I overheard someone say that they heard someone say that the definition of a saint is having the purity of heart to will one thing. That immediately reminded me of a book by Kierkegaard that I read in college. It had the same title and was, I’m sure, the inspiration for the remark.
I cannot recall much of what the book was about. Mr. K is kind of like that, at least for me. I know he had lots of important things to say, but all I can recall are his titles: Fear and Trembling; Sickness Unto Death; Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (this latter shows you that even those adept at pithy titles can go very far afield, if not careful).
The spin given to that lovely Kierkegaardian phrase was that the true artist is the one who devotes himself fully and unreservedly to that core thing to which he is utterly passionate. By expelling competing loves and distilling them down to what truly gives supreme joy, be it writing lyrics, playing the guitar, painting landscapes, singing opera, the artist somehow takes on the mantle of sainthood.
Though most of the book’s details escape me, I would say with confidence that this was not what Mr. K had in mind. If single-minded devotion to what brings satisfaction and fulfillment is the criteria for sainthood, then we must conclude that the greatest saints are crack and heroin addicts and the Gordon Gekkos, trampling everything that stands in the path of the drug or the next millions dollars. Nobody, not even marathon runners have better powers of concentration than those living for dope or the big deal.
The problem with that artistic re-definition is that it takes a three dimensional truth and squeezes into a two-dimensional box. A complex sphere is hammered into the shape of a flat pancake. Kierkegaard’s lilting, nuanced statement about holiness and transcendent longing; about the passionate life of faith, is reduced down to a thin pronouncement about taking your finger exercises more seriously.
The call to live with passion is important. No doubt about that. And what is even more necessary is the challenge to be intentionally passionate about things that have ultimate significance. But what I think is more troubling is our inability to take transcendence seriously. We seem to be afflicted with an endemic lack of awe. Where everything is “awesome” nothing is. We tend to treat it like construction paper: something we can take in our hands and fold into the shape of an origami crane and make believe it can soar. It is almost as though we are threatened by that which is utterly above us and beyond us.
Take heaven for example. It is a plane of reality flowing in a totally different rhythm than ours, with different and higher interests. And it frightens and shames us somehow. Whether conceived as place or state, it is weightier and infinitely more substantial than ours. I think we find it embarrassing because it exposes our smallness and lightness of being. It is too bright and too concentrated by far. After all, it is where saints live, and maybe we dislike thinking about it in those categories because it reminds us that that is precisely what we are not.
So, we crush it down into a shape that we find more comfortable. We say things like heaven is not about there but here. It is not about pie in the sky by and by but peace on earth in the here and now. We write catchy titles like: “Here is the new there.”
And this leads me to what I would call a terrible theft in Love Wins. That which glows with breathtaking brilliance is painted over with charcoal and crayon, and is robbed of every ounce of splendor. The unutterably splendid and other-worldly becomes almost pedestrian and mundane.
In the book of Revelation there is this unforgettable scene where 24 great and mighty elders clothed in stunning white linen with brilliant gold crowns are gathered in the throne room of heaven. These are formidable men. They have this regal gravitas about them. Each has some kind of unique authority and power. John sees them sitting around God’s throne while He is being worshiped by winged beasts. And we are told that “Every time the animals glorified and honored and gave thanks to the One sitting on the throne, who lives forever and ever,” the elders throw themselves prostrate in an ecstasy of worship. Unable to restraint the overflow of passionate devotion they take off their crowns and cast them down at the feet of One they adore (Rev. 4:4-11).
This is not only a depiction of stunning grandeur but a profoundly moving description of true sainthood: two dozen kings throwing that which symbolizes their pomp, their privilege and position before the One who alone is worthy of receiving honor and glory and power. They will one thing: to glorify God unreservedly, forever.
Rob’s only comment on this thunder-struck response is to say that it illustrates how what we consider significant on earth turns out to be, “much like wearing a crown, quite absurd.” (LW 44). This deflation quite honestly is a reduction down to the absurd. Exquisite, pure and humble worship serves merely as a foil upon which to hang a brief diatribe on the insignificance of material possession.
This is like taking the Imperial State Crown in London Tower, with its 2,868 diamonds, crushing it to powder in order to fill a crack in the floor at Westminster Abbey. What is radiant and resplendent has been compressed, reduced and flattened into cheap tin foil. If you were to strike this remark with a mallet it would clang like a stick against a cheap garbage can. John’s however shatters you like standing inside the bell tower at Notre Dame Cathedral at 12:00 noon.
