Tag Archives: Heaven

The Dream

I have dreams when I am sleeping that I cannot understand and are not publishable for a family audience. I also have dreams for my life and the world, visions of the way things should be. In the poem “The Dream” from Openings (1968) by Wendell Berry the poet imagines the convergence of both kinds of dreams. There is the dream of the world as it was before all of our meddling. Then he tries to imagine the world as it should be, rebuilt anew with what we know now. Finally, he realizes the impossibility of his dream, because of the way that the world, including himself, is in reality.

Berry begins with a dream that removes “our flocks and herds, our droves of machines” from the landscape to imagine the world as it existed without all of our tinkering, as it did for millions of years when we were hunter-gatherers, not apart from our existence, only our domination.

Like the afterimage of a light that only by not
looking can be seen, I glimpse the country as it was.

It seems that this leap of the imagination, this dream, is a difficult one. As I look around me, even in rural Bolivia, where a Guarani village recently got electricity for the first time a matter of months ago, it is hard to imagine the landscape without the trappings of civilization and settled agriculture, the power lines, food wrappers, plastic bottles, buildings, cars, railroad tracks and street lights. Our imaginations are dominated by the world as it is, making near impossible the ability to imagine the world without what we see around us, the things that our lives and lifestyles depend on every day. The poet suggests that only by closing our eyes can we begin to imagine this other world.

This world exists in our mind, in the realm of dreams. This is not a memory that we have from experience, but one we must reconstruct with our imagination, even if we use the details and facts that sciences like anthropology and archaeology can tell us. There are those that choose to paint an idyllic scene of the perfect harmony and leisure of hunter-gatherer societies, while others paint the other historical (and racist) picture of an existence that is “nasty, brutish and short”. Somewhere between these two we must imagine that world of pre-history (which is to say, pre-agriculture) in more realistic detail. From this imaginative leap backwards, the poem then leaps forward to a future that might have been or perhaps could still be.

The poet then begins “putting back what I took away”.

to build all that we have built, but destroy nothing

This is the summation of the dream for which Berry yearns. This is the fulcrum of the poem on which the worlds of what was and what is hang in the balance. The question that haunts me is what it means “to build all that we have”? What do we have that can remain and “destroy nothing”? Is this dream of the world as it is except without the destruction even possible? As if waking up from this dream of the way the world was and then building it anew, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, his “hands weakening” and feeling “on all sides blindness” that permeates that fuzzy state between sleeping and waking, Berry is struck by the reality that always waits for us with the sunrise.

I see that my mind is not good enough.
I see that I am eager to own the earth and to own men.
I find in my mouth the bitter taste of money,
a gaping syllable I can neither swallow nor spit out.

The crushing insight of the reality of the world and our own culpability come rushing in to the dream world where we can see both the distant past and future. The things that we despise about the way the world is must be things that we are willing to recognize in ourselves. More and more I agree with Jared Diamond and others that the way forward involves moving beyond the blame that we love to pass on to corporations, governments, religion and other institutions and recognize that it is only our consent to this state of affairs that continues to make it possible. I am the one that desires domination of the earth, animals and my fellow humans. I am the one that “can neither swallow nor spit out” the money system at the root of our modern arrangement. and “of all kinds of evil”. We are the ones that fail to imagine a new world into being.

Where are the sleeps that escape such dreams?

Berry begins the poem by saying, “I dream an inescapable dream.” This reminds me of dreams I have had that I did not want to wake from, like the one where I could fly. There are dreams from our sleeping hours that grip us with some elusive feeling and/or glimpse of meaning to which we cling. There is a leap of our imagination that happens when we are not awake that occasionally perceives something imperceptible in our waking life. Yet our waking life is also full of dreams. For many these are simply consumer daydreams about a big house, nice car or other accessories of the consumer lifestyle (which may also include relationships with particular or imagined friends or lovers). For Berry and many others this is a dream of greener grass, not in suburban lawns, but in the vast prairies of the Midwest that have disappeared.

Berry plays with this dual meaning of the word dream. Indeed, as we have seen, these dreams are also related and intertwined as ways of seeing things that are not empirically available to our senses. If these dreams of the way the world was and is are “inescapable”, then how do we dream the dreams of the way the world should be? The building of this world that could or should be, the poet suggests, must involve the “pain of foreknowledge”. This is where these dreams converge. While the poem travels in a linear fashion from the dream of what was to what could be and then finally returning to the world as it is, there is a cyclical pattern embedded in this movement. Indeed, the dream of what was begins by an act of forgetting the reality of the world as it is, making an imaginative leap. In other words it begins in the same place that it ends.

