Chapter 5: Living on Earth for Heaven’s Sake
The will of God is to make heaven real. This sentence serves better than most to capture the theme that runs from Genesis to Revelation. God’s purpose is to create a loyal people and to bring them to a good future. In this coming Kingdom, the joy of life will be brought to a perfection that is never to be lost again. This idea takes many forms and undergoes a long development. The final goal is progressively enriched in scope and content.1 In the beginning, Abraham is promised only that all the nations will be blessed through his numerous progeny. In the end John is given a magnificent vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, full of radiant splendor. Between Genesis and Revelation the Bible is filled with varying conceptions of the end soon to come, and it is impossible to reconcile all these dreams of the imminent glory. Each reflects the conditions of a given time; each expresses the faith of the community at one stage of its development. Yet through them all, there is one constant theme: the will of God is to make heaven real.
The prophets of the Old Testament provide us with a vantage point for seeing this grand motif in clearer focus. These inspired proclaimers of the Divine Word begin by reminding Israel of her deliverance from Egypt’s bondage. They speak of the covenant made at the time of Moses. Their constant message is that God chose those escaped slaves for a special mission and a destiny, but God hinged his offer on the demand that they live in steadfast love and loyalty. The past, however, is not these prophets’ primary focus. Expectation, not memory, is their forte. Their fervor is most manifest in their visions of what is still to come for the Lord’s chosen. Beyond the catastrophic judgment required to purge Israel’s heart and vindicate God’s honor, a new day awaits. In this coming age the promise of a perfected Kingdom will be fulfilled.
In the classical period of prophecy running from Amos toll Isaiah (750-550 BC.), three characteristics of the good future stand out. (1) PEACE. Hostility will end in nature and in history. Harmony will prevail between humankind and beast and between one animal species and another. Swords will be beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. Nations will learn war no more (Is. 2:4b). The wolf will dwell with the lamb. The leopard and the kid will lie down together. A child will lead them around without harm (Is. 11:6-9). (2) RIGHTEOUSNESS. The rebellion of Israel will cease. Love, loyalty, and obedience to God will be perfected. A new covenant will bring intuitive knowledge of God and of the Law to all people (Jer. 31:23-34). The messiah of the house of David will see to it that the poor and the weak get justice. No person or nation will oppress another (Is. 11:1-4). (3) PROSPERITY. The love of the Hebrew for the earth and this bodily life appears repeatedly in the prophetic writings. Health, wealth, and the pleasures of the flesh will fill the heart with delight. No child will die in infancy. All will live to a ripe old age. Fields and vineyards will produce in abundance (Is. 65:17-26). The threshing floors will be heavy with grain. The vats will overflow with wine and oil (Joel 2:24-26). Jerusalem will be a mother with breasts full of milk. Her inhabitants will suck until satisfied carried upon her hip, and dandled on her knee (Is. 66:12-13). These passages chosen almost at random could be duplicated many times. Freed from external oppression, the chosen people will live in harmony with nature and with each other in a prosperous land. Peace, justice, and joy will reign supreme. A reconciled remnant will fill the air with songs of exalted praise to the Giver of salvation.
The prophets grew ecstatic about the good future that God would bring. Yet they were not dreamers with their heads in the clouds, knowing little and caring less about what went on around them. Invoking what God had done and would do to fulfill the promises to Abraham and Moses, the prophets spoke with startling clarity about the moral corruption around them. Their words make vivid the thunderous judgments of the Holy One of Israel. They are unrelenting in their denunciations of injustice -- injustice that cried out on every side like a stench. Pride, haughtiness, lying, cheating, stealing, and all crimes imaginable were rampant; and each crime spelled rebellion against the Creator and Ruler. Ritual and formal ceremony had become the hypocritical substitutes for trustful obedience. Idolatry was everywhere. Wanton lawlessness made a mockery of decent living. Kings sought power and glory by the violent spilling of blood. The people were mired in immoralities and gave vent to every licentious desire of spirit and flesh. The rich and resourceful crushed the rights of the poor and helpless. For these ungrateful covenant-breakers catastrophe lay in store: they forgot the mercy God showed to their forebears, so God would forget his mercy to them. Before any divine promise could be consummated, a terrible "day of the Lord" would have to purge this people. Only a remnant cleansed by the fire would remain to inherit the Kingdom.
