From wrath to apocalypse (3)

One way of describing it is to say that Jesus shifts our perspective from apocalyptic to eschatology.  (Eschatology is simply the study of the last things; the ‘eschaton’ is the end, the full stop at the end of time). Christians are called to live in the light of the end of the world, in the light of the last judgement.  

Now when Jesus is talking about this, he uses images that are sudden.  They will come like a thief in the night. Or think about the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, or the story about looking after your house, he emphasises suddenness, the immediate nature of it and so we are called to live as if it is about to happen. There is a phrase which Christian theology uses to talk about this perspective and its called a realised eschatology. What that means is that the end of the world in breaking in an applicable way now, and so we live in the light of it now. It is not something that is happening in the future to which we need not pay any attention.
Think of a bus driving along a mountain pass, and imagine that the driver has absolute certainty and conviction that he will get to his destination safely, that if for example he should go off the edge of the mountain, there are these wonderful angels who will lift the bus back on to the road. That bus driver will view things rather differently than the bus driver who does not have that certainty but expects something dangerous to be possible and therefore pays attention to that present moment and lives consciously and attentively to ensure that he drives properly and does not go off the edge of the cliff.   Apocalyptic is the perspective of the first bus driver who has got a certainty about where things are going and therefore does not worry too much about what happens in the meantime.  That is the ‘left behind’ understanding; that is the understanding that says, “Yes let’s have a war between Israel and the Arabs because that will bring about the Second Coming.” Realised eschatology, in contrast, is the second bus driver. This is the perspective that Jesus is teaching, saying that we have to concentrate and live in the light of the end of the world now.  We actually have to pay very close attention to each moment in time because the judgement could be just around the corner. The normal Christian way of describing this is to talk about ‘living in the Kingdom’.  A great deal of standard Christian language and doctrine has its roots in this perspective. It is the vision which structures Christian ways of thought, which was inaugurated on Easter morning, and which shapes and conditions the way that we live here and now.


It’s always fun to discover what old school friends have been up to (bad language warning, but it’s very funny)

From wrath to apocalypse (2)

This [apocalyptic] thinking has a common shape: i) the world is wicked; ii) God’s wrath is coming to destroy it through doom and apocalypse; iii) the righteous will be redeemed and the wicked will be punished; and then iv) there is a new creation. There are many contemporary examples of this. So for Peak Oil, the perspective would read: i) we are reckless in our consumption of oil; ii) Peak Oil will cause a never-ending recession; iii) those who are unprepared will suffer; iv) those who have prepared will manage. Global Warming is another: i) we are reckless in our production of carbon dioxide; ii) this will cause runaway climate change; iii) there will be tremendous suffering; iv)… There are also some remarkably sub-Christian forms, possibly the most prominent being the ‘Left Behind’ series, which is based on some rather dubious nineteenth century Biblical speculation (the perfect example of ‘doctrines of men’). It is the common shape which is important to grasp, for this is not the Christian vision. 

“The commonly held understanding of hell [i.e. this punishment of the wicked] remains trapped within the apocalyptic imagination, that is, it is the result of a violent separation between the good and the evil worked by a vengeful God.  It seems to me that if hell is understood thus we have quite simply not understood the Christian faith.” James Alison

The trouble with apocalyptic, what you might call ‘the doomer perspective’, it that it is dualist.  It is all about making divisions, and there are three primary splits:
– a split between the righteous and the unrighteous;
– a split between heaven and earth; and
– a split in time between now and the future. 
What does Jesus say about the end of the world?  He was living in the midst of the time when this language was prevalent.  When everyone accepted this apocalyptic framework, that was the common language of his time, but Jesus subverts it.  He is doing something different with it, for Jesus’ ministry is centred upon an overcoming of all these dualisms. With respect to the first He comes to sinners, not to the righteous; He spends his time having meals with the prostitutes and the tax-collectors and the religious authorities criticise him for it. He is trying to overcome the division between those who are pure, who keep all the purity laws, and those who get excluded for various reasons, because they have not got the right number of limbs, or they cannot walk. Jesus spends his time with those who are wounded, not with those who are righteous.

