Thursday, December 08, 2016

Build Your Hopes on Things Eternal

I spent some time this morning trying to see if I could adapt Hauerwas and Willimon's Resident Aliens for an adult Sunday School class. Scott Daniels is a man of great wisdom who told me he'd tried in once and the book was just too dense for such a setting. I tried to do it anyway, but his advice allowed me to give up the ghost one chapter in. It's a great chapter, though, and I don't want to waste the effort.

The idea of Resident Aliens is primarily that the Church is a "colony of heaven," in the way that conquerors (they might call themselves explorers or liberators) develop colonies in new lands, which are reflective of the home culture, so the Church is called to be a colony of a different world in the midst of this world. A Greek colony in Egypt would've maintained the Greek attitudes towards education, commerce, and social relations, despite those things being at odds with the larger world they find themselves living in.

Christians are called to live differently - not to make the world in which they live more Christian, but to present an alternative means of living - one reflective of God's intentions for the world as revealed in Christ. Christ then becomes the key to all this. The book says that when Christians look a the world, we see something that cannot be seen without Christ - the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection provides a lens by which we see the whole concept of life differently.

I was reminded of a song we sung in worship a few weeks back. It's entitled "Hold to God's Unchanging Hand," and contains a line that really caught my attention: "Build your hopes on things eternal," which I imagine has traditionally been looked upon as escapist. There's a long modern Christian tradition of viewing the world as imperfect and temporary, thus the common advice when things go poorly is "don't worry, there's another world out there somewhere; think about eternity."

I see this line more in terms of what Hauerwas and Willimon are trying to say: that there is an entirely different way of looking at this world, an eternal view, a "heavenly" view, something more reflective of what God has in mind, as revealed in Christ.

This difference shows up in the second challenge of Resident Aliens' first chapter: to ask the right theological questions. The authors argue that we typically engage the politics of the world on their own terms - this stretches all the way back to Constantine, the Roman Emperor who first embraced Christianity as a unifying force. Since then we've largely asked "how can we run this world in Christian ways?" It's become a political preoccupation that's gotten us nothing but trouble. Instead, what Willimon and Hauerwas propose is that we ask "What would the world look like if it reflected the gospel?"

This is what I think of when I hear, "Build your hopes on things eternal." We don't have to take the systems and structures we have as inevitable. God calls us to build our lives on a different set of principles and realities, to be a true alternative to the way things seem to work in the world around us. This is the colony concept; the Church's purpose is to be something different, not take the world around us and make it different.

I know the immediate "but" in this is "but if you succeed in building an alternative, won't that just attract 'the world' to join, thereby changing the world into something Christian?" In a sense, yes, of course that leads into conversations about HOW precisely that is done - through an actual attempt to change or through a faithful representation of an alternative - but even that is getting ahead of ourselves, right? We're assuming that living faithfully into an alternative is easy - that establishing and maintain this colony of heaven is a given. It's hard work.

The book goes on to talk specifically about how our politics (in whatever way we've worked them out) have failed us and challenging the Church to a new kind of politics, one that operate on its own system, rather than trying to co-opt the systems around us. There's plenty to delve into there, and I'd love to have those conversations if you want to dialogue about them, but I think this first notion is a really important start.

Build your life on things eternal is not about spiritualizing everything, but it's also not about digging in to physical-ize everything either. We've had quite enough of activist Christianity already. I think rather the call is to have our foundational understandings shaped and formed by the gospel rather than by the world in which we live. We have to stop taking for granted the "realities" we're presented with and imagine our realities in light of God's revelation in Christ.

Well, just some random thoughts on a Thursday. Cheerio.

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