Introduction to ‘The Eschatological Economy: Time and the Hospitality of God’

This book invites you to hear what Christian theology has to say to the contemporary world. Christian theology is the creature of the Church, and the Church is the creature of God. When the Church lives out of the tradition it has received, and passes on the good things of that tradition, it has something to say about the world. It speaks theologically when it offers coherent and public talk about God and man. The Church has a more generous definition of the world than our contemporary world has of itself. Theology has a more sophisticated idea of time than does the surrounding world. It talks about time in order to say that the world is not yet settled, and will not be settled until it is established in relationship with God. We raise the subject of time to draw our attention to the way things come and go, and to remind us to be realistic in estimating what we know about them. Eschatology is the Church’s term for this form of self-control.

To show what theology has to say to the world I will compare two communities and their respective ways of being. I will contrast the eschatological economy to which the Church points, with what I shall call the economy of modernity. Modernity is nebulous and not easy to define, but these two communities must nevertheless be compared. The community brought into being by speech of God must be contrasted with the many speeches and claims of the world, to show that the world and its speech has a place in the speech of God and that it is now being ushered into that place.

The two central chapters of this book are about the Scriptures and the teaching of the Christian community that arises from them. They are followed by chapters that deal first with the way we talk about modernity, and then with how Scripture and modernity relate. I argue that modern discourse fits into scriptural discourse, not the other way around. The bible contains the world: the world does not absorb the bible. But more than that, the Scriptures invite the world to grow. I hope to show that Christians must live out of the whole bible, that is, as much out of the Old Testament as out of the New. To this end I talk at some length about the whole people of God, and suggest some of the links that must be made between the people of Israel, and the Church and its present practices. I give an account of the action of Jesus Christ that depends on a social account of human action, and suggest that this means that we can avoid religious language and discussions of its justification. I link the work of Jesus Christ to a number of Old Testament discussions, and indicate what difference a more coherent account of Christian doctrine might make to some established readings of Scripture. The doctrine will be more coherent because it will be more informed by hope, that Christian attitude to which eschatology refers.

This book offers a reading of the Christian tradition in confrontation with the central trends of political philosophy. It suggests that this conversation and confrontation is required by any properly theological discussion of modernity. Much current theology is content with an anthropology in which man is already all he ever will be. This makes it sub-Christian. A distinctively Christian theology will say that the individual is a work in progress, not yet a finished product. The individual does not yet have a single mind or settled will, so modern anthropology is impatient and premature. A theological anthropology must sustain a sense of struggle, the outcome of which is not yet known. Will man appear finally at the end of the story, or will other logics and entities prevail over man? Our discussion will include an account of resistance to the gospel which the Christian tradition has variously termed the ‘bondage of the will’, the ‘hardening of hearts’, or the rule of the principalities and powers. What existence this individual mind and will may have is not yet known by the world. It is merely confessed by the Church. In the account in this book, though, man grows into his agency, and into a mature mind, and this account uses the doctrines of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to do so.

Talk about the one economy of the God, who is God for man, and will in his own time be God with man, requires two complementary ways of talking about the way things are. We can call these two economies, one of being and one of time. We always need these two parallel accounts, one describing what there is, and the other describing the changes to what there is. This second economy shows that the world has not always been, and will not always be, the way it is now. The question of what duration it has, and of whether it can sustain itself, must always be put to whatever state of affairs we find. It is the task of the Christian community to question every would-be definitive statement about the world.

I discuss the world of modernity under both terms, being and becoming. The claim of the world of modernity is that it is not threatened by change. It has already arrived, and is sure of itself. It presents itself as the two economies of nature and freedom which make up a single economy of being. I will argue that the merging of these two economies is not the implementation of its unity that modernity takes it to be. Rather these two economies just collapse into one economy of nature that cannot support persons, sociality or freedom. The ostensibly public world of political speech and encounter is really just a matter of many private wills, none of which is ready to hear any others. Our expression of our will does not derive from public discourse, and does not promote our public life. The economy of modernity claims to have been brought together by history, but to be no longer subject to change. The individual will does not concede that he is impacted on by other people, because he believes that this admission would threaten his independence. I argue that this economy cannot secure itself against the change imposed on it by God. The Word of God identifies Western being as a failure of action and of relatedness, and thus as a failure of being. We may not yet know whether the outcome of our history will be the emergence of man. The outcome is unknown other than as theological knowledge of the resurrection and the arrival of one man, Jesus Christ, with God.

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The first chapter of this book sets out a theory of persons in constitutive relationship. Neither things nor being is fundamental. Persons are fundamental. I set out two accounts of the person. One of these is natural, in that we understand persons on the analogy with things. The second I shall call doxological. It is in this second account that persons are fundamental, so we cannot understand them as sorts of things. The concept of person prevents the reduction of the person to being accounted for by nature, or by power or by will.

