A wonderful new book on and of Christian theology, Christian history, biblical interpretation, culture, and personal spirituality by UU seminary president Rev. Rebecca Ann Parker and social activist and Disciples of Christ minister Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock, published recently by UU Beacon Press. How first milennium christianity was shaped and what it held dear, how that was in large part lost, but never completely, through the second milennium, and how now the third milennium is here another Christianity is possible; not the original; the past is past, but not the medieval or modern Christianity of the Western World either.
Click below to go to my sermon of this past Sunday on it; I will try to post more background, situating this work in the grand broad church UU Christian tradition of Frederic Henry Hedge, Henry Whitney Bellows, William Greenleaf Eliot, and James Luther Adams critiquing, reclaiming, reimagining, putting in contemporary context. A good day and week to do this. July 15 170 years ago the 1838 Emerson address to Harvard Divinity School; on July 15 1849 the Frederic Henry Hedge address to the HDS students, offering a great corrective of Emerson without the Andrews Norton throwback critique of RWE; and on July 19, 1859, an even fuller rebuttal or at least better critique and way forward offered to HDS students by Bellows called "The Suspense of Faith." Staying a leavening part of the tradition. This work by Brock and Parker is good stuff, wide-ranging, for all Christians and those, i.e. the rest of the world, having to deal with second milennium Christianity.
The sermon text isn't the actual sermon but is close to it. I will try to come back and add in the reading from the book itself for it is an excellent summation.
Saving Paradise, sermon by Rev. Ron Robinson, Hope Unitarian Church, July 13, 2008
Reading: From excerpts of pages 417-420 of Saving paradise
A few years ago Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashimi Brock teamed up to produce a book called Proverbs of Ashes that critiqued doctrinal Christianity's atonement theology for how it promoted so-called redemptive violence. That book about the theological misuses of the particular Christian story of crucifixion led them toward this more general look at finding what was once ultimate in Christianity in the first milennium, got submerged and almost lost in the second millenium, and is now surfacing again in the third milennium. In some ways, this book called "Saving Paradise": How Christianity traded love of this world for violence and Empire" is about saving Christianity, which is something Unitarian Universalists have been at means to do for centuries; and on a deeper level it is about saving our communities and our lives.
The premise and trajectory of this latest, and big book, is fairly simple most people in the Western world think Christianity is all about obtaining paradise in a life hereafter, and the way into that paradise is to have a set of beliefs, and at the center of those beliefs is Jesus' death, and not just the death itself, but the dying itself, the cruelty of dying on the cross, that is said to have taken place in order that every human won't have to suffer endless equally cruel dying in hell, by believing that to be the case. This is so engrained that the resurrection and paradise themselves are often relegated to minor theological parts compared to the ultimate focus on the nails through the hands and feet. But, say Parker and Brock and centuries of Unitarians and Universalists and other liberals, this is not Christianity; it is what came out of medieval times, of modern times; in fact it is in essence Empire Religion and therefore, since the roots of Christianity were opposed to the dominant culture values of the Roman Empire, what people often consider the essence of Christianity can be better viewed as a betrayal and as anti-Christian.
What is considered normative to most Christians today was not normative to most Christians in the first 1000 years after Jesus. Brock and Parker even begin their book with the catching and somewhat arresting claim-it took Jesus 1000 years to die. By that they mean that there are no existing images of Jesus's body dying or dead on the cross for the first millennium. There may have been, of course, but we don't have a record of them today. What we have instead from those many early centuries of the faith are images of life, of sharing bread and wine, of paradise, of new creation, of service and justice, of resurrection, of empty crosses, of this world being transformed back into a garden.
Now there are texts about the dying, of course. Very important texts in Christian scriptures, but those texts are too often interpreted from the later lens of medieval and modern theology, instead of from the spirit and culture of the times in which they were written. Like the Jewish tradition in which Jesus and the Apostle Paul lived and in which Christianity emerged, for much of the first thousand years the Christian notion of the ends of things, the endtimes, or the ultimate aims of life, what theologians term eschatology, what is often thought of as Paradise, all of this was not conceived of something separate from this world, to which one was individually raptured to, or transported to upon death after a good life following the right creed; instead it was something that would happen here on the earth, a transformation, a righting of social wrongs and injustices, a new kind of Eden, and would come to the human community as a whole.
For example, Brock and Parker offer a good Greek re-translation of the famous scripture John 3:16 which gets at the heart of this. They cite it as this: "God so generously loved the world that he placed his only Son here, so that everyone who has confidence in him may not be lost or be destroyed but may have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to put the world on trial, but so the world might be rescued through him." They point out that at no point here, where life and love are so prominent, is death mentioned. And the Greek word used for eternal is often used not to infer a duration of time as much as to allude to an everlasting quality of experience. It is a misreading of the Greek, as later English translations did in order to back up existing theology from the medieval ages, to speak of God giving up or handing over his Son to death; there is a Greek word for such action that is used often, especially in the story of Jesus and Pilate, but it isn't the Greek that is used here.
