As in all things, caveat emptor.
Spelliing the Kingdom of God
In Less Than Words Can Say, the late Richard Mitchell (The Underground Grammarian) laments the degradation of English: Insubstantial words, hazy and disembodied, have fled utterly from things and ideas.[1. Richard Mitchell, Less Than Words Can Say, p.1] But the problem is not the normal and expected variation that occurs in the vernacular; rather, The Underground Grammarian levels his invective against the most egregious offenders: teachers and politicians, administrators and professionals- those who should know better but demonstrate by their writing that they do not.
For The Underground Grammarian, the ability to write well is the ability to think well. Discursive prose coincides with formal logic, and the latter cannot exist without it as extended logical thought has to be a discipline imposed upon the mind by something outside of it.[2. Richard Mitchell, Less Than Words Can Say, p. 15] Because of this inescapable fact, seemingly small things like spelling and punctuation matter. They require an exactitude that accompanies the mastery of any skill; after all, the difference between a quarter-note and and an eighth-note may not seem that great, but it certainly separates a musician from an air horn. The further one advances in a craft, the more minute the skills seem, yet these are what separate the master from the apprentice.
From here Mitchell moves on to describe the pathology of modern education:
Our educators have said that they would teach love and the brotherhood of mankind as well as the importance of brushing after meals. They have promised to teach social consciousness and environmental awareness, creativity, ethnic pride, tolerance, sensitivity to interpersonal/intercultural relationships, and the skills of self-expression, provided, of course, that such skills didn’t involve irrelevant details like spelling and the agreement of subjects and verbs…
Most of us will recall that somewhere in our history, maybe it was back in Jefferson’s time, we did ask the schools to teach everybody to read and write and cipher. Somehow, as hard as it may be to teach those things, it does seem a more modest undertaking than teaching love and tolerance and the brotherhood of all mankind.[3. ibid., p. 29-30]
As I read this critique I was reminded of a similar sort of linguistic over-reach that occurred a few years ago when The United Methodist Church decided to revise its mission statement. Now, mission statements as a rule readily demonstrate the way in which hazy and insubstantial words flee from things and ideas. The previous version ran as such:
The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
As mission statements go, this is not awful. It has the added bonus of actually being a near quotation of Jesus. But not content to leave well enough alone, evidently the UMC decided it could improve upon Jesus and changed it to this:
The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
You might be forgiven for wondering why the mission all of a sudden took such a dramatic theological turn, but perhaps that would only demonstrate your unfamiliarity with the UMC.
Sure, it does completely subsume the original mission under an ad hoc addendum that seems to have no immediate relation to the quote from which it was originally derived.
Why yes, it changes making disciples from something done for its own sake to making disciples for the sake of something else.
You might also be forgiven for wondering why a mission that has a direct link to an outcome (making disciples) all of a sudden has nebulous blathering foisted upon it.
After all, what exactly constitutes transformation of the world? Being a disciple of someone has a recognizable reality that can be assessed- one is ether a disciple or one is not. (Jesus, who is near-quoted here, says something like that elsewhere.)
Likewise, one is either making disciples or one is not. (Given the perennial loss of membership in the United States, this is readily apparent.)
Transformation, it turns out, has no precise referent. Transformations occur all the time- some of them we call good, some of them we call bad and some of them we couldn’t care less about or don’t even notice. In what way would we determine if the world has been transformed or not? Since we are making disciples for this unspecified transformation, in what way does making them bring about this transformation?
We move from a concise and reasonably meaningful mission to one that doesn’t mean anything at all, but perhaps is meant to obscure the fact that we don’t have the foggiest idea of what we are doing. Fuzzy language has a way of hiding insecurity and even incompetence since it makes up for not speaking of things and ideas that are substantial.
You know- things like making disciples. Abstractions such as transformation are unfalsifiable and expansive enough to include just about any idea, program or method.
In all fairness this idea is prevalent within almost all of American Christianity. Like Mitchell’s educators who teach love and the brotherhood of mankind without being particularly concerned about spelling and subject-verb agreement, much of the church in America has taken upon itself the task of transforming the world without being particularly concerned about making disciples.
I have often pondered this flip-flop of emphases. It has become common parlance to speak of building the Kingdom of God. In our prayers I hear God entreated to help us build his kingdom, or whatever.
Fine sounding words, I suppose. After all, in the Lord’s Prayer we say Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Fair enough. However, words matter and the way we use words matter. Here they matter a lot.
It is almost embarrassing to point out the obvious- when we are talking about kingdoms and wills, we are talking about God’s kingdom and God’s will. When we talk about a kingdom being on earth and a will being done on earth, it is hardly worth mentioning that these are predicated on a kingdom already being in heaven and a will already being done in heaven.
Which ought to cause us to wonder how we could possibly take it upon ourselves to build such a kingdom or to do such a will. If a kingdom is already in heaven and a will already being done in heaven, it should go without saying that we did not build that kingdom or do that will. (Pronouns and all that- I know…boring.)
If our prayer is that the same thing that is happening in heaven should happen on earth, why in hell would we think this kingdom’s builder and this will’s willer would be different? Yes, pronouns can be tricky things, and antecedents can sometimes be unclear, but here that doesn’t really seem to be the case. In fact, in this prayer the only time a pronoun that refers to us occurs is in demonstrating our complete reliance upon God.
- Our Father who art in heaven- we acknowledge God is worthy of complete devotion
- Give us this day our daily bread- our being wholly depends on God
- Forgive us our trespasses- we are entirely reliant on God’s mercy
- Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil- we are lost and hopeless without God.
The entirely lopsided nature of this prayer- God is the giver, sustainer of everything/we receive everything from God- clarifies the exact amount of effort we contribute to the coming of God’s kingdom:
seeds and relations
Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God present some rather obvious descriptions about whose kingdom this is and who brings it about. It should go without saying, but evidently the possessive is not enough. Even if we go with the alternate kingdom of heaven, one might wonder what right humans would have to claim it as their construction project. (Interestingly, the other time such an edifice is raised, it is connected with language as well.)
Yet Jesus goes even further. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like leaven, like good seed sown in a field, a hidden treasure, a merchant with a penchant for pearls, a net, a old and new shop, a king with servants, a vineyard owner, ten virgins. It is something near at hand, something among you, something which suffers violence.
So many images, but nothing about building it. And there is always that pesky possessive lurking in the background.
In fact, as varied as all these images are, they point back to one reality: God. The reign of God (which we invoke in our prayer) is always there, working in a hidden way like the mustard seed, which someday will grow to be unmistakable. The kingdom of God- which is actually God– is working through and in history like leaven in the dough, usually unseen but ultimately unmistakable.
The whole point of the kingdom seems to be the way in which we relate to it. It seems to be a hidden treasure or a small seed or a pearl, but for those who are rightly related to God’s kingdom it is far more than it appears.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector we find the dynamic of God’s kingdom at work:
The Pharisee does not really look at God at all, but only at himself; he does not really need God, because he does everything right by himself. He has no real relation to God, who is ultimately superfluous- what he does himself is enough. Man makes himself righteous. the tax collector, by contrast, sees himself in the light of God. he has looked toward God, and in the process his eyes have been opened to see himself. So he knows that he needs God and lives by God’s goodness, which he cannot force God to give him and which he cannot procure for himself…
The grace for which he prays does not dispense him from ethics. It is what makes him truly capable of doing good in the first place. He needs God, and because he recognizes that, he begins through God’s goodness to become good himself. Ethics is not denied; it is freed from the constraints of moralism and set in the context of a relationship of love- of relationship to God. And that is how it truly comes into its own.[4. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p.62]
All this of course is contained in the prayer we say every week, but too often it seems we have abandoned God’s kingdom and begun the task of building our own. And like Mitchell’s educators, we have taken upon ourselves a responsibility that is both impossible to bear and which in turn makes impossible what has actually been given us to do.
The scriptures simply do not make it incumbent upon the church to transform the world. Such would be a fool’s errand, for that is something only God can do.
And let’s be honest- we have done a piss-poor job of transforming the world. All our failure has done is to reveal our failure, while a world can only gape in disillusionment. And who can blame them- everyone despises a salesman who over promises and under delivers.
If you have a shoddy product, devoting more efforts to marketing only speeds up the discovery of fraud.
As teaching reading and writing is a more modest goal than teaching love and brotherhood, so making disciples is more modest than transforming the world. Like the tax collector, our ethical content flows naturally out of that encounter with God, the realization of utter dependence. In this way the Lord’s Prayer becomes not a template for how to pray, but a template for how to live. One might even abolish the categories.
We are commanded to love, and love we should. (There is an order to that love, however.) We are told to feed the hungry and clothe the poor, but never to eliminate poverty. Once again the use of language points us towards reality- feeding someone who is hungry or clothing someone who is poor has a direct link to what is real; eliminating poverty is as nebulous as transforming the world, bearing whatever meaning you want it to.
Jesus takes the much more realistic approach to state that the poor will always be with us. It is a potentially frustrating situation- after all, we tend to want to develop another strategy, build something, start another program or get at the systemic causes of things, but our language in these situations should be the warning flag. Instead of the absolute dependence on God and allowing his kingdom to be on earth and his will be done, we like to take matters into our own hands.
Jesus may have said the poor would always be with us- well, we’ll just see about that!
After all, we have a lot of foggy mission statements and can certainly make more if push comes to shove.
A more modest proposal is to do what we have been specifically told to do. Like having exacting standards about spelling, it isn’t a terribly exciting profession.
And it is certainly annoying- all that allowing God to do his will even when it doesn’t coincide with the obvious superiority of our own.
Let’s immanentize that eschaton!