Answer: Materiality. Creation.
If there has been one unitive theme to the sprawl of writings and conversations I’ve had this summer (and last night) in one rarified Christian culture at Cornell, it concerns the place and destiny of creation – the teeming, ordered physical realm of the priestly vision – within the purpose of God. Last night's visitation of the topic was occasioned by my roommate’s claims about asceticism: that the life of renunciation and celibacy in fact anticipates more closely the reality of our eschatological future than that of less ascetic and married folk, and is, for that reason, objectively superior. This I denied. The disagreement pivoted on many factors, but the most salient was our differing expectations for the life of the world to come (real Barthians and others can tune out: for now, I am still naïve enough to entertain such scandalously unreconstructed, objectified, un-demythologized expectations). A closely related matter is our global understanding of salvation.
Now, I am not sure what exactly resurrection sexuality is. It sounds a little crazy and speculative – and it is. Within the bounds of Jesus’ words on not marrying or being given in marriage – but apparently remaining engendered? – its uncertain what this could mean. It certainly affronted my roommate’s sensibilities to bring it up. And yet I am confident that it is important, whatever it may be (somebody out there has written on this). Similarly, that there would be eating and drinking in the realized kingdom, and work to do. Some of all this draws inspiration loosely from various hints in Revelation (22:3?) or from Jesus’ own resurrected meals or words about drinking again of the fruit of the vine. But even more than these piecemeal scriptural evidences, my insistence on the materiality and activity of our restored life relies on an overall view of salvation as restorative – and on the resurrection of Jesus. So far so good; this is all pretty run-of-the-mill NT Wright or Oliver O’Donovan or Michael Goheen (and Augustine?). I’ve been mulling on the latter three this summer, with a strong admixture of Terrence Fretheim and Rolf Knierim. On this telling, the value of asceticism is remedial: we are deadly fixated, idolatrously addicted, to various parts of the creation, and so, temporarily, we must step back from them to gain a right perspective. But even if in this life the alcoholic cannot drink properly, or in Augustine’s case, the womanizer cannot love a woman well, this is by no means an acceptable or ideal condition. It is conscionable only as it gives way to a life in which we are able to love God and love neighbor and work in the world fully and harmoniously.
By contrast, my roommate’s account of the beatific vision gave little weight to the restored and rightly re-ordered engagement with creation on the part of the blessed. Apparently when once these material tokens that now fill our lives have told their story, and the reality which they figure obscurely is enacted in reality, then we have no more need of them: who needs a sandwich, when its message of dependence on God’s provision is replaced by the eschatological, present fullness of God? Who needs marriage, or friendship, when the love of Christ for humanity which (to Christian senses) they echo has reached its heavenly terminus? The training wheels can go. Unless of course, they aren’t just propaedeutic; unless they have some goodness in and of themselves. Maybe, as I suggested to my future Dominican roommate, God just likes a good sandwich. The real problem with making God effectively replace the created world is the resurrection – which, even if you’re not literalistic about it, still depends for its basic intelligibility on continuity, at least as much as on the discontinuity of renewal and glorification.
