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.”

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Moral Imperatives

There is nothing specifically Christian about theological curiosity. Before there was Gospel there were Greek, Jewish, and more exotic writings about the gods. The first recognizably Christian theology was anti-theology, the five books of Irenaeus, Against Heresies; attacking what he called vain speculation and superstition. The first constructive Christian theology, Origen’s De pricipiis (On First Principles), was greeted with profound distrust, and branded with the same epithet: speculation. To this day, the best Christian theology does not begin with positive theistic assertions, but starts with a stringent critique of human understanding, to expose errors and groundless pretensions. So it has been since Moses’ interview with the Unnamable at the burning bush.

Most Christians think of theology as a discourse whose purpose is to support religion and religious programs, in which some measure of power is at stake in order to be effective and constructive; the moral and political ends of sound belief. Old King Old King Numa had it right from the beginning. According to him, the purpose of religion is to make society cohere. There need be no distinction between that and politics.[1]

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Climbing Into the light

Lately the Owl has written about the authentic humanity that thrives in eschatological consciousness; invulnerable to the political obsessions and commercial manipulations that are constantly thrown up to us by secular culture. This is the true freedom of which the Apostle Paul could speak only after he had been knocked down and blinded. It meant such a radical change to him that he likened to the death of the old man. He had discovered that his true life was hidden in God with Christ (Colossians 3:3). Nor was this some kind of mystical flash; rather it was the beginning of his worldly work, full of realities as concrete as prison chains. True freedom endures such rigors.

Coming out from under a dehumanizing secular culture, ordinary men and women who are not apostles or heroes can exercise a powerful order of freedom: making meaning out of history, replete as it is with terrors and frustrations. This is the unique human prerogative, the thing no other creature can do. We are likely to overlook this aspect of human freedom because we are so used to thinking individualistically, but this freedom we realize collectively, by living through and interpreting our past, present, and future. Every day we make innumerable decisions, many in conflict, by which we create those great works of imagination, cities and civilizations, overlapping and succeeding each other in time and space.

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Eschatological Freedom

Of all church teachings, probably one of the most ignored is that about the second coming Jesus Christ. We await a miraculous intervention, a complete change of times, or the abolition of time as we know it. Christ’s rule effects the perfection of the world, whatever our efforts may have accomplished for good or ill. At the level of individual salvation, while we wait, we make the effort to live obediently, to contribute to  others’ well-being. Our actual successes and failures are not ultimately decisive, for we are saved by grace alone.

It is hard to give up the idea that what we do, or at least our willingness to do right, somehow enters into the transaction. The only alternative seems to be a doctrine of double predestination, leading into all the insidious anxieties of Puritanism in search of assurance, letting moralism in again, through a side door.

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