The second split, the great division between the realm of heaven and the realm of earth, is symbolised by the curtain in the temple which gets torn in two. The heart of Christian faith is that Jesus is God Incarnate, that the barriers between heaven and earth have been overcome. Jesus’ very existence is a refutation of this second split. The one word rejection of that is incarnation, and you cannot get more fundamental to the Christian belief.

Yet it is the third split which is most important for our purposes here, for what Jesus is doing is bringing “the end of the world” to bear on how people live in the present moment… to be continued

Giles Fraser’s Thought for the Day, and the Christian hope of conquering death

Giles Fraser gave the Thought for the Day on Ash Wednesday. I have had two people ask me what I thought about it! The transcript is here.

What Fraser actually says – so far as it goes – I would actually largely agree with, ie I also don’t “subscribe to Platonic ideas about the immortality of the soul. When you die, you die”, and also, “When theologians… speak of entering eternity they mean something altogether different from this: for eternity is outside of time”. So far so good (nb great weight on ‘Platonic ideas’ about immortality, not immortality per se). Where Fraser goes against orthodoxy, so far as I can tell, is that he stops there. What he has missed out is the rather central teaching about resurrection!! Orthodoxy doesn’t teach a disembodied future, it teaches that there will be a general resurrection, wherein we will each experience in the future what Jesus experienced in the past. If I am right in how I read him, I have to say I have difficulty understanding how he can do what he does. Without some sort of anchoring in this non-symbolic conquering of death I think Christianity loses its point, and becomes just another form of feel-good therapy.

For a good summing up of orthodoxy see Byron’s recent post here and listen to this:

UPDATE: a little more from Giles Fraser here, which would suggest that he does accept the resurrection! Well that’s alright then 🙂

From wrath to apocalypse (1)

What is apocalypse? It is a genre of writing. The best examples in the Bible are the book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the book of Revelation in the New Testament. It was a very influential genre between around 200 BC to 200 AD and it had its roots in political events going on at that time, in particular the rule of the Roman Empire in the Promised Land, and the sense within the Hebrew people that things were not going as they had been promised. Apocalypse as a genre has different forms. There are frequently visions involving specific symbolism, for example beasts with heads and horns, but these are political allegories: the beasts are normally gentile kingdoms, and the horns coming out of the beasts are the rulers of the different gentile kingdoms.  Much of the symbolic language in the book of Revelation can be mapped on to the political environment of the first century.

A useful distinction between different forms of apocalyptic is that they can be vertical or horizontal. Vertical apocalypses are where someone is lifted up into the realm of the angels, into the cosmic heaven and they are enabled to see the truth. Gnostic apocalypses are like this, for gnosticism is all about gaining access to the heavenly realm through understanding the truth and leaving this world behind.  Alternatively there is also a horizontal realm of apocalypse which is much more biblical; for example, Isaiah 24, where God brings the present structures of the world to destruction in order to accomplish his purposes within the world.  Vertical apocalypses, then, are about leaving this world behind, whereas horizontal apocalypses are about the change and reform of this world. The vertical involves travelling up and beyond; the horizontal are about travelling through time.
The language of horizontal apocalyptic is that history is coming to a close: there is a cosmic cataclysm and a consummation of God’s purposes, and then a recreation, and this has its roots in the prophetic criticisms of the status quo.  Isaiah 24 to 26 is a good example. Biblically, apocalyptic is concerned with criticising unjust political arrangements and seeing God’s activity as breaking into the world to act to bring about His purposes. It is not about leaving the world behind and being lifted up into the heavens.

