By Lisa Diller — The country had just had a political revolution. The government was unsettled and constantly changing, and the most powerful person was a military dictator. It seemed clear that the Apocalypse, the end of the world and the return of Jesus, was at hand. It was the 1650s, in what we now call the United Kingdom, and the Protestant communities who were most dedicated to achieving a godly nation were in profound disagreement about how this best should happen. But what was clear to them was that the enemies of God (as they understood them), especially in the form of powerful Roman Catholic states, were gaining in power and influence and oppressing Protestant groups.
The response in seventeenth century England to this apocalyptic moment was a rich outburst of radical religious practice. The wild experimentation and, ultimately, a fragmentation of Protestant churches that resulted has profoundly shaped Christianity to this day—with Quakers and Baptists, prophets and judges, free love and a kind of Christian political radicalism that looked like communism and anarchism providing possible models for the modern era of how to be the Church. It was a time of confusion, fear, and fantastic imagination for these English-speaking Christians.
A razor-sharp conviction that the world is ending can cause us (even Christians) to be coercive and violent in achieving our goals. But the formation of restrictive communities forcing adherence to their ideals isn’t always, nor is it even primarily, the way a prophetic view for the End of Times shapes convicted people. Certainly, Adventists in our prophetic outlook have almost as often been as creative and experimental as we have been fear-driven and conservative. Our view of the book of Revelation and our belief in the Advent can encourage us to live into the future we want to see. But we desperately need humility alongside this vision—humility and imagination.
Imagination is crucial for living into the future. We tell stories about what we hope for, a kind of holy creative thinking, a Spirit-drenched not-strictly-true view. As we invest in the not-yet-true, we are also embracing the Mystery of God. We have hope and faith and a prophetic articulation—but we also have a sort-of mystical tradition that says we are speaking of what we cannot speak. Mystics, in the past, often told stories, wrote songs, made art, danced, and provoked a word-less imagination within their bodies. When we are apocalyptic people who have a strong faith in the world we want, the kind of humility that is required can be provided by the kinds of disciplines we associate with the mystics—a profound sense that the sweetness of God is more than we could ever digest with our minds (As Ephesians has it, we must “know the love of God which is past knowing”), the kind of truth that is provided by art.
This kind of hope and imagination is shaped by a compassion for human frailty. If we don’t take humanity seriously, we are intolerant when things don’t shape up to our great ideals. We condescend to those who don’t just get on the train of our great prophetic goals. Hope is communal and creating a humane vision with other people is hard. Perhaps this is why so many of the 20th century political utopias in Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and North Korea, have resulted in violent and repressive regimes.
Kevin Hughes in The Future of Hope articulated it this way: Modernity has a way of “transforming vision into supervision.” This is why our prophetic hope needs the arts and humility and a strong dose of the spiritual gifts that push us to abide in the mystery of the Spirit. As a church planter and elder, when it comes to the future of my local Adventist church, I sometimes have something I hope for and want for this local body of Christ. I work for it—maybe I’m even part of a team that creates a vision, systematizes it, puts out the communication, shows up for it—and then no one else seems to want it. What allows me to stay hopeful and loving of others and to continue weaving my stories and creativity? I have found it vital to lean into the ineffable belief and unutterable understanding of who God is and rest in God’s love. I must retain humility regarding myself while telling stories that emphasize compassion for the humanity of others—and for myself.
A holy imagination allows me to have the eye of someone else. When I read a novel or memoir from the perspective of those who are different from me, when I submit to the perspective of an artist or a song that makes me feel and look different from how I want to look—I’m coming closer to having the eye of God. If I create God in my own image and assume God sees things the way I do, the limitations are troubling, and our collective vision is stunted. Art helps my own eye to not be the center—to try to see and listen as another and even be the subject of a vision that is not mine—this brings me closer to the wider vision held by God and helps me to not center myself as the arbiter of the Kingdom of God.
The clearer we are that we don’t know everything, and yet that we still have hope and work for the New Earth, the more we can handle the ups and downs of humanity. Samuel Wells, Dean of Duke Divinity School for some years, has a great meditation on the importance of “improvisation” for living into the Kingdom. I like how he words it: “Improv allows the church to remain faithful to Scripture without assuming the Bible provides a script to dictate appropriate conduct in every eventuality.”
Improv is apocalyptic, in a sense. In an improv performance, the end must come, or it is too painful and nonsense. But along the way there is fun because there is trust. I think those of us who are more prophetically than artistically gifted might need to learn from and engage in mutual submission with those who are more playful. Mystics and poets and musicians help us play. They aren’t the only leaders (poets don’t make great administrators necessarily), but a vision that isn’t informed by their flexibility is problematic. Improv cultivates humility—and integrates others. Instead of me being the center, there’s a holy vision of how others can come along and contribute to the story.
Prophecy and the apocalypse combined with improv—this allows me to Hope, to look out for the vision as I see it in Scripture, but also to deal with the unexpected bumps—and maybe to do so with a sense of humor and a wider view for who gets to be included.
The tolerance, democracy, flexibility, and apocalyptic experimentation of the 1650s didn’t last in the British Isles. In the end, the Church of England was re-established because folks wanted a strong sense of what was right, and to make sure that people actually attended church and were exposed to biblical truths through regular teaching. It was too hard to hold a view of the End of Time alongside creative spiritual formation and alternative communities. Coercion was deemed necessary for Truth to triumph. I would like to imagine a different way.
When I read Scripture, listen to the Spirit, and exercise my spiritual gifts, I often come to strong, prophetically informed views of how my community should go into the future. I work for this, and I cast vision (maybe creatively and artistically) for the community/family I lead. But what happens when humanity is weak, when things don’t go the way how I want? When that happens (and it will!), I must have a strong enough view of who God is and a value for the people who are made in His image, to improvise and be flexible about His ability to bring the kingdom of God anyway.
And the same with our church—we have a vision, we work for it, we include others in it, we adapt to new information, new visions, we retain our sense of humor, and we celebrate the way God is working at creating the beloved community on the way to the New Earth, as we live out the Kingdom here, among us.
–Lisa Clark Diller, PhD, is chair of history and political studies department at Southern Adventist University. Email her at: [email protected]
Kevin Hughes: The Future of Hope
Robert Paul Doede & Paul Edward Hughes: Future of Hope
Samuel Wells: Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption