Monday, October 10, 2011

The Presence of the Future

Religion is rooted in habits of thought and action developed and maintained by generations of adherents and transmitted to each succeeding generation by formal and informal means. Although it is popular now to claim that Christianity is somehow unique in this regard, and in fact should not even be defined as a religion, our faith, like others, is based upon beliefs and practices that we did not invent but which were faithfully transmitted to us from the past. Furthermore, this was done intentionally; not only by our parents but by each generation before them, since the days of the apostles.

St. Paul certainly intended for this to happen. He pointedly instructs Timothy to train faithful teachers, capable of producing yet other teachers. That was the beginning of Christian catechism, which effectively taught the hearts and minds of believers to view the world through eyes of faith. Through the 1,500 years of history in which Holy Scripture was not available except to a handful of literate souls, this structure of instruction successfully transmitted our faith from the past and into the present.

In those centuries, one learned bits and pieces of scripture, memorized prayers, internalized the movement of corporate worship, and developed habits of piety. Thus our faith, in a manner not unlike that of other faiths, come to revere its past and to speak in hushed tones about the foundations of its spiritual life. The reverence was born of an appropriate gratitude for the priceless gifts of spirituality and civilization we had received from antiquity.

 Such reverence and gratitude is a godly response.

 I have the deepest contempt for our modern attitude toward history and tradition. We seem to expect no consequences as we foolishly keep sawing off the limb of history upon which we are sitting. Nonetheless, I assert that respect for sacred history does not make our faith unique. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs also revere their histories and heroes. They too pass on to their children the habits of mind and action that they have received from the past.

The uniqueness of Christianity lies in the way it envisions the future.

Christianity does not view the past as superior to the present, nor dread a future it believes grows increasingly dark and godless.   Our faith is not propelled from a holy past into a degenerating future. It is pulled from a dark past into a holy consummation in which, at last, evil will be destroyed and redeemed humankind will become the eternal companions of God.

We do not believe that our God is in the past so that each step into the future carries us further away from His presence. No, we believe that God is in the future, continually pulling us toward Himself and each step into the future carries us toward Him. The New Testament calls that moment ahead, when we see God face to face "the eschaton," which is, for a Christian, much more significant than Eden or the origins of heaven and earth. Holy history demonstrates how, since the very beginning, the universe has been moving toward that inevitable consummation for which it was designed and toward which it was intentionally aimed. History tells us that time is God's instrument and that it performs at His bidding and on our behalf. However, it is the future that we celebrate because that is where He awaits us.

Our eyes are on the eschaton because the golden age is before us, not behind us.

In Christ, sacred future made its first bright appearance. In Him, the future state of the universe (and the future state of all who belong to Him) became visible and tangible.  In him, the past, even the holy past of our faith, found its purpose and explanation.

Two lines from a beloved Christmas carol sums up the essentials of Christian eschatology:

"Long lay the world in sin and error pinning, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn."

Full steam ahead!

Why then all this anxiety and fear among Christians? Why all the angst about our lost past and the deplorable nature of the present? Why all the fear about the anti-Christ, and obsession with our evil and powerful enemies?

What are we to do about this foolish Christian pessimism, through which our ancient past is judged as insignificant, the future viewed as a source of unbearable anxiety, but our recent past -- especially the decades just preceding our birth -- some sort of golden age of faith and spiritual life?

Have we lost the bright light of the eschaton? Have we forgotten the moment towards which we travel and for which our ancestors so diligently prepared us?

For anyone who has fixed his eyes upon the eschaton, the future is not dark. A beacon shines from a place just beyond our years. In its light, the shadows of our present are undone and the mysteries of the past are fully illuminated.

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