In the postexilic period, Israel experienced a deepening sense of evil in history. Under the influence of Persian religion and the unending oppression by foreigners from Assyria to Rome, an otherworldly outlook developed. The conviction grew up that only in another realm beyond the end of this age could the triumph of God take place. This "apocalyptic’ view distinguished the present era under the domination of Satan from the age to come. On the last day God would intervene directly in human affairs and overcome Satanic powers. The righteous would be vindicated, and the whole world subjected to the beneficent command of the divine will.
It was within this framework of thought that Jesus appeared. His message was that the long-awaited Kingdom was finally at hand (Mark 1:14-15). In his own words and deeds the new age was already beginning. It would soon he consummated at the appearance of the Son of Man. In the light of the Kingdom’s coming, his hearers were urged to repent, believe, and be obedient to the radical moral demands of the Almighty. For those who wanted to receive the Kingdom, the message was plain: love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.
The message of the New Testament is that the old age under the domination of sin and death is coming to a close. The new age of righteousness and life hovers near ready to break through in all its might and glory. Christ has vanquished the powers of darkness. Reconciliation for sin has been made by his atoning death. His resurrection is the beginning of a victory over death that is lo be shared by all the faithful at the endtime. God is beginning to make heaven real; therefore, repent of sin, accept the gift of salvation with gratitude, and show to all the love manifest in Jesus himself. That is the good news that floods the writings of the apostles. As in the prophets, divine action and human ethics are inseparable. Hope based on faith in God’s future, and love based on God’s own redemptive love -- these are the twin motifs of the ethics of the Kingdom.
The Bible proclaims a God-centered religion. It describes a drama that moves from creation to consummation, At the center of the story is a Sovereign Person who strives to bring the world to a perfect end. A Kingdom is to be established that the faithful can enjoy forever. God is pictured as living purposive will. The prophets and apostles set forth the quality and the aim of the mighty acts of God. Within this framework we can grasp the fundamentals of the ethics of the Kingdom. The central principle can be stated as follows: REPRODUCE IN YOUR ACTIONS TOWARD OTHERS THE QUALITY AND AIM OF THE SAVING ACTS OF GOD TOWARD YOU.2 The quality of divine working is defined as that special kind of love shown in the life, deeds, and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The aim of the acts of God is to establish the Kingdom.
Whether we look at the Old Covenant or the New, the same pattern appears. The Ten Commandments are preceded by a statement of the divine activity which made them possible:
And God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. . ." (Ex. 20:1-3)
And when Jesus comes into Galilee preaching, his message takes a similar form:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. (Mark 1:15)
God’s action to bring in the Kingdom is the basis for the call to repentance and faith. Many of the epistles of the New Testament open by declaring that God has acted in the world to save it by coming in the person of Christ. Following this relation of what God has done, and a call to faith, the epistles proceed to outline the ethical requirements which God’s new works command. The scheme of the epistles is like this:3
gospel message ethical teachings
Romans 1-11 Romans 12-16
Galatians 1-4 Galatians 5
Ephesians 1-3 Ephesians 4-6
Colossians 1-2 Colossians 3-4
The same idea appears when Christ is said to be the example of the way God acts toward us. Hence, we are to reproduce in our actions toward others the pattern of the act of God in Christ.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. . . . (Phil. 2:4-7a)
Ethics is set within the context of God’s action and promise. An announcement is made of a divine deed that creates a different cosmic and historical situation. There follows a call for human response to this new state of affairs. The demonic powers who rule the present age have been dealt a fatal blow by the saving deed of God in Christ. Though only a foretaste of the final victory to come, the new creation is already present. All are called upon now to receive their freedom from sin and death. They are urged to accept their status as mature heirs of the Kingdom and live in grateful obedience to God’s demands. There is a gospel of grace: God loves you and accepts you as you are. There is a law of love: love your neighbor, even the enemy and the undeserving brother or sister. God showed love by sending Jesus, who loved you and forgave you even when you killed him. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Accept the other person, worthy or not, as God accepted you. The first note of the gospel is that God loves us with the quality of love that is seen in Jesus. The second note is that we should love one another with the same kind of love. The good news is that God’s aim is to make heaven real. The ethical demand is that we manifest the reality of heaven on earth by making God’s aim our own. In short, there are two ways of stating the Christian moral imperative. (1) Love your neighbor as you love yourself. (2) Let the supreme goal of your action be the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. Taken together, they express the quality and the aim of God’s action, which is to be the model of human response. Each presupposes and leads to the other. The love of neighbor expresses the reality of the Kingdom. The coming to be of the Kingdom requires the love of neighbor.