Being and doing are one and the same thing. The work of each creature is the being of all other creatures. Their work is not only the well-being of all other creatures, but their very being. But there is more at issue even than this. It is not only the being but the freedom of other creatures that is our purpose. The freedom of all creatures is the task of all other creatures, and it is sustained only by live relationship with all other creatures. This nexus of relationship which sustains the freedom of each, is itself sustained by the ongoing relationship of Creator with the creation that he has made and now maintains. Our Creator intends not that we merely are, but that we live, that we become animate and vocal, and able to respond to one another. He intends that we participate in one another’s formation, and do so freely and willingly. An account of man must therefore include an account of the place and work into which he is to grow, and so of the ongoing co-labour of creation. The perfection of creation is dependent on the finished and perfected freedom and personhood of man. Man does not yet have freedom. His freedom depends on God’s determination not to cease from his work until man has grown into that freedom. The freedom of man is the task of God, then, and very subordinately, it is the task into which God introduces man. Under God, we bring one another into being. This participative ontology is a philosophical break-through. Perhaps we should say that would be a break-through, if it was taken up by what now passes for philosophy. Why should contemporary philosophy continue to insist that it can only accept an individualist monist ontology, rather than a pluralist, or better, a triune, one?

The second chapter offers an account of how a holy community comes into being. It sets out on what will at first seem a new tack. Instead of talking about directly about holiness, it deals in quite general terms with how we change and grow. The discussion is not in terms of familiar religious language of sanctification but in a new, ostensibly quite secular, vocabulary. This allows us to confess that we are not the sole agent of our own being. We are not self-made. Though to some extent we grow each other, we do not grow ourselves up. This discussion of our formation shows what resources there are for talking about ourselves when we do not consider ourselves the sole agent of our being. This will allow to talk about becoming holy in terms of a growth of competence – in the life that God shares with us. The rest of this book depends on what we say in this chapter about our formation and upbringing, which I refer to by the traditional term, paideia.

This account of change is framed in terms of learning. Learning accounts for the relationship between Israel’s elect being and her holy becoming. It relates the doctrine of sanctification to training, law and various other intermediary forms that change through time in response to the requirements of the learning community. It shows that the secular concept of history intends to open a gap between God and his action, to take God’s action out of his hands to form a secular history. The people of Israel, however, keep narrative in conversation with law, each disciplining the other, which allows Israel to refuse this foreign secular history along with all such concepts of nature and fate. God fashions for himself a people. This fashioning includes his own commentary on this intrinsically linguistic work, and this commentary he also shares with that people. The Christian community now has that commentary in the form of Scripture. I argue that we need to make explicit the schemas and cosmology of modernity; each schema should be under the control of all the others, so none is allowed to predominate. They must not be collapsed into a simple contrast of interiority and exteriority, or mind and world. Such a contrast has resulted in the predominance of epistemology over issues of performance and formation. We exist in a complex relationships of voluntary and involuntary action which we enforce on others, and oblige others to enforce on us, which always puts our particularity and our social life under threat.

The third chapter argues that the doctrine of the trinity does not allow us to separate God from his work, either from his activity, or from its result. This grammar of God’s work is not the function of some outside logic, so God is not called to account for his work in terms not of his own making. God’s choice of a people is his opening move in his action towards mankind. God chooses a new exempla to determine what man is to be. He supplies this new man with all that he needs, so that he does not lack anything, and this man does represent the intentions of God for a new humanity. God is speaker and listener, commander and obeyer, judge and amongst those judged. He is also the means of this speaking and listening, commanding and obeying, and the language spoken, the medium shared and judgement made. The chapter relates the doctrines of creation and reconciliation and anthropology with an account of the worship of Israel as the work that forms a holy people who obediently receive the world from God. For Israel-theology and creation-theology to support each other would involve a recovery of the insights of an earlier theology in which the creature and creation become subordinate actors in their own making.

A trinitarian and Irenaean view of Israel’s anthropology puts man in touch with the creation of which he is member. Man is hosted by God and brought up by him into the practice of God’s hospitality. He is made mediator and high-point of this creation. This relationship of man to world is made visible by the act of sacrifice in which man is set over creation. This event does not rely on any mechanism, but is the outworking of the relationship of God to man. The elect and baptised community learns this relationship by being brought up in the conceptuality of relationship, and of missing relationship, known to the bible respectively as righteousness and sin. In her political cosmology Israel understands that she is mandated by God to rule his creation with him. Adam is set over creation as its lord; Israel is Adam-in-waiting. By her action Israel transforms what we do from our estimation of it, to God’s estimation of it. Israel undoes the stalled rival work of old Adam, and re-binds it into the living and lasting creation of God. Israel deconstructs the myth of the single agent in combat with his fate. That the Father and Son share a single action, means that the Son is able to face and oppose the world, to copy and imitate it, and so, in gathering it up and re-playing it, to transform and redeem the world. A discussion of Old Testament themes of seed, blood and sonship demonstrates that biology is one proper idiom of God’s spiritual generosity toward his people. We see that there is no need to treat the spiritual and material as though they were opposites. Instead we can say that materiality is derived from the Spirit, and that, properly located and employed by the Spirit, it functions spiritually without being any the less created materiality. It is good to be a creature.

