Friday, April 28, 2006

"Present kingdom eschatology"

... this piece by Karen Armstrong in the Harvard Divinity School bulletin reminded me of those classic phrases from grad school Historical Jesus courses: "Present kingdom" vs. "future coming" etc. etc. related to Jesus' sayings about the Son of Man and the eschaton ... I'd say Karen Armstrong tends to favor the former, "Religion is about inhabiting the eternal in the here and now."
I think I can safely say that as a child my religious life was ruined by the notion of the afterlife. I was obsessed with the fear of Hell. The nuns at my convent school instructed me in the Catholic doctrine of mortal sin, which seemed perilously easy to commit. If you died with one unshriven and unrequited mortal sin on your soul, you would languish in Hell for all eternity. Religion, as far as I could see, was chiefly concerned with "getting into Heaven." A stockpile of prayers and good deeds could ensure my entry ticket into paradise, but I also resorted to the gaining of indulgences, the wearing of scapulas, and the practice of attending Mass on the first Friday of every month. If you managed five consecutive first Fridays, you were promised that you would not die without receiving the last rites and having the chance to confess all to a priest.

This type of piety seems no more religious than paying into a retirement annuity to secure a comfortable retirement in the hereafter. It is obsessed with self. Religion is supposed to be about the loss of the ego, not about its eternal survival in optimum conditions. It can also feed an attitude of exclusivity. I sometimes think that if some Christians arrived in Heaven and found everybody there, they would be furious: Heaven wouldn't be Heaven if the elect are deprived of the Schadenfreude of peering over the celestial parapets to watch the excluded unfortunates roasting below.
Now that the childhoold ghosts have been exorcized, we can continue ...
Not many of the world religions are as preoccupied with Heaven, Hell, and judgment as Christianity and Islam; these faiths absorbed much of the apocalyptic vision of Zoroastrianism, which was unique in the ancient world. Many of the great sages were wary of speaking about the afterlife. The afterlife has never been a major preoccupation in Judaism. St. Paul told his converts, "Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those that love him." When asked whether a Buddha who had achieved the enlightenment of nirvana continued to exist after his death, the Buddha replied that this was an improper question, because we have no words to describe this state. It was, therefore, pointless to discuss it. It was far better to concentrate on this world. "Until you have learned to serve men, how can you serve spirits?" Confucius told his disciples, when they asked him how they should approach the gods and the ancestors, who were central to the ancient cult of China. "Until you know about the living, how can you learn about the dead?"

These sages may not have been interested in talking about the afterlife, but they were passionately concerned with the immortality of the self or the soul. But they did not believe that they had to wait until their death to experience this immortality.
All snarkiness aside, I don't think she's really that off-base, and she does have a way of helpfully synthesizing widely differing religious perspectives
The eschatology of the monotheistic religions was strongly influenced by the Zoroastrian apocalyptic vision, polarized in a desperate struggle between good and evil. Judaism has never placed much emphasis on the afterlife, but both Christianity and Islam have cultivated visions of Heaven, Hell, judgment, and eternal retribution and reward in a way that recalls Zoroaster's frightened and despairing vision. But all these faiths also understand the importance of the Golden Rule and the abandonment of egotism. In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus made it clear that it was practical charity that would bring human beings into the divine presence at the Great Judgment. When quoting an early Christian hymn, St. Paul told his Philippian converts that they must have the same mind as Christ Jesus, who achieved apotheosis and near godlike status by laying his dignity aside, emptying himself, and accepting the humiliation of death. The surrender of islam demands that we abandon the preening, prancing ego in the abasement and prostration of Muslim prayer.
But there's also this real eye-stopper:
Thus the Greek Orthodox do not believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins, but to enable us to become divine. Jesus, they claim, is the first fully deified human being, in the same way as the Buddha is the first enlightened human being in our historical era.
Do what? The Orthodox do not believe that Christ died to save us from our sins? Let's see, isn't that part of the earliest kerygma of the Resurrection that's recorded in the New Testament, right there in 1 Cor 15? And yes while the Orthodox didn't quite take on some of the more lurid understandings of vicarious atonement, I don't think that they would deny the doctrine. And really, isn't it a kind of flattening to claim that the apotheosis of Christianity is the same as the nirvana of Buddhism?

That's really where I see the problem: this burning need to show that, "at heart all religions are the same." When really, each religion ought to be lived in its particularity. Not that we can't learn from each other -- but this focus on a certain esoteric center to the exclusion and devaluing of other aspects really betrays another agenda: to find a universal religion that will be acceptable to all, or rather a religion that will be more palatable to the divines at Harvard, perhaps in conscious contrast to that preferred by the rabid fans at a NASCAR rally in South Carolina.

That's probably too gratuitous. Again, I am not at all against inter-faith dialogue. In these troubled times it's crucial. As long as it is honest, and doesn't betray what Pope John Paul called a "false irenicism." I was reminded of something Fr. Neuhaus wrote in the April First things:
As has been noted before in this space, Wolfe is a student of “religion in general” and is impatient with the commitment of others to religions in particular. Believers are right in thinking that religion is neglected in the academy but, says Wolfe, “the real problem is that most believers do not believe in religion. They believe in Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism—in a specific faith.” ... advocating that all religions are more or less equal degrades what the believer in any religion believes.
As those who know me will attest, I'm all about particularity. :) [Oh, I should mention a hat-tip to friend and commentor Assiniboine for sending me the article.]


assiniboine said...

Indeed, as we were discussing. I do wonder where she got the idea that the Orthodox have that rather unorthodox idea. On the other hand, she is an ace at drawing these days politically highly attractive and useful parallels among the great religions. She does at times go overboard: a good friend who is a born Muslim and has been studying Arabic so as to be able to read the Haditha in the original and provide informed responses to fundamentalist dicta as to what is and is not the done thing, highly recommends Armstrong on Islam for the uninitiated, but with the strong caveat that her apologetics are occasionally excessive.

And while we have spoken about this before and agreed to differ — though as you say, possibly not as much as it prima facie seemed — I do rather favour the notion that it's "My God, I love thee — not/because I hope for heaven thereby/nor yet because, if I love not,/ I must forever die..../Not with the hope of gaining aught,/not seeking a reward,/but as thyself hast loved me,/O everlasting Lord. /So would I love thee, dearest Lord,/and in thy praise will sing;/because thou art my loving God /and my eternal King." Which may be what she is getting at.

Gashwin said...

I agree --- useful information, excessive apologetics.

And once again, my point isn't to say that she (or anyone else) is wrong to suggest that one should be driven more by the love of God (or in her case, focus on immanent transformation, here and now). It's just that I think it's not an either or.

And remember too, in Catholic thinking, perfect contrition consists in doing good and avoiding evil because of the love of God, not the fear of Hell ... :) It is the first commandment, after all.