A contemporary interpretation of the ethics of the Kingdom must be quite clear on two important points.
1. The New Testament teaches that the Kingdom is primarily a gift of God, not a human achievement. It is established by God’s activity when, and how, God chooses. Jesus announces the breaking in of the Kingdom as an objective reality which his hearers must take into account. Repentance, faith, and obedience are the prerequisites for sharing in the new age, not strategies for making that age happen. Those who decide for God will inherit the Kingdom and become its citizens. Those who do not will be cast into outer darkness. The coming of the Kingdom in its fullness is to be a sudden, catastrophic, cosmic, and supernatural occurrence.
However, the Kingdom of God is not simply a future reality. It is also a present power that has already broken into history. And in this present form, the Kingdom can be filled out and completed by human acts. Trustful obedience and service of neighbor express publicly and visibly the reality of the new age that has come, is coming, and will come. By reproducing in actions toward others the quality and aim of God’s act to them, believers become co-workers with God and co-creators of the Kingdom. The Kingdom, then, comes both by divine and human action. The Kingdom is present and will be universally triumphant. Let its reality be made manifest in your decisions and deeds. Participate in the coming to be of the Kingdom by making God’s aim your own.
2. The expected end did not occur. The prophetic vision of a messianic age of peace, righteousness, and prosperity which was to transform the land of Israel into an everlasting paradise never became a reality. The cosmic cataclysm foreseen by the books of Daniel and Revelation has not rendered the powers of darkness impotent. Sin, death, and moral confusion are still with us. Jesus expected the final day to take place within the lifetime of some of his hearers. Over and over John tells the readers of his Apocalypse that the end will come "soon." Prophets and apostles from Isaiah to 2 Peter have announced that the long-awaited deliverance was finally at hand. None of these predictions came true. God has not yet made heaven real in this ultimate sense. The world goes on. To argue that the end spoken of in either Old or New Testament is still to happen at some near or far off time is to do violence to the plain words of the text.
What we must do is reexamine thoroughly the ideas which the prophets and apostles had about the future. Without this, we can hardly use them as our basis for ethical action in the twentieth century. I intend to connect the Biblical message of a divinely willed good future with the idea of visionary reason. The creative activity of God in nature and in history is prior to human action. Indeed, human action is simply the latest result of God’s action in evolving this world.4 Over vast stretches of time a spectacular adventure has been taking place on earth. From simple matter came life. From life came conscious mind. Evolution is a history of creative advance. New forms of life have emerged, with more complicated nervous systems that increase their ability to act creatively on their environment and to experience enjoyment.
Billions of years after the first self-reproducing molecule began the chain of life, a peculiarly gifted creature appeared at the top of the evolutionary scale. Human beings were unlike anything ever seen on earth. Possessed of a high-powered brain in an unusually versatile body, they were set apart most radically by their ability to stand back and ask what it all means. This capacity for wonder and imagination is a basic mark of being human. God gave us an insatiable curiosity about the origin, meaning, and destiny of life. What kind of creature is this any way who can ask such questions? The writers of Genesis claimed that in the creation of Adam and Eve we see beings made in God’s own image. Just as God can imagine new possibilities and bring them into being, so can we in a human way. People are dreamers with powers to make dreams begin to come true.
My claim, then is twofold: (1) What appears in human beings as creative imagination can be seen throughout nature in less advanced forms. It is foreshadowed in the ability of all living things to adapt to their surroundings and to increase their chances of surviving and reproducing. (2) The creative imagination of humankind reflects the visionary reason of God -- God’s will to create a world and direct it toward a final goal of perfection. The basic theme of the Bible is that God works in nature and in human affairs to make heaven real. Many passages of Scripture teach that the universe itself will be included in the achievement of the final goal. Paul writes that "the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God." (Rom. 8:21) The Bible tells the story of inspired prophets and apostles who dreamed a dream of a perfected world that God will at last bring into being. At the human level the divine aim is to establish a community of persons united in love and free from all the ills that spoil the enjoyment of life. This is God’s dream and comes to reality by God’s action; but it is also God’s will that it be our dream, and come to reality in part by our acts. We are made in the image of God -- that is, we have visionary reason which is creative, like God’s -- and our visionary reason gives us the privilege of being co-creators with God in the final goal.
