Thursday 30 November 2006

Theology for beginners (21): Completion

Summary: At the End, our broken stories are lifted up and integrated into the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we are thus included in the story of God’s deity.

Throughout this series, we have been speaking (or rather trying to speak) of Christian faith from the perspective of the gospel. The gospel narrates certain events as the happening of God’s own deity. A certain Jewish man is crucified outside Jerusalem and is raised to new life – this is the event of God’s deity, the event in which God identifies himself, the event in which God is God. In speaking of various main themes, therefore – God, creation, salvation and community – we have tried to take our bearings from this event, so that our talk about God is guided not by any prior conceptions of what a “divine being” should be like, but by God’s own self-definition in the story of Jesus.

In turning now to our final theme – traditionally called “eschatology” or “last things” – we are really not taking up a new topic, but are simply turning back to the same event in a new way. At this point, we are talking again of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the event of God’s deity. But we are now concerned explicitly with the questions: What is the significance of this event for the ultimate destiny of our lives? What does this event lead us to expect from the future?

The story of Jesus, we have said, narrates reality. It is the context of meaning within which all other things become “true” and “real.” This is because God has eternally elected this story to be his own story, the story of his identity. And the story of God’s identity has a specific conclusion: the crucified Jesus is raised to new life. Further, as we have noted repeatedly, the story of Jesus is also a story about ourselves: in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead our own stories find their proper conclusion. We can therefore say quite comprehensively: the end of all our stories is this risen one; the future that awaits us all is this lowly God, this exalted human, this one whom the Father vindicated through the Spirit by raising to new life.

Our future is the “place” where the risen Jesus reigns as Lord in perfect fellowship with the Father through the Spirit. And so even now this future floods our lives with the light of hope and meaning. Even now, we receive our identity from this future.

At present, all our individual and collective stories are marked by fragmentation, confusion, disconnectedness. Our stories lack closure and unity. They are broken stories which lack the harmony of a fitting end. But the gospel tells us a new story – it tells us that God has raised up Jesus “for us and for our salvation.” Our own broken stories thus receive new harmony from this story. Through the power of the Spirit, our own stories are made to cohere in the story of Jesus. Where our lives were fragmented, they are now integrated. Where we were without hope and without a future, we now receive the cohesion of a fitting end from the future of the risen Jesus.

When we speak of the End, therefore, we are speaking of this narrative fittingness that integrates our stories into the story of Jesus. In the final act of a play, all the preceding acts are brought together in a coherent dramatic unity. So too, the final End that we await is the act by which God’s Spirit gathers all our individual, fragmented stories and pieces them together. The Spirit comes from the Father and integrates us into the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection – which is to say, into the event of God’s own life. By including all our little broken stories in his own story, God therefore raises us to participate in his life. Our stories become part of God’s story – yes, part of God’s identity!

Here and now in the present, the Christian community is the place where this narrative cohesion is already anticipated in advance. Here and now – in proclamation, in baptism and in Eucharist – we re-tell and re-enact the story of Jesus as the dramatic unity of the whole created world. Here and now, in acts of justice, beauty and peace, we anticipate the sheer goodness of this story’s conclusion – a cosmic goodness in which chaos, violence and injustice are finally overcome. Here and now, as we live in the freedom of the Spirit and share in each other’s lives, we experience – or rather, we are – the foretaste of the joyful freedom that this story promises. In such ways, the Christian community thus performs God’s deity as an event whose dramatic unity already integrates our lives here and now, and whose conclusion will finally be revealed as the hope and the meaning of all things.

Our existence is thus placed in a new context, transposed into a new key, and we are set free by the Spirit to participate in the unceasing harmony of God’s own thrice-repeated deity. In this divine harmony, all created things find their meaning, their place, their fittingness. And so, in the end, all creatures are brought together in this surprising and joyful dramatic unity, this story of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, this story of the God who is love.

Further reading

  • Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Theo-Drama, Vol. 5 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998).
  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III/2, § 47; IV/3, §73.
  • Fergusson, David and Marcel Sarot, eds. The Future as God’s Gift (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000).
  • Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 395-411.
  • Jenson, Robert W. God after God (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), pp. 157-79.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Coming of God (London: SCM, 1996).
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 527-646.
  • Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations, Vol. 2 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1963), pp. 203-216.


