OK, So What IS Hope?

Meanwhile, in random thoughts carried on from previous posts...

So I think I made myself pretty clear about "hopeful" or, as Moltmann more appropriately names it, "open" universalism. There's nothing of genuine hope involved in keeping open the possibility that God might redeem every individual, especially when that redemption is posited as unlikely due to the eschatological coming-in-judgment as the gateway to the binary afterlives. "God might, just possibly, send all of us through the same door—and not the one we deserve!"

And, of course, I'm a universalist. I don't merely hope that God will finally decide to save every individual, however unlikely it may seem from here. I have a theologically grounded expectation, on the basis of the gospel, that God has in fact seen to the redemption of the whole creation, as the basis for the covenant, and that God is therefore accomplishing its reconciliation—both to Godself and between fellow creatures—as a constant and pervasive intervention against our designs for world history. This is the basis for genuine hope, because what has been promised is being effected, and will continue to be effected, by God—in spite of anything and everything the world presents to the contrary.

Now, I think that as a Barthian, I think that having drunk deeply and critically of Barth's own thought, but it is far from clear that Barth thinks anything like that. What Barth does think is a far muddier matter.

The Problem Barth Shows Us

When Barth says that apokatastasis may be hoped for but not expected, what he means is simply this: that God who is in fact actively reconciling the world into right relationships has not guaranteed an outcome to the process of reconciliation. The free God interacts with free creatures in history, and does not compromise their freedom in intervening to repair the creation. There is therefore no way to be sure that the world will finally be "atoned"—reconciled into right relationships, restored to its right unity as a whole—in the way apokatastasis suggests. The at-one-ment, the reunification of creation with itself and its Creator, requires the cooperation of these free agents together—and that cooperation might itself be understood as the at-one-ment, which is why the word "reconciliation" is so much to be preferred. We might want such an outcome, we might (of ourselves) hope that God "wins" in the end, and history has a happy ending, but we have no basis for that hope in God's own actions or in the world as we know it.

And, of course, this is where so much of the trouble arises in predicting Barth's eschatology. The lingering presumption of linearity makes the redemption of the creature seem dependent upon its successful reconciliation. Atonement looks, as it has for most of the tradition, like it ought to be what guarantees eschatological salvation—and if faith really is the criterion for successful atonement, and successful atonement therefore cannot itself be guaranteed, what hope do we have of redemption? Will God only redeem the faithful? That would be utterly counter to the totalities asserted by Barth's doctrines of election and reconciliation, inasmuch as our agency in response to God does in no way change God's active subordination of the whole creature in every part to (1) election in Christ, and (2) reconciliation through the Spirit, who effects subjectively the reality Christ accomplished objectively.

And yet, in the absence of Barth's "mature" doctrine of redemption, and of widespread reading of either his (still in German) Münster eschatology lectures (in the GA, so published and available) or his existing CD discussions of redemption as though they were a thing in themselves (which he himself suggested in the preface to IV.4), this is the problem we're left with. This is, for all intents and purposes, why "hopeful universalism" is a thing. (Also, why it's problematic to think of apokatastasis as universalism, simpliciter.)

What Grounds Real Hope?

I was listening to Bruce McCormack's lecture from this year's Barth Conference, and a bit more than an hour in he said something that struck me. It's a recap of what seems to be a basic point, he blows past it as logical, but basically the point was this: every supralapsarianism, Barth's included, posits that creation is for redemption. It therefore also has to posit the thing from which creation needs to be redeemed. And, traditionally, this keeps God on the hook for the world being the way it is, and so for the unpleasantness and evil in the world that necessitated such a plan of redemption as we announce in the gospel. Our responsibility for them is never clearly not also the responsibility of our prescient Creator. God is fixing something God should reasonably have known would go wrong with something God is entirely responsible for making. And, worse, he's doing it with a death sentence for one.

And, of course, this is theodicy in a nutshell. It is, when so viewed, a wonder we have any hope at all in God. But those two posits struck me: (1) redemption is the natural end of creation, and (2) there is that from which we are to be redeemed. Barth won't grant that God makes that from which we are to be redeemed. It is not part of the creature, and there is nothing that exists besides the creature and its Creator. This is why, in Barth's system, that from which we are to be redeemed is the impossible, the absurd, the Nothing (das Nichtige): because only a Nothing that God chose against in making every something that is could threaten it. And it can only threaten the existence of the creature God chose, the creature that is all that exists outside of God, because the creature uses its own freedom to choose otherwise than God chose. It chooses against itself. The creature chooses negation, a negation which is totally absurd, a negation that simply cannot be, an negation that utterly is not—and makes it real. God makes that which can unmake itself—and so the creature must be redeemed from its constant efforts to unmake this part of itself using that part of itself.

This is the heart of sin, the flaw at the root of everything we build, the vice underlying all our purported virtues. We have become those who build best when we build against. Even our building for only thrives when it is also a building against, and in seeming direct proportion. But we have made ourselves into this, twisted our own existence and that of all around us into this shape. There is nothing about the creation that should require us to be both for and against, to divide ourselves into others. And this is what the theodicy of prescient determinism misses about God. We were not made for this. God foresaw that it would happen, and responds with grace to reconcile us, however interminably long that process may take, even if it takes forever. But God did not foresee this knowing that it had to happen. We were not predestined to fall, but did so freely, and even now it does not have to be this way. In every moment we can choose otherwise. Nothing but ourselves, nothing but momentum—and don't think I underestimate that!—prevents creation from being for itself, for one another, and also for God.

If we have hope in God, to the extent that we have hope in God, it must be because God has hope for us. God hopes in us. All of these problems of ethics that make such miserable hash of things when we make salvation contingent upon moral behavior are real problems—but not for salvation. They are problems for the future of the life of the world in which we now live. God's judgment upon us, each and every one, in each and every moment, is real—and it is accompanied in each and every moment by the grace of the Reconciler who is our Creator and has been and will be our Redeemer. Atonement is the solution to judgment, and the product of salvation, working out salvation upon us even without our cooperation. Working us back to a state in which we might begin to cooperate, in faith, with God for the sake of our neighbors—and with our neighbors for the sake of all that lives.

God hopes, first and last and always, in us. This is the piece missing from the puzzle of command and obedience, the piece that makes faith possible and not utterly absurd. We are not worthy of that hope as we have made ourselves, as God finds us in the world. And yet we are, because we are nothing other than what God has made. This is the real existence–essence conflict. We must hope in God in order to have hope for ourselves and one another. Only then will we hear God's No, responding to our negation, for the Yes for which it clears the way. Only then will we even begin to consider saying yes and not no, in all the ways God wills to say Yes without having to say No. Only then will we begin, as Paul says, to be reconciled by and to God.

Salvation is not a verdict, and every child of the Reformation ought to know that—and yet we have never managed, for all our works, to understand it as anything else. Verdicts are so profoundly part of our faith in ourselves, and the gods we have constructed. Verdicts are even part of our faith in God against the world, as we know that only God will justly condemn, and justly vindicate. Even in our best attempts, we have made salvation without works into a verdict we clearly don't deserve, an unjust verdict that sets mercy against righteousness. This is our failure, not God's, and we must do better.


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