Does it matter if Jesus never returns?

A friend on Twitter asks:

“Will there be a point at which Christians accept that Jesus won’t return? 5,000 years? 10,000 years? When the sun consumes the earth?”

For what it’s worth, my view is that Christians don’t need to believe in a “literal” second coming. Eschatology, like creation, points to something that lies beyond the boundaries of normal, historical experience and thus escapes precise conceptualization or description. Just as the biblical creation story can (and should) be seen as a symbol pointing to a trans-historical reality, so can the stories of Jesus’ return, the last judgment, etc.

In the case of creation, what the stories point to is the absolute dependence of all created reality on its divine Source. Creation is not something that happened “once upon a time” such that, say, you could hop in the TARDIS and go back and observe it. Similarly, eschatology is not about events that will occur in the historical future. Rather, the eschatological symbols point to the destiny of all created beings and their ultimate consummation in and with God. What this will look like is not something that human beings can describe in any precise, “literal” way, since our language and conceptual apparatus are fitted for mundane, historical realities. But from a Christian point of view, the symbol of the second coming of Jesus provides a powerful assurance that our destiny is with the God who Jesus re-presented to us as a loving Parent, and not an implacable judge.

Obviously there are Christians who would take issue with this interpretation, and many people are able to reconcile the “tarrying of the Lord” with belief in a historical, this-worldly second coming. But I also think a view like that one I outlined has a respectable pedigree in the history of Christianity. Church fathers like Augustine and Origen recognized the highly symbolic nature of the biblical language about ultimate realities and did not insist on literalism. The function of the biblical symbols is to orient us to that inexhaustible fountain of love and creativity that Christian faith maintains is the source and goal of our being.

UPDATE: Here are some relevant posts from the archives:

A better hope

Jesus and the end: what if he was “wrong”?

Keith Ward at the National Cathedral

Maimonides on the Messiah

I’ve been reading a (heavily abridged) edition of Moses Maimonides’ (1138-1204) systematic digest and commentary on the Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, and found his discussion of the Messiah toward the end of particular interest. The Messiah, he says, is not some kind of supernatural figure, but simply a righteous king in the line of David who will reestablish Israel’s sovereignty and freedom from external domination.

Do not think that King Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar things. It is not so.

[…]

If there arise a king from the House of David who meditates on the Torah, occupies himself with the commandments, as did his ancestor David, observes the precepts prescribed in the written and the Oral Law, prevails upon Israel to walk in the way of the Torah and to repair its breaches, and fights the battles of the Lord, it may be assumed that he is the Messiah. If he does these things and succeeds, rebuilds the sanctuary on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the Messiah.

[…]

Let no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will be set aside, or any innovation be introduced into creation.

[…]

Said the rabbis: “The sole difference between the present and the Messianic days is delivery from servitude to foreign powers.”

[…]

The sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Law and its wisdom, with no one to oppress or disturb it, and thus be worthy of life in the world to come. (Book fourteen, chapters 11 and 12.)

I think it’s safe to say that this is very different from the prevailing Christian view of the “messianic age,” which is usually portrayed in frankly supernaturalistic terms. It’s also worth noting that Maimonides distinguishes the time of the Messiah and “the life of the world to come.” “The world to come” seems to refer to life beyond death, but this is distinct from the reestablishment of Israel under a just and pious king. The time of the Messiah is an entirely this-worldly affair, achieved through the “natural” means of politics, study, and obedience to the Law.

My (admittedly highly incomplete) understanding is that this is by no means the only way of thinking about the Messiah in Judaism, and that there are other, more overtly supernatural views. But Maimonides’ doctrine, in which the messianic age is not eschatological but arrives as a result of human effort rather than direct divine intervention, provides a striking contrast to the common Christian understanding.

