I’ve written recently that our schools introduce young people not to that guide of intelligence and beauty, Lady Faith, but to her current impostor, the bitch, Politics. Our “sins” are political, and we are to be “saved” by giving our assent to the Right Things about sex and marriage, climatic changes, organic food, the evil of Christian history, the sweet wonders of Islamic history, and so forth, till the world shall end and we can have done with it, amen. Now I will write about Lady Hope, and her impostor, Optimism.
Hope, says that philosophical poet Charles Peguy, is the little sister among the three theological virtues, cheerful and at play. Yet she leads them, and not the other way around, because she gives them the heart to go forth, just as a farmer will work for his children, the children he hopes will be greater than he is. Children receive the faith from their parents, as they receive love and love them in return, but it is in the child that the parents see hope, or the child becomes for them a bearer of hope. We have here a mystery that is so common as to be invisible. I may pray for my neighbor’s welfare, as I may pray for my child’s welfare, but my neighbor has not come into existence as the object of my prayer; the child is first of all an answer to prayer.
We hardly see it so, nowadays. The child is a future producer and consumer, “our greatest resource,” like petroleum or something. And we train them up in seeing themselves that way. They may not simply be. They must succeed: which means, they must produce and consume, and we clap for them when and pretty much only when they prove to be very good at the game of conspicuous production and consumption, regardless of the character of what they make and devour.
So let us try to imagine a child not of optimism but hope.
The childless Hannah prayed so fervently for a child that Eli the priest thought she was drunk, and reproached her, but Hannah said, “Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial, for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto” (1 Sam. 1:16). Hannah was one of the two wives of Elkanah. The other wife had borne sons and daughters and cast it in Hannah’s teeth, as if it were a judgment of God that her womb had been shut. Elkanah loved her dearly, though, and every year when they went up to the temple at Shiloh, and Hannah wept and would not eat, he said to her, tenderly, “Hannah, why weepest thou? And why eatest thou not? And why is thy heart grieved? Am not I better to thee than ten sons?” (1:8).
Hannah was Elkanah’s favorite. She did not want for love. Nor did they need another child to set them up in their old age. Why then does she want the child so badly? To silence her rival? Is that all?
If that were so, it is hard to explain what she does when she conceives and bears a son. Elkanah is ready to go up to Shiloh as always, but Hannah declines, intending to stay home until the boy is weaned, after which she will go to the temple and present him to the Lord, that he might dwell there forever (1:22). Elkanah agrees. The prayer, we see, continues, and is raised into another dimension entirely. Hannah prayed for a child, and now the child, Samuel, “Prayed of God,” is dedicated to God and will himself be a messenger of prayer. Hannah feels for him all that a mother naturally feels, for when he was still a boy, she “made him a little coat, and brought it to him from year to year, when she came up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice” (2:19). Eli, moved by their devotion, blesses Elkanah and Hannah, and asks the Lord to reward them for their gift of Samuel, “and the Lord visited Hannah, so that she conceived, and bare three sons and two daughters. And the child Samuel grew before the Lord” (2:21).
Their devotion is in stark contrast to the lust and avarice of Eli’s sons Hophni and Phineas, who serve as priests in the temple, seizing the lion’s share of the sacrifices and fornicating with women who wait at the door of the tabernacle. For they “were sons of Belial; they knew not the Lord” (2:12). The sons of Eli knew about the Lord, and they would have surely replied, if asked, that the Lord exists, and made the heavens and the earth. That counts for nothing here. “The devils also believe, and tremble,” says the apostle (James 2:19). They desire neither to pray nor to beget children that will be vessels of prayer. They are doing quite well for themselves. They are in no need of hope.
Now, people say that our public schools must preserve a scrupulous neutrality as regards religion. That is impossible. It has nothing to do with intent. Your auto mechanic can preserve that neutrality at work, because he is not essentially engaged with truth in its broadest and highest sense: what our life is, and where we are going. The school must touch upon those questions every time the children read a story or a poem, or every time they are instructed in the glory and the shame of man’s history. The mechanic does not work in the precincts of the Temple. The schoolteacher does, whether or not he knows it or chooses it. Then, I say, it will be either God or Belial on the throne, and our choice is between the boy Samuel and those sons of Belial, Hophni and Phineas. It will be the child as the vessel of hope, which embraces sacrifice, or the sons and masters of self-advancement.
Such optimism is mere atheism with a glad hand and a smile. Milton saw it that way. When, in Paradise Lost, he gives the reader a catalogue of the worst of the devils, those who were worshiped as false gods by the pagans and by Hebrew apostates, he ends with Belial,
than whom a spirit more lewd
Fell not from heaven, or more gross to love
Vice for itself; to him no temple stood
Or altar smoked, yet who more oft than he
In temples and at altars, when the priest
Turns atheist, as did Eli’s sons, that filled
With lust and violence the house of God?
There is no sense here that Hophni and Phineas lost their intellectual understanding of God, and then, believing no more, began to copulate and fleece with abandon. The cause and the result are bound in one, and reinforce one another. They have forgotten God. So they take their profit now. They take it in the form of easy money and easy sex.
That abuse of the priestly office cannot endure. Eli the lenient—a pattern of the right-believing bishop who issues the mild warning to his wayward priests but does not put a stop to their malfeasance—warns them against their sins, because if they as priests, mediating between the people and the Lord, sin directly against the Lord, who will pray for them? They would have no hope. But these sons of Eli, sons of Belial, will not listen. They rely on the institution of the Temple, reducing God to an idol, a talisman. The Philistines attack; Phineas and Hophni are among the thirty thousand Israelites slain; the ark of God is taken away; and Phineas’ wife, dying in childbirth, bears a son she calls Ichabod: No-Glory. For “the glory is departed from Israel” (4:21).
There is no hope in our schools. There are children, made foolishly wise in the world’s ways of scrambling for wealth and pleasure, a perfectly grim hedonism, gussied up as Progress. They are trained to want to “make the world a better place,” not by self-denial, humility, repentance, and piety, but by the energetic pursuit of their “dreams,” which include going to college, getting a well-paid job, enjoying the child-free use of your sexual potency, and persuading yourself that you are a soldier in the advance of humanity. It is Belial, with bright banners and sparkle-dust.
Optimism is a confidence man supreme. Put your trust in college, the job, and being child-free. Right off the top, half of our young people “fail.” They do not go to college. Half of the rest get nothing like the job they dreamed of. And where are the strong marriages then, and the rich families? What has the con man delivered?
A cheerless world: Hophni and Phineas and the willing whores, all day long, on every channel, everywhere; a public life remarkable for coarseness and distrust; young people medicating their hopelessness with drugs, some of them pharmaceutical; full stadiums and empty temples; long life and nothing to die for; few children, and those dedicated to the warehouse, the workhouse, or the madhouse, not the Temple of God.
Editor’s note: The image above depicts Hannah presenting Samuel to Eli. It was painted by Jan Victors in 1645.