“Hope sustains us on our journey of faith”

Father David Goodill, Visiting Professor at the University of Saint Joseph

Marco Carvalho

You recently delivered a lecture at Saint Dominic’s Church about the perception of Saint Thomas Aquinas on hope, which doesn’t have exactly the same meaning that we use in everyday life. In a certain sense, he uses it as a way to redemption, if not salvation. What’s special about Saint Thomas Aquinas’ conception of hope?

Father David Goodill: Saint Thomas looks at hope in two parts of his “Summa Theologiae”. First time he looks at it, is in relationship to the emotion of hope, the passion of hope. And that is closer to what we understand as hope, closer to our everyday understanding of hope. It’s the kind of expectation we nurture when we are longing for a future, when we wish to attain something in the future, but we have something in the way, some kind of obstacle to obtaining something in the future. This is the sort of emotion which lots of animals have, as well, in their own way. This is how their desires work, in a certain sense. So, there is something in terms of an emotion that we share with animals. You can see it, for instance, in a cat or a dog hoping for some food, for example. They are kind of expecting or hoping for some food. The same kind of human emotion moves us forward when we need to overcome something in the way to a future good. A child, for example, wants to go out and play with her friends, but there is something in the way. Let’s say, there is a dog in the way and this child has to get past the dog to get to his friends. His only hope is that, somehow, he can negotiate this situation and overcome the obstacles on his way. The good thing in the future is playing with his friends. That’s what Saint Thomas Aquinas begins with: this basic human emotion of hope. One of his first conclusions is that this is an emotion which is quite strong in young people. Young people have a lot of time ahead of them and not that much past experience. In general, young people have a sense of hopefulness for the future. But Saint Thomas also associates hope with people who are drunk. People who have been drinking usually have a sudden sense that they can achieve anything, that they can overcome any obstacle. If you think about it, it can be a kind of foolish hope, as well. So, the emotion, itself, it can be helpful, but it can also be immature. It can be something in which we revel when we are not fully rational. But, as a basic emotion, it’s a good thing…

But there’s more to hope, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas…

F.D.G: Saint Thomas then looks at the writings, particularly of Saint Paul and sees waiting and waiting and expectation of the coming of the Kingdom. The idea that God has promised us salvation, promised us the coming of His kingdom and we receive that through the gift and virtue of faith expands his understanding of hope. We have that promise, that we know it is true, because it was made by God himself. What hope does is…hope sustains us on our journey of faith, as we journey towards the Kingdom of God. So, just as a child has to overcome obstacles to get the good thing they want in the future, in our journey of faith, we know that God has promised us His kingdom, but there are many obstacles on the way. To live a Christian life, there are many temptations we have to give up, one of which is to presume that we have already achieved something by allowing God to work within us, through His grace. What we need is a special virtue –  which Thomas takes from the Scriptures and theological tradition – to help to move us towards this future good which is God. For Saint Thomas Aquinas, there are two elements to this: there’s the good himself that God has promised us and then, there’s this help that God sends us. Through faith, we know that God will send us His help when we need it the most. Part of the virtue of hope is exactly that:  this notion of God sending us help, special spiritual gifts or graces, when we are in need of them.

How can this sort of Godly guidance help us relieve our burdens? How can it help us mitigate our sense of misdoing?

F.D.G: That’s quite a good question. Saint Thomas looks at this journey in hope and towards hope as the development of a relationship with God. That is why he associates the virtue of hope with the theological gift of fear. Fear can be understood in different ways, but he strictly writes about the fear of the Lord, as a positive and good thing. A lot of what Saint Thomas does is to examine our journey in faith. He concludes that, at the beginning of our life of grace, of our life in faith, we still partake in that sort of fear of God: “Why should we do the right thing? Why should we live according to God’s teachings and Commandments? Why should we live a good life?”. Well, mostly because we fear God’s punishment. That is also the beginning of our journey.  Nevertheless, as our faith begins to mature, our fear of God becomes more comparable to the reverence and respect we nurture for our parents when they grow older. It’s a little bit like the maturing of a child. When a child is very small, if you tell her to do something, she will do it out of fear, because she doesn’t want to be punished. They know it is the right thing to do, but the reason they know it, it’s because their parents told them so. They don’t want to be punished, so they will do the right thing. As children get older, they will do the right thing out of their relationship and love for their parents.  They show love and respect and that becomes the reason why they will do the right thing. It is not the fear of God anymore that moves them; it’s that love and respect for God, that endearing relationship with God.

