Monday, January 04, 2010

Seeking the Celestial City

"Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.”
     - Sir Walter Raleigh (“The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage”)

For some time now, Nancy and I have been discussing our growing sense of alienation with “the things of this world.” The abiding life theme coming from those discussions has been that our shared pilgrimages have a way to go. We see the “celestial city” less dimly than we did a quarter of a century ago, but we recognize that our vision is still dimmed by the temporal realities that so often dominate our lives. This begs the question for us. How can we truly learn to be “in, but not of, the world?”

As Christians, we have learned that a substantial part of our historical narrative is the shared story of aliens and strangers looking for a city they had neither built nor seen. As we gaze back through time we see the panoply of fellow travelers who preceded us. There was Noah. There was Abraham, who left one of the most vibrant cultures in the early world to seek the city Nancy and I now see dimly in the distance. There was Moses, who traded the wealth of Egypt for a pilgrimage in the wilderness with God’s liberated slaves. As we hear the names called we see human weakness in all its glory. We see a prostitute, a coward in hiding, a self-absorbed strong man, and a repentant adulterer. We see the prophets who set trumpets to their mouths only to be stoned for the words of warning they proclaimed.

These are the citizens of our homeland.

Through all the tribulations in life these men and women saw life through a common prism – faith! They chose alienation from the familiar and safe for a promise they never saw fulfilled on the earthly side of their journeys. And it is that prism through which we too must see our lives and our times.

As we proceed on our respective journeys we see what they saw long ago. The road we must travel is difficult, littered with the age-old temptations to stay earth-bound and proceed no further than our culture will allow. Moses experienced it when Pharaoh responded to God’s demand for liberation with the telling words, “You can go, but don’t go too far.” So do we.

One of the great lessons of history is that even the greatest of cultures are imbued with curses as well as blessings. Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome could boast of power, wealth, philosophy, art, law, and human progress. But theirs was also the story of barbarity, corruption, and unbridled evil. Empires rose, full of promise, only to descend into madness. Another would supplant it. In time the cycle would repeat itself. Our fathers in faith saw this and refused to give in to the temptation of becoming earth bound. They sought something better.

Ah, but we’re Americans. We’re different. We’re the people of the “New Frontier” and the “City on the Hill.” We’re “the last best hope of earth.”

This, I think, is the great American curse. It’s the temptation to which far too many Christians have fallen prey. We’ve all too often succumbed to the false notion that America is our final destination. Richard John Neuhaus recently wrote of this phenomenon and its accompanying tension and asked whether, for the Christian, America may be more Bablyon than it is the New Jerusalem we’ve falsely thought it was, or hoped it would be:

“The title American Babylon will likely puzzle, and even offend, some readers. There is in America a strong current of Christian patriotism in which “God and country’ falls trippingly from the tongue. Indeed, God and country are sometimes conflated in a single allegiance that permits no tension, never mind conflict, between the two.”

There’s a tension at play here. We live in one world. We seek, or should be seeking, another. In the third century Tertullian asked the question – “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” In our time should that question be – “What has Babylon to do with the New Jerusalem we seek?”

Is this all a matter of just splitting hairs? I think not. The tension is as real as my American citizenship and the sense of love, duty, and patriotism I feel for my country. I realize that I’ve been a partner to freedom, privilege, and wealth that few in history have had. I am an American. But, the sense of alienation I feel in my little corner of Babylon is also as real as the dynamics of the new city I seek. As I read the accounts of those who have preceded me in faith I also understand that my Babylon carries its curses as well. America is no different in that regard than any other empire in history. The children of Israel had their taskmasters. So do we! This new age is not immune. As C.S. Lewis once observed:

“What assurance have we that our masters will or can keep the promise which induced us to sell ourselves? Let us not be deceived by phrases about ‘Man taking charge of his own destiny’. All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others. They will be simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel and dishonest. The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?”

Can we escape the tension? I think not. About the best we can do is give moral voice to our concerns, live in peace with others as much as it is possible, realize that our narratives are linked historically to a different homeland and people, and to learn to sing the song of Zion in a foreign land. That seems like so little. Perhaps so. But if we give in to the temptation to make Babylon our permanent abode we fall prey to the false notion that we have the capacity to create heaven on earth. Once we give in to that delusion it may only be a matter of time before we stir the stagnant water, see ourselves mirrored there, and worship what we see.

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