Shaped by the Thing to Come

When I was in seminary (10 years ago), I took an ethics seminar where we read a number of articles each week from Bible scholars and theologians on various issues. We read a good cross-section of confessional and critical scholars, both theological conservatives and liberals. One of my classmates standing critique of our readings was the use various theologians made of the beginning and the end of the biblical story.

He’d say something like, “At creation, no one was there to see it, so we don’t know what it is really like. The end of the story hasn’t happened yet, so we can’t speak of what it is like. So we can’t base our ethical claims in either Creation, or the consummation of things.”

Spoiler alert: he was wrong.

His idea, capitulates to a metaphysical realism, where all we can do is make do with the way things are. We may have some resources from tradition to draw on and we may cling to some commands or ethical principles, but essentially all we can do is limp along the best we can. We just have to make the best of it.

The beginning and the end of our story is integral to our spiritual formation. The Hebrew Bible opens with a description of God’s creation of heaven and earth (Gen 1:1):

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ

Our Christian Bible closes with a vision of a new heaven, a new earth, a heavenly Jerusalem descending and Christ’s promise, “Surely, I am coming soon” (Rev 21-22).

The beginning of the story is significant because it tells us what kind of story we are in. The end of the story is essential because it tells us our telos—the future God in Christ has envisioned for his Creation. Without the beginning and the end of the story, we are muddled in a middle, from nowhere and going nowhere. We can say with the culture around us, it is what it is. If we allow the bookends of history, the biblical narrative widens our vision: The good that was, may be again; what is wrong will be made right; the dying and decay of our enthropic environs will be restored; God’s peace will reign.

We may be fond of the idiom, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” There is some truth in that, and we can’t be so future oriented that we aren’t aware of what’s right here, right now. But even the metaphor of journey, implies we want to go somewhere. There is somewhere we want to end up. We don’t want to wander aimlessly forever in the dark.

The Advent story (both the first Advent and the final Advent) tell of God breaking into our wanderings and bringing about a whole new reality. Jesus came, Jesus comes, Jesus returns and everything old is new again. Injustice the degradation of nature, wars, and sickness, and the heavy feeling of grief which haunts and stalks us, even in our seasons of joy, will meet their end. Creation will be renewed and all that is broken will be mended. Everything will be as it should be. In words Dame Julian, ““All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

This is the end we are moving toward, or better, this is the end that God and Christ is moving toward us. May we all be prepared to see the reign of God break into our lives a little more. Come Lord Jesus, Come.

See the source image
14th Century Tapestry of John of Patmos watching the descent of the New Jerusalem (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jerusalem#/media/File:La_nouvelle_Jérusalem.jpg)

Z is for Zarathustra (an alphabet for penitents)

When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 3)
“DEAD ARE ALL THE GODS: NOW DO WE DESIRE THE SUPERMAN TO LIVE.”—Let this be our final will at the great noontide!— Thus spake Zarathustra.
Z. We’ve reached the end.  A journey that began with ash, a reminder of our mortality, ends in the death of God. When Jesus had died, about the middle of the afternoon, they took his limp body off the cross and laid his body in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57–61).
The gospel writers are silent about the events of Holy Saturday and the emotional state of the disciples. Certainly, they were raw with grief and carried shame for deserting and denying their Master—the man they had invested three years of their life following. They likely didn’t visit the Temple on that Sabbath. It is difficult enough to pray and share space with other worshippers while in the midst of grief (who wants to sing happy-clappy songs of God’s deliverance when you are hurting?). It is all the harder when we consider that they believed Jesus would be God’s deliverer and they mulled over his strange sayings about how he embodied the Father (John 14:9-10). Now Jesus was dead.  My guess is that they holed up in the same room we find them on Sunday morning.
Zarathustra was the ancient, Iranian founder of Zoroastrianism. A man by the same name is Fredrick Nietzche’s mouthpiece in Thus Spake Zarathustra. 19th-century philosophers, like 19th-century novelists, could seldom write anything without preaching at their readers.  Zarathustra is Nietzche’s  preacher and the populizer of the phrase, “God is dead” (along with the madman in Nietzche’s The Gay Science). He preaches a new way of being in the world, freed from the confines of religious belief in a god. Kathleen Higgins suggests that:
“Nietzche’s basic goal in Zarathustra is to explore the question of the meaning of individual life. . . .The perspective that renders life meaningful is the tragic perspective, Nietzche contends. The tragic perspective does not denigrate individual life by urging the individual to associate meaning with notions of survival or perfect contentment. Instead it finds individual life to be meaningful in the way that art is meaningful—meaning emerges from the artist’s arrangement of limited material (“Reading Zarathustra” in Reading Nietzche, OUP, 1988, p146).
Nietzche has his fans, especially among athiests, philosophers and the children of Christian fundamentalists in teenage rebellion. Christian apologists love to quote Nietzche and use him as a foil for theism. But if truth is contextual, then today of all days we say with Nietzche and Zarathustra, “Gott ist tot.” God is dead.
Can we inhabit this space? The disciples are hiding out, wrecked with grief. Their religious illusions, beliefs about God, and hopes for a Messiah were dashed on the previous day. We may not, with Zarathustra, do away with God and put our faith in our own human potential. But the prophet and the madman understood the death of God has far reaching consequences. How now shall we live?