and ends with a city of Gold

That title comes from a hymn whose first verse goes

God has given us a book full of stories,
Which was made for His people of old,
It begins with the tale of a garden,
And ends with the city of gold.

The verse captures rather succinctly the breadth of the Bible from creation to Revelation. The rest of the hymn focuses on the gospel but I want to look at the beginning and then end and relate them to politics.  What I want to take is narratively we are between the Garden and the City. Politically we have a spectrum which I will characterize as conservative to liberal. What I think is that it is quite useful to see the two as trying to direct our attention to one of the ends.

Let me take the easy one first. The conservative end of the spectrum the aim is to return to the Garden of Eden. It will be only in the case of a few religious nutters that that is taken literally. Rather what the Garden of Eden stands for is an imagined perfect past which they want society to return to. They want to put the genie back in the lamp and the apple back on the tree for then we can live happily for they think then the lion will lie down with the lamb and we will live in a good society. The ideal for that society is built of images of the past and the aim is to return there.

If that is the conservative one, then the liberal one must be looking forward to the City of Gold. We are here talking revelation, judgment day and the new Jerusalem.  In other words, liberals should have a well-developed eschatology. The problem is that on the whole they do not. I do not mean a cohesive single format, I am not really talking about Utopia here but a bricolage of the images, ideals, and principles that create a rich and desirable portrayal of a future reality. These ideas do not need to be compatible. I am not asking Liberals to be any more reasonable about their golden age than I think conservatives are. If you like we need stories of the city of Gold.

Unfortunately, my feeling at the moment is the entire eschatology is a combination of the formalism of human rights, a notion of equality and being nice or framed with if we campaign hard enough we will achieve it. We need to do better our stories need to grow.

My suggestions for getting there by liberal Christians

  1.  Drop the idea that we can bring about the Kingdom of God. This does two things. Firstly it leads to burnout with people carrying doing the same campaigning  long after it has ceased to be effective. Secondly, it has watered down our vision to what may be possible. Though we should work towards the establishment of the Kingdom the ultimate responsibility for heralding its coming lies with God.
  2. We need to rethink our theology. A theology that is anthropocentric tends to work in times of ease but leaves little to  inspire in times of need. We need humility to acknowledge that while God has gifted us greatly, he has not handed the world over to us. It is time to become more theocentric again.
  3. We need to visit the past. In WWII there were theologians who made sense of resistance even in dire circumstances. The Churches resistance to Hitler was not led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer but by Karl Barth. The isolationist USA was given a theology of engagement by Reinhold Niebuhr, not his brother Richard. I say this as a contextual Reformed theologian who believes that the faith needs restating for every age. However, we can only restate if we know our past and find the resources in it to re-imagine the future.
  4. We need to think again of the nature of the Kingdom of God. We have made it too much in the image of Western civilization. with hard boundaries of territory and clear distinction drawn between them and us. God is Other, and those who are other uniquely challenge us to see the image of God in them. We do not have to like them; we do have to see the divine in them. If a real alternative to the current capitalist system is going to come about it is not going to be the work of wealthy white males (Sorry Marx and Lenin).  They have too much opportunity under the present system. Crucially such a group will have a new anthropology (understanding of what it meant to be human) that empowers them.
  5. We need to rethink our place in the World. If our theology is too anthropocentric then so is our views on creation. Indeed they tend to be highly egocentric as we view the world first through our concerns, then through the concerns of those close to us, and so on until the rest of creation comes way down the list. If we are called to be stewards of Creation (a reading of Genesis 1:26) then we are bad stewards (Matthew 24:48-51). I am not really happy with that, this planet is more than somewhere to look after while its true Master is away. We need to start telling the story when we are not the hero.
  6. We need to take sin seriously in all its guises. I do not subscribe to the Garden of Eden story and I believe good is more firmly ingrained in the human psyche than evil. However, I find the narrative of the fall as the pervasive taint of evil in all human activity a good metaphor. That means we need to look for our own failings, we need to be aware of our partial sightedness (we still see but not clearly). The converse is also true, we need a theology that takes God’s judgment seriously. I believe is more interested in our humanity towards each other than in much that the church and society spout. That does not let us have a God where everything goes, it is just different things that are banned.
  7. We need to start small, big prizes are all very well but it is the small scale that is going to make the difference. I do not really care who is in the Whitehouse as long as it is thinkable that someone who has spouted the views Trump has can be. I am not talking legislation or censorship; I am talking cultural change and that happens in hundreds of small incidences that occur every day.  In a sense, I do not want to beat the conservative but to be such a way that they come alongside us. There is space for this, the small scale institution has been significantly undermined in recent decades.

Many will be calling for action and I can see the attraction in that. What I want to suggest is that at the moment we have work to do that needs doing before we can take that action. My concern is if we rush into action we will only gain a pyrrhic victory where the price is paid by the very people liberals are supposed to be seeking advancement for. That unless we are deliberate about imagining and re-imaging  the Kingdom of God then in striving for our aims we will end up losing that which we count as central.

God will protect

I am struggling with something and I am well aware that if I were to post my response by the posts that are there people will think it uncaring. However today a second source got me thinking more widely and I think I need to put this down before I forget.

