The human condition is one of labour, glory, dust and death. It is one of constant incongruity between human dreams and dignity, on the one hand, and human realities, on the other. We are incarnate and finite beings, trailing clouds of over-aspiration and ragged incompleteness. When our ‘spirituality’ disconnects from the natural contexts and relationships that are always there nevertheless, one of the chief signs of what is happening is that we lose our ability to laugh.
Laughter is the automatic human response to incongruity, and incongruity is never lacking from the human scene, no matter how far advanced we may be into the kingdom. It is indelibly imprinted on our finiteness. There will be lots of laughter in heaven, you can be sure, as well as joy, for our finiteness will always remain.
Without will, we would have no life that is recognisably human.
We have from the Christian left, after all, just another gospel of sin management, but one whose substance is provided by Western (American) social and political ideals of human existence in a secular world.
Confusing God with his historical manifestations in space may have caused some to think that God is a Wizard-of-Oz or Sistine-Chapel kind of being sitting at a location very remote from us. This universe is then presented as, chiefly, a vast empy space with a humanoid God and a few angels rattling around in it, while several billion human beings crawl through the tiny cosmic interval of human history on an oversized clod of dirt circling an insignificant star. Of such a “god” we can only say, “Good riddance!” It seems that when many people try to pray they do have such an image of God in their minds. They therefore find praying psychologically impossible or extremely difficult. No wonder. But the response to this mistake has led many to say that God is not in space at all, not that “old man in the sky” but instead is “in” the human heart. And that sounds nice, but it really does not help. “In my heart” easily becomes “in my imagination.” And, in any case, the question of God’s relation to space and the physical world remains unresolved. If he is not in space at all, he is not in human life, which is lived in space. Those vast oceans of “empty space” just sit there glowering at the human “heart” realm where God has, supposedly, taken refuge from science and the real word. This ill-advised attempt to make God near by confining him to human hearts robs the idea of his direct involvement in human life in any sense. Ironically it has much the same effect as putting God in outer space or beyond. It gives us a pretty metaphor but leaves us vainly grasping reality. We simply cannot solve the problem of the spirit’s relation to space by taking spirit out of space, either beyond space or “in the heart.”
I assume that God has been willing and competent to arrange for the Bible, including its record of Jesus, to emerge and be preserved in ways that will secure his purposes for it among human beings worldwide. Those who actually believe in God will be untroubled by this. I assume that he did not and would not leave his message to humankind in a form that can only be understood by a handful of late-twentieth century professional scholars, who cannot even agree among themselves.
Moreover, Jesus’ words to Thomas remain true: “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” Indeed they are blessed! And not because that shows some meritorious exertion or commitment on their part. Rather, it is because the most important things in our human lives are nearly always things that are invisible. That is even true without special reference to God. People who cannot believe without seeing are desperately limited in all their relationships.
All the natural relationships of life – to family, classmates, co-workers, neighbours and even those in the political and artistic and intellectual realms – are very good in themselves, when taken rightly. They too are essential to life together in the kingdom. We must seek our spirituality in them. Purely ‘spiritual’ relationships with others would, therefore, be dangerous at best, for they are inherently false to the human condition.
We often speak of people not living up to their faith. But the cases in which we say this are not really cases of people behaving otherwise than they believe. They are cases in which genuine beliefs are made obvious by what people do. We always live up to our beliefs – or down to them, as the case may be. Nothing else is possible. It is the nature of belief. And the reason why clergy and others have to invest so much effort into getting people to do things is that they are working against the actual beliefs of the people they are trying to lead.
One of the things that has most obstructed the path of discipleship in our Christian culture today is this idea that it will be a terribly difficult thing that will certainly ruin your life. A typical and often-told story in Christian circles is of those who have refused to surrender their lives to god for fear he would “send them to Africa as missionaries”.
I know that, as far as forgiveness alone is concerned, the tenderness of God is far greater than we will ever understand on earth or perhaps elsewhere. That is surely what it means to say that he gave his unique Son to die on our behalf. I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it. But “standing it” may prove to be a more difficult matter than those who take their view of heaven from popular movies or popular preaching may think. The fires in heaven may be hotter than those in the other place.
And at present – in the distant outworkings of the Protestant Reformation, with its truly great and good message of salvation by faith alone – that long-accepted division [faith vs. works] has worked its way into the very heart of the gospel message. It is now understood to be a part of the “good news” that one does not have to be a life student of Jesus in order to be a Christan and receive forgiveness of sins. This gives a precise meaning to the phrase “cheap grace,” though it would be better described as “costly faithlessness”.