Cambridge, MA. I was in Chicago November 15-20, for the convention of the American Academy of Religion, which meets annually with the Society of Biblical Literature. (Read about the related controversies here.) Some 12,000 professors gathered not for one large plenary, but for a vast and wide-reaching program of panels and lectures and other events, this time in the cavernous McCormick Place Convention Center on the lakefront. The space made O’Hare Airport look small and, time for getting lost aside, one had to allow 15-20 minutes to get from one side of the Center to the other. I was very busy, as usual, with sessions to preside at, respond to, and present at; I am at the point in life where I am all over the academic map, with things to say and observe inside and outside my areas of expertise. By the end, survival was the main goal.
But I will not entertain you with the travails of the academic life. Rather, I wish to call your attention to a session that bore the forbidding title, “Comparative Messianism: Extroversions and Introversions of Eschatological Figuration.” Expertly presided over by Kimberley Patton (Harvard University), the panel brought together scholars who spoke about the phenomenon and meaning of awaiting the Messiah in Judaism (Elliot Wolfson, NYU), Kurt Richardson (McMaster University), Cyrus Zargar (Augustana College), Cyrus Zargar (Augustana College), and Catherine Keller (Drew University). Wolfson spoke about modern Jewish expectations of the Messiah, with special reference to the Rebbe Menahem Mendel Schneerson, of the Habad-Lubavitch – in Brooklyn; Richardson reviewed in a masterful way and with special attention to Karl Barth, the Christian expectation of the Messiah; Zargar led us through the complicated history of the expectation of the 12th Imam in Shia Islam, both the political drama surrounding the last Imams, and the poignant longing even of Shiites today for the 12th, hidden Imam, to come to this community which loves him beyond all measure. Keller, building on themes mentioned in the other papers, meditated on both the act of waiting for the messiah who is to come, and how that waiting both supports and undercuts the stark fact that we never know the God we seek, and in fact experience mainly the breakdown of our language about God: the one who is hidden until the time he comes, revealed, unto his people - our religious life is hidden, our words obscure, the only way to be a Christian is to be a mystic. All four speakers addressed the fact of the expectation of a Person to come (back), and yet too to the way in which a very serious expectation of the end time affects how we think of now: the future matters more than the present; we live only in the present, where the future opens up a certain freedom in the present moment, where what we hope for never quite happens right now.
In responding to the panel — I will spare you the totality of what I had to say - I had occasion to refer to this Sunday’s Feast of Christ the King, but more immediately to recollect the Gospel for last Sunday, the 33rd Sunday of the year, Mark 13.24 ff: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (NRSV) I wanted to remind the audience, after all, that meditations on the Messiah are not just a matter of recollecting ancient history or digging up the remnants of a myth, or reflecting on the emptiness of a present moment that is always indebted to a future moment. Rather, waiting for the Messiah is right now a powerful dimension of our religious consciousness: we live differently now, because we expect the Messiah later.
Or so we say. We Christians say that we expect Christ to come back; he is not yet done with us, the world is not merely winding down, with a fairly sensible and mature attitude of dashed expectations about a better world that never quite comes. (We have been waiting since St. Paul in I Thessalonians promises that any day now, the second coming would take place.) The present is not ok, it is not enough, and yet we do not settle for less, an imperfect world imperfectly lived. Rather, we are waiting for God to come again, Christ in charge, fully manifest, beyond doubt. And we are waiting along with the followers of the Rebbe Schneerson, Shia Muslims longing for that hidden, hiding Imam, and Christians across the spectrum, more or less literally expecting Christ’s return. We are also waiting with Sikhs expectiing the tenth guru, some Buddhists looking to the Maitreyi Buddha, and (as discussed elsewhere at the convention) Hindus awaiting either the end of the world – as the Kali Yuga winds down and (possibly) the divine avatara Kalki arrives – or more simply for the beloved Krsna who cannot be found and cannot be forgotten.
Or do we? Rather than getting bogged down in worrying about whether this time of waiting – the end of the Church year, the feast of Christ the King, the coming of Advent longing — is uniquely Christian or not, we need honestly to ask ourselves: are we really waiting for something more? Do we have enough of God and Christ already, and would we be happy — or inconvenienced — should Christ suddenly reappear in a spectacular fashion?
My guess — or fear — is that we are in a situation not all that different from that evoked by Dostoyevsky in the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter of his Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan tries to explain his vision of the world to his (then) monkish brother Alyosha. As Ivan explains it, the Inquisitor, annoyed by the return of Jesus in 16th century Spain — this can only upset the smooth running of the Church — says to Jesus: “‘Is it Thou? Thou?’ But receiving no answer, he adds at once. ‘Don’t answer, be silent. What canst Thou say, indeed? I know too well what Thou wouldst say. And Thou hast no right to add anything to what Thou hadst said of old. Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us? For Thou hast come to hinder us, and Thou knowest that.” To protect the Church, the Cardinal promises to burn this unwelcome guest at the stake the next day. (from “The Grand Inquisitor” in Fydor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Constance Garnett translation.)
At this feast of Christ the King, and during this Advent, let us stop and ask ourselves: What would we do, were the Messiah actually to come? Suppose Christ came not to console us, but to confound and overturn the conservative control of the Church? Or to dethrone the Pope? Or to kick out the liberals? Or to point out that the Lutherans were right all along, or that we should have been visiting the Rebbe in Brooklyn? When Christ comes again, not only the professors will be upset.