Against this background we can develop further the ethics of the Kingdom. The central principle is that we should reproduce in our own actions the quality and the aim of God’s prior actions toward us. The quality (love) and the aim (heaven) of God’s action are interdependent. Each presupposes and leads to the other. Love of neighbor expresses the reality of the Kingdom. The coming to be of the Kingdom requires love of neighbor. The two emphases also point out the relationship between present and future in Christian morality. The command to love your neighbor is oriented to here and now. It directs attention to immediate needs. It requires compassion for the suffering and oppressed people in our midst. It compels us to attack the worst evils of the moment. However, in order to meet the needs of our neighbors and relieve their miseries fully, we must look ahead. The quest for the coming Kingdom directs us to create conditions most likely to increase human welfare. And that effort looks toward the future. Loving our neighbors here and now, then, requires that we work toward the fullest welfare of both them and all people, which is the Kingdom. And working for the Kingdom in the future calls for loving our neighbors here and now.
Another word for the Kingdom is heaven; and it too has a twofold reference. (1) Heaven is a symbol of the final goal of God’s action. It is above history, an end which can never be completely attained on this earth. (2) Heaven also refers to the ideal possibilities latent in any particular set of actual conditions. The fulfillment of these possibilities is heaven coming to earth. Heaven, then, has a double reference. The immediate concern of visionary reason is some particular situation before us right now in all its complexity and with all its inevitable compromises. Our day-to-day task is to bring a hit of heaven to earth for somebody whenever and wherever we can, as opportunity arises. The ultimate concern of visionary reason is to form a society in which all evil has been put down. Hence, heaven is the moving image of the perfect society which lures all of life upward and forward toward that end for which God strives.
The civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. is a good example of what I am talking about. In human affairs every now and then a situation emerges pregnant with possibilities for moral advance. Such a one emerged when Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus in Montgomery. This event led to a boycott and brought King to the fore in what was the beginning of a giant leap forward for the rights of black people. Potential leaders with the abilities of King had doubtless been around before. But the times were not ready. Ideal possibilities were latent in the decade between 1958 and 1968 that had not been present before. Educational standards among blacks were rising/Thousands of black soldiers returning from World War II were unwilling to put up with segregation any longer. Racial attitudes among white people were moderating. These and many other factors had made the time ripe for a breakthrough. King and others led a series of nonviolent protests and boycotts which moved things forward. At the same time that black people were attacking the worst evils of the moment, King made his magnificent address in Washington. "I have a dream," he said, of a time when oppression will be at last ended, when white and black people will live together in peace, harmony, and justice. He used the language of the Old Testament, speaking of a pilgrim people freed from bondage in Egypt. Up to now, he said, his people had been wandering in a wilderness. But now, by the providence of God and by the militant actions of both blacks and whites, they were on their way to a promised land of equality and freedom. In saying this King had one eye on the present -- doing what was required to overcome immediate oppression -- and one eye on the future: the attainment of a just society. The combination was powerful in its impact.
At this point it is necessary to guard against a basic misunderstanding. The Kingdom of God is not a static end to be achieved once and for all at some definite moment in the future. Neither is it a series of such ends, one succeeding another as conditions change. Heaven is not like the mirage of an oasis in the desert that lures us on with the promise of cool water, only to turn into hot, dry sand every time we approach it. Viewed this way, life would be a sequence of failures, each moment or epoch falling short of some elusive ideal which keeps leaping ahead and beyond us. Rather, there are possibilities that are not now being hued out that could constitute a fuller presence of the Kingdom. Christ’s promise of the Kingdom means that what is happening to us right now is offering us the gift of more abundant life than we now have. His call is that we open ourselves and use those saving possibilities in every situation. The gospel beckons us to awaken now to the better option. We are urged to experience the promise in the present moment as the Kingdom of God breaking in. Whatever joy there is is in the living itself, the living out or the living toward those fulfillments latent in some specific situation.
