Advent and Eschatology at the Dawn of the Trump Era

Another Advent season is now upon us.

We in the United States are living in a time when overt bigotry is once again on the rise. We all seem to live, and move, and have our being in our respective titanium socio-cultural bubbles, separated as much by digital geography as physical. Our new President-elect has won his title by preying on the fears and anxieties of white Americans who feel their economic and cultural hegemony slipping away. A year ago today, we were a nation still very much in healing from our past sins. Now, a year later, our scabs have been torn off and salt has been thrown in the wounds. What comes next is anything but predictable (a concern, not only for us domestically, but for the world at large).

Photo by Alex DeMarco,
Chicago IL, 11/9/16
There is no question: we are a people who walk in darkness. And we live in a land of deep darkness.[1]

My prayer this Advent is that, in the midst of it all, we would also see the Light.
In Advent, we join in the longing of expectant Israel for its promised Messiah—for “the true light” that “was coming into the world” in the time of John the Baptist.[2] But this isn’t just an exercise in looking back, and pretending that we’re looking forward to an event that in truth has come and gone. Rather, we really do look forward to the coming of Christ, from our present place in history, because the New Testament speaks of Christ coming into the world, not once, but twice. Even as we prepare for, and celebrate, his first coming, there is a second that we look to, and long for. Tradition calls it the “Parousia.”

With the Parousia, the world as we know it is at its end. When we look to the Light that is coming (again) into the world, as we do in Advent, we look to God’s beyond—to the reality of the world as it stands in Christ, beyond all the contingencies, possibilities, and impossibilities of history—to that which the Bible calls the “Kingdom of God,” and Gustavo Gutiérrez has dubbed “the utopia that sets history in motion.”[3]

Now, just how to understand the second coming of Christ, the Kingdom of God, and the end of the world, has been a matter of some considerable debate. Is it an outward and political event that we should identify with some particular point in the chronological future, or is it an inward and spiritual event that occurs ever anew in the present (so that “to await the kingdom is, in a sense, to await the gift of freedom here and now”)?[4]

In chapter three of his new book, The God Who Saves (which you should absolutely buy and read immediately if you haven’t already), David Congdon traces the early Christian development of these ideas in the New Testament.[5] Though the early Christians certainly expected the Parousia to be an outward and political event at some point in the (initially rather imminent) chronological future, as time went on there seems to have been a trend toward seeing it more as an inward, spiritual, and present inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Congdon notes that “both Paul and John replace the kingdom that is near at hand with the Christ who ‘lives in me’ or ‘abides in me.’”[6] The big question is:

"Has the ultimate apocalypse already occurred, or is it still outstanding? Is it essential that Christ return as the universally recognizable Lord of creation? Must the reign of Christ become a visible socio-political reality in some distant future, given that the early church’s imminent expectation has been shattered?"[7]

Along with the dominant tradition, Karl Barth answers this last question in the affirmative. He looks at the second coming of Christ as a single event taking place in three forms: Easter (Jesus’ resurrection three days after his crucifixion at Golgotha), Pentecost (“the impartation of the Holy Spirit”), and Future Advent (“the return of Jesus Christ as the goal of the history of the Church, the world and each individual, as His coming as the Author of the general resurrection of the dead and the Fulfiller of universal judgement”).[8] His reply to the question of whether the Parousia is an outward and future event, or an inward and present one, is then essentially: yes.

Georgios Klontzas [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Rudolf Bultmann, conversely, comes down on the side of an inward and present Parousia. And Eberhard Jüngel refuses to either affirm or deny a future advent, since the point of the Parousia (as he understands it) is to place believers in the unsettling position of imminent expectation, and to further unsettle them by its ironic nonoccurrence. This unsettling of the believer is then, paradoxically, the very effective presence of Christ and the fulfillment of the Parousia.[9] To be entirely honest, I’m still a bit baffled by Jüngel’s direction here; but it’s the direction Congdon seems to favor, which tells me that I need to consider it further.

