Reflections on J. Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth (Baker Academic, 2014)
Presented at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association, May 31 in Ottawa
“This changes everything.”
That is how Richard Middleton closed his talk at the 2015 Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh. Having presented a stunning lecture focusing on four New Testament texts demonstrating the holistic eschatology presented in his book, A New Heaven and a New Earth, Richard boldly proclaimed that if this eschatology is true, then “this changes everything.”
My students this semester at the University of Toronto came to the same conclusion. About three weeks into our discussion of Richard’s book, there was a moment in class when it dawned on everyone in the room. This changes everything.
Once you ‘repent of heaven,’ (p. 237) as Richard calls us to do; once you abandon as unbiblical the notion of heaven as the eternal destiny of believers; once you see that such a vision “has no structural place in the [biblical] story” because it is “simply irrelevant and extraneous to the plot,” (p. 71) well, this changes everything. With the collapse of the hegemony of this unbiblical eschatology, pretty much everything in the ‘Great Tradition’ collapses with it. Everything that hangs on the dualistic distortion that gave us an unbiblical heaven theology – from the hierarchical structures of the church, to the establishment of a sacred caste of Christians called the ‘ordained,’ to cathedral architecture that mirrors the heaven/earth, sacred/secular dualism, to a ubiquitous spirituality of ascent– all of this must either collapse or be radically deconstructed. The church’s understanding of her mission and calling in the world, her prayer life and the songs that she sings must all be changed.
This changes everything, and while Richard is not the first to call for such a radical reorientation of Christian hope, he has provided us with the most substantial and in-depth biblical theology of holistic eschatology that we have seen.
For my students the book was both liberating and disorienting. Liberating because it provided the kind of biblical scholarship that they needed to set them free from a bifurcated worldview that is, for them, unfruitful, alienating and downright embarrassing. “Finally,” I could hear them and so many others say, “the last nail has been put in the coffin of this eschatology that doesn’t really know anything about resurrection.”
And yet this is also disorienting. If we repent of heaven, then what do we do with the word? What happens to ‘heaven’ in our pious discourse? Indeed, what is the nature of a non-heavenly directed piety? What do we say at the deathbed of a loved one? Do we strip folks of the language of ‘going-to-heaven-when-I-die’ if it is so comforting? What are we going to do with our hymnody? Every week there are heaven references in the songs we sing at church. Do we repent of singing these songs – traditional hymns and contemporary praise choruses alike?
But there is an even deeper way in which all of this is both liberating and disorienting. Early in the book, Richard tells us that when folks get to talking about their understanding of Christian faith, including eschatology, “the elephant in the room” is cultural concreteness. All of this theological talk–even when it explicitly insists upon the connection of the gospel and culture–seems to be ethereal, somehow removed from the concreteness of real “cultural and social meanings, artifacts and institutions.” (p. 23) And what is liberating about Richard’s book is that it seeks to shape a “substantive vision that could guide significant action in the world.” “Ethics is lived eschatology,” (p. 24) he writes , and “redeemed human beings, renewed in God’s image, are to work toward and embody this vision in their daily lives.” (p. 27) Herein is liberation.
But how? Once Richard has so powerfully and evocatively offered us such a holistic eschatological vision, we are left yearning for concreteness, longing for an indication of what this lived eschatology looks like in our real lives at the end of modernity, in the face of catastrophic climate change, in the waning of the American empire, in the violence of post-colonial terrorism, the injustice of the gilded age of global capitalism, the dismantling of the common good, and the increasing irrelevance at best and total accommodation at worst of the church. A liberating vision can devolve into paralyzing disorientation if you can’t begin to see how this vision illuminates real life in time and place. So perhaps we need to say that just as ‘concreteness’ is the elephant in the room for the church, perhaps that same elephant is lurking in the pages of A New Heaven and a New Earth.
It is, of course, easy and cheap to criticize an author for what he did not say, rather than engaging what he did say. This is not my intent. Rather, I want to take the ‘this changes everything’ impact of this book very seriously and ask, how this vision of holistic eschatology could in fact, concretely ‘change everything.’ Let me put the question this way: how would we know if A New Heaven and a New Earth was successful in fulfilling the ministry to which it has been called? What is the desired impact of this book, and its vision, in the life of the church in the world? Certainly we don’t evaluate these things by book sales. Nor should we evaluate the impact of Richard’s vision simply by how many people he ‘convinced’ so that they start to ‘think’ differently about eschatology. That would be a good thing, but surely not enough.
It seems to me that Richard offers us his own criteria for the desired outcome of this vision:
In the present, as the church lives between the times, those being renewed in the imago Dei are called to instantiate an embodied culture or social reality alternative to the violent and deathly formations and practices that dominate the world. By this conformity to Christ … the church manifests God’s rule and participates in God’s mission to flood the world with the divine presence. In its concrete communal life the church as the body of Christ is called to witness to the promised future of a new heaven and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. (p. 175)
To instantiate an embodied culture or social reality in the concrete communal life of the body of Christ, witnessing to a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. These are important words: instantiate, embodied, concrete, body, dwells.
