Idolatry of the End: The Coming of the Kingdom or the Coming of a Kingdom?

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Published:
August 11, 2022

A thing does not need to be false in order to become idolatrous. Virtues, truth, and good things in life are paradoxically the best candidates. And the end times focus is becoming so in Adventism. We struggle with a lack of historical and human wisdom, covering it with a myopic certainty and an enthusiastic but clueless militancy. There are two mechanisms that support and reinforce this idolatry of the end times. On the one hand, a "linear hermeneutics" that errs in thinking the biblical text has only one possible interpretation of end time events, and on the other hand, a "linear eschatology" that errs in perceiving the present events and actors in a compact, unilateral, and univocal way.

Eschatology is structurally neither constative nor declarative, much less a mathematical exercise of sums and subtractions. The events, authors, and historical profiles it outlines are multifaceted, ambivalent, fluid realities. It is process, not static or substantive forms. This is why eschatology is essentially interpretation, not description of what is or will be. Historical entities can be this and that, can be here and there. And the end times can only have interpretation, not the end itself in its essence. Like the Bible itself, the end is greater than any church, especially those that faithfully try to understand it. A faith community that—alone—claims to understand the end not only becomes presumptuous but also foolish. Linear eschatology is this curious mixture of arrogance and naiveté, certainty and ignorance, conviction and sociocultural disengagement. While it is a Christian and human disadvantage not to be eschatological, it is perhaps even more so to be eschatologically linear and schematic. 

Conversely, in a hermeneutics and eschatology of complexity, those reported as "apostates" do not always say aberrant things, just as declared "truth witnesses" are not always innocent and wise. For example, Catholicism, the structural target of our apocalyptic denunciations and attacks, does not just say wrong things about the end. And Adventism, the supposedly immaculate source of universal truths, does not always say right and appropriate things about the end. Saying some rough or wrong things does not necessarily make us false witnesses, just as saying some right and proper things about the end does not automatically make us true and credible witnesses.

Adventism must lose its fear of being wrong and making mistakes. This leads it to claim to always tell the truth, which is clearly false. Adventism is noble precisely because it sometimes errs and says and does things inaccurately. But this provides a reason to start again, correcting mistakes by dialoguing with and considering other sources and ideas—and thus with the God of history who manifests himself in others. The validity of our discourse on the end is not embodied in the millions of copies of The Great Controversy we distribute but is determined by the content we have and propose. And presently that content, unfortunately, struggles with being one-sided, radical, superficial, overbearing, and often lacking in historical and human wisdom. No one doubts that Adventism is an eschatological church, but so many—outside as well as inside—more frequently doubt the relevance and qualitative spiritual value of it. We cannot mistake quality for quantity.

When considering the complexity of hermeneutics and eschatology, the story of Balaam's donkey (Numbers chapter 22) already reminds us about the paradox and ambivalence of actors and events in history. Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein more recently reminds us with acumen:[1] "seeing that" is not the same as "seeing how." "Seeing that" triggers a kind of thinking that looks for substances and configurations that are already made and have a well-defined profile. Conversely, "seeing as" triggers an exploratory, anti-dogmatic thinking. It tries not to impose a preconception or theory on reality but builds a flexible and exploratory thinking that is able to follow the beat and pulsations of life and history. It is what he calls a "language game." Eschatology is also a typical "language game" because it does not start from firm positions, substantive entities, or prepackaged and definitive theories. Instead, it starts from the praxis of contextual and relational faith of believers. Yes, they are enlightened by the Word of God, but we can never give a final and conclusive interpretation. Christian eschatology, by nature, is always "Eschatologia Viatorum." It's always on a journey in thought and word, a pilgrim in exile.

In an eschatology of complexity, it is less important to affirm or deny that the end is coming than to understand that this inexorable end is not configured as a linear, compact, and univocal event. Understanding the end does not require just Bible reading, albeit with good intentions, firm convictions, faithfulness, and consistency. It is now clear that the Bible is not enough when trying to understand the end. We also need intellectual openness, human and historical wisdom, religious and intercultural dialogue, and a good dose of denominational and institutional flexibility. This is more than just a sign of goodwill but an opportunity to benefit from understandings that no church alone can claim to have, not even Adventism. To know what the end is, one must look around and try to understand it together with others. We cannot close ourselves off in the Bible, much less The Great Controversy.