Actual life, of course, is always a mixture of good and evil, fulfillment and frustration. Moreover, progress toward the coming of heaven on earth is not a simple, easy movement upward in painless growth. It is not the case that every day in every way we all become better and better. Gradual progress does occur in many areas of life. Babies do grow up to healthy and happy adulthood. Disease is conquered step by step. The moral consciousness of a people may slowly rise over periods of time. This has happened in treatment of the mentally ill, prison reform, care of the aged, the rights of laborers, and other areas. Frequently, however, the way ahead is through crisis and revolution, death and rebirth, judgment and redemption.
Between Jesus announcement of the coming of the Kingdom and its arrival with power stand the cross and the resurrection. The symbolic meaning of these events is that God’s love suffers and triumphs in history. The crucifixion teaches us how fragile in this life goodness is. Every positive achievement can be struck down with ease. Only a Leonardo can paint a Mona Lisa; anyone at all can destroy it. But the resurrection teaches us that life has an inherent and persistent capacity to rise again after defeat, even to bring new life out of death.
The cross and resurrection are also symbols of the price of moral rebirth. We have to die to old ways of thinking, feeling, and acting before we can be reborn to a new and better self. We usually do not do so until we are faced with disaster if we continue in the old way. We cannot do so unless the new possibility becomes available. And the conversion from the old to the new is painful, a dying and rebirth. Whether we speak of the quest of individuals for health and happiness or the quest of societies for peace, prosperity, and justice, the story is the same. Paul sums it up by saying that the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now. Doubtless, as long as life remains on earth, the pain of the struggle will continue.
Nevertheless, I, with countless others, am still haunted by the ideal of perfection. It is a note that runs deep in Western thought. It has roots in Greek philosophy as well as in the Bible. Plato envisioned a Republic that reflected the Form of the perfect good. The prophets of Israel dreamed of a New Jerusalem. And in the New Testament, idealism is urgent and unqualified. It appears in the moral teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and in the promise of complete victory over evil at the end. Go the second mile. Give to everyone who would borrow. Resist not one who is evil. Turn the other cheek when struck. These sayings of Jesus require an absolute obedience expressed in acts of love for the neighbor which are impossible to carry out consistently. In fact, sometimes to refrain from resisting one who is evil would be irresponsible. It would result in much more evil than good. Nevertheless, the final promise is that when the end comes, all enemies will be put down, including death (1 Cor. 15:24-28). The holy city that comes down out of the heavens will know no sorrow, tears, pain, or death (Rev. 21:4). But impossible as these commands appear, and as remote as such a city seems, they continue to fascinate the imagination of Christians.
The faithful live between the perfection of the Biblical heaven and the stubborn, complicated facts of the actual world. The perennial problem for them is how to live joyfully before God and one another without becoming complacent about the evils on earth or despairing because the promised heaven never comes. When human hopes continually fail, and when pain, tears, death, and sorrow torment us still, the final resolution is the companionship with a divine love that suffers with us in our time of trouble. God wills for us the perfect good and works for it, although on earth the divine reach exceeds the divine grasp. We too are called into this creative venture with God in quest of heaven. Heaven remains above and beyond any perfect achievement. Yet it is sufficiently present to make the risk of failure worthwhile and the thrill of success sweet indeed.
The task of Christians is to become sensitive to the growing edges of moral advance, and recognize where decisive action can change things for the better. Christians should be on the frontiers of human affairs looking for those right and ripe moments when ideal possibilities are ready to flower if nurtured and encouraged. To change the metaphor, they should be midwives of the Kingdom. They must help situations pregnant with moral possibilities to bring forth new life and fresh hope for God’s children. The next quarter of a century leading to the year 2000 will present many such opportunities. The image of birth is a pertinent one. In poor countries the birth rate is soaring, while consumption has leveled off (which means per capita consumption is going down); in rich countries the birth rate has leveled off, while consumption is increasing. This not only produces horrible, inflammatory discrepancies of wealth, but also uses up the earth’s resources at a rate that will eventually threaten everyone with starvation. Meeting the challenge will call for the death of some old beliefs and habits concerning nation, population, and wealth and consumption, among many others. Rebirth is possible. Redemption can follow judgment, if we are alive to the impulses of the Spirit and open to the new future God wills for us.
