My apologies for the obscurity; these are quite gnomic statements, trying to express ‘intuitions too deep for words’.
1. It is very troubling to me that most theologians live as if they are going to die. That theology is done in light of death, as a theology of the dying people for the dying, not as a theology of the people made new on their way to God’s New Jerusalem.
1.1. In too much of western theology death – not life – is the ultimate boundary, the absolute that defines theology, our thinking of God and humanity. Too much value is diminished by the imminent expectation of death. Too much of our hoping is feeble, vague, inarticulated. For we haven’t understood the cross and the resurrection.
1.2. Too much of theology is done as if we were still in the complete darkness of the night, too much of theology is unable to see the bright Morning Star already shining upon us.
2. Our theology should be defined by the eschatological horizon of His imminent Coming. This eschatological horizon, when kept at sight, instills theology with its proper sense of contingency and providentiality, as a shadow of things to come.
2.1. It is my hypothesis – stemming from my intuition – that, though not visible from every locus of theology, this eschatological horizon – or lack thereof – radically orientates the theology one does.
2.1.1. An Example and a slight deviation: After the Constantinian turn the often noted inability of the Western Christianity to perceive ’the state’ as possibly ’alien’ [cf. Luther’s doctrine of two regimes, German Christians etc.] stems from a failure to identify the eschatological community of God exclusively as the church, that is, the eschatological horizon is not visible, and thus the failure to realize that the whole point of Christ’s life was to show that the Kingdom of God ’is not of this world’, it doesn’t come ’by the sword’ or ’by force’ (i.e. by violence). Yes, God reigns in the whole world, but this reign is through the church which is the marginal, nonviolent counter-cultural community. The church witnesses to God’s Kingdom and reign through sacrifice, martyrdom, service and forgiveness. And though it may not always seem like it now, the nonviolent witness through service is the way by which the church gains victory. For it was the way her Lord gained victory. And in the end, the church will be vindicated. I think it would be a mistake to understand the New Testament’s assertations of the legitimate power of the authorities of the state to be of equal value to that of the church, i.e. of Christ – it is true that the authority of the secular rulers is in some ways affirmed, but not in an eschatological manner, rather as a practical matter that has to do with the ”things of this world” that are passing away.
2.2. Theological truth is, thus, ultimately eschatologically providential. There will be the Day that brings our work into light, the Day when theology is transformed by the visio Dei – when we shall see ‘face to face’.
2.2.1. In many ways, for a theology that has lost its eschatological horizon, certainty is the mirage, the ignis fatuus, that keeps deceiving the pilgrimage people in the desert, pulling us towards itself with an almost irresistible draw, bending our theological pilgrimage towards itself, distorting it, warping our theological ‘systems’ with its gravitational pull. (For we often call this pilgrimage ‘a system’, another sympton of the disease.) Of all things we cannot be entirely and absolutely certain, but we can have faith and hope; we can learn to wait. We can go on.
2.3. His Coming will be the final justification of our theological truths, and also their judgment. This means, that for now, our truths are justified in hope: to the extent that they correspond to God’s future. This relation is not entirely equivocal, although it is not univocal either: wisdom is to understand the nature of analogy in this and courage is to dare to face the question – the futility of our concepts and words. The fact that language does not always grasp and capture. This is the epistemic aspect of analogia spei.
2.4. Expectation of His imminent coming should fill us with a sense of urgency and reality; the theologian can never get too comfortable. The goal of theology is not to build a steady theory of the right religion any more than the goal of Christian life is to be a static system of salvation of souls into heaven. For this world and the things of this world are passing away. This is the eschatological question we cannot wish to elude. The question that calls into question all our questions – the question we must encounter.
3. And yet, we must live as a part of the historical continuum, we must live as if there is going to be a future after us. We have to consider heritage. Our hope is robust and rooted in creation: the things of this world are passing away, away into their transformation.
3.1. This – the eschatological continuity, the eschatological value of things – yields futuristic metaphysics: understanding things in relation to their futures. This is the metaphysical aspect of analogia spei.
3.2. ‘Things in relation to their futures’, analogia spei: we cannot retreat into nihilism. Not even that of the pious kind which abandons this world in favour of a vision of heaven, which refuses to see value.
3.2.1. An example: a younger pastor was telling to another, older one, of his next Sunday’s sermon. He was going to preach about the wonderful joys of earthly, created life – how to cherish the gifts that God has given us and use them to bring glory to Him (for He is our Creator). After listening for a while, the older pastor uttered, straight-faced: “And then you die.” This inability to cherish things that are Given – the givenness of things – is often especially poignant in protestant, Reformed theology. As if creation, value and good were wiped out after the fall, as if there was only the cross, only sin and evil and, then, amazingly, in an empty havoc left by the explosion of ‘No!’, grace. As if grace annihilated nature.
