Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Living at the Threshold of Another World
Liberal or Progressive Christians are pretty good at criticizing an escapist, “other worldly” faith so focused on the “sweet bye and bye” that the very real joys and struggles of this world become an illusion or are seen as so transitory as to be insignificant. God created this world. God was in Christ, reconciling this world. “In Jesus Christ,” the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith says, “God has come to us and shared our common lot.” Ours is an incarnational faith that takes this world seriously as the arena for God’s redemptive work.
All well and good. But I wonder whether our “this worldly” faith is so preoccupied with the here and now that we forget the core proclamation of the Kingdom, the Realm, the Empire of God that is coming, drawing near? Pretty soon this world becomes all there is. Either we’re tempted to grow overly comfortable with it, or we turn our attention to tinkering with it, attempting merely to soften its harsh edges and ease its burdensome weights.
Is there any real evidence for this? Perhaps we ought to look at the liturgies in our churches. Proximity to the University of Chicago library affords the opportunity to peruse theological journals I don’t normally read. The other day I came across an article in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review by Father Alkiviadis Calivas, a highly respected liturgical scholar who taught for many years at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology outside of Boston. Having had the opportunity to meet this gracious and thoughtful man in a class on ecumenism I co-taught a number of years ago at Andover Newton Theological School, I eagerly read the article. This section stood out:
The liturgy brings us to the threshold of another world. Through it we reach and cross the ultimate frontier. We encounter the living God. We touch eternity and experience a new reality which transcends us. We enter into communion with the Holy One, who alone has life. This communion graces us with the presence of the inexpressible beauty, the searing truth, the boundless love, the indescribably joy and peace, and the deathless life of the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a result of this profound relationship with the author of life, we understand and experience life differently and are united dynamically in a new way to each other and the world.
When was the last time you had this experience on a Sunday morning?
It would be easy to dismiss this as the liturgical reflection of a tradition so theologically and social conservative, so alien to Progressive Protestantism, as to be more or less irrelevant. Or we might dismiss it as simply the overly idealistic academic perspective of a professor disconnected from the real world of parish life. Father Calivas does acknowledge that “the liturgy of the church presents us with a superb ideal that many times is inadequately realized.” But dismissive attempts to evade the felt critique of our liturgies may get us off the hook too easily.
There may be many reasons for our failure to even approximate the vision Calivas sets forth. Poor or inadequate preparation for worship by church leaders and sloppy performance of the liturgy would be high on my list. The dominance of words to the point of wordiness would be another, rendering the senses of sight and smell, taste and touch irrelevant most Sundays. PowerPoint only makes this more challenging, often turning our attention away from the rich symbols in architecture and stained glass toward blank walls covered only with magnified words. While looking for a service to attend in Hyde Park on Ash Wednesday, I found a church that advertised its service as “an Ash Wednesday lecture.” I opted instead for a Lutheran church where the imposition of ashes and the Eucharist could be more reliably assumed.
Better liturgical training for future pastors is part of the answer. I’m pleased to say that CTS does far more than anything I recall from my own theological education decades ago. But I think there is a deeper problem. Too many Progressives simply don’t have imagination for another world for which the liturgy is to be a threshold. Is it any wonder that much of our worship merely becomes a mirror for this world rather than a window on another promised world? Or a hectoring call to action to fix this world as best we can rather than a witness to the royal realm of justice, mercy, and peace that is promised, that is coming, even drawing near?
In his book on Undiscovered Country – “imagining the world to come” – Dante scholar and theologian Peter Hawkins asks,
I wonder, too, if living without illusions – that is, without any thought of an afterlife – is interesting enough to support life in the here and now. It is supposed to be. [Wallace] Stevens argues that a world without heaven to follow makes everything sweeter, more poignant and urgent. But couldn’t one also say the opposite: viewing the here and now as the anticipation of some other dimension can enrich the way we live by freeing us from the illusion that what seems is identical with what is? It is not necessary to view an afterlife as the greatest hits of this one, or as our world minus the tears. What if the other world were, well, other? What if you practiced for eternity by cultivating a sense of curiosity, a willingness to be surprised?
Before we can really fix our liturgies, perhaps we need to attend to our theology. Reclaiming a Biblical vision for a new heaven and a new earth that breaks into this world with judgment, promise, and power is certainly a place to start. Reminding ourselves that patching up the worst cracks in this world was hardly the message of Jesus would be another. Even contemplating what may be in store for us beyond this present life might alter the way we think about Sunday morning, moving it from passive listening toward the practice of imagination and curiosity.
Worship ought to set before us the approaching horizon of God’s promised realm. But unless we nurture a deep yearning for that realm, vividly imagined by the prophets, embodied in Jesus, and evocatively portrayed by poets and artists, we will be largely content with a “good enough” world, and happy enough for our worship to mirror it. Worship that fails to bring us to the threshold of that other world, cultivating in us a curiosity and a willingness to be surprised, is not only indicted for its frequent boredom, it also renders us helpless before the very real seductions, idolatries and despairs of this world. And that, for Progressive Christians, ought to raise all kinds of red flags.