Monday, February 2, 2015

Books Worth Reading (2): Christopher Morse's The Difference Heaven Makes

Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News (London: T&T Clark, 2010).

This book is rather short, a mere 122 pages. It is complex and closely-argued. It is also highly stimulating. The author, Christopher Morse, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Theology and Ethics at New York's Union Seminary. Although the book is mostly engaged with scholarly discussions, Morse's enquiries overlap with questions which Christian faith and life inevitably bring to the surface. For instance: Just what is heaven? A superficial answer to this question is to refer to the three-tiered universe of the first century, and therefore explain heaven away as a component of an outmoded cosmology. Yet Morse explores what Jesus' reference to it meant even within that cosmology. If the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus comes from heaven, how does its origin determine what it is? Why was Jesus' proclamation about it heard as good news? Why was it proclaimed as being something 'at hand', something 'to come' (and not, therefore, as a place to go to when you die)?

To address such questions, however, he has to break through the literal/metaphorical options that those of us enculturated into modernity's habits of thought have laid over this theme. Morse argues that the idea of heaven should not be dismissed out of embarrassment at an outmoded cosmology, but neither should it be reinterpreted as a myth simply bearing existential significance. The real scholarly debate, he suggests, lies somewhere between cynicism and credulity.
Clearing away the growth of conventional underbrush serves a critical function in allowing for the recognition of things otherwise obscured. Such may be the case with respect to conventions of modern thought insofar as they erroneously take for granted that the only options for making current sense of the biblical news of heaven would be to treat it as empirically verifiable, as objectively cosmological, as existentially or morally anthropological, or as a social construction of reality. On the other hand merely proposing as counterpoints the labels 'eschatological' or 'apocalyptic' does not in itself provide an account for the hope of heaven either. Theological clearing is necessary, even it not alone a sufficient, step in dogmatics. Cynicism is shown to be as unwarranted and untrustworthy as credulity. (p 50)
Christopher Morse
As this quote indicates, Morse's writing is dense and, as I already noted above, the argument takes some time to absorb. Morse is cutting through some of the received conventions for discussing this topic. You have to think a bit tangentially to enter each new step in the argument.

Nevertheless, I think there are three issues which are worth noting in this brief summary and which might serve as tasters for others.

First, Morse makes much of the kingdom of heaven being 'at hand' (e.g. Mark 1:15, Matt 3:2; Luke 10:9). In fact, it is the dominant theme of the book. Heaven is one part of creation which comes to another part of creation, i.e., earth. In Jesus' preaching heaven and earth are brought into proximity to each other. So, Morse argues: "The new heaven or than sky, the hereafter, or a feeling of bliss. It sounds like nothing less than God taking a new course of action in coming events to make the kind of home with us that will ever prove to be the right home for us." (p.13). (This reference to  proximity of heaven to earth also helps to correct the conventional juxtaposition of heaven and hell. Morse notes of the gospel witness: "Unlike earth, we do not hear of hell as a counterpart of heaven. While earth is overarched by heaven, hell is depicted as overtaken" (p. 21).)

Secondly, heaven is a place of doing (e.g. 'thy will be done on earth as in heaven'), so what kind of doing occurs in the kingdom which comes from heaven? Morse argues that the heaven which overarches the earth "is a dominion...directed toward countering every impediment to the right of love and freedom with its justice now on this earth" (p.72). But this is not simply a mandate for a reign of justice which we can control and which we might recognise by criteria we construct and apply. There is something properly 'unreal' about this kingdom which comes from heaven. "...the coming of heaven at hand is not so much the end of the real world as its beginning, ...the source of an ability-to-respond to what the present calls for beyond all human powers of control that are, so to speak, 'in hand'" (p.72). In other words, trying to place the 'doing of heaven' into our usual constructs of anthropology, justice, wisdom or cosmology etc., will always risk resisting the genuine 'news' of this kingdom. We need to listen "without the usual modernist earplugs" (p.72) that not all reality is factuality.

The third theme I mention is also related to the unplugging of our modernist earplugs, specifically in relation to the eschatology within which Jesus places his proclamation of this kingdom which comes from heaven. Here Morse deconstructs some of the prohibitions on eschatology announced by nineteenth-century biblical scholarship. Morse certainly resists the attempts to distil a non-eschatological or non-apocalyptic Jesus. That is not to say, however, that he provides some key that neatly unlocks this complex issue. His suggestion (and 'suggestiveness' is very much the mode of the book) is to propose juxtaposition of 'now' and 'then' which parallels the more familiar 'here' and 'there' juxtaposition of heaven and earth. Just as the kingdom comes to earth, so Jesus' future comes to the present. To some extent this is standard twentieth-century theological fare. Nevertheless, it allows him to play (my term) with the eschatology of the New Testament, rather than either accept, excise or demythologise it. The presence of the kingdom is always a movement; it is "taking place and newly coming to pass" (p. 107). The future kingdom does not come in order to stabilise the present: it creates a new previously unimaginable present. An eschatology shaped by the idea of heaven coming to earth needs a different imagining than our standard past, present, future timelines.

As Morse develops this idea, the book can be read as a summons to give full theological - and spiritual - attention to the reality of Christ's dynamic presence. As he writes on the book's final page: "[W]e are called to be on hand for that which is at hand, but not in hand, an unprecedented glory of not being left orphaned but of being loved in a community of new creation beyond all that we can ask or imagine" (p.122.). In some ways the book is an exploration - unusual in contemporary theology - of the theme of Christus praesens. And it is this because he bothers to explore the idea of heaven.

There is much more that could be said about this book: Morse's engagements with Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Paul Lehmann; his various exegetical proposals; his reflections on imagination and hermeneutics; and his considerations of the 'ethics of heaven'. It also forms something of a bridge between some current debates in systematic theology and those in New Testament studies about eschatology and apocalyptic. There are some sections on recent theological history which offer succinct and pithy summaries of some very complex debates. Again, it is not the easiest of reads. But for those already familiar with theological discussion it is an engaging way into a study of Christian existence informed by the biblical witness to heaven and its coming.  

(This series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.)

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