Review: Made for Friendship (2018)

36746758Drew Hunter published Made for Friendship: the Relationships that Halve Our Sorrows and Double our Joys through Crossway in 2018. Hunter insists on “raising our esteem for friendship” (14), and he succeeds by enhancing our conception of it. Distinguishing his view from the normal usage of “friendship,” Hunter goes so far as to define salvation as friendship with god (23) and to exclaim that “friendship is the ultimate end of our existence and our highest source of happiness” (19). No small part of our lives, then.

Hunter does well establishing friendship as an essential feature of our world, noting that god had to fill a lack in the prelapsarian cosmos when he created the woman, because it was “not good” for the man to be alone (41). This was certainly the most interesting argument of the book, as far as I’m concerned–and one which I will pursue further in my own studies; it suggests something a bit strange about god’s creative process, which, if true, means we’ve ignored important parts of the creation narrative.

Another interesting facet of the book is Hunter’s appropriation of Vanhoozer’s argument (123) that the Trinity created all things in order to further perfect its already perfect communion; the entrance of men and women into the perichoretic friendship of the godhead does not detract from the essential perfection of the godhead but adds to it. Again, if this is the case, it suggests a few things about divine simplicity and the nature of god.

These somewhat abstract concerns aside, Hunter offers a variety of solid reasons for embracing friendship and seeking out opportunities to grow in our ability to befriend. (Hunter disavows friendliness as mere courtesy, a point well-taken.) Friendship enhances our own lives and the lives of those around us, and we do well to become better friends.

At its core, Made for Friendship is pastoral. Hunter wants his readers to become more like the people god created them to be, particularly insofar as their “friendship” with Jesus is concerned. At times, especially toward the end as Hunter explicitly addresses friendship with god, the book felt trite. This is a shame, because to be called a “friend of god” is a high honor (Is. 41.8) and marks a kind of restoration of the Edenic communion (cf. Gen. 3.8, in its anticipation of the forthcoming break in fellowship).

Nevertheless, Made for Friendship succeeds where Hunter seeks to promote friendship as the particularization of that broad idea of “community.” He offers winsome and practical exhortations for those that desire to increase their aptitude for friendship. In that respect, Made for Friendship is worth the read.

I received a complimentary edition of this work from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.


Review: Practicing the King’s Economy (2018)

075740Rhodes and Holt penned Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give in 2018 through Baker Books. It’s a delight. (And I’m not just saying that because Rhodes ministers in the Memphis community!) The two authors make extensive use of the Old Testament as a well from which one can draw socio-ethical norms rather than merely as a place from which one learns one’s depravity in the face of god. In addition to their deft use of Torah and Nevi’im, the authors intersperse real-life examples of their principles in action and continually push the reader to make use of what they learn in the book. Practicing the King’s Economy would be a valuable contribution to the library of any church that is seeking to use their resources in a Christ-honoring manner.

The book moves through six principles or “keys,” each of which are likely to set off a series of alarms in certain readers’ minds. The authors begin with the Worship Key, the Community Key, and the Work Key, and they close with the Equity Key, the Creation Care Key, and the Rest Key. Before anyone assumes that this is just a bunch of lefty propaganda masquerading as biblical exegesis, one would do well to read the book for themselves. The authors firmly plant their feet in the biblical narrative and “draw out” their application from a solid read of the biblical text and of the contemporary culture.

They do not speak in generalities. Further, their forthright application of the text may cause some readers’ hackles to rise. Perhaps its indicative of somebody’s own unwillingness to take the Old Testament seriously as a normative text. Yahweh the King makes radical demands of those who would claim to belong to the kingdom; and yet, at the same time, the yoke is easy, the burden is light, and “it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut. 30.14).

It is precisely at the point where the biblical command and prohibition appears to us as unreasonable, foolish even, that god is addressing us as ones brought into this kingdom from without. The unnatural strangeness of this kingdom over time becomes typical; the abnormal becomes normal–though not necessarily. It frequently grates against the kingdom out of which we were brought. And like a car that grinds its way to starting, we often find ourselves through kicks and spurts believing what is said of reality over against this anti-real world in which we abide. The hippie-lite, liberal-leaning ethos of Practicing the Kingdom and similar works will, I believe, be vindicated as a degree of faithful Christian ethics in late capitalism, naysayers notwithstanding.