What does this conception of the ethics of the Kingdom imply for the mission of the church? The church came into being as the community of the end. It was created by the faith that the new age had begun. The conviction that the coming of Jesus had inaugurated the end distinguished the first Christians from the Jews. The church was made up of those who believed that the time of waiting was over and the time of fulfillment had begun. The end was no longer afar off but was now at hand. In Christ all things had become new. The church was a community of people who had been grasped by the hope of the coming Kingdom and whose love for each other bore witness to that hope. The New Testament idea of the church as a hope-filled congregation is the basis for my conception of the church as a visionary community. The task of the church is to be the bearer and nourisher of Christian visionary reason in a society increasingly dominated by technological reason.
This social task, however, does not define the basic reality of the church. The church cannot win its way by trying to outdo other institutions in offering the best solutions to worldly problems. The church, first of all, calls people to faith in God and into a new life of loving reconciliation with their Creator and with all earth’s creatures. The primary task of the visionary community is to testify to its religious vision, and to celebrate the joyful life generated by it. But celebrating this life means sharing it, trying to give others the fullest possible life by interacting with them. Supreme satisfaction for the Christian is achieved when his or her life is lived in loving unity with all life, and with God’s creative purpose, which wills and works for ever higher realizations of enjoyment and ecstasy. To proclaim the divine enterprise toward the fullest life for all is the church’s main ministry. To take part in that enterprise -- to embody its vision in its internal life of fellowship and worship -- is the church’s main function.
The social task of the church is to manifest its faith, outwardly and practically. Its aim should be to incorporate into the structures of individual life and society the values that express the reality of the Christian hope. The church should not suppose that its actions to establish these values as the rule for our secular life are what create the Kingdom. The Kingdom is there waiting and wanting to become real as the fulfillment of the purpose in the very nature of things. Our work can only allow or assist the ideal possibilities to become actual facts. The prior reality is the Kingdom hovering over history, already and partially breaking in and yet remaining above and beyond any complete consummation. The church is the community of hope. Its life is created by confidence in the reality and promise of the Kingdom’s coming. The secular mission of the church to the structures of society is to clear away the obstacles that prevent life’s inherent need for joy from blossoming into fulfillment. We may plant, and we may water, but God gives the increase of growth. This organic analogy expresses it perfectly. Life comes with a drive and a potentiality for enjoyment. That is God’s work. Likewise, the ideal possibilities continually ahead of any present reality are God’s, and are not always obvious to people. The church, however, is people firmly convinced of these "things not seen," and they must express their faith by living out its implications. Having been grasped by the promise, the community of believers must attempt in their worldly vocations to live by the values implied in their Christian vision.
The social task of the visionary community is to practice the ethics of the Kingdom. What does it mean to reproduce in our action the quality and aim of God’s actions toward us in the context of an emerging postindustrial society? If the prior reality is the love of God at work in the world to make heaven real, what would it mean for Christians to reproduce that quality of love and that aim in their actions toward each other amid the threats and promises of today? The answer to these questions is basically twofold. The first part of the social mission of the visionary community is to discern the ideal possibilities that are waiting and wanting to be born. The second is to nourish these possibilities and assist them in coming to birth. The first is a matter of dreaming. The second is a matter of doing.
The future of American society will be shaped by the ways in which problem solving (knowledge), decision making (politics), and goal setting (values) interact with each other. The first contribution the church can make to our emerging cybernetic society is to create out of its heritage a vision of what a humanly desirable future would be. The church must set itself to envision the ideal society of the immediate future that is potential in the present. The church should be one of the "utopia factories" called for by Alvin Toffler.5 For what ends were we created? What is a truly human life? What do we mean by a good person and the good life? What would an ideal society look like if it were designed to bring as much of heaven to earth as possible? What does God will and intend for the year 2000? The fundamental goal of the visionary community should be to define the meaning, purpose, destiny, and duty of human beings in the light of what has been revealed about God’s intentions in the world.
