Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The opposite of faith, hope and love

Eric Meyer over at A Few Words asks us to clarify what we mean by the central virtues of faith, hope and love by suggesting a word to express the opposite of each:

The opposite of faith is _______.
The opposite of hope is ________.
The opposite of love is _______.
How would you finish each sentence?

Eric offers his suggested answers.

It seems to me that there are at least three ways we could think about these virtues "going wrong": misdirection, inversion or absence. That is, faith, hope and love can be placed in the wrong thing, can turn sour, or can wither away.

First, they can have the wrong object and in each case, become idolatry (or at least find their centre in the wrong object, since trusting, hoping in and loving God does not compete with or destroy similar orientations towards our neighbour). However, this is not so much the opposite of the virtues as a perversion of them.

Second, we might think of the feisty opposites of each, that do battle directly against them. In this sense, the opposite of love is hate, of hope is despair, of faith is mistrust. In each case, there is still a good desire at the heart of each of these mirror-virtues. They are what often results when passionate but unformed virtue meets bitter disappointment. The one who hates still cares enough to put his heart into it; the one who despairs has not, in one sense, given up on the desire for things to be different, she has just come to think that nothing in reality corresponds to that desire; the one who is filled with cynicism still desires trustworthiness, but has never met it. In each case, I think such a person is close to the kingdom of God.

But I think the most common and most pernicious opponent of the central theological virtues is not when they are multiplied by -1, but by 0, not when they explode into protest, but when they fade into silence, muffled by fear. And so the true opponent of love is not hate, but indifference or apathy - the belief that others simply don't matter anymore. The true opponent of hope is not despair but resignation or complacency - the belief that another world is neither possible nor desirable. The true opponent of faith is not mistrust but isolation or independence - the belief that I am self-sufficient.


One of Freedom said...

I remember a really deep discussion on the opposite of love. We concluded that it was apathy because only apathy says so completely do not love you I won't even waste the energy to hate you.

Also my wife is fond of saying the opposite of faith is insanity. She makes a great case that without faith we lose our anchor to reality.

I'll have to meditate on hope.

Anthony Douglas said...

(Your link to Eric's suggestions has an obvious typo at the end)

Funny - this came up at church on Sunday night and at Bible study last night, discussing 'Faith Alone'.

I played around with Bolty's point from Mark (4, and elsewhere) that the opposite of faith is fear. I defined faith as an attitudinal position, and one that is directed along the Godward dimension, and that sees God's attitude towards us as positive. The opposite, then, sees God's attitude as negative, and is therefore fear - recognised, resented, ignored, sublimated, or something else.

But I loved your 'It seems to me...' paragraph - very helpful.

byron smith said...

Anthony - typo fixed. Thanks.

Yes, if you follow the discussion on Eric's blog, my first suggestion for opposites was "fear, fear and fear" (i.e. fear is the opposite of all three). I assume you mean Mark 5.36: "do not be afraid; just believe"?

What do you make of the strong scriptural theme of a positive fear of God?

Frank - faith and insanity. Nice. Though is insanity the ultimate outcome of losing faith, hope and love, rather than their opposite? (Just as fear may well be the cause of this loss)

byron smith said...

A few more thoughts on faith in particular: faith is being open to the lives of others, ultimately being open to the life of God (both the life God gives us and God's own life shared in Jesus by the Spirit). Cynicism/mistrust is realising that one is vulnerable and resenting it. But self-sufficiency is the (mistaken and self-destructive) belief that I am ultimately an island, that I can go my own way with little more than passing reference to others.

Anonymous said...

I would say the opposite of;

1.) Faith - Unbelief
2.) Hope - Hopelessness
3.) Love - Ungodly fear

In 2001 I did the same study with 1 Tim 1:7 "For God did not give us a Spirit of fear, but of power, love and sound mind.

The opposite of;
1.) Power - weakness / cowardice
2.) Love - hatred
3.) Sound mind - confusion

When we look closely at them, Fear is the root cause of them all, yet John says that Love casts out all fear. 1Jn 4:18

Mister Tim said...

It strikes me that the view that the opposite of love is fear is the underpinning of why Christians are often deemed to be homophobic. We are accused of fearing people because we do not love them. And if that conclusion is true, then that is a very sad thing.

::aaron g:: said...

The point about virtue x0 (vs. x -1) is great.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the link!

I really like your nuancing of the different ways to "oppose" virtue, and numerical multipliers is a helpful way to think about that.

It's a good way to bring all the different notions we've got about the opposites together conceptually.

The verse that has haunted my thoughts for years comes in the apocalyptic chapter toward the end of Matthew's gospel in which Jesus speaks of persecutions, hatred, and deception. Then he says, "and because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold."

Hatred and violent anger do indeed still have the passion to act boldly because something is desperately important to them. But they also breed the fear and distrust that lead everyone around the hateful or violent person to shut down and "grow cold." Fear closes everyone off and locks all the doors. It's hard to say what is worse--fear, or the violence that breeds fear!

Jesus' encouragement to his disciples in this passage is that, despite all the wickedness and hatred around them, they are to "stand firm to the end." I'm picturing that "standing firm," not as a stoic resolve or a self-sufficient fortification, but as an attitude of openness and love that persists even when it is wounded, and wounded again.

God's peace,

Anonymous said...

oops, my comment wasn't so good that anybody needs to read it twice---would you cut the duplicate?

byron smith said...

Eric - Yes, that is indeed a scary verse, and it's good to be reminded of how the 'feisty' opposite (hate) can lead to the muted opposite (indifference).

Violence breeds fear, but fear also breeds violence. In John at least, Pilate allows Jesus to be crucified out of fear.

