Living In the Now and Not Yet: Toward a Theology of Progressive Christianity
In the Jewish tradition, the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King, said, "The exodus began, but is far from having been completed." Translated to Christian terms, this is what we should also believe. In realized eschatology, we are not the sort of believers pushing God's action back to the end of time and waiting passively for that day to come. Neither are we imagining that since God has launched that action, all will be accomplished if we only work hard enough. Instead, we are in the place of now and not yet that biblical scholars and theologians often use when they talk about the Kingdom of God: Jesus came preaching conversion, spiritual reorientation, and the beginning of God's reign on earth, and he began to teach, heal, feed, and show how that kingdom looked. The powers of the world tortured and killed him; God raised him to confirm that Jesus was indeed the nexus around which the new world would emerge, a world in which sin, pain, and death would no longer have power.
Theologians, lay and ordained, have articulated these teachings—from the 19th-century Cambridge scholar C.H. Dodd, who coined the term "realized eschatology," to, among others, N. T. Wright, Pope Benedict XVI, Brian McLaren, Bono, and me in our time. I think those Christians who want to follow Jesus in a way that will be personally and societally meaningful today can latch onto this core principle as a way of organizing and understanding their faith. Wright, particularly, has spoken about how the Kingdom teachings in the Gospels are the core of Jesus' message, and has written about what the Lord's Prayer, which many of us say one or more times a week, might teach us about faith and belief today:
The presence of the kingdom meant that God's anointed Messiah was here and was at work—that he was, in fact, accomplishing, as events soon to take place would show, the sovereign and saving rule of God. The future of the kingdom was the time when justice and peace would embrace one another and the whole world—the time from which perspective one could look back and see that the work had, indeed, begun with the presence and work of the anointed leader. (See Jesus and the Victory of God, ch. 10.)
To pray "your kingdom come" at Jesus' bidding, therefore, meant to align oneself with his kingdom movement and to seek God's power in furthering its ultimate fulfillment. It meant adding one's own prayer to the total performance of Jesus' agenda. It meant celebrating in the presence of God the fact that the kingdom was already breaking in, and looking eagerly for its consummation. From the centrality of the kingdom in his public proclamation and the centrality of prayer in his private practice, we must conclude that this kingdom prayer grew directly out of and echoed Jesus' own regular praying.
When we pray—and work—for God's Reign to come, it is because clearly the "not yet" component remains; when we look around the world, the Kingdom of God is not yet here. We see tornadoes, floods, drug violence, lying, cheating, grief, heartache. Jesus did not complete the job; it remains to be completed in God's good time. But because it remains to be completed, we are invited to be a part of it. And to return to Augustine, because we believe in God, because we are loved by God, we can love each other in ways that can be, for others, a taste of God's kingdom even in this imperfect time.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.