by Douglas S Johnson
Christ's conception of Christianity was heavens removed from that of a man setting out from the City of Destruction to save his own soul. It was rather that of a man dwelling amidst the Destructions of the City and planning escapes for the souls of others escapes not to the other world, but to purity and peace and righteousness in this one.
John Dewey wrote often of what he saw as religion's fatal flaw: that it causes a critical split between the "spiritual" and the "real" earthly life by portraying the spiritual realm as an experience of static perfection and the temporal life as a state of hopelessly tainted experience (and thus something to be shunned and eschewed for some indefinite future with God). There is nothing in all of this to better the human condition, Dewey insisted, and, in fact, it does damage to people who try to embrace these fundamentalist principles in that it forever postpones real living in lieu of someday attaining the "sweet by and by," if one can simply grit one's teeth long enough and somehow more or less honorably make it out of this "vale of tears" (even if the afterlife is static, changeless, and boring).
Limiting the scope of the present essay to Christianity, it might be said that Dewey's complaints should be lain not before the Christ-ian teachings themselves, but rather at the feet of what might be termed "Christian religionists," strict doctrinalists and overweening intellectuals who do, in fact, lift in importance rite, ritual, and dogma over and above that which transpires in the everyday life, thus elevating abstract "spirituality" and subjugating "base" world experience.
It is all too easy to find persons even zealots who are "Christian" in form but not Christian in content, academics and soured negativists who "hate the world," "buffet the flesh," and wish only to climb into their ivory towers of sterilized "spirituality," safe from earthly peril and change. Ironically, this is the very sort of thing Christ constantly fought against in his ministry, as when he chastised the Pharisees and Saducees, those who cared very much for the law and very little for the life that surrounded them.
Heaven and hell are here, no matter how they do or do not continue to exist after this present life.
The true Christian religion, as presented by its founder, is dynamic and fluid and therefore is no place for religionists, dogmatists, and doctrinalists who would commit the sin that Dewey (and Christ himself) rightly disdained. At its heart, and from its very beginnings, Christianity has been a liberal, revolutionary system of living, and this is true in the main because living in total love of everyone and total acceptance of every life circumstance is quite daring and precarious itself. It shatters conservatism, fear, and prejudice from the outset, and anyone who still holds to these corrupting elements cannot, in fact, fully claim the name "Christian," but must settle for some watered-down "religionist" hybrid. Herein, I would like to put forth three points to support this idea.
1) Jesus was, in fact, of this world. It is profoundly unfortunate that the Greek Aristotelian/Platonic idea concerning the separation of the "pure" intellect and the "base" corporeal self was absorbed by early Christians ("pure spirit" simply replacing "pure intellect"). "Be not of this world" is a phrase put forth quite often by jaded, dualistic doctrinalists, but it is not properly interpreted as "hate the body and the physical realm." Where else might good and noble acts, even if they are first conceived in the mind or spirit, be played out? Rather, it referred to the tendency of the society of Christ's day (and particularly the religionists) to be self-righteous and abusive with the powers and goods of the temporal realm. Thus, the abuses of the world are to be eschewed and condemned, not the world itself, which was pronounced good by God on the first day.
It must always be recognized that Christ presented his system of work and belief in a very pragmatic way, in what might even be called a "humanistic" way, for while he spoke often of a heaven and a hell, he was also emphatic about the kingdom "lying within" each individual believer, that is, that heaven and hell were what people made of their own lives right here on this earthly plane, as they lived. Christ was also constantly concerned with the temporal existence of others and entered into their lives in dynamic and miraculous ways; he did not tell the leper or the woman with the issue of blood, "Go away and be not concerned with your health or your body, for they are unimportant," but rather healed them, knowing the body as the only possible conduit for doing good and putting forth a positive example for others.
He fed the hungry and even recognized the necessity for having enough good wine at a wedding feast. In fact, if we call Christ "the embodiment of the Word," we must inevitably see him as being innately interested in physical matters and the changing human affairs in society; thus, we must also view him as a healer of the illusory split between the temporal and the spiritual. Otherwise, the incarnation was a waste, and the physical Jesus himself but a useless caricature with little more appeal than a fictional character in a sci-fi novel.
