Most of us have some form of a morning ritual. It could involve prayer or meditation, probably a cup of coffee or tea. Maybe taking the dog for a walk or reading from some sacred texts. After we finish our morning rituals then we are ready to tackle the day and all the challenges that it brings. So imagine that today you awoke, spent a little time ritually preparing for the day and then you opened and checked your emails. As you were skimming through your emails you noticed one that looked a little suspicious. The sender was God. You figured it was probably spam and you should just delete it but your curiosity got the better of you, so you clicked it open. The message said: “This is God, I have decided that it is time to create Heaven on Earth. So I would like your help.” The note asks for you to assist God by describing what your vision of Heaven on Earth would be and then it goes on to list the actions necessary to create this vision. What would your response to God be?
For most of us who were raised in one of the Abrahamic traditions, especially Christianity, our beliefs and theology are centered around the idea that heaven and earth were separate places. Our belief system teaches that our whole purpose in life is to get to heaven. We are here so we can go there. We have developed a system of prayer and ritual centered on helping us go somewhere else. Everything we do, whether it be prayer, justice or charity is good only insofar as it helps us get to heaven. Promoting injustice, racism, allowing children to go hungry, destroying the environment is wrong, not because of the hurt and harm it causes on the poor and marginalized and on creation, but rather because it separates us from God and keeps us from heaven. The 14th century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas believed that it is morally wrong to be cruel to animals, but his rationale to speak out against cruelty to animals was that such cruelty, if gone unchecked, would make it easier for a person to develop a moral character in which they would be more inclined to express cruelty to human beings, leading to greater separation from God. Aquinas believed that created things are made by God for the sole purpose of leading us to God.
This hasn’t always been the way with Christianity. When Christianity started it was a revolutionary movement promoting a different way of living. Jesus gave us a vision of creating heaven on Earth around the idea that all our actions should be centered around the common good. A vision that St Francis of Assisi would describe 1300 years later as a paradigm that seeks total ecological integrity. St. Francis did not separate the spiritual world from the material world. He viewed the Earth and all nature as a place of continual incarnation. Brian McLaren writes, in his book We Make the Road by Walking: “It was a peace movement, a love movement, a joy movement, a justice movement, an integrity movement, an aliveness movement.”
Somewhere in the 3rd and 4th centuries the beautiful message of love through the incarnation and the oneness of all creation got lost. It was replaced with a message of sin, separation, individual salvation and substitutionary atonement. Our rituals and prayers became centered on worshiping at the foot of the cross instead of, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 16:24 “Take up your cross and follow me.” Everything Jesus did or said was superfluous to him carrying out his predetermined role to be sacrificed on the cross for our sins. Christianity moved away from a system of oneness with God and being in relationship with all creation. We stopped trying to, with God, create heaven on Earth and instead focused everything on going to heaven.
As Dr. Ilia Delio OSF wrote in her book Re- Enchanting the Earth: “In Christianity the space of God was politicized. Jesus of Nazareth was a mystic and prophet who lived from a deep inner center of God and in the freedom of creative love. While his message bore hope for a renewed community of life, the church developed along political and patriarchal lines.” We discovered it was so much easier to worship at the foot of the cross than to take up our cross.
We live our lives in a way so we can go to heaven when we die without really thinking about where we are actually going or what heaven will be like. I once heard a preacher describe heaven as being like a continuous never ending Sunday service where we will constantly be praising and worshiping God. I have to admit that sounded more like hell to me than heaven. As New Testament scholar Paula Gooder writes: “it is impossible to state categorically what the Bible as a whole says about heaven… Biblical beliefs about heaven are varied, complex and fluid.” People have written books on whether you will see your dog in heaven. We are taught that we will be reunited with our loved ones, assuming they also have been good and prayed the right way. This leads to that great theological debate. If I am married and my wife dies and a few years later, I fall in love and get married again, when I die, with which wife will I be reunited?
Before we started to grasp the vastness of the cosmos we were taught that heaven was up in the sky. Perhaps a scene from a B-rated Ben Affleck movie ‘Live By Night’ is the best description of heaven. In the movie, Affleck plays a 20’s gangster in Tampa. He befriends a charismatic woman evangelist. Affleck asked her about heaven and her response was maybe this is heaven and we are [screwing] it all up.
If we are going to create this new Earth where would we even start? We have been so focused on getting to heaven that we have forgotten how to imagine what heaven on Earth might look like. In Revelation 21 it says: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” Perhaps the time has come for this new heaven and new earth. Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest, wrote in The Dream of the Earth: “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.” Our sacred stories are told from a historical perspective. They are events that happened centuries ago written by people whose vision was limited by their understanding of the universe and all that it contained at that point in time. We need to re-imagine our sacred stories away from the sin/atonement/redemption/ salvation model. As Pierre Teilhard, the Jesuit Priest, Theologian, and Scientist, taught us our sacred story cannot be separate from our cosmic evolutionary story. They are one and the same. To create a new Earth we have to start with a story of oneness and interconnectedness not separation. The 14th century Franciscan philosopher theologian John Duns Scotus taught us about the absolute uniqueness of every act of creation. Every creature is not just a member of a certain species, but a unique aspect of the infinite Mystery of God. Every aspect of creation is both a unique Sacred story and through our interconnectedness with God and all creation we are part of the Sacred Story. In a recent article, Social Justice without Cosmic Theology is Blind, Dr. Ilia Delio, OSF writes “God liberates when God becomes fully alive in the human person and in creation. If we want a different world then we must become a different people.”
While I am not quite sure what heaven on earth would look like, I am pretty confident of what it will not be. There will not be 18,000 children dying each day from starvation and hunger related diseases. There will not be young children forced to work in sweatshops so others can buy cheap clothes and corporations can make billions of dollars. People won’t be judged and discriminated against because of their skin color or sexuality. Our first step is to come together and imagine. Get together with a small group of friends and talk about every moment being a God-ing moment. Awaken to the idea that evolution is not just about physical change but spiritual transformation. As Thomas Berry said “We will go into the future as a single sacred community or we will both perish in the desert.”
Peace and All Good
This article was originally written for Trends.We and posted here with permission of the author.