Religion on the Level: #6
What's the Use of Heaven? [Continued]
By applying the metaphor of redemption literally against the background of
an equally literalist reading of the narratives of fall and banishment
from Eden, the Church began to think of itself as being like on of those
special forces groups sent in to deal with those hostage situations that
have become such a clich� of our era. Its job is to free as many
hostages as it can from captivity and get them on board the ship
of safety. So, to mix the metaphor, the Church becomes a life boat,
launched to fish as many people as it can from the sea of destruction.
When this theological system becomes dominant the prevailing
emotion becomes anxiety. If we accept this account of the human predicament
then our anxiety is bound to become acute. We become anxious, not only to avoid
actions that may lead to eternal damnation, but to avoid thinking or believing
the wrong things about our condition.
In the last lecture we spent some time thinking about the ethical logic of
systems that used the threat of punishment after death as a way of controlling
our actions before death. The anxiety goes deeper than that and affects the way
we think, because wrong believing becomes as dangerous as wrong action. This is
the logic behind the excesses of the Inquisition and all those purges that
characterise the history of religion. It is expedient that a few heretics be
burned at the stake than that the whole people of God perish through the
infections of heresy.
Theologies of anxiety postulate God as judge and the Church as the criminal
justice system. It becomes more important to root out evil than to promote good.
Contrary to the parable of Jesus much energy is spent pulling out the weeds from
the field of corn. If we follow the advice of Jesus and leave them until the
harvest we might discover that they have taken over and suffocated the corn.
Religious anxiety always hates the devil more than it loves God. It creates
churches that are exclusive in their self-understanding and proclaim that there
is no salvation for anyone outside their walls. It is this great engine of
anxiety that promoted the remarkable successes of Christian mission. The urge to
save as many as possible from the wrath of God was a powerful spur to missionary
heroism; and the fear of that same wrath has always been a powerful incentive
Theologies of anxiety have several important strengths. The main one is the
coherence of the system they proclaim. Once we accept the premises on which the
message is based, the logic is powerful and persuasive. It can be learnt easily
and taught effectively. It is essentially a product, a package that can be
explained to the sales force.
Its second strength is that it can be remarkably successful in inculcating
particular systems of behaviour. the Protestant Work Ethic is an example of how
a particular version of the theology of anxiety led to a powerful ethic of duty
that remains long after the theological premise of which it was based has been
The final strength that is worth noting is the sacrificial lives of those who
have committed themselves to this particular theological approach. It has taken
them to the ends of the earth and prompted them to extraordinary feats of
human endurance. Those of us who cannot admire the theological motivation that
lay behind such heroism ought, nevertheless, to admire those who gave their
lives in its service.
Fortunately, this is not the only theological tradition that has been
developed in Christian history. There is the approach the Charles Williams calls
'the affirmation of images'. This tradition emphasises incarnation rather
than redemption, and the goodness of creation rather than its fallen state. The
great texts from scripture that express this approach are the first chapter of Genesis and its celebration of the gift of
creation, as well as the first seventeen verses of John's Gospel that proclaim
the enlightening presence of the Word of God in the creation from the beginning.
These rival or complementary theologies inevitably remind us of the old
challenge that asks whether the glass is half empty or half full. It is a
question as to whether we emphasise what Matthew Fox calls 'original blessing'
and the goodness or joy of life; or 'original guilt' and the undoubted fact that
we go on destroying our own peace and polluting
our own habitation.
The original blessing or incarnation approach coheres well with Jantzen's
theology of natality and flourishing. Grace and the celebration of life, rather
than dread and fear of death, become the motivators of action and thought.
The message does not warn people how to be saved out of this wicked world. It
invites them to feel at home in it, to reverence it, and to practise the disciplines of sharing its good things with
others, particularly with the poor of the earth.
It is not true to say that the theology of natality and flourishing, the
theology of life, lacks challenge and rigour. It calls us to courageous action
against all that spills the joy of life and the sacredness of creation. It calls
us to a politics of justice and redistribution because one of the scandals of history is the way the powerful always colonise God's
creation for themselves and yoke God's children into slavery. The theology of
flourishing calls us, in the language of the prayer of Jesus, to build
the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
However, compared to the theologies of anxiety and fear, the theology of life and flourishing often suffers from presentational difficulties. The theology of rejection, as we have seen, is schematically
logical once we accept the originating premise on which it is based. That is
why it is easy to plant it as a complete system in the hearts and minds of its practitioners.
Its negative use is also easy to apply, which is why the most successful
student organisation in Britain is able to operate a test that screens out those
that do not adhere to the purity of the system. They do not want theological
creativity in their speakers because the system is already perfectly created.
The only creativity that is permitted is at the rhetorical level where the
speaker's art may be used to commend the system.
Human beings find these complete systems to be the best antidote to anxiety,
so it is not surprising that the history of religion and politics is full of
them. TS Eliot was constantly reminding us that humankind cannot bear too much
reality, so the success of these systems should not surprise or dismay us. Perhaps those of us who can no longer adhere to them
should not waste our emotional and intellectual energy in combating them, and
instead should turn our attention to the positive promotion of the other vision
of reality we have been exploring.
In conclusion, therefore, I would like to sketch the outline of such a
positive programme and in my lectures next year, my final year as Gresham
Professor of Divinity, I will continue the process.
What should be the defining characteristics of a positive theology of life? I
would like to suggest three elements.
We must learn to pay attention to the earth and its creatures. The
traditional name for this process is prayer or contemplation. We must be people
who pray or pay attention, people who stop and notice things. One way into this
is through the writings of poets, who are the geniuses of attention and
contemplation. In my second lecture I pointed out that language, while it was our greatest gift and invention, was
also our greatest danger because it can deceive us.
The word 'water' is not drinkable. Rather, words are pointers to realities,
outside the self, to which they call attention. That is when we must beware of
sanctifying the words themselves. They are not holy though they can be the means
whereby the holy is communicated to us. But there are words which transcend this
limitation so that they almost become, or at least put us in the presence of,
that which they signify.
Poetry is the supreme example of this as far as language is concerned, though
music is probably its purest expression among the human arts. Poetry is the
fruit of attention or contemplation and through it we find ourselves in the
real presence of mysteries beyond ourselves.
But this prayer of attention should not just be focused on nature. We should
look at one another with the same expectation of revelation, especially when we
look into alien worlds, even frightening ones. One way of doing this is to make
a point of buying The Big Issue from every vendor we meet so that (and
this is the real point) we can look into their eyes and say something that
connects us to them. Even if we have no money we can look at them and apologies
and smile ruefully. Many of them will find that just as important a gift as the
pound coin we can too easily slip into their hands without paying attention.
And we should pay attention to people enjoying themselves, especially to
lovers and friends sharing affection or amusement. Great cities are the best
places for this because we can encounter many worlds as we walk along the