Faith & Thought

Every Marriage Proposal Requires Hope and Love

I have a strange relationship with Robert Johann’s book “Building the Human” (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968, pp. 192). It is a relationship that I don’t have with any other book. 

In 1967 I was a professor in charge of inviting guest lecturers to the newly opened Cathedral College Seminary in Douglaston, Queens. The first lecturer I invited was Robert Johann, who was a philosophy professor at Fordham. A year later “Building the Human” was published. I read the book soon after it appeared. 

Though I liked what I read, there were several parts of the book that I did not understand. Cut to last year when I finished writing a book I am calling “The Cosmic Love Story: God and Us.” Re-reading some of Johann’s book, I was amazed to discover that over the last 50 years, without ever referring directly to Johann’s philosophy, or plagiarizing any of Johann’s insights, I have been teaching the philosophy that Johann presented in his book. How did that happen? I don’t know how it happened. The only guess I can make is that over the last 50 years I may have read many of the books that shaped Johann’s vision. Reading those books may have shaped my thinking as they shaped Johann’s thinking. I hope in heaven Bob is pleased to know that he has a disciple, even if the disciple became one unintentionally. 

The reason I am referring to Johann’s thought in this column is that in “Building the Human” he has a wonderful essay on hope which I decided to re-read during Advent. By linking hope to the experience of loving and being loved, Johann offers some wonderful insights into the virtue of hope and how hope is required for any love relationship to happen. Stressing that hope is not a kind of blind optimism which might be the attitude of someone who goes through life with rose-colored glasses, unaware that people’s lives don’t always go smoothly, Johann writes the following: 

“It is almost a cliché to say that love is a risk. To love another person deeply and genuinely is to put the meaning and happiness of one’s life in that person’s hands. When we love, we shift the focus of our concern and preoccupation from ourselves to another. The other’s fulfillment and happiness is what we seek. Our very life becomes a gift and all we ask is that the gift be accepted. Whether or not it will be, however, does not depend on us. Try as we may, we cannot compel another to accept our love or make room for us in his heart. We cannot force love. It is like a door at which we knock which can only be opened from the inside. It can also be shut at any time. Thus even when a loving relationship has been established, there is no guarantee it will last. Since love depends on the freedom of two people, its existence is a continuous task at which one or both may fail.” (pp. 149-150) 

Around the time that I was re-reading Johann’s reflections on hope, I met a couple who had just become engaged. I imagined the young man asking the young lady to marry him. A proposal of marriage requires an enormous act of hope. When someone proposes marriage, the person is taking a chance, undergoing a risk. Everything that Johann has written about hope makes sense to me when I reflect on the hope that is required in order to propose marriage. Johann stresses that we cannot force others to love us. Love must be free and so can always be withheld. Johann writes the following: 

“The lover comes with a prayer, ‘Let me be with you’ — and can only hope to be heard. He looks to a relationship that is meant to be forever, but can only hope that it be so. Without hope, that is a willingness to count on another’s freedom as reliably for him, he would never take the step. Without hope, which embraces the whole of the future, his love could not even begin.”(p. 150) 

In relating these thoughts to our relationship with God, we believe that we cannot even hope without God’s grace. God initiates the relationship. Our hope in God’s love for us seems to be the starting point in our relationship with God. We want our hope and trust in God to be unconditional. We want to hope and trust in God when everything in our life seems to be going well. We want to hope and trust in God when nothing in our life seems to be going well. Our hope and trust in God allows us to believe that no matter what we do, God will never stop loving us. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV