By Joey Royal
In 430, as the elderly Augustine lay dying, Vandals were sieging his North African city of Hippo. He spent those final days alone, in prayer, surrounded by the words of penitential psalms written on sheets of paper hanging on the walls of his room. With the exception of his doctor and whoever brought him meals, no other human being visited. He was alone, seen only by God. He died on August 28. Mercifully he would not live to see his city — including his cathedral and library — razed and burned.
This final image — the famed bishop and towering theologian, broken and weeping and dying alone — brings home one of the key themes of his writings, which is the permanence of God and the impermanence of everything else. He famously wrote of the two cities and how the orientation of our heart reveals our true citizenship. To love self and to cling tightly to all the world offers is to pledge allegiance to a doomed city. To love God, on the other hand, is to cling to that which is eternal.
This is, of course, a key theme in Scripture as well, as St. John attests:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world — the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches — comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever. (1 John 2:15-17)
This truth is especially poignant as we near the end of the most unpredictable and uncertain year in recent history. All that felt solid seemed to melt into air. For many, the only constant was a pervasive sense of uncertainty and anxiety. In the face of that anxiety, many of us clung to anything that promised deliverance from our troubles — maybe a vaccine will deliver us from this virus… maybe an election will deliver us from social and political disintegration… maybe embracing new technologies will deliver the Church from decline.
What unites these disparate hopes is a desire for earthly stability. But this desire, while understandable, is misplaced. There simply is no stability in this world, as St. John and St. Augustine remind us. That means what we’ve seen in recent months — the ground shifting under our feet, people being born and dying, old certainties vanishing like smoke — is a revelation of the deepest spiritual truth about the world, about our lives as creatures utterly dependent on our Creator. “All is vanity and a chasing after wind” says Qoheleth (Ecc. 1:14). All, that is, except for God, who more real and more permanent than we can imagine.
I want to suggest that, as this new year begins, we renew our vision of God and, in so doing, recover the otherworldliness of Christianity. This sort of otherworldliness is not life-denying. It rather situates our lives more clearly within its true context, which is God. It seems to me that a more explicit focus on the eternal has several positive effects here and now:
First, it better equips us to endure. Take St. Paul as an example. He was no stranger to suffering, but he consistently interpreted his strife and struggle as a participation in Christ’s passion. In one of his more mysterious passages he speaks of “filling up in [his] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). There is a very real link between us and Jesus Christ — we are “in” him — such that what happens to him happens to us and vice versa. Either we conceive of our suffering as a sharing in Christ’s own, or we descend alone into the darkness of despair, existentially severed from the one who is our very life. Our choice is not whether to suffer, but how to suffer.
Second, and related, this expresses clearly our link to other Christians. If we are in Christ then so are our brothers and sisters in the Lord, which means that not only are we connected to our Lord we are also connected with one another. Charles Williams wrote suggestively of “co-inherence” which means, among other things, that our intra-human connection in Christ is more profound and impactful than we consciously realize. One of the implications of this is that we can, in the power and freedom of Christ, lift burdens off of others and take them on ourselves. The prayers of the Church involve not only being raised to God, but also being drawn ever more deeply into the lives of others in the reciprocity of Christian love.
Third, a perspective that is properly otherworldly means that the joys and graces of our lives are appreciated for what they are — as gifts of God. Finite, yes. But nevertheless, good and beautiful in their fading temporality. C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity about seeking heaven and getting earth thrown in, rather than seeking earth and losing heaven (and earth) entirely. And, of course, our Lord himself teaches us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).
Lastly, this gives us an abiding hope. All we do here and now is moving us either closer to or further away from God’s kingdom, which will one day encompass earth and heaven. Heaven is our eternal home, but it isn’t a communist utopia where all who “accept Jesus” are admitted to a good place where every difference and distinction is flattened into a bland sameness. It is — or will be — the perfection of our relationship with God, who we will see face to face. Heavenly rewards are real. This means that not only will our individuality be somehow preserved, but also that all we do “in the flesh” either strengthens that relationship or harms it. This is not Pelagian, because all our actions — including not only our capacities, but also the willing and the doing — are utterly dependent on the grace of God. Nevertheless, it is a corrective to an exaggerated and distorted Protestantism which either makes our earthly life a mere waiting room at the entrance to paradise, so that nothing we do in the immanent realm matters eternally, or which dissolves heaven into a realized eschatology of socially-conscious “wokeness.”
In short, to renew an otherworldliness of this kind is to combine prayer, discipleship, evangelism, social justice, sacramental life and virtuous living into a sacrificial offering, both communally and personally, to God who gives us all of it in perfect freedom. To think and live this way is to enter the kingdom of God, which means we share in the life that Jesus Christ is living right now. Earth and heaven, temporality and eternity, justice and worship — it all coheres in the one we confess as “true God and true man.”
The Rt. Rev. Joseph (Joey) Royal is a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of the Arctic.