Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Is a Heaven-Centered Piety Wrong?

I preached on heaven last Sunday and it was the culmination of a year of thinking through what I actually believe about this important doctrine.

Last Fall I read N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (Harper, 2008). He put the case for what I have basically accepted for the past two decades and I found myself surprised by how disquieted I was by his argument. Having been raised in a conservative Baptist denomination and having, as an adult, come to the conviction that the Church should be more concerned about social justice issues through reading the likes of Ron Sider, Francis Schaeffer and John Howard Yoder, I nevertheless found myself resisting the attack Wright makes in this book upon traditional piety centered on the hope of heaven after death. And I found that the transparent motivation for those attacks displayed in his forthright argument in Part III that the Church should become more involved in social action and politics made me very uncomfortable.

I was uncomfortable because I knew that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the movements of higher criticism, Darwinist materialism, and the Social Gospel came into North American Evangelicalism from Germany in particular and resulted in major divisions in Protestantism between the Fundamentalists and the Liberals. Theological liberalism downplays or denies the supernatural, personal sin and salvation, and heaven and hell and replaces the "otherworldly focus" with a focus on social justice in this world. Aligning itself with secular, progressive politics, liberal Protestantism stoped trying to convert people to saving faith in Jesus Christ and started throwing its weight behind a multitude of social causes. What has followed has been the harrowing destruction of biblical faith in wide swaths of the formerly mainline, (now increasingly sideline), Protestant denominations and in large sections of Western Roman Catholicism (though the hierarchy has not capitulated).

N. T. Wright has a reputation as a moderate Evangelical whose theology of salvation is controversial. Evangelicals have a tendency to over-rate any mainstream scholar who takes a vigourous stand in favor of the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ (eg. Pannenberg) and this probably accounts for Wright's widespread popularity in Evangelical circles despite the many questions relating to justification and related topics. So he probably wasn't the best person for me to be hearing the down-playing of the emphasis on a personal hope of heaven after death, even if it was in favor of greater emphasis on the resurrection.

But I had to sort out why I was feeling uneasy with Wright saying what I have myself held for the past 20 years. I picked up a book at AAR by Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Catholic University of America Press, 2nd ed. 1988). Now here is where it gets wierd. I found that Ratzinger in this book basically re-affirmed, in a philosophically much more sophisticated manner, the traditional heaven-centered piety of my conservative Baptist youth.

His treatment of the Intermediate State was the best I have ever read and much more substantive and satisfying that Wright's rather thin gruel. His answer to the question of why the Synoptic Gospels focus on the kingdom of God, while John and Paul focus instead on Christology, is the simplest and most profound I have ever encountered. It is that Jesus Christ is the Kingdom. The Kingdom came in his person, so in the kerygma the only way to preach the same Gospel the incarnate Jesus preached was for the Church to make Jesus Christ himself the center of the message. This totally undercuts the liberal attempt to make Evangelicals feel guilty for not preaching the same message as Jesus did (eg. Brian McLaren and Jim Wallis).

Over the past year, I have also been reading a lot of Tolkein and Lewis. I re-read the Chronicles of Narnia (for the first time in years) and also The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillian (which I read annually in addition to watching the movies annually as well!). I also read Tolkein's Letters, which I found extremely interesting, especially his letters to his son about faith. In addition, I read Lewis's, The Discarded Image and Tolkein's Tree and Leaf. Repeatedly, I found myself pondering the remark by the Lord Digory in next to last chapter of The Last Battle:

"Listen Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia, you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan's real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or a waking life is from a dream." His voice stirred everyone like a trumpet as he spoke these words: but when he added under his breath, "It's all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!" the older ones laughed. It was so exactly like the sort of thing they had heard him say long ago in that other world where his beard was grey instead of golden.

What does Lewis mean by "It's all in Plato?" He obviously means the metaphysics he has just described. The relationship between this world and heaven is like that of shadowlands and the real thing. N. T. Wright does not think much of Plato and makes all sorts of disparaging remarks about Plato in his book, which is a pity. He is a great biblical scholar but not so great a philosopher; for example, he can't seem to keep straight in his head the crucial distinctions between Plato, 2nd century AD Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. They are not all the same thing.

