Every Christian doctrine is an exemplification of the Christian doctrine of God. The Christian confession of God and that God is for us, requires an account of the generous provision of God, which is what providence is, and it requires all the other doctrines that make our talk about providence meaningful. The Christian doctrine of God tells us that we are not God, and so we are discharged from the exhausting though self-imposed duty to make ourselves divine, that is to take ourselves to be everything, and also to be able to stand outside this everything and decide whether or not to affirm it. One corollary is that we can really know other people, but we cannot know them and master them utterly, because they belong not in the first place to us, but to God, who has high ambitions for them. We are not ourselves by being ‘just-human’, without God. Thus the doctrine of God gives us the truth of man, but the truth of man cannot be extracted from this doctrine and cashed out into a theory about man. Because God mystery, by which we mean he is knowable only to extent he makes himself known, and man is the creature of God, man is a mystery too. The assessment of God is that we along with rest of the world are worth waiting for, and the Church is the demonstration that this is still the good judgment – of God. The secret of being human, is hidden with God, and only in communion with him, can we be human, together, with other humans.
1. The doctrine of God
The doctrine of providence relates, with divine grace and accommodation, salvation history, election and vocation and eschatology, to the idea of time. Time is one way in which we conceptualize our locatedness amongst other people. In this paper I will tackle the doctrine of providence by looking alternately at persons and at time. To ensure that our account of providence is truly Christian, we have to tie it in as closely as we can to our doctrines of Christ, the Spirit and the Church and everything else that keeps theology Christian.
When we fail to tie providence to the doctrine of God, providence bears more weight than it should, and ceases to be Christian, and that is indeed what has happened. Ideas of progress, paideia, enlightenment, development, civilisation, the onward march of history, derive from a doctrine of providence extracted from the frame of doctrines which could keep it truthful. As a result sub-Christian concepts of time and history describe time as neutral or inert or even hostile to the relationship of God and man. Time then functions as a container which keeps us in and keeps God out, which both skews all we say about how God acts for us now, but also about how we are human.
Providence is other people. Other people are the bad news and the good news. And the question of providence is how the bad news may turn into good news, so that other people cease to be our fate and become our own freely willed fortune.
So we must say that the doctrine of providence is also doing too much when it looks as though the guidance of God is directed simply to extricating me from the clutches of other people, or holding my nation or culture above other nations and cultures, so though I pray for the release of this country from the grip of which ever cultural imperialism presently grips it, I may have to concede that our oppressor may be the providence of God for us.
God does not extricate me from other people. I am not myself without them or ahead of them. Rather God calls me to grow from a small, poor and disordered relationships to a larger and better ordered relationship with them, in which I am properly able to receive and return their identity and otherness. Yet understanding ourselves as individuals or as members of this or that group, and so to find a partial and even private destiny, is just what the doctrine of providence tempts us to do. To avoid any sense that the individual comes before plurality of persons, I am going to pursue an insight of John Zizioulas. His insistence that the one does not come before the many may also help show how time is not only one but also plural, and therefore so that the future is open and free. The future is not free if I have to make it up for myself against your resistance, or if it contains me alone, nor is it free if, however wonderful, it is simply dumped in my lap. Our future is not automatic and so not imposed: we will not arrive there against our will. We can turn our fate into our fortune by freely taking and receiving as good all those who pass before us. We may freely decide for ourselves that they are good, and we may ask God to help us discover how they may be so.
Persons are good and persons come from God. But God gives us persons only as fast as we can receive them. Though we are hurled into the world, persons come to us serially, in time, first in our own close family and then as in gradually widening circles of friends and neighbours and school we learn to be members of a society and human history, and at the same time learn to fear the open-endedness of history and to defend ourselves against it by describing ourselves in terms of this identity rather than that, and so in terms of oppositions. Each group identity has its own account of what is good fortune and what is providential, and they don’t all add-up.
