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.