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Advent and the Circling Year


Last night I had a dream in which certain ideas became clear to me, so I thought I’d record and relate them here. It centers about the fact that this is the first Sunday in the Advent season. Readings and hymns in church are based on the twin themes of the first and second coming of Christ, to a degree that the two seem almost to merge together. The faithful are supposed to scrutinize the inner horizon of their lives to prepare for the coming of Christ. And yet, obviously, the season comes just before Christmas, so it must be a commemoration of the first coming as well, right? But then the cyclical nature of the whole thing implies that the second coming we are ostensibly waiting for is the second coming of the first coming! And that the “first” coming of Christ is returning in the terms described by Mircea Eliade in his many books including The Sacred and the Profane and The Eternal Return. Many of us are used to thinking of the Eucharist this way: contra Protestant misunderstandings of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist (or mass) is not supposed to be repeated sacrifices, new sacrifices of Christ, but rather the re-presentation of the one sacrifice of Christ, a mystical bringing present of the communicant to that primordial moment. Symbolic time travel, just as in the Passover Seder, when Jews are to affirm that in some sense they have become present to the original events and are not mere inheritors of it. Such liturgical re-presentation occurs in all religion worldwide in one form or another. And in my dream I thought back to some choice passages in Reinhold Niebuhr’s very great book The Nature and Destiny of Man (vol. 2, 1943):

It is a good thing to seek for the kingdom of God on earth; but it is very dubious to claim to have found it. In that claim some new relativity of history and some new egoistic force make pretensions of sanctity which, at best, are merely absurd and, at worst, unleash new furies and fanaticisms. (p. 178)

The Biblical symbols cannot be taken literally because it is not possible for finite minds to comprehend that which transcends and fulfills history. The finite mind can only use symbols and pointers of the character of the eternal. (p. 289)

Against utopianism the Christian faith insists that the final consummation of history lies beyond the conditions of the temporal process. Against other-worldliness it asserts that the consummation fulfills, rather than negates, the historical process. (p. 291)


Getting Real

This all has to do with Niebuhr’s political ethic of “Christian Realism,” his belief in “the relevance of an impossible ideal.” Human beings cannot escape the finitude and ambiguity of worldly existence and therefore can live pure of sinful compromise only by virtue of martyrdom sooner or later, a policy of absolute-non-cooperation with the world. That is the posture symbolized in the refusal of the saints to take the mark of the Beast, without which no commerce is possible (Revelation 13:16-18). As Paul says, “you would have to leave the world altogether” (1 Corinthians 5:9-10). Niebuhr took what I regard as a sort of Platonic approach: in this world we can only (but must) approximate as closely as we can the moral absolutes of the Sermon on the Mount, knowing that we will often or even usually have only a choice between greater and lesser evils. But that is where the Reformation paradox of “at the same time justified and a sinner” comes in. It is the dialectic of grace.

Accordingly, Niebuhr denies that any righteous efforts of ours could ever establish the kingdom of God on earth. Those who believe they can turn out to be miserable failures or intolerant totalitarians, like the Stalinist tyranny or the Islamic dictatorship in Iran. Or Calvin’s Geneva. Such pretenses to having established the Millennial Kingdom would, in order to maintain the necessary illusion, deny what problems and ethical compromises must inevitably exist in a fallen world. And thus they become demonic. Such is the curse of fanatical utopianism.

The same thing happens with hyper-religious individuals who have come to believe that God has completely sanctified them. They cannot afford to admit even to themselves that they still harbor some sin. If they were to recognize it, it would seem that God, who sanctifies by faith, must have failed them. So they refuse to recognize their sins, and that lets these sins fester, allows them to grow unsupervised to spew forth in viler forms than a realistic self-scrutiny would have allowed. And it happens on a big scale with regimes made of fanatics. Just look at the Muslim Jihadists today, invulnerable in their blindness.

