Apocalyptic Utopia: Hope, Resurrection, and the Church that need not survive

In his highly praised and influential study of the notion of apocalyptic in antiquity, Christopher Rowland maintains that “apocalyptic is more than a matter of eschatology.”[1] I want to affirm this, but not in the way in which Rowland intended. It seems to me that apocalyptic is more than how eschatology has typically been thought. Apocalyptic is, as J. Louis Martyn explains, “the birth of a new way of knowing both present and future.”[2] Apocalyptic is an expectancy of God’s action of crucifying this evil age and resurrecting it with the new creation. To think apocalyptic is to think the gospel’s proclamation of God’s power, in Christ, breaking into the present. I propose here, that to think apocalyptic is to necessarily think utopia, and to think these together is not primarily to think at all but to live and work for liberation.[3]

Gustavo Gutiérrez in his groundbreaking work A Theology of Liberation contends that commitment to God’s liberating work in history ––the creation of a just society––is one that lives in abandoned confidence to the future. “This commitment is an act open to whatever comes.”[4] In hopes of living into and working for a new society and a new humanity, Gutiérrez proposes that one must live not in remembrance but in critical analysis of the present in orientation towards the future.[5] A turn to the future is necessarily linked to an urgent and critical questioning of the established order in its “historical contemporaneity” because only those benefiting from the present desire to uphold it.[6] Those being crushed by the ‘historical contemporaneity’ find hope in the future only by way of a subversion of the present.

This shift to the future, this eschatological problem, is, according to Gutiérrez, “a renewal of the theology of hope.”[7] Hope is a political reality; hope is a turn to the future that, as already addressed above, subverts the established order. Hope is an expectation of the future; it is a “not-yet” projected into the future as one works for transformation of the present in expectancy of the future.[8] In other words, to hope is to wait in active expectation of God’s apocalyptic action.

We hope in the promise of resurrection, for the resurrected Christ is humanity’s future. The promise of resurrection is a criticism of all that is because it is an undoing of the present order. This hope in the death and resurrection of Christ as our future is one that must be rooted in historical praxis for it is our “perilous and hopeful present.”[9] To hope is to abandon any grasping of the future, for in hoping one receives the future as a gift. Hope is an active waiting of the future in the present; “true generosity towards the future consists in giving everything to the present.”[10] To hope, to be open to the God who comes in Jesus Christ, is to be liberated from history while utterly immersed in it.

By utopia, I mean to use it in the way in which Gutiérrez has elucidated. The term utopia is used by Gutiérrez to further illuminate what he means by an historical initiative to create a new society and a new humanity. But it is not the concept of utopia that leads peoples to work for liberation, according to Gutiérrez; rather, the utopian vision comes from people who experience the underbelly of history, those who are being crushed by the powers and whose only hope is revolutionary liberation. Utopia “is characterized by its relationship to present historical reality.”[11] Utopia is a movement into future that is “not-yet” but is to be achieved––it is not as a restoration of “lost paradise.”[12] Moreover, it is not merely a reforming of the current and established order; instead, utopia is a complete upheaval and rejection of the prevailing system. In the utopian vision, the present evil age is to be completely struck at its root in movement towards a new future. “…utopia is revolutionary and not reformist.”[13] If utopia does not result in historical, concrete praxis, it is an abstraction of reality, according to Gutiérrez. Utopia is a transformation of what exists by way of an “emergence of a new social consciousness and new relationships among persons.”[14] And it is only the poor who can proclaim such a utopia.

In short, to think apocalyptic is to think of abandoned living to God’s open future irrupting in history. To think of apocalyptic is to think of hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; a hope that subverts the present in its active waiting of a future that is not yet. It is a hope that throws itself on the crucified and resurrected Christ; that is, throws itself on the grace that “crucifies nature in order to bring new life out of nothing.”[15] Finally, to think apocalyptic is to think utopia, that is, the revolutionizing and liberation of history by way of this active hope in the resurrected and crucified Christ.

I want to conclude with some reflection on what it might look like for the Church to be revolutionized by apocalyptic utopia. I have found that even with thinkers like Gutiérrez who propose this radical utopian (and, I argue, apocalyptic) vision, do not often apply such claims to the Church. Often these thinkers desire to “uncenter” the Church as the exclusive place of salvation (this questioning of the ecclesiocentrality of the Church is something very important it seems to me), however, I wonder if it is enough to merely “uncenter” the Church? If the Church is complicit in the oppressive social system, and, even further, helps perpetuate the dominant ideology of the prevailing social system that crushes the poor, is “uncentering” enough? Gutiérrez proposes that to address this problem the Church to cast its lots with the poor for a more just society. However, I question whether a more just society can be created if the institutions that oppress the poor––which the Church is involved in––are not first toppled? Moreover, could it not be that the Church––as complicit in the prevailing social system and dominant ideology–– needs to collapse, too? If Gutiérrez maintains, as he does in regard to the powers that be, that oppression needs to be struck at the root, and if the utopian vision of revolution over reformation were applied to the Church, would the Church really need to survive?