I really like what you say about "standing firm", particularly in the light of how Jesus himself stands firm through his passion. Interestingly, soon afterwards, Jesus also tells them to flee to the hills (Matt 24.15-16). Either standing firm can include running away, or there is more to come after 'the end'. I'm inclined to think the former is true (sometimes removing yourself, not giving someone the chance to wound you (and so themselves), is a better option), but that Jesus here means the latter. Since I take this whole passage to be a discussion of the coming destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, once this "end" is imminent (24.14), the time for "standing firm" (at least in the physical sense) is over. Instead, the disciples are to flee from Jerusalem, abandon their zealous compatriots who want to fight fire with fire (but who, by living by the sword will die by it) and run to the hills. Though all this doesn't undermine your point about the standing firm being a resolute openness. In fact, the flight from Jerusalem is partially because the nascent church is not to become closed to the Gentile world by being simply identified with rebellious Jerusalem and so destroyed with her. Yes, many of the disciples will be called to martyrdom, but for Christ, not Jerusalem.

(Duplicate comment removed)

byron smith said...

Tim - another scary point. It would be interesting to see whether most people in a word association would link "Christian" to "fear" or "love". Though this in itself would be insufficient, since I also suspect that there is a lot of confusion (even amongst Christians) about just what "love" means.

byron smith said...

Craig - Fear can and often does undermine faith, hope and love (in fact my first suggestion as to the opposites on Eric's blog was "fear, fear and fear"), but I wonder if it is strictly the opposite? Perhaps if I suggested that disappointment might often be the -1 multiplier that sours the virtues, fear could be the 0 multiplier that reduces passion, deadens life, makes people play it 'safe' by risking nothing.

Hmmm, perhaps a square root might be a slightly better metaphor than a multiplication by 0, since the problem is not that f, l & h disappear instantly, but they are whittled away, diminished, eroded.

Drew said...

the opposite of faith is insanity

I wonder what Kierkegaard might make of this?

byron smith said...

Drew - What do you think he might have made of it?

This is really a question of whether salvation goes against nature (or grace and nature). Aquinas says grace perfects nature. Augustine (and with him, Kierkegaard, who stood in this tradition) would agree, but also point out that it is not natural for us to be natural.

Drew said...

And here I thought others would answer my question... silly me. :)

I'll have to back to you... or me. But certainly faith can appear insane, but this is different from it being insane. But how closely are these two things linked? How do we explain the change from one to the other, and what about an act would make it appear insane? I think perhaps these are a couple of questions K. might ask.

Jonathan said...

The square root metaphor might run into trouble unless you are saying that faith, hope and love are quantised (and never completely withered). I suggest mulplication by the imaginary unit i as a metaphor the first way of going wrong.

More seriously, you're distinguishing between the three things well. I wonder whether, despite (or as a result of) not being quite "opposite", the idolatry options are the most seductive.

Benjamin Ady said...

Byron, all,

fascinating discussion.

RE: in a word assocation game, is "Christian" to be more readily associated with "fear" or "love"? I'd guess in terms of the broader question, at least here in the U.S., associations for "Christian" would be more negative than positive. Now what book was I reading about recently that looked at this question?


faith: modernity
hope: death
love: sexual abuse.

those are the three that pop first into my noggin.

byron smith said...

Jonathan - yes, I think you're right, that idolatry is by far the most common substitute for faith, hope and love.

Benjamin - Yes, that would indeed be an interesting association to test in various segments of the community (and in different societies). Indeed, it would be interesting to test associations not just between "Christianity" and love/fear, but also between "Church", "Christian", "Jesus", "Evangelical", and so on. Feel like setting up a research project?

I'm curious about your association of faith being opposed to modernity. Care to explain? Are you suggesting that faith is outmoded?

Benjamin Ady said...

No-faith is not at all outmoded. Modernity is outmoded.

To me, modernity means the thing that started with the enlightenment/renaissance and culminated in the 20th century with space travel, everybody owning a car, everybody flying in airplanes, everybody having electricity, the atomic bomb, ... etc. etc.

I'm talking about the way-of-thinking that means we think everything is ... knowable, parsable, undertandable--the way-of-thinking that insists that we will *of course* find a grand unifying theorem which works for both quantum physics and theories of gravity (relativity). Nothing is unknowable, the universe is a closed system, It's all chemistry and natural laws. there is no "mind" apart from 'brain'. I could go on. This seems to me to be opposite to faith in a very practical sense. It's not that we *don't* have faith. It's that we are swimming in a paradigmatic sea in which faith is, very practically speaking, impossible. We aren't able to not know or experience the numinous to the degree required for faith to even begin to be possible.

Does that make any sense?

byron smith said...

Yes, a lot of sense. Thanks for clarifying. In some ways this is not so far from my own attempt of "independence" or "self-sufficiency" insofar as these were some of the defining features of the project of modernism (to stand on our own two feet).

Benjamin Ady said...


yeah. independence and self sufficiency. ha. balderdash. They exist in the same category as FTL and division by zero.

But I think these two are elements of the bigger thing that is modernity.

byron smith said...

They exist in the same category as FTL and division by zero.

I agree that these illusions are only part of a larger 'problem' of modernity, though are they restricted to a 'modern' mindset? Thus, I agree that modernity as a movement generally undermines faith, but I'm still not sure I'd see it as the opposite of faith. I'd say it undermines by including the opposite, rather than being the opposite. But maybe we're splitting hairs here.

Anonymous said...

The opposite of faith is knowing
The opposite of hope is pessimism
The opposite of love is a depression so deep only the love of another can take you out of it.

byron smith said...

Thanks Anon. Do you think that knowledge is the opposite to faith? When you trust/have faith that your friend is going to show up when she says she will, is that the opposite of knowledge, or a kind of basis for action based on prior knowledge of her character?