Saturday, May 2, 2009

Earth Day (belatedly)

A week or so ago, on Earth Day to be exact, the gospel for the day included John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever should believe in him might not perish but might have eternal life,” which of course famously appears in crudely scrawled letters on pieces of posterboard at any number of public events, from baseball games to pro wrestling tournaments (I almost said it appears at sporting events, but it’s a stretch to call pro wrestling a sport per se). Given that it was Earth Day, it was a particularly appropriate reading: the next verse, which doesn’t show up much at pro wrestling matches, reads, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” John’s gospel was written in part in response to Gnostic groups, which taught that the material world was evil, by contrast with the goodness of the soul, whose task was to escape the prison of the flesh and return to the spiritual realm, the true home of the soul. If that last line sounds something like what you have been taught, that’s because dualism, i.e. seeing the physical realm as evil or inferior to the spiritual, is perhaps the most widespread heresy in Christian history: it has shown up in any number of guises over the centuries, from Gnosticism to Manichaeism to Albigensianism to more modern overspiritualizing of the gospel. “The world” has a particular valence in Gnostic terms, as the defective realm that is to be left behind, so for John to say that God loves the world, and desires to save the world, is exactly not about getting souls out of this mess, but as a transformation of the entire cosmos. We continue too easily to fall prey to that sort of dualism, but Jesus’ own ministry is amazingly holistic – how much time does he spend talking about whether someone is going to heaven or not, and how much time does he spend responding to the sufferings of people’s quotidian lives? N.T. Wright, a widely respected scripture scholar and the Anglican bishop of Durham in England, recently wrote a book entitled Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, in which he argues that the consistent witness of the New Testament is not to heaven as our eschatological hope, but the resurrection. Indeed, Christians of almost every stripe recite the Nicene Creed at their liturgies, and it plainly includes the line, “We believe in the resurrection of the body,” but I have almost never come across a student who has the foggiest idea of what that means (most of them think it means heaven). That dualistic misunderstanding has fueled plenty of suffering in the Church’s history, particularly in the missionary practice of “killing the body to save the soul,” but also in overlooking injustice because the Church’s mission is “spiritual,” meaning uninvolved in overcoming the sufferings caused by social sin and oppression. Resurrection as a symbol points to the renewal and transformation of the entire created reality – rather than “body in the ground, soul in heaven,” the hope of the New Testament is to share in a resurrection like Jesus, who was the “firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18). God loves the world, not just souls – salvation is not an individualistic reality, but a corporate and holistic one – the crushing weight of sin and suffering are to be saved or overcome, but so is the wrecking of the environment, the destruction of cultures, the abuse of women and children, the denigration of the goodness of our physical reality.

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