We all dream of peace, of a time when humankind can live together in justice, friendship, abundance, and tranquillity. In ancient times there was a hope of the return of the Golden Age when the father God (Kronos or Saturn) was awake, and the gods and humans shared the world in harmony with each other. There had been such a time once; perhaps it would return again—one knew not how. The Hebrews shared this dream with their pagan neighbors. Once there had been paradise, and the messianic age would come when the lamb and the lion would lie down together, when the hungry would be fed, the blind given sight, and the lame the power to walk, and when a great banquet table would be set up and all the nations would come to eat around it.
Paradise was more a hope for the future than it was an historical account of the past. It fed the hopes of humankind instead of appeasing their intellectual interests. The paradise hope con tinued into the Middle Ages, when prophets would announce the coming of a new age of the world the Third Age or the Age of the Holy Spirit. In the last century, secular versions of it appeared. The South Sea Islands became an imagined paradise for the sober, respectable bourgeoisie of London and Paris. The classless society of the socialists offered a paradise for the workers, as did the anarchists' symbolic Day of the General Strike. The dream of a world court, world law, and world parliament stirred the hopes of liberal rationalists, which led first to the League of Nations and then to the United Nations—world bodies that would prevent war. Recently the vision of the "greening of America," of a collapse of the artificialities of industrialism and a return to natural harmonies, impelled some young people to leave the cities and form rural communes in preparation for the new age of the world.
The hopes, the dreams, the visions of paradise have often been the products of sick and demented minds; but the appeal of these visions and the appeal of less mad prophets come from the fact that, sick or well, he who dreams of a better, more peaceful existence speaks to a longing that is deep in the human personality. We want peace, we want justice, we want honesty, we want to be in harmony with nature, our fellows, ourselves.
We know that things are not the way they should be with humankind. We may think that they were once different, but, more importantly, we would like to hope that they can be different at some time in the future. We struggle with one another and with the forces of nature. Husband does battle with wife, parents with children, brother with brother, friend with friend. There is injustice, oppression, fear, misery; and much of the injustice is based on fear. We cannot let the others have power because they may destroy us. We are not so much fighting to preserve our rights and privileges; we are fighting for our lives.
So we erect concentration camps and gas chambers; commit mass murders and assassinations; manufacture and use Saturday night specials; pass discriminatory laws; perpetuate racial and ethnic hatred; we indulge our class, sexual, and religious biases; exploit someone else's resources; we passively accept bad housing, poor education, inadequate food, and inferior medical care. We foster group hatred and collective guilt. And in defense of all these evils we maintain that we must have them for our own survival.
Still we slog ahead, hoping for something better, and thankful for whatever progress has been made. The Black Death is gone; the Spanish Influenza is less destructive; cholera, smallpox, and polio are under control. There is some measure of arms control, and there has not yet been an all-out nuclear war. Fish are swimming in the Hudson and the Thames once more, and Lake Erie has come alive again. Some things do get better. But the Ice Age may return, the earthquake will certainly hit San Francisco, and a really bad summer could produce serious famine in many parts of the world.
There are some scholars and historians who think they discern a steady path of progress in the human condition, but evolutionary optimism is not as popular now as it once was. Perhaps humankind is making progress still; in some scientific and technical and even ethical matters the progress is beyond question. But the pace of progress is slow, the path erratic, and the setbacks frequently disastrous. More recently some people have denied the optimistic vision completely, largely because of a loss of faith in science and technology. They argue that unless we return to lives of prescientific frugality and simplicity we will destroy the world and ourselves with it. Apparently, such apocalyptic doom is not supported by the best scientific evidence, but it indicates merely another search for paradise, one to be found not by progress but by a return to the past.
We dream of a new and better and more peaceful world obtained by either progress or a return to the past, or perhaps some combination of the two. Something is desperately wrong with the present world, yet it still contains some grounds for hope and expectation. We only take the dreams of a new world seriously because we think it not impossible to reach such a world from the one in which we now find ourselves.
We are conscious of the fierce battle that goes on between good and evil, fear and trust, growth and decline, love and hate, life and death. We are caught up in this battle; it goes on inside us as well as outside. The outcome is in doubt. The forces of darkness are very strong, but thus far they have not been quite strong enough. The forces of light have proved remarkably—perhaps unaccountably—resilient.
But what, we ask ourselves, is the fight all about? Why is there such a fight? Who are the contesting parties? Who will win? Is there any plan at all? Are we spending a lot of time fighting with people who should be our friends? Can we find out which way the action is going and flow along with it? When will it all end?
The powers involved have always seemed superhuman. When one looks at the disasters which have afflicted the United States since 1963, one is strongly tempted to see the designs of an evil genius—assassinations, riots, Vietnam, inflation, recession, Watergate, and September 11, 2001. Taken together they represent either a string of very bad luck or a plot. Ordinary and mediocre individuals like Hitler and Stalin can seize power and work evil far beyond the strength of their own personalities. Whole societies (like South Africa perhaps) can pass the point of no return and become fated for bloody disaster despite the best efforts of countless individuals. The evils of the slave trade still affect the United States more than one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Caught in a nuclear arms race we pile up tools of destruction that could wipe out humankind many times over. Good men do evil things out of pride, ignorance, patriotism, fear, or misunderstanding. Some of our best thought-out social reforms make things worse instead of better. The forces of darkness may not be personified, but they seem to be superhuman.
And yet there is goodness. The processes of nature go on, peace follows war, understanding increases, reconciliation is still possible, some problems are solved, some justice is achieved, some ignorance is dispelled. The forces of light are themselves pretty strong.
Most of our ancestors did not hesitate to personify the powers of light and the powers of darkness that seemed to contend for control of their world and the dominance of their lives. A popular explanation of the conflict was called "dualism." The world was the scene of combat between the forces of two gods, the god of good and the god of evil. There were flaws in the explanation, but it seemed to fit a lot of the data pretty well. Even today one finds the same attempt to separate the powers of light from the powers of darkness, and where there are no longer angels and devils there are good guys and bad guys, and some people forget that most of us are in between.
The followers of Jesus thought that in the resurrection experience they learned the meaning of the plan behind the battle. They didn't have all the details, they didn't know the "why," but they did know the goal and they saw the outcome. In the Christ event they saw that Jesus was the beginning of the messianic age (as he himself had quite explicitly claimed to be in his first public sermon in the synagogue at Capernaum, where he applied the Isaian prophecies about the blind, the sick, the deaf, and the lame to himself). They believed Jesus was the beginning of a new paradise, a new Eden. They believed that the plan of God was the gift of himself to all his creatures in his love, and that the plan would be carried to its ultimate fulfillment through Jesus. When the plan was finished Jesus would return, and he and his followers would enjoy happiness together forever.
Knowing the design and outcome of God's plan, the early Christians were less interested than we might be in the reason for this particular plan and the various forces that were at work. Why God should operate in the fashion he did is as unanswerable as the other question (which is, in fact, the same question) of why there is anything at all. Nor did they pretend to know what evil really was or why it had so much power. They paid some rhetorical attention to the issue of angels and demons, so popular with their contemporaries, but this was more to insist that these powers were subject to God and to his son than to fill out details of angelologies and demonologies. The early Christians knew that the core of the plan was the loving generosity of God and that such generosity would have the final victory. From their viewpoint the speculative details were not very important.
Could there be peace? Of course, but only when humans, strengthened by having accepted the grace of God revealed in Jesus, could trust one another enough to put aside their fears and begin to work with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. War and violence came from fear. In the great sacrament that is Jesus we discover that fear is not necessary; we become free to trust and to love. If pushed, the early Christians would not have been narrow about it: trust and love are essential for peace, and if you have enough of those qualities in the world without knowing Jesus, you can have peace without him; but love and trust are rare indeed in the human condition, and Jesus offers the best grounds humankind has ever had for risking itself in such vulnerable ways of being in the world.
The Christian vision of what is going on in the world is caught between two sets of polar tensions. The first is the "already-not yet" tension; the plan is fully revealed in Jesus but not yet completely achieved. We know how it will end but not when or after what process. The kingdom of God is in our midst but it is also hidden in the mists of the future. Love and trust will win in the end, but we don't know what it will take to accomplish that victory.
Even more delicate is the tension between human activity and God's fulfillment, between what will be accomplished in this world and what will happen in the final fulfillment of the plan by the action of God himself Obviously, as followers of Jesus, we must do all we can to see that the reign of love and trust spreads upon the earth, realizing how hard the work is and how slow the progress must be. Just as obviously, the complete fulfillment of the plan depends on God, not us. But it is not clear how our efforts shade over into the divine fulfillment, how much peace we can achieve through our work, and how the fulfillment of the promise of peace will depend on the final intervention of God. In practice the question is not so important. We must commit ourselves completely to the work of the planting while we understand that God will give the harvest.
