Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Question 3: Kingdom of God?

3) Another thing that's come up recently is what the Kingdom of God means.  I used that phrase a few times in my blog, and didn't realize that others might hear it very differently than I do.  What does the Kingdom mean for non-believers?  How do people who are trying to set it up here on earth share the Kingdom, or even the Kingdom work, with those who don't believe in God?  Should the goal of Christians be to convert them so that they can be saved, and share in this Kingdom?

So... this really is one of the most important parts of this whole discussion.  What does the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven mean?  It is the essence of almost everything Jesus said, it is what the parables are meant to illustrate.  A good friend of mine suggests that from a marketing stand point, if you were to break Jesus' message down into a bumper sticker it would be "the kingdom of God is in your midst".

Now there have been countless volumes written about the kingdom of God, or heaven (Matthew uses this phrase more often).  I could not and will not come close to touching all of the intricacies of exactly what it means, and how it effects us.  I will offer up some very basic understandings of what I have learned over the years, and what I believe to be true.

First off it is important to look at the word kingdom.  The word kingdom doesn't have a very modern ring to it.  When we think of kings and queens we are just as likely to think of knights and dragons and damsels in distress, as we are to think of the royal family in England with all of their scandal and opulence.  But for us the understanding of kingdom would not really have a very concrete meaning.  It would have had a more concrete meaning when it was originally translate into English however.  But what is interesting is the word used for kingdom in the scriptures, was not the word kingdom, it was the word empire.  And in Jesus time, this word would have had huge implications.  As the empire was quite literally the oppressive super power government that was in charge of the known world at that time.  Jesus begins talking about an empire that belongs to God, not Caesar.  An altogether different political reality than the one that existed.  And what is even more revolutionary is Jesus seems to say that this kingdom is here in His person, but is also to be lived out, and also coming.  We will get to this a bit more later

Now we have to contextualize things.  What exactly would Jesus mean in our day and age?  We don't really talk about kingdoms, nor is the idea of empire really one that we understand much since the hey day of the English Empire (though many rightly point out the empirical nature of the United States).  If Jesus were speaking to us today what word would he use instead of empire? As an American I would suggest two different terms.  Those of you in other countries can apply your own contextualization.  I think nation, would be a possible word in America.  Since America as a nation is a cultural melting pot to some extent it could work.  So Christ could talk to us today about the nation of God.  But I think a better phrase in todays world, would focus on the worldwide global economy.  I think that the global economy actually is more of the "powers that be" than even the mega power US.   So Jesus would speak to us today about the "economy of God"

So Jesus comes into the world speaking of the economy of God, he then explains it and lives it.  It is not a future tense destination, but a journey towards the ultimate reality.  It begins in Him. It is looking at the way God means things to be, and beginning to live like God's will is reality, even in the phase face of the economy of the world.  And it affects everything.  Economy is essentially about power, and value.  In todays world the stories of Jesus would be incredibly subversive.  They would speak about the idea that in God's economy it is those that are undervalued, that have the greater value in God's.  It would talk about the injustice that keeps those that are more powerful on top of those that have no resource to grasp power.  And just like Jesus quite literally did in his time, would say in our time, "you cannot live in the worlds economy, and in God's, as God's economy does not value the same things, so get rid of your economic comforts and follow me into a new world of sharing, and forgiving, and loving even those that might try and harm your economic status through an oil monopoly"  What Jesus tells us is stories that explain how Gods desires for our world, can and must be lived out here and now, as a prophetic act of faith.  It's ties to the future is simply this, in the redemption of all things, this is how we will live... so believing this is true we will start living in this reality here and now.

I personally believe that the disciples did not believe all of the things we say are essential Christian doctrine until much later.  But they began to walk with Jesus, and take part in that ideal of the economy of God.  They were called disciples for beginning to walk in "the way" so why do we think conversion is the necessary first step?  Lets walk together and live out this kingdom (which by the way is pretty much the teachings of all the major religions, and thoughtful secular humanism) and leave conversion up to God.  It is my hope that everyone believes as I believe, as I find much comfort, and joy and challenge in it, but that does not mean I cannot work with others, nor does it mean that my ulterior motive is to convert them.

