Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Paradise and yearning for heaven

I am writing this from a place in Aotearoa NZ which could be called Paradise. Many years ago, when living in England but destined to next live in Paradise, a visiting Australian academic told me that he had recently visited Paradise and thought it was the best city in the world. When I arrived here six days ago the weather was a little bleak and I struggled for a day or two without a light top to put over my shirt. But the last three to four days have been perfect, especially yesterday and today: cloudless sky and the sun shining with a brightness peculiar to this place (apply sun tan lotion copiously). So the joy of summer has been warm sun, bright sky, peace in my relaxed heart, and swimming. Lots of swims. To the point where I wonder if the Seer got it right in Revelation 15:2 when he saw a 'sea of glass' in heaven (an image sometimes explained as representing victory over ancient Jewish fear of the sea and its chaotic storms). Surely heaven will include a sparkling blue pool of water in which swimming and diving give endless pleasure!

Sitting in a cafe yesterday with a friend I received a wonderful insight into the obstacles our faith in Christ face in this fair land of ours. Having recently journeyed to a depressed and destitute country where he experienced proclamation of the gospel in the context of tragic death in terms of heaven being a 'better place' he made the observation to me that here on earth where life is experienced as 'paradise' no one wants to leave this life for the next. In a pleasant cafe on a perfect summer's day, the point was well made and easily absorbed.

Yes, we have a grizzle here and there (and lots more grizzles in Christchurch where I now live and work) but generally speaking, in the age of perfect coffees, brilliant technologies, cures for most diseases, abundantly stocked supermarkets and a benign climate, here in 'God's Own' country there is not a lot of pressure to yearn for heaven. There are many incentives to live as long as possible in order to experience paradise endlessly.

This year I am attempting to teach John's Gospel at Laidlaw College Christchurch (with a few preliminary thoughts here). To aid me I have been re-reading through the summer break one of the most brilliant books of theology I have ever encountered, John Ashton's Understanding the Fourth Gospel. Beyond the great debates about this gospel such as whether it is first-hand testimony of a genuine eye-witnessing disciple of Jesus or a veiled testimony to the history of the sectarian Johannine community as it separated from the local synagogue, all interpreters agree that the Fourth Gospel is a message of life, of the abundant life which Christ came to give (10:10). But what does the gospel of abundant life in Christ mean in a land abundant with life?

It is tempting to (attempt to) answer the question. But perhaps the question is better left as one for all Kiwi Christians to reflect on slowly and profoundly. Indeed, to do so would be to follow John as the Beloved Disciple who offers in his gospel a proclamation of the gospel after slowly and profoundly reflecting on the gospel tradition he received (which we know from the first Three Gospels) as well as his own experience as an eye-witness. In that reflection the 'kingdom of God' became 'eternal life'. In our reflection what is the translation of the gospel into the language of Paradise?


Father Ron Smith said...

A lovely reflection, Peter, on the possibility of enjoying 'Paradise' here on earth - as I suppose the Garden of Eden was intended to be for the mythical Adam and Eve.

As we know from the Scriptures, the earthly Garden of Eden proved a place of temptation.

My idea of Paradise would be a place where there is no temptation - a place of resting in the Lord, a place of enjoyment of the perfection of God's presence, where there is the prospect of further growth into perfection for those departed who have placed their hope in Christ to perfect them.

This, to my mind - and following on the interpretation of Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, where he speaks of a new 'spiritual body': and in 1 Thessalonians, chapter 4: wherein he speaks of 'the dead in Christ being raised first and those who are left alive will be taken up with them" gives us an idea of the difference between 'Paradise' and Heaven.

Paul raises the question of where are the 'dead in Christ' in the interim - between earth and fullness of heaven with the Father?

The clue might be in the words of Jesus to the penitent, dying thief: "Today, you will be with me in Paradise". We know Jesus did not go straight to heaven but he "Descended to the dead". Was this the ante-room to Heaven - a place where, like a paradise garden, the departed are spiritually renewed into their original Image and Likeness of God before Christ's Second Coming, to take them with him into the Father's presence?

