With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Mystical Messiah III

Between Resurrection and Return: Eschatology as Context

Scholars have sought to illuminate Paul’s mystical thought in light of different and varied sources: such as the Greek philosophical mysticism, or the Hellenistic-Jewish mysticism of Philo, or even Gnosticism. But according to Albert Schweitzer, the only context that can make Paul’s mysticism fully intelligible is Late 2nd Temple Jewish eschatology; for what distinguishes Paul’s mystical concepts is that they “stand in close relation with the cosmic events which were to mark the times of the end”[1] Paul’s mysticism develops as a solution to certain problems inherent in Paul’s eschatology. As a Shammaite Pharisee,[2] Paul’s belief of the end time unfolds along the lines of the Apocalyptic literature (such as the Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra), according to which the Messiah will come in glory, ushering in the Messianic Kingdom. This Kingdom will be experienced as a transient reality by those living in flesh and blood, and will end with the resurrection of all and the final Messianic judgment. Resurrection will only occur when the dominion of the Angel of Death (a cosmic force that holds men in the grip of mortality) will end, as the Messiah attains complete dominion over all cosmic forces.

The problems begin to arise when Paul is (literally?) knocked off of his horse: in the “Damascus event,” he experiences Christ in His risen, glorified state. He concludes that because Jesus is risen, he is one who has escaped the dominion of Death and therefore must be the true Messiah. Paul is therefore able to conceive of a second resurrection:[3] because the Messiah experiences the resurrected state now, it is possible for the righteous as well to escape the dominion of death before the final judgment, and they can thus be raised to enjoy the Messianic Kingdom with Jesus. There is thus one resurrection for all at the end of time and one for those who somehow share in Christ’s new reality and thereby escape the dominion of Death, possessing now the Messianic Kingdom. Further, the nature of the resurrection of the just is altered by Paul: the “resurrection state” of existence (glorified, spiritual existence beyond corruptibility and mortality) is reserved for the just after the final judgment. Yet Paul has come face-to-face with a man who was risen as a spiritual, glorified body. Thus those who are raised to the Kingdom will, like Christ, already experience the post-judgment supernatural state of being.[4] Thus the goal of Paul’s mysticism is the attainment of the Resurrection mode of existence which Christ now possesses and which is promised to those “in Christ.” This is that new level of existence which being “in Christ” signifies.

Yet as we have noted, the resurrection state was only supposed to occur when the supernatural age had dawned. Yet Jesus, having died, rose and experiences that state in the present. In short, because of Jesus, Paul is forced to conclude that the supernatural age is dawning even now: between Jesus’ resurrection and return, the natural world-age is intact according to outward appearance; but in reality the powers of the supernatural, resurrected age are already at work transforming the natural world. Between resurrection and return, the natural and supernatural worlds are thought to be intermingled: the natural subsists according to appearance, but the powers of the supernatural are at work in a hidden[5] and unmanifest way, as a stage is transformed behind a curtain. This intermingling of the transient and eternal worlds and the dialectic of the hidden and the manifest that result, create the proper conditions for a peculiarly Christ-centered mysticism. It is easier now to see why Paul was forced to conclude to his mystical doctrine as a result of early Christian beliefs about the end time.

In this context, in which Christ functions as the glorified Messiah, the centrality of Jesus for one’s mystical union makes perfect sense. If Jesus expresses the resurrected supernatural state, it is only “in Him” that the powers of that supernatural state can begin to transform the believer in a hidden, spiritual manner. Participation in Christ, the indwelling of His Spirit and living on the new plane of existence that He characterizes become the necessary conditions for attaining one’s destined glory and union with God. Yet, we have stressed the enduring value of Jesus’ earthly experience and the pattern that this lends to His personal presence in the believer. What shape, then, would this necessary participation in Christ take? Jesus Himself did not attain this state by being rapt away to the heavenly realm (as Enoch or Elijah did); but only by suffering, dying, and rising again. It follows that this experience would seemingly have to be repeated by all believers in order to attain that state. This is easy for Paul to conceive of for those already dead; but what of those who are alive? Will they have to die and rise again in order to attain the state of the Kingdom when Christ comes again?

[1] Schweitzer, p.39

[2] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company, 1997), pp.26-29

[3] Schweitzer, p. 92-94

[4] Ibid., p.95

[5] One must recall that the original meaning of the term “mystical” simply denoted something “hidden.” It is in this broad sense that Paul’s thought can be designated as mystical.


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