3.2.2. “And then you die.” Memento mori. This is a strange perspective for the children of the Light, for the children of the Day, for the firstfruits of all He created. “Every good and perfect gift comes from the above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all He created.” [Jm. 1.17f.]
3.3. Creaturely principle: life has been created and it is this life that will be redeemed. This creation is the object of God’s redemptive act. This means that things have value simply because they are. Utilitarianism is no companion to love and earthly things are not valuable only in as much as they increase the number of ‘souls’ that will ‘fly into heaven’ after death. Friendship, art, family, play, music, language – all human things, all created things, all valuable in and of themselves, all objects of God’s redemptive act, all worth treasuring and saving.
3.4. So we must love the world.
3.4.1. We must love the world. Not with the pseudo-love of selfish desire which destroys that which it “loves”, but with the life-giving, redemptive love of Christ. We must consider carefully these words [Mt. 24.13]: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.”
3.5. For we are saved not into an abstraction, but into life, into this life that was created. The fall does not cancel creation, leaving only a hope of some distant abstraction after death – a spiritualized hope – and us wondering: what, then, of this life?
3.6. The resurrection of the body – a pattern of the whole creation in transformation. ‘For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.’ [1Cr. 15.53]
3.7. All this is simply to say: in eschatology creation and redemption come together. They cannot be separated. No gnostic escapism or detached indifference is available for those who wait for His Coming.
4. The church stands as the sign of God’s new Creation that has begun in Christ, and so our whole existence spreads towards the future through and in Christ. Theology also, then, is an eschatological discipline: its meaning is open, open towards the future.
4.1. This means that we need to inquire into the conditions of eschatological thought: how would it be possible for us, to think about the future? To speak about the future? We need not only to learn to read, think and write, but we need to learn to pray. We must learn to venture into there where there are no words yet.
4.2. Thus we need to understand the nature of prophecy as a sign that points towards the future.
4.2.1. Have you ever experienced a fulfillment of prophecy? In the fulfillment: the strange pattern of continuity and break. The future of God both is and is not what we are expecting. It is more natural, growing from within, more embedded into this world and its reality than we could imagine, more fitting.
4.2.2. Creaturely principle again, as Pannenberg has pointed out: the Spirit is the future of God already present within us, anticipating the future. And being the same Spirit which was present in creation, the coming of God’s future is not a total, abrupt break in our ’creatureleness’, something ’far-fetched’, though at the same time the fulfillment is something ’other’, not a creaturely initiative.
’What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived – the things God has prepared for those who love Him – -. These are the things God has revealed to us by His Spirit.’ [2Cr. 2.6-16]
The Spirit dwelling in us is the first, absolute condition of proper eschatological thought.
4.2.3. The source of disappointment is wishing, guessing – the wrong kind of anticipation. Reality arrives more smoothly, easily, realistically; things come in a manner fitting to their natures. It’s an uncontrolled process in which we participate, we observe: now it happens.
4.2.4.We must learn to sit silently, even in the dark, we must learn to wait – we must learn to hope. Hope is an art that we learn to master through trials and disappointments – learning to hope in this sense is to understand analogia spei.
4.2.5. So we mustn’t fear when are our ideas, wishes, guesses are poured out, we mustn’t fear the silence, the empty canvas. T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday: “Because I do not hope to know again / The infirm glory of the positive hour.”
‘What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.’ [1Cr. 15.36f.]
4.2.6. Our imagination must he purified. Guessing – work of a mind too eager to go there where it can not be – is of no help. You can not guess, but you may sense it. Guessing, trying to match the patterns of mystery with our own images – we must let go of those childish images. ‘When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.’
4.2.7. T.S. Eliot, in East Coker: “I said to my sould, be still and waith without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love / For love would be love for the wrong thing; there is yet faith / But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. / Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: / So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” (East Coker) And in Little Gidding: “And what you though you came for / Is only a shell, a husk of meaning / From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled / If at all. Either you had no purpose / or the purpose is beyond the end you figured / And is altered in fulfilment. – – / You would have to put off / Sense and notion. You are not here to verify / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report. You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid.” In many ways, analogy is just another word for mystery.
4.2.8. An Exercise in Hope
4.3. So we need to learn to live – meaning is realized in life. Theology is concrete, embedded work of hope – we must become craftsmen of hope.