Ultimately I think we need to follow the example of Jesus.  Jesus pulled together a community of very diverse people, and began to live out the kingdom.  His words and teachings had power and authority because of the integrity of his life.  When you live what you say, it matters.  Jesus lived, in this community, an ethic that said the people who are considered least valuable... these will be our friends, and focus.  The people that are not only considered most valuable, but hold that value with deceit and violence we will call to repentance.  We will care for the sick, we will share our resources with each other, we will not engage in us and them mentality.  We will practice non violent resistance towards oppressors.  And most of all we will live a life of love.  It is my belief that we need everyone who is willing to join us in this new economy, regardless of "spiritual" belief system.



Anonymous said...

[This conversation brought over from Twitter.]

Rev, thanks so much for writing this! I am enjoying reading it very much, and I am reminded of why I once called you my favorite Christian.

As you know, I am a non-believer, a bona fide atheist. More importantly, however, I consider myself a humanist. I believe we should take care of one another and build a better world because it's the right thing to do, not because I think any supreme consciousness wants us to.

Reading your past several posts, I am struck by how much I resonate with everything you're saying. To me, it's wholly consistent with humanism. That's no big surprise; I can admit that the time I spent in church as a child influenced my own humanist philosophy. There does seem to be something missing, however, something I am used to seeing from Christians.

Where is the talk of original sin, sacrifice, and salvation? Many Christians tell me this is at the heart of their faith (often right around the time that they tell me with somewhat salacious glee that I will be going to hell).

So now I wonder: why is the Jesus story (and by extension, a supernatural God) important to what you are saying? If the human sacrifice and salvation is not the point but rather building a Godly economy (which I might describe as a truly human-centered rather than wealth-centered economy), why do we need to couch it in religious, supernatural terms?

I look forward to your response. I value our Twitter connection very much.

Sincerely, @crankyhumanist

john jensen said...

Thanks for the questions.

The first question is where is the talk of salvation and sacrifice and original sin. Well, it isn't here, because, it doesn't really fit into the answer to the question I was asked.

But, since it does fit into your question, I will try my best to answer it as I see it. Original sin is an idea that has many applications. The way I have grown to understand it is this: mankind has a corrupted system and structure that at its very core hurts and destroys people both on the top and bottom of the pyramids. Both the oppressors and the oppressed are not being "fully human" in your words, or in my words, they are not living out the image of God. There is some sense in my mind that says this is both a learned and inherited trait. I certainly didn't have to teach my children to not share :) But we also live in a system that teaches us all kinds of bad things, and Christianity has embraced much of this and emulated it in my opinion.

Now, how does the sacrifice and salvation thing work? Well I believe in a more Eastern concept of salvation, which goes like this. Christ came and lived, and taught a life of love, and non violence. A life that he called the kingdom of God, or the economy of God as we have stated before. But this message of love, and non violence was so radical and revolutionary that he was basically tortured and murdered as a terrorist. And through this entire ordeal, he loves and forgives anyways.

The entirety of political and religious power pours out its wrath upon Jesus, and he still loves. This shows us, and calls us to victory of love over hate. The powers that be have one final instrument of their power however and it is death. But in the story of Jesus, death is defeated in the resurrection.

So salvation becomes this, the God so loves creation, that God enters into creation, teaches and lives out the way of the salvation of all of humankind, and gets rewarded with torture and death. But does not allow that to conquer the message, or the kingdom. Therefore we have been reconciled to God, by God's victory over the powers, and we begin to particapate in the redemption of all of the cosmos.

this paper http://www.daveandrews.com.au/articles/The%20Crux%20of%20the%20Struggle.pdf

and this video

explain it better

Now as far as I am concerned, this narrative is compelling whether you see it as a historical truth, as I most certainly do, or if you see it as a teaching fable or metaphor.

As to your second question: why the religious language? Because I am speaking of the kingdom or economy of God. It is at its very nature "religious". Can it be spoken of in different ways? Yes, but that wasn't the question asked, nor is it my preferred way to speak of it.

But I would ask you a question, with what language do you talk about this? There is no scientific way to speak about love, and compassion, and social ethics. I would say that with or without the word God, you are specifically speaking about something that is "spiritual" in some way. It is dealing with issues beyond the physical and in some way transcendent, and tapping into what makes us truly human.

So in my world view, when we speak of spiritual, and transcendent things, we are always entering into the realm of God and religion. Do you need to believe in God to believe in the kingdom of God as Jesus taught it? no you don't. It isn't necessary. But I do believe and it is through faith, reason, and experience that I do so.

if that didn't make enough sense, help me clarify