The fourth chapter argues that the creation is the place and medium by which we are made holy. This medium is the Holy Spirit, in whom we are presented to the Son and, in him, we are made present to each other. We are being integrated into the person of the Son. As we learn his character and action, we become members of his body. There is a place and a role for us. The Holy Spirit adopts all creation as the medium within which he gives us the being of the Son. The event of the cross, in which God and man meet, is our baptism us into this new medium. In it he acts on us, without trespassing against our integrity as creatures, to produce that transforming switch-work by which the greater freedom-reproducing capability of the Spirit is settled upon the people of the Son. The Holy Spirit supplies the biological and material modalities by which he will establish us as members of the Son and bring us to the Father. The Spirit creates our increased embodiment, not disembodiment. I review a selection of biblical and systematic scholarship in search of a conceptuality in which to say that this nation becomes holy. In conversation with it, I sketch an Adam theology in which man has a work and a place, and in them, freedom.

The fifth chapter points to the responsibilities of theology and so to the range of audiences and conversations which theology should engage. It asks what is at stake in accounts of secularisation. We must decide how to assess the disappearance of theological accounts of mediation, of the secularisation of the West and arrival of modernity. I suggest these are narratives of the fall, the separation of man from God, but that unless related to some theological concepts, such as paideia, they are no more than stories. I attempt to arbitrate between accounts of secularisation. I examine accounts of the changing ontology and epistemology which made God one being amongst others, and which removed the need for the scriptural and liturgical mediation of theological knowledge, and the training of the community that could acquire it. I consider accounts of the seventeenth century divorce of nature and culture, and of body and action, along with the changing concept of religion, cultivation of interiority and modern story of the rationalisation and disenchantment of the world. I suggest that theological discourse must include an account of the medium in which the theological account is rendered, and that under a number of definitions the public and political world must be that medium. For much of the theological tradition, Aristotle provided the complex conceptuality for this account. From the seventeenth century this gave way to a simpler conceptuality that made discussion of man as creature nested in nature, or as work in progress, more difficult. Nevertheless we must provide such a complex account, and there are always resources for doing so.

All intellectual effort is in the service of life. It is therefore about comparing different definitions of life. Since we have to compare ways of life, it is important that we say how different these are. We really are engaged in saying that one way of being human is very considerably better than other ways. This does entail that they can be compared. The best way to compare them is to maximise, not minimise, the differences between them. We can compare life with God, with life without God.

In chapters five and six I examine a central myth of the modern West. The myth is that the West was once religious, but now it is secular, and that it is now difficult to talk about God. These assertions must be contradicted. It is not that the world is becoming secular, but that the world is always secular by definition. The world always resists hearing the gospel, but no more so now than before. The gospel encounters and confronts other claims and messages. We should call these other claims ‘pagan’, for we can then see that there is a real contest of ideas, because of ways of life, and this makes intellectual debate worthwhile.
Most theological discussion is worried about the problem of religious language. This is because it has not tackled modern ontology critically enough. Christian theological language is fully able to deconstruct the language moderns regard as secular and use to describe themselves, chiefly the language of modern anthropology and psychology. Only theology that cares for its own conceptual resources can show that this belief in secularity is dramatically mistaken.

The central claim of secularisation is that religion is trying to tell us that there are two worlds, and that secularity knows that there is only this world. This is entirely untrue. The case is almost the reverse. Secular modernity is itself two worlds, and one of nature, and one of human action. But these two worlds are defined in opposition (as though set for a fight to the death), and so they are never established. These two worlds are defined and created by the world of human action that consists in dividing one world into two, but does not then saying that it is simultaneously combining these two worlds into one – itself. It only understands that it divides and separates, not that it unites them, as it is itself united. It does not acknowledge that what it divides always merges together again, that it cannot make any separation or distinction stay where it is put. It cannot establish its action. Nothing it holds apart, stays apart. Rather it comes together, and it comes together as to make that very separating creature, man. Man prefers to keep these not only separate actions, but also separate economies which know nothing of each other. He is in denial, preferring not to acknowledge that he not only divides and creates, but that he is divided and created.

We can sum up three of the themes of this book like this:

1. Christian theology is not only about ideas, but also about life, practice and action. Ideas serve to improve our practice. Christian doctrine is not therefore a merely internal discussion.
2. Christian theology is about the establishment of plurality and community. This starts with the Christian community that is the beginning of plurality established on earth. Plurality, that inaugurates Church, is the act of God.
3. Christian theology shows that there is a contest between two ways of life. One of these ways of life is witnessed to by the Christians, and represented by Christian doctrine. The other is that way of life actually lived by our contemporaries. It is only very tenuously represented by any contemporary system of ideas, because our contemporaries don’t have any means of their own by which to establish who they are. Nonetheless they have the Christians to point to what they can be.