So what gets in the way? Is it simply that we don’t think correctly about heaven and earth? Is it simply a matter of correcting our theology and then it will all fall into place? No. Richard is too good a worldview thinker to think that thinking will solve the problem of doing. Something much deeper is going on here. Towards the end of the book, Richard says that we don’t embody social and cultural alternatives because of certain “ingrained bifurcated habits of mind and life.” (p. 272) Ingrained habits, a certain way of inhabiting the world that precludes or at least hampers the full embodiment of this vision. We have ingrained habits of habituation, if you will, in which righteousness – that full bodied shalom of God’s cosmic restoration of all things – has been geographically displaced. Righteousness cannot, ultimately dwell on earth because its home is in heaven.
And so Richard suggests that “we need a hermeneutic of immersion and habitation, so that we might indwell the text and hear Jesus calling our own church practices and lives into question in the radical light of the gospel.” (p 277) Then a few pages later, after telling us that he will not “pontificate about what particular issues Christians should support or oppose today in the so-called culture wars,” (p. 280) he writes that “… Christians need to have their imaginations grasped by the radically holistic vision of redemption that the Bible teaches, and to engage their world … with daily acts of courage and love on behalf of those in need, even if–especially if–they are different from us.” (p. 281)
Yes, yes, yes. A hermeneutic of habitation, indwelling the text – surely this is what Paul meant when he spoke of letting “the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3.16). And yes, yes, yes, this is indeed a matter of allowing our imaginations that have been so long held captive in a constricted dualistic worldview to be set free, to be grasped by a holistic vision. But note well, our imaginations are grasped and liberated by a radically biblical vision only in the midst of concrete engagement, only in those daily acts of courage and radical discipleship. You see, while the concrete particularity of our actions are blind without imagination, so also is imagination without such concrete particularity impotent.
Richard calls us to repent of heaven, and he knows that there is no point to repentance if it is not the flip side of conversion. A hermeneutic of habitation, indwelling the biblical story as one’s own, is only possible if there has been a radical re-habituation of our lives to the Kingdom of God.
Enter Jamie Smith into our conversation. “Christian formation,” Smith writes, “is a conversion of the imagination effected by the Spirit, who recruits our most fundamental desires by a kind of narrative enchantment–by inviting us narrative animals into a story that seeps into our bones and becomes the orienting background to our being-in-the-world.” (Imagining the Kingdom, Brazos, p. 14.)
Smith and Middleton agree. We are talking about the conversion of the imagination here. But how does that happen?
Akin to the exposition of ‘worldview’ that Richard and I offered thirty years ago in The Transforming Vision (IVP, 1984), Smith’s cultural liturgics is an intellectual project that paradoxically argues for the relativization of the intellect. Smith is engaged in “… a theoretical attempt to appreciate our pretheoretical navigation of the world–a theory about the primacy and irreducibility of practice.” (Imagining, p. 75)
As I see it, A New Heaven and a New Earth is a theoretical exercise in biblical theology that seeks to reshape our pretheoretical navigation in the world, that is, to reshape our imaginations. Again, Smith is helpful. “Liturgical animals,” he writes, are imaginative animals who live off the stuff of imagination: stories, pictures, images, and metaphors are the poetry of our embodied existence.” (p. 126) Richard is seeking the liberation of our imaginations precisely by enchanting us with an alternative telling of the biblical story, that paints a different picture of the world, funded by images of creational flourishing. And he does all of this by deconstructing (and reconstructing) how the creational realm of ‘heaven’ (or ‘the heavens’) has served as a misdirected metaphor of eschatological hope. The problem that Richard is addressing isn’t just an incorrect way of thinking, but more profoundly, the deformation of the imagination by a misplaced telos to human life.
“It is because I imagine the world (and my place in it) in certain ways,” Smith continues, “that I am oriented by fundamental loves and longings. It is because I ‘picture’ the world as this kind of place … that I then picture ‘the good life’ in a certain way … and thus construe my obligation and responsibilities accordingly.” (pp. 124-125) Therefore, imagination precedes desire. “We don’t choose desires; they are birthed in us. They are formed in us as habits, as habitus.” (p. 125) If we are to break free of our ingrained bifurcated habits of mind and life, embrace a hermeneutic of habitation, be enchanted by a narrative of creational flourishing, and reimagine our lives with a telos of cosmic redemption, then we will need a transformed and converted habitus.
Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus as “a way of being, a habitual state … and … a disposition, tendency, propensity, or inclination” to live in certain ways is incredibly helpful here. (Pierre Bourdieu and Loic J. D. Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, University of Chicago Press, p. 18) Smith notes that a habitus is “the complex of inclinations and dispositions that make us lean into the world with a habituated momentum to certain directions.” And therefore, “We don’t ‘decide’ our way into every action. Our being-in-the-world is characterized by inclinations that propel us to all sorts of action ‘without thinking.’” (Imagining, p. 79) We inhabit a habitus with a certain telos and our imaginations and character are formed accordingly.
