Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Criterion of Eternal Truth--Part 1, An Abstract Challenge

Let's begin by acknowledging an abstract problem that the question of revelation faces. If there is an eternal perspective, it cannot be mediated to us temporally, and yet there must be positive content to an eternal perspective, if it is to be meaningful. The criterion of an eternal truth, then, is that it be something definite that can avoid being mistaken for something temporally mediated.1 But everything we know is mediated through our temporal existence. How then is any helpful understanding of God possible, for humanity?

Against this abstract challenge a Christian will want to affirm that the concrete historical narrative of the gospel, which proclaims God's entry into our world, meets that challenge. We should waste no time in looking to the gospel, then. A brief overview of the first gospel, historically, will be helpful. I abstract from it only the narrative's thematic contributions to an understanding of the core message that constitutes Christian belief--the "kerygma."

1. Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the gospel, the "good news," and it has a definite, simple content: "'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand...'" (Mark 1:15, RSV)

2. Jesus orchestrates the spread of his fame as the Son of God who will usher in the kingdom, beginning with the death of John the Baptist (Mk. 1:14) and culminating with ther triumphal entry into Jerusalem for the Passover week (Mk. 11:10).

3. Jesus orchestrates the passion sequence--arrest, trial crucifixion--thereby contradicting the expectations of the masses and disciples (a man hanging on a cross certainly does not look like a Messiah). (Mk. 11:11-15:37)

4. The resurrection, thereby contradicting the contradicted expectations, albeit with this added moral: our expectations of the good news are not a good guide to understanding it. (Mk. 15:38-16:8--I see the transition to resurrection narrative starting with the miracles which attented Jesus' death.)

There is a clear moral to this story: Our understanding of the good news needs to be transformed by the good news, or it won't be good news to us.

But, there's a catch. If we take that to be a once-for-all transformation, then the good news has been mediated into time, once for all, in which case it ceases to be an eternal truth. If we want to think about the eternal entering into time, that won't work. The eternal must transform our understanding without being reduced to it, or the abstract challenge that the idea of revelation faces has not been met. This is the "negative" side of the message; the "rule" we can't break, if we take the challenge with which we began seriously.

There is a practical side to this rule: if we don't insist on it, we are stuck with a subtraction story with respect to our faith, for the gospel cannot be reduced to part of our historical understanding, or scientific understanding, without incredulity resulting. I am arguing that the gospel cannot be understood without a transcendent backdrop, which is to say that it recommends a story for our belief that cannot be translated into a contxt that has no room for it. That ought to be obvious, and I suppose that my frustration showed in the last post.

Allow me to add this to the moral, then: Our understanding of the good news needs to be transformed by the good news--CONTINUALLY--or it won't be good news to us.

Anyone familiar with the gospel narrative knows that I left off the transformative remark tied to Jesus' proclamation of the good news of the kingdom: "...the kingdom of God is at hand; repent..." (Mk. 1:15) If we aren't changed--CONTINUALLY--by the gospel, as the need to repent suggests, we don't "get" its transcending essence--its function of pointing us beyond ourselves and our world to the transformation inherent in the gospel.

But the pointing cannot be directionless, or we are left with an abstract point that cannot guide us. The positive side of the pointing beyond ourselves must be tied to a form that is itself essentially transformative--and therefore CONTINUALLY transformative, which entails a second reason for endorsing the non-historically mediated view of the kerygema--and that form is agape love.

Clearly, love requires a person to look beyond themselves to that which is loved. That is analytically true; true in the abstract. But it is an abstraction that insists that we look to the concrete details of this world as they unfold in time in order to be realized. That is, to be commited to the principle of love is to be commited to transforming ourselves with respect to the unfolding understanding of the world in history. To stop that process is to fail with respect to the command to love. To love as a first principle is to take it as an unchanging approach to an ever changing reality. Love, that is, meets the criterion of eternal truth with which we began.

Grunwald's picture of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus famously symbolizes this understanding of the function of theology at its best as pointing to Christ, the eternal truth entered into human history. And once we understand that theology cannot be subsumed to any reductionist view--of history or science or bad theology--we are freed from the subtraction story, the bugaboo of today's Church in the wake of so much bad theology.

Part 2 will look at the personal challenge inplicit in the gospel, the eternal "kerygmatic" revelation.

[I will add an extended quote from Tillich here, when I get time. My explanation is too abstract for most tasts, I fear, and the quote from Tillich will provide welcome details for those who would like them. Oh, for more time in the day!]

1. It should be pointed out that other exclusive categories associated with God could be used to make the same point: especially finite/infinite and holy/unholy.

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