Practicing the Kingdom forces us to reconcile the socio-ethical vision of god’s kingdom in the scriptures with the inherited kingdom of our world. One or the other will succeed in our hearts. Holt and Rhodes give a compelling case for the former.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

The Polarity of Freedom and Destiny

I’ve noted before the appeal of existential philosophy on the basis of the seriousness with which it treats human decision. Our decisions and our choices are really our decisions and our choices. There is no externality, to which we can point, that can absolve us. We have chosen to act in one manner or the other, and we must own the consequences of that decision. De Beauvoir rightly points out that this predicament is exacerbated–not mitigated–if we were to assume the “death of god.” In such a scenario, we are radically “abandoned” to our own lives; “if God does not exist, man’s faults are inexpiable.”

Of course, this existential position tends to undercut another tradition within which I grew up. I was raised in a Christian tradition which was, while not explicitly Calvinistic, certainly assumed prominent features of Calvinist theology, particularly the hypotheses of god’s foreknowledge and active predestination. These assumptions were more so drawn out as I transitioned to high school and college, as one would expect, and they were reinforced by the upsurge of the “young, restless, and reformed” movement, which was marked by a new fascination with Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards on the basis of recommendations from people like Piper, Driscoll, and Chandler.

These two different threads ran together in my atmosphere and collided toward the end of my collegiate career, leaving me a bit confused. I wanted to hold on to our radical responsibility (a radical responsibility now, in some measure, mitigated) while at the same time maintaining a quote-unquote orthodox Calvinism. You don’t try to balance antinomies for long before one of them gives.

Tillich was likely the first serious attempt I came across to incorporate the existential structures of our being into a Christian conception of the world. Although I had read some Kierkegaard and some Dostoevsky, neither of these were afforded the privilege of writing downstream from existential philosophy; they were forebears.  Tillich, on the other hand, arose in the height of the existential movement and was thus able to incorporate its insights into “Dasein”.

In his Systematic Theology, Tillich described the human condition as one consisting of a number of “polarities,” features of “being” which pull us in opposite directions, as it were–a nod to the basic dialectical structure of reality. These polarities are understood as contrasting pairs of forces:  subjectivity vs. objectivity, form vs. dynamics, and freedom vs. destiny.

The polarity of freedom and destiny speaks most directly to the entanglement of existential philosophy and a robust conception of god’s will. If god wills that history unfold in a certain manner, how can the means through which this was accomplished be held ethically responsible? People amount to puppets. On the other hand, if we are radically responsible for our actions, there is no recourse, no external force upon which we can shift the blame of our actions; there can have been no god who forced our hand.

For Tillich, what is basic to humanity is living under the structures of the polarities he mentioned, including the polarity of freedom and destiny. That is to say, to be human is to live by means of freedom mitigated by destiny and to live by means of destiny mitigated by freedom. Humans are a kind of in-between creature–with a true subjectivity but still objectified, lacking the perfection of freedom that belongs to god himself but not utterly destined like a mere thing:

Our destiny is that out of which our decisions arise; it is the indefinitely broad basis of our centered selfhood; it is the concreteness of our being which makes all our decisions our decisions. When I make a decision, it is the concrete totality of everything that constitutes my being which decides, not an epistemological subject. This refers to body structure, psychic strivings, spiritual character. It includes the communities to which I belong, the past unremembered and remembered, the environment which has shaped me, the world which has made an impact on me. It refers to all my former decisions. Destiny is not a strange power which determines what shall happen to me. It is myself as given, formed by nature, history, and myself. My destiny is the basis of my freedom; my freedom participates in shaping my destiny.