Perhaps the poem leaves us, finally, with the idea that our dreams of other worlds, both that was and that should be, must be in ongoing conversation with the reality of the world as it is and particularly our place in that world as co-conspirators against nature in order to have any hope of these dreams becoming reality.

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I’ll Fly Away: Conclusion

creation_care_relca.jpgSo what does all this mean about climate change, environmentalism, population growth, agriculture and all the problems that our world faces? Our trusty friend in this conversation, N.T. Wright, puts the question this way,

We might begin by asking, What view of the world is sustained, even legitimized, by the Left Behind ideology? How might it be confronted and subverted by genuinely biblical thinking? For a start, is not the Left Behind mentality in thrall to a dualistic view of reality that allows people to pollute God’s world on the grounds that it’s all going to be destroyed soon? Wouldn’t this be overturned if we recaptured Paul’s wholistic vision of God’s whole creation? (Farewell to the Rapture)

If the earth is part of God’s work of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then it is intimately bound up with our own salvation. I don’t mean that we are “saved” or not based on how we care for the earth. I mean that we participate in the ongoing work of redemption when we care for the earth. It is not a marginal part of kingdom work, but central to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection (according to Paul).

If heaven is not going to be in some other realm and the earth is not going to simply be done away with, then our treatment of this planet must have some bearing on how the whole judgment scene might play out. Again, I don’t mean that whether or not we “make it to heaven” depends on whether or not we recycled. I mean that

If even the rapture scenario favored among many evangelicals is actually Jesus being welcomed to the earth to usher in the new creation, then we have to ask to what kind of place we will be welcoming him. I don’t mean that everything depends entirely on us to fix the world’s problems. I do believe that God can do what is beyond us, but I don’t claim to know how that works.

CreationCare.jpgI think a question N.T. Wright poses serves as a good framework for thinking about the implications of all this.

How can we respond to the heavenly dimension of the world without lapsing into an anti-earth attitude? (Apocalypse Now?)

The kingdom is already present and the way we live in relationship to the earth can reflect our participation in this kingdom here and now, even though it is still coming in its perfection. Just as with possessions, the way we treat the earth reveals our relationship with God. Genesis clearly places the natural world within our responsibility. Even the most conservative interpretation of “dominion” means that we will have to answer for what has been entrusted to us someday. It also seems that in our current predicament, science has a lot to tell us about what it means to live out this mandate.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what it means that there will be a new heaven and new earth. We can only speculate about what the nature of this final transformation will be. We should not, however, claim as certain or biblical an idea that has no support in the text. What’s more, we should be more careful about a concept of heaven or earth that leads directly to the destruction, degradation and exploitation of the earth that, according to the text, is our dominion.

How, after all, can we begin to describe the full significance of what we are doing, when we plant a tree in a devastated landscape, dig a well in a desert, give hope and love to an abandoned child, or campaign for an end to war? Only poetry, art and music can begin to do justice to such things; …We need to rediscover, for our own age, how to write today’s equivalent of truly apocalyptic language: language that will speak of earth and resonate with the music of heaven. (Apocalypse Now?)

Tree planting by Students- wonderofcreation.jpg

What specific actions or steps we should take as individuals, communities, societies or nations is an open discussion. While I believe that the Bible does give us some directions concerning our relationship to the land, it is a far cry from prescribing how to deal with climate change or the Farm Bill. This is left to the Holy Spirit as it leads the people of God into all truth and guides our actions in this particular time and place. It seems appropriate to conclude with a prayer.

God of creation, who holds the seas in the hollow of your hand, you have given us the privilege and responsibility of being the stewards of Your creation. Remind us in this task that we are but creatures dependent on the very creation we till and keep. Help us to listen to both science and the Spirit as we discern what the task of caring for the earth means at this time and in our particular lives and places. May we be found your faithful servants at that glorious day when the Holy City comes down from heaven, when we meet you in the air and welcome your reign over the new creation.

Tree and hands image from elca.org. Children planting a tree from wonderofcreation.org.

I’ll Fly Away: It’s the End of the World As We Know It

495px-Apokalipsis_XVI.jpgFinally, we consider the relationship between heaven and earth. It seems to me that dualistic thinking sets heaven and earth on a trajectory that must result in a catastrophic collision of some sort. We will address the shape this collision has taken in the popular imagination shortly. First, a longer quote from N.T. Wright’s Apocalypse Now? will help to clarify our thinking on this relationship. (It helps to imagine this being read in the Bishop’s British accent. It sounds smarter and will make me seem right.)