Attention to an eschatology of complexity allows us to perceive and neutralize two errors of perspective that are always lurking. The first is an instinctive overestimation of one's understanding of the end by naively thinking that simply making an eschatological commitment is sufficient to properly understand it. No, our legitimate understanding of the end is not the end itself but only one understanding among others. Adventist premillennialism is not, for example, the only way to understand the end; to claim that it is incurs this first error of perspective. Now, this does not mean that Adventist premillennialism is false. It is certainly true but also one-sided, and, if taken alone, it fails to describe the complexity of the end. A church's eschatological truth must always be moderated because we too often only grasp one aspect and not its totality. Confessional truth certainly must try to exclude error but must also be inclusive so that it might integrate other pieces expressed from different and perhaps unexpected perspectives.

The second error lies in an "underestimation" of the coming kingdom of God. Our premillennialist view structurally prevents us from seeing that the kingdom of God is already partially and ambivalently present in our midst. That true kingdom is manifest through the Spirit's presence and through instances that we may indiscriminately categorize as apostate, like Catholicism. Great cultural and religious entities have been the first, and in some ways, the only ones, to have perceived the chronic anomalies and inevitable collapse of the modern world—and even recognize the birth of a new world that, in part, embodies the coming kingdom of God. Attention to ecology, interculturality, symbolic and mythical language, the rights of sentient beings, and the timeless value of community over the selfishness of individuals are values claimed and promoted by these "apostate" forces that are difficult to disavow.

It is a presumption to imagine that the kingdom of God will come with the characteristics that we moderns have imagined it to have. The new kingdom comes as a surprise precisely because it anticipates what we expect further down the road. And it comes not only by surprise but also immanently through cultural changes that are already taking place, which others have captured well. The future kingdom is, to some extent, already in our midst through post-confessional and post-ethical (post-individualist) communitarian Protestantism. It is problematic when we imagine that the kingdom of God does not have these characteristics.

The problem is that these historical realities, because they are mediators of a new paradigm, will tend to absolutize themselves in their innovations. Here The Great Controversy intervenes with its description and critique of this kind of anti-Trinity of the end.

Through the two great errors, the immortality of the soul and Sunday sacredness, Satan will bring the people under his deceptions. While the former lays the foundation of spiritualism, the latter creates a bond of sympathy with Rome. The Protestants of the United States will be foremost in stretching their hands across the gulf to grasp the hand of spiritualism; they will reach over the abyss to clasp hands with the Roman power; and under the influence of this threefold union, this country will follow in the steps of Rome in trampling on the rights of conscience. (GC 588)

White, as a prophet, is very critical of these historical instances. She could not do otherwise. Like Elijah, who was a prophet and not a sociopolitical analyst, radically denounced Ahab and the Omrides dynasty. Yet that same dynasty was, at a sociopolitical level, the most prosperous in all of Israel's history.

White's description of these three religious entities is therefore very pertinent, but it is partial precisely because it is essentially limited to their spiritual dimension. Now, not only do these movements also have a sociocultural dimension that White does not mention, but, in a context of widespread and transversal secularization, hard or soft, like ours, it is this sociocultural dimension that has the greatest impact on the people and events of our daily lives.

For this reason, an eschatology of complexity must consider the positive intervention of historical realities without preventing us from denouncing their absolutization at the appropriate time. So, what we describe as "the coming kingdom" is, in reality, the description of "a coming kingdom," i.e., a partial and unilateral description of the definitive kingdom as we understand it in our own time and with our categories. But it is also essential to understand that such categories manifest a radical cultural shift. White is describing, through her description and criticism of these entities, a double passage: on the one hand, a "spiritual passage" directed to focus on God's coming kingdom itself, and on the other hand, a "cultural passage" from modernity to a new age that also incarnates part of God's coming kingdom. And to this we also need to pay attention.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Especially read section XI of the second part of the book, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

 


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash.com

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