Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Kingdom of Faith

What is it that captures your allegiance more than anything else? Is it a homeland, a political geography, a flag? Maybe you are an idealist and prefer to stand by principles or a favorite author. Perhaps you’d rather stick with what you know and trust personally – your allegiance is to your own judgment.

Or maybe, just maybe - out of all the people you respect and befriend - someone stands above the others in your estimation and respect. Maybe your highest loyalty is to a person.

In the next few paragraphs I hope to convince you (if you need to be convinced) that this is the highest form of allegiance. Not everyone will agree – especially these days. Who, after all, is worthy of our highest respect? “You can’t trust anybody anymore,” we often hear ourselves complain.

Our modern decision-making instincts aren’t very helpful in this regard either. Prime-time news channels make sure to let us know how balanced they are by endorsing nobody or nothing in particular (at least overtly). Everybody has some sort of flaw. And if someone shows up with a strong opinion, she will always be held up to public judgment. That’s just what happens in democracies.

How on earth, then, can I argue that it is better to stand behind someone than something? Or that it is even a good idea to profess loyalty to anybody at all?

I have three witnesses. For starters let me quote Chesterton in a statement he made about art and the artistic pursuit of beauty: “nothing is perfect,” he said, “unless it is personal.”

The greatest works of art, it is true, are about people. In literature, the Bible, The Brothers Karamazov, Les Miserables, and so many other great works are about people. The most important paintings of all time have all dwelt with people. Yes there are masterpieces in still life, of abstract subjects, or of landscapes. But individual human beings are the great subjects and always will be.

As a young boy without many resources at Christmastime, I was always a little discouraged with the kinds of presents I could find for my family. Gratefully I accepted the advice of my parents that a hand-made item would mean more to them than an expensive gift purchased from a store. I thought they were just being nice. After all, every boy knows that a new bike is much preferred to anything that a family member might make. But I didn’t complain.

Years later I was surprised when we cleaned out our garage before moving. After boxing up tools, sweeping the floor, and clearing items off of shelves I was surprise to find one of my drawings. It was an animal scene that I had made for my father years earlier. It was of a meadow scene, and it was proudly positioned on the wall. The quality of the artwork was not all that impressive – certainly not something to be framed for the living room. But the pride of my father was obvious, and I began to realize that maybe he did like my personalized presents to him the most.
This was a comforting realization for a boy that wasn’t a social butterfly – who never felt comfortable in large groups. In fact, it took me quite a while to realize just how significant personal interactions are in other areas of my life. I have always insisted that I would rather eat by myself than spend two hours prolonging a business meal in order to be sociable. And when it comes to parties or other social gatherings, I prefer staying at home with a book in my reading chair.

Even so, I have learned that I enjoy eating a meal with somebody I really like more than eating alone. And if I know that a good friend will be at a party, I am eager to attend. It just depends on who I happen to be with. This may seem a bit paradoxical: that a social misfit will admit to the primacy of the personal. But I assure you that it is real.

Today our political leaders are rarely loved. We support them for their record of public service and because they may represent our point of view. But, for the most part, we don’t even know them. The loyalty we offer them is only a vague sentiment. If our candidate loses an election we hardly ever feel sorry for him personally. We feel sorry for ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In local communities, and especially in local religious congregations, many leaders are actually loved. And our loyalty to them is very often genuine. We compliment them, send them messages, and we even pray for them. Even with a life-full of imperfections, there are people that we still trust.

My second witness is John Henry Newman. In his Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford, he writes that revealed religion stands above natural religion, “training us to be subjects of a kingdom, not citizens of a Stoic republic.”

Newman’s point is a sad but poignant one. Philosophy, in the end, isn’t enough to ground us spiritually. “A mere moral strain of teaching duty and enforcing obedience fails in persuading us to practice, not because it appeals to conscience, and commands and threatens, but because it does not urge and illustrate virtue in the Name and by the example of our blessed Lord.”

We watch the best philosophers argue for utilitarian or universal standards, using measure of truth in human averages or physical laws. Sadly, even suicide itself becomes a reasonable response to an ultimately amoral world that taunts the human presumption and cry for meaning. If our spiritual needs are to have any real significance, it becomes obvious that they will not be coming from our many philosophies. Efforts to direct a life on both Christian and Darwinian principles can only lead to madness. Clearly, we are better off seeking a virtuous leader than a faulty philosophy.

I know I am getting on thin ice here. After all, we Americans are convinced that enlightenment philosophy (as translated into our national Constitution) has produced the best possible form of governance. The fact that our Constitution is the oldest written constitution in the world would seem to confirm this belief. I am not denying this.

But our national Constitution allows our diverse population to co-exist because of compromise. Our many beliefs and cultures (not to mention our many levels of virtuous commitment) require a document that can give and take on important issues. It is an inspired document.

But compromise does not ultimately satisfy our deepest spiritual needs. Compromise is no more satisfying than a reasoned philosophy. It may help in the short term, but it remains a shadowy solution. In the end we do not wish to live forever in a world of gray.

We seek a kingdom because we believe that real virtue can (and does) exist. Maybe we have come to permanently doubt the list of candidates endlessly posting their signs in our neighbors’ yards. Our suspicions of human nature are legitimate. In fact we may have lost faith that a human being might ever achieve real virtue.

But then once in a while we see a true example and our faith returns. Even if, in our idealism, we no longer esteem anybody completely; there is one personal example (and this is my third witness) that demands our personal allegiance. It is the example of Christ.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” (John 14:6). Jesus doesn’t tell His disciples that if they keep the commandments, they will be guaranteed a place in heaven. He tells them that if they love him, they will keep His commandments (John 14:15). The ultimate measure is not a laundry list for forensic living. It is our love and faith in the Master himself.
It is valuable to remember here that the word believe goes back to an old English word be-love. Sadly we have lost this important personal sense of what faith is all about. It is to be based in a loving person, not in an abstract principle.

There is good reason that the eternal realm is called the Kingdom of Heaven. This place of wonder (of our ultimate dreams) is not just mentioned once or twice in a forgotten verse of scripture. The Kingdom of Heaven (and the Kingdom of God) takes center stage in Christian holy writ.

It is a compound word. The first syllable is king - obviously referring to a regal being. The second is dom referring to a legal jurisdiction. The word, itself, has come to be most frequently thought of as a place. In a religious sense it has become the place of our anticipated eternal home.

But this emphasis is wrong. It has always been intended that the focus be on the King and not the place. Who knows what heaven is even like? Why are we so preoccupied by a place we know so little about? By contrast we know a great deal about its Ruler – the King. He lived here once, and we have a record of the things He said and did. He has been involved in our own lives and in our many histories. We can come to know Him. In fact coming to know Him is what the eternities are all about. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3).

It is said that there are bits and pieces of heaven all around us. “Home can be a heaven on earth” we sing with our children. And maybe we do love the place where we live. Or maybe we feel like we don’t belong. Perhaps we keep hoping for a better world. So be it.

My advice is to forget about the perfect place, and think instead about its King. The place is far away. But the Ruler is willing to join us here, even if His kingdom is not of this world.


Chesterton’s quote come from The Everlasting Man (page 104 of my soft-bound edition from Ignacius Press). Newman’s quote is from Sermon II (The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively) in Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford. My copy is the Longmans, Green, and Co., 1900.

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