We are already in paradise
There is no land promised to any of us other than the land already given, the world already here.
Progressive people of faith have critiqued this version of Christianity and have created positive alternatives in three major forms. For handy reference, these three alternatives can be identified as Social Gospel eschatology, universalist eschatology, and radically realized eschatology. Each can be captured in a sentence: “We are here to build the kingdom of God on earth,” “God intends all souls to be saved,” and “Paradise is here and now.”
When I was a child, the Social Gospel meant that we as faithful Christians campaigned for integrated, nonrestricted neighborhoods to counteract racism in our community, marched for civil rights, and worked to end the war in Vietnam and advance economic self-determination for people around the world. Immersed in this tradition of Christianity, I learned firsthand its strengths—and limitations. The hoped-for future perpetually condemns the present. The failure of the world to conform to God’s vision of justice and abundance is laid at humanity’s feet: We have not yet worked smart enough, been well-enough organized, convinced enough people, or corrected the flaws in our approach. Social Gospel Christianity has had a home in the heart of mainline Protestantism. It is a great vision, but perhaps it has flagged in zeal because weary spirits have labored for an ideal world but have neglected to attend to their own soul’s thirst. In the absence of a divine wellspring in the present, when the going gets tough, there is nothing to fall back on.
Universalists hope for the earthly realization of God’s dream, but they get there by a slightly different theological route: Their path responds to the ultimate inclusiveness of God’s love. “We are all going to end up together in heaven, so we might as well start learning to get along now,” the contemporary Universalist minister Gordon McKeeman explains. Heaven could be found in this world wherever love prevails and the gifts of life are stewarded with reverence and respect. But Universalist eschatology still places its ultimate hopes in God’s long-term intentions.
Radically realized eschatology offers a third way—one that holds promise especially for those who have found idealistic belief in progress too fragile a foundation for sustained social activism. It begins with affirming that we are already standing on holy ground. This earth—and none other—is a garden of beauty, a place of life. Neglecting it for some other imagined better place will be a self-fulfilling prophecy—it will make earth a wasteland. There is no land promised to any of us other than the land already given, the world already here.
If we can recognize this, our religious framework can shift from hope for what could be—for a “better world” to come—to hope that what is good will be treated with justice and love and that what has been harmed will be repaired. This is a different kind of hope. It could be called responsive hope, hope grounded in respect for what is here, now. “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” Rumi wrote. Our framework of meaning can begin with appreciative and compassionate attention to this world, rather than imagining an ideal other world. Our first prayer can be one of thanks. Instead of striving to get somewhere else, our goal can be to fully arrive here and greet each day of life with gratitude, expressing hospitality for the mysterious goodness that is new every morning and engaging in compassionate care for the present realities of suffering, injury, and injustice that call for our active response.
Western culture’s eyes have followed Adam and Eve, clinging to each other, cowering and half-naked, turning their backs on the gates of paradise and wandering into an exiled existence. Those of us shaped by this culture can sometimes feel as lost as they and long to be readmitted to life as it was promised, somehow, somewhere, by someone or something. But what if it is we who have walked away? In our mad dash to get somewhere else, what if it is we who have separated from each other, from the garden, from God calling our name in the cool of the day?
From the perspective of a radically realized eschatology, the problem for Western culture is that we have become disoriented and think we are outside the garden when we are not. We are treating life here and now as if we were in a barren wasteland, but we have profoundly misjudged our location. It is possible to reorient our imagination—as early Christianity did—and to see that the garden is neither closed nor lost but rather is open and present. We can wake from disillusion with a world that poet Matthew Arnold said “seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams” with “neither joy, nor love, nor light / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” With Moses, we can see the world lit up from within by the fire of God’s spirit and hear a voice calling out to us, “Take off your shoes. The ground on which you stand is holy.” We can recognize that the call to resist oppression arises from an epiphany of divine presence in the midst of life’s present realities.
Several summers ago, when Rita Brock and I were beginning to work on Saving Paradise, we joined my brother’s family for a weeklong backpacking trip into the Ansel Adams wilderness, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. To get to the trailhead, we took a Forest Service bus from Mammoth Lakes up to Agnew Meadows, and while the bus switchbacked up the narrow road through the pine forest my seatmate struck up a conversation with me. He’d overheard my brother talking with Rita and me about our theological work. He asked if we’d written any books, so I told him about our first book, Proverbs of Ashes, which exposes how Christian ideas that the death of Jesus saved humanity have sanctioned domestic violence, sexual abuse, racism, homophobia, and war. He nodded. He said that he had been raised Catholic and that his wife was the daughter of a Methodist minister. Church was important to him.
“I can’t believe all the doctrines,” he said. “I never was comfortable with the bloody crucifix hanging over the altar—I couldn’t understand why we would be worshipping it. But I learned a way of life from the church that I have not rejected.”
“What is that way of life?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s simple,” he said. “Love your neighbor as yourself. Try to help, not harm. Do what you can to make a difference.”
He went on, “We do foster care for kids.” He said it was heartbreaking to see some of the violence, abuse, and deprivation these children have experienced. But he and his wife welcomed them into their home and did what they could. “Not even love can repair the damage sometimes,” he said.
He asked what book topic I was working on, and I answered, “Paradise.”
“Paradise,” he mused, and looked out the window of the bus for a few moments at the bright sky, the deep green pine forests, the alpine meadows coming into view, and, rising above them, the sharp peaks of the Minarets.
“Do you mean ‘paradise’ like where we are right now?”
“Yes,” I said. “Like where we are right now.”
We both gazed out the window for a few moments, breathing the pungent fresh air.
“This is enough,” he said.
“You know that because you help kids,” I said.
A cloud of thoughtfulness passed over his face.
“Yes,” he replied, “that’s right.”
We come to know this world as paradise when our hearts and souls are reborn through the arduous and tender task of living rightly with one another and the earth. Generosity and mutual care are the pathways into knowing that paradise is here and now. This way of living is not utopian. It does not spring from the imagination of a better world, but from a profound embrace of this world. It brings hope home to today, to this moment and its possibilities for faithful love.
Our hope need not be that New Jerusalem will descend from on high, into the smoking ruins of an earth destroyed by self-fulfilling prophecies of violence. Even less need our hope be that a righteous few will be raptured to another world. Nor do we need to look only to the future, laboring to serve an idealized vision of what could be. Our hope can be that from within the heart of this world paradise will arise. It will arise from the seeds of Eden sown everywhere; from the life that is within us and around us in our communities and cultures; from the gifts of our resistance, compassion, and creativity; and from the very stones crying out their praise for the presence of God who is here, now, already wiping the tears from our eyes.
Adapted with permission from A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century, © 2010 by John A. Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker (Beacon Press). See "The Welcome Table" (Summer 2010, page 24) for an excerpt by John Buehrens.