Here God has acted unilaterally. Amongst all the vast variety of human societies and forms of sociality he has provided one, to be the means by which all others may be redeemed. The act of God for us is Christ-and-his-body. God has opened his own life and communion for us and the Church is how this communion presently appears to us. It is the providence of God that the world is given this peculiar community, the Church, the evidence and first fruit of the resurrection. God is able to preserve the absolute distinction between Church and world. This difference is not obvious or uncontroversial, but it is a doctrine taught by the Church. The God who could not sustain the Church distinct from the world would not be able to raise us, and would not be worth our interest.
But as yet we have no means of taking all those who pass before us as the providence of God. Good gifts they may be, but I cant yet see how. I do not have the means to perceive them as they will be, and thus as whole. I need a process of formation, and a community that will patiently bear me through it.
Within the Church we can begin to say what is providential or not. The Church is the future of the world and that it is the community of those sanctified, who are thereby enabled to see us patiently, not only as we presently are, but also as we may be, and thus see us together with our future. The Church is a mystery and so the provision and providence of God is dark, but it is not faceless. It is communion of saints, and this company comes to us as the people we meet in church. We need the mediation of a specific group who will enable us to grow until we become able to receive all persons as good. Only the taught, discipled and so sanctified community of the Church is able to concede the otherness, and so the individuality, of each and every individual. Only the community in process of being holy can tell what is providential, and can increasingly turn all misfortune into good fortune. Joseph tells his brothers ‘You intended it for harm, but God intended it for good’ (Genesis 50.19). The saints may give us the guidance of God.
This guidance is dark, for God leaves us under regimes that do not intend to serve as we hope to be served, and we are not able to say why this is. Yet the Church says that even bad governments are the servants of God sent to do us good, and it is for the Church to assist us in finding out how to discern this non-obvious good. So for example the Church is here to tell the British public that we cannot have all we want, and that we do ourselves no favours by insisting that we are only consumers with rights and never citizens with responsibilities. The Church shows the nation how to respect even the leader we voted against, and obey the law that we don’t like, and so how to suffer in the hope not only that our national political leadership will in fact do us good, but that we ourselves will turn outwards towards them and towards one another so that whatever they do, it is good for us.
2. Persons and plurality
We are, and are not yet, human. We may become human and this takes place in time, and indeed it is just what time is for. Humans are not made on their own, so one person is no person at all. We live our lives before others, each standing before his home crowd: he plays to them and they receive and acknowledge his acts, and his acts have sense to the degree that they acknowledge them. Nothing is what it is until somebody with authority recognises it and declares that it is so. Others give us our definition, and indeed our very existence, by naming us and addressing us. They call us and give us a place in their hearts and this is what love is. We are receive our identity and negotiate it and eventually we realise that their address gives us our freedom and we settle on some version of what we receive from them.
Becoming human is about becoming able to concede the otherness of other people. We come to be ourselves by properly seeing people for who they are and attributing to them the distinctiveness that God intends for them. Our ability properly to respect others, giving them neither too little nor much recognition, is itself given to us by God.
This means that the human being is not first an agent but the patient and recipient of an agency that is not theirs. Each person has to be freed to recognise what is not themselves, and we can only become free by being freed by someone who is free, and this will not happen as long as we remain by ourselves. If we are to have a future, it includes someone other than ourselves, for we have to be given a future. But a future simply given to us, is unilaterally imposed, and so it is not yet truly our future. So this future must be both someone else’s act and our own act, and therefore the joint work of two parties, God and man. The worship of God allows us to see others as his creatures, and thus to understand that they are ours because they are first his.
But we have not yet learned to do this. I do not take my identity from all but from some only, and remain in flight from others. But the event of the resurrection turns us about so that we run slap into those very people we have been fleeing. Our collision with them is what the resurrection is, for us and for them. This sudden encounter brings us into relationship with those we intended to defend ourselves from.