“…within the mainline Jewish writings of this period, covering a wide range of styles, genres, political persuasions and theological perspectives, there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space time universe.  There is abundant evidence that they knew a good metaphor when they saw one, and used cosmic imagery to bring out the full theological significance of cataclysmic socio-political events”. (Tom Wright)

There are many different ways in which elements within our society fasten onto something which leads them to say “this is why we are doomed”, “no this is why we’re doomed”, or add them all together and “this is why we are doomed!”. This is simply echoing the cultural legacy of apocalyptic.  Even if we are not aware of it, we are interpreting events and information through the lens of apocalypse. Someone might say “Hang on I cannot be influenced by apocalyptic because I’m not a Christian, I do not believe in it”.  This is a little bit like saying, “I’ve never read any Greek literature, I’ve never read Plato, therefore my thinking is not shaped by it.”  These thought forms are diffused throughout our civilisation.  They are the bedrock of our thinking, the river bed through which our thinking flows like the water, and apocalyptic is very influential in the way that our culture understands the world. There is an historical memory of this promise that the world is going to come to an end, and so, inevitably, part of our community fastens on to alarming portents and starts to replay this process of apocalyptic.
to be continued

The Wrath of God (5)

last part
Jesus said that He was going to abolish the temple and create it again in three days. The empty tomb now corresponds to the Holy of Holies: God has come out from the place of sacrifice and we are sprinkled clean, but instead of the goat’s blood, we have Christ’s blood, which makes us clean and reconciled with God. The two angels at the empty tomb correspond to the two cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant which was placed in the Holy of Holies. The site of the resurrection is the new mercy seat, and so, if you accept the resurrection then you have received reconciliation with God. It is the revealing of this truth through the story of crucifixion and resurrection that sets us free from being trapped in the process of natural and human wrath. This isn’t separable from either the crucifixion or the Last Supper, the three things together, hang together and cannot be separated out. “This is my blood of the New Covenant shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This is the sacrifice which we are called to share in. We are washed clean by the blood of the Lamb.

Jesus is the second Adam, for in Adam humanity goes off the right path and disorder follows, whereas in Christ, humanity is put back on the right path. In so far as we share in and participate in Christ’s life, then we are on the right path, and we are taking part in the restoration of the world. What goes wrong is put right: as in Adam all die so in Christ shall all be made alive. This is the New Covenant: it is written on people’s hearts, it is not simply about a passive obedience, it is actually about being wholly committed to it. God will take away the hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh. The right relationship with God, the right relationship with each other. What this process is about is aligning ourselves with Christ. Christ is the one through whom the world was created and in so far as we are aligned with Christ we thereby keep the law. If we pursue the New Covenant, if we share the New Covenant then we have right relationships with the world, so the creation is put right.

The Eucharistic liturgy begins with the exchange of peace, and that is very important because that is what stops the scapegoating, the human wrath, that you are at peace with your neighbour. We are not at peace because we are both righteous, we come to it as sinners, as people in need of forgiveness. We cannot get that forgiveness by our own merit, we are relying on that benign God coming out to us, and therefore because we don’t have any righteousness of our own, we are not expelling anyone else who is unrighteous, because we are none of us righteous. This is a core element of sharing the bread and wine, that we don’t expel beforehand. This is what Jesus is accomplishing, this new Covenant. It begins with the exchange of peace and so we receive the forgiveness and we give thanks for it.

So what is the wrath that is to come? We are in a situation where we have been profoundly transgressing both the natural laws and the revealed laws. Because we have been transgressing those laws, breaching the limits, then wrath is descending upon us. In Rwanda for example, the slaughter was worse where the population was most dense. They weren’t able to feed themselves and they slaughtered each other and whilst there was much scapegoating (human wrath) between the Hutus and Tutsis a major factor was simply where the population was most dense. That was wrath, and it was a foretaste of what is to come.

So are we entering into the apocalypse? No. Our imaginations, how we understand God, who we understand God to be, whether we picture in our hearts and minds God as someone angry, seeking to punish and chastise, or whether we see God as someone loving and merciful, seeking to bring us into life – this is where our real spiritual work needs to be done. Our imaginations need to be renewed in the light of Christ.

Do CofE parishes want – can they cope – with introvert incumbents?

Thinking out loud…

Interesting moment in my therapy this morning, when we got to talking about introversion (lest there be any doubt, “My name is Sam and I am an introvert” [grin]). Did a quick Google search when I got back and was reminded of this interesting article from The Atlantic.

Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? […] Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially “on,” we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing.