4.4. The subjective corollary of the larger eschatological openness of meaning towards God’s future, is the openness of meaning towards experience: meaning is never ‘fixed’. However, it doesn’t so much change as it expands, perhaps infinitely. Meaning unfolds with experience, returning and approaching. Returning: to its original source in the Revelation. Approaching: coming ever-closer to the truth of its source. This is the ever tightening ‘hermeneutical spiral’ of theology. This is the craft of theology, the art of hope – the methodological implications of analogia spei.
4.4.1. ‘Wisdom is to understand the nature of analogy in this’: formation, sanctification, life – the openness of meaning in which we grasp analogy, we grasp the nature of our language, the possibility of our truths. To say ‘analogy‘ is not thus to announce a tie between language and reality, analogy is not static, nor does it need to be “a fully armored technical term” (to paraphrase Sonderegger*). Analogy is constant openness: discernment and contemplation, ‘reflection as in a mirror’. As we become wiser – more holy – we shall see more, we shall approach the truth.
‘Bless are poor in heart, for they shall see God.’ ‘And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ [Mt. 5.8, 2Cr. 3.18]
4.4.2. Thus, for example, the sentence p (such as, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”) can have such a living and deep meaning that it cannot be comprehended at once or ‘permanently possessed’. The meaning of p unfolds through one’s experience: prayer, personal history, reflection, reading, trouble, encounters with others, art, loving, sanctification, writing, travelling; you name it. For embodied epistemic agents meaning is a historical process. Meaning is a living thing. The question then is: how should we live in order to grasp the right meaning?
4.4.3. T.S. Eliot (East Coker, again): “As we grow older / The World becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living. Not the intense moment / Isolated, with no before and after / But a lifetime burning in every moment / And not the lifetime of one man only / But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.” And then, in The Dry Salvages: “For most of us, there is only the unattended / Moment, the moment in and out of time / The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight / The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning / Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses / Hints followed by guesses; and the rest / Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.”
4.4.4. This is to say that the meaning – the subtle difference – is often manifested on the fringes rather than at the core (this also relates to the hypothesis about the eschatological horizon in 2.1). When we look at the edges of doctrine we can sense its meaning. The fringe, the edge of doctrine is praxis, intuition, personality, doxology – something that is not about the doctrine itself explicitly, but reveals its true meaning. The core is a verbal statement. We often say what we mean when we don’t mean to say it.
An example: a pastor reveals something very essential about his understanding of the nature of God as he talks about the way he raises his children, that is, by offering a theological justification for use of violence (i.e. spanking) as a child-rearing method. Praxis makes meaning visible.
4.4.5. That is, ad hominem -arguments shouldn’t be entirely dismissed in theology – wisdom, discernment and care can salvage ad hominem as a tool for revealing meaning.
4.5. However, this is not process theology: already/not yet – this is the eschatological tension that will not be eased by history. Truth is not a historical process, revelation is not ever unfolding in time, chronologically and partially revealed. Creaturely epistemology does not transfer into metaphysics so easily. Truth is at once, for it is God Himself, His presence. Eschatological providentiality is not the same as an unfolding historical process, precisely because it is eschatological and apocalyptic. Nor does the openness of meaning simply mean ‘progress’. The tension remains and is not eased by history, but only in the apocalyptic (and ontological) moment of His Coming.
4.5.1. T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding: “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling // We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
4.6. Katherine Sonderegger (Systematic Theology, the Doctrine of God, p.125, 129f.): “God is known in creation, His very own reality disclosed in the words of His creatures: that is the theological compatibilism – -. God alone can be at once compatible with and distinct from the creaturely virtues, powers, and life He has made. Just this is the Mystery, the measureless Mystery of the One God, hidden in His own world. – – He is free in our knowledge of Him, just because He alone can be present in such a way that we securely know Him, and know that in His stooping down into and through our language, our hopes and ideals and longings, He remains infinitely beyond all that.” This is the “gracious pattern of identity and distinction” at the heart of dynamic understanding of analogy.
4.7. Hope of Meaning, then: that He will come and make our words live, establish them in the reality of His own being. That His Light shall swallow up our little lights, life shall be swallowed up by Life – than our finite concepts are taken up into His infinite life. He is the Hope of Meaning.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease: where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass way. For we know in part and we prophecy in part, but when the completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.
On the use of T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets in this post: I do not, of course, agree with all of T.S. Eliot’s theological insights, but I do enjoy his poetry and I wanted to add some passages from him into these reflections to stimulate your thinking and my own.
* For Sonderegger’s account of the nature of analogy see her Systematic Theology part 1 (The Doctrine of God), p. 201ff.
The examples used are based on public comments made by actual, even rather well-known, theologians. However, the point I’m trying to make is made abundantly clear without revealing who these individuals are and thus, for the sake of respect and peace (and in order to keep the focus on my actual argument), I decided not to disclose the identity of these theologians.