Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why an "end"?

Excerpt from: The last things and the last events

Archpriest George Florovsky (1893-1979)

"Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5)

The mystery of the Last Things is grounded in the primary paradox of Creation. According to Brunner, the term Creation, in its Biblical use, does not denote the manner in which the world did actually come into existence, but only the sovereign Lordship of God. In the act of Creation God posits something totally other than Himself, "over against" Himself. Accordingly, the world of creatures has its own mode of existence-derivative, subordinate, dependent, and yet genuine and real, in its own kind. Brunner is quite formal at this point. "A world which is not God exists alongside of Him." Thus, the very existence of the world implies a certain measure of self-imposed "limitation" on the side of God, His kenosis, which reaches its climax in the cross of Christ. God, as it were, spares room for the existence of something different. The world has been "called into existence" for a purpose, in order that it manifest the glory of God. The Word is the principle and the ultimate goal of Creation.

Indeed, the very fact of Creation constitutes the basic paradox of the Christian faith, to which all other, mysteries of God can be traced back, or rather in which they are implied. Brunner, however, does not distinguish clearly, at this point, between the very "being" of God and His "will." Yet, the "being" of God simply cannot be "limited" in any sense. If there is a "limitation," it can refer only to His "will," insofar as another "will" has been "called into existence," a will which could not have existed at all. This basic "contingency" of Creation testifies to the absolute sovereignity of God. On the other hand, the ultimate climax of the creative kenosis will be reached only in "the Last Events." The sting of the paradox, of the kenosis, is not in the existence of the world, but in the possibility of Hell. Indeed, the World may be obedient to God, as well as it may be disobedient, and in its obedience it would serve God and manifest His glory. It will be not a "limitation," but an expansion of God's majesty. On the contrary, Hell means resistance and estrangement, pure and simple. However, even in the state of revolt and rebellion, the world still belongs to God. It can never escape His Judgment.

God is eternal. This is a negative definition. It simply means that the notion of time cannot be applied to His existence. Indeed, "time" is simply the mode of creaturely existence. Time is given by God. It is not an imperfect or deficient mode of being. There is nothing illusory about time. Temporality is real. Time is really moving on, irreversibly.

But it is not just a flux, as it is not a rotation. It is not just a series of indifferent "time-atoms" which could be conceived or postulated as infinite, without any end or limit. It is rather a teleological process, inwardly ordained toward a certain final goal. A telos [an end] is implied in the very design of Creation. Accordingly, what takes place in time is significant - significant and real for God Himself. History is not a shadow. Ultimately, history has a "metahistoric" goal. Brunner does not use this term, but he stresses strongly the inherent "finitude" of history. An infinite history, rolling on indefinitely, without destination or end, would have been an empty and meaningless history. The story is bound to have an end, a conclusion, a katharsis, a solution. The plot must be disclosed. History has to have an end, at which it is "fulfilled" or "consummated." It has been originally designed to be "fulfilled." At the end there will be no history any more. Time will be filled with eternity, as Brunner puts it. Of course, eternity means in this connection simply God. Time has meaning only against the background of eternity, that is - only in the context of the divine design.

Yet, history is not just a disclosure of that primordial and sovereign design. The theme of actual history, of the only real history we know about, is given by the existence of sin. Brunner dismisses the query about the origin of sin. He only stresses its "universality." Sin, in the biblical sense of the term, is not primarily an ethical category. According to Brunner, it only denotes the need for redemption. Two terms are intrinsically correlative. Now, sin is not a primary phenomenon, but a break, a deviation, a turning away from the beginning. Its essence is apostasy and rebellion. It is this aspect of sin that is emphasized in the biblical story of the Fall. Brunner refuses to regard the Fall as an actual event. He only insists that without the concept of the Fall the basic message of the New Testament, that is - the message of salvation would be absolutely incomprehensible. Yet, one should not inquire into the "when" and "how" of the Fall.

The essence of sin can be discerned only in the light of Christ, that is - in the light of redemption. Man, as he can be observed in history, always appears as sinner, unable not to sin. The man of history is always "man in revolt." Brunner is fully aware of the strength of evil - in the world and in the history of man. He commends the Kantian notion of radical evil. What he has to say about the Satanic sin, as different from man's sin, about the super-personal Satanic power, is impressive and highly relevant for theological inquiry, as much as all that may inevitably offend and disturb the mind of modern man. But the major question remains still without answer. Has the Fall the character of an event? The logic of Brunner's own argument seems to compel us to regard it as event, as a link in the chain of events. Otherwise it would be just a symbol, a working hypothesis, indispensable for interpretative purposes, but unreal. Indeed, the end of history must be regarded, according to Brunner, as "an event," howsoever mysterious this event will be. "The beginning" also has the character of "event," as the first link in the chain. Moreover, redemption is obviously "an event" which can be exactly dated-indeed, the crucial event, determinative of all others. In this perspective it seems imperative to regard the Fall as event, in whatever manner it may be visualized or interpreted. In any case, redemption and Fall are intrinsically related to each other, in Brunner's own interpretation.

