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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