Monday, January 23, 2012

The Promise of Heaven.

For my M.Div degree requirements, I've had the opportunity to serve as a chaplain for this current academic year. I hardly ever talk about my experiences as a chaplain, both online or in face-to-face conversations. There is rarely so much and so little to say at the same time. I often find myself quite undone by the experiences I am afforded in chaplaincy. I don't think I've ever been more keenly aware of my own limitations, shortcomings, finiteness, and inabilities. And I don't think anything else in my life has quite drastically shaped and challenged my theological confessions as these past few months. Through the numerous conversations and confessions, the moments of consoling someone's deafening cries, or being asked the most basic questions about God's love in the face of true darkness, I am reminded of the need for hope.

But where does hope come from? For me, heaven invokes images of hope. Since I was a little girl, the understanding of heaven was always in the future where the Lord returns again and makes all things new. I genuinely can't recall how many times tears have fallen over the pages of Revelation 21 when God seems utterly absent in moments of suffering. Yet, these past few months have reminded me that this future-oriented eschatology is not enough. In fact, it is all too cheap. This understanding of heaven is not sufficient for those I am supposed to listen to, comfort, and counsel today. And so I've been left to continually ponder the meaning of heaven and the promises therein for the here and now. I've repeatedly turned to the eschatological vision of Moltmann to answer these questions. In fact, I think all chaplains simply need tremendous amounts of Moltmann to get them through the day. This specific passage explaining Moltmann's understanding of heaven is nothing short of the kind of salvific hope that keeps faith alive:
"Understood as adventus, it is the promised future that ultimately determines what becomes of the past and present, and not the other way around, as the idea of futurum implies, with all prospects for what will become of things considered to be determined by their past. The prophesied Day of the Lord is characteristically proclaimed as coming from ahead, not from behind. The trajectory of its coming is not from the past into the present but from the future into the present ...

To hear this word of heaven's coming as God's promise changes not only the way the future is perceived, Moltmann emphasizes, but even more importantly and as a consequence, the way that the present is engaged. By not finding its corresponding reality in present experience, the language of promise, as Moltmann points it, creates the experience of history. The reason this is so is that a promise creates a new reality in the present by instituting a relationship to the future that would not otherwise be the case. In the terminology of the linguistic philosophers, a promise has performative and not simply informative force in that it constitutes a commitment. Its truth can only be proven in coming events as the word of commitment is not only given but also kept and revealed to be trustworthy in what comes to pass. In the terminology of scripture, to cite words from Paul, the experience of history Moltmann describes is the sharing in 'the sufferings of this present time' of a promised 'glory about to be revealed' (Rom. 8:18).

It is the glory of what is promised that creates the engagement, and not the evasion, of the sufferings of the present. The heavenly future proves true only with reference to what is currently happening on earth. This is strikingly emphasized in the Gospel of Matthew, where the coming of the Son of Man with the glory of all the angels is promised in Jesus' teaching to be revealed precisely int he treatment of those who are currently being considered "the least" (Mt. 25:40, 45). Equally, in the the Letter to the Hebrews, where much is written of a faithful hearing of the promise of heaven, it is notable that the "desire [for] a heavenly country" (Heb. 11:16) is not assocated with any disregard of earth and its sufferings, but rather is depicted as a persevering on this very way of the Cross, by currently showing hospitality to strangers, and remembering those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those being tortured, as though being tortured as well (Heb. 13:1-3).

Living by the promise of what is coming in this Gospel frame of reference, Moltmann concludes, represents no utopian evasion of present reality in favor of some never-never land of bliss beyond the sunset because it is only in relation to events happening here and now, in the social and political, as well as existential experience of history, that the promised advent proves to be a countervailing reality to its crucifying opposition. In doing so it reveals the constancy of the future's commitment to the present, an historical faithfulness not realized in factually demonstrable or existentialist phenomena, but in the existence of perseverance in hope en route to the Promised Land."

- Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes, 46-47.


Sushanth Abhishek said...

Moltmann's beautiful insights have always been a source of encouragement to me too. Based on the same principle, i too firmly believe that the gospel message is as much for the 'here and now' as it fulfills its promise of the 'later'; else holds little meaning.

Daniel said...

Thanks so much for this. Chaplains do such extraordinary work (yeah, it should just be ‘ordinary’ for Christians but so many of us are luke-warm slackers). Did you see my last fB post on the Catholic chaplain and the prayer books? Is there a prayer request book and chapel where you work? I look fwd to more writing about your experiences as chaplain. God bless you in your vocation, obliged, Daniel.

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