I am on the run in a further sense that I do not want to join all the generations that precede me. They are dead, I am still alive and want to remain so. Yet ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead’. Christ refused to run from them or to consider them dead and, the Church confesses, death is not stronger than Christ, so though they be dead, vanished and forgotten, to us, they are not so to him. Christ holds them in life, for nothing can remain dead or unhearing when he calls. This means that in the body of Christ we stop running away from all previous generations, turn ourselves around and go back to receive them and be reconciled to them. Our future consists in being joined to them, the present to the past, as it were. Though the saints may be past to you and me, to the Church the saints are not behind us, in our past, but ahead of us, in our future – indeed they are our future.
But the resurrection has two aspects. It is not only given to us, but we will be also be instrumental in it. It is not is not just that my body will one day stand upright again. I am being turned outwards so that I can no longer be thought of as someone essentially separate from, cut of from, others. I will be raised to you, and you will be raised to me, so that the relationship we find so hard to get started will finally begin. I will be alive because you will supply me with this life and I supply you, both of us sourced and provisioned by Christ.
This means that our being as persons is not given to us complete at birth, but is part of a process, enabled by the Holy Spirit which, because we must all participate in it, unfolds through time. The individual believer is brought increasingly into the community and incorporated in a body. We can presently only see this body extended through time because it is divided by time, strung out like stragglers in a marathon. Jesus Christ comes to each of us, anointed – ‘christed’, we might say – with this body made up of his entire people, at whose service he has put himself. Moreover, I cannot have him without receiving them. But I may have a relationship with them and they with me because Christ hosts and mediates this relationship. Thus we are being broken out of our present partial and sectarian community and brought into a much bigger one, indeed to the universal community. The (future) body of Christ will be made of every other living person.
Amongst this vast company standing behind us in the assembly there is one – Christ – who has a person to person relationship with every member of it, and with the assembly as a whole. Each member of the assembly is related through him with every other member. Though they are dead or as yet unborn to us, Christ knows where they are and has the power to fetch them and to set before us, and us before them.
Whilst resurrection is ahead of us, it is also going on beneath us now. Though we may be oblivious of this other than through faith, it presents us with a stream of persons and the means to receive them, and so it draws us into ever-thicker human relationship and communion.
3. Time and persons
The Church is what God provides and thus is the providence and economy of God for us. The Church is the anticipation of the resurrection. It mediates this resurrection to us slowly so that it may be internalized within us. The present Church is the thin of the wedge that is the kingdom of God, inserted into the side of the world to open an imperceptibly small crack. The whole kingdom is the resurrection of all humanity, but the only part of this resurrection we can see, again by faith, is the resurrection of Christ and the existence of the Church. What is visible of this wedge, is the Church, but the Church is the gap through which the whole communion of God comes serially and gently to us, in time, and indeed, as time. Though creation is always on the point of giving up and closing down, each item of God’s provision opens up creation again by just a crack and gives us a little more time. What is providential is spiritually discerned, for at any moment the gospel is sweet to some and foul to others.
We cannot have meaningful relationships with all persons indifferently, but only as we are accompanied by that very particular communion of persons sanctified for our sake. The Church is that gathering of particular persons made good – holy – for us. That they have been sanctified, means that they have been prepared for our service, to escort each of us through a lifelong series of encounters into a greater form of personhood.
All relationships between persons require the mediation of a third party. Here is an analogy. I would like to make friends with you all, and really to be available to you all forever, but I don’t have the memory, the concentration or the charm to sustain our conversation and relationship. What I need is an amanuesis, a secretary, to stand behind me and whisper into my ear ‘This is so and so, you met at that conference, and talked about such and such’. I need this servant to help me through every encounter, to prompt me out beyond my own self-absorption to take an interest and get to know you as you are, and as you will be.
But now through baptism exactly such a self-effacing servant – the Paraclete – is available to supply me dose by dose with the charm, the charisms, by which I can hope to sustain our relationship. How does this advocate whisper in the ear? He does so in two forms. He drops into me little instalments of graciousness, virtues, that slowly increase my social functionality. And he does so as persons. Each person is both an invitation to communion and a lesson in how to sustain it. Having been better discipled, they are competent at the skills of communion, and so they are able to sustain our relationship. The person of the Holy Spirit, whom I can never grasp or limit, comes to me as many persons of the saints who are imbued with the relationship skills that I need.
