Eschatology, part I

I was recently reading a blog that is dealing with different theological propositions concerning eschatology. Before I add to the contemporary fray about the end of times, a couple definitions might be helpful so that we are speaking and reading a similar language. All definitions are from the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (WDT).

Eschatology – The study of the “last things” or the end of the world. (WDT)

Eschaton – The final event of history, considered by many theologians to be the return of Jesus Christ to earth. (WDT)

Teleological eschatology – the view that eschatological events mentioned in Scripture are not events that will occur at the conclusion of history but are events that are being carried out concurrently with human history. (WDT)

Existential – a philosophical term referring to that which is of ultimate importance to one’s being or existence. (WDT)

Immanence of God – the view that God is present in and with the created order. (WDT)

Transcendence of God – the view that God is over and beyond the created order and superior to it in every way. (WDT)

I realize that I have tested your patience with all of the definitions. However, it is important that we speak a common language despite the fact that each of us will approach what I write full of preconceived ideas concerning eschatology.

Why eschatology? It is certainly easier to pontificate about fun Christian things like: the Jesus action figure that sits in my seminary library. It is a special one with glow in the dark hands and comes with an assortment of plastic fishes and loaves, just in case G.I. Joe or Barbie gets hungry. Despite whatever inane ramblings I could devise while reflecting on the absurdity of this action figure’s genesis, I think a brief exposition on eschatology is an equally valid undertaking...

I opened the Wall Street Journal this morning to find an article (on the front page no less) about a Texas evangelist whose ministry was an utter failure in America. A few years ago he turned his style and theology loose on the continent of Africa, and he now draws thousands of people to his “crusades.” One of the reasons why this particular evangelist failed in the States was his extreme conservatism and the fact that no one wanted to hear him preach.

Ultimately or conveniently, he has come to think that there will be more Africans than Americans in heaven and that America, (by rejecting him) has rejected the Bible (he is however dependent on American funds to continue his mission to the “unsaved” and he spends half a year in Texas raising said funds). This person infects others with a brand of Christianity and eschatology that is popular today (think Left Behind series). I want to argue for a different kind of eschatology, one that emphasizes teleological eschatology, the immanence of God and existentialism. I hope to spend another week or two building the argument I want to make, beginning today with my understanding of the psycho-biblical underpinnings that create the eschatologies of fear that permeate the theological landscape.

Biblically speaking, Revelation and Daniel are the two major sources used when a literal eschaton is constructed. These two writers help conjure the beasts, plagues, horsemen, apocalypse and also the numerous PowerPoint presentations and artistic renderings of the end of times. However, what seems to be left out of the discussion is Jesus’ ambiguity concerning the time, place, and events surrounding the last days. He prefers to leave such ramblings to the transcendent nature of God that stands outside of human history. Jesus seems more concerned about the present and what it means to live today. However, given the human capacity and desire for knowledge and thus control over the future, it is no wonder that Revelation and the prophecies of Daniel have become centerpieces in modern fundamentalist and evangelical eschatological literature.

Those who preach ideas of strict inerrancy must ultimately bow to that which they serve, namely the printed text of the canon. This brings us to another idea concerning the Scriptures as a source of knowledge about the eschaton. Scripture is a culturally conditioned, highly contextual document that reveals each writer’s and redactor’s impressions of what Jesus meant to particular communities.

From my readings, the intention of the writers was to convey the message of Jesus to their contemporaries. Remember, in that day most Christians believed that Jesus was coming back in their lifetimes (circa 100-200 CE), if they could have conceived that humanity would still be around almost two thousand years later, reading their stories about Jesus, do you think they would have changed what they wrote? Moreover, there is a tension in the writings of scripture between the immanent and transcendent nature of reality. Most descriptions of Jesus relate the immanence of his work in the world, betraying the notion of only a fully transcendent God who stands outside of the created order. Instead, scripture generally conceptualizes God as immanent and transcendent.