This idea certainly evokes a more reasonable expectation of what the word 'Paradise' might really mean.

en Christo!

Anonymous said...

At the recent winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society in London, we heard Prof Callum Brown ( of "The Death of Christian Britain") trail his new book which has a more international reach inc US,Canada and NZ.By his statistical analysis NZ is the most secularised country in the western world which came as something of a suprise to me.He is particularly interested in the growth of those who describe themselves as having "no religion" on censud forms, how they moved to that position and esp gender differences ( he feels the changing position of women is a significant factor) and that decline has rapidly accelerated since the 60's.Does that sort of sociological analysis resonate "down under".Does the NZ have sociologists of religion helping the Church as we have here in such academics as David Martin and Grace Davie?
Perry Butler Canterbury UK

Andrew Reid said...

Hi Peter,

Sorry for my silence. Finishing up our home assignment in Australia and moving back to the Middle East has taken me away from the Anglican blogosphere for a while.

Similar issues in Australia - prosperity, the good life, technology etc make us think that this life is as good as it gets. There are 2 manifestations of this:
- Among Christians, a concentration on this life and disinterest in the life to come.
- Among non-Christians, a feeling that the Good News has nothing to offer them.

Each of these needs its own response.
- For Christians, we need to reflect on whether we love God more than we love this world. Don't we want to be with him, which is better by far than this world? Also, why is the creation groaning for its redemption if things are all good right now?
- For non-Christians, we need to share the parable of the rich fool, who wanted to build bigger barns to store his wealth (Lk 12). Our riches and our lives are more fragile than we think, and can be gone in an instant. In part, some of the reason behind God allowing natural disasters is to wake us up to how temporary our life and possessions are.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Perry,
We have a little bit of that kind of research.
The observation that we are most secularised is often made and the stats support the conclusion but it likely is not true.
In ways not easily measured by stats the role of religion, and of spirituality is greater here than, say, in Canada (I am told).

Peter Carrell said...

Good to hear from you Andrew! I want to develop those thoughts along with some ideas of my own in my next post.

Anonymous said...

A combination of extreme weather conditions, which are likely to worsen over the long haul, and continued economic decline and crisis means that the post-war conditions which provided a cushion for the growth of hyper-liberalism are gone. Metaphorically speaking we live in apocalyptic times, and as the facade of Modernism falls away in the face of nature this provides the Church, for the first time since WW2, with a serious missional opportunity.

Bryden Black said...

G’day Perry!

Not wishing exactly to counter my friend and colleague, who after all is our mutual host ... Actually I sense and the data does also show (Kalder et al) NZ to be staggeringly secular - and for definitions/depictions of “the Secular”, see now Charles Taylor’s tome. I say this having lived and ministered in quite a few different countries, of both the first and two-thirds worlds.

I also think Peter cheats a little by eliding religion and spirituality in his brief comment to you. Yes; a good few Kiwis would see themselves to be seeking some form of spirituality, and for seeing this furthermore as being translated into their lives - more or less. It is not insignificant that the Dalai Lama has quite a crowd turn out for him when he visits. However, these desires and dreams are just that, forms of spirituality - where in addition they have little institutionalization to aid or carry them further and more deeply.

Anecdotally, I buried a dear man some years ago, whose family we knew reasonably well; and they asked especially for “a spiritual service that would not be at all religious”. My own contribution to that was to inject, among their multiple postmodern montages of material, pop and poetic, the closing section of Little Gidding, first introducing it and pointing out TSE’s own allusions to The Cloud, The Divine Comedy, and Julian. It seemed to catch many a nerve and prompt questions thereafter.

Anonymous said...

Bryden, I fear you are right, when we use objective standards, e.g., number of self-described atheists or agnostics or 'no religion'; church attendance; actual practice of prayer; decline of Christian marriage and funerals. How long will people even bother using Christian clergy in funerals when secular alternatives are around? My sister's thoroughly secular 'funeral' in Australia ('overseen' by an overpaid NZ 'funeral celebrant' over there) was one of the strangest things I've experienced.
Little Gidding - yes, one of my favorite poems - 'Consumed by either fire or fire' - a good word for a cremation!