Contingency and Eschatology

Back in 2004, the Owl had occasion to address his mentor Harvey Guthrie:

Here is a question that lurks half formed in the back of my mind these last few months: Which is the truer understanding of the sheer contingency of our worldly lives? (1) to take hold of the world on its terms, grappling with its violence, cruelty, and dehumanizing culture; knowing that in spite of our best intentions we will often be in the wrong, and it will be others, not we, who suffer the consequences, as we now suffer those set for us by our predecessors? Or (2) to live withe our eyes on the prize in a heavenly world, in splendid isolation from the fray here below, ignoring the facts of our own and others’ deaths?

The first of these will require giving succor while we wait; taking care of each other in this crucible the best we can, improvising all the way, knowing that in spite of appearances God keeps faith with us. This is what I think Harvey meant by “living in the now.”

The second is what some people call living in God’s kingdom, witnessing to that other realm by living “as if,” neither giving up our hopes of God’s reign, nor expecting much of this world as God has made it.

Then in 2008 I wrote to my friend Tony Johnson, a professor of philosophy:

If we take Scripture seriously, then the God of love is he who sweated and died with blood and shit running down his legs in the hot Palestinian sun. This is where I’m perfectly happy to be taken as a literalist. We miss something important if we let that become an abstract concept, and let his resurrection become a subjective event that happens only in our insides.

         If there is any ethical Imperative to be found in this, it might be simply to keep that image before us in thought and prayer. If we do that, It will displace the silly moralisms that would take up that space if allowed, about dancing and card playing, and (our perennial favorite) what to do with our dicks.

         In this way of playing it, nobody gets to say he’s better than somebody else, because we simply don’t know, and we’re all about equally likely to get it wrong. Notice, this is 180 degrees away from the usual argument for altruism, based on human dignity.

         According to that thinking, God’s love, and hence our love for each other is not a matter of mercy toward a lot of forlorn screwups, but of His supreme good taste.

         Each generation tries and fails to leave less wrongness for the next to repair, and so history rollicks along. All the time, here is the Gospel: Immanu-El. God is with us, improvising along with us, broken hearted along with us. That is enough. It makes all the difference between being free human beings that mean something to each other, and falling into the abyss.

•          •                •

In my present state of mind, I come down on the side of getting it wrong and submitting our works to the Holy Spirit in prayer, to be transformed into something acceptable before the throne of heaven (Rom. 8.26 ff).

Some of my friends ask me whether I’m not a conservative. In the American political sense, I don’t think I am, but one of the basic tenets of real conservatism is the Augustinian estimate of human nature as heir to sin. Rather than call myself a conservative, I might call myself an Averroist: one who believes that a thing can be true in philosophy, yet not true in theology. That is a consequence of believing both realms are real: that of sheer contingency and that of God’s kingdom. One can know oneself a citizen of God’s kingdom, and yet embrace one’s life and vocation in this world. That would entail duties to protect one’s fellows; work not needed God’s kingdom.

For example, it might be necessary to wage war, to kill some human beings in order to protect others from God-intoxicated murderers. Doubtless there’s a world of conflict in that statement, but conflict is where we live in fact, and apparently we can’t wish it away.

Such is the world the Lord has made.

Leave a Reply