Only he who has freedom has a destiny. Things have no destiny because they have no freedom. God has no destiny because he is freedom. The word ‘destiny’ points to something which is going to happen to someone; it has an eschatological connotation. This makes it qualified to stand in polarity with freedom. It points not to the opposite of freedom but rather to its conditions and limits. Fatum (‘that which is foreseen’) or Schicksal (‘that which is sent’), and their English correlate ‘fate,’ designate a simple contradiction to freedom rather than a polar correlation, and therefore they hardly can be used in connection with the ontological polarity under discussion. But even the deterministic use of these words usually leaves a place for freedom; one has the possibility of accepting his fate or of revolting against it. Strictly speaking, this means that only he who has this alternative has a fate. And to have this alternative means to be free.

Since freedom and destiny constitute an ontological polarity, everything that participates in being must participate in this polarity. But man, who has a complete self and a world, is the only being who is free in the sense of deliberation, decision, and responsibility. Therefore, freedom and destiny can be applied to subhuman nature only by way of analogy; this parallels the situation with respect to the basic ontological structure and the other ontological polarities.[1]

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but I’ll save some of those thoughts for a later date. I keep returning and returning to Tillich. We’ll get back to these themes eventually.

[1] Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 184-5.

Review: Textual Silence (2017)

9780813589916Jessica Lang offers us an interesting phenomenology of reading and writing, specifically in reference to works related to the Holocaust, in her work Textual Silence: Unreadability and the Holocaust (Rutgers University Press, 2017). I’ve been attempting to get a handle on what actually occurs when we read and when we write–how is it that we assimilate a book, a movie, a poem into our lives, despite the obvious separation between an author and her work or between an audience and the same? Although Lang specifically targets the body of material pertaining to the Holocaust, she touches on significant features of reading, writing, and experience as such.

The Holocaust is the indescribable experience par excellence. It is in this sense different from other significant events in history; the depth of suffering and the ruthlessness of industrial slaughter are both difficult to stomach, much less distill into another medium. The nature of the Holocaust does not permit the reader to understand fully what transpired; this derives, more basically, from the fact that the author is able neither to transcribe fully the events. Unwritability engenders unreadability. The reader attempts to jump back into the event through the author’s words, just as the author attempts to jump back into the event itself; however, the air gap between reader, author, and event prevents, or frustrates, this move.

Lang moves through three “generations” of Holocaust literature–those who experienced it as cognizant sufferers, those who can’t remember living through or are only related to somebody who did, and those who don’t have a substantial connection to the event–and each generation grapples with the unreadability of the Holocaust in a largely unique manner. Whether by relegating it to the backdrop of a novel about “other things” (3rd generation) or by struggling to understand it as one who walked through the camps (1st generation), Holocaust authors recognize the inherent unsuitability of words and grammar to convey the event. The logos-conflict rises most closely to the surface of works in the immediate wake of the Holocaust, but it’s omnipresent as far as the genre is concerned.

An important consideration is whether the Holocaust is wholly unique in its unwritable and unreadable quality, or whether this aspect belongs to our experience of the world as such. It seems clear, as far as I’m concerned, that the Holocaust stands on one end of a spectrum of unknowability but is not itself the only member of this spectrum; it’s extreme in kind but not in type. The Holocaust, by virtue of its extremity, is particularly unknowable, but human experience in general is not reducible to language. We are more than words can express. The Holocaust is not as such unknowable; inherent limitations of language and inherent aspects of human experience are mutually inexchangable. The gravity and particular absurdities of the Holocaust make intelligently expressing it more difficult, but difficulty as such is already baked into the project of expression.

By focusing her energy on the Holocaust, Lang clarifies features common to the relationship of expression to existence because the Holocaust so clearly demonstrates the inadequacies of language to facilitate wholly an understanding of experience. We can have faithful representations insofar as language is stretched to accomplish the task, but the inherent limitations of language begin to shine more brightly the closer one comes to entirely inexplicable moments or persons. This same difficulty is what gives legs to the apophatic movement in theology–although apophaticism (at least, in its naïve manifestations) fails to recognize the responsibility to use those tools at our disposal to speak positively of god. In like manner, we are responsible to speak and to write and to read faithfully of an event described, knowing that the unobstructed and the objective, all-seeing perspective are unattainable.

