We live in modernity, the source of all evil, according to some. I’m the sort of grumpy curmudgeon who thinks everything was better before the modern era, by which I mean the last 500 years.
This clearly isn’t true. Antibiotics, for one, are a gift we would not want to give up! What is true is that the current age had a particular set of challenges that are different to those of ages before ours; that the digital revolution in 2007 has changed the world in innumerable ways we have not even counted, let alone fathomed; and that there is something hostile to Christianity in our specific cultural moment.
Yet, if we look around at people’s desires and attempts to change the world we see that much of what people desire looks something like the kingdom of God.
Let me give you some examples:
After reading my post on acedia several friends sent me this New York Times piece on ‘languishing,’ which seems to be talking about essentially the same phenomenon. I rolled my eyes at the need to define a new term for something when there are rich resources in the great tradition for us to draw on, but what else did I expect? The nature of liberalism, and for now at least the NYT remains staunchly liberal, is to with dewy eyes reinvent the wheel. I get that there’s no gain when writing to a largely progressive audience to appeal to the great tradition, but it irks me.
(For the sake of clarity, I am using the term liberalism to mean liberalism, rather than to mean ‘left-wing’ as is probably more common in discourse).
It’s exactly the same approach that made everyone declare the Covid-19 pandemic ‘unprecedented’ until it became true by its repetition. Unprecedented in your lifetime, maybe.
The follow-up to that piece outlined ways to ‘flourish’ instead of ‘languish’. Broadly speaking they outlined the Sermon on the Mount.
At the same time the Guardian had this wonderful post-pandemic idea of inventing ‘lockdown days’. As numerous respondents on Twitter pointed out, they’d ‘invented’ humanity’s oldest law, the Sabbath.
There’s a reason we keep seeing things that look a little bit like the kingdom, and there’s a reason they don’t look as good.
Mark Sayers describes our cultural moment using the words Elizabeth Jacobi spoke about Hungary, that it’s “a kingdom without a king”.
There’s something innate within us that longs for our home, the place that we were made for. We long for a land in which we are truly at home, where rest comes easy and tears never start. We long for a land of comfort, of productive work, of simple justice, and neighbourly friendship.
It’s not wrong to want this, because it’s the kingdom of heaven. It’s not surprising that we keep trying to reinvent politically what needs to descend from the clouds. It’s not surprising that there’s an essential rightness to attempts that move in the direction of the place we’re made for.
And it’s not surprising that they never work.
Kingdoms without kings cannot remain as kingdoms. Inevitably they will become something else. Power vacuums must be filled, and sinful humans cannot fill them well.
Here are four suggestions for how we should think and react to our failed attempts to reforge the crown.
We need to spot these attempts.
It is helpful to see them for what they are, and then name them with their true names. Point out where the Bible or the Christian tradition first invented the idea, and how they envisage it being done better.
We should commend the good, wanting the goals of the kingdom is good. We should point out where it will fail, which kingdom-building attempts by other kings always will. We should redirect to our rich political theology. Don’t play the liberal game of assuming a neutral public square, we have authentically Christian solutions to offer.
The kingdom is created by the return of Christ
We must always know that the kingdom cannot be fully inaugurated without Christ’s return, and even our very best attempts will be flawed before then. We must always stress the need to respond to Christ’s kingship to further bring the kingdom into the world.
At the same time, this shouldn’t stop us from building things.
The kingdom is coming into being now.
The kingdom is being inaugurated. We usually talk about this in terms of Spirit gifts, it’s why we see some healing, but not everyone is healed. It’s equally true when thinking of the church as a political entity, the kingdom is coming into being.
Which is to say, we should build things. We can work to establish outposts and glimmers of the coming land of rest. Our mission is not to just grow the church numerically, but in depth, which will include affecting the world around us.
The kingdom starts in the church.
Which means two things: Firstly, that we learn how to do these things in the church first before taking them into the world.
Secondly, that we should expect authentically Christian political solutions.
We live in a world which loves the idea of the kingdom and hates the reality. We are a long way from Christian states which, in flawed ways, build nations in the direction of the kingdom of God. Most likely we will need to build our own Christian institutions at local levels for some generations to come, demonstrating that the work of the kingdom is more effective at some of the ends our neighbours’ desire.
It will be hard and thankless work, working for a generation beyond ourselves. But, I suspect, deeply worth it.
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