In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is reframing spirituality in his day. He opens with the Beatitudes, eight realities embraced and embodied by those living in the Kingdom of Heaven. He then identifies how living into these truths limits chaos, exposes injustice, calls for repentance, and truly fulfills the heart of the Law. But as much as these words challenged popular belief in Jesus’ day, it is nothing compared to today. There is a reason for that.
Heaven and Earth Connection: Ancient
One of my favorite books on theology is Walter Winks’, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (affiliate). In addition to unpacking the myth of redemptive violence, Wink lays out various ways to think about the relationship between heaven and earth.
In the ancient world of the Bible, heaven and earth mirrored one another. So if two countries went to war on earth, their gods went to war in heaven. In this sense, Jesus call to embody the Beatitudes on earth meant to mimic how things worked in heaven.
So while Jesus original audience found the Beatitudes different than what they were used to being taught, Jesus end message was not entirely foreign. The people in that day, with some divine guidance, ultimately figured it out. As a result, the church grew rapidly during the first few centuries despite legitimate persecution.
However, if you grew up in American Christianity, what Jesus taught sounds completely foreign. That is because the Western Church generally taught us to read the Bible in an different way.
Heaven and Earth Connection: Greek
You see, as Christianity moved West, the church increasingly embraced a more Greek framework for thinking about heaven and earth. Riding the long tail of Plato, the Greeks generally saw heaven as good and the earth as bad. This perspective dominated Western thought for most of the next 1700 years. This explains the broad Christian focus on escaping earth and getting to heaven. The problem is, that is not what Jesus taught.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not a place, it is the rule and reign of God. Jesus does not invite us to pray that we can go to heaven, but that God’s Kingdom would come on earth. In the Bible, at the end of the age, we do not go to heaven, but heaven comes to earth. So when we think about the Bible from a Greek perspective, we broadly miss the point.
Heaven and Earth Connection: Today
Over the last three hundred years society on the whole moved to a materialist perspective that dismisses the spiritual. Reacting to this, theologians followed the lead of Immanuel Kant who split the scientific from the spiritual. Here science focuses on what happens while religion imbues it with meaning. This perspective easily takes hold of a Greek perspective on faith and a materialist perspective on life. No wonder when Jesus engages in reframing spirituality, when he brings heaven to earth, it sounds so foreign.
This means, for you and I, Jesus engages in a double dose of reframing spirituality. At one level, he invites us to think about the Law differently. At another, he challenges our conceptions of heaven and earth.
Heaven and Earth Connection: Integral
This is why at Abundance Reconstructed, I argue for what Wink calls an integral perspective. To use Wink’s words:
This integral worldview affirms spirit at the core of every created thing. But this inner spiritual reality is inextricably related to an outer form or physical manifestation.The Powers That Be, 19
The broad idea is that rather than thinking of heaven as a far off place, we see it all around us. The thing that makes heaven distinct from earth, is the guiding spirit. That is why we talk about living by soul in a spirit of love.
If you study other religious, the integral perspective is used by Native Americans as they talk about Sky Father and Earth Mother. It is also at the heart of the Chinese Ying and Yang. For science lovers or Marvel movie fans, think of the möbius strip. Each of these models an example of an integral perspective.
As Jesus moves forward in the Sermon on the Mount, he offers a spiritual reframing for his day. As we look at his words to people two millennia ago, I will do my best to give us the double dose of spiritual reframing we need in our day.
This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.