Monday, February 4, 2013

Messiah At The Door

Jerry Shave who attends our Friday night bible study believes me to be an optimist type. He's not the first one to accuse me of the last plague out of Pandora's box, but he's one of the more sympathetic. While others might interject "naive" before the descriptor he has been known to put terms like "intelligent."

It is no small matter.

Growing up I spent some of my most impressionable years in the shadow of a British penitentiary. It was a bleak estate of cramped army billets for families of the guards, just outside the fifteen foot granite walls which held the convicts. Allied to the harsh atmosphere was a sour, tense mood in both my parents, for a number of reasons, mostly to do with sad, repressive religion and its consequences. Our family situation improved but, without going into it all Angela's-Ashes-style, you can guess that a lot of the direction I followed in later life--spiritual and intellectual--would be a working out of the major features of that experience.

What sustained me? Was there hope in all this? There was, of course, the native instinct of a child to survive and find as many ways of entertainment and happiness as possible. I can even look back on some of that time with affection and pleasure. But when things really were grim and native spirits deserted me and I was scared and alone, it was something else that kept me going. There was a feeling in the middle of it all, too deep or dark to give it a name or even be properly aware of it: a weird, improbable feeling that there was a profound structure to everything and it was good. Although all present appearance might seem to be against it, the goodness was always there and one day it would win out.

I believe that awareness is in fact properly named hope. It is not a surface sentiment of good intent and positive attitude, a superficial golly-gee-look-on-the-brightside thing. It belongs actually in the midst of darkness, not light. It is planted in a field of stones. It is not inappropriate for a child, because "the kingdom belongs to such as these". The key word is structural, but a sense of structural that goes way beyond ordinary up-down, left-right, like the shape of a room. The experience has profoundly affected all my later understanding of the world.

It is really the structure of love: something that does not force itself on the world but shows its face where the world is overturned and cruel on its underside. It is "Blessed are the hungry...Blessed are those who mourn" become real according to its own wonderful oblique logic. I can't say that I knew this in any direct way, and that I am not now perhaps overreaching names for my experience looking back. But something kept me going and this is the best language for it I have. I depended on it totally to survive as a person in my world, in my time.

Subsequently I needed the better part of thirty years to figure out that this structure of love was not necessarily the sense of the "Religious Life" to which I later committed my life. I set out on that road (in a religious order of the Roman Catholic church) in a spirit of profound rejection of the world. Classically called fuga mundi (flight from the world) I took much delight in accomplishing this gesture, not realizing that it was really the attitude of someone who had never been given the world in the first place. I mostly acted out of spite. And the church went along with it. I had to leave it all behind in order to find and embrace that deep structure which I first dimly sensed as a child.

Almost immediately I left the order I encountered the work of Rene Girard, and I then understood that the deep structure of the gospels has infected the whole of human culture. Why not? If it could speak from the grim prospect of a prison estate, surely it could announce itself in just about every other situation!

Many people have remarked on how Girard has transformed their lives. There is even a facebook page dedicated to it! For me his work provided a fundamentally new way of understanding the Christian gospel at work in the world, allowing a new theology which raised the structure of hope to full, plain view. But at the end of his career, in his last book, Girard turned to a pessimistic view, seeing human history as essentially a duel between rivals, escalating toward some inevitable cataclysm. The structure of hope now seems to be missing.

That is why I have now turned to other authors, not abandoning basic mimetic insights, but seeking out a further articulation of hope to affirm the direction I first glimpsed there. Here is the core point of this blog.

One particular author who has helped supply this character of hope is Giorgio Agamben. His short book on Romans, The Time That Remains, is a goldmine. In it Agamben pays close attention to the quality of time released and expressed in the New Testament.We are used to seeing time in a purely sequential way, thinking that it doesn't have much bearing on spirituality. It is only the period or interval in which we are--or are not--"saved". Space is the key dimension, the place where we are now (bad) and the place where, finally, we're going (much better).

But time is the medium of spiritual relationship. It puts you in tension toward something. Or rather it is that tension which produces the quality or nature of time itself. The philosopher Heidegger famously made death to be the meaning of human time, but the New Testament put the whole world in a relationship with Christ. It has thus produced a critical change in time right here in the present. Heidegger is known in fact to have plagiarized this New Testament Christian time to produce his own existential time. The churches, on the other hand, have tended to reduce Christian time to a mere flat sequence between one spatial order and another. Allowing too much tension in the present creates disorder.

Agamben's point is that every present moment bends under the weight of Christ and so the quality of time is changed from within. This is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 7 : 29,  ho kairos synestalmenos estin, "time is contracted". Time is contracted like the wave pattern of sound, producing a very different frequency of experience right now. Or it is like a woman about to give birth. Any sensitive mind and heart, not deafened and blinded by the constant stream of media, has to hear this crucially different pitch and quality in time in which we're living in today.

Agamben points out that the famous distinction of chronos (clock time) and chairos (season time) in the New Testament is not an absolute distinction. Chronos contains chairos, and vice a versa. Every tick of the clock is fractured with the kingdom of God. This is the concrete structure of hope. That no matter what happens to space our relationship is always with a radical newness here and now, and that relationship inevitably will include space too!