Watch and wait
But other people are baffling and difficult to recognise as the good gifts of God. Yet the Church identifies all that comes, however dark, as good, and it tells us that our present situation, regardless of whether we consider it good or bad, is not the fate of God for us. God has redeemed us from every collective: the People, the Party, History, Evolution, and even from ‘Providence’. New regimes arrive telling that they represent a new step up for humanity. Each needs us, for they source their power from us. But we are commanded to watch and wait for the coming of the Lord (Mark 13.34-7), for he is the one who will see to it that no such coerced identity will determine us finally. We may attempt to pull the lid down on ourselves for a last time, but God will forestall us. Christ, who does not need us for his own identity, has the power to extricate us finally from all these pretenders and keep humanity in play. He prevents all our attempts to bring history to an end.
What God gives us are opportunities to make decisions, to judge and to decide for others, in their favour. We acquire the judgment and maturity to do so through that process of paideia that the Church calls sanctification. This process must not be brought to any premature end by any announcement that we are already mature, and may now precede under our own power without God. We may, and must, decide what is not yet very good, and bemoan what is not. So the Church laments, and it can only do properly in hope and faith. To point out to God that many people await justice and that there is great evil is a faithful, not faithless, thing to do, and it is what God waits for us to do.
Yet we may not judge that we have now suffered enough evil. We may rule that others have now gone too far and that all relationship with them is ended, but God does not allow such judgments to stand. No creature may finally pronounce against another, so we may not declare that we have spoken the last word. Final judgment is reserved for God only, and so it is ‘delayed’. Meanwhile God speaks to us about the world, drawing it to our attention so that we may learn to speak up for the world and present it to God. The Church has to hear, and in its prayers pass on, all the otherwise unheard voices of the world. In the liturgy we may hear that God is at work and we may judge that the multiplicity that he is bringing into being is very good, and we may realise that he is patient and that we must wait too.
4. The Son and the Spirit
Now we need to indicate the role of the Spirit in this Christology. The unreachable, inexhaustible, unknowable God has made himself known, as one particular, a person amongst persons. The Spirit who holds all things together cannot be separated from anything, so he cannot be separated from the Son, or the Son from him. The Spirit, who is the Almighty God, accompanies Christ so that Christ is content to exercise his mighty power in what appears to us to be the opposite of power. God cannot be made to wait, but he can decide to do so, and so he waits freely. The impassivity of God is exercised as patience for us. He can wait for us for as long as it takes.
In the power of the Spirit Christ endures all contradictions, and exercises a patience great enough to outlast us. He is powerful enough to withhold the knowledge of his presence from us, and since we then have no awareness of him we are free to concede him our acknowledgement – or not. This great power is so exercised that it does not impinge on us, much less force us. Christ does not steer us unless he perceives that we are ready to take his direction, or unless we are so out of control that we threaten others. This king is free whether on his throne, and so locatable for his subjects, or moving through his kingdom as though just another member of it, although we would not then be able to identify him. So Christ is not hedged by time as we are, and so past to us, unable to help us or himself. We must identify him through those historical events between the virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate, but there are no limits whatever on him, so he is utterly free, and able to be for us, without reservation, here where we are. The throne of Christ is the event of the incarnation, and we can identify him only through them, but he can access us and dwell with us in every place and time. He is able to mediate directly between every two human beings, to speak to one for another, and so allow us freely receive that person and affirm him in love.
Christ is always with the Spirit, even when it does not appear so to us. He is always the king, however he is present to us in the bizarre or demeaning form of the Church, which must mean this specific set of people, some of whom we can name. The communion of God can reach us anywhere in the world, but it does so as the particular persons of the Church, and this means in the persons of your particular church.
