By Matt Boulter
Is it just me, or are we currently living through a chapter of human history which is unprecedentedly spooky? Unrelenting forest fires in California and Oregon, the melting of polar icecaps in the Arctic, devastating hurricanes in the Gulf region of the U.S., which everyone accepts as the “new normal.” Indeed, the recent quip of philosopher Slavoj Zizek seems patently obvious: the end of the world is now easier to imagine than the demise of capitalism.
But how are Christians to think about and to imagine this “end of the world”? For help with this question let us turn to two theological titans of ages past: St. Augustine and his 13th-century follower, the Franciscan “frenemy” of Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure. Of interest here is that, for all the agreement between the two giants of theology, when it comes to how to think about eschatology, the tensions could not be starker (as the future pontiff Joseph Ratzinger pointed out as a young man in his 1959 The Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure).
Augustine is of the opinion that, for all intents and purposes, human history ended 2,000 years ago in the events contained in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And who can blame him, as he witnessed the slow erosion of the world’s greatest empire in what for him must have seemed like the cultural equivalent of the law of entropy? Sealed off from the glorious City of God, the terrestrial City of Man, he thought, was unraveling before his very eyes, like the atrophy of an octogenerian’s bicep, growing “old and decrepit.” And what about us, we who are now living in the 21st century, in the twilight of the Incarnation? We are living — in the memorable phrase of Karl Barth — in the “time of remembrance.” Our job — not unrelated to the anamnesis of the Eucharist — is to recollect the work of Christ in the fullest sense of that verb: to re-enter it, to re-unite our members with it, and non-identically to repeat it.
All well and good. Unless your name is St. Bonaventure, who was ministering in the wake of a charismatic mystic named Joachim of Fiore, and who (in eerie fulfilment of Joachim’s prophecies) was witnessing that widespread revival of the new Dominican and Franciscan religious orders. In light of this new resurgence of gospel values and evangelical culture, how could one view the world merely as a mundus senescens (a world growing old and decrepit)? On the heels of Joachim’s prophecies, Bonaventure was more than willing to countenance a kind of spiritual evolution in which women and men, in a radical democratization of knowledge like the world had never known (and in fulfillment of 1 Cor. 13:9-10), were to enjoy perpetual bliss in mystical union with God. Think Beatific Vision, but incarnated into the here and now.
Indeed, for Bonaventure — as he narrates in his commentary on Genesis chapter one, called The Collations on the Six Days — a kind of spiritual progress was unfolding before his very eyes. This progress, as scholars such as Henri de Lubac, Eric Voegelin, and Karl Löwith were at pains to point out, eventually transmutated into its secular doppelganger.
Or doppelgangers, plural. Not just the technological progress preached as salvific by recent American and British billionaires as they raced each other into the outer regions of the earth’s orbit, but also the political progress hailed by Barack Obama’s (quoting and adapting MLK before him) “long arc of history” that eventually “bends toward justice.”
How should we regard this spiritual progress celebrated by the Seraphic Doctor? Should we simply reject it out of hand, on the basis of guilt by association?
On the contrary, I am of the opinion that the counterfeit versions of true spiritual progress merely confirm the value and importance of the genuine article.
It’s true that the Western imagination is enthralled by the notion that modern technology can save us. It’s also true that the invention of historical progress achieved in Joachim’s day blazed the trails (or neuropathways) which made such immanentized soteriology possible. But here we need the lessons of Martin Heidegger’s 80-year-old essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” lessons which nonbelievers can also accept. Once the earth (rivers, fields, mountains) became imagined as mere “natural resources” or “standing reserve” (der Bestand) which could then be processed and stored as “standing reserves” for future energy use, human beings, by the same token, inevitably would also come to be regarded as mere raw material — “human resources” — in the same vicious cycle of endless productivity and GDP growth.
It’s also true that the plausibility of inevitable political progress — the breathless rhetoric of human rights — has rightly fallen on hard times, thanks to Jordan Peterson and other detractors of “politically correct” ideology.
Yet the frailty of secular progressivisms ought not to make us callous to the call to spiritual progress, or what Owen Barfield called “the evolution of consciousness.” What might such a prospect imply about our current climate catastrophe?
It behooves us to remember the Hebrew notion of “the end of the ages,” for, despite our Hollywood-cultivated zombie-apocalyptic imaginations, for the Old Testament, an “age,” that is, a “world,” was never equated with the entire human species. It had more to do with Israel being carried off into exile by the Assyrians, or with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. So also for us today: if our “world” is ending — and I’m inclined to think that it is — this need not imply human extinction in toto. Rather, it is more along the lines of the fall of the Roman Empire in Augustine’s day.
Indeed, my 13-year-old daughter may well witness the faint lines of transition between the end of the Modern West and the beginning of … of what?
We cannot know. But we can know this. In whatever follows, the gates of hell will not prevail against the eucharistic community of the body of Christ. The Church — which is not reducible to the modern and Western — will endure and remain, in the midst of the rubble.
This brings us back to the notion of spiritual progress, of the kind envisioned by Bonaventure.
Granted, Christendom — with its embrace of political coercion, its complicity in corruption, its marriage to industrial capitalism — is collapsing. Painful though it be, is this tragic?
Thomas Keating once said that he suspected that the human race was in its adolescent phase. This strikes me as exactly right. As adolescents, we are “too big for our britches.” We have been given some “toys” which we are too immature to wield properly and indeed we will reap what our folly has sown. But it will not destroy us.
Rather, learning the hard way, we will grow. We will learn — after the debacle, in the midst of the pain — that true flourishing is spiritual, that we are always already in relation to God who wants to complete us, that the earth is not simply or primarily a resource to be stockpiled, but a gift to be stewarded, husbanded, and offered back to God (from glory to glory) as sacrifice.
Fr. Matt Boulter is the associate rector at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, and recently completed a PhD in medieval philosophy at Maynooth University, Ireland.