Monday, April 17, 2017

On apocalyptic theology in a William Gibson world

 Christian Understandings of the Future: The Historical Trajectory, by Amy Frykholm.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.  Pp. 366.

In 1984 William Gibson published Neuromancer, the futuristic novel that established cyberpunk as a legit sub-genre of science fiction. It won the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. In it, he coined the term cyberspace, and a few years after its publication, uttered that most felicitous of lines: "The future is already here, it isjust not evenly distributed.

Published in the year George Orwell had described in his dystopian satire (itself published in 1949), Gibson left precise dating on the fictional future context of the novels out of the series. Most readers thus speculated the novel took place in the late 21st century. But then Gibson himself weighed in, claiming when he wrote the book he was imagining some time around 2035.  The book's legions of attentive readers (and of the wider series in which it is set--The Sprawl) speculate that Gibson has in fact "accelerated the timeline, perhaps subconsciously, because he feels our prsent moment being pulled inexorably toward Neuromancer's by Fancy Bear, Oculus Rift and Trump's Twitter feed... he's trying to warn us that we too are close to summoning demons" (

Intriguingly, Gibson's later novels have drawn ever closer to the near future--that is, to the present. He has found the more the present is changing, the more difficult it is to imagine the future. Here we see the resonance with Amy Frykhom's work on the historical trajectory of Christian eschatology, for in order to speak of our present understandings of the future, she must by necessity excavate the history of its articulation.

Frykholm's book is simple in construction if fathoms deep in execution. She simply describes the origins of apocalyptic in Part 1, outlines its historical development in Part II, and then describes the contemporary challenges in Part III. Part II takes up the bulk of the text, as the history of Christian thinking about the future is the history of Christian thinking, full-stop. Every generation of Christians has had to ask themselves the question: "Is the end now or not yet?" (5)

Late in her book, in a chapter on contemporary eschatological theories from Schweizer to Rahner, she summarizes Karl Rahner's view, "The apocalyptic can really only unveil a deeper reality of the present. It cannot, as has so many times been attempted in the Christian tradition, tell us the future" (304-305).  Rahner took much criticism for such a view, wrestling as he was at attempting to reconcile ancient forms of apocalyptic with contemporary visions of the created world and its working (305).

Frykholm works a basic thesis throughout the book. She argues for two essential forms of eschatology, apocalyptic and prophetic. Apocalyptic eschatology happens because of God, largely out of human control... angels, beasts, trials, signs, wonders. Prophetic eschatology, on the other hand, "describes things that will happen on earth with a mixture of divine and human action" (13). This form of eschatology is focused on the earthly, and is found more in the judgments and prophecies of folks like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. This kind of eschatology focuses on the healing of the world, tikkun olam.

We see prophetic eschatology at work in many figure, perhaps pre-eminently in Martin Luther King Jr. For MLK Jr.,"Christ comes in our words and deeds, in our actions toward our fellow human beings. This was the relevant coming, not an abstract future one. Likewise, judgment was not a later event but something that was happening at this moment. This perhaps explains King's frequent impatience with white theology, whihc was always delaying the moment of justice until some later time, just as whites were always telling African-Americans to be patient in their struggle for justice, that now was not the right time" (311).

Frykholm is especially sympathetic to this prophetic strand of eschatology. It appears, in fact, that strengthening the reader's attention to such a strand stands as the energizing core of the work. She remarks, "To whatever degree Christian eschatology leads us to neglect our neighbors and our communities and the care of our fragile planet, it is a failed eschatology" (334). She concludes the book with an emphasis on attention to the forms of eschatology that attend to the world we make combined with the creative work of God, the very definition of prophetic eschatology she lifts early in the book (347).

Frykholm also raises our awareness of the increasingly complex situation we find ourselves in vis-a-vis the scientific worldview. First, there is the problem of time, for all the previous eschatologies (prior to Einstein) were predicated on an understanding of time as separate from space. But in our quantum physical reality, we must deal as theologians with the concept of space-time. So Frykholm reminds us, "Time is an inherently bendable reality tied up with space" (339).

But inasmuch as some theologians have done the work of engaging quantum descriptions of reality, the task of eschatology in the twenty-first century is much like that of Gibson's. Although we can no longer cast our vision as far forward perhaps as we could have in more stable eras, nevertheless we can weave our theological work into the scientific convesation in ways that mutually inform everyone. Frykholm writes, "Because theology has an emphasis on the particular, the strange and the unexpected, it can introduce a concept like Isaiah's 'new heavens and new earth' (Isa 65:17). This, Polkinghorne says, 'is what distinguishes theological eschatology from a secular futurology.' Theology may have a new vocation: to disturb the certainties of science and scientists, as it was once and continues to be thorougly disturbed by science... Maybe the eschatology of the twenty-first century is best understood not as a comprehensive form of knowledge but as a comprehensive form of questioning" (342).

Forthcoming as a review in Word & World.

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