UPDATE: Just a few further thoughts on this. I think this discussion highlights how the disagreement between Christianity and Judaism isn’t (just) about who the Messiah is, but what messiahship consists of. If you accept the criteria laid out by Maimonides, it’s obvious that Jesus was not the Messiah, since he was not a king who reestablished the sovereignty of Israel. In calling Jesus the Messiah, Christianity was taking a particular stance on what it meant to be the Messiah–something about which, as I understand it, there was no uniform consensus at the time. And this understanding was shaped by the particular details of Jesus’ life and death–and particularly the belief in his resurrection.

Christians have often talked as thought Jews’ unwillingness to embrace Christ was due to a kind of willful blindness, since he was “clearly” the fulfillment of their messianic hopes. But this dramatically undersells the extent to which the role of the Messiah as understood by Christianity drew on a particular selection and reshaping of ideas floating around at the time. Both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are ongoing traditions with their own ways of making sense of and appropriating the biblical material, including the idea of the Messiah.

Kimel and Hart on universalism

Universalism is a leitmotif of Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. In this post, he lists some writings that have been particularly influential in moving him toward the universalist position. As a bonus, Orthodox theologian David B. Hart pops up in the comments to offer his thoughts. Apparently DBH is also a convinced universalist!

I’m much less well-versed in the literature on this topic than Fr. Kimel and his commenters, and I don’t have a completely firm position on this. But as I wrote here, I think there is a trajectory toward universalism inherent in the Christian message. It’s also worth noting that hell, at least understood as “eternal, conscious torment,” has been rejected by many of the theological giants of recent history. In short, if God is a reality of unbounded, inexhaustible love, then it’s hard to see how the doctrine of hell–at least as it’s commonly expressed–can be maintained.

I’m pretty skeptical of human efforts to describe “the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell,” as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, but universalism (or at least hopeful universalism) has always struck me as more consonant with the spirit of the Christian gospel than preaching hellfire and damnation.

Abusus non tollit usum

Christians who are understandably disillusioned with the Christian Right’s approach to politics sometimes draw what is–I think–an improper lesson from it. That is, since the Christian Right wants to use political power to implement an intolerant or destructive agenda, they infer that the problem is political power as such. Christian blogger Benjamin Corey seems to head in this direction in this otherwise sensible post criticizing the Right’s language of “taking back” the country.

Corey says:

If there ever was a time to talk about “taking the country back” it was the time of Jesus– but that wasn’t anything he was concerned with. Jesus spent his time rejecting political power and instead, invested into building an other-worldly Kingdom where the power-rejectors are actually the greatest. Jesus saw his Kingdom, not political rule, as being the solution to all the ills of earth.

Changing the world via political power will always be a future invitation that never fully materializes. But changing the world through investing in God’s Kingdom? That’s an invitation you can accept and experience right now.

And this is why Christians on both sides of the political coin often get sidetracked: whether we realize it intellectually or not, we have grown to see government and political power as being the answer to the world’s problems– instead of the Kingdom Jesus came to establish.

The problem here, as I see it, is that some problems actually do require the use of government and political power. For example, Social Security has kept millions of senior citizens and disabled people from falling into poverty, minimum wage laws ensure that workers’ earnings don’t fall below a certain level, environmental laws set minimum standards for clean air and water, the Affordable Care Act has significantly reduced the number of people without health insurance, etc.

Now, I fully agree that none of these efforts, singly or collectively, has ushered in the Kingdom of God. But does that mean they aren’t important or were somehow not worth doing? That hardly follows, and it’s a weird sort of ethics, Christian or otherwise, that would be indifferent to such outcomes.

What seems to be driving a lot of this anti-political sentiment is a form of Christian pacifism wedded to what I consider to be a shallow analysis of political power. That is, people who have embraced a certain strain of Anabaptist-influenced pacifism sometimes conclude that all political power is inherently coercive in a bad sense and thus something that Christians should eschew. The problem is that social arrangements are always already structured by power (and thus “coercive” if you like).  So “opting out” of politics simply leaves those existing–and often unjust–power relations in place. The only way to change them, as Reinhold Niebuhr argued decades ago, is by an application of countervailing power. This doesn’t mean violence necessarily, but it does mean something more than sweet reason. (I’m not a pacifist myself, but there are meaningful distinctions to be drawn between “violence,” “power,” “coercion,” etc.)

