Hope and Christian Ethics

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David Elliot
New Studies in Christian Ethics
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , July
     290 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David Elliot's Hope and Christian Ethics argues for the centrality of rightly understood hope for the Christian life. He argues that hope preserves us in a “eudimonia gap”: the difference between the level of happiness we wish for in this life, and our failure to feel such happiness in the midst of living our lives. While reliant on the notion of hope found in the work of Thomas Aquinas, the book engages a wide range of non-Thomistic conversation partners in its argument for hope's proper place in theology and ethics.

The book opens with an excellent overview of Aquinas's view of happiness that is unencumbered by technical details or overt engagement with secondary scholarship. Elliot notes that for Aquinas, hope is an act of will, and not simply an emotion. That view makes Christian hope a disposition that continually frames the moral landscape informing the individual’s agency. Elliot notes that social scientific data corroborates the importance of hope not only for the downtrodden and those in despair, but also for individuals whose lives are going well. The chapter closes by discussing the limitations of Kantian and utilitarian discussions of happiness, underscoring that theological understandings of hope are in many ways different from the accounts of hope offered in secular philosophy.

Elliot believes that Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope is no longer an effective platform for further theological work on hope, because it is too entrenched in responding to a Marxist view of history (Marxism was the primary rival to Christianity when Moltmann was writing). Elliot also finds Moltmann overly dependent on the work of Ernest Bloch, though this claim is difficult to prove. In addition, he argues that Moltmann's emphasis on hope causes Moltmann to minimalize charity's importance for Christian ethics, and that Moltmann's continual linking of hope to political praxis leaves those without political power unable to participate in or experience Christian hope.

Elliot then summarizes Aquinas's position on the relationship between grace and hope. He argues that while hope is divinely infused according to Aquinas, agents should use the sacramental and liturgical resources of the Christian community to support their efforts to “lean into” hopeful action in the world. Christians are called to view the future in light of divine promises and act no matter how dire their present circumstances. At the same time, grace's action on an agent differs from philosophical eudominia. This chapter troubles the notion that a rightly practiced Christian agape, such as that defended by Timothy Jackson, should set aside the promise of eternal life. Elliot seems to believe that hope in eternal life rightly grounds moral action in a way that Jackson's “disconsoled” notion simply cannot do.

Hope propels moral action by awakening in agents a desire for a fuller ethic and more justice. Elliot defends Christian hope against Nietzsche's claim that Christian hope is world denying. Rather, he argues that it is the loss of an eschatological hope that is secure enough to solidly ground moral effort in the face of failure that leads to the despair which Christianity's critics blame on Christian hope. Rather then being guilty of sinful presumption, Christians must balance hope with a firm knowledge that humans are dependent on God and that they are still accountable for moral actions in this life. He thus takes on Jeffery Stout's critique of Christian hope—that it causes agents to forego moral responsibility. Hope, the book argues, allows those who suffer to have agency in the midst of patience, rather then abandoning themselves to despair.

In a chapter entitled “Hope in the Earthly City,” Elliot makes the argument that hope does not foster ethical resignation or unengagement. All agents, according to Elliot, are citizens of a political body—the nation—and are not, contra the view of Stanley Hauerwas, simply citizens of the church.

This extrordinary, carefully argued work of Christian ethics restores hope's importance to Christian ethics while acknowledging the dangers of its misconstrual and misuse.  Like Marylin McCord Adams’s writings, it accepts that a hope for eternal life is integral to Christian ethics, and does not necessarily lead to abandonment of worldly concerns or quietism in the face of suffering and injustice. Elliot's ability to stay rooted in Thomistic thought while engaging a host of other authors using that framework makes this book exemplary as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Health Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.

Date of Review: 
January 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Elliot is assistant professor of moral theology and ethics at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. His work on hope was recently awarded the Essay and Book Prize from the Character Project of the Templeton Foundation for its contribution to the study of character.



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