The people of St Mary’s Stoke Newington do not readily talk about their – our – relationship with Christ, and they regard as awkward those who attempt to do so. Yet when the congregation is gathered in worship we say in faith that Christ is with us. He is here, yet no evidence of him imposes itself on us, so we do not manage to communicate to one another much sense of awe. Perhaps the degree to which we find one another not very likable is the extent to which Christ is present to us only through the obscure way the cross, and perhaps the more we find our fellow Christians unattractive it is because Christ is more on display, in this dark and incomprehensible way, that puts our expectations of him on the rack, or on the cross. In each of these unlovely people at the altar rail Christ turns to us and says Do you see me, do you love me? It easier for us to imagine that we find Christ in the pages of Augustine and thus on our own in the library, but this reduces each of us to disembodied intellects, unable really to reach one another. But it is the whole person, head and body that is being gathered and raised here, thus each of us is called before the people of our congregation, a public person, embodied and so available to others, and finally to all creation.
5. The Church and the eucharist
The kingdom of God makes itself present to us now, in a hidden way, in the eucharist. His kingdom is many people and it is they who in the Spirit make themselves present to us now. In the Holy Spirit Christ makes us present to one another, but he does not do this unilaterally for this would again be a unilateral imposition. He offers us one another, and he waits until we are able to receive one another as good gifts, bringing us to our proper relative places. Christ not only gives but waits. He does not give us one another all at once, but serially, through time. He serves us and waits on us and waits for us, and this waiting is what time is.
Where can we look for the providence and provision of God? Here is an answer is that is both obvious and unexpected – in the eucharist. Here I am simply going to summarise John Zizioulas, in particular from the forthcoming Lectures in Christian Dogmatics.
The eucharist is whole, making itself felt among the parts and preventing the parts from prematurely determining themselves as the whole. So the penetration of the future into time. Eucharist opens us up to the call or with the question of a much larger future. We are brought together and we are held apart in our proper distinction. We are not suffocated and absorbed by some communion, nor left to ourselves to make up our own identity, with no one to affirm it.
The Church is the future, making itself felt here. The communion of persons that God is, is of God and will become the truth of the world. All kingdoms and all times will be reconciled and amalgamated, so we cease to assert and defend ourselves against all others, so the world ceases to be a place of armed camps.
We have sketched what Zizioulas calls an ontology of love. Our ontology is not just a matter of being, but it is also a matter of giving, or donation. But it is not merely a matter of giving donation but of reception. Somebody has to receive me, affirm my existence, in order ultimately that I have existence. Let me spell this out.
Presence is not merely there, and not merely given – it must also be taken in order really to be presence. Time is not merely there, but also given, and also received. Persons are not merely there but also given – to other persons, and received by them. Persons are persons because they are finally affirmed and so established as such, within a communion. You are not bound to receive me, nor I you, but we may do so. This is an ontology of love and of freedom. This reception of other persons is what resurrection is.
The proper drawing together of all things produces the fellowship which we call the body of Christ in which all persons and within them all the world come into mutual encounter, and finally mutual recognition and love. Left to itself, all creation is splitting, disintegrating, pulling apart and rushing away from everything else, so the gulf between each thing and every other is widening, so we drift into increasing isolation, creating ever smaller and more confined and constrictive units, and so drift towards eventual dissolution. The eucharist is the irruption into our time of the resurrection and so the reversal of this drift apart. It brings a taster of the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and so is the drawing together of all things towards integration and order.
The Christian people is a vast assembly made up of all the members of Christ, both those who for us are in the past and the future. Our full identity is there with them. They intend to make us present there with them, and they pass on to us the means by which we may fully take on our identity and take up our place in that assembly. Only within this assembly, that recognises and gives the proper name to all things as creatures of God, does this by participating (publicly for the benefit of world) in Christ’s office of lifting up (anaphora) the world to God.