Anonymous said...

Everything is Always Already complete and always was and always will be?

The story of Humpty Dumpty says it all.
Humpty sitting on the wall represents the always already Indivisible Unity of the Cosmic Egg.
Humpty in fragments on the ground is where all theologians begin from. Trying to do the impossible project of putting Humpty back together again.
All the kings horses and all the kings men cannot ever put Humpty back together again.

Meanwhile the always already condition of Indivisible Unity is the constant condition of everything!
How could it possibly be otherwise?

David W. Congdon said...


Wonderful conclusion! It's always a treat to read these posts. You have a great style that conveys complex concepts in very accessible language. Thank you for this series.

I would like to press a distinctively Barthian point. You speak of the eschatological future as a time in which God "integrates us into the event of Jesus' death and resurrection." I understand and agree with what you are trying to say here, but I think it is more helpful to affirm, based on the doctrine of election, that we are already integrated into the death and resurrection of Jesus. By virtue of the incarnation and the hypostatic union, our humanity is integrated with the divinity of the Logos. We are joined to Jesus Christ.

Thus, in the eschatological future, we will not be integrated, but our integration in Christ will be consummated. What God began in the incarnation of the Son will reach completion in the future. Something new does indeed take place in the eschaton, but I just want to make sure we do not lose the connection between the future completion and the past actuality. The past is the constitutive and definitive event, which is realized in the present, and consummated in the future. All three tenses of salvation (broadly understood) must be preserved.

I see all of this in your posts. I am just being nitpicky about the tenses you use and about making sure the future events are explicitly grounded in the past event of Christ.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks David -- that's a very good point. I'll be trying to bring this out in the next (and last) post on "Glorification", where I emphasise that eternal life is not the opposite of our current temporal existence, but precisely the glorification of this present temporality before God.

byron smith said...

Ben, I was concerned in the first half of your answer that you were quite anthropocentric, and so was relieved that the resurrection is not simply the integration and vindication of the human story in the story of Christ, but of the cosmic identity too.

Our future is the “place” where the risen Jesus reigns as Lord in perfect fellowship with the Father through the Spirit.
I am not sure I understood this sentence. Do you mean that the risen Jesus doesn't reign as Lord of our present or past? Or that that we will go in the future to that "place" where Jesus now reigns? Or something else? And how does this relate to the motif of 'the coming God' - that God comes to us, rather than we going to him?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Byron -- yes, you're right, it's a poorly expressed sentence (especially the first word, "Our", which is completely misleading).

Anyway, what I mean is that the future is the locus of the risen and ascended Jesus -- and indeed that God himself is a movement of pure futurity. So I agree that Jesus is the Lord of our present and past -- but he exercises this Lordship precisely in his "coming" (just as the eschatological kingdom defines the present precisely by its imminent approach).

So my point isn't that we approach Jesus as our future, but rather that he defines and contextualises our whole temporal existence by his futurity.

I hope that's a little clearer! (And hopefully I'll highlight the "cosmic" dimension a little more in the next post too.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Byron and Ben.

If you want some $10 words - and Latin to boot! - God's future is (appropriately, given tomorrow) adventus, not futurum

Anonymous said...

I hope you don't mind me posting the following fairly lengthy quotes from Tolkein's "On Fairy Stories":

"The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn' (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist', nor 'fugitive'. In its fairy-tale - or otherworld - setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief... In such stories when the sudden 'turn' comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through."
J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, in Tree and Leaf, Unwin books, 1964, p. 60-61.

"Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: 'inner consistency of reality', it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not on some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the 'joy' in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a 'consolation' for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, 'Is it true?' The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): 'If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world'. That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the 'eucatastrophe' we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater - it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world."
J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, in Tree and Leaf, Unwin books, 1964, p. 61-62.

"The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels - peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: 'mythical' in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatatrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the 'inner consistency of reality'. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath."
J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, in Tree and Leaf, Unwin books, 1964, p. 62-63.

"The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the 'happy ending'. The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation."
J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, in Tree and Leaf, Unwin books, 1964, p. 63.

byron smith said...

Thanks Ben. Looking forward the last one.

Kim - I wonder how much they would be worth in Australian dollars...

jonathan - I've always found that little essay important for all kinds of reasons.

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