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.
We must simply try to realize clearly and soberly that a spiritual union with God cannot be regarded as something which grows in inverse proportion to the belonging to the material world…’separation from the body’ for the soul in death does not by a long way need to mean ipso facto a greater nearness to God. Remoteness-from-the-world and nearness-to-God are not interchangeable notions, however much we are accustomed to think in such a framework. The deceased remain therefore (despite the visio beatifica) united with the fate of the world…
The end of the world is… the perfection and total achievement of saving history which had already come into full operation and gained its decisive victory in Jesus Christ and in his resurrection. In this sense his coming takes place at this consummation in power and glory…his Second Coming takes place at the moment of the perfecting of the world into the reality which he already possesses now, in such a way that he, the Godman, will be revealed to all reality and, within it, to every one of its parts in its own way, as the innermost secret and centre of all the world and of all history. This is the context into which we must fit what we call the resurrection of the body in the strict sense. The history – which has remained within the framework of the world – of those who by their lives have already effected their personal finality, reaches its real completion and explicit expression together with the consummation of the world. These human beings now become achieved as totalities with soul and body, and their perfection, already begun in death, becomes itself perfected, tangible in the world, embodied. We cannot really imagine the ‘how’ of this bodily consummation. But we can say in our faith together with God’s revelation: I believe, that we will one day be the living, the complete and achieved ones, in the whole expanse and in all the dimensions of our existence; I believe that what we call the material in us and in the world surrounding us (without really being able to say what it is basically, what belongs to its essence and what only to its temporary form and appearance) is not simply identical with what is unreal and mere appearance, with what has been cast off once and for all and which passes away before the final state of man…
Anyone who disposes of the earthly world and dismisses the perfected man from this earth for good, spiritualistically or existentially or in whatever other way, directing him into a beatitude of (supposedly) pure spirits, stultifies and betrays the true reality of man, the child of this earth. Whoever lets man perish, ground to pieces in the cruel mill of Nature, does not know what spirit and person are, and does not know how much more real, in spite of all their apparent weakness, the spirit and the person are than all the matter and energy of physics. Whoever does not believe that both of them, once reconciled, can come to the one completion, denies in the last analysis that the one God has created spirit and matter in one act for one end. The Christian, however, is the man with the complete solution. This solution is the most difficult, the least synoptical. The belief for this solution and the courage for such a solution he draws from the Word of God alone. But God’s Word testifies to the resurrection of the body. For the Word himself became flesh. He did not assume something unreal but something created. But whatever is created by God is never something merely negative, is never the veil of maya. Whatever has been created by God, assumed by Christ and transfigured by his Death and Resurrection, is also destined to finality and consummation in us.
Karl Rahner, “The Resurrection of the Body,” Theological Investigations 2.211, 213-216
If we were only to take account of God’s proviso, without also considering the specific content of belief in God, above all Christian belief in God, oriented on Jesus of Nazareth, the eschatological proviso could have a very reactionary function, to man’s detriment. For God’s proviso lies over all our human history and over everything that man brings to fruition in it. All political options are made relative by it. But that also means that if this real aspect of the revelation of God is taken in isolation, without considering what has come about for us in Jesus, this eschatological proviso can relativize any secular activity in such a way that both a conservative policy and a socialist policy demanding more justice for all can be neutralized in the same way. In that case Christian faith would not only desacralize politics and rob it of the threat that it might become absolute – which is the special justification and significance of the eschatological proviso or the freedom of God’s divinity – but of itself it would not be able to give any inspiration, still less any orientation (pointing in one particular direction) in the choice of a social and economic policy to further growing humanity and a realizable state of human well-being…a merely formal use of the eschatological proviso would simply throttle the humanitarian impulse which is present in liberation movements.
Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, 777-778