Psychologically, I have to consider the motives of the writers of the canon. If you believed that the end of the world was happening soon, and if you believed that the central message of Jesus was love for God, self and neighbor. How would you express the message of the immanence and transcendence of God to those who had and had not heard of the Messiah? I might imagine that I would write something that expressed the urgency of the situation, the love of God, the fear of being excluded and the call to a certain style of living in the present.

Depending on my view of the end of times, any one of these four possible motivations for sharing an interpretation of the relationship between God and humanity could surface as primary, leading me to downplay the others in the hopes of getting a particular point across to the reader or listener. Are fear, love, urgency and lifestyle the primary motivations of the writers of the New Testament? No one can say for sure, and I willingly admit that my thematic musings are speculation. However, understanding the motivation of those who seek to guide us is helpful when discerning how we should incorporate their ideas into our own.

That is enough for now, I must return to the books or I will be “left behind” in class…

grace and peace

An unsettled return

I wasn’t sure if I would come back here, then again I am not sure that I am staying at this point. Doctoral work in the midst of some depressive features does not make for a healthy combination. Add to that a healthy dose of guilt – not being more social, not writing on my blog, spending my days reading Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late-Capitalism – and it comes together in a gray mishmash of days and nights that blend into a blurry cornucopia of blah.

I am trying to get back again, to find my way in a new world where everyone seems a stranger, to live amongst good people in a good place and be a good person. I am not sure what to make of my life at this moment. When people ask me what I do, I tell that I read for a living. Only that is not much of a life, so after a pregnant pause and uncomfortable silence we laugh precariously and move on to more shallow conversation. I never know what to tell people who actually work for a living. Granted, I work; I work hard in my classes; I work hard attempting to be creative with the materials before me; I work hard cleaning house and so on. Without trivializing the situation of the under or unemployed, I can see the gradual feelings of hopelessness that creep in when you cannot financially support yourself on what you have chosen to do for a living.

Throw into that mix this new revelation that the God I always knew in Reformed Theology is no longer palatable for me and all of a sudden everything is up for grabs. This in-between time is something that I have not experienced often. It reminds me of living paycheck to paycheck, precariously perched on a thin branch in fifty mile an hour winds.

Two things keep me hanging on, a wonderful spouse and the fact that I am pretty good at what I am doing. If things go well I will have two articles published by this fall and will be in the process of researching a third. I will be more than halfway done with my class work and ready to take my first comprehensive exam. All these things tell me I am progressing in good fashion; however, there are moments, days and weeks where I feel as though I have stepped out of time and out of the world.

Some of the things I am thinking about at the moment:

~ God is love, God is not omnipotent.

~ Postmodernism describes everything and nothing at the same time. It functions by trying to make the trivial into the depthful and the depthful into the trivial. I am all for the contextuality of truth and the primacy of narratives and the lack of one right way. However, I am not sure that this approach to life makes life any better.

~ If you want to build a theology that works, begin by starting with the least: build a theology around those who suffer or have suffered and see if the God you have always believed in would work for them. Don’t prance around with an untested God and believe that it works for everyone.

~ Pat Robertson is still an idiot, but he doesn’t bother so much anymore.

~ Skiing is a counterintuitive sport. Who, in their right mind, when going down a mountain leans forward in order to stay in control? However, I kind of like it sometimes.

~ Sometimes the Gnostics were right.

~ Patriarchy is probably the single most devastating institution in the world. Men should not run the world, we like power too much and testosterone keeps us from listening and relating to one another. We should be relegated to the dirty work where we can flex our muscles and make monkey sounding grunts toward one another. Men need to give up some of their power and listen.

~ Suffering is real and I am complicit in it by my lack of protest towards it.

~ Neo-cons are mostly idiots, but they don’t bother me so much anymore.

~ I am tired of petty partisanship from both sides of the aisle. I want candidates and politicians who want to make the world a better place not argue about who made the mess we live in. I want a third, better, way that really wants progress over pettiness.

~ I am glad spring is here. The blue sky in Colorado is amazing, the tulips are blooming, the trees are full of tiny little flowers, and I can’t stop sneezing.

Grace and peace

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