Tuesday, June 04, 2013

If eschatology is more about space than time

The end is near!

Almost all of my theological training has led me to assume that eschatology (the doctrine of the 'last things') is about a future moment, a time, some time in the future, when Christ comes and consummates all things.

Although this future moment has an implicit spatial component (Christ is coming here, among us, establishing God's kingdom in our midst) the emphasis has consistently been on the chronological rather than the topological.

Think about it: when you see a placard carrying prophet screaming--THE END IS NEAR--do you think they are proclaiming the end as soon (temporally) or close (physically)?

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, there has been a minor and quieter discourse in things eschatological that focuses on the doctrine of the last things from the dimension of space rather than time.

I can thank Vitor Westhelle for finally clarifying this concept for me in ways I will never forget.

Westhelle's new book, Eschatology and Space: The Lost Dimension in Theology Past and Present, is wonderful for this reason alone--after reading it, you will think of eschatology more from a spatial perspective than ever before.

Westhelle is a fascinating modern Lutheran theologian for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that he himself teaches and lives in multiple geographical locations. He is from the global South (Argentina) teaches in the new West (Chicago) and the old West (Denmark), and is fully conversant in the theological traditions of all three locales.

In this sense, although this book is thoroughly theological, it is also, on another level, completely autobiographical.

The basic thesis of the book is that liminal space, choratic spaces between spaces, are places of judgment. So rather than the last judgment being a moment in time for which we are waiting, the last judgment is a boundary space, passage, through which we travel. Westhelle calls this "trial by space."

In the course of the work, Westhelle thoroughly engages the Western theological and philosophical tradition and shows why the temporal dimensions of eschatology take prominence in that academic context. He then uses metaphors of maps and spaces and boundaries (even clothes) to illustrate how to think of eschatology in more overtly spatial ways.

Westhelle's theology thus has a basic liberationist feel to it, precisely because when eschatology is considered in spatial terms, it lifts up and gives a preferential option to the marginalized, those who daily live in and through the eschata of choratic spaces and liminal places.

Westhelle reclaims almost every single term in eschatological discourse for spatial reasoning. So parousia, so often considered also in terms of time, is for Westhelle about space and presence precisely because the direct translation of the term is "essence by." Similarly "eschata," though so often used to speak of a future time, is actually first of all about a spatial location or a geographical boundary. It can also indicate an order or rank, but even this definition is not primarily temporal.

A few quotes to tease potential readers into considering the book:

"This migration to the south and the departure of the 'heliotrope' as the commanding figure for the eschatological discourse was headed and led by what could be called a 'paradigm shift in theology' led by liberation theology, as the global movement of thinking theology outside the North-Atlantic canonic parameters."

"Eschatology is a discourse on liminality, marginality, on that which is in ontological, ethical, and also epistemological sense different."

"The kingdom of God is so close and nearby that we might have overstepped it in our amusement in the playgrounds of promise."

"The eschaton is a space between spaces, belonging to neither, yet adjacent to both, which is best expressed by the Greek word chōra, which etymologically means 'to lie open, be ready to receive,' a space between places or limits."

"The 'spatial turn' allows us to focus attention not only on the longitudinal view of historical development, but also on little stories and the space they occupy in everyday life."

"Eschatology is, therefore, not primarily about cosmic catastrophes or abstract speculations about time and eternity; it names the experience of a crossing in which the messianic is an occurrence in time that becomes kairotic, and in spaces, choratic. Such messianic experience in space and time entails a faint promise of a weak epiphany, not a cosmic Armageddon. However, such epiphanies are not given to the common gaze, but those who have been at the eschaton have a claim upon them. This claim taxes memory and keeps the flame of hope kindled."

"Eschatological experiences are vaguely analogous to the behavior of subatomic particles: in the moment it is located and detected, it is no longer there." 

1 comment:

  1. The entire Hebrew language (and all Semitic) is spatial, not linear.