Sunday, December 29, 2013

The History of Heaven and Earth 12: History’s Conclusion

It's like living on another planet. I was raised in a culture where the stress is not on the individual but on the community, on tradition, on fidelity to past models, on respect for parents and elders, on rote memorization of knowledge, on scarce material resources offset by a wealth of social capital. We had limited access to the modern world, but lavish access to family and clan achievement and honor. We had close proximity to the natural world without the demand to subdue and exploit it. One could go on. – Lammin Saneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity and professor of history at Yale Divinity School.

Tower of Babel, Hendrich III van Cleve (1525-1589)
Our study of the history of man has essentially come to its end. To review, the basic driving points of the series are: a) we generally wear an interpretive lens of the world, which tends to stay on when we arrive at scripture b) that lens lends itself to our thinking of heaven as “somewhere else”, and c) heaven is here. In summation and conclusion of history, I would like to recap how the course of history makes or begins to make these three points. I will then move onto some specific theological and scriptural questions and issues regarding these points.

Generally speaking, the less we know our history, the more likely we are to wear the lens it gives us by default. So, I think, through the course of studying history, seeing how different the man of today is from the man of yesterday makes it fairly clear that we have a lens. Part of what makes this obvious might be the difficulty we have in even understanding our history in the first place – indicating how different our currently taught interpretation of reality is from ages past (ages of our very own people). Also generally speaking, we tend to have a bias for “progress.”

Progress isn’t necessarily bad, in and of itself, but the point here is that a bias to it can blind us to its cost. Its cost, which I think I made clear in my study of history in the previous posts, is very much part of our lens. The cost of progress can’t be separated from its benefits. This is especially true considering the fact that the primary cost is the change in our very identity, in who we are. It is that change that leads us to think of heaven as “somewhere else”, somewhere “up there.” Its change in our identity is also part of the reason for our bias; to let go of our progress would be to lose ourselves.

That change in who we are is generally not simply a conscious occurrence on the basis of opinions and knowledge about the truth of the gospel (or of anything else) and how it pertains to our world. That change is all pervasive, and its effects are evident in every detail of our lives. Its pattern can be traced everywhere and in everything (I left a lot out of the story of our history). Whatever our doctrine is on creation and its relationship to the scientific story of evolution, we still talk on the telephone, listen to the radio, and watch TV (among other things). Our entire history – both its theory and its practice - is contained in and leads up to those activities. Those activities, in and of themselves – much like the new technology of telephones endowed with internet, photograph and video capability – change who we are. As Moses said, “I think it changes how your brain works.” The teaching by which we receive our lens is not only from the front of a classroom.

I think it can safely be said, then, that, generally speaking, we have a lens. I think the history also makes clear how its teaching, its molding of our being and identity, tends toward our thinking of heaven as “somewhere else.” To grasp this truth, we have to have a grasp both of a time when there was NO SUCH THING as “somewhere else” (in the way that we now think of “somewhere else”), and to see how the cumulative effects of later history would cause us to change our minds. I think I showed both of those through the course of history in the previous posts of this series.

I showed that history raised man from his foot to his mind. History went from the wheel, an extension of the foot, to the computer, an extension of the central nervous system. In the process, the unseen parts of our being (soul, spirit, mind) were divorced from our bodies. By the same token, history obliterated ancient man’s truth about the relationship between heaven and earth. So, by the end of the story, we have a man with no sense (no body and no world), having disappeared into either the heavenly or the earthly parts of himself, depending on his sympathies. We also have a man whose idea of time is that of a sequential projection into infinity modeled after cinema, rather than that of cyclical cosmic patterns modeled after the turning of the heavens.

To read scriptures now is to try to look back on an ancient text in which man hadn’t experienced such a divorce between mind and body, heaven and earth. Through scripture, we must now try to look back to a time when man still considered his home to be under the dome of heaven and himself to be the crown of creation, where heaven and earth meet. We now take our linear and cinematic projection into infinity with us to a set of scriptures whose eschatology is about a cyclic return to the beginning. Our reading scripture now is like a clash of oil and water.

The British Victorian poet Matthew Arnold – who was of the same generation as Richard Wagner and August Compte - in his poem “Dover Beach”, drew from the scriptural analogy of the bride of Christ and said it like this:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Eighty years before the nuclear bomb, in a haunting foreshadowing of the great World Wars that shattered our illusions of progress, Matthew Arnold says the “sea of faith” that once formed the contours of our world has retreated to the “naked shingles of the world.” A sure jab at Wagner’s having modeled the very structure of his operas after sex after we had lost our relationship to our body. Arnold’s reference to the “shingles of the world” is to say that modern man’s Babylonian dreams of progress had, with Wagner and Compte, already risen above the world’s cloudy roof, so to speak, where you look down and can no longer make sense of where home is. As N.T. Wright says, in The Challenge of Jesus (p. 172), “What should we be doing in our world now that every dream of progress is stamped with the word Babel?”

Speaking of making sense of home, as an obvious caveat here is, when we say that heaven is “somewhere else” or “here”, we must ask: what do we mean, exactly? When we say somewhere else, are we referring to a spiritual realm that is simply not apparent to our senses, or to a geographically or spatially locatable place that may or may not have dimensions or boundaries? Or, rather, are the two meanings one and the same? Is heaven in a geographically locatable space (with or without dimensions or boundaries) and not apparent to our senses, possibly because of its great distance from here? The answer(s) are effected by our basic model of reality. Once we know our history, we are more free to choose that model. I will try to posit my model later.

This question of the geography of heaven leads me directly into the beginning of my foray into more directly theological and scriptural questions.

Comments: Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]