Textual Silence helps propel the conversation forward on this problem of reading and writing, albeit through the particular lens of Holocaust literature.

The Scylla and Charybdis of Bourgeois Theology: Charting a Course

Intelligence Squared: US is a debate-style podcast that centers around one motion under investigation. Typically, IQ2US (their preferred shorthand referent) doesn’t put out content that’s particularly interesting. There are a lot of episodes on economics and global politics which, while important, are boring as far as I’m concerned.

A few weeks ago, however, I finally listened to the debate surrounding the motion “The More We Evolve, the Less We Need God.” Two pairs debated each other, one side arguing for the motion and the other against. In favor of the motion were neuroscientist Heather Berlin and “public intellectual” Michael Shermer. Against the motion were Deepak Chopra, well-known in part because of his spiritual relationship to Oprah, and physician Anoop Kumar.

This debate was an enlightening exchange for a number of reasons, but the reason I want to key in on relies not so much on the minutiae of argumentation but on the general spheres that the two sides represent. IQ2US will typically put a question to task and assign respondents who, in large measure, represent widely held beliefs in respect to the motion under review. That is to say, you can rely on IQ2US to put people on stage to represent the majority-held “horns” of the argument; rare is the radical. Of course, the accepted field of debate for IQ2US’s audience will be different than for the general American audience, but we will look at that more in a moment.

Their tendency to use mainstream spokespersons is what made this particular debate so interesting. On the one side, you have a pair of strict materialists. The neuroscientist and the skeptic both argue that there can be no god–and no use thereof–because there is no immateriality. Consciousness, even–that intending-toward which demarcates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom–is the result of the bio-neurological processes of the brain. One will eventually explain all things through the rigorous analyses of the sciences, and to revert to god-talk is merely to make use of a “god of the gaps,” an unacceptable acquiescence to ignorance. All fairly mundane, as far as scientism is concerned, and representative of a growing cultural trend.

On the other side, you had Deepak Chopra, famous “new age”[1] doctor and occasional dabbler in metaphysics. (Kumar’s contributions to the structure of the debate were relatively minor, and they can safely be subsumed under Chopra’s larger project.) Chopra defines from the beginning what is meant by the word “god” when he and Kumar speak of god. “God” is “the consciousness in which all experience occurs.” Consciousness/god is the potentiality and actuality of every and all experience. There is no external being who stands beyond experience; “god” is, to abuse Tillichian terms, “the ground of experience.” There can only be god qua consciousness, potential and actual. Succinctly:  “God is our highest instinct to know ourselves.” Through consciousness and through it alone, we know ourselves.

Now, to explain the title. There’s a point in The Odyssey wherein Odysseus must make a choice:  be willing give up six men to death or risk losing his entire ship. He’s to pass through the Strait of Messina, and on one side is the six-headed monster Scylla, who will snatch six sailors at will–and if you tarry, she’ll snatch six more. On the other side of the strait, a sea monster named Charybdis would appear three times a day, destroying everything within her reach at these points. There would be no escape were you to be caught in Charybdis’s terror. Odysseus chooses the guaranteed loss of six versus the potential loss of his ship and crew in toto.

Along the lines of our phrase “between a rock and a hard place” or “on the horns of a dilemma,” the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” has come to represent choosing the less-worse of two awful options. Treading a middle ground would not do; you’re as likely to wreck on both accounts simultaneously than to avoid either. As far as IQ2US is concerned, the horns of this dilemma (what is god, and what is its use?) are simple:  god is either a wholly irrelevant myth or merely the sum total of all consciousness.

With reference to Christian orthodoxy, neither one of these options are appealing. Fortunately, I would wager that the popular understandings of god have not yet devolved there. The ideas articulated by Chopra and Berlin are still too radical for most. Elements of strict materialism or vacuous new age mysticism may be incorporated into popular thought, but they won’t be assimilated wholesale for some time.

Nevertheless, history seems to demonstrate that the ideas fermented in the upper echelons of culture tend to trickle down. For the moment, Berlin and Chopra’s projects are limited broadly to the bourgeois strata of our society:  well-educated, self-satisfied, little experience with material poverty. Such an environment breeds a view of god which strips the divine either of substance or of existence. Who needs a god in the comforts of wealth? The American upper classes have determined either that god does not exist or that god’s existence derives solely from our experience of consciousness; making your way through the middle of the strait merely invites an attack from both sides.