The future and final assembly makes itself present to the present world in two modes. It passes on the manyness and diversity of the whole Christ to each eucharistic congregation present in each location in the world. And it makes present to the world the unity of the whole Christ in the one indivisible Church in which each of these congregations participate. The Church participates in the unity and plurality of the whole Christ. It witnesses to it and it passes that manyness and oneness on to the world. The world receives its own unity and diversity, and with them its very existence, from the assembly of the whole Christ.
The eucharistic community that receives the shaping of the whole Christ makes the whole future cosmic community present there in each locality, proleptically. The way the people of Christ are ordered around Christ, as witnesses of the resurrection, makes the Church an image that will not change until Christ, that image’s original, returns. So when the eucharist is aimed at a certain groups, for young people say, this is not really a eucharist, which is the reconciliation of all the elements hitherto defined by their mutual opposition. When we segregate ourselves from our neighbour, we affirm the division and ultimately dissolution of creation and the Church is turned from an anticipation of the kingdom to a portrayal of the frenzy and misrule that is hell.
To caricature again, I am constituted by the space-time continuum 1961-2008, these years being the container within which I am available, but also to which I am confined. I have no first hand experience beyond them, and so cannot reach anyone who does not share some those dates. But every Sunday in the eucharist the lid of my container lifts and I can see straight out towards all other space-time containers, I can breathe the air and hear the voices of all sorts of other times and places. I can hear the saints, and join their prayers which they return thanks to God from and on behalf of these other times and places.
When we are gathered together we point towards Christ. The ordained Christian who stands before us is ordained precisely to point us towards all the rest of worldwide and historical Church. We expect him to have his head in the books from which he can learn from all previous generations of the saints and teachers of the historic Church, and we expect him to communicate with other dioceses on other continents and so to be in communion with other parts of the worldwide Church. The ordained Christian is made particularly responsible for the catholicity of the Church and so keep this particular congregation looking forward to our next gift from Christ. All the lessons and all the saints of the Church have to be poured into us for only when we contain them all, do we become holy, sanctified, catholic.
Where is Zizioulas getting all this? The liturgy is the first place, then Ignatius, Irenaeus and Maximus. A quote from Maximus (Ambiguum 7) will show how his account of our formation in Christ in the Church always comes with an account of time – that is to say, an eschatology.
The inclination to ascend and see one’s proper beginning was implanted in man by nature. Whoever by his choices cultivates the good natural seed shows the end to be the same as the beginning. Indeed the beginning and the end are one. As a result, he is in genuine harmony with God, since the goal of everything is given in its beginning and the end of the everything is given in its ultimate goal. As to the beginning, in addition to receiving being itself, one receives the natural good by participation: as to the end, one zealously traverses one’s course toward the beginning and source without deviation by means of one’s good will and choice. And through this course one becomes God, being made God by God. To the inherent goodness of the image is added the likeness (Genesis 1.26) acquired by the practice of virtue and the exercise of the will.
All things in their nature, according to their logos, orient themselves to the Word, says Maximus: they respond to the Logos and become part of the conversation that the Logos initiates and sustains, so all things exist only as they participate in the arrangement of God for us, while whatever is not so oriented becomes silent, denatured and has no long duration. God can make the dumb speak, indeed we are among the dumb objects he has made to speak. We will come to speak for creation and in us all creatures will participate in speech. Zizioulas calls Maximus’ account of time an ‘eschatological ontology’. Now I will leave direct summary of Zizioulas and try to push this a little further.
Providence relates to our talk of hope and faith, thus of the tension between present and future. The point about the present is that it is not all present, for we are not all co-present but we are shut away from one another in little cul-de-sacs of time, unable to reach one another. What we call ‘the present’ is only a very shaky, diffident, serial being-present to one another. The purpose of these globules of present, in which we live together for brief snatches of time with a changing number of persons, but whether we are confined or enabled by this globule of speech-time and the persons it makes available to us, depends. What does it depend on?
6. Time and eschatology
The future does not come inevitably towards us; it is not an unstoppable torrent of more stuff. The future is not merely a given but an enabling and an opening and an asking. The future is a question put to us, and which we put to each other. We are entirely free to decide whether or not to accept these persons and so to accept the whole that the future is. Our present history is jumbled parts, but as these are brought into greater order they take up their formation and point to the future of which they are instalments.
