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I recently read a tweet which suggested that maybe some of us need to step aside and refrain from commenting on the coronavirus situation if it isn’t in our expertise wheelhouse. I took that as a word to me. Let the coronavirus situation color your life and your writing, as opposed to making the coronavirus the entirety of your life and writing.

Let’s start with a question that Jesus posed to many of us this past week in worship: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” (John 20.29). Jesus follows up that question by blessing those who have not seen and yet believed. However, as is well-known, Paul mentions that “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (I Corinthians 13.12). So, belief or faith, is also a kind of sight. Why does Paul bother with such a claim?

There is a famous quote from Irenaeus of Lyons: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” But, to quote it in this way is to eviscerate Irenaeus’ point. The full sentence reads, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive; and human life consists in beholding God.” Usually, writers will use the first half of the sentence, and tack on what they think it means to live well. But, following Jesus, Paul, and many other biblical writers, Irenaeus’ point is both more narrow and more encompassing.

Irenaeus argues – on the basis of the prologue to the Gospel of John (“in him was life and that life was the light of all people”) and other places – that “the manifestation of God which is made by means of the creation, affords life to all living in the earth.” In other words, the fulcrum of human life, and all creaturely life, is that God shows God’s self to us.

We are alive because God manifests God’s self. If we don’t see God, then eventually we will die. God became human so that we could see God, and thus be, in Irenaeus’ words, fully alive.

Hans Boersma’s recent book, Seeing God, helped me recognize more fully that “seeing God is the purpose of our life.” Boersma revisits a panoply of thinkers, from Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa to Symeon the New Theologian and Abraham Kuyper. The Reformed tradition gets special attention, with John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards appearing as particularly helpful.

In the final chapter, Boersma puts forth his own unique contribution to this doctrine, often called the doctrine of the beatific vision. In the next life, will we see God in God’s essence or is that saying too much? Yes, for Boersma, we see into God’s essence, God’s being.

What about now? Do we see God in God’s essence even now? For Boersma, yes. As he puts it, “When by faith we are united to Christ, we already participate, in a proleptic way – sacramentally – in the beatific vision.” Those united to Christ live a fully human life because they can see, with a kind of spiritual perception, God as God is invested in Christ. Boersma is not describing beliefs we have about God; he’s talking about a perception of God expressed in the metaphor of sight. To be a Christian is to see God in this life and in the next.

For me, Boersma’s account of why the beatific vision has lost ground in modern and postmodern theology and piety was fascinating. Traditional approaches to the beatific vision assume that everything, including human beings, have final purposes.

But, Boersma points out, in modernity and postmodernity, purposes are what human beings assign to themselves and things around us. In modernity and postmodernity, purposes are made, not found. We can intellectually shop for purpose. We are skeptical about the idea that purposes are in things and make things what they are. Thus, we will resist the beatific vision because we are skeptical about purposes being anything other than what we assign to ourselves or others.

Boersma’s argument has huge import, and I wish he had unpacked that import even more. Here’s what I mean. Imagine asking yourself about the final purpose of a pine tree. You might give a good Christian answer that is in line with Boersma’s argument: the final purpose of the pine tree is to glorify God.

That answer is, in our commodified world, fairly flimsy. It is a kind of paper belief. We probably would not feel the need to protest the felling of a live tree if it was in the way of a new road.

As Boersma writes, “whenever we see truth, goodness, and beauty, it is as though the eschaton comes cascading into our lives and we receive a glimpse of God’s beauty in Christ.” If a live pine tree is meant to glorify God in Christ in its beauty, cutting it down would be a very serious matter and should be done only in prayer and fasting. In prayer we might address trees, asking them to praise the Lord. But, most of the time, trees have purposes that we assign to them. Most of the time, we act as though the final purpose of trees is recyclable paper.

For Boersma, the skepticism about final ends also seeps into modern academic theology. For example, he calls out Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a twentieth century Catholic theologian, and Herman Bavinck. For Boersma, Von Balthasar and Bavinck affirm the beatific vision but do not describe it. Why do they do this? Boersma writes that “both prioritized the elements of communion, activity, and perhaps creativity as central to life in the eschaton . . . by highlighting the social, dynamic and active character of the eschaton, both ended up with a remarkably this-worldly eschatology.”