Religious faith, to be sure, must make use of secular reason to create a goal for society that is both possible and practical. Even a Kingdom-inspired vision of the good future can be given flesh and blood reality only by making use of facts about what is and can be. This requirement can be met by making use of the knowledge that Christians themselves bring to the envisioning task. Vision making is a task of the whole church, not just of its theologians and professionally trained ministers. Churches are populated with assembly-line workers, corporation executives, scientists, technicians, office workers, doctors, teachers, politicians, and many others -- all of whom have insight to offer about the actual world. These perspectives are essential to the nourishing of a better world.
To carry out the task both of vision making and of relating vision to vocation, we need a Spirit-inspired outburst of creative imagination that will invent appropriate institutional mechanisms. Most of these are yet to be conceived. One approach, however, might be to attempt three organizational arrangements:
1. Centers for Religion and the Future are needed at the seminary level. These Centers would bring together interdisciplinary teams of theologians, scientists, sociologists, engineers, and secular futurists of all sorts. They would keep in touch with people who are actually creating alternative futures.6 The task of these Centers would be to study specific institutions and patterns in our society and to make down-to-earth, practical suggestions for living responsibly in this complicated world. The work of the Centers would be communicated to a larger public. They would seek to involve as many ordinary people as possible of every race, class, and region in the goal-setting and strategy-devising process. It is not essential that all seminaries establish such Centers. A few strategically located ones might choose this task as their special contribution to the life of the church. Those that do choose to go this direction need not establish an independent Center if adjunct relationships can be worked out with nearby universities to provide the specialized resources that would be needed. Numerous future-oriented institutes have appeared in the past decade. Their personnel and findings might be tapped for the specific use of religiously oriented futurists.
Consider an example of what such a center could do. Every alert citizen knows that the world is in a race between growing numbers of people and available food. The United States will unavoidably have some hard choice to make, since we are the world’s major exporter of grain. Economic factors, moral compassion, and political realities will be intermixed. Nothing is more fundamental than the Christian imperative to feed the hungry. But providing food to the starving in our world is a complicated affair, requiring both the warm heart and the cool head. Meeting major world problems involves a combination of problem-solving knowledge, political decision making, and value choices. A Center for Religion and the Future could serve the church and the Christian conscience by studying the problem of world hunger. It would take these factors into account in its inquiries. Conclusions arrived at would be made available for public discussion and action. No problem will tax our knowledge, our politics, and our morality in the next quarter of a century more than hunger. What will the churches do about it?
2. At the regional and congregational levels, ecumenical and denominational ministries must bring people together in laboratories of reflection. Such laboratories would provide a forum where Christian visions could be correlated with the responsibilities of everyday life. The focus of concern here would be to help each Christian learn how to function as an agent of the kingdom in the main institution with which he or she is involved. This might be factory, office, laboratory, school, hospital, home, or some other organization. On a weekend study retreat several men reported the tensions they faced in their jobs. All of them helped produce materials used for bombing North Vietnam. As Christians they were morally opposed to the war. Can we create support groups in the churches which will help people work through the many conflicts they face every day between their Christian values and the requirements of their jobs? Can churches equip those of their members who hold decision-making authority in institutions to act on moral principles expressive of Christian visionary reason? Providing a forum in which Christians can gather with Christians facing similar problems would be a tremendous contribution.
I have no illusion that it is easy for Christians to challenge the organizations for which they work. It is difficult and risky. Jobs and careers are at stake. "Don’t rock the boat" is the philosophy most managers and owners would like to have their employees follow. Most of us know people who, when they raised a question about some morally questionable practice, were told to mind their own business "or else." Consider physicians who would like to see their professional organization become more concerned about delivering health care to the poor and less single-mindedly bent on self-interest. They usually end up belonging to an isolated minority. Executives of large corporations may be, as individuals, decent people and loyal church members. But when they function in their jobs, they are caught up in pressures to increase corporate profits that often stifle their moral impulses. And if conscience troubles them at all, they rationalize by saying, "What is good for General Motors is good for the country." Similarly, those in positions of lesser authority fall into "small-time Eichmannism." Eichmann, tried in Israel as a Nazi war criminal, admitted that he murdered untold thousands of Jews, but said that he was only following orders from higher up. He protested that he was powerless to do otherwise.
