Thursday, October 30, 2008

Temporality (Dis)continuity and the Reformation of our Mental Furniture

Two weeks ago I attempted to sketch some of the pastoral implications of the resurrection in critical conversation with Wright. The essay was also posted at another blog set aside for a course on Wright's work. A student in that course wrote the following lengthy reply, to which I offered a lengthy response below. I have decided to post this discussion here because it brings out in more detail some of the issues pass over in the original post.

Keas writes:

Impressive summary of Wright’s view of resurrection. I think you’re right by honing in on the continuity/discontinuity of creation and redemption in Wright’s presentation. 1 Corinthians 15:58 is a godzilla verse for him.

I especially liked your paragraph on discontinuity, and you definitely “sounded it loud and clear”. I’m interested in the last line or two of that riff, the bit about eternal life not simply extending time and space but transcending them – and how this is “a distinct and essential note of discontinuity between creation and redemption in the fundamental structure of Christian hope.” I hadn’t thought of ‘time’ in new creation in terms of such radical discontinuity. Wright definitely emphasizes the continuity of time in the eternal state since he fears the average churchgoer images eternity to be when “time shall be no more” (p. 162-163). Why do you feel it’s important at this point to sound the note of discontinuity of time in eternity? Isn’t that what the majority of us were fed large doses of growing up? And are there other authors (e.g. Torrance) you feel stress this better?

I know you’ve also been working through Wright’s big boy, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Does he do a better job there of articulating the “proper symmetry and proportion” of continuity and discontinuity or do you sense this emphasis lacking in his eschatology overall? In other words, is his timidity with the discontinuity of new creation in Surprised by Hope the result of a short book or a shortcoming of his theology?

You really started revving up when you got to your third proposal for funeral reform. I found your comments there, as well as in your fourth, to be incredibly helpful in how we might begin evaluating and tweaking our current funeral practices. I think you yourself have a nice dialectical tension of the continuity/discontinuity of funeral practices that Wright’s resurrection theology should bring about.

Having said that, I want to pose a question in response to your 3rd proposal, “Add Resurrection Language to Already Existing Forms.” There you said, “We can still talk about grandpa going to heaven and being with Jesus. We just need to also talk about grandpa coming back with Jesus to reign with us in the new heavens and the new earth.” I was surprised to hear you using this “up there, down here” language. Wright spends an enormous amount of his book ranting against the dualistic Gnostic worldview that manufactured such language and mental furniture. I really appreciate your pastoral concern here, by the way, and that’s why I’m interested to dialogue more. Do you think it’s wise for us to leave intact the “up there, down here” mental furniture and only add resurrection language to it?

Along those same lines, I’d like to bring the myth of the immortality of the soul into the discussion. I would contend that the church’s borrowing of this idea from Greek philosophy is chiefly responsible for muddling up Christian hope and the New Testament’s teachings on the after-life. Wright is obviously not happy about it either, but I’m not sure if he’s offered much in its place (the intermediate state, that is). What he does offer is Polkinghorne’s analogy that, “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run the software again” (163). In my mind such word pictures come awfully close to what Wright had been combating in the previous 162 pages: the inadequate and simplistic body/soul dichotomy which always prioritizes the soul, or something like the soul, as the real essence of a person. Has does the software/hardware analogy paint a different picture for us?

So to reintegrate my question with the addition of the above paragraph, I’m wondered how much we, as pastors, should challenge notions of dualism and the immortality of soul at funerals. You are clear that communicating resurrection should be our fundamental concern rather than addressing all the “speculation” surrounding the intermediate state, but how much of this speculation should we try to deflate or rework while bringing the focus back on resurrection? Are there valid pastoral concerns that might lead us to keep alive some of the folk theology so popular today?

And, of course, brilliant way to cap off your essay with your fifth and final proposal. A Christocentric focus is the way forward as we continue to rethink and reform our funeral practices. Your Barthian blood is showing through!


