In May 2019, the annual Swarthmore Lecture was given by Eden Grace, a member of New England Yearly Meeting and Director of Global Ministries for Friends United Meeting (FUM). Eden’s lecture was entitled ‘On earth as it is in heaven: The Kingdom of God and the yearning of creation.’ I’m blogging my reflections on the lecture, chapter by chapter. You can read my introduction to this blog series here.
Summary of Chapter 1
The key word in this first chapter is inbreaking. Friend Eden speaks of God’s future breaking into the present. God’s Kingdom, God’s reign of peace and justice, is arriving. It’s coming. It’s on the way. God’s Kingdom isn’t a distant reality to be experienced only after death, but neither is it here in its fullness. It is neither fully now nor fully not-yet. It’s arriving, emerging, being revealed.
Eden links this dynamic arrival to the Orthodox understanding of theosis – a process of becoming like God, of becoming ‘enGodded’, which has many similarities to the early Quaker understanding of ‘perfection’. Being perfect, being holy, is about an ongoing relationship with God. It’s dynamic, not static. Eden describes the Quaker life as living in the arriving Kingdom through holy obedience to the leadings of God.
Eden describes Quaker testimony as ‘evidence of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.’ (p.20) In our testimony, in allowing God to work through us, we enflesh God’s arriving future. This is why an engagement with God’s future, and the hope it generates, is vital to an authentic Quaker response to climate chaos. If we are to enflesh God’s Kingdom – which includes justice for the non-human creation – we must act from a place of faithfulness, trusting that God can and will work through us, rather than trusting in our own strength, or despairing at our own weakness.
The Christian understanding of hope
As Eden says, hope is fundamental to Christianity. Christians hope for Christ’s parousia (Greek). This is traditionally translated as ‘Second Coming’ but is perhaps better translated as ‘arrival’. Christians are waiting for the arrival of Christ, an arrival that will bring peace and justice to all creation. Some Christians believe that this arrival began at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out ‘on all flesh’ (Acts 2:1-13). The understanding is that when we experience this Spirit, we experience the Kingdom of God that Jesus exemplified in his life and teachings. In our individual and corporate experience of the Spirit of Christ, Christ’s future is arriving into the present – the end is coming and has come.
It’s the end of a story that often gives meaning to the whole. An unexpected ending can cast all previous events in a new light. A bad ending can make you wish you hadn’t wasted your time reading it! The end of a story is important, and this is particularly true of the end of the Jesus story. In Christianity, instead of the present entirely determining the future, Christ’s arriving future judges and shapes the present. The ‘last things’, the justice and peace that God has promised and that Christians hope for, illuminate everything that has gone before. The technical word for the ‘last things’ is eschatology:
The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.
So hope is bound up with what we think will happen in the end, whether that’s the end of our own individual lives, our communities, all life on the planet, or the whole cosmos. What do we hope for, and how strong is the basis for our hope? For Christians, the hope is for God’s Kingdom (synonymous with Christ’s parousia), and the basis of this hope is the trustworthiness of God. God fulfils God’s promises.
British Quaker difficulties with hope
But hope is problematic for contemporary British Friends, and I think this is why some Friends found this lecture difficult. There has always been a Quaker taboo on discussing eschatology, but the reasons for our reluctance today are different to our Quaker ancestors.
The first Quakers avoided discussing the ‘last things’ because they saw this as a distraction from living in the Kingdom now, but this didn’t mean they had no shared eschatological beliefs. George Fox had a vision of meeting his parents at the resurrection of the dead (when all who have ever lived are brought back to life in order to be judged). I think we can assume that early Quaker beliefs about what occurs post-death were fairly similar to other 17th century Protestant groups.
For contemporary British Friends, we shy away from discussing the ‘last things’ for different reasons. Being a theologically diverse community, we no longer have a shared story. With no shared story, there’s no shared ending. We have no common vision of what the future holds. This makes it very difficult for British Quakers to talk about hope. We don’t know what we collectively hope for, and don’t know what to base this hope on. We are also influenced by the postmodern culture we inhabit. This culture tells us there is no ‘big story’ to be part of, no history, no future only a ‘prolonged present’. All we can hope to do is focus on curating our own little individual stories, which will eventually fizzle out.
That doesn’t mean that British Quakers as individuals don’t have hope. For instance, British Quakers hold a wide variety of beliefs about the afterlife – some believe in reincarnation, some believe that there is nothing beyond death, and some believe that the material world (and therefore physical death) is an illusion anyway. But our fear of conflict means that we are reluctant talk about these differences as a matter of course, and such conversations are relegated to groups such as the Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies.
I think this lack of a shared story, and a lack of a corporate understanding of what Quakers hope for, is the principle reason that some Friends found Eden’s talk impenetrable. How does a faith community that never talks about the future with each other make sense of a lecture that (rightly in my view) places eschatology at the centre? If we are to take Eden’s lecture seriously, then we need to ask ourselves if we avoid talk of the ‘last things’ for the right reasons, and be honest about the ways our lack of theological literacy disadvantages us as a Religious Society. In this time of climate chaos, the world desperately needs an energising message of hope for the future. In her lecture, Eden sets out an authentic Quaker response. British Friends need to wrestle with it and find a way to articulate it for themselves.
You can read my reflections on chapter 2 here.
 Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, 1st Fortress Press ed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 16.