Kathryn Tanner on Eternal Life and Action

Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, 122-3.
Eternal life amounts to an unconditional imperative to action in that this life in God remains an empowering source of our action for the good, whatever the obstacles and failings of Christians. The imperative to act is also unconditional in that it is not affected by considerations of success. Irrespective of any likelihood that one’s actions to better the world will succeed, and even though one knows all one’s achievements will come to nothing with the world’s end, one is obligated to act simply because this is the only way of living that makes sense in light of one’s life in God. Without primary concern for the consequences of one’s actions, one acts out of gratitude for the life in God one has been given, one acts out of joyful recognition that a certain course of action is part of those good gifts that stem from a special relationship with God…

In another sense, action is a conditional imperative as well; one is also acting in an attempt to bring about a world that more closely matches the one that life in God should bring. Although eternal life is not conditional on our action, since it is in a primary sense already achieved through God’s action in Christ, the blessings in the world that should naturally follow from it are yet in some significant sense conditional in the world as we know it. Blessings flow from life in God but their egress from that source can be blocked by sin, understood as the effort to turn away from relations with the triune God (and one’s fellows), the One from whom all goods flow. In this life, action that accords with the life-giving forces of God runs into the obstructions posed by our world as a realm of death – forces promoting impoverishment, suffering, exclusion and injustice. One is called to act to counter such forces in the effort to bring in another kind of life.

This action cannot, moreover, be delayed in hopes of more propitious circumstances to come. Action is present oriented and therefore realistic. One must work with what one has and that means figuring out the present workings of the world, with, for example, the help of the physical and social sciences, in order to intervene as best one can. Action has an urgency, moreover; every moment counts…

Failure to succeed is not, however, a reason to despair. Certainly, if our action is not primarily motivated by hopes for success, the failure of those hopes is no cause to give up the fight. But to the extent our hopes are for the furthering of God’s blessing through our own action, those hopes can be sustained even in the most dire and hopeless of circumstances; one can continue to hope in God, and specifically in God’s gift of eternal life since that is not conditioned by those circumstances or by our own failure because of them…
These thoughts are, like the entirely of Tanner’s brief book, insightful and thought provoking. While I’m not entirely on board with her in this volume (primarily because it is so brief; further elaboration might ally some of my worries), Tanner is always worth reading. At <$20, this volume is a great place to start.


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