John replies:

Thanks for the opportunity to post here and the props you gave in your comment. You raised at least three issues: (1) temporal discontinuity, (2) Wright's other works, and (3) the reformation of our mental furniture. The third contains a number of interrelated material issues: (a) dualism, (b) the immortality of the soul, and (c) the intermediate state, all of which were aimed at (d) the pastoral question of whether, when and how to challenge such assumptions. I will treat each of these issues in the order they were raised.

(1) Temporal Discontinuity.

Although the issues under (3) are more numerous and more popular, let me try to say enough here that my response to those questions can be briefer. I say this not just to save time but because I think the issue of time itself is the most complex and most fundamental among the issues you raised.

You referenced a line towards the end of my riff on discontinuity. Let's get that in front of us first so I can comment on it, then I'll address your questions directly.

"The gift of eternal life includes within itself time and space, so it is not strictly timeless or spaceless. But the gift of eternal life transcends time and space, so it is not simply the infinite extension of time and space."

Note the note of continuity: eternal life includes time and space. So I would join Wright in critiquing concepts of eternal life as timeless and spaceless. [I'll focus on time since that's what you asked about, but most of the logic of my answer can be transferred over to space, as we'll see when we come to souls and bodies.] Eternal life is not a state of timelessness. Eternity is not simply the negation of time. This is one of the lessons God teaches us in raising his son Jesus from the dead. If we cease to inhabit time and space, we would cease to be human, for the human category of time is basic for self-consciousness and time is basic to creation as historical in character. What God has made has purpose and meaning and therefore has history. Redemption is the end of history, but "end" in the sense of consummation and goal, not in the sense of ceasing to be. Creatures are by definition temporal, so to cease to be temporal is to cease to be creatures, and that's not good news.

To cease to be temporal would also not mean that we become divine, for God himself has permanently taken on temporality in Christ and so, in light of God's immutablity, God's eternity cannot be sheer timelessness. God's eternal triune life must be ready for this assumption of time. God's eternity is God's self-sufficient possession of an interminable life. God is the living God, and this God has time for us. God's time is not our time. God's time embraces our time so that our time might be enveloped in God's time.

With the talk of God's eternity in front of us, we can begin to see where the discontinuity comes in. At first it seems as though we have read temporal continuity all the way back into God's being. And in a sense we have. But in reality the arrow runs the other way. God in his eternal life creates us in our temporal life. So there is a fundamental distinction between God and creation. But God purposes to share his eternal life with us, giving us something beyond our temporal life. We will receive this gift of eternal life as a gift, and will continually receive it as such. Eternal life is not the actualization of a potential inherent in human beings. Eternal life is the determination given to temporal human beings in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Now (most of) all this is very conceptual in form. So let me recast it back into the narrative terms from which it arises: God raised Jesus from the dead. God does not remove Jesus from the space-time continuum (that would be discontinuity without continuity). But neither does God simply extend Jesus' life further along the space-time continuum (that would be continuity without discontinuity). Rather, God gives to Jesus a life that has death behind it; God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus has death in his past. That is unprecedented, so unprecedented that it is hard to conceive of a "life" without "death" as its end-point. This is why we tend to think of "heaven" as boring, which in fact it probably would be if resurrection was merely the infinite extension of time as we know it. But the gift of eternal life is a life re-defined with death not as its end-point, but as a piece of its past. This relocation of death in the narrative logic of human life underlines the birth-and-death word games found in the New Testament (e.g., "unless it dies, it cannot bear fruit," "firstborn from the dead," etc.). Such a relocation entails a radical transformation of the experience of time as we know it, and so the note of temporal discontinuity which I believe must be sounded in a Christian doctrine of resurrection.

Okay, with that sketch in front of us, let me answer your questions directly.

Q: Why do you feel it’s important at this point to sound the note of discontinuity of time in eternity?

