Part two of a series.
Eschatological continuity emphasizes excellence in our work, setting the standard for which we strive. Eschatological discontinuity emphasizes comfort and hope when our work is painful and frustrating.
In C.S. Lewis’ allegorical novel The Pilgrim’s Regress, Mr. Savage sneers at the inhabitants of Claptrap (who represent respectable, bourgeois Enlightenment society) because they spend their whole lives working and building, even though they all die in the end, thereby losing everything they worked to build.
“They might be buiding for posterity,” objects Mr. Virtue.
“And whom will posterity build for?” snorts Mr. Savage. “Can’t they see that it all comes to nothing?”
As human beings we are both goal-oriented and enjoyment-oriented. Our lives become empty of meaning if we have nothing to accomplish – if, as Hindus and Buddhists tell us, the world is simply here, and it simply is what it is, and the possibility of a better world toward which we can strive is simply an illusion. But our lives become unbearable if the call to striving is limitless – if, as some of the more Claptrapian Enlightenment figures actually held, we would be morally obligated to work 24/7 if not for the fact that our bodies require rest.
Augustine said the goal of all human activity is peace. Even the military aggressor, he said, is striving toward “peace with victory.” What Augustine means is that we are always seeking the enjoyment of some good thing in peace. If we cannot enjoy, work becomes empty of purpose because there’s nothing to work toward.
But for Augustine, not only are we always seeking peace, we are always seeking. There is, he said in another passage, no experience of eudaimonia (flourishing, happiness, blessedness) in the present life that is worthy of that name. Real flourishing begins when Christ returns. This is the root of the division between the City of God and the City of Man; the City of Man thinks it can flourish here, by human effort, while the City of God is patiently awaiting the advent of real flourishing, and doing what little it can to keep the world around it from going completely to hell in the meantime.
In the great, irresolvable tension between the coming to be of the New Age and the passing away of the Old Age, Augustine was one of those people who emphasize discontinuity. It is going too far to say that there is really no flourishing until Christ returns.
But it is well worth remembering that 1) such flourishing as we achieve through our work today is only a preview or shadow of the far greater glory to come, of whose fullness we have only faint and ambiguous glimpses, and 2) even such flourishing as we are able to achieve today is not really our own achievement; it is totally dependent upon God’s power in the Holy Spirit, who is already ushering in the first stages of the glory to come.
We are goal-oriented because God made us to glorify him. There really is a new and better world coming. We were originally created to make that new and better world through our daily work by carrying out the creation mandate, but we fell. After the fall, we are restored to that role. But that restoration happens in two stages.
The New Age begins with the coming of Christ, and after Pentecost we are empowered by the Holy Spirit not only to believe and be saved (which believers were already doing in the Old Testament period) but also to begin carrying out the renewal of the world that Christ is working out. Within our personal and corporate spheres of responsibility, we are to fight the holy war and reclaim the world as much as we can. This project is strictly limited in scope until Jesus comes back and brings the Old Age to an end, overthrowing worldly powers. But the New Age is nonetheless already here, subverting the Old Age through an invisible divine conspiracy that continues until Christ returns.
Thus our daily work desperately needs eschatological continuity. The work of the New Age, which is to continue into eternity, must begin now. Otherwise we do not really live in God’s kingdom, which Jesus said was arriving when he first came. We need an eschatology that provides us with an operational New Age telos and ethic for our work that we can put into practice on a daily basis; otherwise our work will be dominated by the Old Age teloi and ethics all around us.
We are enjoyment-oriented because God made us not only to glorify but to enjoy him. God is holy love, in the Trinity, and our ultimate purpose is both to glorify (magnify or manifest) the love of the three people who are God for each other, but also to enjoy that love by receiving it, giving it back and giving it to each other.
And that, clearly, is not the kind of world we live in now. If the New Age begins today, it must call us to a new kind of work, but it must also create in us a powerful desire for a flourishing we do not now possess. It increases rather than decreases our sensitivity to the suffering and frustration we experience every day, in large part in our work.
Thus our daily work desperately needs eschatological discontinuity. We know that our faith is a source of profound comfort for our daily suffering and frustration. It is so only because it holds out the promise of a better world where suffering and frustration are destroyed forever. And that, when you think it through, really does demand that the world end in exactly the kind of catastrophic trauma the Bible depicts.
Yes, the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. But we don’t build the city. It comes down out of heaven.
And there – not here – we will no longer experience tension between glorifying God and enjoying him. To glorify God will be to enjoy him, and to enjoy him will be to glorify him.