Is Sobrino an Apocalyptic Thinker?
Reading the apocalyptic “Kingdom-World-Church” theses alongside my current work on Sobrino raised the question for me as to whether or not Sobrino is an apocalyptic thinker (and, if so, in what way). Sobrino does not seem to fit with a number of key representatives of apocalyptic in contemporary theology: although Sobrino certainly wants an interruption of the oppressive status quo, he is quite at home with the language of utopia and does not provide a sustained critique of evolutionary time as in Metz’s apocalyptic theology; although he argues that we must be open to the unexpected, transformative power of grace, he does not endorse the dialectic of Barth’s apocalyptic; although immersed in Scripture, the Book of Revelation does not play a central role as in Balthasar’s apocalyptic. Nevertheless, it does seem as though there are at least some apocalyptic elements in Sobrino’s thought.
We can see this first in the urgent and conflictual quality to Sobrino’s work as he tries to give us a new vision of God and the world. Sobrino regularly describes the teachings of Jesus, the Christian life, and the situation of the poor as dialectical: ”in order to affirm the truth of God, positive affirmation is insufficient if we do not at the same time adduce the negative affirmation” (Jesus the Liberator, 186). Jesus does not just announce Good News, he condemns oppression of the poor and weak; Jesus not only preaches and acts on behalf of the Kingdom, he opposes the anti-Kingdom and pays the price for such opposition. Christians must follow Jesus in serving the God of Life against the many idols of death in our world. Moreover, poverty itself is a dialectical reality: the poverty of the Third World is a direct consequence of the opulence of the First World and true solidarity with the poor demands opposition to the rich and powerful. As is in the case in much of apocalyptic discourse, Sobrino’s stark contrast between Kingdom/anti-Kingdom and poor/rich is an urgent call to action. Drawing upon Ellacuría’s notion of “being honest with reality,” Sobrino’s apocalyptic rhetoric reveals the crisis in reality and includes an urgent demand to side with the Kingdom and the poor. Second, in Sobrino’s treatment of biblical apocalyptic, he argues that most central is “a human longing that in the end there will be justice, that the butcher will not triumph over the victim” (Christ the Liberator, 39). This builds upon the dialectic above and adds the dimension of hope for the victim, an ”apocalyptic hope in the triumph of justice…made real” is the resurrection of Jesus (42). And as with the previous dimension, this hope is intimately connected to praxis: a hope for the victims is true hope when is leads to a praxis of removing the crucified victims from the cross within history. Finally, in his Spaces of Apocalyptic, Cyril O’Regan concludes with a brief point on the centrality of martyrdom is some apocalyptic. I do not know of any other contemporary theologian who places more emphasis on martyrdom than Sobrino. The martyrs of El Salvador are the source and content for much of his thinking. For Sobrino, the martyrs are the victims of conflict between the Kingdom and anti-Kingdom; the martyrs give vision, by revealing (oppressive) truth of the world.
Do these three elements make Sobrino an apocalyptic thinker? I am not so sure. As I think through this, I continually return to a distinction between apocalyptic and prophetic rhetoric. These are obviously related but not identical. Each of ‘apocalyptic elements’ that I describe in Sobrino seem to be points shared in common by prophetic and apocalyptic discourses – condemnation of oppression and idolatry, dramatic and urgent rhetoric, an inclusion of hope even in dire times, and personal sacrifice just to name a few; characteristics unique to apocalyptic - divine interruption, a focus on divine over human agency in transforming an oppressive situation, highly imaginative visions, etc. - are not really dominant in Sobrino’s thought and would seem to be at odds with his emphasis on the transformation of structures in history through human agency. As an exception, one place where Sobrino may be genuinely apocalyptic is his highly conflictual construal of history as a whole as a war of sorts between the Kingdom and anti-Kingdom in which the former are represented by the oppressed victims of history and the latter by the rich and powerful. Given this, perhaps we can say that Sobrino is a prophetic thinker whose discourse is tinged with apocalyptic.