Monday, September 29, 2014

Living With the End in Mind

Full disclosure: My initial formation as a Christian was in fundagelicalism (a neologism that I thought up, though I'm not the only one to have done so). I discovered the Anglican tradition during my college years in the early 1970s, and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church as a graduate student, in 1975. When I came under the hands of the Bishop of Los Angeles on that day, the intention of my heart and mind was that I was embracing Catholic Christianity, grabbing onto a golden thread that leads back across time to the apostles and to Jesus, accepting the essential givenness of the faith and laying aside the notion that I had either the authority or the responsibility to read the Bible, pray, and come up with my own theological understanding of any given question. It was a great relief.

Part of the Catholic package is a rather more robust view of the nature and significance of the Church than I had been accustomed to in my youth. In my evangelical upbringing, I was led to think of the "invisible" Church as a spiritual entity made up of of those who genuinely trusted Christ for their salvation, the number of which is known only to God. Institutional structures that bear the label "church" in one way or another are voluntary associations of like-minded individual Christian believers who come together for the purposes of worship, instruction and mutual encouragement, service, and mission. This might be called a low ecclesiology (theology of the Church), but the truth is that, while evangelical theologians have certainly devoted more pixels to the subject than I have just used in my broad stroke two sentence summary, ecclesiology is kind of an afterthought among evangelicals, an "Oh yeah ... " after detailed and sophisticated treatments of christology, soteriology, hermeneutics, and other chapter headings in a systematic theology textbook.

Among Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some streams of the old-line Protestant traditions, however, ecclesiology garners proportionally more attention. Details may vary according to brand name and other considerations, but in each case the Church is seen as sacramental--that is, both a sign of and a tangible vehicle for God's redeeming and restoring the fabric of a universe corrupted by sin and death. It's not just a voluntary association, like the Rotary Club or the Moose Lodge, that one can join and unjoin as seems expedient. It's organic--a body, the Body of Christ--a family, a tribe, an ethnicity (read the First Epistle of Peter) into which one is born (most would say, via baptism), marked with the identity and nourished by the life of the risen Christ. I love ecclesiology. The doctorate it would no longer be prudent for me to pursue at my age and stage of life would probably be in that subject. I am grateful to be in a Christian tradition that takes ecclesiology seriously.

Now, one chapter in that systematic theology textbook that is likely to be heavily highlighted and underlined by my evangelical friends is the one on eschatology. Eschatology concerns Last Things--the wrapping up of the story, the end of history ("end" being understood in both of its senses; that is, as conclusion/cessation and as ultimate purpose). Wherever I've lived, it's never been difficult to drive around town and find a church offering a "prophecy seminar," or a Bible study on the last book of the New Testament, probably misrepresented as "Revelations," or a screening of a movie from the Left Behind series. I can remember having heated discussions--as a teenager, with my teenage peers; my God, what geeks we were!--over the fine points of premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. We would debate the meaning of the Second Death, and the Great While Throne, and ... well, you get the point. Evangelicals may not do ecclesiology, but they certainly do do eschatology.

Anglicans ... not so much. We do say the creeds, of course, which include language about "the life everlasting" and "the resurrection of the dead," and that Jesus will "come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead." But I wonder whether these items often get serious attention in confirmation classes and adult formation programs. And we have in our calendar and lectionary the three Sundays preceding Advent, along with Advent Sunday itself, which form a sort of mini-season that focuses heavily on eschatological themes, though I fear that many (most?) preachers, liturgy planners, and musicians may not pull their weight in shining a light on these themes. And, if you parse the language of our liturgy in the right way, we have a rather high view of the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. When the baptized faithful are gathered at the altar, time and space are transcended, and we participate in the Celestial Banquet, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The exquisitely thin veil that separates the living from the dead is pierced, and we enjoy koinonia (which is to say, holy communion) with those standing or kneeling next to us, and with those who have gone before us marked with the cross of Christ. What percentage of our communicants get that dimension of the Eucharist, however, is hard to say.

Still, even with these fairly robust creedal and liturgical linchpins, details are scant. Our biblical hermeneutic does not encourage us to see the text of Revelation as some kind of code that needs to be broken. "Rapture" is not in our vocabulary, so our position on how it relates in time to the Tribulation and/or the Millennium is "none of the above." We tend to just say, in effect, "In the end, God wins. Evil and death are defeated, and God's reign of justice, peace, and love prevails." It doesn't often occur to us to worry about anything more detailed than that.

And, for the most part, in my opinion, that's fine. For the most part. But there is, I think, one way that our tendency to be eschatologically laconic puts us at risk. When I look around my ecclesial environment, I see a default preference for an unreflective realized eschatology. Realized eschatology is the notion that the end of history (this time only in the sense of ultimate purpose) lies not in the future, but in the past. When Jesus announced the inbreaking arrival of the Kingdom of God, he was effectively initiating that Kingdom. The mission of his followers, then, is to continue that process, to "buil[d] Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land"--and every other land, green, pleasant, or otherwise. There is no cataclysmic apocalyptic future event that we need either anticipate or fear. It's up to us to cooperate with God in the construction of the New Jerusalem.

