I like the feast of All Saints. In part, I think, this is because of the time of year at which it falls: the golden leaves, the crisp evenings, and the promise of Christmas approaching. However there’s something about the content of the celebration which appeals to me as well. It’s a feast on which any number of themes converge. One of these is the eschatological dimension of Christian life: the liturgy develops a picture of us as a pilgrim people, not yet at home, being beckoned by the saints to the future Kingdom which they already enjoy. Here we have signs and symbols, there we will have the unmediated reality. So, for example, the prayer after communion asks that we
may pass from this pilgrim table
to the banquet of our heavenly homeland
Similarly Abelard’s hymn for the feast contains the verse:
Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
We for that country must yearn and must sigh;
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.
We’re not yet where we fully belong; we are still – as the Salve Regina puts it – in ‘this veil of tears’. Life as it is, with its pain, its loss, and its injustice is not ultimate. Instead, what is ultimate is the risen humanity of Christ, shared with the saints in communion with him. Abelard, who had more than his share of reasons to think of his life as a Babylonian exile, develops a theme that speaks to me, and I imagine to most people. This can’t be all there is: a desperate proto-prayer, transformed by hope into the resolute this isn’t all there is. It’s a thought shot through with tension, much like Leonard Cohen’s cold and broken hallelujah: simply affirming the heavenly Jerusalem doesn’t abolish the Babylonish exile. If we rejoice because of the future, we do so in a present that often gives us precious little to celebrate.
If this spirituality of the future is appealing, it ought also to provoke a healthy dose of critical scrutiny. For aren’t we too close to comfort to Marx’s opium of the people, Freud’s wish fulfilment, and Joe Hill’s Pie in the Sky When You Die?
Possibly. There certainly are ways of receiving this tradition which provide a tacit baptism for present injustices, reassuring the victims that everything will be alright in heaven, but that in the meantime the poor will always be with us. But I think that this cannot be the authentic way of receiving it, for if it were there would be a conflict between the imperatives of hope, and those of love, which there cannot be. So instead, I want to claim that living in hope, which is really all that the ‘Babylon’s strand’ poetry is about, makes us more able to live lovingly in the present.
The first reason for this is quite a simple one: hopelessness is utterly disempowering. If we have no sense that things could ever be any better, if our every effort seems simply like an irrelevant pebble in a sea of human mess, cruelty, and oppression, then cynicism, even nihilism, will often as not follow. “Without vision the people perish”. The belief that not only will everything end well, but that in the most fundamental sense that it already has – the future glory of the saints is simply the sharing of what was already, finally, and decisively achieved at the empty tomb – frees us from the paralysing fear of failure of futility. That the ultimate victory is, and will, be won by God does not – of course – license us to sit back content in the belief that somebody else has sorted it out, so we don’t need to. That belief only makes sense if God is somebody in the same sense that we are, an inhabitant of the universe whose agency could possibly compete with our own. The conviction that this is so, shared by those US evangelicals who see concern for climate change as a form of apostasy and by Richard Dawkins (who, in a relatively uninteresting twist, doesn’t actually believe that the emasculating deity exists) has a biblical name: idolatry.
A more interesting reason for thinking that a healthy dose of eschatology makes us better inhabitants of the present is that it allows us to say something about the sheer meaninglessness and horror of human sufferings for which there is no prospect of worldly redemption, for which no restitution, no political change could be a remedy. Such are death and loss, the illnesses, the fractured relationships, the missed opportunities that spread throughout the fabrics of our lives like the shattering of a thin pane of glass. Faced with the utter senselessness of it all, the temptation is to try to impute meaning to these events: artificially imported meaning, forced on events from the outside to save an inadequate account of reality – a word for this in a non-theological language is ‘ideology’. And ideology, because it distorts our view of the world, perverts our capacity to love.
So, the dead soldier is no longer the frail friend and lover, as sinful as the rest of us, a good laugh in the pub, admirable just in as much as he was ordinary, forced into an army by economic circumstance or conscription. He is now a hero; the cause for which he died was a just one, and war must be continued lest he died in vain. Then again, the death from cancer was not so much the horrible, random consequence of events at the cellular level, but rather God’s loving way of calling the patient home (a piece of grotesque sentimentalism which cannot be true, if the word ‘love’ used of God is in any way continuous with its ordinary sense). Nor was that accident that left you in a wheelchair a tragedy, it was the Lord opening the door to new opportunities, brother. Don’t feel anger, give thanks! Heaven, on this kind of view, is an afterparty for the emotionally repressed.
The truth is that we do not need to lend these things meaning: they have no meaning of themselves, but their victims have ultimate meaning, loved unconditionally as they are by the God who first loved them into being. And the truth will set us free.