Sunday, July 3, 2011

Saving Paradise -- Part 1: Paradise as Salvific

I just finished reading Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. I bought the book last summer, but wound up not having time to read it, as my father's health began to decline about that time. I began spending more and more time with my parents during this time, and my father died in the fall. I insisted that Dad's pastor, a "low-church" United Methodist, use the United Methodist Service of Death and Resurrection at the funeral. Those words, inscribed upon my heart from the numerous times I have said them, mean a great deal to me. The opening words at Dad's funeral were:
Dying, Christ destroyed our death.
Rising, Christ restored our life.
Christ will come again in glory.
As in baptism Harry Miller put on Christ, so in Christ may Harry be clothed with glory.
Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children.
What we shall be has not yet been revealed; but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Those who have this hope purify themselves as Christ is pure.
In addition to the explicit reference to baptism, the Eucharist is implied, as the first three lines invoke the mystery of faith proclaimed in the Eucharistic liturgy: "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." It is meaningful to me to say these words with the community of faith. The pastor of the church I am attending is another "low-church" United Methodist, and the few times we've had Communion since Dad's death, I don't recall his having used the liturgy. In April, I and a colleague took a group of students to visit a Greek Orthodox Church. Immediately upon seeing the iconostasis -- the panel of icons re-presenting (re-presencing?) to the gathered faithful that great cloud of witnesses composed of those who have died in Christ -- I became aware of Dad's presence filling that place within myself where I had been experiencing nothing but absence for months.

I indulge in this bit of self-revelation not, I hope, as a form of exhibitionism but as a practical example of the importance of the life-affirming theology found in this book. The book is written in two parts, the first of which has refreshed my spirit and which will be the subject of this post. The book begins with a description of the authors' travels to view Christianity's earliest art. To their surprise, a dying or dead Jesus is nowhere to be found until the tenth century. Rather, Jesus is always depicted as being alive, whether those depictions are of a youthful Jesus tending sheep or of a resurrected Jesus pronouncing a blessing on those looking at the artwork.

They also discovered a paradise motif. Over and over, Jesus is shown in the context of greenery, trees, and rivers. Not just any paradise is depicted, either, but none other than the Paradise of Genesis, the Garden of Eden. Having been thus sensitized to this motif, they discovered a plethora of written material from the church "fathers" and even some mothers that described the church as paradise on earth. Rather than seeing paradise as a promise of afterlife, Saving Paradise paints a convincing picture of a Christian emphasis on the here and now as the ultimate time and place of God's blessing.

Each chapter develops this motif from a different angle, forming a mosaic as beautiful and inspiring as the actual mosaics they describe. The elements of the mosaic include the location of paradise (Garden of Eden) being perceived as on earth, paradise as resistance to the evils of empire, the church as paradise on earth, paradise as the communion of the living and the dead, baptism as the "portal" to paradise, Eucharist as a ritual of resurrection, and salvation as theosis -- the process of humans becoming divine, "ingodded," as one quote puts it. As the mosaic is completed, paradise comes to be expressed as the integration of the spiritual and the material, the human and the divine. Paradise is relational and communal; it includes meeting the material needs of people as well as the spiritual, and it includes working for justice in an unjust empire.

Each one of these elements deserves elaboration, but I will confine my remarks to those most relevant to my self-revelation above, the chapters entitled "So Great a Cloud" and "The Beautiful Feast of Life." The point is made that Judaism began to include resurrection into its rabbinical theology during the time of martyrdom depicted deutero-canonically. If empire is killing the faithful precisely because they insist on remaining faithful, resurrection is the ultimate expression of the conviction that the violence of empire has no power over the faithful. Empire may kill the faithful, but a faithful God will erase those deaths. This is a new idea to me. I have previously understood resurrection to have entered Jewish consciousness through contact with Zoroastrianism. They cite Jon Davies' Death, Burial, and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity, and this merits more investigation on my part.

Making the connection between these Jewish martyrs and early Christian martyrs, the book envisions the Eucharist as a ritual that has the power to bring Jesus and all our deceased loved ones into our presence. (This part of the book builds on Brock's earlier work, particularly her Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, which examines the phenomenon of the living experiencing visits from the dead.) The Eucharist is the place where the power of the divine suffuses our existence here on earth. In the presence of the risen Christ and the risen faithful, we receive power to continue to resist the violence of empire, power to continue to meet the physical needs of people, power to see the spiritual in the material, power to engage in the work of justice, and power to live in paradise in the here and now.

On what seemed at the time to be his deathbed, my father said to me, thinking his words then to be his last to me (he lived another week), "We'll meet again. I believe this to be true." Through my tears, I said, "I believe it, too, and I love you." Because of my theological education, there are lots of ways in which my understanding of an afterlife (if there be such a thing) differed from Dad's, but it didn't matter; the two parts of my response to him were inseparable. The reciprocal love -- Brock calls it "erotic" love in her earlier book, love that finds value, beauty, truth, and goodness in another and that expects a loving response -- the reciprocal love between us demands that I believe it to be true. The reciprocal love between us, a love that reveals human/divine integration, makes it true. And now, thanks to this wonderful work of history and theology, I realize I don't have to wait for it to be true. It is true in the here and now. I was already inclined to think of the work of salvation as that of theosis, of the kingdom of God (or of heaven) as God's will on earth, and of the work of justice as essential to Christian discipleship, so I didn't have to be convinced.

The first part of Saving Paradise released many positive emotions within me, and I am grateful for it. I hope my self-revelation has not been merely self-indulgent on my part, but I hope it has been an example of the difference a here-and-now theology can make. The second part of the book, on the other hand, is a challenging and bracing account of the church's move from finding paradise in the here and now to yearning for it in the afterlife. There are numerous ethical considerations in such a move. In Part 2 of my review, I will deal with these.

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