There is a realism about history and historical progress that a Christian vision of life brings. This realism stems from what Christopher Lasch referred to as an awareness “that the contingent, provisional, and finite quality of temporal things finds its most vivid demonstration not just in the death of individuals but in the rise and fall of nations.” Such an awareness does not deny a telos to the history of life, but it does remove its fulfillment from the realm of mere human activity, whether economic, political, or otherwise.
As Augustine argued in the City of God, the fall of the eternal city, or any city on a hill, does not mean the failure of history’s purpose and humanity’s flourishing. Such a Christian realism lives in the space between an affirmation of the goodness of the created order and the incapacity of creatures to realize this goodness apart from divine aid. Stretched out through the intervals of time, the unfolding movement of creation, and history within it, requires something else to achieve its telos. Movement through time alone will not do it.
These thoughts come to mind as we prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, or, in other terms, the dawn of the eighth day. In the words of the Epistle of Barnabas, God declares that “after I have set everything at rest, I will create the beginning of an eighth day, which is the beginning of another world.” As a result, the author explains, “This is why we spend the eighth day in celebration, the day on which Jesus both arose from the dead and, after appearing again, ascended into heaven” (15.8-9).
For the Patristic witness, the eighth day signals a day that is beyond the seven-day cycle of weeks and thus stands outside of the normal movement of time. It is the dawn of a new age in which time comes to be fulfilled in a kind of eternal stable movement around God. This kind of talk about the eighth day underscores the in-breaking of the divine into the movement of history to bring it to a final consummation. Or, maybe better put, the final surge of time and matter up into an “age” that approximates God’s own eternal life.
The resurrection of Christ is the first ascent into the stability of the eighth day when absolute rest and motion come together like a humming bird perched over a flower whose rapid rhythms give rise to stillness. On that day the interior motions of the soul and the motions of the body will course as one fluid movement when virtue begets beauty and beauty reveals virtue.
Any progresswhether of the soul or of societymust take its cue from that which exists outside time and space. This grounds Christian realism about human progress. It also grounds Christian hope, the prayer “how long O Lord” until that day when justice rolls down like mighty rivers.
Christopher Lasch finds a secularized version of progress that he thinks continues to haunt late modernity. He notes that “the modern conception of history is utopian only in its assumption that modern history has no foreseeable conclusion. We take our cue from science, at once the source of our material achievements and the model of cumulative, self-perpetuating inquiry, which guarantees its continuation precisely by its willingness to submit every advance to the risk of supercession.”
There is an expectation in the modern view, according to Lasch, of open-ended improvement of indefinite duration rather than any movement toward a utopian end. Indeed, there need be no end, only progress in terms of the expansion of desires through the rise of comfort and the extension of abundance to all. It is the democratization of consumption. Progress ultimately concerns the inflation of private choice in terms of increased technologies and economic opportunities.
Lasch’s description of a progress as open-ended movement offers a secularized version of the Christian view of the eighth day. The stable movement through which desire comes to rest in the beauty and harmony of the cosmic dance turns into limitless expansion of creaturely comforts. Can the expansion of desire supply the fulfillment of desire? At the core of this view of progress is a failure to reckon with the tragic in historythe body will decay, strength will fail, life will disappoint, nations will fall.
As we celebrate the day of the resurrection, we are reminded both of the tragic view of history and of time’s being caught up into the more of the eighth day. Tempered by this realism, yet firmly grounded in this hope, we move forward to the end of all things.