessions we have in this profane life that define us, but the possessions we claim in our sacred lives, reflections of that everlasting life to come. It sounds simple when you word it that way, but metaphysically speaking, it is profound.
As I re-read this paragraph again and again, I get more and more out of it. That is quite a legacy for a bookish mystic, after-all.
For us who contemplate these figures, their way of acting and living is de facto a “proof” that the things to come, the promise of Christ, are not only a reality that we await, but a real presence: he is truly the “philosopher” and the “shepherd” who shows us what life is and where it is to be found.