Tag Archives: F-H-L trinity

FAITH, HOPE, LOVE, all tangled up

St. Paul famously articulated the theological virtues: “Now abideth these three; Faith, Hope and Love.”

While he went on to crown one of them above the others (1 Corinthians 13:13, “the greatest of these is love”), he otherwise left this trinity of virtues unclarified. How are they related? Is there a connection between them?  Aren’t faith and hope the same thing, kind of? Did he separate them just to have three things in the list?

Elsewhere we read that “faith is the substance of things hoped for”, which certainly suggests a strong linkage between those two. The continuation of that passage (in Hebrews 11:1), “and the proof of things unseen”, fits our modern definition of faith more closely. But the link between faith and hope seems to want further consideration.

More modern translations suggest somewhat different meanings. The NAB calls faith “the realization of what is hoped for”. The NIV has “faith is being sure of what we hope for”.  The Jerusalem Bible reaches further, with “only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for”.  The Greek text uses the word “hypostasis” which elsewhere is usually translated as “substance,” so I stick with the RSV or KJV.

Faith, then, is the underlying reality of our hopes. But I am still confused about this “F-H-L” trinity.

Trying to untangle this knot in my mind, I tried subtraction.

Can there be hope without faith?  Or faith without hope?  And the real clincher, can we have love without faith or hope?

Hope without faith? This one comes up first and has troubled me for a long time.  Before I found faith in God, I faced what seemed to me to be a world and a future without hope.

Throughout my (almost-seventy-year-long) youth, I always had faith.  Faith in myself, in my wisdom. Faith in the basic goodness of others (“People Are Basically Good”, or PABGoo). Faith in historical and political progress. Faith in Marx and Hegel and Comte and Nietzsche.  Humanist faith: faith in humanity.  (Like Blanche Dubois, I always relied on the kindness of strangers.) And so I always had hope.

One thing linked all these faiths together: they were all as false as false can be.  And they all failed.

They failed because they could not stand exposure to reality, nor survive their own confrontation with the real world. 

(If you, dear reader, still have faith in these things, then pass on. If you are in doubt about them, I can suggest a reading list. Or you can simply reflect on the state of our world today.)

Yet we need faith, of some sort, faith in something or someone.  Why do we need faith?  Because we need hope, and we cannot have that without faith.  (The worldly, humanist faiths I listed above seem rather embarrassed about this fact, and avoid it by re-labeling hopeful faith as “optimism.”)

So we may conclude that hope without faith is impossible.

What about faith without hope? Are there hopeless faiths? I don’t know of any; do you? Our need for hope seems to be a basic component of human nature; hopelessness is the door to suicide.  And only faith can supply hope.

The need for faith is therefore downstream from the need for hope; faith flows from the need for hope, but hope flows from faith.

Perhaps this is a form of understanding faith as the substance of things hoped for. We hope for peace and joy; and faith gives us the substance of peace and joy.

But what about Virtue Number 3, “the greatest of these”?  To clarify, we are talking about love for others in the broadest sense, including but extending far beyond sexual or romantic love, beyond love of family. We are talking about love for others, for strangers. The Greek word is agape, as distinct from eros. Charity is a common English synonym.

Can there be such love without faith or hope?

The answer is yes. Of course, yes.

Love without hope, hopeless love, is a staple of romantic and tragic literature.  

Everybody loves, to some extent and in some way.  It is built into our human nature, as is the need for hope.  And everybody has faith, in something or other.  But, as we have seen, false faiths produce false and feeble hopes.  They also produce feeble loves.

Faith in humanity is ultimately faith in oneself. And self-faith is self-worship, leading nowhere good. Moreover, self-worship requires willful blindness to one’s weakness.  If you are your own god, you are doomed to perpetual disappointment.

Yet the false faith in humanity is still compatible with love for others.  Why is this?

And even the most hopeless person can feel love.  How can this be? 

To the Christian, the answer is clear.  We are created to love. The God who created us is a loving God, and we are therefore made, designed, blessed with the ability to love.  That is a part of what it means that we are created in God’s image.

What about those without faith or hope?  Or, more correctly, those with only false faiths and therefore false hopes (since, as we have seen, everyone has faith and hope of some kind)?

They, too, love. Indeed, the apostles of humanity-worship are often the loudest in their claims of love for all, and not all of their claims are mere posturing.  We all know many folks who scoff at the Bible, but still are generous in helping others, open-handed in charity and open-hearted in volunteering.  They do it because they know it is right.

But they do not know why it is right. 

Love, like faith and hope, is an inherently and universally human thing.  But unlike the other two, love for others does not seem to confer evolutionary advantage (except in the case of love for family and offspring), while truly hopeless individuals are at a distinct disadvantage in the Darwinian struggle for survival.  Science has made some half-hearted attempts to explain love in genetic terms (beyond love of children or self-love of genes), but without much success.  And, as in the case of hope/optimism, a certain embarrassment with the biblical terminology has required the coining of a new term: “altruism”.

 NOTE: I have written elsewhere about hope and its particular difficulties: The Little Girl Hope, Hope is the Hardest, and Hope Without Faith. Let me know what you think about any or all of this.