By Peter Kreeft
Of all the questions the human mind can ask, three are of ultimate importance:
What can I know?
What should I do?
What may I hope?
The three questions correspond to the three “theological virtues” of faith, charity, and hope. Faith in God’s word is the Christian answer to “What can I know?” Love of God and neighbor is the Christian answer to “What should I do?” And hope for Gods’ Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, is the Christian answer to “What may I hope?” Just as faith fulfills the mind’s deepest quest for truth and as love fulfills the moral will’s deepest quest for goodness, so the hope of Heaven fulfills the heart’s deepest quest for joy.
It is this quest that moves irrepressibly through the world’s great myths and religions, the masterpieces of its greatest artists and writers, and the dreams that rise from the primordial depths of our unconscious. However different the heavens hoped for, wherever there is humanity, there is hope.
The question of hope is at least as ultimate as the other two great questions, for it means “What is the point and purpose of life?”. Most people in our modern Western society do not have any clear or solid answer to this question. Most of us live without knowing what we live for.
How is it that the society that “knows it all” about everything knows nothing about Everything? How has the knowledge explosion exploded away the supreme knowledge? Every past society gave its members answers to all three great questions. It transmitted the teachings of its sages, saints, mystics, gurus, philosophers, or gods through tradition. For the first time in history, society no longer regards tradition as sacred; in fact, it no longer regards it at all. We are the first tree that has uprooted itself from the universal soil.
From earliest times, humanity has hoped for heaven. The earliest artifacts are burial mounds. The dead were always prepared for the great journey. However various the forms, belief in an afterlife is coterminous with humanity.
Among ancient peoples, two stand out in this respect, as in most others: the Jews and the Greeks. These peoples are the twin sources of Western civilization, the two main tributaries of the river whose waters, blending in the medieval synthesis and separated again in modernity, still trickle far downstream through the swampy delta of the present. They were the only two peoples who found modes of thought other than myth for answering life’s three great questions. For myth, the Jews substituted faith in a historically active and word-revealing God, and the Greeks substituted critical inquiring reason. For this reason, they developed different hopes, different heavens, from those of the myths.
The Hebrew conception of heaven arises in exactly the opposite way from the pagan one; instead of rising out of humanity’s heart, it descends from God’s. From the beginning of the story, God tells humanity what He wants instead of humanity telling God what it wants. Instead of humanity making the gods in its image, God makes humanity in His image; and instead of earth making Heaven in its image, Heaven makes earth in its image. Thus, the greatest Jew teaches us to pray: “Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in Heaven.”
The Greeks are the other root of the tree of Western civilization. The Jews gave us conscience; the Greeks, reason. The Jews gave us the laws of morality, of what ought to be; the Greeks gave us the laws of thought and being of what is. And their philosophers discovered a new concept of God and a new concept of Heaven. While the priests were repeating their stories of fickle and fallible gods with their Olympian shenanigans and imaginative afterworlds, underworlds, or overworlds, the philosophers substituted impersonal but perfect essences for the personal but imperfect gods and a heaven of absolute Truth and Goodness for one of pleasures or pains. Not Zeus, but Justice; not Aphrodite, but Beauty; not Apollo, but Truth were the true gods: perfect unpersons rather than imperfect persons. (The Jews, meanwhile, were worshipping the Perfect Person, transcending the Greek alternatives.) The heaven corresponding to the Greek philosophers’ theology was a timeless, spaceless realm of pure spirit, pure mind, pure knowledge of eternal essences instead of the priests’ gloomy underworlds of Tartarus and Hades, earthly otherworlds of Elysian Fields, or astronomical overworlds of heroes turned into constellations.
Two of these heavenly essences stand out as ultimate values: Truth and Goodness. Even the gods are judged by these values and found wanting; that is why Socrates was executed, for “not believing in the gods of the State”. Plato asks, “Is a holy thing holy because the gods approve it, or do the gods approve it because it is holy?” The priests say the former; the philosophers, the latter. For them, the two eternal essences, Goodness and Truth, stand above the Greek gods. But they do not stand above the Jewish God, the God who is Goodness and Truth. The Greeks discovered two divine attributes; the Jews were discovered by the God who has them.