Talk of “heaven” and “earth”, though, comes to us mostly from the Bible; and in the Bible these are not two places, separated from each other by many miles, but two different dimensions of the total reality of the world. This is what I mean by a “duality”, as opposed to “dualism”. Just as animals, and many plants, are irreducibly male and female, with the two being complementary, and both being good and necessary for the flourishing of the species, so “heaven” and “earth” are the two dimensions of created reality. These two God-given dimensions interlock and interact in a variety of ways, sometimes confusingly, often surprisingly. And it’s particularly important to notice that heaven and earth were both created good. It isn’t the case that the physical world is somehow shabby or second-rate, and the non-physical somehow morally superior. That is to move into dualism, setting the two worlds against each other. Indeed, in the biblical story evil infected both spheres: creatures in heaven as well as creatures on earth, we are told, rebelled against God. But in that same story all things, in both spheres, are reconciled through Jesus the Messiah, though only after the principalities and powers, the spiritual powers that attempted to usurp God’s place, had been defeated through Jesus’ crucifixion (Colossians 1.15-20; 2.14-15). (Apocalypse Now?)

In the world of the Bible heaven and earth are connected, not separate. Jesus tells the disciples in a discourse launched by a question about the “kingdom of heaven”, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed on earth. Again I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:18-19). The point here is that there is an explicit connection between heaven and earth. If the Father does what is asked in heaven and it has no impact on earth, then what good is it? The implication is that the reality of heaven has a direct impact on earth.

1195897761_b83dc3f9e0.jpg

The collision course for heaven and earth is referred to as the End Times (or End of Days, Apocalypse, Armageddon, Tribulation… did I miss any?) when there will be a cataclysmic battle between good and evil that will result in the end of the world as we know it (and yes… I do feel fine). There are many different versions of this general idea. Dispensationalism alone (an invention of the 20th century) has pre-millenialists, post-millenialists and every variation imaginable. One aspect of this thinking saturated the popular imagination with the Left Behind series, the rapture. There is very little ink spilled in the Bible on this topic (certainly compared with the poor, the kingdom or love for example). The primary text used to justify it is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.

I like to include verse 18 as a reminder, since these words are not always used to encourage. Numerous scholars have reached the same conclusion that N.T. Wright does about this passage (including J.D. Crossan who might not agree with the good Bishop on a lot of other things).

Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world. (Farewell to the Rapture)

So, the idea in the main passage used to justify the idea of a “rapture” is actually that when Jesus returns we will go out to meet him in the air to escort him to earth where “we will be with the Lord forever”. This is in fact the exact opposite of the kind of escapism that keeps me awake at night. This means that heaven and earth are in fact two sides of the same coin. There is certainly a need for transformation, as I hope I’ve made clear. I do believe that there is a brokenness that pervades our relationships with each other, the earth and the powers and authorities. We are desparately in need of redemption and reconciliation. We wait eagerly for the new heaven and new earth where things are “put to rights”. The catch here is that this will not be some other realm or dimension (much less a physical location in the sky), but it seems to me will be located in the same place we’re living now. Praise God it won’t look the way it does now.

Durer_Revelation_Four_Riders.jpgThere are also other passages that have been used to bolster this “rapture” idea. N.T. Wright has this to say about them,

It is Paul who should be credited with creating this scenario. Jesus himself, as I have argued in various books, never predicted such an event[2]. The gospel passages about “the Son of Man coming on the clouds” (Mark 13:26, 14:62, for example) are about Jesus’ vindication, his “coming” to heaven from earth. The parables about a returning king or master (for example, Luke 19:11-27) were originally about God returning to Jerusalem, not about Jesus returning to earth. This, Jesus seemed to believe, was an event within space-time history, not one that would end it forever. (Apocalypse Now?)

The last sentence about it occurring within “space-time history” is important. It is not that this can be somehow proven, but that this is what the Jesus and the Bible seem to say. Strangely this is a radical shift in our popular imagination about what heaven, and particularly the Second Coming, might mean. N.T. Wright gives a pretty good summary of what he thinks it might mean.

The New Testament, building on ancient biblical prophecy, envisages that the creator God will remake heaven and earth entirely, affirming the goodness of the old Creation but overcoming its mortality and corruptibility (e.g., Romans 8:18-27; Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17, 66:22). When that happens, Jesus will appear within the resulting new world (e.g., Colossians 3:4; 1 John 3:2). (Farewell to the Rapture)

Still there is so much left unsaid. We don’t know precisely what shape this will take, but it clearly challenges predominant ways of thinking about the Second Coming and the nature of heaven. After considering what the Bible has to say about the earth, heaven and their relationship, I would like to draw some conclusions (if you haven’t made yours already) in a final post.

Orthodox icon of the Apocalypse from Wikipedia. Comic of the rapture from http://getraptureready.com/blog/. Woodcutting of The Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer from Wikipedia.

