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A World-to-Come

by Berry Friesen (January 1, 2016)

Anglican bishop and author N.T. Wright speaks of the human spirit in a four-fold way: delighted by beauty, hungering for justice, wanting to give and receive love, ambushed by moments of awe. Whether deliberate about it or not, nearly all of us are acquainted with these yearnings.

As individuals, we vary as to which of these spiritual impulses we experience most vividly and/or find most attractive.  Our differences in this regard play out in public life. Awe is the special emphasis of religion, politics focuses on justice, the arts on beauty and our private lives on loving relationships.

I’ve long been drawn to justice.  This may be due to some quirk in my personality, my place in the birth order of my family, my training as a lawyer.  Certainly it relates to my immersion since a small child in readings from the Bible, which reflects a hunger for justice as much or more than the other yearnings.

I remember a professor’s comment from nearly fifty years ago to the effect that Marxism’s passion for a just world was inspired by the biblical vision of a just world.  It was an odd comment for that time and place (the height of the Cold War, a conservative Christian campus in Kansas), yet I instantly recognized the professor’s insight. Biblical faith and Marxism shared a passion for a world-to-come, a world made new in justice.

A world-to-come usually is described in religious circles as “heaven.”  That’s a fine word, but when “heaven” is defined as a place people go after their lives on Earth have ended, then we’ve taken a major detour away from the biblical vision.  Call it what you will, the world-to-come of which the Bible speaks is not somewhere other than Earth, nor is it meant for another life.  The Bible’s world-to-come is meant for Earth within this time in which we are living—human history.

I seriously doubt the capacity of institutional Christianity in the West to recover this understanding.  Its influence and revenue are too dependent on selling an after-life, it is too invested in current structures of power and wealth, it has become too accustomed to metaphysical interpretations of biblical texts.

But I do not doubt the human spirit, especially when it interacts with and is energized by the voice of YHWH we encounter as we gather in groups to hear the Bible’s stories.

Perhaps this is why I’ve so enjoyed reading Walter Brueggemann on the world-making power of ritual and liturgy (Israel’s Praise:  Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, also referenced in my previous post).  While he freely acknowledges “the biblical community has no monopoly on the work of world-construction,” he insists that by intention or not, world-making is what people of faith do when they gather to voice their yearnings and meld them with biblical texts.

Thus, the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:21) announces “the world has become a place of justice and freedom because the empire is overcome.”  Moreover, Brueggemann says, “the world continues to be such a place, and each time the exodus memory is reenacted, the empire is overcome again.”

This announcement has a primal power, Brueggemann says, when “it wells up from below” out of the yearnings of the people, and then connects in a moment of amazement and gratitude to the One who gives life and legitimates our hunger for justice.

Love, beauty and awe are available throughout the world. Yes, they can be found in a church setting, but one doesn’t need to join a faith-based community to find them.

On the other hand, world-making power that “wells up from below” is much harder to find, especially power animated and informed by the revolutionary wisdom of the Bible.  If you are part of such an experience now, you are truly blessed.  If you aren’t, 2016 is the time to start.

A discussion group using If Not Empire, What? is a potential way to begin.  Perhaps pastors of congregations engaged in local community issues will help you recruit members.