These are the Scylla and Charybdis of bourgeois theology. These are the relative positions of debate. Because this is the case, we need to consider developing an articulation of theology that broaches one or the other construction in order to speak intelligibly to the culture. It’s no secret that the nation’s Christian heritage[2] is withering, which means that the cultural cache of Christian thought can no longer be relied on to create common ground. To borrow again from Tillich, we must develop an apologetic theology that takes seriously the location and direction of our culture’s theology.

In hopes of not stretching the metaphor too far, we should wonder which bourgeois position corresponds to the Scylla and which to the Charybdis. That is to say, which threatens the destruction of Christian doctrine wholesale, and which merely threatens certain aspects? It may be the case that both positions are so threatening that we have no other choice but to remain aloof, in a certain sense, to the dangers that loom on either side. However, that would have to be a last-case scenario, having exhausted all other options. Such a posture bespeaks the fundamentalist impulse of any theology worth considering; it’s Balin’s Tomb.

Grant that we have an obligation to consider one side or the other. Which side risks a total loss? Which risks less? For my money, I’m far more wary of Chopra than Berlin. As much as Dawkins- and Harris-inspired ideologues drive me insane (which is what Shermer seems to represent), Chopra’s project would do far more lasting damage to future attempts at theologizing and evangelism. By Chopra’s radical redefinition of god as the ground of experience, he maintains a spiritual flair to “god” while at the same time utterly stripping “god” of anything transcendent. I have found myself closer to Berlin in certain respects,[3] and I’m fairly certain that we can articulate a post-materialist theology more easily than a post-rudderless-mysticism theology. We can’t forget, however, that whichever route we choose will be fraught with hazards. Obviously, neither position are ideal carriers of Christian theology, but I do not believe that we are at the point where we must revert (a la Dreher) to strictly Christian communities and raise the drawbridge. Because these positions are still largely restricted to the higher classes, the church has some time to prepare adequate responses for whatever form materialism and new age mysticism may take in popular culture.

[1] Whenever you read “new age,” whether here or elsewhere, you can substitute “bastardized concepts of Buddhism and Hinduism in a Western context,” and you won’t be far off.

[2] Don’t read more into the phrase than intended. The predominant religious and cultural influence in this nation has been some version of Christianity, and only an ideologue would bother denying this. This historical foundation has been eroding for generations, and the erosion has accelerated of late. That is our “new normal,” and it is not necessarily good or bad.

[3] This proximity is most clearly seen in this piece on Aaron Hernandez.

Reciprocity in the Prophets: Isaiah and Jeremiah on Babylon and Zion

Over the last few months, I’ve been drawn to the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. I can remember committing to reading through the entire Bible over some set amount of time, only to find my attention or care seriously strained once I got to the prophets. What did I care about the oracles against Edom, Moab, and Egypt? Why are Tyre and Sidon relevant? What even is a plumb line?

Attempting to understand the material in the prophetic authors’ eponymous works in a manner that was not merely a kind of aspirationalist and aretaic read required a degree of historical literacy I lacked until seminary. Even through seminary and for a while after, I had no overwhelming desire to devote attention to the prophets. I’ve always been more drawn to the concrete abstractions of Ecclesiastes and to the biblical theology of Hebrews and the eschatological vision of Revelation. These were always, as far as I was concerned, easier to wrap my mind around. I could put my feet on some solid surface, which gave me confidence to explore the deeper waters. Not so with the prophets. I had no idea where to begin.

However, a change came upon me at some point. It could have been the constant invocation of prophetic material in our political discourse over the last few years. It could be a subconscious yearning to address the cavity in my knowledge and appreciation of Scripture. It could be impulse.