Ironically, the progressive-pacifist analysis of government and power ends up looking a lot like that of right-wing libertarians, who regard any use of government to address social inequities as illegitimate “coercion.” This is probably a tip off that something’s gone wrong here. Political power is certainly prone to abuse. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a proper use.

Odds and ends for a Friday

I realize I’m exactly the type of person you’d expect to like a Sufjan Stevens album, but nonetheless–the new album is really good!

Evangelical Christian groups are working on a statement of theological concern regarding factory farming. I’m no longer a vegetarian (and feel vaguely guilty about it), but I’m all for any efforts to reform how we treat the animals we raise for food.

There’s been some good stuff published to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Some pieces I found of particular interest were this on why we should mark the surrender of the Confederacy with a national holiday, this one on how the issues that split the country still drive our politics and this one on the surprising divergence of Grant’s and Lee’s reputations after the war.

Yesterday was also the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer continues to inspire Christians of every stripe, who often jostle to claim him as one of their own. But Bonhoeffer was far from a plaster saint and clearly recognized his own complicity in evil. Which, if anything, makes him more relevant for us.

Ready for Hillary?

Liberal Christians aren’t caving in to “society”

This article makes two assumptions, neither of which really stands up to scrutiny. The first is that Christians have held the same views on marriage, sex, and gender for the last 2,000 years. But I think you’d have a hard time making the case that marriage and gender have been understood the same way during this time. For example, improvements in women’s legal, social, and economic status over the last century or so have had a radical impact on the nature of marriage. From an arrangement in which the woman was (at best) the decidedly junior partner, marriage has shifted to a relationship of (relative) equals. Even conservative churches have accepted, if at times only implicitly, this more egalitarian understanding of marriage. The same goes for gender roles more generally. Experience, reason, and social context have always informed Christians’ appropriation of biblical moral imperatives and values.

Second, the author seems to assume that liberal Christians and others who have adopted “revisionist” positions on sexual ethics are simply caving in to “society.” But this ignores that vast amount of theological and biblical scholarship over the last several decades which has called the “traditional” view into question. It can no longer be taken for granted, for example, that the biblical passages traditionally appealed to in condemning same-sex relationships had faithful, long-term partnerships in view. Similarly, Christian theologians and scholars have long criticized the natural law ethic that provides much of the rationale for disapproving of same-sex relationships. And, perhaps most importantly, much of this rethinking has been carried out by and with faithful gay Christians, whose lives and relationships stand as a living rebuke to the idea that they are “intrinsically disordered.”

This is not to deny that the traditional view still has able defenders, but this is a proper theological and ecclesial dispute, not a matter of fidelity to tradition vs. selling out to the culture. Just as there isn’t a monolithic Christian view on war and peace or economics, Christians will continue to disagree–on theological and biblical grounds–over sexual ethics.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the author’s suggestion that, in the long run, a more traditional sexual ethic may win out among the majority of the planet’s Christians. It does seem that in many of the places where Christianity is growing fastest, it is a conservative (sometimes very conservative) version of the faith that is winning the day. That said, however, history is unpredictable, and recent events in the United States and other countries show that things can turn around pretty quickly. In any event, though, the faithful Christians I know who are working to make their churches more humane and accepting aren’t doing it to be on “the right side of history.” They’re doing it because they think it’s right, period.

Update: I’ve revised the first paragraph of this post to make the point clearer (hopefully!).

Recent reading

More #content partly repurposed from my Goodreads page…

The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, Rowan Williams

The former archbishop of Canterbury explores the theological underpinnings of Lewis’s beloved fantasy series with his customary erudition and pastoral heart. Williams also does a nice job responding to some recent critics of the series (e.g., Philip Pullman). The purpose of the Narnia books, Williams contends, is to be an intellectual and imaginative “mouthwash” that allows us to encounter the Christian message anew. Probably the best indicator of the book’s success is that it immediately made me want to re-read the Narnia books.

