Three Kingdoms

I am becoming convinced that the fullness of living the Christian faith requires living at the intersection of three kingdoms, a single reality that is made up of three separate realities – again the Trinity paradigm.

The first two kingdoms are found in the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:10) where we say “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”.  The kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven) is what exists in the presence of God: the eternal worship of the angels that takes place outside of space and time as we know them.  The second kingdom is the reign of God here on earth; something that has been inaugurated, but not fulfilled.  The third kingdom is the kingdom within us (Luke 17:21).

ThreeKingdoms

While it is useful at times to think of the kingdoms in terms of geography (Luke 19:12), it is best to first think of the kingdom as the authority or reign of God.  God clearly rules in heaven, it is less evident that he is in control here on earth.  Whether God rules within our hearts (being humbly in obedience, and of one mind) is another matter.  In this sense there is only one kingdom, manifest in three different realities.

Understanding the kingdom is not easy.  When Jesus explained it he did  not use definitions and propositions but parables; cracks of light that hinted by analagy, indirect reflections.  Following that path, I find it easier to say what it is not than what it is.  The following are what I see as kingdom ‘heresies’, distorted views that leave out one or more aspects and give a deficient understanding, and ultimately leave us with a reduced salvation.

The circles in isolation

Some people focus on just one kingdom, and ignore the others.

The Kingdom Within

Looking for inner peace, apart from transcendence or concern for the world is a manifestation of this kingdom in isolation.  It might be considered ‘secular meditation’.  In a more ethical form, classical Stoicism could fit in this category, with its focus on internal development.  This position is characterized by a lack of attachment to what is beyond oneself.  This is characterized in the classical cartoon image of a monk meditating alone atop a mountain.

The Kingdom on Earth

Classic Marxism, Secularism or Humansim fit in this category.  Whether in the guise of a ‘classless society’ or ‘stop global warming’, there is an scatological vision of the future world.  The key issue is this ideal future non-transcendent goal, and the means of achieving this goal are unrelated to one’s internal development.  In the 1960s this was a popular position among liberal theologians such as Harvey Cox (The Secular City) or the ‘Liberation Theology’ movement that advocated Marxist reform of worker’s rights and politics.

The Kingdom of Heaven

Many Christians mistakenly think this is a correct belief, and not a “heresy”.  It is widely found in conservative circles where the focus is on a conversion experience and “Do you know where you will go when you die?”.  The goal is seen as getting to heaven, achieved by a conversion experience that does not require moral or spiritual development (which is seen as ‘works righteousness’).  Detached from the creation, it becomes a practical denial of the resurrection.  The future goal is a Platonic spiritual state in heaven, and not a vision of a resurrected new heaven and earth. The roots of this thinking are much more into paganism or Greek Platonism than historic Judeo-Christian thinking.

Deficient Combinations

Not only is it wrong to take an individual kingdom in isolation, it is also an error to seek two kingdoms without the third.

Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom on Earth

There are numerous forms that this can take.  Sacraments are considered the intersection of heaven and earth.  Liturgical churches (like the Orthdox) see the worship on earth as a participation of the eternal worship in the kingdom. (John’s vision of Revelation).  While there is a healthy side to this, it can also be unhealthy when a church sees their only responsibility is to provide worship and sacraments, where just performing the actions are assumed to automatically connect one to the kingdom.  This is the problem of sacrament without asceticism.

Judaism, Islam and Christianity all share  a common belief in theocracy, that God’s kingdom should be manifest on earth.  In its more radical forms that condone violence and minimize love or free-will, the insistence on making the earthly kingdom a visible reality now  becomes the justification for terrorism and war.

Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom Within

There are many manifestations of the ‘just me and Jesus’ religion, where faith is an inward spiritual feeling without the need for community or action.  Our modern secular society is quite content to allow (or encourage) religion when it is reduced to a private practice and stays out of politics.  This desire by the secularists was often complemented by Anabaptist theology that advocated detachment from politics and society.  Often times traditional monasticism is criticized as expressing a serene detachment from the world and enclosing oneself in prayer.  However, the monastic writings are just quick to criticize such monks who want to flee the world and other people as engaging in selfish pride.  Seraphim of Sarov saw the goal of theosis in a broader light: “Acquire the Holy Spirit of peace, and a thousand souls will be saved around you.”

Kingdom on Earth and Kingdom Within

I am honestly not sure I have seen this combination, at least not within Christian circles.  It may be that some of the modern paganism fits this category.

Summary

You may have already gathered that I see a need to balance all three kingdoms.  Though, in saying that I do not expect that every individual, or even every church to achieve a perfect balance.  I think it is more likely that it requires the whole church (throughout history?) to properly reflect the fullness of this vision.  Dortheos of Gaza understood that we can only get closer to God as we get closer to others.  More recently, Fr. Alexander Schmamenn has expressed this integration when he calls the Church the ‘sacrament to the world’, where the Church exists to bring about the salvation of the world (both people and creation).

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Sharia Law

The following is a letter to the editor I sent to the Webster Kirkwood Times in response to an article on over-turning the current Missouri law prohibiting Sharia law.  This is the full letter, the one I sent had to be edited down to 300 words:

I appreciated last week’s article on the Missouri laws regarding Sharia law. It is a timely topic with the background of recent Egyptian politics.

Sharia law in the United States is a difficult topic on which I can find myself arguing both sides. The essence of the issue is how to maintain the rights of minority groups in an increasingly diverse secular democracy. Muslims are as entitled to pursue their religious/political interests as anyone else in this country. Yet, I wonder at times how much the diversity adds to the richness of democracy, or creates tension and chaos.

In the West, we are so used to thinking in terms of secular pluralism that we often forget there are other ways of thinking. We want to ‘be reasonable’ and believe that our human logic will ultimately lead us in the right direction if we can just sit down and talk inclusively.

While this is the common western view of democracy, not everyone sees the democratic vote in this light. Michael Jansen in the Irish Times has pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt saw the vote which brought Mohamed Morsi into power, not to be just the will of the people, but the will of God; the vote was a mandate for them to fulfill their vision of the Islamic kingdom under the rule of God.

There is an aspect in which I respect even the more radical Muslims who criticize western democracy for its loss of values and principles. Whether it comes from the Brotherhood or even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, they are correct in wanting to push the dialogue to theology; addressing ultimate values and meaning. N.T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop of Durham, England has correctly pointed out that historic Christianity (and even Judaism) also uphold theocracy as their ultimate ideal, however much we tactically value democracy as a modern workable compromise. The debate then becomes much more complex with the need to look at which ‘theos’ is behind a theocracy, and how values of love and violence are legitimate (or illegitimate) means of bringing about that kingdom, and how minorities who don’t share these ideas are respected.

President Obama and much of the administration fail to remember that democracy requires more than a free vote, it also requires a practiced system of values and rights. Jason Isaacson of the American Jewish Committee, in a recent interview on Fox news paralleled the Egyptian free democratic vote for Mohamed Morsi, and the subsequent attacks on the Coptic minority to the loss of Jewish rights in Germany after the 1937 democratic election that brought Hitler to power. We can vote away our rights, or find them denied in practice.

While I found Faizan Syed compelling, I also know that Muslims are as varied in their views as Jews, Christians and secularists; he presents one position. The Muslim Brotherhood also spoke of inclusion and tolerance pre-Morsi. I would feel more comfortable lifting restrictions on Islamic law if I felt Islam significantly protected minority rights. In spite of some opposition, Muslims in the West still enjoy many freedoms: to build mosques and wear the burka in public. In contrast, I consistently find a significant lack of equivalent freedom in Islamic countries for Jews or Christians to freely build a synagogue or a church, to wear a cross in public, or openly share their faith. We need to respect diversity, but it needs to be a mutually practiced respect.