Throughout their book, Brock and Parker lift up innumerable places in the Bible and in the writings of the church mothers and fathers where paradise is presented as an integral, even if not always fully, part of the here and now, to be experienced now, called to be preserved now and passed on to others. And yet, while the biblical texts themselves are often the best guides for saving Christianity from what it too often has become, one of the most important insights from the Brock and Parker book is just about the role of images, of art itself, for in those pre-modern times, pre-print culture times, times cunningly alike our own now, such images in catacombs or cathedrals or simple homes or churches were how people came to be taught and understand and transmit their faith. And remember there was a Christianity before there was a Bible, even before there was any written story of Jesus. The early images also reflected Christian faith in this world and this people as full of joy and sustainability and equality, and holding out hope that this world would soon undergo a transformation, either gradual or more quickly, to fully embody a paradise that is made in the likeness of God.
In their earlier book, Proverbs of Ashes, on the ways people interpreted Christian faith and perpetuated such acts as domestic violence and child abuse and war, they take the reader on a journey that begins in blind obedience to faith that is really a destructive spirituality, then into rejection of that faith, and finally end up with a powerful scene of a reimagined faith still in touch with touchstones of that faith's traditions-notably that book ends by describing a communion service that includes one who was an abuser and one who was abused, and how now the re-imagined communion was deeply healing and transformative and full of life and wholeness instead of being a service that triggered exclusion and seemed to echo a ritual of abuse itself.
In this book, notions of paradise and eternal life are treated the same way. Instead of being about who gets in and who is rejected from paradise, Brock and Parker show how the early shapers of Christianity focused to one degree or the other on how God so loved the world, and how we were called to do the same, and how paradise was, at least in part if not in totality, all about here and now everywhere for those with eyes to see and ears to hear and minds to understand, especially to be experienced in living in communities of faithfulness, the church, that practiced love of one another and for this world. That that was and is what Christianity is all about.
They write: "In sum, the early church-before and after Constantine-taught that paradise was a place, a way of life, even an ecosystem. The church as a community that dispensed the "medicine of life" nourished human life in paradise. The church was a concentration of paradise, a place where strengths, weaknesses, needs, and contributions of each member could complement the others. Their life in paradise was a shared accomplishment in which the exercise of human powers and the imperatives of human need worked together to save and sustain life for all members together. People could come to see the value of their own lives and learn that their actions mattered to others, to see power in a personal sense of agency. They could learn to negotiate power and its responsible uses for the good of the whole. Talents and gifts could bless many. Heavy burdens and difficulties that might have crushed individuals could instead be borne on the shoulders of many. No form of governance and no society can thrive without this interstitial zone of human contact and interaction, what the ancient church called the body of Christ, the church of the Holy Spirit, the assembly of saints, and paradise on earth. "
They write of how the tide began to turn, though, with the Empire of Charlemagne and the crushing of the Saxons and their paganish way of following Christ; gradually Christianity became more firmly a tool of the Empire instead of in tension with it, seeking to transform it; gradually the admonitions against joining armies was replaced with a religious devotion to state-sanctioned violence, and devaluing life and Creation in the here and now went hand in hand with removing paradise completely from the here and now; all of this became more fervently a part of wide Church practice with the coming of the Crusades, with the adoption of St. Anselm's theology of an Honorable Diety being dishonored by the least of sins, including inherited ones, for which the only escape from hell was Jesus's death in stead of, and then finally the sweep of the Black Plague in Europe made death pre-eminent in all spheres of life. It is interesting to add that the Book of Revelation, with much of its emphasis on violence and paradise (though another major part is very much anti-Roman Empire violence and culture) was itself a debatable part of the New Testament and often left out of collections until the second millennium takes hold.
And yet, and yet, this book chronicles its heroes as those who continued to lift up the once dominant understandings of paradise though they had become dissident and heretics now. Always there were women and men who through the centuries did not let the Empire Church tell them what Christianity was all about. Even influential figures such as Augustine were at times upholding this world as part of God's paradise, and particularly the church as a way of experiencing that paradise in the days after the Roman Empire fell. This tension in the tradition itself has been seen in its leaders, even the major reformers of the Church, like John Calvin in the 16th century, helped to turn Christian passion once again toward this world, toward social justice, and reform, even though today we may find their form of social justice limited. Calvin, however, left us a mixed legacy on this point. Brock and Parker point out that in Calvin and his followers (down to this day, I would say, and among liberals too) the desire to create a perfect and pure society not only tends to end up in exclusive communities, but the effort itself spent on creating a more idealized future causes us to be disassociated from the present world within, among and around us.
