Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A this-worldly faith (Synchroblog on Utopias)

I was once told by a friend that she couldn't become a Christian because she was too concerned about injustice in this world, and Christianity was an 'other-worldly' faith. Christians, in her view, were concerned about something other than this world, they were only concerned (selfishly) with the state of their souls in some putative after-life; thus they didn't pay enough attention to the problems that were fully present in this life; and consequently Christian faith had no attraction for her.

I have to say, I sympathised greatly with her critique. We only need to took at the way the Southern Baptist Church has resolved that there is no consensus on global warming to see a present-day example of what she criticised. So often the concentration on 'life after death' drains all the life from this time and place. Yet the sadness is that what is being rejected is not the historic faith; it is a peculiarly Modern distortion of the faith.

As I understand Christianity, it claims to offer 'eternal life' - and eternal life has two components, being something which applies outside of time (not life after death, but life in eternity), but also and most emphatically something which applies to this life in the here and now. "I have come that you might have life, and have it in all its fullness." The Prophetic tradition - in the line of which my friend undoubtedly stood - is about God's engagement with the world as we experience it, which cannot be divorced from the right understanding of God. We live in the light of eternity - but the heaven that we long for is not outside of this world; it is this world transformed by the rule of God. In other words: the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in Heaven. Is this Utopia?

Well, we do pursue an 'ideal' world. It is - to put it mildly - a falling away from the fullness of the faith to disengage from this world and ignore the Biblical injunctions to care for the poor and destitute, to safeguard and steward our environment. What my friend rejected, I also reject. Yet I remain a Christian, and I think that there is nothing in my friend's views which is of value which isn't included in Christian faith. More than that, I think there are safeguards in Christian faith which are necessary, which my friend's perspective doesn't have - in other words, I think there are two ways in which the pursuit of the Kingdom of God is not Utopian.

The first relates to what is in our power to achieve. The Christian perspective claims that God is in charge of the world, that the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it. Howsoever grand we believe ourselves to be, however marvellous our achievements, they are nothing apart from God. You could say: having faith is the only way in which to keep our ego in check. Once we can accept this, we are given the gift of patience. The Kingdom will be established by God, so we don't have to become frustrated when we don't see it in our lifetime. We are therefore prevented from the sort of lunacies that disfigured the twentieth century, the 'great leaps forward' and such like.

But doesn't this just turn into precisely what my friend criticised? A faith which does not engage with the present world, because God will sort it out in the end? No, because of the second element: we are not in charge of establishing the Kingdom, we don't even know what it looks like, but we have been told how to build it. The issue for the faithful Christian is not one of achievement, it is one of obedience. As our Lord put it: If you love me, you will keep my commandments. The Christian is engaged in reforming the world, in contending with injustice, in making peace - but not because of a view to what will then be achieved by the Christian, or even what will happen to the soul of the Christian, but because the Christian is obedient to what Jesus taught.

It seems that my friend shares with the Christian perspective a hope for the future of our world. Yet the difference with the Christian is that the Christian knows that the Kingdom cannot be achieved by our own efforts; it comes from obedience. Because of this - because of, if you like, a much greater worldliness on the part of the Christian - I'm much more comfortable praying 'Thy Kingdom Come' than pursuing an Ozymandian Utopia.


Other people posting on this topic today:

Steve Hayes at Notes from the Underground
John Morehead at John Morehead's Musings
Nudity, Innocence, and Christian Distopia at Phil Wyman's Square No More
Utopia Today: Living Above Consumerism at Be the Revolution
Nowhere Will Be Here at Igneous Quill
Bridging the Gap at Calacirian
The Ostrich and the Utopian Myth at Decompressing Faith
Being Content in the Present at One Hand Clapping
Eternity in their Hearts by Tim Abbott
Relationship - The catch-22 of the Internet Utopia at Jeremiah's Blog
U-topia or My-topia? at On Earth as in Heaven
A SecondLife Utopia at Mike's

Mrs. Brown and the Kingdom of God at Eternal Echoes

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