Paul wrote that we battle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. The "principalities and powers" of today, with truly demonic capacity, are the huge organizations that force their standards and practices upon people caught up in them. Kind-hearted military men in the U.S. and U.S.S.R. are led to argue for more and more powerful weapons of destruction. They are not bad people as individuals. Yet their folly may kill us all. They are caught up in a deadly contest whose rules are only partially made by themselves. They feel they are only doing what they have to. So it is throughout government bureaus, corporation offices, labor unions, retail stores, small business firms, and so on. People work in a network of forces and standards which they did not create and cannot as individuals destroy. So they feel helpless to change them. Their security and the welfare of their families are dependent on their keeping their jobs. Who wants to bite the hand that feeds him? Is it not idle talk to speak of church members living out their Christian visionary reason in these situations? Possibly. But on the other side it is certainly idle to speak of living a responsible Christian life without at least raising the question of how we should connect faith in God and the ethics of organizations. It is these organizations that do our work, meet our material needs, and affect the quality of life of us all,
3. Finally, we need task forces at every level of church life that will focus on a specific sector of society. These task forces would ask about Christian responsibilities in the light of careful, critical analysis of what is actually going on. The issues are many: poverty, prison reform, pollution, racial justice, women s rights, energy policy, foreign policy, world hunger, among others. Task forces of this sort are nothing new. One example is found in the Rochester, New York, area. Genesee Ecumenical Ministries is coordinating the efforts of several denominations to alleviate the problems of judicial process. This project was given special impetus by the revolt at nearby Attica prison. That tragic event took a terrible toll of human life and brought the problem to the attention of the whole community in a forceful way. Task forces are springing up at many levels of church life to deal with the crisis of world hunger. It takes but a little imagination to see how a wide variety of resources could be coordinated and brought to bear on any number of such issues.
Not all Christians will come to the same conclusions or agree upon the same strategies. Equally devoted believers can be found all across the political and social spectrum. Some think that capitalism was born in heaven. Others think that socialism is the only path to utopia. Some are pro-abortion, given certain circumstances. Some think abortion is murder. The variety of moral opinions among Christians is a problem. There is, however, something worse than that. Frequently the views of Christians do not represent honest conclusions based on hard reflection over the implications of Christian morality. Rather, they reflect the mind-set characteristic of their race or region or economic class or occupation. The main purpose of the laboratories of reflection and the task forces would not be to arrive at unanimity of opinion. Rather, it would be to give integrity to the effort to connect religious faith and social practice.
Many visions flourish in the Christian community regarding the task to which the Spirit is calling the churches. My proposal is admittedly not representative of the mood and mentality that prevails in many segments of the church today. These other claims also respond to felt needs and have their own legitimacy and constituencies. The activist impulse does not beat as strongly as it did a few years ago. After a period of experimentation during the turmoil of the 1960s, the mainline denominations are in a period of retrenchment, belt tightening, and rethinking. The turn is inward. The shift has been from world to church, from remaking the society to nurturing the spiritual resources of individuals and families. Revitalizing the inner life of persons and congregations is a major focus of interest. The coming years will likely see those groups with a more liberal, socially active outlook growing weaker in money, numbers, and zeal. More conservative, evangelistically oriented churches are among the fastest growing. The gap between change-oriented, social-action Christians and status quo-oriented, individual-holiness ones may even widen. In any case, the debate over the meaning and purpose of the church in relation to social structures and problems will probably continue to divide us.
This book has not been written to speak to the current mood. It is an attempt to look at long-term trends. In response to the needs of the coming years, I am proposing a mission that has authentic roots in the Biblical view of God’s purpose and people. The intent is not to be popular. It is, rather, to be a faithful witness to one accent with which the Spirit is speaking to the churches of today and tomorrow.
In the final chapter I want to get very specific about some opportunities that are emerging in our time. Christian visionary reason should nourish them and bring them to birth by individual and corporate action.
1. See John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953).
2. I am indebted to C. H. Dodd for this basic thesis. See his Gospel and Law (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951), p. 71.
3. Gospel and Law, pp. 3-24.
4. This thesis is explored in detail in my Science, Secularization and God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969).
5. Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 413.
6. Cauthen, Christian Bio politics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), pp. 114-116.