The meeting and blending of these two great rivers, the biblical (Judeo-Christian) and the classical (Greco-Roman), produced the Middle Ages. Medieval thinkers were intensely conscious of being inheritors and synthesizers, preservers and blenders of two ancient foods. As medieval theology synthesized the personality of YHWH (incarnated in Christ) with the timeless perfection of the philosophers’ essences, the medieval picture of heaven synthesized the biblical imagery of love and joyful worship of God with the Greek philosophical heaven of the contemplation of eternal Truth.
But the Middle Ages are no longer. The Renaissance and the Reformation disintegrated the medieval synthesis, divorced the couple that had been stormily but creatively married. These two sources of modernity both harked back to pre-medieval ideals: the Renaissance longed to return to Greco-Roman humanism and rationalism, and the Reformation longed to return to a simple biblical faith.
From the Reformation emerged a Protestantism whose essential vision of human destiny was in agreement with medieval Catholicism, since both were rooted in biblical revelation. But from the Renaissance emerged something radically new in human history: a secular society with a secular summum bonum. Of the twenty-one civilizations Arnold Toynbee distinguishes in his monumental Study of History, the first twenty kept some sort of religious basis and purpose; ours is history’s most unique experiment. It remains to be seen how long a civilization can survive without the use of spiritual energy, without a supernatural source of life.
Once modernity denies or ignores God, there are only two realities left: humanity and nature. If God is not our end and hope, we must find that hope in ourselves or in nature. Thus emerge modernity’s two new kingdoms, the Kingdom of Self and the Kingdom of This World: the twin towers of Babel II.
The two idol-kingdoms are built in these two realms: the Kingdom of This World in the realm of objective matter at the expense of spirit and the Kingdom of the Self in the realm of subjective spirit at the expense of the objective. Subjective truth replaces objective truth; subjective values replace objective values. Both kingdoms are alternatives to the Kingdom of God, which is built in the realm of objective spirit. God is objective spirit, and when “God is dead,” the objective world is reduced to matter and the spiritual world is reduced to subjectivity. Therefore, the death of God is the death of nature and of humanity.
To overcome this dualism and to relieve the anxiety its alienation causes, we take refuge in one or the other of the two monisms. First, in nature; once heaven is no longer a Father, nature is no longer a Mother. “She” becomes “it,” demythologized into dead atoms rather than living spirit. Second, humanity, in turn, is reduced to a natural, not supernatural, being; highest among life forms, we, too, are made of the dust, and our destiny is simply to return to the dust.
What then is left? God is dead; truth is dead; goodness is dead; humanity is dead; nature is dead. Our idolatrous society cannot give us an answer to the question of heaven, the question of hope, the question of happiness or explain why its two kingdoms are idols and that it is silent, hypocritical or a failure in answering this crucial question: In our traditionless society, what can substitute in teaching us what we may hope for?
According to the Greek philosophers, reason is the highest thing in us. Reason should judge love; we are to love and live according to reason. But according to Christianity, we are to love beyond reason; only if we love will we know. When asked how to understand his teachings, Jesus replied, “If your will were to do the will of my Father, you would understand my teachings.” On another occasion he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” What we see and what we understand of God and each other depends on our hearts, and on our faith, hope, and love.
The heart, then, has eyes. Its deepest love and longing, the longing that nothing earthly can satisfy, is an eye. It sees something; it tells us something. Instead of looking at it and explaining it or explaining it away, let us look with it.
Pascal’s famous dictum, “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing”, is usually misunderstood—in fact, it is turned upside down—and interpreted as irrationalism. But it says exactly the opposite: The heart has reasons. We must not patronize them or explain them away. The heart sees, and we must look with it, not only at it, if we are to see.