The Kingdom of Heaven?
One of the oddest things I have noticed in recent years is just how many of the prosecutors I respect and admire have strong religious convictions. More than one has announced after a trial that they will be praying me. I have assembled a nice library of gifts from these folks. I suppose I ask for the material. I wear my fascination with historic figure of Jesus on my sleeve. Give me a scent of your take on the divine, and expect questions.
But I am a man of unclean lips. I cannot even say "I believe, help though my unbelief." When a prosecutor intones about the law as an instrument of grace, I smell deceit. I know enough New Testament theology and history to smell heresy. I am with Saint Augustine: The City of God and the City of Men are two separate and distinct entities. The law is not about the care of souls. We sort bodies out here in this earthly kingdom; how one squares the events of a life lived well or poorly with the claims of God or conscience is not my vocation. I mistrust any group claiming a monopoly, or even privileged access, to righteousness. A state cloaked in righteousness is a dangerous thing.
I say all this but I cannot take my eyes of the scant record about the life of Jesus. In a silent universe, I find myself wishing for the resonance of the divine. I envy Saul of Tarsus and his blinding confrontation on the road to Damascus. Even Jacob's broken hip can fill me with envy. Things are quiet in my world.
I stumbled upon the works of Bart Ehrman recently by listening to a course on New Testament studies offered by Yale University on I-Tunes University. I've read his textbook, and last night finished his take on the historic Jesus: Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium. Ehrman makes a good case that the Nazarene expected the Kingdom of Heaven to arrive before the death of his apostles. This apocalyptic sense that the end was immanent was a deep-rooted feature of early Palestine: How had God's chosen people come to be subject to foreign domination for some 800 years? There is a tragic element to Old Testament history. A chosen people forever apologyzing for their subjugation by more powerful neighbors. I read this history with a sense of kinship: Don't we all live amid the hope and expecation that our lives will never end, but knowing, at least in some fearful sense, that we all owe nature a death? The prophet's call appeals.
So I watch an author's rendering of the Kingdom of Heaven, clearly Jesus' central message, with rapt fascination: the Kingdom was coming, was present, was immanent, was destiny. But what, exactly, does all this mean?
Ehrman's portrtaint of Jesus is bold: "Far from transforming society from within, Jesus was preparing people for the destruction of society. Only when God's Kingdom arrived would an entirely new order appear, in which peace, equality, and justice would reign supreme. This Kingdom, though, would not arrive through the implementation of new social programs." Several millennia later, we know to a moral certainty that this expectation of the Kingdom to come was misplaced. We stumble still amid a vale of tears, often as not looking for hope in all the wrong places. The state, one of our grandest of illusions, cannot promise the Kingdom and justice, rightsousness and peace. But what if justice never comes?
That is certainly Freud's great question in The Future of an Illusion: What if, Freud asks, our fondest hopes and aspirations are merely the product of irrational hope in the face of a world that is too hard for candor?
Ehrman argues persuasively in favor of his view of an apocalyptic, but mistaken, Jesus. I understand the argument. What I cannot explain is why this itinerant Jewish preacher is an historic figure I cannot shake. Longing for the Kingdom of Heaven was not peculiar to the ancient Near East. We long still, or at least I do. It is a longing that is irrantional, impossible to satisfy, and irresistable.