Perhaps you’ve watched the interview in which Stephen Colbert talks about his faith? A couple of things said in the interview got me thinking about my own faith and the fine balance between hope and despair. This is partly due to the fact that at the moment I’m trying to make sense of the general themes of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy. Stephen Colbert and Paul Ricoeur? Stay with me.

In the interview Colbert talks about the importance of affirmation, joy, and hope. He says his Catholic faith is rooted in saying “yes” to life, to others, and to God. Colbert also refers to the biblical injunction “do not be afraid” as indicative of what it means to belong to the church, to live a life in community oriented by joyful hope. If you’re familiar with the New Testament, it’s not hard to think of instances in which joy and thankfulness are taken as central Christian characteristics (Romans 15:13, for instance). “My love of the world and my gratitude toward it”, Colbert says at one point, lead him to God.

Believe it or not, Colbert briefly echoes themes sounded throughout Paul Ricoeur’s oeuvre. One of the longstanding themes of that work is a hopeful openness to existence. That sounds a bit airy, but Ricoeur insisted that philosophical reflection on humanity’s bodily predicament and the avowal of our constrained freedom in the works of culture (myth, history, literature, art, etc.) reveals the potential at the core of being human to expand our self-awareness. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to suggest that the whole of Ricoeur’s work was aimed at outlining and encouraging precisely this expansion of our self-awareness, on both personal and communal levels. Ricoeur also claimed that philosophical reflection detected what I like to think of as an “echo of being”, in which we can discern in the nature of our existence a kind of call, one that can be heard as the call of hope or the call of despair. As The Decemberists lyric has it, “What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.”

Existential despair or anguish might arise from a number of sources: the contingency of life, the fragility of the human psyche, the ambiguity of history, the possibility of death, alienation, or even nonsense. Opposed to anguish Ricoeur set primary affirmation. You might think of this primary affirmation as a secular hope, derived from reflection on the “totality of the goodness of being”. Humanity’s finitude, its constrained freedom, means that we can never finally overcome existential anguish. But we can confront and perhaps console that anguish with an equally rooted hope.

Ricouer’s humanism was one which asserted, against anguish, against negative experience, “a notion of being which is act rather than form, living affirmation, the power of existing and of making exist.” This effort to exist consists of a balance between the knowledge of humanity’s finitude and the hope to which that same finitude points. “I do not think man directly, but I think him through composition, as the “mixture” of originating affirmation and existential negation. Man is the Joy of Yes in the sadness of the finite.”

Ricoeur’s faith was one which he frequently described in terms of listening. To hear the Christian call, the kerygma, is to live in the order of the resurrection. He repeatedly referenced the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans and what Ricoeur liked to call the “logic of superabundance”. As Paul put it, with notable flourish, “where sin abounds, grace abounds more.” To live within the horizon of such an economy, as opposed to the economy of equivalence, which demands an eye for an eye, is to live in the hopeful reality of the resurrection. Like Colbert, Ricoeur linked the superabundant economy of grace with the joy by which Christians should be characteristically known. For those of us who continue to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the hope of living in the order of resurrection triumphs over the powerful and unceasing undertow of fear, anguish, and despair.

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About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

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