Heaven for Rob is a both continuation and a perfecting of earth: It is the day “when earth and heaven will be the same place,” and “when things are on earth as they currently are in heaven.” (LW 43, 47) Heaven is the place God will finally find what He has been looking for since the beginning of time: “People who will take seriously their divine responsibility to care for the earth and each other in loving, sustainable ways.” (LW 36). And at that time He will put an end to all that is wrong with the world, “like war. Rape. Greed. Injustice. Violence. Pride. Division. Exploitation. Disgrace.” (LW 36). It is a peaceful realm where all is in its right place and we are filled with an endless joy for we get to participate “in the ongoing creation of the world.” (LW48)
Though this description is not quite mistaken it is nonetheless terribly misleading. And it robs the truth by what it studiously omits. While the prophets did speak passionately about the age to come in very earthy and material terms, they also describe it as a mind-blowing realm of majesty characterized by unbridled worship. Read Ezekiel and you see a guy almost coming unhinged by what he has seen.
The ultimate glory of the coming age for was not lions lying down with lambs but resplendent saints drenched in joy beholding One who is lauded by towering, flaming, winged beings as “Holy, Holy, Holy.” And as they thunder these words every single thing shakes (Is. 6:1-4). What these saints longed for with every fiber of their being was not a land with potable water but finding their unquenchable thirst satisfied eternally by beholding God’s majesty and pouring themselves out in ecstatic praise.
Rob caricatures this image by another reduction. He quotes time-bound and unimaginative homilies in which heaven is unhelpfully compared to “a church service that goes on forever.” (LW 25) I understand the joke. I grew up on mandatory attendance at Sunday School, at the 11:00am service, at the preaching service six hours after the first one ended, as well as the Wednesday night prayer meeting, also with its ubiquitous sermon. Yes, the thought of enduring even a full month of that is enough to send me heading for the hills.
However, in my adult years I and my family have had the great privilege of being in settings where heaven really did touch earth. We were transported into a realm fraught with the fearful weight of a holy, joyful, almost terrible awe. During those experiences, could we have stood up under them, we would have gladly chosen to remain forever. So, the inside joke winds up exposing a deficit that turns the humor on its head. The truth of it is that when God removes the veil just the tinniest bit, nobody in their right mind wants to leave-ever.
Read the descriptions of the First and Second Great Awakening where men and women were brought to their knees in glad and grateful abandon at the undeniable and irresistible presence of God. The Welsh Revival in the early 1900’s was marked by spontaneous, accapela singing that broke out like geysers of undiluted, angelic joy in the church and in the streets. It was so powerful and so pure that hardened sinners by the thousands were dissolved to tears and repented on the spot. And those who knew Him came in droves to get as close and stay as long as they possibly could. That is much nearer to the kind of “church service” that we see described by the prophets and apostles.
But it hardly bears mentioning in Love Wins.
For where heaven is really earth, just better and perfected, and where its chief attraction is the opportunity to partner with God in caring for the earth and people “in loving and sustainable ways” delirious worship, joy unspeakable and full of glory, the unimaginable shalom of being reconciled, restored, redeemed and perfectly at peace with God, enjoying Him and His gracious favor forever–none of these even enter the frame. These central apostolic components have been flattened by a crude, rhetorical hammer into a thin transparent film and rendered invisible.
Heaven is flat because what it seeks to resolve is flat. Rob explains that it was wealth that kept the rich ruler from experiencing the shalom of the age to come, but for others “it’s worry, or stress or pride or envy—the list goes on.” (LW 62). Almost every sin mentioned in Love Wins is horizontal. They are sins against man not God. Man’s big problem is that he treats himself, others and the creation in unloving ways. So heaven is where this is resolved. Man has a man-sized problem and gets a man-sized heaven.
The glory of Rob’s heaven is man at peace not God praised.
But John tells us a different story. It is a realm in which we come home to the only home we ever really wanted, to the Father we always longed for, to a Lover whose touch and voice we‘ve craved our whole lives. As Augustine, that God-entranced saint, puts it, it is where we will exult that, at long last, our long exile is over for our restless hearts will have found their perfect rest in Him. It is where all lesser, lower loves (even love for good created things) will be drowned out by that saint’s pure-hearted song:
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you. But you flashed, you shone, and you have dispelled my blindness. You have breathed your fragrance on me. I have drawn in breath so that now I pant for you. I have tasted you; now I hunger and thirst for more. You have touched me, and I burn for your peace. Uniting to you with my whole being I am at last free of sorrow and toil. I am alive, filled entirely with you. O Love ever burning, never quenched! O Charity, my God, you have set me on fire with your love!’
And there we will discover that our thin, flat loves have been burned away in the flames of consuming fire and we will be all love, we will be all joy, and we will be all saints. And with the prophets, apostles and transported sinners of all the ages we shall experience shalom for we will be with our Lord forever and forever, worlds without end. Our wills refined to Mary’s one (needful) thing we will gladly lay before Him the crowns we’ve been awarded, not because they mean so little but because they are the very best we have to offer.
And we will know what every saint has known, that He is worthy of it all.