Niebuhr says we must not take literally the Bible’s myths of a Kingdom of God descending from heaven. On the one hand, if you and your fanatical buddies think you can bring it to pass, the end will be tragic. Such a rabbit cannot be pulled out of such a hat! But on the other hand, if one defaults to the apocalyptic posture of quietism, silently waiting for God to bring the play to and end and start over, you are nihilistically devaluing the world of events we live in. You are writing off human history as a big loss and waiting for something better. You are saying there is no use in applying Christian values to history, as when Dwight L. Moody the evangelist explained his lack of interest in social reform. “God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can!’”

So working and praying for the advance of God’s kingdom is the Christian task, but the realization of that task lies above and beyond history, either in the form of a “Church Triumphant” in heaven after death or in the Aristotelian sense of a Prime Mover of a concept of Kingdom Righteousness shining now as a beacon above the swamp of inevitably messy human endeavor.

But what does this have to do with Advent and the ritual reenactment of the coming of Jesus and out preparation for it? It seems to me that this sort of liturgical drama of reenactment fits in perfectly with Niebuhr’s theory about the not-literally-historical character of the second coming and the attendant consummation of all things. It means that the second coming is a symbol for the first coming. It hoists the Sermon on the Mount, the teachings of the gospel, as the flag under which Christians living in this world must march. But it is more a matter of a direction than a destination. Again, as in Aristotle, your perfection, your destination, is simply going as far as you can go.

This is why it is no embarrassing pretense or pathetic play-acting we are undertaking when we “expect” the coming of Christ in Advent, “as if” it hasn’t happened—because we are operating on the cyclical calendar of the Eternal Return characteristic of myth and liturgy. We are not, despite Saint Augustine and many others, operating on a linear timeline, stretching from a starting point in Genesis to an ending point in Revelation. There is no beginning or end. Fanatics and zealots imagine that we can come out the other end of the historical tunnel into the shadowless brilliance of the Kingdom of God. But we can’t. All tunnels and tracks finally end up back here, in history, like on that Twilight Zone episode where the fleeing couple finally realize they are in a train on a toy track, the plaything of unsuspected giants. Cyclical thinking is not the currency of revolutionaries and fanatics. It is rather the game plan of those who uphold the status quo and rejoice in the unbroken succession of seasons and ages.

Nor is it as if any one group conforms completely or rigidly to either time-model. Popular American fundamentalism, for instance, though committed to the linear model of apocalypticism, likes to flirt with the cyclical model as well, as witness the numerous movies and novels fictively presenting the End Times events as happening in the reader’s own time, the most notable recent example being the Left Behind series of books ghost-written for Tim LaHaye. The popularity of these books lies in their secret liturgical character: the reading of them supplies a psycho-dramatic experience of the eschaton which fundamentalists believe should be happening any moment but which is constantly delayed. By reading these as-if novels, they can repeatedly and vicariously experience the Last Days in lieu of their ever actually arriving. That is surprisingly close to the cyclical, liturgical model.

Worlds within Words

Paul D. Hanson explained the relationship between the two models of time-history in his book The Dawn of Apocalyptic (1975). He shows how the Israelite prophets inveighed against the seasonal, agricultural faith of the Canaanites, centered upon Baal and Astarte as well as Yahve. These myths functioned as royal propaganda, since the chief god was supposed to defeat the Chaos Dragon each year, renewing and revitalizing the soil for another year. This even involved the death and resurrection of the god. In the annual New Year Festival, the king took the role of the king of the gods in a ritual reenactment of the primeval battle, in the process renewing both the fecundity of the fields and his own right to rule for another year. But the Israelite prophets rejected all this in the name of a rival ideology, that Yahve was the nomadic god of the desert nomads and that he moved through, and ruled, an open, ongoing future. The divine was to be found not in the regularities of nature so much as in the events of history, as Yahve moved the empires of the world around like chess pieces. The myth of the historical cycle, the eternal return, was the myth upholding the status quo, then, while the myth of a god active in history was the myth undergirding the efforts of those to carry history forward to new heights, new horizons: “Behold, saith the Lord Yahve, I am doing a new thing!”