So if humanity is looking down the collective barrel of a gun it is also, at the very same time, glancing at the Messiah at the door. Messianic time trumps apocalyptic time, that is Agamben's New Testament analysis. By not constantly teaching, structuring and communicating this radically transformed sense of time the churches lose authority in the world, forfeiting their message to a "bye and bye in the sky." Meanwhile the world cocks the rifle. But even if it shoots--and this is the most profound point about the structure of hope--the Messiah is still at the door, transforming every element of that moment. The earth is not taken away by men, it is remade by Jesus even as they may pull the trigger.

And because this is our hope--differing from Girard--that final, extreme trigger can and never will be pulled.

This indeed is the structure of hope. It is, I am certain, an intelligent hope.

Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian


  1. Jerry sent this to post on his behalf.

    Your post touches on themes close to my heart, hope, time, Girard, Jesus, world crisis.

    I learned the importance of hope from Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.I wrote a paper on clock time (chronos) and chairos in my student days. Girard,as interpreted by anthropological theologians, has profoundly changed my understanding of the Gospel and the Bible. (While I have done some reading, Bartlett is my in the flesh teacher.) Jesus is bigger, better and more real to me than ever. But, or and, the world crisis seems worse than I ever thought. Perhaps, I read too much of Chris Hedges and his kind. The result is “I believe. Help thou my unbelief!

    I have always considered myself a “short range pessimist and a long range optimist.In other words, when I couldn’t see much future good for the USA, the world or the planet, I found my hope in God’s ultimate victory in some other realm. Alas, heaven seems to be coming to earth. My Biblical hope seemed easier to project into outer space than to believe it realized here on earth.

    Perhaps, the problem is that I look on earth for “signs”. When people looked to Jesus for signs, he turned them down. But there were signs, if they could read them. I see hopeful signs that churches are changed even as many are dying. I wish there were more signs and more theologians writing of the profound transformation that Jesus is making in us and in the world.

    I believed in a heaven “up there” by faith. I ought to be able to believe in a heaven on earth by faith. As Julian of Norwich is reported to have heard from Jesus, “All will be well, all manner of things will be well.” Amen. Jerry Shave

  2. Thank you for this post. Somehow, I’m finding myself in a season where I'm struggling for the hope that you describe here. It may have something to do with also being in a season of life where my faith is undergoing a deconstruction -> reconstruction - where many paradigm and theological shifts are taking place. I have no doubt that I will ever "lose my faith" or cease following Jesus, but, still, I don't want to die in a state of pessimism, cynicism, or hopelessness.

  3. Judy, somehow I tend to have more faith in the spiritual reality of a person going through something like what you describe. It is the precondition of hope, as you understand. "Seeing in the dark", as you are being called to do, equips you so much more to touch the radicalism of God's transformation of the present age. When you come through the dark--as you surely will--the light will shine all that much more beautifully!

  4. Tony, this touches on an issue I have always thought about -- the way you describe the structure of the world as love, as infused with God, is the way I feel it too, though it's more of an intuition than anything else, just as you describe it. Here's what I can never resolve: if the world is being remade by Jesus and if that means we will never pull the trigger as you say, then where is the uncertainty, the darkness if which hope dwells? If self-destruction is not a real possibility, as Girard says it is, then it's not hope at all that we have, but an objective reality that says the world will be redeemed. Is this making sense? I get stuck in this paradox all the time!

  5. As someone who has entered a monastic order & stayed for 41 years and still counting, I can say that love for God's creation and hope grounded in God's mystery is essential to a viable vocation. Your comments on hope make me more hopeful yet. During the Brezhnev years, Alfred Schnittke wrote music that is both very bleak and yet darkly radiant with a hope that know no reason.

  6. Andrew, I am humbled by both your faithfulness and by the fact that is grounded in that very thing that I missed but have perhaps lately found, that thing bigger and wider than our inner selves but in which we have complete and peaceful confidence. I am honored to be with you in the community of discovery, Theology & Peace. Suzanne, thank you so much for your comment. I believe that is THE paradox. It is unsustainable by logical reason. But by faith and hope we can hold these things together. Yes, we may pull the trigger. The single long war of the first part of the twentieth century (with a twenty year time-out for re-arming) did in fact pull it, and now we hesitate on the brink of an even bigger abyss. But still we have faith in God's good creation of this earth and its ultimate triumph, when the heavenly Jerusalem will come down out of heaven and God will dwell here with mortals. Why? Because we touch something even more solid than objective reality, and that is relational reality. We tend to think that relationships are not as "real" as physics, but physics is also beginning to show that reality is indeed made up of relationships. You cannot destroy a relationship when you hold it in your heart. Christ is already risen (a real man) and we have a relationship with him. This relationship extends intimately from the present earth (my heart made up of earth) to its radical renewal. Even so the relationship will never leave this earth behind. To affirm this relationship removes the scandal of history from my eyes and transforms the earth even as I affirm it. It does not deny the darkness but is not determined by it. I feel it important to insist on all this in order not to fall victim to historical fatalism, and in order in fact to reverse the very escalation Girard calls attention to. And, Suzanne, I thank the Lord that you are in the place of this paradox!

  7. Tony, it's so good to hear of the latest stage of your own spiritual journey, to see beautiful living flesh on theological bones! ... and poignant too, to know that the hope within you has a Life going back to an often bleak childhood ... and seeing the tender pastoral side of you in these comments convinces me that you never stopped being a priest of the glorious Hope we have in Christ Jesus!