I was recently reminded of my first thinking about Killing George Herbert, and what parishes actually want. For one way of describing what is wanted – at least, what people tell me that they want, ie ‘this is what we would like you to do'(!) – is to say ‘the parish wants an extrovert’. Someone who is comfortable – no, someone who is enthused and inspired by the social whirl, who will happily be active in seeking conversations, in ‘being visible’ – and, therefore, someone who gains energy from such things. Which is, of course, a possible description of hell for the introvert.

My therapist commented that this was a particularly CofE difficulty. In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches it is much more straightforward to serve as an introvert, not least because the expectation is that a person will seek the priest, not that the priest will seek the people. Introverts can be brilliant when a person knocks at the door and seeks specific and particular help (presumably that’s why so many introverts are called to the ministry) but when the dynamic is the other way around (eg “visiting”) then it runs quite strongly against the grain. It’s also why – at least for me – I find liturgy so essential. It’s probably an exaggeration to say evangelical = extrovert, anglo-catholic = introvert, but there’s _something_ there!

I had thought that my deafness was a large part of why I find socialising so draining – which is probably one factor – but I have now come across half-deaf people who don’t worry about group gatherings half so much, so personality does have a lot to do with it.

One final thought – in chatting to some old friends from my curacy at the weekend (I was in London for a big do) – the comment was made that all a parish needs is to know that they are loved. I think that’s true – and certainly something to aspire to – but it does run both ways. There is something here about parishes becoming big enough (in every sense) to be able to accommodate the diversity of priests that pass through, cultivating a flexibility of expectation and valuing the good things about a priest, putting up with the bad. Truth be told, Mersea is pretty good at that… but I know of many colleagues where that hasn’t been true.

More anon.

The Wrath of God (4)

So how do we understand Christ in this context? Well, how do Christians describe him? We say things like: Jesus is Lord, Jesus is the Son of the Most High God, “He is a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.” These are titles for the High Priests in the first temple. They were not created from scratch in order to respond to Jesus himself. There was an existing theological vocabulary which was then applied to Christ and this is what Jesus is carrying through: Jesus is accomplishing the Day of Atonement once and for all. We often think of atonement as something that ‘covers over’ sin or ‘puts away’ our sin with regard to God. That is not the way in which it was understood in the first temple period. Atonement rather was mending something that was broken, or repairing something that was torn, it is something being fixed.

Atonement is all about renewing the creation. If we keep to God’s commands then he will allow the land to flourish. God structured the world and it has certain characteristics and principles reflecting his creating of it. If we keep to those principles, if we abide by those strictures and rules then we will be in harmony with God’s creation, we will be in harmony with the creator and there will be righteousness and peace. There will be Shalom. Shalom comes from being in right relationship with God, and that gives right relationships with the world and the world flourishes. Shalom is not simply the absence of people fighting, it is a concept with much broader, richer sense, it is the whole creation flourishing.

Then what was Jesus doing? God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God – Jesus is the one enacting the atonement, this reconciliation between humanity and God, healing the creation and bringing an environment, a society, which is in disorder, corrupted by idolatry, back into the right relationship with God. Jesus is the answer to idolatry. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, so in him we see what these orders and strictures and laws and rules are all about, they are all tending and pointing towards Jesus, they are all teaching us about what it is to be human. This is what life is focused on, all things were created through him, so there is nothing in creation where Jesus is not present, where Jesus is not that which will heal and put creation right. And how do we do this? to be concluded

The Wrath of God (3)

