Monday, October 27, 2008

Process Eschatology and the Power of God (Part I)

Last week I wrote an update of sorts on my Thesis, my first overtly theological post in more time than I care to remember. In that post I explored James Cone's eschatology - especially his assertion that for eschatology to have any value it "must be grounded in the historical present." That is to say that for eschatology - the study of the eschaton, the "end" - to have any value it must not be the sort of useless speculative nonsense that comes from the Tim LaHays and Hal Lindseys of the world, who offer visions of a future that detracts and distracts from the here and now. Rather it must draw one into the present moment, forcing a stark and jarring contrast between the indignity of the present moment and God's hoped-for future.

Beyond this, Cone argues, that hoped-for future itself must be able to be made present. It cannot remain forever some beautiful yet perpetually unrealized dream. How it gets made present, however, is the subject of some debate.

One of the challenges of my Thesis is that, while I am attempting to bring aspects of Liberation and Process theologies into some kind of synthesis, Process thought is in general wholly uninterested in this kind of eschatological vision. Eschatological language has next to no place in a Process system. The future is, after all, undetermined, ultimately indeterminate, the product of both random events and the vast chorus of free agents acting out of their freedom. To speak of some ultimate end that represents God's final vision for creation - which is what eschatology often does - is, in Process thought, nonsense.

This is where it becomes even more evident that John Cobb is a perfect fit for my project. Not only does he have the social and political interests so often absent from at least early Process thought, which was more interested in articulating a philosophically credible concept of God and God's role in ongoing creation than anything else; he also *gasp* offers something of a fledgling eschatology.

In his book Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, and Justice (a book that represents the social and political nature of his theology) he speaks to what he calls "the eschatological attitude," and about what he means by living "eschatologically." In offers this as a responsible alternative to Christian realism, an political ethic more interested in what is possible than in articulating what God's ultimate desire for the flourishing of God's creation. Of Christian realism he writes:

Since it accepts the existing structures of power, and since these structures are part of the total world system that moves toward catastrophe, Christian realism alone is not an adequate Christian response.

There is no doubt for Cobb that Christian realism has a place, a value. Christian realists offer, after all, not only "moral exhortation," some articulation of what should be done, but also an appreciation of the difficulties of the task and the complex nature of reality. Christian realists understand how to navigate systems, how to form alliances, working within structures to do concrete good. But that strength is also a weakness, tying the Christian realist to amoral or even immoral structures that themselves ultimately represent the problem. Christian realists become entangled with worldly powers, unable to articulate a prophetic critique of those powers, unable to stand apart from them an offer some alternative construct.

That is where eschatology comes in. Cobb does not shy away either from eschatological language or eschatological thinking. He instead embraces it, offering a defense of what he calls "the eschatological attitude" against attacks that such an attitude does no real good:

Some Christians may elect to live now in terms of what they envision as quite new possibilities for human society even when they do not know how to get from here to there. We may not know how to bring about a society that uses only renewable resources, but we can experiment with lifestyles that foreshadow that kind of society. We may not know how to provide the Third World with space and freedom to work out its own destiny, but in the name of a new kind of world we can withdraw our support from the more obvious structures of oppression. We may not know how to shift from a growth-oriented economy to a stationary-state economy, but we can work out the principles involved in such an economy.

To exert energies in these ways is not to live in an irrelevant world of make-believe. It is to live from a hopeful future. It may not affect the course of immediate events as directly as will the policy of Christian realism, but it may provide the stance that will make it possible, in a time of crisis, to make constructive rather than destructive changes.

To live eschatologically, then, to live life with an eschatological attitude, is "to live from a hopeful future." That is a wonderful phrase, worth unpacking. But before it gets unpacked - before we flesh out what it means "to live from a hopeful future," there is other business to attend to.

Aspects of this articulation of eschatological living remind me a great deal of Cone. Most important is the necessary connection between the vision for the hopeful future and present activity. Simply put, for Cobb and Cone no less than for the apostle Paul (see I Thessalonians 5, especially v. 11) eschatology is an entry-point for ethics. It is the vision of the hopeful future that informs present behavior. That hoped for future thus means something right now. It motivates a certain lifestyle. Eschatological living means, to paraphrase NT scholars Marion L. Soards, living in such a way that the hoped-for future has a determinative effect on the present.

In Cone, as we saw last week, this bonding of ethics and eschatology means that the hoped-for future motivates resistance in the present moment. It means that the oppressed see in that hoped-for future a dignity that informs their present struggle. Thus, for Cone, eschatology weds itself to an ethic of resistance. God's vision for creation does not include large sections of humanity being placed under the thumb of a powerful minority. For blacks and other racial/ethnic minorities in America, this means that God's vision for creation - that vision of a hoped-for future - does not include racism; therefore, racism and its equally evil twin, white supremacy, must be opposed in the present. That present opposition is informed and strengthen by the vision of a hoped-for future.

For Cobb, living eschatologically would undoubtedly include this. However, Cobb is less interested in articulating an eschatological ethic of resistance for the oppressed, and more interested in articulating an economic and ecological ethic that assumes an audience not of the outcast but rather of the privileged. For Cobb, then, this means first world Christians, motivated by a vision of a hoped-for future, opting out of exploitive economic systems. Freely choosing to live more ecologically sustainable lives, while also attending to the extent to which their past economic activity participated in the systematic oppression and exploitation of large chunks of humanity.

It should be added, however, that this eschatological ethic, this structuring of life in accordance with a vision of a hoped-for future, this living out of an eschatological attitude, is messy business. The future is by no means certain. And how they future - or, at least, this vision of the future - affects living in the present is equally uncertain. We don't "know how to get from here to there." We aren't even certain where there is. We just have certain principles which, coupled with a vision of a hoped-for future in which these principles are actively lived out, inform our faulty and often piece-meal attempts to live more responsible lives.

The question, then, is how this hoped-for future is made present, not only in the often tentative attempts of those who wish to more intentionally live out their faith, but in reality. Cone after all rightly notes that unless this hoped-for future can be made present, eschatology is insignificant, or worse, a distraction. This is where some discussion of the power of God becomes necessary.

I've written more critiques of divine omnipotence than I care to count. I won't waste more space here on the problems I and others see with doctrines of divine omnipotence. The biggest counter-argument - the one I wrestle with the most - is that if God is not all-powerful, if God cannot impose God's will on creation, then ultimately God is ineffectual. What is the point in believing in and praying to a god who cannot alter the course of events in creation, who cannot ultimately shape everything in accordance with a perfect plan.

The strength of eschatology lies in a kind of certainty. The future can determine the present if and only if that future is bound eventually to become present, or, at least if those acting in accordance with that vision of a hoped-for future believe that it must come to pass. The oppressed can rise up against their oppression, resisting it even when the price of that resistance is death, because they know that God is on their side in their struggle for liberation, and that that means something.

For an eschatological vision, God's vision for the ultimate end of creation, to have any value, God must have power sufficient to make that vision real. But if God is not omnipotent, if God cannot do anything, if God's will is not irresistible, God's plans not inevitable, unthwartable, if God's ultimate victory not certain, not already won, how can anyone assert that God does in fact have power sufficient to make this vision of a hoped-for future real, present?

In my next theological post I will engage a Process description of divine power, principally that articulated by Catherine Keller in her newest book On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. I will bring this description of divine power into dialogue with Cone's eschatology, and argue that ultimately the vision of the hoped-for future itself is the very power by which God brings that vision into reality.

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