I’ll Fly Away: Heaven Help Us

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Photo of earthrise from nasa.gov

What is this realm referred to as “heaven”, “kingdom of heaven”, or “kingdom of God” in the Bible? Although these terms are not used in the Hebrew Bible, there is certainly the expectation of a Messianic Age in which God will “put things to rights,” as N.T. Wright loves to say. I would also like to point out at the outset that although these terms are not necessarily used interchangeably in Scripture, I will use them variously to refer to the coming future perfection in which God reigns completely. There are aspects of this idea such as judgment, justice and salvation that I will not address, but are certainly connected to the discussion about the relationship between heaven and earth.

The first thing I think we should admit is that our knowledge of what we call heaven or the kingdom of God is limited. The descriptions throughout the Bible often feel contradictory and difficult to grasp. Jesus says to the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21). In Mark Jesus says that the kingdom is at hand or near (1:15). Then you have the many parables that purport to “explain” the kingdom, but often seem to obscure it or make it more difficult to understand (Mt 13:24-52; 20:1-16; 22:1-14; 25:1-30 just to name those in Matthew). These are only the ways that Jesus described the kingdom, not including the Torah, Prophets, Psalms, Paul or Revelation. While it is necessary to try and make statements about what this realm of heaven, we should continually approach our attempts to understand it with humility and acknowledgment of our limitations.

For our purposes we are interested in the way that the Bible describes heaven or the kingdom in relationship to the earth. Does it describe it in contrast to earth, in the same terms or some combination of the two?

Heaven is certainly described in contrast to the current state of affairs, but the terms used to describe it are decidedly earthy. If some of the New Testament description of heaven could lead us to think that it is an other-worldly, spiritual realm, the Hebrew Testament depiction is distinctly grounded in the reality of this world. Isaiah’s vision of the “new heaven and new earth” uses language intimately connected to life here and now on earth.

They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat… They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune… the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain (Isaiah 65:21-23,25)

The Hebrew Bible’s vision of the Messianic Age was grounded in the reality of the Israelite’s experience of exile in Babylon. The vision is of the restoration of Jerusalem. While it is concerned with judgment against the nations that oppressed Israel (Samaria, Assyria, Babylon, etc.), it is also concerned with the oppression practiced within its own borders (e.g. Amos 2:6-8). In terms of salvation it is concerned, not only with Israel’s future, but portrays an age in which all nations will come together under the banner of Yahweh (Micah 4:1-4; cf. Isaiah 2:1-4). This vision of the future Messianic Age is not one that is discontinuous with this world. In fact it is quite the opposite. The future perfection only makes sense in light of our present experience of imperfection, injustice and suffering.

I think it would be good exegesis, biblical interpretation and hermeneutical practice to read the New Testament’s words about heaven and the kingdom in light of what has just been said about the Hebrew Bible’s vision of the coming Messianic Age. Even the New Testament language about heaven is much more earthy than we typically believe. I would like to consider just one passage often used in this context, Revelation 21. Almost quoting (certainly paraphrasing) Isaiah the author writes,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)

The first thing I notice is that the new heaven and new earth are contrasted with the old heaven and the old earth. It is not a contrast between heaven and earth. As previously discussed our identities and the earth’s have continuity through redemption and ultimately the final transformation described here. Nothing here suggests that the planet which we currently inhabit will simply be disposed of like so much garbage and tossed into God’s landfill while God opens the brand new, shrink wrapped earth for us to live on for all eternity. If that were the case, then this passage suggests that there is also a place in that landfill for the old heaven. What could that possibly mean? We are dealing here with apocalyptic language and should read and interpret it as such. However, even a literal interpretation would deny the idea that heaven and earth are disconnected.

It is also interesting that the metaphor used her is that of a city, a most earthly concept. This is not just any city either, but Jerusalem. That vision from the Hebrew Bible of God’s people being restored and the world set right is alive and well in the book of Revelation. Indeed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are inscribed on the gates of the city (Rev 21:12). This chapter goes on at great length about the layout of the city and the materials used to construct it. Chapter 22 goes on to describe a river flowing through it and trees that bear fruit every month. This is not a vision of heaven far away from earth in the clouds or even some dimension of being. Rather it is rooted (quite literally since there are trees) on the earth. The text clearly states twice (21:2, 10) that the city came down out of heaven. If it came down out of heaven, then where was it headed?

My intention is not to completely describe what the Bible has to say about heaven or the kingdom, but instead to shed light on the way that our dualistic thinking is not based on the biblical text. Heaven is intimately connected with this world. Certainly there is an element of the biblical description that is simply beyond us, but nothing necessitates the idea that the new creation will be discontinuous with the old.

Next… It’s the End of the World As We Know It