"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lord of Heaven and Earth

Recently, I came across an extraordinary statement in a comment on a Christian blog: "I don't think that Jesus was that concerned about life on the physical plane." This statement, which took my breath away, epitomizes a certain implicit and unBiblical attitude among Christians that I think is so widespread as to be rarely questioned or even made conscious.

While no one would dispute that Jesus cared primarily about our spiritual well-being, this concern cannot occur without caring about the facts of life on earth. To say that Jesus cares about our spirit, but is not that concerned about events on the physical plane is precisely the kind of specious dichotomy that is at the center of so much carelessness about issues of peace and justice among many Christians. Out of such dichotomies, wars are concocted, economies are ravaged, and the ecology of the earth laid waste.

God cares. He cares about us as spiritual beings. He cares about us as physical beings. In the Catholic tradition, the spiritual and physical parts of humanity are parts of a single totality which we call the "human being". This synthesis between the spiritual and earthly parts of man was made by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century and I'd like to briefly recap it for those who may not be familiar with it.

St. Thomas asked himself the following question: "Since God is an incorporeal being and since our goal must be 'likeness to God', surely it must be said that the soul separated from the body is more like God than the soul united with the body." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas". This idea is so ingrained that even today it seems intuitively obvious to most Christians. Surely, no one could disagree with the idea that since God is a spiritual being that it is our duty to identify more and more closely with the spiritual side of our nature?

St. Thomas begs to differ. "The soul united with the body is more like God than the soul separated from the body because it (the soul in the body) possesses its nature in more complete fashion. Corporeality, therefore, is good." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas". This is a revolution in Christian thought whose consequences we have even now barely plumbed.

Let us draw out a few consequences. Sensuality is good, anger is good, sexuality is good. Each of these expresses the corporeal part of the human being which must be fulfilled in order for God's will for the complete human being to be achieved. For St. Thomas, "unsensuality", far from being something to aim at, is not merely a defect, but a moral deficiency.

Josef Pieper's Guide to Thomas Aquinas clarifies the central issue: "First, Thomas demonstrated that affirmative acceptance of the natural reality of the world and of the natural reality in man himself can be ultimately established and justified only in theological terms. The natural things of the world have a real, self-contained intrinsic being precisely by reason of having been created, precisely because the creative will of God is by its nature being-giving. That is to say that the will of God does not keep being for itself alone but truly communicates it (this, and this alone, is the meaning of 'to create': to communicate being). Precisely because there is a creation, there are independent entities and things which not only 'exist' for themselves, but also, of their own accord, can effect and affect." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas"

In other words, the physical part of creation shares in the creative potentiality of God. "The very autonomy and intrinsic effectiveness of created things proves the truly creative powers of God." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas" When we make scientific discoveries, pursue technical innovation, and transform unjust structures of sin, we are participating in the creative power of God.

Jesus Christ cares deeply about the physical creation. "What is, is good, because it was created by God; whoever casts aspersions upon the perfection of created things casts aspersions upon the perfection of the divine power." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas" Therefore, we are not called to flee the things of this world, but to redeem and perfect them through the complete development of our human potential.

Jesus Christ became flesh and demonstrated that flesh could be perfected. "One who believes that the Logos of God has, in Christ, united with the bodily nature of man, cannot possibly assume at the same time that the material reality of the world is not good." - Pieper, "Guide to Thomas Aquinas" The material reality of the world is redeemable in Christ.

Now let us draw out the consequences of the opposing attitude, the one that says that "Jesus is not that concerned about the physical plane." If Jesus is primarily concerned with the spiritual world, defined apart from the physical world, then the fact that billions live in oppression and destitution is not of ultimate concern. Perhaps God wills their destitution in some sense because their condition will be redeemed in (a purely spiritual) heaven in a way that might not be possible without the sufferings of this present life. Perhaps even the sufferings of those tortured in American prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan are necessary in order that their ultimate spiritual redemption might be achieved. After all, Jesus does not really care that much about physical sufferings as long as they lead to conversion and salvation. Is this not the typical "Christian" justification of the sufferings and injustices of this present world?

It is precisely this attitude that has so deeply alienated fighters for social justice from Christianity. And I believe that their angry reaction to this concept is more Biblical than its unthinking acceptance by mainstream Christians. For instance, when Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world" did he mean to say that his world was in a purely spiritual realm apart from this material world? To say this is to impute to Jesus concepts that were completely alien to the Biblical understanding in which Jesus was educated. The prayer that Jesus taught us says, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The implication is that earth is where humanity fulfills the will of God. In the words of the leading Biblical critic, John Dominic Crossan, "[The Kingdom of Heaven] is about the transformation of this world into holiness, not the evacuation of this world into heaven." - John Dominic Crossan, "God and Empire"

In Jesus' world, the distinction between spiritual and material in our sense of the terms did not exist. The kingdom of heaven is both a political and a spiritual reality, both simultaneously. This is the attitude that can unite fighters for social justice with Christians in a common battle to create a "civilization of love" in the words of John Paul II.

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