Niebuhr would say that the utopian fanatics believe that history is a road into the New, and that they imagine they can reach the new age, install it on earth. But “Christian Realists” understand that one generation is like another, all equidistant from both the founding time of Christian origins (the giving of the Sermon on the Mount) and from the (theoretical/mythical) end of the world. We are witnessing the current, the latest, turn of the wheel. Advent reminds us of the impossible ideal we must strive as best we can to translate into history, knowing well that the Kingdom of God is our North Star to navigate by, not the destination we think we can actually reach.

Without Beginning or End of Days

I mentioned a moment ago how Niebuhr’s theology of history does not require a literal consummation point within history, no literal return of Jesus Christ. I wonder what would happen if we turned the scope around the other way? Of course Niebuhr similarly demythologized the Eden story of the Fall of Man, so that it referred to the initial lapse of humans, insecure in their finitude, into covetousness and mutual enmity. There needn’t have been any literal Adam an Eve. But what about that other beginning point: the beginning of the gospel the dawn of that impossible ideal? Isn’t it equally mythical to posit a heavenly being entering the human race from outside one evening in Bethlehem? Isn’t it equally literalistic to posit that the whole thing started with a single historical individual named Jesus or anything else? Does not the theological claim that “long lay the world in sin and error pining until he appeared and the soul felt its worth”? That is Gnostic mythology. There can have been no historical “beginning of the gospel” since even the ancient Assyrians taught that one ought to love one’s enemies.

Tillich left the same door open to the Christ-Myth theory without meaning to when he said that the Christian mode of existence (the “New Being” within the confines of a world of ambiguity) requires a historical originator, whether or not his name turned out to be “Jesus of Nazareth.” But if it is real in our lives, it must have been real in a concrete, individual life at the very beginning, or we would not experience it now! But then how can we be so dogmatic to insist that it had never happened before Jesus of Nazareth (or Brian of Nazareth if one prefers)? Again, as with Niebuhr, to borrow Burton L. Mack’s expression, Tillich cannot rid himself of the Christian-dogmatic notion of a Big Bang that started Christianity as something utterly new, ex nihilo.

A Tale of Two Brothers

One last note: how does the resultant picture of Christian liturgical cyclicalism, in which the eternal return undergirds the status quo, fit in with the models framed by Reinhold Niebuhr’s brother and fellow theologian H. Richard Niebuhr in his equally famous book Christ and Culture (1951)? What H. Richard called the “Christ Transforming Culture” model would seem to partake of the fanaticism of Reinhold’s Christian utopianism. Reinhold’s pessimistic, other-worldly waiters for a cosmic End would fall within H. Richard’s “Christ against Culture” category. I am guessing that H. Richard would place Medieval European Christendom as described by Tillich (as “theonomous,” open to its divine Ground) in his “Christ above Culture.” The “Christ of Culture” option might fit heavily accommodated liturgical-cyclical church bodies like the Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, German Lutheran, and Episcopalian/Anglican churches. In them Christ is practically a figurehead for the culture, its wisdom, and its blessings, with very little room left for any tension between Christ as any kind of measuring rod and the culture that ostensibly moves and lives in his image. H. Richard Niebuhr’s remaining category is that of “Christ and Culture in Paradox,” which seems to fit his brother’s preferred stance pretty closely. It partakes of both the “Christ against Culture” realization that this world is hostile territory for the Christian ethic, and the “Christ above Culture” posture in that it recognizes the gospel as a transcendent norm like a lighthouse above the waves. But the “Paradox” stance resolves that the message of Jesus must nonetheless somehow be translated into this world of finitude and ambiguity.

My suggestion is that, once you factor in the liturgical dimension as the means for experiencing the symbol-reality of the coming of the Kingdom of God, you can see Reinhold’s Niebuhr’s position as having a drag toward the “Christ of Culture” view. This result hardly calls into question the validity either of Reinhold’s position or of H. Richard’s typology; it just reminds us that all such categories are ideal types, abstract templates necessarily sloppier than the facts of life and useful as yardsticks by which to measure the living phenomena. In this case, we can understand and characterize Reinhold Niebuhr’s ethic of the Kingdom of God better and more fully if we lay it edge to edge with the “Christ and Culture” typology. We can see where and why it is closer to one coordinate than another. 




Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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