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Apocalyptic need not be the end of the world



We live in tumultuous times. The effects of climate breakdown are all around us, as are the signs of our refusal to take notice. Under the influence of fake news, polarised social media silos, and extremist groups, it appears the centre of our political discourse cannot hold. The church appears to lurch from one crisis to the next, never quite managing to get to grips with the challenges it faces. It is easy to feel like things are getting apocalyptic.

Militant Grace, the Canadian theologian Philip ZieglerWhich makes it all the more remarkable that one of the most vibrant theological movements in the world today proudly declares itself 'apocalyptic'. But to those who are part of this flourishing school of thought, apocalyptic does not refer to the end of the world because of some political conflict out of control, or to the great derangement that flows from the climate disaster.

These theologians are using apocalyptic in its original Greek sense — apo kalypsis — a revealing. And what binds their diverse work is a commitment to writing theology that assumes that God's revealing moment comes through Jesus.

In Militant Grace, the Canadian theologian Philip Ziegler has articulated this apocalyptic approach in its most exhilarating form yet. Over 13 essays he makes the case that Jesus does not merely represent another great guru, a dispenser of common-sense spiritual truth tilted in a particularly compelling way.

Rather, in Jesus we find 'the axis for the turning of the ages, a macrocosmic revolution that is also iterated in the microcosm of human being'. This is theology that recognises that if there is any truth to the stories we read in the Gospels, then that has the potential to turn the world upside down.

Apocalyptic theology has, for the large part, been conducted thus far within the Protestant traditions. Militant Grace thus represents an ecumenical opportunity. Roman Catholic readers will find the bold retelling of Jesus' relevance for our lives refreshing. But they may also find a challenge.

Much Catholic moral teaching operates from a default appropriation of something along the lines of the famous 'see-judge-act' framework, popularised by Cardinal Joseph Cardijn. In such approaches, we imagine the hard part of ethics to be the stage where we have to put things into action. We imagine that we can all easily agree on what we see and come to a straightforward consensus on how to interpret it, but that it is in the doing of faith that we find obstacles in our path.


"The apocalyptic approach offers a rich way to think theologically about what we notice and what we ignore, and how all of us need a sort of conversion to see rightly."


The apocalyptic approach offers a timely caution. What we can see is determined by our position, and limited by it too. Moral truth cannot be plainly read off the surface of things, and even for those saints among us with the clarity to focus on the right and good things, judgement is always a social act, constrained by the possibilities of the groups to which we belong.

Apocalyptic theology does not invalidate such see-judge-act approaches, but reminds us that they are grounded in the revelation of God. Grace awakens us to the truth, inspires us in our interpretations, and emboldens us to act. Each step along the way, we are dependent on the one who truly reigns.

So many of our most contentious contemporary issues rotate around how different viewpoints often seem incommensurable and how things that seem plainly obvious in retrospect were missed at the time. Coal miners and environmental activists see things differently and therefore act divergently. The systemic sexual abuse that was rife through our societies reminds us that we often choose simply not to see.

The apocalyptic approach offers a rich way to think theologically about what we notice and what we ignore, and how all of us need a sort of conversion to see rightly.

We are at an interesting juncture in the ecumenical journey. There is a warmth between the different traditions — Eastern, Roman, and Protestant — which leaves many hopeful for the future. But what is most encouraging is the recognition that unity need not be expressed as uniformity.

There are treasures within our different traditions which could only have arisen there, and which need to be celebrated and appreciated. Apocalyptic theology generally, and Ziegler's Militant Grace specifically, is one such treasure. It is a thoroughly Protestant book which draws on generations of thought to present ideas invigorating in our time and place.

It deserves a wide and careful readership within Catholicism, not because it can translate into Roman terms, but on its own terms, in its own distinctiveness. Engaging with such texts is one way to continue the essential task of welcoming otherness and seeing that it need not be the end of the world.



Kevin HargadenKevin Hargaden is the social theologian at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Dublin. He is the author, most recently, of Theological Ethics in a Neoliberal Age.

Topic tags: Kevin Hargaden, climate change, theology



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Existing comments

The Books of Revelation and Daniel (amongst others) offer rich reading. I couldn't profess to be an expert in interpretation, just an expert in my interpretation. Or maybe not even that. Indeed, I think the whole of the Bible has an air of apo kalypsis. One of His methods. It's heartening to hear that a unity may develop between denominations. One would have to suppose that, instead of sticking to our guns, we may be able to truly wield the ploughshare.

Pam | 18 April 2019  

Based on Kevin Hardagan's instructive review, I see possible connections between Philip Zeigler's understanding of "apocalypse" as a critical factor for moral and social change requiring a responsiveness to God's self-revelation in Christ and Dr Gerhard Lohfink's presentation of Jesus as the unique personal manifestation and realization of the "reign of God" and gatherer of the eschatological community called to collaborate in his mission of activating God's reign in history. Fr Lohfink's work is titled "Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was" (trans. Linda Maloney , Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, 2102).

John RD | 19 April 2019  

How appropriate to see this review published on the feast of Catherine of Siena. What a great & perceptive letter writer she was. Not afraid to give Popes some enlightening advice. If she were alive today I can imagine her using Social Media to recommending to Pope Francis that he make Militant Grace compulsory reading for the catholic hierarchy. And in all catholic theology seminaries.

Uncle Pat | 29 April 2019  

Thank you for this most interesting review, Kevin. I have just finished reading 'Deep Time Dreaming' an extraordinary history of archaeology in Australia and am wondering where to find the theological reflection to match the findings of the past 60 years. 'Militant Grace' will no doubt be deep time theology. I remember many years ago being introduced to the writings of Jurgen Moltmann and his 'Theology of Hope'. On retirement I sought out his 'The Coming of God' when "God's messianic future wins power over the present and the deadliness of progress...…. is recognized and the modern world's lack of future perceived ……. the redemption of the future from the power of history and the kairos of conversion". 'Militant Grace' is no doubt a development of Moltmann's thought and I look forward to reading it with interest,

Denis Quinn | 29 April 2019  

It's the end of an era. Not of the world.

AO | 02 May 2019  

Orthodox Christians on the island of Patmos, where St John is believed to have written the Book of Revelation and elsewhere, would, I believe, agree with what Ziegler says in 'Militant Grace', but would see it through what they would consider a far larger and wider window, which is based on their continuous, living tradition of Mystical Theology, based on the Church Fathers, which goes right back to the time of Christ. This is something which, to them, is not a new discovery. The works of many recent Orthodox writers, such as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom and Father Seraphim Rose are irradiated with this vision, which also comes through in their Liturgy. You don't have to tell them that the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus were all chapters in a Cosmic Event which transformed the world: they know. Like most of us they often fall short of this revelation, which is human nature. I believe sin, real sin, is not a matter of discrete sins, but of falling short of our true human nature which has been redeemed, for once and all time. I wish they would preach this in churches. It might change people's lives.

Edward Fido | 16 May 2019  

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