Another sense in which wrath can be described is in human terms. In the ritual from the Day of Atonement there was a role for a scapegoat – upon which all the sins of the nation were laid. A human society – if it isn’t rooted in God, in right worship, in right relationships with self and neighbour – will fixate on to something else around which to form an identity. This will become an idol, and then this idol will require sacrifices in the pagan sense in order to keep the society together. The perfect example is 1930’s Germany and the scapegoating of the Jews. A society which was under tremendous stress sought to preserve a sense of identity by worshipping the idol of racial purity; this meant picking upon a scapegoat, and there was then a unity amongst the majority through denying and expelling the minority. This is a fact of human nature. If we are not centred on God then we will be centred on something else and that something else becomes an idol. If the governing idol is Mammon, then the scapegoated minority will be the poor, who will be described as deserving their poverty due to some moral failing, such as laziness. If the governing idol is sexuality then the scapegoated minority will be the fat and the ugly, who will be described as deserving their unhappiness due to some moral failing, such as a lack of self-control. This scapegoating process, always present, becomes dominant during times of crisis. In our time it is no longer the Jews who are most vulnerable to being rejected, now it is the Muslim community. We are still unredeemed, and we are therefore prone to violence and anger and slaughter and sacrifice. This is a path that can only end in war. In such circumstances there is still a sense of pagan sacrifice, there is still a dynamic whereby there is an angry deity present – but the angry deity is not God. We are the angry deity. What the ritual of the Day of Atonement shows us is God acting to try and overcome our wrath. To reveal it to us and to set us free from it. We are the ones being revealed as the pagans who require sacrifice in order to maintain our sense of identity and social processes, we are the angry ones.

This, then is the second way in which the language of wrath can be used. Wrath is first and foremost about when we go against the natural order and suffer as a consequence, but it is also about the nature of who we are as a human society when we are fallen. If we do not focus our human society on the Living God then we will end up having this process of scapegoating and sacrifice repeating itself for ever.

The Wrath of God (2)

So if God is not wrathful in the sense of a pagan angry deity what does the language of wrath in Scripture refer to? For it is certainly saturated throughout the Old Testament, nor is it absent from the New Testament. The answer is that Scripture testifies to a developing understanding of the nature of God and wrath. In Paul for example, it is a theme in Paul’s writings, but there tends to be “wrath” rather than “the wrath of God”. Of some twenty to twenty five references to wrath, only two or three are to the wrath of God. Mostly Paul refers to wrath as a concept.

Julian of Norwich – who lived at the time of the Black Death and saw immense suffering in her lifetime – understood that God is not concerned with punishment. The understanding of God in Christian faith is not a pagan one, whereby we have to appease someone who is angry or else, but rather that God is supremely love. Julian of Norwich talks about a courteous love, that God is loving to the exclusion of all other attributes. This does not mean that what is described as the wrath of God or vengeance or punishment in the Old Testament is not describing something real. It is to say that the presentation there has more to do with how the Old Testament peoples understood wrath than it has to do with the nature of God as revealed in Christ himself. After all, a wrathful, punishing God would not get involved in this process of allowing himself to be sacrificed in order to heal. Jesus rarely refers to the Old Testament directly, but there is one passage in Hosea which he quotes twice and it is this: “Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy not sacrifice.” God is eternally consistent in acting from love.

So what is a properly Christian understanding of wrath? Wrath is when we experience the consequences of our own sin. In medieval theology it was accepted that there were two ways of understanding God – there was the book of nature (creation) and there was the book of revelation (the Bible) – and both books allowed the reader to discern the nature of God. In particular, contemplating the creation can lead you to affirm the Creator. It can’t lead you to affirm Christ, that’s the realm of revelation, but you can through natural reason come to the conclusion that God exists. Corresponding to this, I think there are two ways to understand wrath, one referring to a natural process, one referring to a human process.

As Christians we understand that the world is made through Christ, that the world is consistent, that it can be understood, and that is what we call the logos. This is one of the foundations for the development of science in the Western world: because you can trust the maker of the world to be consistent, therefore you can apply scientific method to discern truth. The scientific method depends upon these prior theological assumptions, for where you have got a panoply of gods intervening arbitrarily then it is impossible to obtain consistent, reliable and repeatable data.

So natural theology perceives that the world is consistent and bound by laws that we can see and understand, and these laws reveal the nature of the Creator. If the world is consistent and bound by laws then that means that the transgression of those laws has particular consequences. If you put your hand in fire you will get burnt. There is no monitoring entity saying ‘you’ve broken the rules by putting your hand in the fire! Now I’ve got to punish you by burning your hand!’ No, there is simply a hand being placed in the fire and being burnt as a result. This is the first sense in which the language of wrath can be applied: wrath is when we experience the consequences of our actions.

to be continued…