Today is Earth Day, but I hadn’t planned to say anything about it… I had something else in mind for today, figuring that I had said what I wanted already in So Long Ago the Garden for Blog Action Day, and in my post On the Loss of Wonder and its follow-up, two posts that arose out from my reading of Dale Allison Jr.’s book, The Luminous Dusk: Finding God in the Deep, Still Places. That’s not to say I was done thinking about it… I’ve had in my mind an idea which I’ll come to presently. I’ve been reading N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, I decided to change the theme of my post this morning when on page 90 I read these words:
A good many Christian hymns and poems wander off unthinkingly in the direction of Gnosticism. The “just passing through” spirituality (as in the spiritual “This world is not my home, / I’m just a’passin’ through”), though it has some affinities with classical Christianity, encourages precisely a Gnostic attitude: the created world is a bets irrelevant, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place, and we immortal souls, who existed originally in a different sphere, are looking forward to returning to it as soon as we’re allowed to. A massive assumption has been made in Western Christianity that the purpose of being a Christian is simply, or at least mainly, to “go to heaven when you die,” and texts that don’t say that but that mention heaven are read as if they did say it, and texts that say the opposite, like Romans 8:18-25 and Revelation 21-22, are simply screened out as if they didn’t exist.
The results are all around us in the Western church and in the worldviews that Western Christianity has generated. Secularists often criticize Christians for contributing to ecological disaster, and there’s more than a grain of truth in the charge. I have heard it seriously argued in North America that since God intends to destroy the present space-time universe, and moreover since he intends to do so quite soon now, it really doesn’t matter whether we emit twice as many greenhouse gases as we do now, whether we destroy the rain forests and the arctic tundra, whether we fill our skies with acid rain. That is a peculiarly modern form of would-be Christian negativity about the world, and of course its skin-deep “spiritual” viewpoint is entirely in thrall to the heart-deep materialism of the business interests that will be served, in however short a term, by such hazardous practices.
At this stage of the book, Wright has just defined Gnosticism in the context of examining some of the wrongheaded theological viewpoints about the afterlife. After contending with these somewhat, he’ll be on to explaining a rightheaded view (my words, not his). N.T. Wright, who famously said that Heaven was important, but not the end of the world.
I think the notion of life on earth after death is difficult for some Christians to reconcile… why would God make so beautiful and perfect a Heaven if it was only a temporary thing? I might point out that he made so beautiful and perfect a garden when it, too, was only a temporary state. In essence, we already believe in a temporal view of God’s creation — and therein lies a big part of the problem… it is a fully Gnostic idea to imagine that the physical realm doesn’t matter. But that’s already been stated by a more noteworthy and eloquent voice than mine. Remember after the resurrection that Jesus still ate fish… not a very ghostly or particularly spiritual thing to do. Then too, perhaps it’s one of our worst fears that after all is cosmically said and done, we’d still end up here. Not “here” as the Hindu faith might imagine going round and round until it just isn’t anymore, and obviously not even as we are wont to, but “here” as God meant “here” to look and to be.
So I’ve been wondering about a metaphor, one that could probably stand some polishing-up. I’ve wondered to what extent we are to God like the the construction worker’s children on take-your-kids-to-work day. There’s the construction worker with kids in tow and attempting to get something close to a day’s work done. The kids are too young to really pitch in and help, but they really want to, and fathers are often a bit of a sucker for that kind of thing — and here’s a day dedicated to it. He tries to get them helping and steered in the right direction, but to little avail. They are soon distracted, spilling buckets of nails, losing screwdrivers and swinging oversize hammers without looking to be sure the backswing won’t take out their sister’s eye. Stacks of construction material are felled with a clatter and cleanup must ensue before progress can be made. Eventually, the construction worker sets them on to some project where they at least won’t get hurt too badly even if they aren’t all that helpful. While they’re occupied, he goes off to set something up for them that will keep them engaged, occupied, and out of trouble for most of the day so he can get some real work done.
Once his kid-distraction has been set up, he eventually returns to find a much bigger mess than one might have anticipated, though he manages to take it in stride. He shows them the new project by which they “can be a really big help” and they set to it. For his part, he goes back to the construction work where he must first conduct a major cleanup operation to put the building materials back where they can be used, gather up the tools and supplies, and undo some of the “helpful” things that had been done in his absence. Half the day is gone, but at least the other half can be productive. The following morning he’ll return without the kids and dismantle today’s project.
The children are just too immature and lack sufficient understanding to be let loose on the construction site without being a hindrance to progress and a danger to themselves and others. They cannot comprehend the entire blueprint, and have a vague awareness but lack appreciation that this particular construction site is the new home into which they and their family will move upon its completion. Perhaps this was evident by their haphazard pounding of nails into the subfloor, most of which were bent over and protruding somewhat. It doesn’t really matter, they reasoned — there will probably be a nice carpet covering it up, so it’s okay if they show a little bit.
Yes, like any metaphor, one can’t press it too far — but there is some essential element of truth that it is designed to convey. It matters what we do with and to this old earth, we just might have to live here. Our lack of understanding just how and why it matters is of little real consequence… the blueprint is beyond our grasp in any event. Sometimes I think we as a species just can’t be left alone on our own too long. Maybe it wasn’t so good an idea for God to take a day off and leave us in charge. Perhaps there’s a time coming when we’ll get a day off, after which we’ll return to a completed project.