Thursday, June 4, 2009

Omnibus Make-Up Comments - 21:1-9

Verse 1

'Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.'

In general, I am especially interested in the problem of what it means for something to be “new.” The first clue to what the newness (kainon/kainen) amounts to in these verses comes in the second clause.

Why are the heaven and earth new? Because: (1) the first heaven and the first earth have passed away, and (2) the sea is no more.

Here, novelty arises in connection with the passing away of what came first. Novelty is a question of succession: a movement from the first thing to the next thing. But this is not succession by way of addition (as when 2 succeeds 1 and then incorporates 1 into itself). Rather, this succession is what follows in light of the first thing “having passed away.” The novelty arises as the result of a dissolution (at least in part) rather than a subsumption of its precedent.

Further, it's useful to describe this passing away as a "passing away in part” because some strong continuity is also implied: though they are “new,” we are still talking about things that are recognizably heaven and recognizably earth.

Also, we learn something about the way in which the heaven and earth are new: they are new in that the sea (as Eric noted: “the sea = the liquid formlessness of chaos”) is no more. This, then, is a kind of novelty initiated by cessation or subtraction:

(heaven/earth) – (the sea) = (new heaven/earth)

We might, then, venture the following reading as an opening possibility: (1) the newness of the heaven and earth follows from the “passing away” of the first heaven and earth, and (2) the first heaven and earth pass away when liquid chaos has been subtracted from them.

Novelty as succession by way of subtraction.

It’s also worth noting in this verse that both the heaven and the earth are new – not just the earth. The new Jerusalem is going to come out of heaven, but this heaven is itself described as having been made new. 

We don’t, then, have an image of straightforward imposition: it is not as if the heavens were perfect, the earth was corrupt, and then the earth is made new by the heavens imposing their transcendent perfection on the earth’s immanent corruption. 

Rather, both heaven and earth are made new via a subtraction of chaos and then a novel link is forged between the two by the descent of the new Jerusalem from heaven.

Verse 2

'And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.'

If we understand the “holy city” to be the model of a perfected sociality, then it is striking that this sociality is depicted as a “coming down” from heaven. Perhaps we could say: the model for a perfected sociality is the universality of kenosis (or self-emptying condescension) not simply as a “one-time” necessity but as a perpetual/permanent movement of self-divestment.

Insofar as heaven is identified as the origin of this sociality, then we might also view this as the defining feature of heaven: heaven = a perfected sociality.

Also, the city comes down “from God” – which is to say that it is a gift with an assignable giver.

Verse 3

'And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See the tabernacle of God is among humans. He will tabernacle with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them [as] their God.”'

Are we meant to identify the tabernacle with the city itself? Or as part of the city? We are told later (v22) that the city will have no temple in it because God himself will be its temple.

Key prepositions: God is among mortals and he tabernacles with them.

These prepositions characterize the kind of sociality that will prevail in the new city: in this holy city (i.e., in this city that is itself set apart or separated out), God will not be set apart or separated out from his people. He will be among and with us.

Also, note the co-belonging that characterizes this possessive sociality: we will be his, but he will also be ours. This co-belonging is appropriate to the structure of a symmetrical kenosis.

Verse 4

'He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.'

Interesting to note that, again, the novelty of the city is described by way of subtraction. The “first things” will have passed away because they will have subtracted from them tears, death, mourning, crying, and pain.

We should, though, as Mormons, be cautious about how we characterize the end of such suffering. It may be better to speak of their transfiguration rather than their cessation. As Mormons, we believe that even God, a resurrected and glorified personage, continues to weep for the suffering of his children (cf. Moses 7:28). 

This is consonant as well with the character of the city as symmetrically kenotic: what brings an end to tears is not necessarily that we each stop crying but that we each wipe each other’s tears away. In this sense (and for a number of additional reasons), I’d prefer to speak of a transfiguration of suffering rather than its cessation. In this new city, something gets subtracted from death and suffering (perhaps we could say: its “sting”?) that doesn’t simply eliminate it (as in Satan’s plan) but transfigures it.

Verse 5

'And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”'

First, as others have noted, I like that the NRSV renders the first declaration as an ongoing present tense action: “I am making all things new.”

