Theology on the Way to Emmaus: A Theology of History

We continue our look at Lash’s volume, Theology on the Way to Emmaus with the chapter “How Do We Know Where We Are?” As good a question as any I suppose! Lash muses that our trouble with a theology of history is that we have no summit from which to stand beyond and view our situation. Likewise, he adds:

But if the philosophy of history now seems so questionable an enterprise, how much more problematic must be the idea of a theology of history. If ‘the meaning of history’, the idea that history has some single sense or direction, is a will-o’-the-wisp, how much more insubstantial must be any attempt to perceive how such ‘meaning’ stands in relation to the mystery of God” (64).

There is a sense, of course, that to be a Christian, let alone a theologically minded one, is to necessarily be historically minded. Again, Lash states, “To put it as baldly as possible: whatever be the case with some other religions, I do not see how a Christian theology could fail to be, in some sense, a ‘theology of history’ (64). Lash suggest what he calls “the middle distance,” as a way to orient both past and future gazing. For the past, this would allow/entail a certain transcendence without claiming absolute validity, and for the future it would entail a grounded hopefulness. With respect to the past, we would be grounded in the reality of a tradition, with the knowledge that we are not on our own; with the future, we could be grounded so as not to fall into despair or a misguided optimism. Lash explains:

Despair is ‘near-sighted’, it allows the sharp and painful edges of existing fact to obliterate from view the possibilities inherent in the present situation. Optimism, on the other hand, is ‘far-sighted': its vision wanders to distant horizons which appear attractive because they are, in fact, invisible” (66).

Lash attempts to begin his project by stating, “If we wanted a slogan, it might be: memory is possible and hope permitted because all history is the history of grace” (67). Building on this, there are two directions one must go to avoid error. First, nature, as that which is constituted by grace, has its own intelligibility, regularity and autonomy. Likewise, Lash continues, the second path that must be tred is to insist that “distinctions between ‘creation’ and ‘salvation’ are not to be drawn in such a way as to suggest that these two concepts refer to two different sets or sequences of events” (67). He explains by noting that the doctrine of creation itself must be be conceived outside of the doctrine of grace. Likewise, he pushes on the point that we tend to, in his mind mistakenly, posit God undertaking two distinct tasks, one of creation and one of redemption. A history of salvation, on this account, would merely spell out the latter, while virutally ignoring the former. Lash, invoking Rahner, explains:

God’s single, eternal act (which he is) finds contingent expression in a single process of gracious self-bestowal, a single world, a single hsitory. ‘Profane’ history and ‘salvation-history’ are, as Karl Rahner put it, ‘materially co-extensive’. The distinction between what we call ‘church’ and what we call ‘world’ is not a distinction between two empiracally distinct ‘places': an oasis of light and a wilderness of darkness. It is a distinction between one single, vastly diverse, bewildering complex, frequently conflictual and largely ‘illegible’ process and, within that process, an unexpected laguage: a discourse of clarification and the promise of peace” (68).

Any thoughts about this kind of account?

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2 thoughts on “Theology on the Way to Emmaus: A Theology of History

  1. Pingback: Soup by the path … « P e r ∙ C r u c e m ∙ a d ∙ L u c e m

  2. He makes a valid point with his last assertion, that too often “Theology” overwhelms the “History” element in the exercise. The few students that I have taught history too are less inclined to understand history as a movement of anthropology as it is a movement of sotierology – or to put is more succinctly, it is the answer to “so what”? It is hard to empathize with history as it does not touch today; which allows for students and others (myself included) to gloss over certain particulars that are messy or hard to understand for the greater glory of perspective.

    The difficulty is in fighting against the age old generational snobbery that CS Lewis cautioned against and enter into the mindset of the historical culture and people in question. Trying to get your students and yourself to understand why people did what they did to further understand that event. It is hard and complex, and completely colored by our own space and time; yet the practice is rewarding and deepens our faith in a great God who continues to love his obstinate and foolish children.

    Thanks Kyle for helping me to think tonight

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