Thursday 21 August 2014

Apocalyptic and creation: why I changed my mind

From time to time I get emails from people who are interested in "apocalyptic" ideas. Over the years I gave various talks and published various papers in this area, and of course I used to blog about it too. The other day a reader emailed me about a blog post from six years ago in which I promoted an apocalyptic approach to the doctrine of creation. I've written a letter in reply, which I'll post here in case others are interested:

Dear N.,

It was about 8 years ago that I got really interested in apocalyptic ideas. I wrote a few papers along these lines. I even went so far as to draft part of a book on creation and apocalypse. The gist of the thing, if memory serves, was to argue that God does not have an originating relationship to the world so much as an interruptive relationship. God bursts in on the world like an alien intruder. God comes to knock things into shape. I don't want to deny that there was some truth in all this. But partial truths can be a dangerous thing. It's like reading the prophets without taking on board the wisdom literature as well.

It's hard to say exactly why I first got interested in apocalyptic ideas. In part, I suppose, it was ordinary youthful iconoclasm. All young people, young men in particular, feel a certain resentment towards the status quo and a certain seething desire to imprint their own will on to the order of things. Call it a rage against mortality. Anyway, when you allow that kind of resentment to guide your thinking, you easily end up with what Augustine called the libido dominandi, the lust to master reality and to make it conform to your own ideals.

It seems to me that quite a lot of what passes for philosophy and theology in our time is really an expression of such enraged libido. Marxist ideology, which I cherished for the first decade of my adult life, seems an especially insidious version of the lust to dominate. It is an ideology of resentment against the way things are, mixed with gnostic-magical beliefs that human nature is capable of transfiguration. In its consistent forms this ideology shows itself to be more than willing to destroy human society first so that the transfigured human being can arise like a phoenix from the ashes.

As a young Christian theologian, I imbibed that kind of ideology of resentment – how could anyone in a modern university imbibe anything else? Then subsequently I started casting about for a theological program that would serve this transformation of a disappointing world. Apocalyptic theology seemed like a good fit.

But many things changed in my life. I was raising three young children at the time, and as I became more acclimatised to childhood I also became less tolerant of revolutionary resentment against the world. It is easy to be willing to tear everything down when you do not have children (i.e., the future) to think about. I also got immersed in the work of educational institutions. This gave me an increasing understanding of the modest ways in which real-world improvements can be made within an existing order. I began first to respect and then – my apocalyptic friends will shudder to hear it – even to like institutions and the laborious ways in which they contrive to make the world a little better.

At the same time, I had somehow become a full-time teacher of Christian doctrine. In this setting I began, both inside and outside the classroom, to read and reread the Christian writers of the first five centuries. I came gradually to a completely new appreciation of the function as well as the limits of Christian doctrine. The doctrine of creation, for example, was important not because it solved all the problems in a satisfactory way, but because it held at bay those powerful world-denying gnostic doctrines that were clamouring for attention in the ancient Mediterranean world. The doctrine was important not so much for what it said as for what it made possible.

And the more I studied the ancient sources of the Christian faith, the more I noticed certain lines of continuity between those ancient gnostic doctrines and our modern ideologies of resentment. A withering hatred of existing order; a cynical despair over political and institutional solutions; a naive assumption that human nature is capable of transformation, and that my group has the magic formula to effect the transformation; an attempt to implement a perfect transcendent order within this world – all this the ancient church had opposed, proclaiming a doctrine of creation in protest against the gnostic ideologies of resentment.

Nowadays I see the Christian doctrine of creation as one of the most important ideas in the world. As far as social and political engagement is concerned, I think the doctrine of creation implies four basic convictions about society. (1) That there is a divine order of perfect justice which transcends human history and relativises every social order; (2) that the church ought to proclaim this transcendent order in a way that reveals the partial goodness, while also exposing the pretensions, of every social order; (3) and that Christians, having renounced all aspirations to become architects of perfect justice in this world, ought to feel free to work for incremental improvements and approximate justice wherever possible, without feeling that such provisional measures are futile; since (4) such imperfect approximations can serve as a muted but nonetheless still audible witness to that transcendent order which Christians call the coming kingdom of God.

Anyways, that's roughly how I see things. You could still call this an "apocalyptic" perspective, insofar as this world is constantly seen against an ultimate eschatological horizon. But as soon as somebody announces that they have a scheme for bringing the horizon a little closer, I would prefer to bid them a good day and to part company. For horizons do not come closer; and apocalyptic incantations do not alter reality but only the minds of those who use them.

Yours sincerely, &c.

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