I’m honored to participate in this roundtable on Joe Spencer’s book For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope. I’ll be tackling chapters 2 and 3 today; Adam treated chapter 1 here. Like many T&S readers, I presume, I come at this book as an amateur: I was trained in literature, not philosophy, and the densely analytical style of philosophy can be challenging — though always rewarding — for me to work through. These chapters are full of interesting ideas and new readings. Rather than react or respond to Joe’s theology here, I’m just going to do my best to summarize the argument as completely as I can. At my level, that’s always a necessary first step. So here goes.
Chapter 2: Faith and Hope
In chapter 2 of his book, Spencer takes on the fourth chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which focuses largely on the relationship between faith and hope. Paul takes as his starting point Abraham’s faith, as expressed in Genesis 15:6: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (I’m going to link to the NIV throughout the post for the reader’s convenience, but Spencer provides his own translations throughout, which sometimes differ in important ways from standard translations.) Paul glosses this verse in Romans 4: 18-22. The crucial points, in Paul’s reading, are that 1) Abraham’s faith preceded his righteousness (verse 22), and 2) his particular kind of faith is defined by its relationship to hope (verse 18). Spencer zooms in on the opening phrase in verse 18 that is often translated as “against all hope,” but which he renders as “hopeless but hoping.” This phrase will be the foundation of chapter 2.
So what is the relationship between faith and hope? Faith is oriented toward a past revelatory event; hope toward the future implications of that event. Hope suggests a promise that things can be different. “The past destabilized the present by showing that, in transition to the future, ‘the present scheme of things is passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31)” (17). Thus hope entails a sense of movement, process, an “attitude of exodus.”
In verse 20, Spencer finds an important qualification: ordinary hope is little more than self-love and wish-fulfillment; but virtuous hope, is, crucially, only hope in God’s promises. Here Spencer works out a complicated but insightful mutual relationship between faith and hope:
HOPE transforms FAITH, because hope’s trust augments faith’s fidelity.
FAITH transforms HOPE, because faith requires that hope be oriented toward God, not self.
Another way of stating the latter is that faith “divides” (ordinary) hope from (virtuous) hope; this division is the implication of the peculiar formulation “hopeless but hoping.”
Spencer then draws out a fascinating dichotomy between desperation and despair from the phrase “hopeless but hoping.” In desperation, he argues, you believe that there is a way out of your predicament, but are sure that your own impotence prevents you from finding it. In this sense, desperation is “objectively hopeful” (that is, believing there is actually a “way out” within your power) but “subjectively hopeless” (that is, believing that your own incompentence prevents you from finding it). We might describe desperation, using Paul’s formula, as “(objectively) hoping but (subjectively) hopeless.”
In contrast, despair is “objectively hopeless”: that is, despair recognizes that there is no way of deliverance, under the present order of things. But despair is “subjectively hopeful”: it recognizes that the objective order of things is passing away, and that God has given you a role in that process of change. Thus we can say, with Paul, that despair is “(objectively) hopeless but (subjectively) hoping.” True hope can only originate in despair, never in desperation.
Chapter 3: Hope and Love
In Chapter 3, Spencer turns to Romans 5. This chapter introduces love into the familiar trio of faith, hope and love, and Spencer here focuses on the relationship between hope and love. Closely reading Romans 5:1-5, Spencer discerns three conceptual stages:
1) the relationship of faith and hope (verses 1-2)
2) hope’s relationship to itself (verses 3-4)
3) the relationship of hope and love (verse 5).
These three stages will structure the remainder of the chapter.
Stage 1: In exploring the relationship between faith and hope, Romans 5 builds on Romans 4: faith not only orients hope away from the self and toward God’s honor, but actually offers the possibility of sharing in God’s honor. Faith offers hope the chance to participate in the “passing away of the present order.” Thus the “subjective hopefulness” of despair-become-hope: I can be an agent of change.
Spencer overlays a temporal scheme on this theology of faith and hope:
PAST: The Messianic event in which we exercise faith
PRESENT: the process of change in which we are invited to join, lifting us from despair
FUTURE: the better world to come in which we exercise hope
Into this chronology, Spencer inserts the Christian “boasting” of which Paul speaks in verse 2. Ordinary “boasting” — that is, hope that has not been transformed by faith, hope oriented toward the self — is rooted in and ratified by the present order of things: it is, we might say, the positive, though equally mistaken, mirror of desperation. But Christian boasting, faithfully hopeful boasting oriented toward God’s promises and our role in them, is located at the border of the present and the future. Virtuous boasting is an Exodus state of mind.
Stage 2: What of hope’s relationship to itself? In Romans 5: 3-4, Paul describes a process through which the Christian disciple, hoping for a better world, endures difficulty and builds strength of character. This strength of character, in turn, enables the disciple to fully accept her role in the passing away of the present order — that is, in building Zion, the object of her hope. The entire process thus begins and ends in hope. It is in this sense that Spencer suggests that hope is reflexive or “self-augmenting.”
This process presents a potential danger, however: that the disciple’s newly-won strength of character will foster a false autonomy, alienating her from God and her fellows.
Stage 3: Love arrives on the scene to alleviate this potential pitfall. Love is a kind of affiliative impulse that results from an experience of radical human difference, if all parties to the difference remain faithful to it. Love, by illuminating difference and redeeming it, saves the disciple from falling into a false autonomy. Love, that is, is the way we verify another person’s existence. As Spencer puts it,
the hope that marks that journey’s end is anything but self-confidence or independence. The augmented hope one develops by fighting against resistance comes to fruition only because of its connection with love, and love leaves no room for independence. (31)
Here Spencer’s impulse to subdivide further schematizes hope: if hope without faith leads to dead-end desperation, then hope without love leads to false independence. Conversely, hope + faith leads through a passage of fruitful despair to a new beginning, and hope + love carries the disciple through the Zion-change in true fellowship.
What begins as a kind of instrumentality — I hope only to be a tool in God’s hands — eventually becomes a very real partnership, ideally bound by covenant. And this brings hope to its most real fruition because hope ceases to be merely a strong but somewhat selfish confidence in the other; hope becomes, instead, a loving confidence in the work to be accomplished by all who share in God’s vision. (34)
Spencer summarizes, “Hope, transformed by faith, pursued relentlessly, and then supplemented by love, is what characterizes the life of the Christian” (34). And with that, the stage is set for Romans 8: the time of hope.