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote hundreds of years ago, in a very different time, with a very different Church and a very different society. Nowadays, the Church seems to be under attack from several different sides, but those that remain faithful to the Church, they are not Catholics out fear, but out of love. Did the Church reach that stage of maturity?

F.D.G: I don’t think they are Catholics out of fear. What we want is Christians to grow and to mature in their faith. We want them to realize faith is an expression of love and respect for God. That’s exactly what we want to see, in terms of personal growth and spiritual life. I believe the reason why people live a Christian life and find happiness in a Christian life is because of this growing relationship with God.

How can Catholics, in their daily life, cultivate this virtue, this gift of hope? What can Catholics do in order to foster this sense of hopefulness?

F.D.G: They can live faith in an active way. The best way, nevertheless, to foster hope is through prayer. Prayer – and particularly intercessory prayer – means that we place ourselves in God’s hands and we ask for God’s help. By doing so, our love and our relationship with God grows and, inherently, that theological virtue of hope grows within us. And, as it grows, we come to see our lives more and more dependant from God’s love, grace and help.

The lecture you gave in Macau ended on the right tone, with an evening prayer. Was that a good way to conclude your intervention?

F.D.G: I guess so. The two things go together very well, in the sense that the power of the Church is the liturgy of the Church. The power of the Church is, really, in the way in which we participate and promote the growth of that relationship with God.

Academically speaking, your expertise lies in the relationship between contemporary philosophy and moral theology. These two aspects, philosophy and moral theology, were quite connected. This is not the case anymore and they are, seemingly, growing apart. How much of a challenge is this for the Church?

F.D.G: Well, I am not sure that they are growing apart, to be honest. It depends on the kind of moral theology you look upon. But, you know, both in reformed moral theology and Catholic moral theology, philosophy is substantially used, as a way to try to better understand Revelation. I am not quite sure if they are growing apart. Certainly, over the last 20, 30 years there has been quite a lot of work going on, made by people who are re-reading the tradition, re-interpreting the sources: Saint Augustine, the fathers of the Church, Saint Thomas. These people are bringing their conclusions into dialogue with contemporary philosophers, as well. I think there’s a lot of good work going on in that direction.

The rise of materialism led Nietzsche to proclaim that “God is dead”. The line is often misunderstood, but society – now more than ever – seems to be moving further away from religion and from natural law. How can the Church answer these kind of developments?

F.D.G: There are going to be philosophies that, in within their nature, are not compatible both with the Christian faith and with the belief in God. There are going to be some limits to dialogue in certain philosophies. But even with a philosopher like Nietzsche, there are important lessons that can be learned in terms of his understanding of the modern world, of modernity and the evolution of modern philosophy. Even with philosophers like Nietzsche, there can be lessons we can learn in terms of a wider theology, even if his stance on theology is not compatible with Christianity. Then, there are philosophers whose works are much more open. Their thoughts and ideas are much more open to use within Christian theology. This doesn’t mean that we all have to subscribe to a particular philosopher or to read a particular philosopher. There can be a lot of food for thought going on. If you look at Ricoeur or Levinas, they are clearly philosophers with whom there can be a very fruitful dialogue. Their philosophy is not necessarily incompatible with Catholic teachings. Heiddegger is kind of a controversial figure, but he is very heavily within Christian theology. I, myself, I did work with Wittgenstein and a lot of people who are doing philosophy in the Catholic tradition know very well Wittgenstein’s ideas. There’s a great deal of dialogue that we can have with modern philosophy, except that there will be certain limits to it, obviously. Honestly, we won’t be able to get the kind of interaction that Saint Thomas finds between Aristotle and the Gospel in, let’s say, Wittgenstein, but there are still a lot of very important ideas that we can take from these philosophers. These ideas might help us to understand the gospel better, in the light of contemporary culture, society and ideas.