A: By understanding our future time as a new act of God, this note of discontinuity helps secure the gift-character and finality of eternal life. In other words, resurrection is grace and glory. Resurrection is grace: it is an act of God to which we contribute nothing. Resurrection is glory: death will be defeated so that it no longer determines human life. He is the light of life; in him there is no darkness at all.

Q: Isn’t that what the majority of us were fed large doses of growing up?

A: Probably not if the discontinuity is construed as I have sketched above. And if what I suggest bears some resemblance to what you were fed growing up, then that may just point to the grain of truth in all that stuff and therefore identify a pedagogical point of connection.

Q: And are there other authors (e.g. Torrance) you feel stress this better?

A: Big surprise: Karl Barth, Robert Jenson, T F Torrance, and Hans urs Von Balthasar have all contributed to my thinking on this matter.

(2) Wright's Other Works.

I won't say much here, as I cannot comment on the entirety of his corpus nor do my critiques so require me to do so. When one writes a book on a topic, one is responsible for what one says on the matter. If I were making an argument from silence, then Wright's other works would be germane. But I do not in fact claim that he has no discontinuity, but rather that his argument is so formulated to reveal that continuity is more basic. It is a matter of accent and emphasis (or, better yet, the function of concepts), which can be ascertained by a careful reader from even the smallest of books. But everything else I have read from Wright has confirmed that this is where the accent lies. He affirms discontinuity almost always within the greater continuity, which is his dominant note. That's his driving point, and again perhaps justifiable given the church's tendencies of late and perhaps warranted on the basis of a different doctrine of creation that the one to which I am committed. Note: this fits his historiographical orientation, as an emphasis on the continuity of the created order under-girds an evidentialist apologetical enterprise such as Wright's. In other words, you would only try to "prove" the resurrection on the basis of historical evidence if you understand resurrection according to the terms set by creation as such, rather than as an event that happens to creation.

(3) The Reformation of our Mental Furniture.

(a) Dualism.

Q: Do you think it’s wise for us to leave intact the “up there, down here” mental furniture and only add resurrection language to it?

A: Briefly: “up there, down here” language is inadequate, but so are all such world-pictures. The language itself is found in the New Testament, so I wouldn't stress out about the imagery for relating heaven and earth. The point is how you fill out the conceptual content and the way you work out the narrative. Perhaps some such imagery must go, but the alternative imagery will have its troubles too. Better to be on constant guard to explain yourself than to purify yourself of all potentially misleading imagery. That's a puny answer, but it will have to do for now. A fuller answer would make analogous moves with regard to space as made above with regard to time.

(b) The Immortality of the Soul.

Q: Along those same lines, I’d like to bring the myth of the immortality of the soul into the discussion...

A: This is of course a huge topic, and I have written on it elsewhere, though not to my satisfaction. See my eschatological musings at drulogion (click here) and my article entitled "Gregory of Nyssa's Dialogue with Macrina: The Compatibility of Resurrection and Immortality" in Theology Today 62:2 (Jul 2005) pp. 210-222. I'll just put a few things out there for now:

(i) Immortality and resurrection are not mutually exclusive concepts.

(ii) Soul-talk is not necessarily dualistic, inasmuch as we can attain a concept of "soul" that is conceptually distinct from the body yet materially existent only as that which animates the body. In other words, a commitment to embodiment does not require rejection of soul-talk.

(iii) The soul as materially existent (i.e., embodied) is not in itself immortal. Any immortality attributed to the human person is a divine gift and permanently retains its gift-character. Note: the soul as a concept may be spoken of as immortal, but only in the dull sense that concepts don't die. So the soul is only as immortal as the triangle or the number four. It is not ontically immortal in the robust sense of an existent that defies death, ala God.

(iv) Immortality is a function of resurrection. All theoretical talk of an immortal soul must serve and submit to the sure faith in the resurrection of the dead. The idea of the immortality of the soul is only a theory to explain whatever kind of existence we may have in the intermediate state, and that's all it is. Which brings us to our next point.