Now, I don't happen to think that realized eschatology offers a coherent--or even interesting, for that matter--account of either the biblical narrative or the gospel hope of Christians. It leaves me feeling very empty ... empty and bored. But it does not deserve to be dismissed casually, out of hand. It has been espoused by some eminent intellectual lights (the formidable New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd, for one). Rather, realized eschatology merits being engaged and taken seriously. But here's my point: So does whatever realized eschatology's opposite number counterpart is, which doesn't, so far as I know, have a commonly-accepted categorical name, so let's call it crisis eschatology, because instead of depending on the world getting better and better, through human efforts in cooperation with divine providence, until heaven-on-earth is attained, it presumes that conditions will get steadily worse until some sovereign and cataclysmic act of God shatters every aspect of reality as we know it and God establishes, without any human assistance, the heavenly Jerusalem, where justice, peace, and love prevail.

So, both schemas resolve into the same happy ending, which is something to give thanks for. I'm not going to argue my preference for the more traditional account. That deserves a book-length treatment, which is beyond my ken. And my concern is not so much over the prevalence of realized eschatology among Anglicans as it is over the unconsidered and reflexive character of that prevalence. Crisis eschatology, even though it is abundantly present in our sacred texts, both biblical and liturgical, and in our hymns, is rarely given a fair hearing in the parish hall or the classroom.

And it makes a difference which model motivates us. In realized eschatology, the mission of the Church is to effect God's kingdom. This places a premium on activities that change the structures of society (and the environment), and success is measured in terms of how solid and lasting such changes prove themselves to be. The enlivening vision is one of ongoing incremental positive change, even if it's two steps forward and one step back. In crisis eschatology, the mission of the Church is to announce God's kingdom, which is evangelization, and to model God's kingdom, as a sort of sneak preview of things to come, in the life of the Christian community. This vision provides ample motivation for social outreach--the amelioration of suffering, the preservation of life--but purely as an iconic manifestation of God's love, not in the hope that conditions in the world will get better and better, because, in fact, they are bound to get worse and worse this side of God decisive intervention, which happens only in God's time and in God's way, the details of which are revealed to no human being. In the meantime, the Church's energy is focused on building authentic kingdom-modeling Christian community, and on calling all people everywhere into that community through repentance, faith, baptism, Eucharist, discipleship, and witness.

We continue to argue and struggle over what faithful Christian discipleship and witness looks like in this world. We don't argue much about eschatology. But I wonder sometimes about how much our fights over sex and marriage and, when we have the leisure, mission, are really proxy fights over eschatology. Perhaps we should move the conversation out into the open.


Fr. Michael LaRue said...

Thanks for a very good reflection.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about this lately, and you have helped me to make my understanding of the New Testament's theology clearer. Christ came to preach the "Kingdom of God," the "Kingdom of Heaven." The churches, /ekklesiai/ are His disciples assembled, for worship in the breaking of Bread and the prayers, and as such are a sacrament of the Kingdom which has not yet come in its fulness. The "Church" (singular) and the "Kingdom" thus gradually come to be seen as equivalent terms in the New Testament, but emphasizing different aspects of the same reality: the first as the presence now, in this world and in heaven, and the second as fulfillment and consummation. The book of Revelation, which is both a liturgical meditation and an eschatological vision, brings these two aspects together.

The term "Institutions" refers to this-worldy organizational structures employed by the Church as means for doing its work in the World, but are not the Church, and indeed there is a grave spiritual danger in confusing "institution" with "church."

Kip Ashmore said...

Receiving my first formal theological training at a Southern Baptist seminary, I've never been able to jettison the notion that somehow, a serious eschatology is non-negotiable for Christian Faith. But, like many, my Anglican formation has done little to nourish that notion. Over the years one idea continues to impress me; eschatology must interact with the doctrine of creation if it is to have any theological substance. Ideas which speak the language of eschatology as "recapitulation" of creation, including the development of eschatology which includes the same "love of God" that we find in the doctrine of creation, seem to me a fruitful way of proceeding. Meager thoughts -- but maybe a starting place.

Mark Harris said...

good essay! Thanks for the work. I am mostly in the realized escatology camp, but I have two real problems with some who hold to this. (i) I don't buy the things are getting better and better position, nor do I buy the idea of progress without crisis - that is progress without struggle and suffering, (ii) I don't see the end times as being gradualist. But I do believe that the crisis or crises to come provide major options for a move towards or away from the Kingdom of God completed. So I suppose I am a crisis oriented progressive, who sees the crises as markers in the unfolding of God's mission of restoration and unity.

But mostly I write to say how much I appreciate the essay itself. Later this week, after small grandchildren go home, I hope to point my few readers to your post.

Hope you are doing well.