Listen closely to what Bourdieu says; “the habitus–embodied history, internalized as second nature, and so forgotten as history–is the active presence of the whole past of which it is a product.” (Cited by Smith, p. 83.) This habitus, this inhabited, embodied way-of-being, this narrative with heaven as its ultimate telos, “is the active presence of the whole past of which it is a product.” Think for a moment how long and powerful that past is and you begin to grasp the enormity of the epic struggle into which this book has entered. This does indeed ‘change everything.’
So we see that the issue of cultural concreteness with which I began my remarks isn’t just a matter of asking to see the ‘ethical implications’ of a holistic eschatology. Much more is at stake here. Bearing the weight of Christendom, with its misformed imagination and cultural practices on our shoulders, we need to envision and enact alternative practices to both the Great Tradition of Christian dualism and to the idolatrous and degenerative socio-economic culture of global capitalism.
Again, listen to Smith: “We are attuned to the world by practices that carry an embodied significance. We are conscripted into a Story through those practices that enact and perform and embody a Story about the good life.” (p. 137) We need the concreteness of alternative practices if we are to be conscripted into the story of creational flourishing, cosmic renewal and holistic eschatology. Without that concreteness, the story that Richard is telling cannot be believed, and we will not be attuned to the world of the Kingdom of God coming in all of its creation redeeming power.
So what concrete practices might we be talking about? For Smith, the most foundational concrete practice is worship. The true story will only shape our perception of the world and transform our character if we learn it “by heart,” at “a gut level.” “And that happens,” Smith argues, “primarily and normatively in the practices of Christian worship–provided that the practices of Christian worship intentionally carry, embody, enact, and rehearse the normative shape of the Christian Story.” (p. 163) Not only does there need to be a transformative liturgical intentionality to the practices of worship, those practices need to enact and rehearse the normative shape of the Christian story. And here we see the most powerful contribution of A New Heaven and a New Earth. In this exercise in biblical theology, Richard has powerfully, comprehensively and convincingly opened up the normative shape of the Christian story.
The problem, of course, is that Christians (and everyone else, if you take Smith’s broader notion of homo liturgicus seriously) have always been most deeply shaped through worship, ritual, symbol, image and metaphor. But because that worship has been taken captive by the telos of heaven as our eternal home, it has engendered bifurcated habits of mind and life, resulting in a habitus unfit for inhabiting a restored creation in which righteousness is at home. We are not at home in righteousness because we are not at home in creation, and it is our worship that continues to render us so homeless. So if the practices of worship have deformed our imaginations then we must repent of those practices. We will need to be intentional about abandoning liturgical practices that reinforce a false telos and continue to leave us with a piety that is private, personalistic and fundamentally disconnected from the wounded world that Jesus came to redeem. And that means:
No more songs about going to heaven.
No more romanticized “Jesus is my boyfriend” sentimentality.
No more prayers that are narcissistically preoccupied with our own lives while fundamentally ignoring the lives of our neighbours down the street and around the world.
No more evangelism/social action dichotomies.
No more “incanting anemic souls into heaven” while “conniving directly in the murder of Creation.” (Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Community and Freedom, Pantheon, pp. 114-115)
No more cheap heavenly hope at funerals.
No more pious language unrelated to the real economic, ecological, social, political and cultural lives that we lead in this place and at this time.
If our worship is going to liberate our imaginations then it will need to be profoundly biblical, symbolically rich, culturally engaged, unafraid of lament and pain, deeply Eucharistic, and so honestly authentic that it will simply not put up with bullshit.
Ethics is always lived eschatology, and as long as our worship orients us to a false telos, our lives will embody that unbiblical eschatology. But worship alone, or at least the rituals of Christian liturgy alone, are not enough to bring about the liberated imagination that would animate the concreteness of a holistic eschatology. If resurrection, not heaven, is at the heart of Christian hope, then we need to ‘practice resurrection’ in the daily rituals of our lives and the concrete cultural practices of the discipleship community. Without such transformative practices, Richard’s vision of holistic eschatology is not only left without concreteness, it is rendered unbelievable and literally unknowable. Unless the truth is made flesh, there is no incarnate significance. There is only embodied knowing within bodies–our bodies, and the body-politic that is the church.
So if you like what Richard has done in this book, if you are enchanted by this story of creational redemption and you are ready to repent of an unbiblical theology of heaven, then you must be born again. You must be converted in all of your life to practices of regeneration in a culture of extraction, of economic justice in a world of oppression, the common good in the face of an ideology of privatization, hospitality instead of fear, truth in contrast to spin and deceit, care in the face of indifference, lament against sentimentality, and deep creational joy rather than consumptive satiation.
Richard is right. “This changes everything.” Everything.