At the root of Wright's confusion (and he is far from alone in this - rather typical of Evangelicals, I'm afraid) is that he thinks that the Platonic concept of the ideas as enunciated by Lord Digory above makes this world unreal and unimportant. And he seems to think that it must mean that heaven will be a non-physical form of existence completely unrelated to this creation. But Digory (Lewis) is careful to say that all of Narnia that mattered had been drawn into heaven; would that critics of Lewis' (and the Great Tradition's) "Platonism" would remember that point. This earth is not as real as heaven, but it is not unrelated to it.

And it would be helpful if Plato's harsh and importunate critics would stop to reflect on the fact that Platonic influence on Christianity did not begin in the post-apostolic period, but in the period of Second Temple Judaism with the Wisdom literature and that what Digory says about the relationship between Earth and Heaven is basically the same as what the letter to the Hebrews says in chapters 8-10. Surely the biblical wisdom literature and Hebrews are neither Gnostic nor in the grip of a vicious anti-mater dualism?

The Bible goes much further than Plato; he only grasped a part of the truth. And the main point at which the Bible goes further is in the last two chapters of Revelation where Heaven comes down to Earth as the Heavenly City descends to Earth and Heaven is re-joined to Earth. I think that this description of what is in the Heavenly City says exactly what Digory says in his statement that nothing of value in the present world will be lost in the New Heavens and New Earth.

The four points of my sermon were:

1. Heaven is Where God Is - Gen. 1-3
- more precisely it is where God's presence is unmediated and that describes the Garden of Eden or Paradise

2. Heaven is Where God's Will is Perfectly Done (Matt. 6:10)
- no sin can enter there and so when man fell, he was exiled from Eden

3. Heaven is Where Christians Go When They Die (II Cor. 5:1-10)
- to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord

4. Heaven is Coming to Earth (Rev. 21-22)
- Earth is where there is sin and rebellion but when Christ finishes conquoring every enemy (I Cor. 15:20-28) he will hand over the kingdom to the Father and God will be all in all

Heaven exists now but it is separated from us by the metaphysical catastrophe called the Fall. It is still there, but we can't get to it except through the One who said "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." Tolkein's description in The Silmarillian of how the Undying Lands are now shrouded in mist because the world has been broken and how mortals are prevented from getting there by the Powers (his Angels) has helped me understand why heaven is described in such materialistic terms even though it is not part of this space-time universe. It exists, but access is temporarily cut off to us children of Adam and Eve. Plato had no idea of how the separation occurred, nor any clear concept of the split ever being repaired. The great hope of Rev. 21-22, which Plato never knew and which Tolkein's pre-Christian mythology does not describe except in the vaguest hints and hopes, is that some day that which has been divided by sin will be healed and re-united. That is the hope of heaven.


Andrew said...

Hmm. I still have sympathies with Wright. It seems to me that the weight of emphasis in the NT is on resurrection/consummation, rather than intermediate state.

Of course, if by "heaven-centered" you mean "centered on the place where God's will is done", then that's different. But I don't think Wright was criticizing that...

Craig Carter said...

If you aren't sure whether or not Wright was criticizing that, then what we have is a serious failure in communication and that, to me, is reason enough to be critical of Wright's book.

Wright and I are not using heaven in exactly the same way. But I think my way is consistent with the main tradition of Christianity, with which Wright seems to have a problem. For me, heaven is the Garden of Eden (or Paradise), the Intermediate State (where Jesus ascended to in Acts 1), the Heavenly City of Jerusalem and the New Heavens and New Earth. For Wright, heaven is only the Intermediate State. He has to narrow the definition of heaven to set up his criticisms of it. He then is free to contrast heaven to the Kingdom, which seems to me to repeat the liberal mistake of driving a wedge between the Synoptics and John/Paul.

To speak to your first comment, what I'm critical of is the way Wright wants to make such a big distinction between the intermediate state and resurrction/consumation.

Andrew said...

Well, I was indulging in a bit of understatement there. I don't think any Christian could be criticizing heaven-centered piety in that second sense.

Why I think Wright is useful is that he adds more detail to the history and structure of heaven. I'm almost positive that Wright's real targets are not sophisticated theologians of the Christian tradition (Aquians was big on embodiment, etc.), but "Christians" who are really therapeutic moral deists. "Heaven" in that context is basically the gnostic afterlife.

