Monday, October 16, 2006

Heaven: not the end of the world XII

Spirituality as groaning
I have been arguing that going to heaven (either at death or at the end) is an inadequate way of expressing the Christian hope for the resurrection of the dead. Christ's resurrection was the first fruits, the model and ground and proof of a coming universal restoration, a renewal of all things. Having made a good universe (summed up in the phrase 'heaven(s) and earth'), God doesn't intend to abandon it. Perhaps the lengthiest expression of this theme is found in what is rightly the most famous chapter of the New Testament:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
- Romans 8.18-27
Paul personifies the created order as a woman in labour pains, frustrated by bondage to decay, yearning and waiting and groaning - in pain, but hopeful. Each of the rich images he uses here could be explored at much greater length, but I'd like to briefly pick up the idea of groaning.

This groaning, an expression of 'eager longing', is the only activity available to the prisoner, to the woman bearing a child. The primary focus is on the imminent future, and the knowledge of the difference between now and then ironically serves to make the present pain simultaneously trivial and much worse.

Trivial, because in comparison to the glorious anticipated state, the sufferings of the 'now' pale into insignificance. When the child arrives, the sweat and tears have all been worth it (or so I am told...). At the first breath of freedom, the years in chains fade into a bad dream.

And yet - not yet. The night, though far gone, is not yet over. And so the inescapable failings of the present are exacerbated by the knowledge that they will not last. One must not become accustomed to them, to explain them as just the way things are. There is a possibility, a promise, of something different. Moltmann puts it like this:
[F]aith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. (more...)

- Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 7.

And so it is not just creation that groans. We too, who have the first taste of freedom, in whom the Spirit has begun the miracle of making a heart of stone beat again, who with our first gasping breaths of new air cry "Abba, Father!", we too groan and yearn and cry and wait with eager longing for a world made new. Such groaning is part of spiritual maturity. The more we get a sense of the scope and sheer grace of God's intended liberation, the more fervently we strain against the present chains.

Indeed, this maturity is precisely spiritual, because the Spirit also groans with 'sighs too deep for words'. Our hope-filled discontentment is thus not only deeply in tune with the earth itself, it is also divine.
Series: I; II; IIa; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV; XVI.
For ten points, pick the city, which is the same as here and here.


Anonymous said...

So much for the prayers of Jabez then :)

John P. said...

i love that last line in the moltmann quote: "the goad of the promised future..." theology is at its best when it begins to sound like poetry and yet does not lose its rigor.

anyway, i have never thought about the groaning passage in quite this way (i.e. as spirituality itself).

i may have to spend some time thinking on this...thanks for another great post in this series.

Anonymous said...

hi byron! i've been quietly enjoying your series for a while:)
i've also been reading (and absorbing into my imagination) 'the great divorce' by c.s. lewis - while i appreciate its nature as a fable/allegory, i love the idea he puts forward that 'heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into glory'. i have no idea as to its theological accuracy, but i am rather fond of the idea that heaven does not so much fade our time on earth into a bad dream, but rather alters our perception of it - that our 'forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of heaven' from our new perspective.
i like it; but perhaps i am a bit romantic in my attachments. what do you think?

byron smith said...

John: yeah, that Moltmann quote hooked me from the first time I read the intro to Theology of Hope. I love how he can use 'goad' and get away with it! That, and two other quotes from Moltmann will always stay with me as summaries of much of his thought. The second is also from the same intro:
'[Faith] sees in the resurrection of Christ not the eternity of heaven, but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands. It sees in him the future of the very humanity for which he died.'

And a third one is from The Crucified God:
"When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humilitation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity.”

(i) Hope for the future of (ii) the earth because of (iii)God's suffering in Christ - sums up much of my take on Moltmann.

byron smith said...

Nicole, I think there are theological depths in The Great Divorce that one can chew on for years. Of course if you've been following this series, you'd realise there are bits of it that I think owe more to Plato (or more accurately, to Augustine) than to the New Testament hope of resurrection. However, I think that Lewis's point in the line you quote is an insightful one. Our present sufferings will not only be 'not worth comparing' with the coming glory, but will themselves be transformed by it. I take it that this is part of what is meant by resurrection of the dead. Not simply resurrection of our bodies (though certainly not less than that), but the retrospective transfiguration of our present lives. Jesus' resurrection did not mean the undoing of the cruxifiction (though in one sense it was God's overturning of the human verdict on Jesus), or its marginalisation into irrelevancy, but was the revelation and affirmation of its hidden meaning. I take it that as far as we too share in Christ's sufferings, those sufferings will also be revealed and transformed into glory as we share in his resurrection. Indeed, this seems to be assumed by Paul in the verse immediately before the passage I quoted:
...if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ--if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8.17.

Anonymous said...

thanks byron. i think i've been following but not absorbing as spongily as i would like to think :)

byron smith said...