(c) The Intermediate State.

Q: Wright is obviously not happy about it either, but I’m not sure if he’s offered much in its place (the intermediate state, that is)...

A: You have raised a crucial question here. Needless to say, what I said about temporal continuity and discontinuity above has direct implications for the notion of an intermediate state. In my original post, I stuck with Wright's "two-stage post-mortem narrative" because it is so clear and is able to account for most of what needs to be said. But my own constructive inclination is to abandon the notion of an intermediate state altogether. Doing so would require thinking through the implications of the gift of eternal life and what they might mean retrospectively for the dead in the time between the times. One of the disappointments I felt with N. T. Wright's work is his lack of imagination on this front (see my comments to that effect here). This is a place where one must engage in the difficult but rewarding work of revisionist ontological reflection, the sort of thing N. T. Wright avoids because, among other things, he is too locked in to the continuity of created time to imagine the kind of discontinuities at work here. But I must heed my own warning to tread lightly with such major revisions. Don't cast out the intermediate state until you are ready to fill its place with something positive that can perform its theological function, or the demon will return bringing seven more demons with it and you'll be worse off than before (cf. Lk 11:24-26). It takes time and care to figure out what function a concept has performed in the tradition, which I am still sorting out. But once I have a better handle on the theological function of the intermediate state and I've found something else to perform that function, I'd be happy to dump it entirely, since it consistently proves distracting to resurrection hope.

(d) Pastoral Implications.

Okay, now to your final questions:

Q: How much should we, as pastors, challenge notions of dualism and the immortality of soul at funerals?

A: I don't think a funeral service is the setting for direct challenge. Perhaps this just comes from my own pastoral experience, but my tack was to teach clearly and critically on this matter as we went through the bible and/or topics, but when someone got sick or died I gave the people freedom to speak in their own familiar language even while I followed through on mine. Pastors are not theological or liturgical police officers. They are teachers and guides. We cannot control people's thoughts or language, nor should that even be our goal. We can, however, discipline our own thoughts and language, and thereby model to others and guide them over time. But a funeral service seems an inappropriate setting for a frontal attack. Better to prepare them all along than to hit them all at once.

Q: How much of this speculation [concerning the intermediate state] should we try to deflate or rework while bringing the focus back on resurrection?

A: As indicated above, I am not interested in reworking the intermediate state other than finding what function it performs and finding other things to play those roles. But I am also not interested in deflating it either, because I find it superfluous rather than pernicious. I am confident that the beauty and truth of the resurrection of the dead is more than sufficient to compete with the potential distraction of the intermediate state. Keep the main thing the main thing, and let it crowd out all else.

Q: Are there valid pastoral concerns that might lead us to keep alive some of the folk theology so popular today?

A: Well, there's always the pastoral concern of not being a jerk. Also, listening to the linguistic habits of a congregation is a crucial pastoral skill. One can only shape clay that one has felt and dug one's hands into. When you have a sense of the inner logic or grammar of a community's theological speech, then you can start to tweak and adjust. So the professionally-trained pastor must become a kind of folk theologian if he or she ever wishes to shape the thoughts of his or her people. In the process, one may discover that the folk have some insights one might have missed, so listening is not just a trick to get a hearing of one's own, but a genuine openness to be taught by the people as you also teach them.

Thanks for your thorough engagement, Keas. I hope these responses are somewhat satisfying to you and keep the conversation moving forward.



David Drury said...

thanks for sharing these responses. helpful.

from this point onward I will prefer to be introduced as "Pastor David Drury, Folk Theologian."


vanilla said...

I appreciate this discussion. I am, though, totally out of my element so far as contributing anything to the conversation, having read very little after any of the theologians to whom you refer. I do want to make this comment on your answer, John, to the final question. As a layperson, I would totally concur that the pastoral/laiety relationship you allude to here would be the ideal for both parties to the spiritual growth experience: a mutual learning endeavor.