However we conceive of it though, the Parousia is of paramount importance for we who are now walking in darkness.

When it appears as though fear has won the day, and the world is short on hope; when our divisions threaten to cripple us, and for every step forward it feels like we take two steps back -- what we need is to catch a glimpse of another world.

What we need is to see God’s beyond -- not so that we may escape, but so that we may confront, our present darkness.

According to Dale Allison, Jesus engaged the world from just such an eschatological perspective. In his recent book, Night Comes (which I reviewed here last month), Allison writes that Jesus “tended to neglect the conventional gamut of cultural and political possibilities. He rather asked for more—far more—because, mindful of the prophecies, he saw far more coming. In this way, eschatology entered the present as mandate.”[10]

Allison is worth quoting at length here:

"An eschatological worldview that judges the transient in terms of the transcendent has the great virtue of distancing one from the present, of creating a critical perspective on, and a holy dissatisfaction with, all the contingencies that masquerade as necessities…

Contemporary circumstances always carry inertia, their own potent momentum, which makes changing course, whether for the one or the many, no easy task. So we require a compelling vision that surpasses and so relativizes the contemporary moment, a vision that breaks our cultural hypnosis and moves us to hope for more than what we see, a vision that breeds impatience and keeps us ill-adjusted to so-called reality. We need the idealistic faith to move the mountains before us…

For all this, utopia serves us better than Christian realism. Utopia may be nowhere, and it may be as likely as the meek inheriting the earth, but we can’t give it up. To settle instead for the realistically obtainable, to be pragmatic, would be to exchange the “ought” of the city of God for the “is” of the city of man. The status quo isn’t our friend, and we shouldn’t acknowledge its authority. Instead of being content to make a virtue out of necessity, we need to dismantle necessity. The one thing needful, as Martin Luther King Jr. understood, is to dream of what hasn’t happened."[11]

We are a people who walk in darkness.
And we live in a land of deep darkness.[12]

What we need now is to catch a glimpse of the great Light, of the coming again of the One who has come before -- for when we do, we will be drawn indelibly into His brilliant resistance. We will be given the strength, creativity, and perseverance to confront this present darkness in the hope of a world beyond.


*References:

[1] Isaiah 9:2
[2] John 1:9
[3] As quoted in Dale C. Allison Jr., Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2016), 90.
[4] David W. Congdon, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 70.
[5] Ibid., 64-72.
[6] Ibid., 72.
[7] Ibid., 72.
[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3 (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 293.
[9] David W. Congdon, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 76.
[10] Dale C. Allison Jr., Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2016), 89-90.
[11] Ibid., 90-91.
[12] Isaiah 9:2

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Comments

Great post, Alex! I really like the way you integrate Allison into the discussion. What struck me about his work -- especially the passages you highlight -- is how implicitly Bultmannian it is. This passage in particular is notable:

"An eschatological worldview that judges the transient in terms of the transcendent has the great virtue of distancing one from the present, of creating a critical perspective on, and a holy dissatisfaction with, all the contingencies that masquerade as necessities."

One could hardly describe Bultmann's doctrine of "deworldlizing" (Entweltlichung) any better than this.

Jüngel's position is indeed mind-boggling, in the best kind of way. I smooth him out a bit by reading him as basically Bultmannian, but with a greater willingness to hold doctrine in a state of tension in light of the biblical text. Bultmann is a German scholar in the classic stereotypical sense: he wants to figure out clearly and finally what's true and what's false. He's ultimately a historical critic, not a dogmatician. Either something happened or it didn't; either it's going to happen or it won't. When pressed, I side with Bultmann, but I think Jüngel can teach us something about how to understand the function of doctrine, so I appreciate that about his work. And in a sense I try to carry on that legacy.

Thanks for reading my work. I look forward to seeing what you make of it!

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