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There is no earthly way to avoid the temper of this time between times

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 7 May 2003


In order to understand Christian theology one must come to grips with its understanding of time. Of course there is "cronos", the ordinary time-of-day kind of time but there is also another Greek word, "kairos" that indicates a quality of time in human affairs. In contrast to most Asian religions, Christianity inherited from Judaism an understanding of time as being linear and being directed towards an end or telos. Abraham is promised that he would be the father of a great nation. David was promised that his kingship would be eternal. Israelites always had the future in mind; when in captivity in Babylon, they longed for a Messianic figure to lead them back to Jerusalem. In the gospel of Mark the young man found in the tomb by the women tells them that "Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee" (read, the world). Time does not go around in circles, events always move us on to a new place that is full of promise.

The New Testament understands time as being separated into three eons, the time of revelation when Jesus walked with his disciples, the present time of our lives and a future time when God will reign on the earth. This latter time is variously called "the kingdom of heaven/God" in the synoptic gospels and simply as "eternal life" in John. While Jesus was in himself the dawning of the third age and its initiation, the present time is a time in which that age may be observed in the celebration of the Eucharist (the eschatological meal) or glimmering on the horizon - but as yet unfulfilled in the present. Thus the present age is one of struggle and is marked by a yearning for the fulfilment in which "God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (Rev. 21,3,4.)

While theologians of the previous century have understood the kingdom of God as not an actual time in world history, that would be to confuse chronos with kairos, it is nonetheless real in that it conditions all time, giving it its direction. We lean towards a fulfilment we do not as yet see. Or in Paul's words: "But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." (Rom 8:25)

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So Christians understand that what happened in the life of Jesus and on the cross, "has overcome the world" as John puts it. A friend of mind, in his preaching, tells of being in the family car in the country and running over a snake. They stopped to see it and found that even thought its back was broken and that it would eventually die of its injuries, it was still deadly. This is the character of the present time of our lives or the "time between the times" in which we suffer daily but we look beyond the horizon to a fulfilment we see only in part.

This understanding of time has been secularised in the idea of progress. We are daily promised new products and new treatments and new pleasures. It has also been subverted into a kind of moral blackmail with the earthly fulfilment being projected towards a time after death in heaven. Indeed in some forms of Christianity this has become the central focus, as it is in Islam. The problem is that this is not what the New Testament is about, the kingdom is an earthly reality brought about, if you will, by the heavenly. Blackmail produces a poor morality that is never internalised. It is an irony that where morality is preached most passionately there you will find great immorality.

This is all by way of coming to my point. Christian theology is from beginning to end eschatological, directed towards the coming age of the reign of God. Much of the New Testament does not make sense without this understanding. For example, the beatitudes of Matthew are really a projection of the nature of life in the kingdom - they are proleptic. They do not make sense in the present age because they describe life in the fulfilment. They are not exhortations to a higher, seemingly impossible morality.

Christian ethics are likewise only to be understood in this understanding of time. We live in the time of process in which evil still abides even though it has met its match and will be no more. That is our faith. But in the present age it is necessary to have law enforcement and punishment and the armed forces. To live as though the time has been fulfilled is foolishness because we are seduced into ignoring or underestimating the evil that is abroad.

I have been puzzled by the uniform opposition of the church to the war in Iraq. Dozens of email releases crowded my inbox from all over the world, praying for peaces and deploring the war. Friends asked me to sign petitions of opposition. And all the while I, feeling completely out of step with my coreligionists, wondered wether the coalition may be doing a good thing in releasing the Iraqi people from a brutal despot.

Two things come to mind. The first is that this insistence by the church on assuming the high moral ground is a failure to see the reality of true evil in Saddam's regime. In other words, the church has mistaken the time and wants to avoid the nastiness of the "time between the times". It acts as though the fulfilment of time has come and thinks that any act of power, even to topple a dictator, is unjust.

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The second thing is that the church seems to have adopted peace as a kind of ideology. This reduces the argument to the level of the peace movement, a simplistic polarization of the obvious: war is bad and peace is good, therefore we should have peace. This amounts to a closing of the Christian mind to the realities of the world and further erodes our credibility in the world. Yes, we are called to be in the world but not of the world; we are called to celebrate the in-breaking of the kingdom but that does not mean that we lose the tension between this world and the next. When the church cries "peace at all costs" it loses this essential tension and reverts to inconsistent moralism. It behaves as though the time has really come when the swords will be beaten into ploughshares. But, much more dangerously, the church seduces itself into believing that its own pronouncements will bring the present time to fulfilment. When we do this we lose touch with what is actually happening in the world. Which is the greater evil: that the people of Iraq live still more years under Saddam or that others confront him and risk the chaos of war? It seems the church can give no other answer than to let him be because anything else will be war and we must be for peace.

The sin that led to the expulsion from Eden was that of eating of the forbidden fruit of tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is as if our church leaders have eaten of this fruit and are bent on occupying the high moral ground. They have named war bad and peace good and have taken sides. However, human history is not as simple as that. There are obvious times in the past when war was the only option. Christians are called to live with moral ambiguity, that is part of the tension of the time between the times. Jesus did not give us a code to live by but set us free to experience the complexities and the messiness of human life. Surely that is the message of the cross, we have a Messiah mangled in the wheels of history rather than a pristine giver of an ethical system that can be applied to all circumstances.

Ideology and law are natural enemies of freedom. However, freedom that is directionless leads to the kind of bondage we see all around us. For those who see their lives as an empty vessel to be filled with whatever their hearts desire, are, despite the appearance, the most unfree. The untutored heart is prey to all kinds of whims and fancies, urges, and promptings of the ego and the seductions of the world. This is why the lives of the rich and famous are so interesting because they can do what they like, often to their detriment. Absolute freedom is no freedom at all; it is, rather, another kind of bondage.

Real freedom involves struggle. The temptations of the world and of the flesh are real and subtle, life in the time between the times is hazardous. Our hearts need to be taught what to desire and we need to be confronted by the paradoxical nature of Christian freedom, that no person is my Lord, but I am every person's servant. This is the only way Christians get to be peacemakers. It is only by the personal transformation that is wrought in us by the gospel that we obtain to the peace of God. We do not become peacemakers by the easy path of shouting slogans and adopting an ideal that does not take the perils of the time seriously.

The one bright light I have encountered in the debate comes from the Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter Sermon:

We cling to what makes us feel most safely distant from evil. The would-be peacemaker is often passionate in treating every kind of force as equally terrible, so that there is a single clear enemy over there to confront - all those with blood on their hands, American general as much as Iraqi executioner. The apologist for war is offended and threatened by the - not unreasonable - suggestion that the motives and methods of modern war are unlikely to be completely shaped by moral considerations, and that fighting evil can involve us in imitating some of its methods, even in the best of causes. Both are afraid of acknowledging that they have something in common with what they are resisting. And that acknowledgement need not lead to despair or passivity (every choice is flawed, I can do nothing just or good); it ought to lead to some kind of adult admission that, even in pursuing good ends, our flawed humanity creates new difficulties. We can only face the possible cost, pray, and trust that God can make use of what we decide and do.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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