2) The ministry of Jesus was never about spiritual economics. Again, though Christ spoke occasionally of the final outcome of our actions, words, and thoughts, the heaven or hell we made of our own existence, his focus was always on how these things affected those living the earthly life. He did not dangle ethereal heaven like a carrot or wield flaming hell like a fiery whip; such would have made him nothing more than a metaphysical merchant, an eternal-life insurance salesman. This is what makes propositions like "Pascal's wager" (that belief in God is a statistically wiser choice than disbelief) so distasteful to anyone who really thinks about them. How committed to good is the person who merely lives a certain way and professes a certain faith because it has the best odds (in the religionist's mind, anyway) of securing a comfy gig in the afterlife? Such a person would flip-flop in a minute upon learning that the true God was not benevolent after all and that doing evil was what would get him into heaven. It's all based in fear and threat and the promise of the easy way out. Christ was never about such things. There was no escapism in his approach but, rather, a "God's will be done on Earth" attitude, even when death and suffering awaited as a result.
Christians may debate the uncertain afterlife at length, supposedly proving this or that in regard to it, yet if we but look around us, it becomes clear that heaven and hell are here, no matter how they do or do not continue to exist after this present life. Maybe there is no afterlife. Should it matter in regard to how we live and conduct ourselves? To gamblers and spiritual economists, maybe, but not to the true Christian. Let it be here and forward assumed that doing good, loving others, and working productively in this life is heaven itself (isn't it, really, for the sincere aspirant?). Then, if there is something else when this is all over, we can think about it and deal with it when the time comes.
3) The physical and the spiritual are intimately connected. Ultimately, it must be seen that religion itself cannot exist without the physical realm. Even all the sins and virtues are based in corporeal reality: lust and constancy, theft and charity, murder and self-sacrifice. In fact, one ultimately wonders if God could exist adequately without human beings and the physical life. It does not take much stretching of our imagination to posit that the Infinite needs the finite in order to find goodly expression, that it is through the dynamics of the physical universe, and through humanity itself, that the divine "What" becomes the divine "Who."
The earth, the whirling galaxies, and human consciousness and thought are what give an otherwise formless and amorphous deity personality and vitality. Thus, how could anyone contend that Christianity, and even theism itself, is not intimately connected with the physical world and with what happens in it? Who could say that what we do here on Earth, every day of our lives, is detached from our spirituality, or that our spirituality, and even God's own being, lies not in those very acts themselves?
At last, the Christian faith is inevitably forward-moving and evolving to meet each new circumstance of living. True and living Christianity is much more about moral self-direction in each of life's precarious and changing circumstances than about merely adhering strictly to rules chiseled in granite because "authority" dictates that it must be so. (Christ himself healed a man on the Sabbath day, a gross violation of Jewish law, in part to demonstrate the hypocrisy of religious inflexibility, a brand of "spirituality" that paradoxically, and by way of its rigidity, becomes a very real kind of carnality.)
It may seem ironic to some, but the self-directive nature of Christianity does not mean less in the way of personal responsibility, but rather more. Trying to face each new moment with gentleness, love, and insight takes much more in the way of effort and integrity than simply avoiding the performance of a certain deed in fear of a stoning, and in some cases, it means breaking a rule for the sake of the good. Life is a moving, vital, and perilous thing, full of moral hairpin turns and close calls. Hence, living the Christian life is much more like diamondback skiing than it is about simply picking a firm piece of dirt and standing one's ground.
In this way, being a Christian is not a holding of a certain belief, but rather an active doing with it. John Dewey wrote concerning the philosophy of pragmatic living: "the ends which are attained are no longer of a merely biological character, but include also the ends and activities of other members of society." If this is restated as "the ends which are attained are no longer of a merely 'spiritual' or doctrinal character," one has a beginning idea of the goals of a true Christianity. The reign of Christ does not lie in ruins like an ancient relic, nor is it an unreachable futuristic utopia; rather, it exists in the present, a growing and accessible structure erected in the human heart. With such a thought in mind, let us begin to construct heaven out of the boards and nails of the here and now.