What sort of lessons can we extract from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy, for instance? What can the Church learn from what Wittgenstein has written?

F.D.G: Well, philosophers and theologians use Wittgenstein in a lot of different ways, but one of the very key ways in which Wittgenstein has influenced modern philosophy, particularly in the analytical English-speaking world, is through the revival of the so-called action theory. Human action is a central topic in Thomas Aquinas, taking from Aristotle. So, if you look at a lot of the Summa Theologiae, the second part is, actually, all about action. It’s all about human acts and action. Yet, modern philosophy tended to neglect a full analysis of human acts and action and, when it did analyse acts and actions, it tended to do so in an empiricist way. A way which was not, actually, philosophically very convincing. That is just one of the areas in which Wittgenstein, albeit indirectly, has brought about a revival in action theory. This resurgence then influenced revivals in virtue, ethics and so on. A very good example is a book that was published about twenty years ago, by Stephen Brock, who is an Opus Dei priest, based at Santa Croce, in Rome. Father Brock wrote about action and conduct and he brings Saint Thomas into dialogue with modern analytical accounts of action, looking into Anthony Kenny, Davidson and so on. That is a very fruitful enterprise. It is not necessarily going to solve all the problems of the Church immediately. But, you know, very often they are getting these foundational questions right. They are taking into account our analysis, what we mean when we talk about human action, which can then help us address the bigger questions. That is just one example in which the work done with Wittgenstein has been very influential and useful. Another way in which Wittgenstein kind of helps is to look at philosophy in a new way. A way which is much more compatible, in a certain sense, with ancient philosophy and medieval philosophy than with modern philosophy. In a way, he actually gets us to think about the practices and the way we go about doing philosophy, what philosophy is and what are the right methods to doing philosophy are. To all that, Wittgenstein has been very, very helpful.

During almost two millennia, the challenge to the Church was to put Saint Thomas Aquinas with Aristotle in dialogue. Nowadays, it seems, the Church has to dialogue with everybody. Isn’t it a burden for the Church the idea that, instead of answering to philosophers and thinkers, it should discuss fundamental aspects with people unable of self-guided thinking?

F.D.G: No. I don’t think it’s a burden for the Church. I think that is something that has been done very well through the writings of theologians who were able to communicate philosophical ideas at different levels to Catholics at different stages in their development. Certainly, that is the case from where I came from, the English Dominicans. For a very long time, for decades really, we have found ways in which we can make the theological teaching of Aquinas and other theologians accessible to ordinary people. Saint Thomas Aquinas’ thinking is, obviously, central for Dominicans, but through our writings, we have managed to make theological teachings accessible to those without any theological formation whatsoever. We have Father Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Order, who through his writing has communicated a lot of the theological ideas that he learned and developed from other Dominicans. He has been able to communicate that to a much larger world. I think that is the real challenge. I think that we need to do proper, academic top-level, flossing theology, but we also need a certain level of communication that doesn’t mortar ideas down to the point that makes them over-simplistic. We need to communicate them in a way which is understandable, but also relevant to contemporary people. This was done for a very long time through the writing of people like Herbert McCabe and others, which were publishing articles, books and so on. These books are very well written, but not too technical, to the point of loosing the ordinary Catholic. They were written for people of a certain kind of level of understanding, but, at the same time, not assuming that the readers were trained academics, philosophers or theologians. I think that is, actually, one of the challenges: to have that kind of level of communication and writing. Of course, now there are a lot of resources available, not only in terms of books, but also in terms of wider media content. A great example in the United States is Robert Barron, who does a great job communicating the truth of the Catholic faith in a very accessible way, without watering down anything and being able to move through different levels of theological complexity.

How is this experience of being a visiting professor in Macau going so far?

This is my fourth year of teaching at the University of Saint Joseph, but because of COVID and lockdowns, this is the first year that I have been able to come here physically. It has always been a great privilege to teach the students and even though the teaching has been remote, the students have been very, very good. They always reacted very well. They work hard. I get the sense that they have learned something from the course and it has been very, very good for me to teach in this different context and to work with students hailing from different parts of the world.