The Far-Reaching Scope of Pauline Apocalyptic

This is a postscript to a post I wrote a while back on “Why I Used to be Attracted to Radical Orthodoxy,” in which I stated my initial attraction to RO because it “promis[ed] to have something theological to say about economics, sex, cities, philosophy, aesthetics and music,” and most nearly everything. Before I ever encountered RO, I was captivated by chapter 8 of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (“Christ and Power”) because it offered a means for reflecting on the structural aspects of sin and the structural elements of redemption. As I was recently reading Douglas Harink’s Paul Among the Postliberals it occurred to me that Pauline apocalyptic theology might have been a more obvious place to begin exploring the cosmic (all encompassing) framework of the gospel, rather than RO’s  explorations into the various “sites” in which secular modernity has invested heavily (because they often uphold Christendom as the alternative). A couple of choice quotations from Harink make the case for apocalyptic as a mode for theological engagement with different “sites” with the gospel:

…[For] Paul, all apocalyptic reflection and hope comes to this, that God has acted critically, decisively, and finally for Israel, all the peoples of the earth, and the entire cosmos, in the life, death, resurrection, and coming again of Jesus, in such a way that God’s purpose for Israel, all humanity, and all creation is critically, decisively, and finally disclosed and effected in the history of Jesus Christ. (68)

This cosmic scope means, in Harink’s estimation, that

apocalyptic theology is theology ‘without reserve’ [borrowing phrasing from Walt Lowe], that is, theology which leaves no reserve of space or time or concept or aspect of creation outside of or beyond or undetermined by the critical, decisive, and final action of God in Jesus Christ. Discriminating judgments, definitions and differentiations, even ‘totalizing’ claims, are intrinsic to the grammar of apocalyptic theology—not, of course, as the proud and ‘authoritarian’ prerogative of the theologian or the church, but as the manner in which Christian theology participates in the apocalypse of Jesus Christ. (69)

While I am not willing to use the term “totalizing” (I think it is an inaccurate description of Pauline theology) I agree with Harink here that apocalyptic theology “reserves” nothing to remain outside of God’s action in Christ, and hence potential engagement with it. For

To do otherwise, for example, is to ‘contextualize’ Paul’s apocalyptic as the ‘conditioned’ product of his time, is to escape the grip of his message, to depart from the road on which Paul travels and on which he invites, indeed implores, his hearers/readers to travel. (69)

In a sense, the Pauline gospel contextualizes us, rather than vice-versa. But it is extremely important to note, however, that the highly contextual nature of Paul’s writings also shows that the good news inhabits and transforms multiple cultural sites in various ways, rather than calling everyone from his or her culture to a single, all-encompassing culture. What I mean is that Paul’s writings provide an impetus for engaging everything, but not in a way that holds up medieval Christendom as the cultural form that must result (for many reasons!).

I believe Harink is saying something similar, when discussing Paul’s transformation of the household codes of Greek/Roman culture:

In other words, the given social structures in the world into which the gospel is announced and lived are neither accepted in their sheer facticity as ‘the way things are’ nor are they simply to be rejected as the instruments of oppression. Rather, they are invaded by the gospel and become something that, apart from the gospel, they could never become—the means by which the cross of Jesus Christ is made concretely visible as the way of life. (135)

Where I would depart from Harink is in his (implicit) endorsement of Hauerwas’s description of this method as “an appropriate Christian imperialism” (103. Harink is ambiguous here, to be fair, but too ambiguous when such terms are being used). Again, the difference between this mode of theology and Radical Orthodoxy would be an emphasis on engaging local culture at the concrete level, as Harink argues in his final chapter (especially 235-54), rather than holding up high medieval culture as the ideal.