Brunner distinguishes clearly between the creatureliness as such and sin. Creatures come from God. Sin comes from an opposite source. Sinfulness is disclosed in events, in sinful acts and actions. Indeed, it is an abuse of power, an abuse of freedom, a perversion of that responsible freedom which has been bestowed upon man in the very act by which he was called into existence. Yet, before the abuse became a habit, it had to have been exercised for the first time. The revolt had to have been started. Such an assumption would be in line with the rest of Brunner's exposition. Otherwise one lapses into some kind of metaphysical dualism which Brunner himself vigorously denounces. In any case, creatureliness and sinfulness cannot be equated or identified.

Indeed, Brunner is right in suggesting that we must start from the center, that is, with the glad tidings of redemption in Christ. But in Christ we contemplate not only our desperate "existential predicament" as miserable sinners, but, above all, the historical involvement of men in sin. We are moving in the world of events. Only for that reason are we justified in looking forward, to "the Last Events."

The course of history has been radically challenged by God - at one crucial point. According to Brunner, since the coming of Christ, time itself has been charged, for believers, with a totally new quality - "an otherwise unknown quality of decision." Ever since, believers are confronted with an ultimate alternative, confronted now - in this "historic time." The choice is radical - between heaven and hell. Any moment of history may become decisive - for those who are bound to make decisions, through Christ's challenge and revelation. In this sense, according to Brunner, "the earthly time is, for faith, charged with an eternity-tension." Men are now inescapably called to decisions, since God has manifested His own decision, in Christ, and in His Cross and Resurrection. Does it mean that "eternal decisions" - that is, decisions "for eternity"- must be made in this "historic time?" By faith - in Jesus Christ, the Mediator - one may, already now, "participate" in eternity. Since Christ, believers dwell already, as it were, in two different dimensions, both inside and outside of the "ordinary" time - this universal time, or age, in which the dying give place to those being born (St. Augustine, Civ. Dei, XV.I). Time has been, as it were, "polarized" by Christ's Advent. Thus, it seems, time is related now to eternity, that is to God, in a dual manner. On the one hand, time is always intrinsically related to the eternal God, as its Creator: God gives time. On the other hand, time has been, in those last days, radically challenged by God's direct and immediate intervention, in the person of Jesus Christ. As Brunner says himself, "temporality, existence in time, takes on a new character through its relationship to this event, Jesus Christ, the eph hapax of history, the once-for-all quality of His cross and Resurrection, and is newly fashioned in a paradoxical manner that is unintelligible to thinking guided by reason alone" (Brunner, Eternal Hope (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), p. 48). We have reached the crucial point in Brunner's exposition. His interpretation of human destiny is strictly Christological and Christocentric. Only faith in Christ gives meaning to human existence. This is Brunner's strong point. But there is an ambiguous docetic accent in his Christology, and it affects grievously his understanding of history. Strangely enough, Brunner himself addresses the same charge to the traditional Christology of the Church, claiming that it never paid enough attention to the historic Jesus. It is a summary charge which we cannot analyze and "refute" just now. What is relevant for our purpose now is that Brunner's Christology is obviously much more docetic than that of the Catholic tradition. Brunner's attention to the historical Jesus is utterly ambiguous. According to Brunner, Christ is a historic personality only as man. When He "unveils Himself" - that is, when He discloses His Divinity to those who have the eye of faith - He is no more a historical personality at all. In fact, Christ's humanity, according to Brunner, is no more than "a disguise." The true self of Christ is divine. To faith Christ discards His disguise, His "incognito," to use Brunner's own phrase. "Where He discloses Himself, history disappears, and the Kingdom of God has begun. And when He unveils Himself, He is no longer an historical personality, but the Son of God, Who is from everlasting to everlasting" (Brunner, The Mediator (London: Lutterworth Press, 1949), p. 346). This is a startling language, indeed.

Actually, Christ's humanity is just a means to enter history, or rather - to appear in history. God's relation to history, and to human reality, is, as it were, no more than tangential, even in the crucial mystery of Incarnation. Actually, Christ's humanity interests Brunner only as a medium of revelation, of divine self-disclosure. Indeed, according to Brunner, in Christ God has really found a firm footing in humanity. But this does not seem anything more than that God has now challenged man in his own human element, on his own human ground and level. In order to meet man, God had to descend - to man's own level. This may be understood in a strictly orthodox way. Indeed, this was the favorite thought of the ancient Fathers. But Brunner denies any real interpenetration of divine and human aspects in Christ's person. In fact, they are no more than "aspects." Two elements meet, but there is no real unity. Christ of faith is only divine, even if in a human disguise. His humanity is just a means to enter history, or rather - to appear in history. Is history just a moving screen on which divine "eternity" is to be projected? God had to assume a beggar's robe of man, for otherwise He would be unable to encounter man. There was no real "assumption" of human reality into the personal experience of the Incarnate. The role of Christ's humanity was purely instrumental, a disguise. Basically it is a sheer "Docetism," however much attention may be given to "historic Jesus." After all, "historic Jesus" does not belong, in this interpretation, to the realm of faith.

