Advent locates Christians between the horizons of the Kingdom’s inauguration and its consummation. In the union between divinity and humanity in Mary’s womb, the mutable nature of time met the stable rhythms of eternity. The Incarnation of the Son also brought divine love to bear on the inordinate love of creation found within rational creatures. In dealing with the mutability of creaturely existence, deepened and broadened by inordinate love, the God-man inaugurated a process that will culminate in the final embrace of heaven and earth at his second advent. The time of Advent reminds Christians that uncreated nature grounds, heals, and elevates created nature, which marks the foundational principle of the city of God. Advent has a politics within it.
Athanasius opens On the Incarnation with a defense of creation ex nihilo, in order to establish that creation is intrinsically corruptible and subject to dissolution. Because creatures owe their existence to something else, they cannot by definition be its source. All created being is mutable and transient, giving rise to a restless anxiety within the self for some ground. The very nature of love, as an other-directed movement, reinforces the restless quest to ground existence in something outside the self. The fabric of time surges with upheavals, constant tremors, and ripples, and humanity struggles to find something to hang onto, some support that will endure time’s tyranny. In short, humans require something outside of themselves to stabilize their existence. The self-determination of rational creatures, and therefore their moral existence, remain bound up with their derivative and dependent status. To bring peace on earth requires the marriage of heaven and earth that Advent brings.
The contingent nature of life, by inspiring a desire for what is permanent and enduring, creates the context for temptation. The original sin is an idolatrous movement toward creation—an overreach, if you will—expressed in the wish that the transient might become the permanent. Such is the theological force of the temptation to eat of a tree that would bring about humanity’s apotheosis. The original sin was not in the divinely bestowed desire to transcend earthly existence, but in the willful determination to find the means to achieve such an end in creation rather than the Creator. Since everything in time is subject to time’s vicissitudes, there is no anchor that will hold this side of eternity.
This conversio to creation and aversio from God, as Augustine notes, resulted in a broken cycle in which humans move between desire and fear. Persons reach out toward the multiplicity of created goods as a way to ground their identity. Given that all created goods are perishable, including the rational creature, humans recoil in fear and anxiety from the very goods they sought and have come to possess. Thus our impulses toward the good turn into the passions, those disturbances and upheavals in the soul that further corrupt and fragment the self. The multiplicity of created goods has turned the creature into a bundle of desires. Since humans become what they love, to conform the self to the temporal is to be immersed in the upheavals of creation, which the internal commotions of the passions express. The biblical reflection on death as the final enemy speaks directly to our anxiety over the corruption unleashed by our slavery to impermanent things.
Advent pairs two forms of instability—creatureliness and sinfulness—a pairing that, in turn, offers a starting point for political life. On the one hand, the instability of inordinate love underscores a Christian realism that takes seriously how the soul’s passions fuel a constant self-orientation, an egoism, whether individual or collective, in political conflicts. In the words of Niebuhr, we need “an understanding of the brutal character of the behavior of all human collectives, and the power of self-interest and collective egoism in all inter-group relations.” On the other hand, the mutability of creation points toward a divine order that undergirds existence and determines its telos. In the light of the Incarnation, the rational structure to life reveals a divine pedagogical strategy that utilizes creation to turn humans toward the Creator. Christian political philosophy moves between a realism that acknowledges the power of egoism and a recognition of the various ways in which the rays of divinity move out into creation in order to stabilize life.
Given the constraints of space, I can only mention two implications of the politics of Advent. First, the claim that human society depends upon the divine order, and therefore must be organized in relation to this order, stems from the ontological need for humans to ground their lives in an immutable source. If law is merely a political act expressing the will of the community or the state, then it is subject to the vicissitudes of the people, which in turn are directly related to the contingencies of life and the power of self-interest. To ground law in the will of the state is to build it upon the will to power, which is a manifestation of the upheavals of the soul writ large. Instead, the civil laws of society must be connected to deeper notions of justice that derive from human participation in the rational structures of life.
Second, while creation is temporal, God uses it to shape human existence in ways that order freedom toward the moral good by grounding it in the world. In scripture, land itself is sacred because God employs creation as a means to stabilize and orient humanity. Self-determination occurs in a geographical context that begins to shape human interactions with their environment, giving rise to a culture. Just as the Mediterranean shaped the life of early Greeks or the Nile gave rise to Egyptian identity, so the property humans possess and treasure becomes a tether to life that reorients desire by granting a stake in this world. The initial move to transcendence is through love for home and hearth generated by a close relationship to the land. Culture is less the human ordering of life than the way in which physical environments formed over millions of years both shape and orient human existence beyond itself. This is what stands behind notions of art as mimesis and the relationship of art and morality. Both converge on how humans participate in a world that God utilizes to bring order to life by filling it with his own presence.
The politics of Advent begin with the promise of the Incarnation to stabilize existence by healing and elevating it. Advent also points to how God employs creation, suffusing it with divine presence in order to tame human desire and orient it toward the good. As humans rightly relate to creation as God’s garden, they begin to be shaped by created goods in ways that orient them to the uncreated ground of all things.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.