But when we do not keep the Son and Spirit together, and understand that the Son is always with the Spirit, our world tends to part and drift off in opposite directions. Our christology describes one: the incarnation took place back there in our past, which means that it is now unreachable to us and which represents all that is historical, fixed and stable. When he considered without the Spirit, Christ is located in the past, and the passing of time takes him, and all the church, further away from us, rendering all resort to the practices and givens of the Church more difficult.
The other direction is that of the Spirit, considered apart from Christ, who then accounts for all freedom and spontaneity. A poor-connected christology and pneumatology allows a fierce concept of time and necessity to push up in the gap in the middle and become an alien god.
We do not want to say that past and future are opposed, so nearer to one is further from the other. We want to say that we are not borne along to a single common destination by an irresistible force, for this would not be a Christian but a fatalist conception of time and our location in it. Rather we are called from the future, and we may follow the direction from which this call comes, and it will take us towards Christ and one another in Christ. But considered apart from Christ there is no such convergence of times into a single arrow, but rather we move in many directions, in time’s many eddies, which bear us around in circles. Let us risk an analogy that shows time as motion in many directions.
The present is lagoon churned by a great number of conflicting currents. As we swim we are carried around by them. Of these very many currents, perhaps there is one – which one we do not know – comes from beyond the lagoon, so we swim in the hope that we will be picked up by this current and carried out of the lagoon. Only this unknown current will take us to eternal life, while all others will take us around and around, until we disappear beneath the waves.
Do we imagine that we are in the present being bourn along by the flow of neutral time by some providence, divine or other, until we hope we emerge into the end times and eternity? But our time is not just a long and pointless wait, until time is over, and eternity follows. We are not waiting for time to get out of our way in the way that we wait impatiently for that long freight train to rumble past so we can cross the railway track into eternity at last. In order to show that our time is not just a inert waiting for time to pass and be out of our way, we need to submit our conception of time to a closer relation to a pneumatological christology and so to persons and their purposes. We need another analogy.
Say that a gaggle of obstreperous teenagers comes to you demanding that you take them out on an adventure which they have decided must be a pot-holing expedition. Their object is to explore the caves, but you see that it is also about learning to look after each other, not being afraid either of each other or of anything else. They descend out of the light of day into the ground – down from eternity into history – to explore the first passages of the cave system. But as the morning wears on the group splits up until there are stragglers in different caves. At different times, and finally altogether, they declare themselves lost, stuck and threatened by the noises coming from neighbouring caves, and each of them cries to you, who are standing outside on the surface, to come and rescue them. But if you simply go down and extract each one of them singly from the caves, in a state of complete fright, there will have been no growth in self-reliance, cooperation or mutual regard and the expedition will have been a failure. The point is to stage a rescue that does not look like a rescue but a mediated staged assistance, in which each teenager is led to each other so that together they are able to identify where they are and no longer feel stuck or threatened. This resurrection must involve the participation of all and so it must take time, as much time as the very slowest of them needs. The cave system is not their enemy and neither is time our enemy: our only problem is our own lack of sociality, a lack of personal skills. But the mediator I mentioned earlier does not leave us alone with this problem.
The point of any activity is to learn to work towards one another. The point is not that we are in time and only want to be helicopted out of it into eternity, but that we learn to be entirely content in time and so free in it to for one another and with God, for this is what eternity is. Time is being-with-one-another, serially, that is, not all at once. But as through these serial encounters we grow in the skills of – as we become social being, this very same time increasingly becomes eternity. Eternity is the communion of God mediated slowly to us. We need to refer to persons in order to understand that time and history are not ultimately non-personal forces.