Also, it’s worth pointing out that the old things are not here described as being replaced by new things; rather, the old things are described as being made into new things. Some operation (generally described thus far as a kind of glorifying subtraction) is re-fashioning them into something new. And, further, the claim is not that some of the old things are being made new, but that all of the old things are being made new!

Finally, as Julie noted, we might ascribe some significance to the contiguity of the declaration that all things are being made new and the commandment to write. Writing, as process of inscription and re-inscription, is a process of repeating with a difference, a process that necessarily makes something (at least in part) new. For instance, my own work on these verse for the past few hours has, in fact, made them new for me. And, in turn, their newness has made me (at least in part) new. There may be a connection of some significance between the command to write and the salvific operation of kenotic transfiguration.

Verse 6

'Then he said to me, "They have come to pass! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a free gift from the spring of the water of life."'

This verse brings us to the problematic that Brandie (I think rightly) identified as central to the constitution of a city that is truly new and holy: the transfiguration of thirst or desire.

Allow me to venture the following hypothesis about how thirst/desire becomes transfigured so as to become new and holy. The key, I think, is given in verse six’s description of how the water/object of desire is given and the way in which it must be received. 

There are three parts to this: (1) the water must be freely given as a gift, (2) the water must be freely received as a gift, and (3) both of these things must happen in such a way that they ramify life.

In short, the circulation of desires in the holy city will be shaped by grace: grace for grace, from grace to grace, everyone abandoning possession of themselves in favor of a responsibility for and reception of the other in a grand round of kenotic symmetry. The result is a brilliant burst of light and a flourishing of life.

Verses 7

'Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my sons.'

What is to be conquered here? Is the most likely immediate antecedent “thirst”?

Thirst is conquered insofar as it has been transfigured through the subtraction of any dimension of possessiveness or acquisition, possessiveness having been displaced the kenosis of the gift?

Also, those who conquer will “inherit.” Though, here, to inherit something is qualitatively different from the kind of inheritance familiar to the old heaven and earth. In the old heaven and earth, I only inherit something upon the death of the father. Only once the father is absent can I acquire and possess and inherit.

Here, however, precisely the opposite is described: inheriting these things from God means that God comes with the inheritance as my God. As a result, inheritance gives me no possession except for the gift of my kenotic dispossession. Rather than finally being in charge (“I’ve finally inherited the throne, the money, the honor, all for myself!”), I’ve inherited the gift of being an eternally dispossessed, self-emptying servant.

Finally, note that the term “God” is here paired with “sons.” To be a God is correlative to being a son.

Verse 8

'But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.'

The opposite of conquering? First up on the list is being a coward.

To be a coward: to fail to open one’s doors, to fail to be “among” or “with”.

The marks of cowardice: faithlessness, pollution, violence, fornication, sorcery, idolatry, and (above all) falsehood.

Also, Brandie has already nicely pointed out the juxtaposition of “the waters of life” with “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur.” I'd just add that we might read thirst or desire as still being central to this second image as well: the lake of fire burns without respite precisely because it involves a misrelation to desire such that we are consumed by these desires. Rather than giving life, they give death. And not just one death, but two: a second death.


  1. First of all, I think omnibus comments are cheating. :)

    As for the heaven being new: we could also translate that word as "sky" and so the case could be made that the heavens (=abode of God) are thought to be perfect and only the sky needs renewing. I'm not sure.

    I do like your thoughts on separation, particularly since I've encountered some interesting readings of Genesis 1 that construe the creation as a series of separations, with God as the separator. This becomes, I think, particularly interesting when (as you point out later) God is emphatically not separated from his people in this city.

    "what brings an end to tears is not necessarily that we each stop crying but that we each wipe each other’s tears away"

    Fabulous observation.

  2. I appreciated the comments on the different senses of something being made "new." That is one of the things that was quite unclear to me when I first read the passage.

  3. Julie,

    You may be right that we ought to read "heavens" (at least initially) as referring more simply to the "sky" - but this is less exciting :)

    Also, though the initial use in verse 1 may more obviously mean something like sky, this is, I think, at least complicated by the way that verse 2 immediately and directly connects the heavens (same word) with that place from which things from God come.


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