Just before historian Philip Hallie discovered the story of Chambonnais—the French villagers who rescued thousands of Jews during the Second World War—he was in a state of deep depression. He had finished researching and writing a book about cruelty, and for weeks he was tormented by the stories of torture and killing. Fear, bitterness, and fury filled his soul.
But when he finished reading an account of resistance among the villagers—a scene in which they openly defied French police by sheltering Jews—he found that his cheeks were awash in tears. "What had wrung these tears from me, body and soul, the way you squeeze a grape, seeds and all, to get its juice, though the seeds make the juice bitter?" he asked. "It was joy that did it, overwhelming joy, which can squeeze tears out of us as suddenly as misery can." (1)
We all experience moments like this: when moral beauty appears before our eyes like a mountain peak beyond a dense and dark wood. What follows in that moment is joy, inexpressible and nearly irresistible.
We are getting closer to understanding what has seized the hearts of two travelers on the road to Emmaus, near Jerusalem. They have been thrown into a storm of grief and doubt after the brutal execution of the Teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. Now they are fugitives on the run. Along the way they are joined by a third man—a stranger—and together they explore an unapproachable mystery about God and his mission in our world.
What is it? The stranger has led them to the Hebrew Scripture to help them see how God has been faithful to the nation of Israel. He has revealed to them an ancient mystery, not only about the Jewish people, but about the destiny of the human race. He has laid bare God's Secret Rescue Mission for mankind.
Soon after they arrive together in the village of Emmaus, the travelers will recognize the stranger who has joined them on their journey. Faith will fully awaken within them, and it will transform them. While they are on the road, however, they still do not apprehend who he is—the risen Christ. And, yet, something he has told them is provoking them in the depths of their soul: They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"
What is it? And what effect is this knowledge having on their hearts and minds?
All their lives these men have lived with a burden of fear and struggle and oppression. Now, for the first time, they see clearly a vision of the world they were meant to live in—a world without fear, sorrow, or suffering, where justice and mercy make their home together. All their lives they have been taught to think only of their obligations to God, the commandments he has given them, and the penalties for breaking them. But here is a place where guilt and sin have been washed away forever, where only the pure in heart may dwell: those whose faces are "fair and young and fearless and full of joy." (2)
This is how Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven when he was with them in Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. It is the kingdom they have been longing for all their lives. They know it in their hearts, and this knowledge begins to change them.
It is this vision of human life—of how life ought to be—that has haunted the imagination of the West for millennia.
Go back to the Greeks, whose epic poems such as the Illiad and the Odyssey—composed roughly 2,700 years ago—still have the capacity to inspire. Why? Perhaps because their world of oppression and violence was not so different from our own. The Greeks exalted the concept of arête, the heroic outlook. It could mean goodness, excellence, courage, or strength in the face of danger and adversity. For the Greeks, it was something to which all people should aspire.
The Romans built upon this idea with their concepts of virtue and justice. The most important myth for the Romans was Virgil's The Aeneid, an epic poem about suffering, sacrifice, loyalty, and obedience to the gods. The hero of the story is Aeneas, described as "a man outstanding in his piety." Aeneas achieves true greatness only when he submits fully to the will of the gods and devotes himself wholly to his mission: the establishment of a new political society in Rome.
It seems that in human societies everywhere, lodged deep in our DNA, is a force that reaches anxiously for a world outside of our actual experience. Even a glance at the record of humanity's struggles—the wars, revolutions, assassinations, constitutions, conspiracies—reveals our restless ambition for a society defined by justice and virtue.
The early Marxists dreamed of a "worker's paradise," a world without poverty or want. The French Revolutionaries believed their new regime would secure "the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man." The American Founders called their republic "a new order for the ages." The architects of the United Nations designed a global community to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war."
It would be easy to dismiss these impulses as mere utopianism. But surely there is something deeper at work. C. S. Lewis detected a universal desire—expressed in our culture, as well as our politics—to bridge a gulf that stretches between us and this other reality.
From the perspective of faith, Lewis understood this reality as heaven itself, our true home. "Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off . . . is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation." Lewis called this perpetual longing "our inconsolable secret." (3)
Why are we so restless for a world that seems to exist only in our imagination? Could it be that part of what draws us—what whispers to us in our conscience—is the hope that in this new world we might become new people?
"We are engaged in a great struggle, a struggle greater than it seems," warned Plato in The Republic. "The issue is whether we shall become good or bad." Plato went further, suggesting that the soul's desire for virtue—for moral beauty—was bound up with a desire for God. "We must disclose the yearning that links it to the immortal and divine and . . . we must discover what it would become if it gave itself wholly to what it yearns for." (4)
What would it be like if we gave ourselves fully to this desire for goodness?
Perhaps this desire helps to explain the appeal of The Hunger Games, the story of a remarkable girl prepared to fight to the death to save the life of her younger sister. The book has been translated into 26 languages and the movie has grossed over $460 million worldwide. What is it about sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen and her struggle for survival that has captivated people of all ages? "You don't forget the face of the person who was your last hope," says Katniss. The face of hope—the vision of moral beauty—is an image we cannot get out of our collective minds.
This vision has captivated two travelers on the Emmaus road. When Jesus walked among them during his earthly ministry, they were enthralled by his description of the kingdom of heaven and the promise of Israel restored. They were delighted by his stories of God's love for the poor, the outcasts, the lepers of society. But now their attention is drawn not merely to Israel, not to a new religious morality, not even to God's kingdom, but to a person—the Messiah.
It is to him that the stranger has directed their minds, and they are nearly overcome with joy. They are, in fact, on the knife's edge of the greatest discovery of their lives. They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"This ancient story is a modern story—it is our story.
In an age weary with skepticism and false hope, we still want to believe in Goodness.
1. Philip Hallie, Surprised by Goodness, pp. 19-39.
2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ringord of the Rings, p. 239.
3. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, p. 36.
4. Plato, The Republic, pp. 302-303.
[Taken from Joseph Loconte's The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt (Thomas Nelson, June 2012). Used by permission.]
Joseph Loconte, PhD is an Associate Professor of History at The King's College in New York City, where he teaches Western Civilization and American Foreign Policy. His commentary on international human rights and religious freedom has appeared in the nation's leading media outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he splits his time between New York City and the Washington D.C. area.