On Niebuhr: A Theological Study, Langdon Gilkey

A clear and engaging exposition of Niebuhr’s theology from a former student (and accomplished theologian in his own right). Gilkey argues that Niebuhr is a more coherent and compelling theologian than he’s often given credit for (as opposed to being a social critic who festooned a largely secular ethical system with pious language). The final chapter helpfully delves into some of Niebuhr’s presuppositions and shows that he remained very much a modernist, despite his strident criticisms of the liberal Protestantism of his day. I came away from this with a renewed appreciation of Niebuhr as a religious thinker.

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt

A comprehensive argument for the right to choose an abortion as essential for women’s full equality. It seems increasingly common for people to call for a “third way” on abortion beyond the extremes of “pro-life” and “pro-choice”; Pollitt, however, compels us to look closely at the concrete effects of various efforts to limit abortion and whether they are driven more by a desire to stigmatize or shame women who have abortions for the “wrong” reasons. She also notes repeatedly that many of the people who oppose legal abortion also oppose policies (e.g., widespread access to birth control, comprehensive sex education, and government support for families) that would do the most to reduce its prevalence. I probably still fall somewhat into the “mushy middle” this book is aimed at, but it definitely nudged me in a more steadfastly pro-choice direction.

Party spirit

The fact is that democracy requires not only the organization of political parties, but also a certain degree of mutual respect or at least tolerance. Whenever the followers of one political party persuade themselves that the future of the nation is not safe with the opposition in power, it becomes fairly certain that the nation’s future is not safe, no matter which party rules. For such political acrimony endangers the nation’s health more than any specific political policies.

–Reinhold Niebuhr, “Democracy and the Party Spirit,” from Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr

These words were originally published in 1954, but it’s hardly much of a stretch to apply them today. Niebuhr thought that “party spirit” in 1954 was more of a problem on the Right than on the Left–as President Eisenhower was trying to manage his party’s radical right flank, who were busy looking for Communists under every bed. And similarly today, there’s no shortage of rhetoric coming from the Right about America’s imminent descent into a socialist hellscape (see Sen. Ted Cruz’s recent speech announcing his presidential campaign, to take just one pertinent example). The main difference now seems to be that the radical right flank accounts for the vast majority of the G.O.P.

But then, I’m a Democrat, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?

The survival of chaos after the victory of God

Jon D. Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence is one of the most stimulating theology books I’ve read in a long time. I was expecting something different–a theodicy of sorts; but what I got instead was more interesting. Levenson argues that key passages in the Tanakh/Jewish Bible present creation not as “creation out of nothing,” but as God’s “mastery” of the forces of chaos. These forces continually threaten to reemerge and will not be fully vanquished until God’s final victory at the end of time; hence the “persistence of evil.”

While Levenson recognizes that creatio ex nihilo has become the more-or-less orthodox view in Judaism (as well as in Christianity and Islam), he demonstrates–rather convincingly–that the Bible contains an only partially submerged motif of “creation from chaos.” That is, YHWH creates by defeating those forces that threaten to undo the divinely constituted order, stability, and peace that characterize creation. This victory, however, is precarious or incomplete: violence, disorder, and suffering are all-too-familiar parts of our experience, suggesting “the survival of chaos after the victory of God.” Contrary to many other interpreters, Levenson sees affinities with as much as differences from other Near Eastern creation myths–such as the Babylonian–that posit a primordial battle out of which the world order emerged. Through analysis of key texts, including of course the beginning of Genesis but also several Psalms, Job, and others, Levenson reveals traces of the creation from chaos motif.

A key implication of this view is that evil and suffering are not the result of an inscrutable divine will, but rather of the incomplete, tentative, and agonistic nature of YHWH’s mastery of the forces of chaos, which continually resist his benevolent ordering. Peace, justice, and stability continually threaten to lapse back into the chaos out of which they were brought. This is vividly brought home for long stretches of Israel’s history, and the biblical traditions of lament and apocalyptic can be seen as a cry for God to finally bring about the decisive victory over the elements that threaten God’s good creation.