Real decisions are not made on the plane of history, says Brunner. "For that is the sphere in which men wear masks. For the sake of our "masquerade," that is, for the sake of our sinful mendacity, Christ also, if I may put it like this, has to wear a mask; this is His Incognito" (Ibid, p. 346). Now, in the act of faith, man takes away his mask. Then, in response, Christ also discards His mask, His human disguise, and appears in His glory. Faith, according to Brunner, breaks down history. Faith itself is a kind of a "metahistoric" act, which transcends history, or even discards it. Indeed, Brunner stresses the uniqueness of God's redemptive revelation in Christ. For man it only means that the challenge is radical and ultimate. Man is now given a unique opportunity, or occasion, to make his decision, to overcome his own limited humanity, and even his intrinsic temporality - by an act of faith which takes him beyond history, if only in hope and promise, till the final keros [time] has come. But is human history ultimately just a masquerade? According to Brunner's own emphatic statement, temporality as such is not sinful. Why, then, should divine revelation in Christ discard history? Why should historicity be an obstacle to God's self-revelation, an obstacle that must be radically removed?

In the last resort, the radical change in history - the New Age, released by Christ's Advent - seems to consist only in the new and unprecedented opportunity to take sides. God actually remains as hidden in history as He has been before, or, probably, even more than before, since the ultimate incommensurability of divine revelation with the human masquerade has been made self-evident and conspicuous. God could approach man only in disguise. The actual course of history has not been changed, either by God's intervention, or by man's option. Apart from the decision of faith, history is empty, and still sinful. The intimate texture of actual historic life has not been affected by the redemptive revelation. Nevertheless, a warning has been given: The Lord comes again. This time He is coming as judge, not as Redeemer, although judgment will actually accomplish and stabilize redemption.

By faith we can now discern an "eschatological tension" in the very course of history, although it would be idle and in vain to indulge in any kind of apocalyptic calculations. This tension seems to exist on the human level alone. The eschatological interim is the age of decisions - to be taken by men. God's decision has been already taken.

As a whole, Christian history, according to Brunner, was a sore failure, a history of decay and misunderstanding. This is an old scheme, firmly established in Protestant historiography at least since Gottfried Arnold. The primitive Christian community, the ecclesia, was a genuine Messianic community, "the bearer of the new life of eternity and of the powers of the divine world," as Brunner puts it. But this primitive ecclesia did not survive, at least as an historic entity, as an historic factor. Brunner acknowledges partial and provisional "advents" of the Kingdom of God in the course of history. But all these "advents" are sporadic. Where faith is, there is ecclesia or Kingdom. But it is hidden, in the continuing "masquerade" of history. Ultimately, the ongoing history is a kind of testing ground, on which men are challenged and their responses are tried and tested. But does the "saving history" still continue? Is God still active in history, after the First Advent - or is history now left, after the great intervention of Christ, to man alone, with that eschatological provision that finally Christ comes again?

Now, history is obviously but a provisional and passing stage in the destiny of man. Man is called to "eternity," not to "history." This is why "history" must come to its close, to its end. Yet, indeed, history is also a stage of growth - the wheat and the tares are growing together, and their ultimate discrimination is delayed - till the day of harvest. The tares are growing indeed, rapidly and wildly. But the wheat is growing also. Otherwise there would be no chance for any harvest, except for that of tares. Indeed, history matures not only for judgment, but also for consummation. Moreover, Christ is still active in history. Brunner disregards, or ignores, that component of Christian history. Christian history is, as it were, "atomized," in his vision. It is just a series of existential acts, performed by men, and, strangely enough, only negative acts, the acts of rebellion and resistance, seem to be integrated and solidarized. But, in fact, ecclesia is not just an aggregate of sporadic acts, but a "body," the body of Christ. Christ is present in the ecclesia not only as an object of faith and recognition, but as her Head. He is actually reigning and ruling. This secures the Church's continuity and identity through the ages. In Brunner's conception Christ seems to be outside history, or above it. He did come once, in the past. He is coming again, in the future. Is He really present now, in the present, except through the memory of the past and the hope of the future, and indeed in the "metahistoric" acts of faith?

Creation, according to Brunner, has its own mode of existence. But it is no more than a "medium" of divine revelation. It must be, as it were, transparent for divine light and glory. And this strangely reminds us of the Platonizing gnosis of Origen and his various followers. The whole story is reduced to the dialectics of eternal and temporal. Brunner's own term is "parabolic."