A Conversation in my head with theologian Daniel Migliore
We are now entering an unprecedented time of social isolation. If this time feels overwhelming, let me know. I am glad to talk on the phone, and especially while the risk of transmission remains low, I am happy to visit with anyone – though we will keep our “social” distance.
As a preparation for this isolation, I decided to start talking to myself. To keep it interesting, I have imagined the conversation I would have with one of my favourite theologians, Daniel Migliore. I gathered several quotes from his book, Faith Seeking Understanding, and here is how it might go:
Me: Daniel, you are a really great thinker…
Daniel: Thank You.
Me: …and so I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on our current situation.
Daniel: Absolutely. Because the situation we are now facing is new, but its basic elements are not: disease and its spread, threats and conflicts, the power of death, and the highly contagious emotion of fear. Our sense of powerlessness and impending catastrophe overwhelms many and I believe the only cure for society is Hope.
Me: Like hope in a vaccine?
Daniel: That could be one element of our hope, but only a small portion. Let’s say a vaccine appeared tomorrow. Then the questions would become:
“Is it safe?”
“Is it effective”
In other words, the element of fear that exists in this world is not easily quenched. It is often simply re-directed.
Me: Then what sort of Hope are you talking about?
Daniel: I am talking about an Apocalyptic Hope.
Me: Hang on, do you mean like an end-times, here comes an asteroid thing?
Daniel: Definitely not. Our culture, and sadly, many of our churches, have misunderstood apocalyptic imagery and stories and spread more fear than Hope. Our culture has developed the majority of our movies and books with a trajectory towards dystopia, and this is not our Apocalyptic Hope. From our Christian communities, some of the greatest damage has been done by so-called “biblical” interpretations of Scripture. There are stories out there that feed on fear by describing a timetable of awful events that are ordained by God and prescribed by the Bible. These stories are a serious departure from our Hope based in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here is what I mean:
When the Apocalyptic Scriptural texts are torn out of their historical context, then they can be made to fit whatever scheme the interpreter wants, and the rest of the Biblical message, such as Jesus’ life, ministry, death & resurrection, becomes secondary.
If Scripture is turned into a timetable of events, then our lives are deterministic and everything is happening to us. Again, this goes against the rest of the Biblical message, which says we are called to join God’s work of redeeming this world.
Most of these stories have an “us” and “them,” where the “us” gets saved from troubles and the “them” do not. Jesus coming to this earth was an act of solidarity with people and creation and so there is no more “us” and “them,” but rather “us with Him.”
Any story of end times should not eclipse Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, nor sever the knowledge that Faith, Hope and Love are the greatest elements. These are the beginning, middle, and end of all our stories. A story can only be called Biblical if it is about the redemptive power of God making all things new.
Me: Right, um…that’s a lot to think about.
Daniel: I know. It’s in my book Faith Seeking Understanding if you need to come back to it.
Me: Okay, so tell me what you mean about Apocalyptic Hope.
Daniel: First of all, apocalyptic does not primarily mean “end times,” it means hidden things are being revealed. In a Biblical context, it means the hidden things of God are being revealed.
Me: So…it’s sort of like that series on Netflix that shows how magicians do their tricks?
Daniel: That’s a good starting point. You could say it is a “behind-the-scenes” viewpoint; except you need to know that the language is also highly figurative & symbolic. I think figurative language makes sense because language already feels inadequate to describe the intricacies of a flower, much less the universe and all of human history. The language of Christian Hope is language stretched to the limits. We do not have precise and detailed information about the future. When we speak of life beyond death, or of a resurrected body, or of a new heaven and a new earth, we speak in images, metaphors and parables.
If I were to give a summary of Christian Apocalyptic Hope, I would say all the images, metaphors and parables point towards the triumph of the love of God over all hate, of the justice of God over all injustice, of God’s freedom over all bondage, of community with God over all separation, of life with God over the power of death.
Me: That does sound like just what we need in a time like this. Sign me up!
Daniel: Yes, it does. But also note, while this is a beautiful ideal, we must recognize the Christian journey towards this vision is not avoidance, but rather amid disease, alienation, injustice, oppression, war and a host of other evils. There can be no salvation for us individually apart from the transformation of the many communities and institutions to which we belong: family, society and humanity as a whole.
Currently, we are presented with the challenge of transforming society, while living in isolation from society. I am already noting the potential redemption of our technology. Up until this point, I have joined the lament that technology has separated us physically from face-to-face and skin-to-skin interactions. Yet, these very practices are now keeping us safe and connected in ways that were not possible a couple decades ago.
Me: I am so thankful for all those who are continuing to enable our lives to have hope: the developers of technologies that aid us, health care workers, governments, artists and so many who are giving their time and resources to bolster our lives.
Daniel: Yes, so many are living into and building our Apocalyptic Hope; and yet, there is more. While we are joining with God’s work when we make this world a better place, our ultimate and greatest Apocalyptic Hope recognizes that the fulfillment we seek is an incalculable gift of God.
Me: Right, because if God is not a part of this we are only talking about optimism, aren’t we?
Daniel: Yes, in the struggle against death & disease, injustice and human rights, Christians will always insist on “more” – on a different, greater future than what is ever achievable by human effort and ingenuity, a hope beyond hope.
Me: I think this is what I call “God Moments,” which are the moments of Grace that I see in my life or those around me that I’m pretty sure I could never have orchestrated myself. I have been counting so many blessings over the last 10 days as these unprecedented events unfurl.
Daniel: I like that term. And if you are seeing God’s grace around you then you are training your own eyes to be “apocalyptic” – to draw back the curtain and see God’s movement all around you. So I’ll ask: when you see your blessings do they give you Hope?
Me: Yes, they do. And so do the stories I read of other good things happening, even in the midst of tragedy. I was reading yesterday of doctors who set-up calls and Facetime for their patients so that they are not completely alone. And the latest news about reduced air pollution is astounding. While I presumed pollution would go down, I did not know that the United Nations estimates 4 million people die from air pollution in our world each year, and so this reduction is significant for both creation and global health.
Daniel: Yes, that is what I mean about Grace not being separate, but rather in the middle of disease. My faith leads me to believe more is happening that what we see and especially what gets reported. There is the famous line from the Narnia story by C.S. Lewis: “Aslan is on the move!” Aslan is the figurative character of Jesus, and Aslan’s movement is precipitated by acts of great evil and a coming war. In times such as these, I know there is great Divine movement.
Me: Thank you for being here with me and keeping me company, Daniel. As a final thought, how would you summarize our Christian Apocalyptic Hope in one line?
Daniel: Do not fear.