Whatever the cause, a couple of months I ago I began to read through the Book of Jeremiah, a work that I had never (literally never [incredible, I know]) read straight through. I was blown away. Jeremiah is a beautiful picture of god’s covenanted faithfulness to Israel even in the face of impending destruction. And it introduces this idea that even Israel’s enemies (Babylon excluded) will not be utterly destroyed but will have their fortunes restored (cf. Jer. 46 – 49).

Nevertheless, Jeremiah portrays Babylon as the existential threat to Israel’s existence. In fact, the work closes with an account of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, including the temple, with an eschatological flair that reads as though the world has ended; god has not only dismissed the people of Judah from his presence (52.3), but there would now be no temple to which they could return to again offer sacrifice (52.12-23). Israel, ostensibly forsaken by their god, would now be subject to a foreign power, to pagans who would scorn the name of Yahweh.

Curiously, however, the text of Jeremiah immediately preceding the account of Jerusalem’s sacking is an extended oracle against Babylon. The entirety of Jeremiah 50 and 51 are devoted to a prophecy against Babylon and her gods, not a small degree of which is later reincorporated by John in the Revelation (cp. Jer. 51.45 and Rev. 18.4). Babylon must be judged and disallowed rest in order that the land of Israel and its people may be vindicated and itself find rest (Jer. 50.34).

This sort of reciprocity between Israel and Babylon, underscored not only in the prophets but also in the Primeval History as well as the Apocalypse of John, is augmented by an approach to Scripture that takes advantage of the insights of “canonical criticism.” Canonical criticism accepts the Scripture “as a unity, and as a vehicle of living faith.” We would do well to stop short of importing a strict sola scriptura or even a robust “infallibility” or “inerrancy” into such a mode of reading. Canonical criticism, in essence, sees the totality of the Scriptural witness as one which is formative, in some manner or another, for Christian living and worship. In any event, to regard Scripture as a functional unity (if not an organic unity) assists the reader in drawing connections between works which span genres and generations.

To that end, there is one similarity between Jeremiah’s prophecy against Babylon and Isaiah’s prophecy on behalf of Israel that I want to draw attention to. Again recalling the reciprocal relationship between Babylon and Israel, hear Jeremiah’s word against Babylon:

I am against you, O destroying mountain, says the Lord,
that destroys the whole earth;
I will stretch out my hand against you,
and roll you down from the crags,
and make you a burned-out mountain.
No stone shall be taken from you for a corner
and no stone for a foundation,
but you shall be a perpetual waste,
says the Lord. (Jer. 51.25-6)

Compare this with Isaiah:

Therefore thus says the Lord God,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
‘One who trusts will not panic.’ (Is. 28.16)

Recognizing the mention of Zion as a reference to “Mount Zion” permits the reader to hear an essential contrast between the “destroying mountain” of Babylon and Zion, the dwelling place of god (Is. 33.5). This mountain of destruction will be utterly undone and laid waste, such that there will be no stone “for a corner” (eben … pinnah) or “for a foundation” (eben … mosadot). Contrast Isaiah’s vision of Zion:  privy to “a precious cornerstone” (yiqrat pinnat) and “a sure foundation” (musad).

This kingdom, which typifies the antithesis of god’s vision for the world (cp. Babel and Babylon, and the two’s relationships to Eden and Zion), is here across authors compared in terms that explicitly contrasts Babylon with Zion. Babylon, who would come to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple, whose memory would haunt Israel for generations, would eventually come to represent every demonic kingdom and iteration of evil (cf. Rev. 18) that stands against god’s people. Babylon, of course, in this mode, contradicts Zion and the kingdom of god in every manner.

Sometimes I’m blown away by the treasury to which we are invited, if only we take the time to examine it.

Revelation, Salvation, and the Kingdom of God

One often conceives of heaven as a kind of individualistic eternal bliss or, worse, as a kind of anti-hell. One can look forward to a time where all their needs and desires are met, where they will be reunited with lost loved ones (human or otherwise), where the pools are full of chocolate pudding. Salvation is reduced to an immortal satiation. None of these things are necessarily untrue (except for perhaps the pudding pools), but none of them constitute the heart of “heaven” talk insofar as the testimony of scripture is concerned.

