God of the Present Tense

I recently sent a message to the son of a deceased friend and was about to mention what a great man I thought his father had been. I caught myself before I phrased it that way. I realised that in the Christian life, there is no past tense.

There are events in the past, but the life remains. I suppose that if I thought my friend had been good at one point in time and had ceased to be good later, I could say that he was a good man. The man remains. Even while the body is in repose, temporarily going back to the earth from whence it came, the man remains.

As Orthodox Christians we are reminded of this when we venerate the saints through their icons, though when talking of the saints, I lapse into the past tense: who was St Athanasius or who was St Paul. When I teach about Jesus in school, I am very vigilant to always speak of Him in the present tense, because I want the kids to understand that Easter happened after Good Friday. And since we pray to Jesus, we have a habit of speech that constantly recognises Him in the present tense.

But it is not just those glorified heroes of the Faith that are still alive with Jesus. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. (We can discuss various Catholic and Orthodox theories about how instantaneous this is, but it still is.) Likewise, the disembodied soul in the presence of the Lord is but a temporary arrangement.

God only has a present tense. He revealed it to Moses. He revealed it in Jesus. Though we are created beings and have a beginning, as we are knitted together in our mother’s womb, once created in God’s image we share in his eternity. When we live in communion with Him, we share that eternity with Him. As Jesus told the Sadducees, God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Jesus’ Resurrection was the down payment to guarantee our own.

My friend Mark has been away from his body for a number of years now. God took him quite suddenly and quite young. Because he trained me to be an Emergency Care Attendant and an ambulance driver, I still think about him every time I use my cut-through-anything EMT shears. There will be a time when EMT shears won’t be needed, but for now they remind me that there is a time after time when those who have gone before and those of us who will go sometime hereafter (for death comes to all men) will rejoice in the presence of God together in the new creation.

I Want to Go to Heaven, but I’m Not Going to Stay There

Last night I finished N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. When I was writing the blog entry Joe Klein, Rick Warren, and Heaven I came across a review of the book and it piqued my curiosity. Based on my reading of Wright, I realised that I had fallen into the same misconception as Joe Klein.

Both Klein and I were writing from the presumption that dying and going to heaven (or not) is for eternity. It’s not that the New Testament teaches this, but only that it has become presumed in much of Western Christianity, from which I built my theology and Klein has used as his straw man. Wright demonstrates that the New Testament is much more concerned with the Resurrection. He emphasises the centrality of Jesus’ Resurrection (having long been one of the most vocal scholars  in the battle against liberalism and the mythologising of Gospel)  and clarifies how death is simply the way station on the on the road to our own resurrections.

As an Orthodox Christian, I don’t entirely agree with Wright’s view of the saints in heaven, but it is closer than most Protestant perspectives. He is mostly concerned with distinguishing his view from the Roman Church. At times he refers to ideas that have been preserved in Orthodoxy and lost in the West.

In the last part of the book, Wright explains how he sees this theology of the Resurrection as it affects the role of the Church today. While Wright eschews the liberalism of the Social Gospel, as an American Christian, I have not had the same view as Wright regarding the role of the State, particularly in the welfare of the individual or in the intervention with business or the free market in effecting social justice. Unlike some Amazon (and other online retailer) reviewers, I don’t think that this makes Wright a neo-Marxist or neo-socialist. Rather, I think those reviews substantiate Wright’s view that conservative Christians in the US have tied conservative theology and conservative economics so closely together that to challenge any assumption of the latter is to lose any credentials as a proponent of the former.

I think it is good that Bishop of Durham and highest ranking evangelical in the Church of England has challenged some of the presumptions of evangelical American Christianity. Most Americans get very defensive about any challenge to anything American, especially by Europeans. This may be because most European challenges to most things American are based in nonsense rather than good theology. Tom Wright is not talking nonsense. This is not wishy-washy Emerging Church neo-liberal evangelicalism.

This is a book which focuses first on personal and cosmic eschatology. It is not a pop-theology revelation of The Revelation. It is a look at what the New Testament and the early Church viewed as the hope for the Christian, the essence of the Gospel. Wright’s view is that if we are hoping for life after death we are too short-sighted. We have to re-focus on life after life after death and this will change the way we look at ourselves and our place in the world.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Every chapter in it is almost worth the entire price. It is so good that I have ordered copies of it for a couple of friends. Even though I haven’t ordered a copy for you, you need to go out and get it anyway.