Nic - Sorry, my last comment was a little obscure when I re-read it. My fault, not any sponginess on your part! I'm not sure I've said anything directly in this series that would directly criticise The Great Divorce. My main concerns with it, to put them in a nutshell, are the time/eternity split, and that this is located at death. The dreamer is told by George MacDonald that he can' yet join them since he has not yet died. I don't think that death is the boundary between us and the final realisation of our hope. I believe that lies at the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. If Lewis had left out this reference to death, I think the 'dawn' (and nightfall in 'hell') makes a lot of sense as this final point.

Anyway, I could go on, but that would be boring and would be to do very rude thing of making you feel less positive about a truly wonderful book that you've just finished. Sorry again. :-)

Anonymous said...

What a shame that Moltmann's line of thought ends up denying any substantial eternal life.

byron smith said...

What a shame that Moltmann's line of thought ends up denying any substantial eternal life.
In what way?

Meredith said...

Hi Byron, great post. I've been thinking about groaning and longing lately and your discussion was really helpful.

Also, i wanted to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY for today (wednesday). hope you have a good one!

byron smith said...

Thanks Meredith!

But if Christian hope should lead us being so impatient for God to redeem our bodies, why does Paul then say "we wait for it with patience"?
I suspect that Moltmann overstates his case in order to make a point. I think that hope generates both rest and unrest, both patience and impatience. We eagerly await and yet we wait with patience. I wonder whether the former springs from the difference between death and life, between decay and liberation, while the latter arises from the fact that it is God's own Spirit who dwells in us. This Spirit is the reason that we can see and feel the difference, but it is also the guarantee of the future. There is no reason to desparingly grasp after our hopes out of fear that they might be otherwise be thwarted. Neither is cause for complacency in our patience. Patiently, we participate in a community of hope that begins to taste new life, even if one of the primary ways we experience that is the groaning of anticipation.

'theological anaesthetic ' - nicely put! I suspect that at least in this case, God is into natural birth - no drugs. :-)

Read a great quote recently about how God doesn't fill the holes in our heart, he keeps them open, keeps them painful, prevents us from foreclosing on the grief. I'll try to find it.

Anonymous said...

As I recall from "God in Creation" the basic plan is that God makes a space in himself in order to create the universe. The story of God's life is then a matter of him re-entering that space in order to save it from the "Nothingness" which constantly threatens that which is not God. He resolves the crisis with the Nothingness by filling the creation with his presence. It is all to much like Hegel's immanent theology which leaves no distinct substantiality for the creation in the end. The is no concrete eterna life for the creation because there is insufficient distinction between it and God

byron smith said...

David: Thanks for the summary of his panentheism (≠ pantheism). I haven't read God in Creation, but had picked up hints of this story elsewhere in his writings, and yes I find it problematic. However, is it correct to say that in some of his later writings he works harder at preserving a distinct (though never separate) eternal life for creation. Thus, although in GiC he says 'the world in God', later he is also at pains to affirm 'God in the world'?

Anonymous said...

I understand that Moltmann may well have tempered his panentheism in later works but he never actully steps back from his basic Hegelian approach. God is always the absolute Spirit that comes to the world to fill the world with his presence, immanently and directly. The problem is always the extent to which creation is given a distinct but not self grounding existence.

byron smith said...

God is always the absolute Spirit that comes to the world to fill the world with his presence, immanently and directly.
I assume the problem with this is that it is insufficiently Christological? What do you make of God being 'all in all'? (1 Cor 15.28)

And if it is the Spirit of God who fills the world, then isn't this a mediated presence, rather than an immediate one?

Steven Carr said...

'Paul personifies the created order as a woman in labour pains, frustrated by bondage to decay, yearning and waiting and groaning - in pain, but hopeful.'

Clearly Paul thought that the new world was not the old world transformed , but was instead a brand new creature.

And that this will happen very soon.

That is the obvious point of saying that the world is in labour.

byron smith said...

Steven - since the labour pains have been happening since the world was subjected to futility, I'm not so sure that Paul was expecting a quick labour.

As for the world being a brand new creature, I would have thought that the image was (once more) a combination of continuity and discontinuity: we don't expect something entirely alien to be born, but something very closely related to the mother. I'll grant, however, that this image pictures the discontinuity and continuity in a different way to the seed/plant image. The seed/plant is the same thing, though it appears differently; the child/mother are different things, though they appear similar. However, having granted that, while Paul compares the world to a woman in labour, he does not take this image through to gestation, suggesting that perhaps we ought to pause before doing so. Not every aspect of every analogy can be pressed. It is important to note the context to grasp which particular similarity(ies) are being highlighted. I would suggest that the parallels here are (a) pain and (b) hopefulness.

Andrew said...

Hmm, I don't think anyone has claimed the photo yet. And I can't see any sign of Pete j. Venice?

byron smith said...

Andrew - ten points! And yes, you snuck in before Pete J snapped this one up.