Rather, per the explicit hope of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apocalyptic literature, the eschatological hope, towards which the world is lurching and straining through the re-creative work of god by virtue of the resurrection of the Son of God, is the dwelling of god with man, the reconstitution and perfection of Eden as a universal reality–uninterrupted and unadulterated communion between god and humanity, amongst humanity, and between humanity and the creation. Such is the thrust of Revelation 21/22. Such is the imagery at the core of Isaiah 60 – 66. Such is the implication of Jesus’s proclamation and demonstration that the “kingdom of god is at hand” (cf. Mk. 1.14-15, Mt. 4.23-25).

The older I become, the more I grow tired of trite and insubstantial visions of the world-to-come. I long for the advancement and realization of the kingdom of god, because this is the only meta-narrative that has the force to make sense of the world as it is and as it should be–and the substance to effectively ground hope in something other than wishful thinking. There’s too much suffering and pain in our lives to urge people to hope for something less than the utter eradication of evil (cf. Jer. 50/51, Rev. 18/19), to wish merely for what amounts to fairies and puppy dog tails.

Tillich also understands the centrality of the kingdom of god in Christian theology. He also places the encounter with god at the heart of this kingdom. “This ultimate salvation is also the ultimate revelation, often described as the ‘vision of God.'” In his words:

The Christian message points to an ultimate salvation which cannot be lost because it is reunion with the ground of being. This ultimate salvation is also the ultimate revelation, often described as the ‘vision of God.’ The mystery of being is present without the paradoxa of every revelation in time and space and beyond anything fragmentary and preliminary. This does not refer to the individual in isolation. Fulfillment is universal. A limited fulfillment of separated individuals would not be fulfillment all, not even for these individuals, for no person is separated from other persons and from the whole of reality in such a way that he could be saved apart from the salvation of everyone and everything. One can be saved only within the Kingdom of God which comprises the universe. But the Kingdom of God is also the place where there is complete transparency of everything for the divine to shine through it. In his fulfilled kingdom, God is everything for everything. This is the symbol of ultimate revelation and ultimate salvation in complete unity. The recognition or nonrecognition of this unity is a decisive test of the character of a theology. [1]

For Tillich, the comprehensiveness with which one sees the kingdom of god is “a decisive test of the character of a theology.” That is to say, one can judge the merits of a theological system by the degree to which, it sees, god’s presence imbues the universe. “God is everything for everything,” in his words, and to fall short of this encompassment is to present a less than adequate vision of god.

As far as Tillich is concerned, salvation is wholly impossible without an infinite kingdom. Because we are entirely situated creatures, all of our relations to the world need to be restored alongside of our persons, because to leave a relation unredeemed would be to leave part of ourselves unredeemed and also to limit the kingdom of god in some manner. You get the sense, reading Tillich, that he conceives of the everything that exists–everything which has being by virtue of their “being found in” god, the “ground of being”–is constitutive of the kingdom of god; there can be no limit. Hell, therefore, cannot exist, because it would necessarily limit the positive rule of god; annihilation also seems to be off the table: how can something which one existed no longer have being? Tillich offers a radical perspective on the kingdom of god; everything partakes of this water of life.  “The divine [will] shine through” everything in the kingdom of god.

Obviously, this conception bristles against traditional evangelical intuitions. Hell must exist, because of sin and evil. Tillich doesn’t seem to retain room for a kind of purgatorial hell, in which the kingdom of god awaits perfection until the souls of the unrighteousness are purified. Rather, the revelation of god as such results in a kind of purification, as though the bright divine light of life shines through creation and removes impurities and unholiness. His is an interesting perspective, to be sure; it’s more defensible than the “God is love; therefore, hell isn’t real” line of argumentation. Nevertheless, I struggle with these kinds of universalisms, even those which find the source of their life in the powerful and intentioned love of Christ. It doesn’t do justice to the reality of evil present in the world. (Of course, one could say that this position doesn’t do justice to the reality of goodness present in the triune god. See some streams of Orthodoxy.) It’s a position to be weighed against the evidence of the biblical text, the history of dogma, and the tests of rationality and sentimentality.

[1] Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 147.