Von Balthasar felt that beatific vision language makes us passive. Bavinck was concerned to affirm the continuing presence of the created order and the ways that humans could be active within it. In other words, for both Balthasar and Bavinck, the final shape of existence tends to be about what human beings will be able to accomplish. The final shape of existence tends to be about us.

Although I’m convinced by Boersma here, his account could use something more than an intellectual history. I have recently read Mark Charles’ Unsettling Truths with a group of students. It makes me wonder if the culture of colonization – as channeled through something like the Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and other false hopes – also plays a role. In part, we are skeptical about final purposes inhering in things because we are so shaped by cultural and political practices that form us into treating our world and our neighbors as something we need to control.

Also, after reading Boersma, I did a kind of inventory of my own education and teaching. In my experience, contemporary Reformed piety and theology emphasizes the resurrection, the new heavens and new earth, and the continuity of the new creation with the old. I have never heard a sermon addressing the beatific vision, the blessed sight of God. Until recently, I cannot remember spending significant time as a student and teacher at multiple Reformed colleges and seminaries in the Dutch Neo-Calvinist world considering the beatific vision (I have a memory of it coming up once in class, very briefly). That goes for my own teaching as well. For some, it might even sound like theological trivia. There is some sadness in that for me.

Our hope is not first that we would be able to paint or build or write with new freedom and glory. The core element of our hope for ourselves, for each other, and for all of creation is that God can and will be seen in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

Concomitant with that hope is a way of being that experiences all creatures – human and non-human alike – as sacred vistas into the Triune God. Accompanying that experience is the outpouring of love on those we encounter as such. On second thought, maybe that does have something to do with our struggle with this novel coronavirus. At least, I hope so.

Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg teaches theology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.

5 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Nice, Keith, thanks. Some wandering early morning thoughts: I sense a whole bunch of Nyssa in this, right? Is “purpose” pretty much the same as “final cause”? And what about utility? We have assumed that it’s scientifically objective that the purpose of the pine tree is to maintain (or extend) its species, which is a remarkably narrow reductionism, isn’t it, almost as narrow as utilitarianism, to say that it exists for our use. Speaking of the pine tree, do you know Mark Stoll’s book, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism? A Calvinist sort of beatific vision is aimed at Creation and then Nature.
    What you’re getting at, it seems to me, is wonderfully approached by the first answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Whereas the Heidelberg tradition has more Luther in it, which is always a vision of the Cross, for redemption, which descends into a kind of salvation functionalism. The big question becomes, How Am I Right With God. And in the Sunday morning prayer in our old Dutch Liturgy, “We dare not lift up our eyes to heaven.” Which raised the question that I guess I’ll have to read Boersma for: What did Augustine do to push us away from Irenaeus?

  • Peter Dykstra says:

    I am focused today on making chicken soup, but shall reflect more as I stir in the rice on the purpose of the chicken.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      And read up on your Aristotle. Hylomorphism. And always use the right pot and the right spoon, don’t use a knife for what is wasn’t made for.

  • Daniel Carlson says:

    How beautifully fitting this reflection is for this Earth Day! “Concomitant with that hope is a way of being that experiences all creatures – human and non-human alike – as sacred vistas into the Triune God. Accompanying that experience is the outpouring of love on those we encounter as such.” May it be so. Thank you, Keith!

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Keith, for turning our attention away from the Corona virus and its impact on so many lives. It does loom large, but does get redundant. So thanks for putting a different topic on the table. Your article is rather complex and perhaps above my grade level, but I’d still like to comment. It would seem that your perspective on seeing God, or maybe experiencing him in fullness, is a very limited perspective and carries limited weight. Your view, as well as that of Boersma, is one of many views and is based on a limited interpretation of the Biblical narrative. But your views, not only ignores other Christian perspectives but totally ignores the opinions of others outside of any Christian model. You ignore the claims of all other religions for experiencing God.

    Your spin on seeing and experiencing God is based on a presupposition that God is a triune being. Another presupposition is that the Bible is absolutely true, the same claim that all religions make for their Scriptures. But you also seem to imply that your interpretation of the Biblical narrative is also true. I think Boersma’s book would be better titled, “A Beatific Vision…” rather than “The Beatific Vision…” When so many voices, among Christians and beyond, are trying to explain God, it would be wise to hold a loose grip on any one of them. Thanks, Keith, for adding your voice to the many others.

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