I follow the devotions from Peachtree Presbyterian Church largely because the pastor Mark Crumpler seems to be on a similar wavelength to me and his thoughts are often enough worth hearing. Today he began with

And we know . . . all things work together for good (Romans 8:28)

Now the simple reading of this is nothing bad will happen to Christians, and if you ask for God’s protection he will give it. It is of  course from Chapter 8 a chapter with more than its fair share of Paul’s purple prose (excuse the alliteration). Between that an assuring us that nothing can separate us from the love of God you’d think it was a rosy picture but…

this is also the chapter where Paul says

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (vs 18)

and

As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (vs 36)

 
Even the nice verses sometimes have a sting in them:
and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.(v17)
The bold is mine but I think it is getting to the core thing. I am not really sure how effect praying for protection from life’s ills is going to be when you are dealing with a god who got himself crucified! Somehow I do not think the protection from life’s ills are exactly a high priority with God. So although I will happily pray “Lead us not into the time of trial” I am not at all sure that life is going to work out, or even that “time of trial” means times when bad things happen. I have my strong suspicion he meant something else when he told us to pray that, that the troubles of this life although unpleasant weren’t exactly the trials he thought we should be asking to avoid. I think in some ways God is interested more in the bigger picture and how we fit within that.

Let me be clear the bringing out of wider purpose out of personal ill has been part of my life. Over fifteen years ago I was betrayed by someone I was in an intimate relationship with. I am not going into details, partly because I do not wish to but also because there is a sense in which I can ever only partly tell the story as big chunks are missing and I have to ability to find discover what should be in those chunks and none of the surmises really work. It left me in a state where I felt insecure in my own home and I could count on the fingers of one hand the people I actually trusted. It has left me with scars, most do not appear on the surface but scratch deeper and you will find that nothing is quite as it appears.

However it always resulted in me doing two things: firstly I needed to find a way to be able to cope with a world that I knew was largely socially created and that I could never be certain it was as I assumed it was; secondly I had spare time, did not want to invest in new relationships so went on a church study course instead. The study course eventually led to me taking first a masters and then my doctorate; the need to find new ways of understanding led me to an openness to Postmodernist theorists that I would not have had otherwise. Both of these have shaped my thinking for my thesis in many ways. If the betrayal had not happened I would not be writing the thesis I now am, I might well not even be doing a thesis.

So that I have seen but these are endings which tell of the bigger picture. Let me go back to todays devotion, it centres around Naomi, and her return to Canaan. She returns having lost her husband and both sons with Ruth. This is disaster and yet she is returning to family. Of course the story ends happily with Ruth marrying Boaz and becoming the grandmother of King David but let us not forget almost certainly Naomi never saw David, when she died she only knew of the security Boaz gave her and Ruth. She never experienced the bigger picture, the story God was involved with in all its glory.

So I am not going to be nice and pretend that if we accept God’s will we will personally see the reason for the hurt and suffering. I will say God can and does work through them but how or why I am not sure. Remember Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is not just that the cup of suffering would pass him by, but that in the end his father’s will will be done and that meant that it did not pass him by.  Thus the prayer to take up our cross and follow Christ is a prayer to accept the suffering that will come and to still follow God. It is not easy, I suspect in part that is why so many of the psalms are angry with God but it does seem to be God’s way.

After Virtue and the Elephant in the Room

I am reading Alisdair McIntyre’s After Virtue for my PhD. I have no idea what its connection is with Congregational Studies but as quite a few papers cite it, I am reading it to find out. I am not at all sure that I will agree with the conclusion and if I do I will argue that it has come about in a very different way. This is because he is using a tradition I was brought up in as his starting off point and I disagree with his reading. In fact in my view his reading is far too kind what happened.

Lets start at a point where I can agree, that is with the Nicomachean Ethics and the idea that ethics is made up of a threefold scheme of “man as he happens to be” is discordant with his true nature with discordant ethics and needs to be instructed to realises what man could be. Thus there is natural state, ethical training and ends ([i]telos[/i]).

He goes on to posit that during the enlightenment what happened is with the idea of science that it could only deal with means not ends and turning ethics into a science (legitimate form of knowledge) then the telos was got rid of. That is there was no end to which ethics were directed.

To discredit this I only have to state the end and the very argument that he makes turns around. The ideal of instruction was to become the “purely rational man”. In other words there is a telos, but it appears to be a telos that at first glance fits our own world. In actual fact it is one of the most potent myths to inhabit the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first centuries. I can trace it back that far.

Firstly when I did my early theological trainng or that first beyond the home to be exact, I did it in St Andrews, where David Hume is still a celebrated former member of the academy. However it was theology not philosophy I am talking about which is still Presbyterian. We were introduced to Kierkegaard but also to Schleiermacher. There you start to get the idea of the aethete, who has mastered rationally various arts, who becomes the new man.

Turn wider to a Sociologist Emile Durkhiem and read how he builds a picture of religion as starting off in superstition, through monotheist Judaism, Christianity and laterly Protestant Christianity man is slow able to gain a purer and purer religion until it becomes so pure there is no need for God, and the enlightened man is an atheist.

Darwinian evolution has been interpreted in this way then you get eugenics. No that is not accidental, I said my criticism of what happened was harder. The idea of a super-race that is purely rational and so on also haunts this form of ethics.

So to me the threefold scheme is not broken, but the telos is changed and in changing it becomes a monster that eventually leads to the holocaust. It is humanity faced with an ethics based on the “superman” myth driven to its natural conclusion that is repelled by what it has created.

To me, indeed to my theology teachers at University the ethics triad is not broken by the Enlightenment (perhaps that is one of the reasons my father does not believe in the Enlightenment) but rather it is broken by the carnage of the early twentieth century when it is obvious that even if man has developed rationally he has not developed ethically and no amount of rational training secures better moral outcomes.

Nor are we clear of it. The militant atheist are often so busy promulgating this myth at least indirectly. The idea all religion is about control and that a rational person must dispense with it and that the purely rational must triumph is yet this in another guise.