The hope of the kingdom

Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was a 20th-century theologian and church teacher who could hold her own with the theological bigwigs of the day (Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr) while writing accessible works of theology aimed at lay people. Her books have an almost C. S. Lewisian ability to convey profound theological ideas in lucid prose. (What she lacks in Lewis’s imaginative richness she arguably makes up for in a more solid grounding in academic theology.)

Harkness was a feminist, a pacifist, a proponent of the social gospel after it became unfashionable, and a defender of liberal theology (broadly speaking) in the face of challenges from fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy. She called herself a “liberal evangelical”—a phrase that reflected her commitment to open inquiry and social improvement as well as a personalist evangelical piety informed by her life-long Methodism.

In her book Understanding the Kingdom of God Harkness considers the various ways Jesus’ message of the kingdom has been understood and develops her own approach, which combines many of the best elements of the others. She doesn’t fully align herself with any “school”—apocalyptic, prophetic, “realized” eschatology, Bultmannian existentialism—but finds strengths and weaknesses in each.

For Harkness, the kingdom as preached by Jesus has three key aspects: the present, kingly rule of God over all creation; our personal entry into the kingdom by accepting its ethical demands; and its future consummation. Harkness acknowledges that there was an apocalyptic element to Jesus’ teaching and preaching, and even that he may have expected an imminent end of the world, but she denies that this made up the entirety of his message. Just as important, if not more so, is the prophetic aspect of his teaching—“good news for the poor”—and the ethics of participating in the kingdom. She finds the heart of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom in the parables, and the chapter discussing them is one of the book’s richest.

This is not to say that Harkness denies the eschatological. The kingdom is yet to be fully consummated, and this includes life beyond death for individuals, not just a this-worldly utopia. She is (wisely in my view) agnostic about the precise outlines of the eternal kingdom—will it be a “new heaven and earth”? eternal life beyond the spatio-temporal realm?—noting that the language we have in the Bible is highly symbolic and poetic. She grounds this hope in the character of God as revealed by Jesus and the biblical tradition more broadly.

Harkness laments that mainline churches have neglected the teaching of the kingdom, while the more conservative churches have turned it into apocalyptic escapism. The book was published in 1974, but I’m not sure how much has changed since then. Harkness argues that a better understanding of the kingdom can provide hope and motivate social action without leading to escapism or political utopianism. In a time when hope seems pretty fragile, Harkness’s words provide some: “What one can say in the midst of a complex and changing world is that it is still God’s world, and God is still working for good within it.”

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