Sunday, 2 January 2011

Eschatology - some extracts from John Polkinghorne

On New Year's Day I started reading the chapter in the Polkinghorne Reader on eschatology ... my reading was in part triggered by our post-party new year's day brunch discussion with friends about faith and science.

I don't often quote large chunks of writing like this but reading this moved me - perhaps in part because this extract ends by quoting "Many waters cannot quench love" which was the theme for our marriage.

I like that things make sense for Polkinghorne - I don't entirely agree with him - about the active and powerful God. But reading what he says about the power and steadfastness of God's love made me realise that I feel a long way from such a sense at the moment - caught between desolation and the hope for perhaps unreasonable consolation.
Anyway it has been a joy to feed my mind by reading some of what Polkinghorne writes - now I shall have to read what Sarah Coakley writes about eschatology and see how it compares.

"Hope is the negation both of the Promethean presumption, which supposes that fulfilment is always potentially there, ready for human grasping, and also of despair, which supposes that there will never be fulfilment, but only a succession of broken dreams. Hope is quite distinct also from a utopian myth of progress, which privileges the future over the past, seeing the ills and frustrations of earlier generations as being no more than necessary stepping stones to better things in prospect.
If eschatology is to make sense, all the generations of history must attain their ultimate and individual meaning. Christianity takes the reality of evil seriously, with all the perplexities that entails. It 'refuses the premature consolation that pre-empts grief, the facile optimism which cannot recognize evil for what it is.' As part of its unflinching engagement with history, Christianity will recognize that episodes like the Holocaust deny to it any shallow conception of what hope for the future might mean, as if it could be divorced from acknowledgement of the horror of the past.
Holding in mind such a clear-eyed view of the woes and disappointment of history, one must ask what could then be the ground of a true hope beyond history? There is only one possible source: the eternal faithfulness of the God who is the Creator and Redeemer of history. Here Christianity relies heavily upon its Jewish roots. It is only God who can bring new life and raise the dead, whose Spirit breathes life into dry bones and makes them live (Ezekiel 37.9-10). Hope lies in the divine chesed, God's steadfast love, and not in some Hellenistic belief in an unchanging realm of ideas or an intrinsic immortality of the human soul. Christian trust in divine faithfulness is reinforced by teh knowledge that God is the One who raised Jesus from the dead. Only such a God could be the ground for that hope against hope that transcends the limits of any natural expectation.
This means that a credible eschatology must find its basis in a 'thick' and developed theology. A kind of minimalist account of deity, which sees God as not much more than the Mind behind cosmic order, will not be adequate. Nor will a kind of minimalist Christology, which sees Jesus as no more than an inspired teacher, pointing humanity to new possibilities for self-realisation and with his message living on in the minds of his followers, provide a sufficient insight into the divine purposes for creation beyond its death to be the ground of an everlasting hope. These concepts are too weak to bear so great a weight of expectation. To sustain true hope it must be possible to speak of a God who is powerful and active, not simply holding creation in being but also interacting with its history, the one who 'gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist' (Romans 4.17). This same God must be the one whose loving concern for individual creatures is such that the divine power will be brought into play to bring about these creatures' everlasting good. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is just such a God. To be persuasive, eschatological hope requires more than a general intuition that something must survive death. The problems that beset the realistic hope of a post mortem destiny are complex and demanding. They call for a corresponding richness and depth in our understanding of the power and steadfast love of God.
The question of eschatological hope is also the question of the fundamental meaningfulness of human life within creation. Are those moments of our deep experience when we glimpse that reality is trustworthy and that all will be well, intimations of our ultimate destinay or merely fleeting and illusory consolations in a world of actual and absolute transience? Moltmann says, 'Our question about life, consequently, is not whether our existence might possibly be immortal, and if so what part of it; the question is: will love endure, the love out of which we receive ourselves, and which makes us living when we ourselves offer it.' If God is, as Christians believe, the God of love, then love will indeed endure. 'Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it' (Song of Solomon 8.7) - not even the waters of cosmic chaos nor the tumultuous breakers of human evil."