Now is a potentially wonderful moment for Christianity
by Timothy Radcliffe, op
‘The Way to Paradise’ is the latest novel by the Peruvian author, Mario Vargas Llosa (London 2005). It is about two people who are looking for Paradise: Paul Gauguin and his improbable grandmother, Flora Tristán. Gauguin looked for it in a tropical paradise not yet ruined by Western industrial society; she looked for it in a transformation of that society, a future just world in which all human beings would be equal, especially men and women. He looked for paradise in a survival of the past, and she looked for it in an anticipation of the future. Both of them were disappointed…
What or who are we? This is placed between questions about the past and the future. We can only know who or what we are if we have a longer story which grows out of the past and reaches towards the future. That has largely disappeared. Flora Tristán’s dreams of a political paradise have largely collapsed, and there are few places from which we can escape the ruinous effects of modern industrialism. And so Paradise has largely escaped from our shared imagination. This may be why an ever increasing percentage of young Europeans believe in life after death. If I can no longer tell a story about humanity’s destiny, then at least I might about my own.
When I was a young friar in the late 1960’s, there was a tremendous sense of the promise of the future. Anything seemed possible. ‘L’imagination au pouvoir!’ was scribbled all over the walls in Paris. Even in England things seemed promising. One could get frogs legs and snails in the restaurants, and so the Kingdom must be nigh…
But that confidence has now largely gone. One moment in its loss was, strangely, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As Fukuyama famously said, history has ended. The dreams of a radical transformation of humanity weakened. Oliver Bennett of Warwick University argues in Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World that despite an explosion of wealth in the many Western countries, we are all suffering from a collective depression. We see growing violence in our cities, the development of gang warfare, escalation of drugs and, in the wider world, growing inequality between the rich and poor, the spread of Aids, the threat of ecological disaster and, above all clashes between religions and the spread of terrorism.
Without a future, what can we, the Now Generation, do except live in the present? Hugh Rayment-Pickard wrote, ‘Around us we see New Age religions offering individualistic piety and instant gratification; a society driven by consumption; a quest for immediacy in communication; a suspicion of “ideology”; short-termism in public policy; voter apathy; and Christian churches ever more absorbed in questions of internal organisation, personal conversion and individual moral conduct. The modernist belief that we really could make the world better is weakening. The present is our new temporal horizon, our safe harbour in the ocean of time.” (The Myths of Time: from St Augustine to American Beauty, London 2004, p99)
The irony is that our children grow up with a vaster sense of time than any other generation. Every child knows that we live between the Big Bang and the Big Chill, when the world will grow cold. Many western children know more about dinosaurs than they do about cows and sheep. They can tell a Triceratops from a Tyrannosaurus rex more easily than an Aberdeen Angus from Friesian. But in this story of our universe and even our planet, we humans have no special role. We probably had not come into existence when the last dinosaur died and when we become extinct there will probably be lots of beetles still hanging on. The only difference that humanity might make is a negative one, by creating ecological disaster by our greed or our bombs. It is not a story that promises anything to us… Since September 11th, 2001, we have, of course, another story to tell of the future, the war on terrorism. This promises nothing but continued violence. What might ever count as winning?
This is therefore potentially a wonderful moment for Christianity. If we can find a way to live and share our Christian hope, then we shall offer something for which the world is thirsting. The hope of our ancestors’ was bolstered by the optimism of society. It was a sort of baptism of our Imperial confidence. Society believed that it was on its way to a glorious material future. We believed that the road carried on a bit further, to the Kingdom of God. Now we have something extraordinary and rare to offer, which is hope stripped of its secular crutches, new and fresh and desirable. How are we to do this? For often our Churches are themselves suffering from a certain crisis of hopelessness. We can see falling attendance, a loss of nerve, internal divisions. The principle Churches … are themselves discouraged. So what do we have to share?
Do we offer an alternative story of the future? We do believe in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. We do believe in the coming of the Kingdom, and the end to all death and suffering. But we have no story to tell of how this may happen. We cannot look at the Book of Revelation and say, ‘Hi guys, it’s OK. Five plagues down and two to go.’ We have no privileged information about what will happen to humanity in the next hundred or thousand years.