Now here is where I get confused. I have a couple concerns about this prenominate Michael Goheen way of narrating the Bible’s story. I know that he and that crowd have read Barth. But I, even with my dilettante’s knowledge of the lion of Basel, get uneasy with just how instrumental Jesus becomes on his rehearsal. When the recovery of creation is God’s chief concern, then Jesus becomes a kind of exalted means of getting there – but a means, whose identity and purpose are mostly shapen by however the interpreter has sounded out God’s protological and consequently eschatological intentions at creation (blessing, flourishing, delegating, whatever). This is methodologically wrongheaded. That much I see. God’s first intention is always Jesus Christ. But I wonder what ways there are of imagining “creation as the external basis of the covenant” that don’t have just the same problems as I see with my roommate’s view of our material world and its pluriformity of relations and polities: i.e., construing them as (only) preparatory, or prefigurative. I am willing to admit that the quandary may have special force for someone vocationally interested in the Old Testament. But how can something’s ultimate identity be found in another – without emptying it of its own per se dignity? Without making it the dispensable booster rocket on the spaceship? I trust that there are resources, as yet untapped by me, in Barth for thinking these things through – I’ve been warned enough by those who know not to take seriously the accusations about the weakness of his doctrine of creation. I still can’t help but wonder if there isn’t more bi-directionality happening, though, than I often hear from the Barthians: sure, Jesus Christ has to norm everything in our theological speech: what we mean when we say (for example), God’s king. This is not a king who reigns by domination and threatening power, but a king who reigns by service, by crucifixion, the lamb who was slain! And yet by the same token, Jesus’ disciples would not have recognized him as this kind of king had they not known the scriptural precedent of David, who – at his high point – reigns by blessing and feeding and serving the people of God (see 2 Sam 6). Is David only worthwhile as a type of Jesus? Can we only see what is valuable about David because of Jesus Christ? Or might there be a way in which David opens up possibilities for our vision of Jesus Christ? And what would this mean?
Not incidentally, I have similar questions for some friends of mine exploring the meaning of old creation/new creation tensions in Paul’s thinking. If we assume a radical discontinuity between the two, what then was the value of the old? Or what is it? On what basis should one think that the new creation is good at all if it shucks and contradicts all the rich scriptural indices about what even constitutes goodness? What is the place of the priestly vision of an ordered creation, which drives so much of the Pentateuch – to its climax with the tabernacle and the law, which comprise a kind of Eden terrarium, a momentary, carefully reestablished, microcosmic zone of contact between God and humankind? Just whisk it away as inherently oppressive? Tier upon tier of exclusion? On what grounds? Is the new creation really such an empty set? If the old creation is just a system of oppression to be jettisoned, then what does salvation actually mean? Doesn't this make the new creation solution very similar to gnosticism, flying away to a radically unspecified glory? Is anything really salvaged in Christ, and if not, isn’t this somewhat of a denial of hope? Deep waters.
(Sidenote: I observed in this conversation with my roommate the interesting phenomenon that the same emphasis on the absolute newness of the new creation that justifies his celibacy also warrants the egalitarianism/anarchism of some who take the radical abolition of all old-creation categories in Galatians 3:28 as their lodestar. This is intriguing, not least because I don’t see all the “Christocentric nihilists” lining up at the celibacy recruitment office. I say that lightly, but I actually think it’s deadly serious. I don't know how these folks could propose a good way of being sexual in this life. Also: what are the constructive political implications of this strictly new creationist creationism? can it say anything about ecology? how does it score on the anti-Semitism gauge?).
I also realize that, contra Harold Bloom, the Bible’s plotline isn’t just a U-shape (he said that, right?). We don’t only have a return on our hands, not only a restoration. I am on board with Irenaeus and whoever else advocates for somewhat of a progressive vision, where God made humans with full intentions that we should grow (with creation) into a different and superior being. Fascinatingly, there seems even to be dynamism in the Genesis creation stories. Humankind, made in God’s image, is tasked to subdue the earth, i.e. (pace Lynn White) enact, in our creaturely echo-form, God’s own beneficent and ordering work. Or in the earthier Yahwist version, the first human was given the duty of tilling. The final city is different from the original garden. All this to say, God’s purposes for humanity exceed and transcend the old creation. And yet this still seems importantly different to me than saying that the new creation takes none of its cues from the old.
Perhaps to close this meandering reflection I will quote from that most vexed and vexing passage in 1 Corinthians 15, which pulls the priestly vision and (if Bultmann is right) some other gnostic stuff and the resurrection and the old creation into its orbit (NRSV). I give this not as a triumphant flourish but a giant question mark over all I have written here:
“Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will* also bear the image of the man of heaven.”