The worst sinner in Christian history was Judas Iscariot. Of course he betrayed Christ and handed him over to his death. That was bad. But far worse was his internal conviction that things couldn’t get any better, that he and his situation were irredeemable.
This is a great analogy for our own spiritual lives—that we should never despair because no sin is unforgivable if only we ask—but there is a strong cultural analogy to be drawn as well. As we try to navigate our tenuous situation of becoming strangers in a strange new culture, which increasingly refuses to tolerate the voice of traditional Christianity, we should never despair (just as we shouldn’t swing too far in the other direction towards a kind of blind optimism). In the words of Richard John Neuhaus,
Optimism is a matter optics, of seeing what you want to see and not seeing what you don't want to see. Hope, on the other hand, is a Christian virtue. It is the unblinking acknowledgment of all that militates against hope, and the unrelenting refusal to despair. We have not the right to despair, and, finally, we have not the reason to despair.
Stubborn hope, then, is the answer. But in what, exactly, does it consist? Thomas Aquinas taught that man has a purpose, a human nature—body and soul, intelligent and free—which was created in goodness by God, wounded by sin, redeemed by grace, bound for glory. This process of perfection begins from the moment of baptism. Our true purpose is to be happy with him forever in the next life—but in the life of grace, that pursuit of personal fulfillment and happiness begins now.
No structural “sin” or wicked culture can impede man’s relationship with God absolutely. We hope in him because he made us and we belong to him. Just as in the story of Israel, sometimes we are lapping up milk and honey, and other times on our way to Babylon, but nothing can ever prevent us from being faithful. Our dignity and our purpose lies within who we are, and that is why we cannot and must not fear those who can destroy only the body.
The struggle will continue in our day to fight for justice for the oppressed, the unborn, the family, religious freedom, and more. Yet “winning” is not a quantifiable thing, culturally speaking.
Right now, things are looking somewhat bleak in America, but Christians and Jews are not easily tricked. We look back in history and see all the great deeds God has done for his children. We see all the foreign powers that have tried (and ultimately failed) to dominate us. As the situations of history and culture ebb and flow, the constant is God’s never failing care for man. We are heading towards Babylon. But God lives there too. The final victory has been won by Christ, and that extends to today and tomorrow.
While Judas despaired, Peter—having fallen victim to outside pressure denied Christ—asked forgiveness, and then served the Church. The good thief was a ne’er-do-well who didn’t help the culture one iota, but now he reigns in eternal bliss. The early Christians lived in a culture that makes ours look prudish, but set their faces like flint as they were flayed. So despair not, but do not be afraid to see things as they are.
Dominic Bouck, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?