It is good that we do not. The 20th century was crucified by those who knew far too well where humanity was headed and how it should get there… The Soviet gulags murdered tens of millions of people in the name of the communist road map to Paradise. (Recently) I visited Auschwitz for the first time. There is a big map which shows all the railway lines from all over Europe leading to the extermination camp. The lines end at the gas chambers. That is literally the end of the line. All that planning and mapping of the future ended in despair, and millions of dead. Rabbi Hugo Gryn describes how when he arrived at Auschwitz, the entrance to the camp was littered with thrown away condoms and tefillin. I am not sure what to make of the condoms, but the tefillin where used in daily prayer. It was a sign that here in the camp, there was no point in praying in any longer. The ‘war on terrorism’ may become just such a road map… What will be next on the road map? Syria? North Korea?
So Christianity does not offer a plan or a road map, but it does have a story. And the centre of our story is those three days, which go from the Last Supper to the empty tomb. But the Last Supper was also the moment when the disciples lost any story to tell of the future. On the road to Jerusalem they had been sustained surely by some story of what was going to happen. We are not sure what it was: the rebellion against Rome? The restoration of Israel? Jesus as a Warrior King? As the disciples on the road to Emmaus confessed to Jesus: ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24.21). Whatever story they told, now collapsed… Faced with his passion and death they had no story to tell. In this moment in which this fragile community broke down, Jesus took bread, blessed it and have it to them saying, ‘This is my body, given for you.’
Here is the paradox at the heart of Christianity. As Christians we gather to remember the story of that Last Supper. It is our foundational story, the one in which we find the meaning of our lives. And yet it is a story which tells of the moment when there was no story to tell, when the future disappeared. We gather as a community around the altar and remember the moment when the community disintegrated: When Judas sold Jesus, Peter denied him, and the others mostly ran away. Our founding story is of the collapse of any story.
But the paradox is even deeper than that! The documents that describe this event, the gospels, appear to have been written down precisely at a second moment when the story of the future broke down.
After the Resurrection the disciples appear to have pinned their hopes on another imminent conclusion of the story, which is that Jesus would come again - soon. In the 70’s the Church was persecuted in Rome, Peter and Paul died, Christians betrayed each other. It even seemed as if the Church was failing. But no one need worry. Jesus is coming! But he did not. Not a hint of an appearance. Had it all been in vain? So again there was a story collapsed. But it led to the writing of the gospels, and our first extended account of the Last Supper. Jesus may not have come in the flesh, but he came in new words, those of the gospels.
So every time that we gather as a community to celebrate the Eucharist, we remember the moment in which Jesus faced death and desertion, when suddenly the disciples lost their story of the future. And we do with the words that come from the gospels, which were written in the light of that second great loss of a story of the future, when Jesus failed to return in glory. So we should know by now that hoping in the Kingdom does not give us a road map. Rather it takes it away. In both cases, intimacy with the Lord grows as we loose our knowledge of what lies ahead. So we should not be fearful of crises. Church was born in a crisis of hope. So we have nothing to fear of such crises. They are our specialité de la maison. They rejuvenate us. The one that we are living through now is very small.
Next week: Fr Radcliffe writes about hope, not as a bet on goodness being stronger than evil, but as the infinite creativity of God who brings communion out of enmity.
Timothy Radcliffe op was born in London in 1945, the fourth of six children. He was educated by the Benedictines at Worth and Downside schools. He joined the English Province of the Dominican Order in 1965, and was ordained a priest in 1971. He studied at Blackfriars and at St John’s College in Oxford, and in Paris.
He was a chaplain to the University of London, taught scripture and doctrine at Oxford for 12 years and was involved in the Peace movement and in ministry to people with AIDS. He was Prior of Oxford from 1982 – 88, when he was elected Provincial of the English Province and became was President of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors. In 1992 he was elected Master of the Dominican Order, finishing his term in 2001.
He is now an itinerant preacher and lecturer, based at Blackfriars, Oxford. His latest book is ‘What is the point of being a Christian?’