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The Aesthetics of the Apocalypse

Lately there have been some good discussions on the nature of New Testament apocalyptic and how such an apocalyptic orientation should inform Christian theology. One of the points of tension involves the propensity of apocalyptic language to become merely a discourse of rupture and irruption, of pure negation rather than as the moment of God’s No being uttered within the overarching melodies of God’s Yes. Perhaps one way to address this potential problematic is to redefine the locus of the conversation. Too often these discussions about the apocalyptic nature of the Messianic events of resurrection and Pentecost end up becoming discussions about sin, nature, and grace. How deeply has sin affected creation? Does grace destroy and recreate nature, or does grace perfect nature, merely purging it of the privation of sin? These questions make for interesting discussion, which must continue to be pursued, but they also rarely have much resolution, even between people who are clearly both searching for a way to express their fundamental affinity within their theological-linguistic disagreements.

Here I would like to offer a suggestion for another way of discussing the matter. Instead of trying to figure out how thoroughly sin has pervaded creation and thus how deep of an apocalypse we need to address the problem, I submit that we should instead be thinking primarily of how to best describe the apocalyptic visions of divine glory, and the attending doxology that it evokes from the people of God. Thus, our talk about the divine apocalypse should be formulated more in terms of the irreducible radiance of the trinitarian glory, of God’s inexhaustible beauty, which is unveiled in Christ (getting back to the etymology of apocalypse). In other words, what we need is to avoid some sort of anthropocentric way of deploying the language of apocalypse in which we become fixated on the way in which nature as we know it is ruptured by God in Christ. Our focus must not be on the rupture in itself, but rather on the infinite koinonial and doxological plenitude that is unleashed through what we experience as the rupture of God’s trinitarian invasion of the world in Christ and the Spirit.

This would not be to back off from the radicality of the language of apocalypse, but to simply be more biblical and to give proper credence the Johannine along with the Pauline. The most explicitly apocalyptic texts of the New Testament seem to be intentionally directing our attention away from the catastrophic collision of the powers of evil with the infinite love of the triune God, aligning our vision instead simply towards the visio dei itself. Here there is a helpful connection to the work of David Bentley Hart, who as it turns out, may be an apocalyptic theologian of sorts himself. His vision of the infinite beauty of the triune God who frees us from the “veil of the sublime” is precisely what we see in the un-veiling that takes place in what we talk about as the divine apocalypse. The subliminity of a broken creation gives way to the inexhaustible beauty of the trinitarian luminescence of divine love. Thus, in beholding God’s apocalypse in Christ and the Spirit, our vision does not, indeed cannot, ultimately focus on the cataclysmic battle between Christ and Antichrist, between life and death. Rather, our eyes are constantly drawn away from the penultimate battle towards the truly compelling visage of trinitarian beauty. Ultimately our eyes can only focus on the enveloping, inexhaustible, unsurpassable glory of the triune God. The divine apocalypse, in which the forces of Antichrist, Babylon, and Satan assail the Lamb and his people must ultimately and at every point direct our vision toward beholding the glory of the throne of God and of the Lamb. The battle between Christ and Antichrist occurs as but a moment in the eschatological symphony of Alpha and Omega. The battle of the Logos (Balthasar) is ultimately only seen as the the prelude to great transformation: death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15:54 cf. Isa 25:8).

6 Comments

  1. Halden wrote:

    Just a quick note to give credit where credit is due. Conversations with Doug Harink and Nate Kerr via email were instrumental in my being able to write this post. Of course all flaws and mistakes are my own.

    Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  2. Doug Harink wrote:

    Halden,

    Brilliant! I think the turn to God’s glory in Christ moves us in a very helpful direction. That glory is simultaneously the revelation of the uncreated light and the fire of apocalyptic judgment. Which is how the apostles experienced the transfiguration, by the way. And it also helps us to understand the cross and resurrection together, in both John and Paul, as the glorification of Christ.

    Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  3. Andy wrote:

    Halden,

    Glad to see you’ve come back to aesthetics. Apocalyptic aesthetics has been my project for the past few years (as I might have hinted in my contribution to the 2008 Balthasar blog conference at Fire and Rose). It is a fertile soil to be tilled in our current theological milieu. And I clearly think Balthasar has a lot to teach us here.

    Andy

    Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 7:29 am | Permalink
  4. kim fabricius wrote:

    Good stuff, Halden – as long the aesthetics is a political aesthetics and not just an aesthetic aesthetics (a weakness, it has been suggested, in von Balthasar’s theology of glory). I am thinking, in particular, of the Apocalypse of John (to which you implicitly allude with your military imagery), which provides rich pickings for a political-aesthetic swerve to the “apocalyptic turn”. Revelation has more instances of the noun doxa than even the Gospel of John (though add instances of the verb doxazein and you see why the Fourth Gospel is rightly called the “Book of Glory”), while in it liturgical and the political motifs are inextricably linked, e.g. in the divine throne room (chapter 4), in the worship of the slaughtered Lamb (chapter 5), in the New Jerusalem (chapter 21).

    In addition, that in Revelation the Re-Creator is none other than the Creator, and that corrupt creation will be eschatologically renewed, not replaced – this ensures that the discourse of rupture must be richer than pure negation. And – it gets better! – Richard Bauckham observes that “Revelation has the most developed trinitarian theology in the New Testament, with the possible exception of the Gospel of John.”

    (Sorry – I’ve got Revelation on my mind lately! This autumn will be the first time in twenty-six years of ministry that I’ve plucked up the courage to lead a six-week Bible study on the whole book.)

    Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  5. Chris wrote:

    I was contemplating the beatific vision the other day, and I thought how sad it was that its been continually relegated to some kind of ‘hereafter’ with little to no touchstone in the present. Your post here gets me thinking more provocatively about what’s going when God’s (doxological) people gather together.

    Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 7:53 am | Permalink
  6. Tony wrote:

    Kim says: “Good stuff, Halden – as long the aesthetics is a political aesthetics and not just an aesthetic aesthetics (a weakness, it has been suggested, in von Balthasar’s theology of glory). I am thinking, in particular, of the Apocalypse of John (to which you implicitly allude with your military imagery), which provides rich pickings for a political-aesthetic swerve to the “apocalyptic turn”.”

    There is more “political theology” in Balthasar if one were only willing to read more deeply not only into the pages of the Theological Aesthetics (cf for example the last two volumes on the Old and New Testaments) but also the Theologican Dramatics. The latter actually begins with a consideration of just precisely the Book of Revelation and sustains that reading all through out the five volumes. Balthasar`s “The Whole in the Fragment” and the earlier “A Theology of History” are two other books that are worthwhile reading for a theopolitics.

    There is a tendency in commentators to expect theological writers to say everything on every topic. Balthasar knew his limitations, thus the invitation to others to “complete” the fragments that he considers his own writings to be. No titanic pretensions there.

    Friday, August 8, 2008 at 12:16 am | Permalink

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