Another of Calvin's legacies, the book emphasizes, was his publishing a Bible that included a map that set out to actually pinpoint the location of the Garden of Eden. This was one of those turning points in the Christian orthodox imagination that had a great consequence. For if you can fix a specific place and time and limit where paradise once was, then you can say that it was there and not elsewhere, and so is now not there and not now, and that soon becomes no where but in another realm and world, which leads to the validation of the destruction and denigration of the here and now.
Ironically, the early chapters of Genesis do just the opposite. If you try to follow the literal clues there about the four rivers bounding the land known as Eden, you will end up geographically lost, unable to pinpoint Eden, and if you do that, then you have to see Genesis in a different light; it isn't about how Creation was done, but why, and Paradise becomes not a matter of a single place, but of a state of being; the question is not so much where is Paradise, but when is paradise, how is paradise known? And the response from the Torah, and from the early church, is that it is present when Sabbath Creation, liberation and justice and steadfast love and mercy, is present and made real.
And of course the Calvinist Puritans in this country, coming here to establish a new form of Paradise, part of our religious ancestors, were all too willing to destroy the material Paradise, the earthly one, and all those indigenous inhabitants of it, in their quest for achieving a spiritual paradise.
This is where Brock and Parker are insightful in their critique of Puritan and Transcendentalist Emerson and his emphasis on the individual interior life as the primary authority and source of religious life. Besides pointing out that while he was writing his essay on self-reliance, he was relying heavily on his wife and others to make his life easy enough to write, they say Emerson's elevation of the individual to an almost God-like state led to seeing nature itself as ultimately valuable not in itself alone, but as it was spiritually apprehended by an individual. And anything that removes the sacred from the realm of the physical, messy world contributes to paradise being seen as segmented, segregated, inaccessible by all. In much the same way we tend to isolate Nature into wilderness preserves, where only the relative few go, instead of seeking to preserve it and promote it in and through our own yards and homes and lives. And so we do with things of the Spirit too, relegating them only to such things and times as the worship service.
And yet, and yet, again out of the tension with tradition there were others always keeping the ancient view alive and transforming it for their day. Out of 18th and 19th century Calvinism also came the Universalist Christians. Brock and Parker lift up the way these among our religious ancestors saw God's eternal wholeness where all would be saved in paradise and who therefore sought to make such an emphasis on love and unity real in their churches and communities; no more separation metaphysically meant no more physically; they saw their work as establishing God's realm here, in the words from Jesus, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. They were often the leaders of social movements in the U.S. For by denying either the very existence of hell, or its being a kind of parallel equivalent of Heaven for all time, Universalists recaptured the first millennium Christian's focus on peace, justice, equality.
The sense of paradise that shaped the life of Jesus and so many of his followers for so many years, which was lost or nearly so for so many years in the religion that claimed him as its source, but which is still present within it and outside of it while still being endangered within it and outside of it, this sense has been portrayed well in this book. It is a sense, as they call it, of a continuing struggle that calls us to participate. As Parker and Brock write:
"We can come to know the world as paradise when our hearts and souls are reborn through the arduous and tender task of living rightly with one another and the earth...Knowing that paradise is here and now is a gift that comes to those who practice the ethics of paradise. This way of living is not Utopian. It does not spring simply from the imagination of a better world but from a profound embrace of this world. It does not begin with knowledge or hope. It begins with love.
To know paradise in this life is to enter a multidimensional spiritual-material reality...Paradise is simultaneously this earth, a beautiful, luminous creation, and the realm of the dead, which is connected to the living but is separated by a thin veil through which the dead can pass to accompany, bless, or guide the living. Paradise is human life restored to its divinely infused dignity and capacity, and it is a place of struggle with evil and injustice, requiring the development of wisdom, love, nonviolence, and responsible uses of power. Paradise can be experienced as spiritual illumination of the heart, mind, and senses felt in moments of religious ecstacy, and it can be known in ordinary life lived with reverence and responsibility. Paradise is not a place free from suffering or conflict, but it is a place in which Spirit is present and love is possible.
Entering paradise in this life is not an individual achievement but is the gift of communities that train perception and teach ethical grace. Paradise provides deep reservoirs for resistance and joy. It calls us to embrace life's aching tragedies and persistent beauties, to labor for justice and peace, to honor one another's dignity, and to root our lives in the soil of this good and difficult earth."
Thinking and feeling about paradise, I hope, is seen as more than just pondering angels sitting on heads of pins. It was at the heart of my own faith journey, as a 17 year old suffering from the sudden death of a best friend, and wondering "where" is he now, and realizing I couldn't any longer accept my understanding of the standard Christian teaching that paradise was waiting after life and for some only. Fortunately, just a few years later, I found Unitarian Universalism, and not long after that found real Unitarian Universalists, and a new understanding of Christian faith and a healing openness to matters of the Spirit, including to the mysteries of paradise. Now Brock and Parker have helped remind us that paradise matters, that there are consequences to what we give our faithfulness, and that paradise should not just be a mystery, but a mindfulness, and a mission.