Now in the previous analogy time took the form of streams. The call of God comes to us let us say as stream – of words, invitations and warnings. Many voices address us of course, so we live in many streams of address in a marketplace cacophony of voices. Which of these voices is the voice of God, who disinterestedly offers the truth of our identity? Only this voice will take us to him, who being entirely not ourselves can tell us who we are, and confirm that we are indeed this and he is glad so. The address of God creates the people who turn towards this voice in worship, and this is the public body of the Church, taking us a step towards a common future. With each step we are drawn together and individually become integrated.
I hope my analogies I have indicated some of the relationships constituted by our involvement in time. Uniquely, Christian doctrine does not give priority to unity over plurality, and it does not understand time and eternity as opposites, or understand past and future as opposites, problematizing the past and the present, and alienating us from one another.
The real and future human
The man who establishes relationships with all other men, and through whom each man is thus related to all other men, that man is the universal or catholic being. Christ is the human through whom all humans are connected, and only when we are so being connected with all other beings, can we be said to be finally human. Christ will gather all to himself with the consent of all those he gathers. When Christ is its true identity and criterion, all members of the human race will be able to bear one another and do not exhaust themselves in running away from or defending itself against one another.
Jesus Christ is calling, gathering, ushering all humanity along towards the Father. He will overcome all the other would-be autonomous heads that compete to take us in different directions, and bring the whole human body together, so that no part is any longer at war with any other. Christ is in himself both head and the body. Nothing is added to the Son by the arrival of the Church; for it is Church only because he is Church. We may become plural only because who is already plural extends the plurality that is his communion so that it includes us. Our action is a dependent participation in his action: it is his action, not our own, that carries us. Christ serves us, and is entirely free and utterly lord, even whilst he is our servant. He free us to take our delight in one another and find service of one another its own reward. He will not cease to serve us, to carry us in the direction he decides, to the Father, and wait for us until we are freely consent in this direction, so it becomes our direction too.
7. The economy of the Father
The Son is the subordinate origin and destination, and Father is the final origin and destination. The work of the Son is the work of the Father and Son together, the work of each person is the work of God. Our origin and our end is the communion of these persons who hear and reply to one another and so are one. Call and response, and so person to person conversation is basic: God is conversational, and so consequently must his creatures be.
God does not simply speak, but listens and waits for this and that particular individual to hear and answer. We are heard by God so that ultimately none of us is lost and abandoned. Each new word from God is a new invitation and summons that frees us to act and to do so for one another. So it is not simply words or anything else that pours from God (for such would be a form of necessity). These openings are offered, tentatively and freely, by one person and can only be accepted, also freely, by another.
We said that all human being is connected through Christ and that Christ is the one who can recognise each of us, and mediate between us and so sustain us.
In Christ we are one – a single communion and unity with the world and all other persons, and in the Spirit we are distinct and many. Ultimately of course this convenient identification of Christ with the unity and the Spirit with plurality is not satisfactory if it tempts us to reduce these persons of the trinity to these two attributes. This distinction between the economy and the theology, prevents us reading this distinction of attributes back into the eternal life of God. Nonetheless, the economy is the economy of God, for the Son and the Spirit are doing the work of the Father and it is to the Father that they bring this work in order that it receive approval and with it its existence.
Only God who is truly other, and does not seek our recognition for himself, can give us the recognition that secures us. The Holy Spirit who brings us Christ so we can acknowledge the Father, means that the Son’s act of knowing God is also our act, and because it is our act, we are free in it. Then we are able to do more than obey and follow, or even disobey and flee. We are able to decide and judge and find good, and to give recognition and respect and love. We are able to say that God has done a good work and all his works, even those creatures that once seemed darkest to us, are good.
Here’s what I have said:
1. The doctrine of providence is Christian only when it is controlled by all other Christian doctrines.
2. Providence is a particular aspect of the problem of time. We can talk about time by talking about persons and vice versa.
3. The distinction between world and Church is analogous to the distinction between present and future. The Church is promise of God that that there will be a future for creation.
4. This future is not imposed upon us, but comes to be within the entity of love in which we freely give and receive one another in truth and love.
5. Other people are being made holy for us, and we for them, and so other people are the providence of God for us.