Friday, April 25, 2008

Eschatologically Thinking

Pastoral obligations as well as travel for family events and conferences have caused me to neglect posting here with my usually regularity. So, while I had a moment, I thought I would offer some thoughts based on an excellent essay by S.M. Hutchens on Mere Comments. Wring about his attendance some years ago at a gathering of political conservatives he reflects on the difference between his own understanding of conservatism and what he appeared to be the understanding of conservatism that he saw reflected in the words and actions of some in attendance. He writes that

The principal lesson the experience drove home to me, early in adult life, was that while Christianity and "conservatism" have certain agreements, they have very different roots and very different ends. The majority of those present at this meeting would probably be called "country club Republicans" today, although I don't think the term was in use then. All signs pointed to the likelihood that this group was comprised almost exclusively of political conservatives, with whom I was used to identifying. I refused to go to subsequent meetings, and was told that I had insulted both the organization and my host by failing to avail myself of the opportunity. Regretting having disobliged the very decent man who had attempted to sponsor me, I nevertheless made it clear I had no interest in giving religious sanction to whatever game that bunch was playing--and so remained, to the chagrin of certain members of my church board, down among the immobile and shaken, joining, without knowing it, the local liberals, Catholics, and shabbier brands of Protestant in the estimation of the People Who Counted. In their minds I was not a conservative, and, given their lights, they were right.

He continues by observing that, unlike political conservatives, "The social and political operation of Christians is not based upon theorizing about what works best for the ordering of the world, but belief about what pleases the living God." Christians therefore embody, or at least should embody, "a way of thinking and acting that may or may not be agreeable to those whose understanding of the ordering of state and economy is based on a realistic appraisal of human nature coupled with an ideals of moderation and resistance to earthly utopias--that is, the classical tradition usually identified as 'conservatism.'" While there is, or ought to be at least, an affinity of Christians for "political, economic, and social conservatism" as this movement responds to the problems seen "in societies suffering from moral breakdowns" and the subsequent adverse effect that breakdown has on "all areas of life," for Christians "the difference between 'conservative' and 'liberal' theory is still only a difference between theories, one more reasonable and more in agreement with Christianity about the nature of man than the other, but still based on a theory about human good that deals only with the achievement of happiness in this world."

To be sure, not all policy decisions are compatible with the Gospel. But putting those aside for the moment, there is a more, fundamental point of disagreement between the Christian church and political conservatives (and liberals for that matter): the Gospel is necessarily eschatological. No matter what might be the content of Christian social involvement, our "ultimate desire is not the good of the world in its present form, or the comfort of human life here, but an Ultimate Good that involves giving up this world for the Life that lies beyond it. To the pure conservative this giving up is a giving over, and the Christian who does it a traditor."

In the face of the eschatological focus, of the commitment of the Christian to an "end outside the world, and its beginning in the same Place," we might find something to admire in both conservatism and liberalism, but in the end, both will "find an enemy in Christianity when the ethics of the faith overrides" the pragmatism that guides their policies. Unlike much contemporary political theory, Christians are not utopians, our commitment is not to the belief "that life on earth can be more happy and comfortable for its inhabitants" in any absolute sense. Rather, we remind the world that, for all the real joys of this life, this life is not the ultimate good.

While the Gospel blesses the good things of this life, but it reminds us that these goods are secondary and that the Kingdom of God, which is to come, is the ultimate good—or rather Good, since the Kingdom is Jesus Christ. Remembering this is important at all times, but especially during Holy Week. If from the Gospel we do not get a lasting home in this life, we do get the grace to endure our exile. The blessings of the Christian life come, at least in part, from this willingness to endure our "cosmic" homelessness. Like the Son of Man Who has no place to lay His Head, we ought ignore this world, the world for which Christ suffered His own Exile from the Throne of Glory, but neither should we lose sight of the Kingdom of God which is to come. It is only in the light of this coming glory that we can see properly the things of this life.

Kalo Pascha! (Good Pascha!)

+Fr Gregory