But in the Bible, heaven is much more complicated. The Garden of Eden was a historical place that was an image of heaven, just as the temple was. But both are gone now. The intermediate state is (traditionally speaking) being present in God's throne room, the "third heaven", though not in an embodied state, which is an evil (in the natural sense; it is not as it should be, we ought to be embodied, etc.). There is a heavenly Jerusalem right now, but it is mostly populated by disembodied spirits, since death has not yet been defeated. The New Jerusalem and the New Heavens and Earth are both the merging of heaven with the physical earth (so that physicality remains, but is energized/transformed by the Spirit).

All of this complexity is missed by the MTD's. I think they are his real target.

My $.02

Craig Carter said...

I agree we are all against the MTDs. But if that were Wright's only target would he really have to take an axe to the hymns of Charles Wesley, for heaven's sake? (pun intended)

To say that the Garden of Eden (which I take to be Paradise) is "gone" seems to me to be not right. Why did the angel need to guard the entrance if it is just gone? And why did Jesus say to the dying thief that he would be with Jesus in paradise?

According to Hebrews the heavenly tabernacle, on which the earthly one was patterned, continues to exist in heaven, so I wouldn't call it gone either.

As for the heaven of the intermediate state being a place of disembodied spirits, I have a problem with that. As Wright (rightly!)recognizes by rejecting gnostic dualism, the soul cannot exist apart from the body. (Here Aristotle corrects Plato.) So how can souls exist now in heaven? Why would it not be reasonable to suppose that they have some sort of temporary body? (II Cor. 5 talks about being clothed with our "heavenly dwelling.") Also, Jesus' resurrected body is now in heaven, so at least one body is there.

As for the heavenly city merging with the earth, I recognize that our language begins to fail us at this point. Physical and spiritual are not enough categories to discuss what Paul refers to in I Cor. 15 as "spiritual bodies."

I think my emphasis on heaven as the presence of God where God is worshipped and his will is done is the real antithesis to MTD. The downplaying of heaven and the playing up of this-worldly social justice can have the effect of giving aid and comfort to liberalism in general - of which MTD is just one degenerate form.

Andrew said...

I think Wright sometimes has the tendency to treat himself as a grand innovator out to bring the light of scriptures from underneath centuries of darkness... but then often puts forward positions that have clear precedents in the tradition. That's probably just because he's not a scholar in church history.

I am a bit leery of criticizing him, though, because of a kind of emphasis. I'm wary of criticizing theology in general because of emphasis, but especially so in this case where Wright is on record as believing in the intermediate state. But, I do recognize that the focus on the body can be co-opted by a completely immanentized liberal social program. So I appreciate your corrective, while still thinking Wright is basically correct (because there are indeed people at the other end of the spectrum alive today).

As for heaven itself:

Well, presumably the Flood wiped out the garden. The alternative would be to imply that somewhere in Iraq the angel is still guarding a hidden garden with his flaming sword.

Re: the heavenly tabernacle: right, I said that it still exists. But it is not the earthly tabernacle that once existed in Israel. It is something that has been in heaven since Day 1.

I agree the soul cannot exist apart from the body in one sense, if it is defined as Aristotle did. But Aquinas and the tradition in general has recognized that something called the "spirit" or the "intellect" can indeed exist apart from the body, though it is not God's creative intent that it do so. Otherwise out of body experiences would be impossible, while Paul implies that they are possible in 2 Cor.

I'm not sure I have a strong position on what the temporary heavenly body is like. Perhaps you're correct about that, though I doubt that would be the traditional position.

Your last paragraph raises what I think I'm having trouble with: Wright does not downplay heaven in the sense of "the place where God's will is done, God's throne room", etc. He downplays it in the sense of the intermediate state, but then he strongly up-plays the "life after life after death", which certainly keeps him way out of the box of people who think Christianity is basically about this life rather than the next. So, all said, I think he is more of an ally than anything against the liberals.

Craig Carter said...

I agree that Wright is an ally in some ways. But I also worry that the net effect of his views (especially presented to unwary undergraduates as THE NEW THING) is to encourage them away from a traditional understanding of sin and salvation toward a liberal immanentized view of the Church's mission.

Honestly, he makes it sound like he practically re-discovered the doctrine of the resurrection of the body after centuries of darkness, whereas I can't ever remember not believing in it fervently and I sang all the hymns he dislikes growing up and fully expected (and still expect) to go to heaven when I die because of the blood of Jesus.

If he wants to do something to help in this area, why not write a book about how the Millennium Development Goals won't either (a) bring in the kingdom of God or (b) constitute a sufficient witness to the Gospel.