Religion on the Level: #6
What's the Use of Heaven? [Continued]
I cannot resist recalling that famous incident when Thomas Merton when Thomas
Merton describes a walk along the street in Louisville, Kentucky:
At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of
the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed
with the realisation that I loved all these people, that
they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even
though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness,
of spurious self-isolation is a special world, the world of renunciation and
supposed holiness. The sense of liberation from a illusory difference was such
a relief and joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.
If attention is the first duty of those who want to love the world, then
repentance must be the second. The truth that lies at the heart of all these
theologies of rejection and loss we have thought about is the horrifying damage
we have done to one another.
In these lectures I have used the Holocaust as the great paradigm of human
evil, but there are many others that would have done just as well, such as
slavery. The West has not yet confessed its responsibility for this great
evil that still reverberates in our own day, in the racism that so disfigures
our society. One of the great paradise longings of humanity is the desire to
rewind history, to make it as though the evil had never happened, to bring back
that deed, to recall that word, to get back to the time before the serpent put
it into our mind to perform the act that destroyed our peace and sent us forth
We can recall not only the slave trade and the Holocaust, but also the
killing fields of Pol Pot's Cambodia and the Rwandan genocide of a few
years ago. A task of an honest theology of life will be to remember those
crimes and cry for a collective repentance. As humans we are implicated in
them all, but our particular tribal pathologies will necessitate specific
acts of sorrow and repentance.
This is beginning to happen in some cultures, but so far we have resisted any collective apology
to African people for the slave trade that so disfigured our history and
continues to stain our relations with black people. But repentance must
not be the final word.
The final word must be the remaking of the earth. This is the task to which
we have been summoned by Jesus. John Dominic Crossan makes an
important distinction in his interpretation of the work of Jesus. I have already
talked about the apocalyptic tradition in the New Testament. I suggested that
Jesus had tried and subsequently discarded the apocalyptic programme for the
transformation of the earth.
Let me draw this series to a close by quoting from Dominic Crossan's
discussion of the subject:
(Crossan's name for a programme of this-worldly
transformation) looks to the present rather than the future and imagines how
one could live here and now with an already or always available divine dominion.
One enters that Kingdom by wisdom or goodness, by virtue, justice or freedom. It
is a style of life for now rather than a hope of life for the future. There is
therefore an ethical Kingdom, but it must be absolutely insisted that it could
be just as eschatological as was the apocalyptic Kingdom. Its ethics could,
for instance, challenge contemporary morality to its depths.
The apocalyptic is a future Kingdom dependent on
the overpowering action of God moving to restore
justice and peace to an earth ravished by injustice and oppression. Believers
can, at the very most, prepare or persuade, implore or assist its arrival, but
its accomplishment is consigned to divine power alone. And despite a serene
vagueness about specifics and details, its consummation would be objectively
visible and tangible to all, believers and unbelievers alike, but with
appropriately different fates.
The sapiential Kingdom
Such a kingdom is just as world-denying as the apocalyptic or rejectionist
theologies, but the world it denies is not this world as such, the only world we
know, but the usurpation of this world by the forces of evil and injustice that
claim it as their own.
The heaven we long for and must work to achieve, is God's dominion of justice
and peace on earth and goodwill to all its peoples. Beyond our grasp, I know,
but what else is a heaven for?
25 March, 1999
Copyright Professor Richard Holloway: This publication may not be
reproduced in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author
 Becoming Divine, Grace M Jantzen, Manchester University Press, 1998
 Cited by Jantzen, Becoming Divine, p.151
 Ibid, p.152
 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, T Merton, Doubleday, NY, 1989,
 The Historical Jesus, JD Crossan, Harper Collins, 1992, p.292