After these things he provided judges up to Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king. God gave them Saul, son of Kish, a man from the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. Then he removed him and raised up David as their king. . . .Acts: 13: 20-22
Today’s story from Acts tells of the arrival of Paul and his companions in Antioch. There they are invited to speak in the synagogue, and Paul tells the story of what we now call “salvation history” from the time of the Exodus to the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. My reading of this passage today is informed by a book review of James Wood in the current (May 13) issue of The New Yorker. He is reviewing Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. As Wood describes it, the heart of Hägglund’s argument is that to the degree that religion’s belief in a stagnant “eternal life” informs the quality of our present life and presence in the world, it robs us of the power that the experience of loss and the fragility of life has to bring into our lives: awe, wonder, appreciation, gratitude, and deeper life itself.
Something that the Jewish tradition brings to religious sensibility that at times is lacking in Christianity and Islam (that so emphasize the “next life”) is this deep appreciation of life as finite, fragile, and ever changing. We see this reflected in Paul’s exhortation to the people of the synagogue in Antioch. The ground of Paul’s vision is belief, but that belief is not in a life that does not exist yet or in an unchanging God. Rather, it is in the presence of God, the actual sovereignty of God in the finite and fragile, in the constant change.
At the end of this month we shall celebrate in the church the Feast of the Ascension. In the description of that event which begins the Book of Acts, we hear the expression of this same incarnational understanding. As Jesus is lifted up, two men in white say to those gathered: “Why are you standing here looking into the sky? Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there.” (Acts 1: 11) The call is not to be looking up into the sky but to “go into the whole world” and bring into the world the good news of the gift of creation and re-creation.
We seem to be living in an age where nationalism, xenophobia, and religious fundamentalism are somehow together gaining ascendancy. Those who had, back in the 1970’s, declared the death of God, which I think meant the death of religion, and those who much more recently with the end of the Cold War declared the end of history certainly underestimated the insecurity and myopia of human beings. A secularism and capitalism that was seen as the way to human freedom, liberation, and equality has rather evoked a backlash of fearful withdrawal into our nationalistic and religious enclaves. In my own Roman Catholic faith tradition and its institutional manifestations, we have seen the promised openness to others and the world declared by Vatican Council II turned into an attempted restoration of the most dogmatic and controlling aspects of the Christendom of old. Within the very “political structures” of the institutional church, we see those who would declare Pope Francis heretical for his very adherence to the direction of openness, dialogue, and service to the world professed by the Second Vatican Council. Throughout the world we see the rise of authoritarian and nationalistic leaders who misunderstand relationships among peoples and nations as mere relations of force, the effect of competing claims based on greed and gratification.
The view of the world that is reflected in Paul’s exhortation is a vision in which life and world are part of a coherent story, a story that summons us to responsibility for its unfolding. There is nothing in it of escapism and dissociation. It rather is an ongoing dialogue between creator and creature, in which our role as creature is to see the truth of the life and world we live and inhabit and to respond in light of our unique responsibility to and for that world — what the religious sensibility would term living in conformity to “the will of God.” We are to receive the truth of things, despite all the psychological defenses we have against what we see as the “unpleasant” aspects of reality, and to act responsibly in light of that truth. It is in acting responsibly that we experience fulfillment.
There is little doubt that the notion of a perfect “next life” has been used in the course of human history as what Marx termed “the opium of the people.” It has been a source of control and of domination over the lower classes by the upper ones. To this day we have in the United States a president who would describe those seeking refuge from poverty and oppression as “not very fine people.” On last night’s evening news there were two stories originating in the state of Alabama. The first was the passage of an anti-abortion law whose rationale, according to the governor who signed it, lay in a deep belief in the value and sacredness of every human life. Later in the news broadcast there was a story about the Alabama penal system and a suit by the justice department brought against it for the inhumane conditions in its jails and prisons and the extreme mistreatment of all prisoners, including the mentally ill. A teacher of ours always reminded us that one of the distinctive aspects of human beings is our ability “to put together things that don’t belong together.” The governor of Alabama, and obviously many of the legislators there, are able to declare the ultimate value of every human life as they pass a piece of legislation with an intended impact largely on poor and minority women, while taking no action to end the inhumane treatment, often leading to the suicide of inmates, that is inflicted on their mentally ill and prison inmates on a daily basis.
Our ideals, become ideologies, are very dangerous things. In the name of religion and morality we can not only become mad as individuals but wreak havoc on each other and on our “common home.” In the name of “the truth” we can readily fail to become responsible for what is and for the needs of our brothers and sisters. This points to the challenge both of our humanity and of faith. The root of the word “courage” is the Latin word “cor,” that is heart. Mortality and the fragility of all life, including our own, is not easy for us to bear. Everything we do and everyone and everything we love ends. Every attempt of ours to serve and to change things for the better is severely limited. Our deepest desires will always remain, at some level, unsatisfied. it is our living with, appropriating, and responding to this truth that form our heart and enable us to become courageous. In the human experience, pain and joy are inseparable. If we deny the truth in order to avoid the pain, whether we do this in “secular” or “religious” ways, we lack the courage necessary to know the “life to the full,” the “eternal life” of which Jesus speaks. Eternal life for Jesus is not confined to an unchanging afterlife. It is rather the gift to be received in the present, when we have the courage to face and live the truth and the responsibility to act in light of that truth, however limited our capacity to act might be.
A Field of Flowers
What are you saying? That you want
eternal life? Are your thoughts really
as compelling as all that? Certainly
you don’t look at us, don’t listen to us,
on your skin
stain of sun, dust
of yellow buttercups: I’m talking
to you, you staring through
bars of high grass shaking
your little rattle—O
the soul! the soul! Is it enough
only to look inward? Contempt
for humanity is one thing, but why
disdain the expansive
field, your gaze rising over the clear heads
of the wild buttercups into what? Your poor
idea of heaven: absence
of change. Better than earth? How
would you know, who are neither
here nor there, standing in our midst?
Louise Glück, The New Yorker, February 24, 1992