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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.