Importantly, the Bible also attests to the role human beings are to play in this victory. When Israel keeps the commandments of God–including its cultic and ritual obedience–it is expanding the area over which the divine will holds sway in the world. (In this regard, Levenson allows himself some shots at certain Christian theologies that minimize the importance of human action.) The completion of creation only comes when the forces of evil and chaos are vanquished both in external history and in the human heart.

Creation from chaos can seem a bit mythological, and Levenson generally avoids trying to cash it out in more rationalistic or metaphysical terms. Process theology is the most obvious candidate for a compatible philosophical account, but Levenson seems to prefer to let the tension between divine omnipotence and the “groaning” of creation stand. The point is that God’s sovereignty, or omnipotence, is not a static fact, but a true dramatic achievement:

The operative dichotomy, thus, is not that between limitation and omnipotence, but that which lies between omnipotence as a static attribute and omnipotence as a dramatic enactment: the absolute power of God realizing itself in achievement and relationship. What this biblical theology of dramatic omnipotence shares with the theology of the limited God is a frank recognition of God’s setbacks, in contrast to the classical theodicies with their exaggerated commitment to divine impassibility and their tendency to ascribe imperfection solely to human free will, the recalcitrance of matter, or the like. . . . But whereas the theology of the limited God provides exoneration of a sort for God’s failures (for, in Kantian terms, how can we say God ought to do what he cannot?), the theology of omnipotence as dramatic enactment allows people to fault God for the persistence of evil (including, on occasion, human evil) and to goad him into reactivating his primal omnipotence, which is never relinquished but often agonizingly, catastrophically dormant. One might call this latter position a theology of omnipotence in potentia, omnipotence recollected from the cosmogonic past and expected in the eschatological future but only affirmed in faith in the disordered present.

In any event, metaphysical speculation seems less important here than fidelity to experience. Faith in the God who is the source of all good can’t help but stand in tension with our manifest experience of evil and suffering. In this light, Levenson’s conclusion to his discussion of Job could (and probably does) double as a conclusion to the book as a whole:

Though the persistence of evil seems to undermine the magisterial claims of the creator-God, it is through submission to exactly those claims that the good order that is creation comes into being. Like all other faith, creation-faith carries with it enormous risk. Only as the enormity of the risk is acknowledged can the grandeur of the faith be appreciated.

Theodicy–in the sense of explaining why evil exists–is an inherently unsatisfying undertaking. Would you really be satisfied to learn that some tragedy that befell you or someone you loved was the inevitable outworking of the divine plan or the fundamental metaphysical principles of the universe? What Levenson’s biblical account evokes instead is a kind of holy impatience with evil and suffering and a faith–albeit one often sorely tested–in the One who laid the foundations of the world and who will “swallow up death for ever and . . . wipe away tears from all faces.”

Some recent reading

Shamelessly plagiarized from my Goodreads page:

Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin

A vivid, searing exploration of religious, racial, sexual, and individual identity. An American classic.

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A very different book from Go Tell It On the Mountain, but still occupied with the nature of the self, its desires, and its self-deceptions.

Looking through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book of 2014, Graham Tomlin

Nothing particularly ground-breaking, but a sound and edifying set of meditations on how Christians should approach power, suffering, ambition, failure, reconciliation, and other areas of life, informed by a Luther-esque “theology of the cross.”

Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement, Paul Fiddes

I’m not sure I’m fully convinced by Fiddes’ preference for “subjective” accounts of the atonement, but this is a helpful study of how the major models of how the cross saves (sacrifice, victory, love, etc.) can still speak to us.

I’ve just started reading, at the recommendation of Alastair Roberts, Moshe Halbertal’s On Sacrifice. I’m not very far into it, but it already promises to be quite good.

Read anything good lately?