I want to agree with much of what thinkers like Gutiérrez propose in regards to the Church, I affirm that the Church is to turn to the world (I might even say that Church only ever occurs as sent into the world); and I affirm that the Church is to cast its lot with poor. However, what troubles me about thinkers like Gutiérrez is that they are unwilling to denounce the Church as it is complicit in the present structure and the current power it wields. Instead, they take the current location of the Church as given, and rather than question it, they propose that the Church use such power to influence others on behalf of the poor. Can the Church cast its lot with the poor, that is, intermingle its body with the crucified bodies in its midst, without first striking the root of its own power with revolutionary praxis? It seems to me that the Church need not survive. I mean this in two ways. First, it seems to me that the Church, as it is complicit in the present system, needs to collapse like every other oppressive power. Secondly, if the Church does not live for itself, and is to cast its lot with the oppressed, then the Church is to be continually crucified. If the Church abandons its life to God for the world, then the Church, it seems to me, could never survive.


[1] Martinus C. De Doer, “Paul, Theologian of God’s Apcalypse.”

[2] J. Louis Martyn, “Apocalyptic Antinomies in the Letter to the Galatians.”

[3] “The dialectical aspect of the issue requires thought-passion—not to want to understand it but to understand what it means to break in this way with the understanding and thinking and immanence, in order then to lose the last foothold of immanence, the eternity behind, and to exist, situated at the edge of existence, by virtue of the absurd.” Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 569.

[4] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 121.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 122.

[7] Ibid., 123.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 124.

[10] Ibid., 125.

[11] Gutiérrez, 135.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 136.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Peter Kline, “Queer Theory and Apocalyptic: The Upbuidling That Lies in the Thought That in Relation to God We Are Always in the Wrong.”

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5 thoughts on “Apocalyptic Utopia: Hope, Resurrection, and the Church that need not survive

  1. This really good, and I like the nod to Peter Kline’s really great paper.

    Something that seems to be operating here that I’ve been thinking about lately is a confusion around the word church. How are we to think this word? It seems like the only two options are to think church as the self-identical, heresiological (to borrow from Dan Barber) Christianities that actually exist. The other is to think in terms of some idealized kernel. How, then, are we to think and say this word?

  2. 1.What does this mean vis-a-vis Roman Catholicism?
    2.If the church would not survive a revolutionary cruciformity, would its members need to reinstate a new organization post-revolution that wasn’t guilty of oppression, or is your ideal state of affairs one of an always eradicated church?
    3. I just saw Sean’s comment and realized his question is actually the one I’m trying to ask. Turns out the pesky analytic folks are right sometimes–it all rests on the definition of terms!

    • Eva (and Sean this might indirectly get at your question), this post and mode of thought is unapologetically Protestant (though I did rely heavily on Gutiérrez). As for your second question: I think the church is to be thought of as missionary. That is to say, the church is to always be in movement as sent into the world. I’m not sure that exactly answers your question, but it might be the best I can do. I guess I am trying to say that the church is to exist in such a way that it has no concern with determining history nor its own future. I think this is what I am trying to say when I say something like “living in abandoned confidence to God’s future.” Incidentally, I do think that Gutiérrez falls trap (or at least could be read this way) to proposing a way of living that is trying to lay hold of one’s future. But, I am not sure that working for concrete liberation in history has to be done so in a way that necessarily is concerned with securing oneself. Maybe some Yoder would have helped to further flesh this point out.

  3. Religious institutions always seem to lose sight of the core spiritual message of the founders of the religion. For some time Christianity was about a missionary approach like you describe, but then it became about a hierarchy of bishops etc.. who had authority in a set location. It became more and more fixed over time. The missionary approach remained in approaches to Christianity further east, but they faced serious oppression and the lack of an institution for support meant their ultimate demise at the hands of the organised muslims who persecuted them relentlessly. It really is difficult for spiritual ideas to remain central to a social/religious institution that becomes focused more and more solely just on maintaining its own power, status and position and nothing beyond this. But I find it interesting how you are here trying to suggest some answers to this problem. And I look forward to hearing more of what you have to say on it. As the idea of transformation, being orientated towards the future, and how apocalyptic thoughts tie up with utopian ideals are some interesting concepts.

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