Monday, May 22, 2006

The Need for Eschatology

I said a while back that a Christianity that focuses to much on the next world, so that it sees as its main (or only) purpose in “saving souls” in order to get people into heaven risks disregarding life in this world to the point of accepting a way of life that increases the suffering in the world and destroys the environment. A mentality that says that all that matters is to get people saved doesn’t worry about climate change or multinationals exploiting cheap labour.

But there is another extreme that is equally wrong. That is reducing the Christian eschatology to nothing but projections of ideals in this life on the next. This is an important aspect of eschatology, it is a form of critique of the present way of things, and can have a powerful homiletic impact. But if we reduce eschatology to this, then Christianity no longer has answers to some of the most important existential question humans ask.

I think the three most important existential questions in the human existence are: 1. the question of identity (Who am I?), 2. The question of meaning (Why am I here?) and 3. The question and fear of death. While Christianity can address question one rather well based on the doctrine of creation and by pointing to the example of Christ, the two latter are more or less dependent on the eschatology, at least in extreme situations.

The fear of death is not abolished by promising a life after death. This can have some effect, but it is not the central point of the Christian teaching on death. This I will return to in another post. But unless some kind of continuation beyond death is imagined, it is difficult to see what would be “Christian” about whatever answer one would formulate. Christ’s victory over death cannot be reduced to courage in face of our mortality.

The question of meaning, too, cannot be sufficiently (in a Christian way) answered without referring to life after death. Sure, in most lives it is meaningful enough to live life genuinely in harmony with one’s self in relationships with other humans. And this definitely is a Christian approach to meaning. Our life is meaningful when we live not for ourselves (by trying to be something on the merit of our own will), but for our neighbour (and thus becoming images of the Son who does not try to be the Father but lives in complete union with him).

But there are situations in this existence where such a life is impossible, for one reason or the other. We have to acknowledge that there are extreme cases where an individual cannot see any meaning at all with life. This would be situations of extreme suffering, caused by other human beings or by some natural cause, such as disease. In these cases Christian doctrine maintains that all life is meaningful, even if it is not possible to see any meaning here. The hope of a meaning that will be possible to apprehend only beyond death can be the only thing that gives strength to endure in an extreme situation.


Looney said...

"We have to acknowledge that there are extreme cases where an individual cannot see any meaning at all with life. This would be situations of extreme suffering, ..."

Hmmm. Didn't Jesus state that the center of meaning for his life is the crucifixion?

"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." - John 15:13

I thought that suffering was a key part of finding meaning in life. Take up your cross ...

Patrik said...

I think you right, but I'm not sure that it is always possible to see a meaning in the suffering a person goes through. It is only in Hollywood films where the death of the here clearly saves someone else. In real life it isn't always so obvious. I still can see no point whatsoever with the suffering of children in Auswitch. But the belief that the suffering one goes through has some kind of meaning even though on cannot see it is a powerful idea.

Looney said...

To add some scope to the examples, we have Marilyn Monroe's suicide. Compared to the children at Auswitch, she had it all. Yet she apparently suffered horribly and found no meaning in life.

Any chance that meaning and suffering are decoupled?

Patrik said...

Material wealth and suffering certainly do no correlate. But I think suffering and lack of meaning are very closely connected. Maybe one could even say that lack of meaning is experienced as suffering.

But I feel such a statement is a bit on the idealistic side, but then I have little first person expereince of suffering, so I should probably just be quiet.

byron said...

"...But unless some kind of continuation beyond death is imagined, it is difficult to see what would be “Christian” about whatever answer one would formulate...."

I agree, but can we go further in specifying 'a resurrection like Jesus' as the Christian hope after death. Other after-death hopes (reincarnation, being transported to Mars, immortality through one's children or achievements) may well be some kind of continuation beyond death, but can they be held as Christian hopes?

Patrik said...

We can do that, as long as we do not take for granted what "a resurrection like Jesus'" would mean or how one should properly describe it.

But I can agree with the negative approach: all those things you list are not part of the Christian answer to the question of death.

byron said...

Sure, having read more of your thoughts on the resurrection, I agree that it is not something that easily 'fits' our words. Yet, I'm not sure that a purely negative theology here (as elsewhere) is an entirely faithful response to the living one, whose appearances and empty tomb filled his disciples with words, not just silence. Is the end of Mark really silent women? If so, are they being disobedient, since they were made apostles of a resurrection message by the messenger at the tomb.

Rich(luthsem) said...

Great Post Patrik
What matters is what we do today. Jesus spoke more about the Kingdom of God being among us and being present.