The Christian who has experienced once again the event of Easter has no doubt that Easter is a promise, a down payment on a fulfillment that is yet to come, and that the Easter peace is a peace destined for all humans. He therefore works with all his power and with both confidence and realism for that peace that is so profoundly involved in God's plan. The world is not the way it should be or could be; but someday it will be, and the power to work that transformation is already among us. It is the power of loving graciousness revealed by Jesus and reflected in our actions toward our fellow humans. Transforming the world's social structures so that they reflect such loving graciousness is not for the simple, the impatient, the neurotically enthusiastic, or the naive; but it is the work of everyone who is an adult and mature follower of Jesus.
Being a witness to the plan does not mean high-pressure salesmanship. It does mean, as Cardinal Suhard put it several decades ago, to engage in propaganda. It means rather living your life in such a way that you would be deemed a fool if Jesus were not the revelation of what life is about. Some of us are called by the Spirit who calls to transform the social and economic structures of the world; others are called to roll back the forces of ignorance, misery, and malice by the exercise of our professional talents; others serve the brothers and sisters of the Lord by performing the simple tasks that keep society running; and still others exercise the responsibility to loving witness in educating the young or providing the constant daily care they need in the home. All of us are called to generosity in our intimate relationships with those at our work, in our neighborhoods, and in our homes. Being a Christian is not something distinct from the everyday tasks that are part of work and family life. It does not mean doing special things. It means doing everything in a special way. We transform the world through our work, not merely by the work we do, though that is important, but by the way we work; we transform human relations, not merely by caring for others, though we must do that, but by caring for them with tenderness, sensitivity, and self-giving love.
The Christian faith in the working out of God's plan has always been embodied in the conviction that some day Jesus will return. Those who were present at the original Easter experience knew Jesus personally; they had walked the streets of Jerusalem and climbed the hills of Galilee with him. They missed him. In Jesus' farewell conversations with them he promised they would meet again. Caught as they were in the apocalyptic categories of their time, they frequently (though not exclusively) linked this "meeting once again" with the destruction of the world in an outburst of signs and wonders of cosmic chaos. But they knew that the important fact about the return would not be such spectacles but the return of Jesus to finish what he had begun. Faith in this return was faith that God would fulfill his promise and accomplish his plan no matter what happened. Jesus is the plan. We know that Jesus will return because we know that God's grace will triumph and that love and trust will finally transform the world into a place of peace.
We obviously do not know how any of these things will come about. A later age of Christians turned the early Church's perspective on the return of Jesus upside down. The Parousia (as the Greeks called it) was now not a day of fulfilled promise, of triumph and victory, so much as it was a day of wrath and terror, not a day of fulfillment of love and trust but one of righteous punishment, not a day of ultimate merciful graciousness but one of frightening retribution. The Last Judgment painting on the walls of the Sistine Chapel may be great art, but the early Christians would have thought it very bad theology because it emphasized the rhetoric and forgot the substance of the Second Coming—or at least it distracted from that substance. When Jesus comes again, it will not be a day of wrath but a day of joy. It will be the Easter event once again, this time for all to experience directly. The reality that was present in the promise of Easter will be present in its totality. The loving goodness of God will have been finally extended to us in its complete, wild, passionate graciousness. That is why Christians pray with St. John in the last word of the Scriptures, "Come, Lord Jesus."
In the meantime we continue to work in the world, not fully understanding the obscure cosmic processes in which we are caught up but confident that we know how they will end. We are not rose-spectacled optimists thinking that everything will be all right if there were only some changes in the social and economic systems or in child-rearing practices; but neither are we prophets of doom who expect humankind to destroy itself, despairing of improvement in the shape of human society and human culture. We work while we have light, confident that even when our light is extinguished it will only be temporary. We are confident, too, that the "light has come into the world, and darkness will not be able to put it out."
Theologians are not sure whether belief in the personality of angels is necessary to the Christian faith. There are forces of good (and evil) in the world that go beyond the individual human. These forces are subjected to God and to God's plan as revealed in Jesus. The forces of goodness do God's bidding and are his agents. Whether they are distinct from him and exist as separate creatures is not clear; neither is it clear that the Scriptures or the official documents of the Christian tradition wish to insist strictly on the existence of angels as separate creatures. However, belief in angels is hardly a point for one to get hung up over. Most Christians would probably conclude that it would be rather nice for there to be angels.
Also most Christians are offended by such exploitation of superstition as contained in movies like The Exorcist. Doubtless evil is very powerful; but if these powers are personified, surely they have better things to do than to take over the bodies of eleven-year-old girls so as to make them shout obscene words and engage in vulgar actions. Evil is much more terrible than the trivialities that such superstitious obsessions would suggest.
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