Preaching to the Hopes of Sinners

A second interview with Pope Francis has just been published. It may turn out to be as controversial as the first, if Rod Dreher’s blog response to the interview is any indication.

In the interview the pope is asked, “Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?” He replies, “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.” The interviewer then asks, “Your Holiness you wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope,” to which Francis replies, “And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

Dreher comments: “I find this incoherent from a Christian perspective. I don’t see how one evangelizes on this.”

I suspect that underlying the Francis’s words is the transcendental Thomism of Karl Rahner, though I may be completely wrong on that. But I think that we can make sense of this if we remember that every human being is created in the image of God: we are created for God and therefore can never find ultimate satisfaction and happiness apart from the God who is our ultimate and supreme Good.

Francis’s words, combined with Dreher’s response, reminded me of a passage in Robert W. Jenson’s book Story and Promise, in which Jens speaks of the challenge of preaching the gospel in the mode of unconditional promise. When the preacher stands before his congregation, he stands before a group of human beings whose lives are shaped by what Jenson calls “penultimate hopes.” Bob hopes for a successful career. Ashley hopes that the right man will come into her life. Colleen hopes that her husband will stop abusing her. Jerry hopes that he’ll win the lottery and become filthy rich. Bob hopes that he’ll find some good friends. Tracy hopes that God will stop the civil war in Syria. Linda hopes that the chemotherapy will cure her cancer. John hopes that his son will go to college. Sam hopes that Fred will fall down the steps and break his neck. Gloria hopes that Steve will succumb to her seductions and have an affair with her. And so on. We entertain hopes for the future, and these hopes shape and define our lives, for good or ill.

The task of the preacher, states Jenson, is to interpret the penultimate hopes of his hearers in light of the gospel. The preacher does so, first off, by declaring them possible. As observed in an earlier article, all of our hopes are bounded by death, which means that even our most unconditional promises become conditional. We cannot promise a future that we do not possess. “All hopes are invested in some of our fellows, Jenson explains, “and by their death would be interpreted ‘It might have been'”:

But hope for Jesus’ love is hope facing death; it therefore believes about itself that the individuals and communities in which it has invested itself will yet be included in the triumph of Jesus’ love. The gospel says to every man that ‘there is hope for’ his penultimate hopes, and that therefore they are worth pursuing. It says to Americans that there is point in the struggle for a just and liberating society; for even if we are now defeated, our efforts will bear fruit. To slightly pervert a famous Bible passage: we plant, our children will water (if only with tears), and God will despite all give the harvest. (p. 63)

But how can the preacher say this to someone whose hopes are sinful and evil? The preacher first needs to remember that even the greatest sinner is created in the image of God and therefore yearns for God, even if he has twisted this yearning beyond all recognition. “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God,” G. K. Chesterton memorably stated. But it’s one thing to construe disordered natural appetites, such as for sex and food, as hunger for that satisfaction and fulfillment that only God can give; but how can we even begin to evangelically reinterpret the savage desires and hopes of the truly depraved? Jenson pushes on:

It seems dangerous to promise triumph to every man’s and every society’s hopes in this way, for men’s hopes are often vicious. But we may do it, because we promise the triumph of love, and therefore interpret penultimate hopes also materially. The gospel says to anyone: “Whatever you hope for, you are really hoping for love to happen.” This interpretation is always possible because, if the gospel is true, every look forward in time is in fact a look forward to the coming of love. To Hitler himself, believers could have said: “Your murderous plans for a racially homogeneous society are but the despairing and self-hating negative of hope for a society in which objective differences no longer divide men. That society will be realized; but not by removing objective differences, rather by the triumph of one who lived difference and separation to the end. He will give us each other’s differences as the very opportunities of solidarity. If you want to work for anticipation of this society in Germany, no one can help you so much as the Jews.” Hitler probably would not have believed it—but who knows? (pp. 63-64)

Here is the great challenge of the preacher. God knows, it’s no easy task. I look back on my own preaching ministry, and I can only shudder at my homiletical failures. Yet if the gospel is to be proclaimed as eschatological address, this is what we must attempt to do. By the words of the sermon the hopes of each member of our congregation, the hopes of each person to whom we speak the gospel, the hopes of each individual whom we evangelize, are gathered into the indubitable triumph of the coming kingdom. “Jesus lives,” the preacher announces, “and so your deepest dreams and aspirations will be fulfilled.”

Personally, I think Jenson’s eschatological approach to the preaching of the gospel is evangelically superior to Pope Francis’s tactic of encouraging everyone “to move towards what they think is Good.” But perhaps, after due consideration, the pope would agree with me.

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2 Responses to Preaching to the Hopes of Sinners

  1. Nathan says:

    Father Kimel,

    In a 1980s LC-MS hymnal there was this line “gather the hopes and the dreams of all… unite them in the prayers we offer now”.

    Its not gone because this was seen as an innovation, and not having a basis in the Bible.

    Dreher quotes the southern Baptist Russel Moore:

    “It is not good news to say to such consciences, “Well, we’re all brothers and sisters,” if what they feel in their psyches and read in their Bibles (and in their Catholic catechisms) is that those who commit such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. We must speak with tenderness and gentleness, but with an authoritative word from God, that there is a means of reconciliation. The burdened conscience doesn’t wish to hear “It’s all okay.” The burdened conscience is freed by “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1).”

    Pope Francis in the interview:

    “Convert you? Proselytism is solemn nonsense. You have to meet people and listen to them.”

    Oye – I think evangelism done in the context of personal relationships is the best way for the average Christian to speak of Christ as well. That said, is not Christ turning all men’s hearts to Him our only real hope? Is the book of Acts with its kind of preaching now completely passe?

    This interview is begging for another interview.

    +Nathan

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  2. I agree with everything you wrote, but one thing seems obvious: yes, the conscience is the final arbiter of moral authority and is in a real way tied up with a desire for God. However, there is a real probability of an errant or malformed conscience – one that desires the Good in the wrong way through obsessions to little goods (like the lustful in Dante’s Inferno). Yes, one desires life and goodness in even immorality since life is Good, what God intends for us. That includes even the prostitute, since person desires God. I’m reminded of Pope Benedict XVI’s incendiary but poignant comment about AIDS in Africa. Yet I wish he might have said something about the malformed conscience and the need for informing one’s conscience.

    Of course, I have great respect and admiration for what Pope Francis is doing in God’s vineyard so I’ll leave him to do it as he sees fit. Perhaps it is me who needs to reflect on his words harder and see the divine work. Still, there is a definite difference in emphasis on conscience versus malformed conscience.

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