Advent and Eschatology (2) The future absorbed into the present

We’re continuing with a series of posts on eschatology and Advent. The first couple or so are telling the story of the recovery of eschatology within NT studies within the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

Existential Eschatology (Bultmann)

We’re picking up the story with Rudolf Bultmann.

He drove down the Schweitzerstrasse in that he was committed to the ‘otherness’ of Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God. As a good existentialist, Bultmann believed that the preaching of the Kingdom of God presents us with a momentous decision; response to the kerygma of the Kingdom means that God’s future breaks into our present, freeing us from our inauthentic past.

This is a continual process of living an authentic faith. But it reduced eschatology to an abstract principle of value to Christians as they live life in the present. For Bultmann eschatology is reduced to metaphor and symbol, which, while powerfully transformative in the here and now, are not to be believed as speaking of actual realities.

Hence his programme of ‘demythologization’ – the actual return of Jesus, judgement, new creation and so on are mythological, to be relevant in a modern world they need to be demythologised.

And of course once you start down the route of deciding which bits of the NT are ‘myth’ and should be put aside, you may end up with some helpful ethical principles, but the result will be a very long way away from the faith of the NT writers.

Bultmann’s emphasis on the present life effectively swallows up eschatology in the present.

If by a very different routes, Bultmann, like Wrede and like Schweitzer, also ended up with a version of ‘this-worldly’ Christian faith rather than a future-orientated faith.

Realized Eschatology (C H Dodd)

Over in Britain, Charles Harold Dodd, rejected the Schweitzerstrasse in his attempt to harmonise the future and the present within his programme of ‘realized eschatology’ as developed in The Parables of the Kingdom (1935).

Dodd, like Bultmann, but for different reasons, also reinterpreted Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God in terms of the present. He (rightly) saw how Jesus’ parables challenged listeners to respond to the presence of the kingdom of God in the life and teaching of Jesus; now was the time of both judgment and salvation. Those that respond with faith have eternal life now.

“This world has become the scene of a divine drama, in which the eternal issues are laid bare. It is the hour of decision. It is realized eschatology.”[1]

While Dodd acknowledged that the Kingdom is not merely present, he was reluctant to describe it as a future reality awaiting consummation, his emphasis was on its impact in the present. Apparently, later Dodd did make more space for real future events. So while his realized eschatology failed to carry the day, he did pave the way for ‘eschatology’s come back’.

We will turn to that come back in the next post(s).

All this continues to raise a question for day to day Christian life.

How does future hope shape your life in the present?

Is that future hope merely an abstract idea or example that helps us live significant lives in the present? (Bultmann, Dodd – and also in different ways Wrede, Weiss and Schweitzer).

Or is it talking of real events in God’s timetable of one day putting everything right?

[1] Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom, 198.

A tribute to carers

My mother died recently after some years of gradual decline due to dementia, hastened by a bout of pneumonia. She was 92. I happened to be the family member with her in hospital in the early hours of the morning when her life ended. The nurse on night duty was wonderful. She had supplied a mattress, sheets and pillows for me to stay the night. When I told her what had happened, she was kind and compassionate well beyond mere efficiency. Her care that night has prompted these musings.

Over the last few years as a family we have met countless health care professionals – carers, nurses and doctors – the vast majority of them women. I am beyond admiration for every one of them. Carers visiting at home do so under poor rates of pay, working unsocial hours, doing often extremely difficult work under unrealistic time pressures. Yet, they not only do their job but forge genuine relationships of care and love with elderly and often helpless people.

Nothing speaks to me more of the distorted priorities of Western culture than how poorly funded and valued are carers and nurses. They work at the sharp edge of human mortality. While capitalism appeals to self-interest and pursues accumulation of wealth, my mum’s carers do their job out of a sense of vocation. Of course they work for pay, but to a woman, they give of themselves far beyond any contract of employment in order to maintain human dignity and care to some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

We are embodied beings and our bodies wear out and die. I’m musing here, but it seems to me that much of our culture is effectively gnostic. By that I mean it values the abstract above the physical. We fear death and prize fickle and transient things like respect, image, status, power, beauty and success. Money itself is simply a means to such ends and it is pursued relentlessly. When the capitalist system fails, no price is too high to fix it, regardless of the cost to ‘less important’ and ‘soft’ professions like caring and nursing, mental health provision or disability services.

In saying this, some may retort ‘What’s your alternative?’ Hospitals need funding. Funding comes from taxes. Taxes come from those who work and create wealth. If everyone was a carer the system would collapse. Yes, but I’m pushing back against distorted priorities within recent neo-liberalism (or ‘turbo-capitalism’) and the damage it is wrought globally – and in Ireland particularly. See this excellent article on ‘financialisation’ for more detailed discussion of what has happened.

Nor does a rampant capitalist culture contain any logical impulse towards doing justice, righting wrongs or, dare I say, loving others. It prizes individual happiness, comfort and pleasure, but is largely indifferent to those that fall by the wayside of the capitalist dream.

At the risk of massive generalisation, I wonder if women tend to be less seduced by such gnostic dualisms than men? Is that why it is overwhelmingly women who get their hands dirty in the mess of sacrificially tending and respecting ageing bodies? I honestly do not know the answers to those questions, save to say I want here to pay tribute to all those wonderful carers who contributed to looking after my mum in the last years of her life.

But I do know that the Christian faith is anything but gnostic. The entire Bible values the earthly, physical and material aspects of life. It begins with God willing a good creation into being. It climaxes with the incarnation of God’s Son. He enters human history, born of Mary and is Israel’s promised Messiah. He heals the sick and raises the dead. He is crucified under Pontius Pilate. He sheds real blood and suffers real death. His resurrection means that all in him have hope of a resurrection body in a renewed creation.

You can’t get more committed to the pain, complexity and physicality of the world than that. The cross reveals the true nature of our God. As one theologian puts it, ‘The uttermost depth of human misery has been plumbed by the incarnate Lord.’

And that is very good news indeed.