Thursday, 24 May 2012

Allocution 11 May 2012: 'Returning to the Four Last Things'

A depiction of the Four Last Things Bosch's The Seven Deadly Sins
After the second Vatican Council, there was a renewed interest in eschatology, the theology of the last things. Scholars took up some of the ideas of protestant theologians who looked at the gospels and found that it was central to the preaching of Christ that the Kingdom of God was near. Since the end of the world did not in fact come immediately, these scholars found various ways to interpret this aspect of the gospel. 

They rightly understood that there was something central and important about the life, death and resurrection of Christ – the “Christ event” as it came to be called – and speculated on the question of how this must affect us. In general, the “Christ event” was regarded as the supremely eschatological moment of history and the centre of the Christian life which itself must also have an eschatological dimension. 

For some, the resurrection of Christ took us out of linear time, the chronos, and into the decisive moment, the kairos. The response of the Christian was therefore to live eschatologically, to engage in the personal relationship with Christ, who is definitively beyond this world through His resurrection. We are thereby released from our relation to ordinary things in the world, from the problems of science and rationality, and indeed from the search for the historical Jesus. 

The criticism of this approach was that the drive for the eschatological meaning of Christianity could thereby mean a release from the ordinary demands of this world and a failure to engage with the Christian duty towards the community. 

An opposite approach stressed salvation history. The life death and resurrection of Christ meant that there was now a decisive moment in the time between creation and the end of the world. Christ was the centre and focus of the history of creation. The Christian lives in the time between the coming of Christ on earth and the coming of Christ at the end of time – a life where there is a tension between the already and the not yet

Although more promising, this approach tended to play down the personal eschatology of the four last things. It is right that we should know Christ as the one who is the centre and focus of human history and indeed the universe, but as an individual I must also prepare for my own death and judgement.

Eschatology was taken in a different direction by those who saw it primarily in terms of hope. The Christian life, it was said, is not about illuminating the present moment but about seeing the contradiction between the world as it is now and the hope of what is to come. The duty of the Christian is to carry a torch for the future so that the world might be transformed.

This form of Christianity easily became transformed itself into political theology or the theology of liberation. Christianity was seen as an imperative for change here and now, for social justice, for the transformation of political and economic structures. The language of “structural sin” became popular. Fr Joseph Ratzinger began his response to this movement in theology by asking “which hope?” Obviously for the Christian, hope is not concerned merely with the structures of this world but the future of eternal life. Furthermore, if theology becomes political, it means that politics becomes messianic – a most unsuitable mantle which leads to totalitarianism.

Catholic theologians, discovering with some excitement these new and provocative approaches to the fundamental message of the Gospel, found a reason for overturning the teaching of theology in the seminaries and the structure of catechesis. In particular, the focus of eschatology on the four last things for the individual, and the second coming of Christ and the general judgement for the community of the Church, were played down in favour of a focus on the here and now, the time of the already and the not yet, the “eschatological” focus which in practice played down the themes of death and judgement.

Fr Ratzinger in contrast urged that the gospels should not become the focus of a futile search for the historical kernel, the real and exact words of Jesus, stripped of the interpolations of the early Church. Instead he urged that the words of the gospels should be heard in their natural setting through the echo which they found in the Church.

Certainly Our Lord’s preaching on the nearness of the Kingdom is central to the gospels, but what the Church understood was that “The Kingdom of God is near at hand” means in effect “God is close.” This was true because Christ himself is truly God. (The implication, sometimes made quite explicit, of other eschatological theories, was that because Jesus was mistaken about the end of the world, He was not really as much God as we thought in the past.)

Therefore it is right that we do understand Jesus to be at the centre of salvation history, not simply as “the Christ event” but as the personal focus of that history and the personal focus of our lives. The hope that should inspire us for the fullness of the Kingdom is focussed not on a plan or process but on a person – Jesus Christ.

The 20th century eschatologists were fond of decrying an overly personal “spirituality” but in the end they took away the foundation for the truly communal spirituality, our union in the Church.

It is in the Church that we find salvation and hope. Christ is the centre of both and we need to focus on Him. Our communal eschatological hope is not divorced from our personal path to salvation; the two are closely intertwined. Therefore we should indeed think of the four last things: death, judgement, hell and heaven. We should think of them seriously and often. We do not have to abandon all the teaching of the theologians before the council; we do not have to throw away all of the spiritual books written by the great saints and spiritual masters (who in any case were based upon the fathers of the Church.) No, their teaching must be rediscovered in the Church and in the lives of every individual Catholic who wishes to live the Christian life to the full.

Therefore in a future allocution we shall look at the four last things without any feeling of guilt.

Fr Timothy Finigan, Spiritual Director

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