Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Post #127 - Eschatology

"On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree." (American poet W.S. Mervin)

"The world seems bad – it is only difficult. The world seems good – it is only a picture postcard sent from a world of real goodness. God says, 'Wish you were here.'” (from a poem by the blogger)

One must always act as though there is no pay-off whatsoever accruing from any act of compassion, or else virtue can just be called self-interest. Recall: “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than the others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?” (Matthew 5:46-48) Having said that, I do earnestly hope that after my current existence comes to an end (we Christians are reminded that it could easily be tonight), I will find a much richer and longer life with God. Not forgetting where the end of my road really lies, all my actions here on earth must be taken with at least one eye on that existence out of time and space. The temporal should be informed -- and transformed -- by the eternal.

In international disputes, such as ours with Iran, we must bear in mind that the lines we draw – the boundaries dividing nations – are not only invisible to the human eye from an earth-orbiting space station, but are less than meaningless from an eternal perspective. National sovereignty is never permanent; empires all fall away eventually. Neither the Islamic Republic of Iran nor the United States of America should presume to say, “we deserve" to be the dominant power in a region or in the world, for the globe we inhabit is a creation and gift from God. Although I love my own country and its people, I cannot act in any way that would contradict my duties to the whole Body of Christ, and to all God's creatures, wherever they may be. Jesus did not appeal to his followers “as Jews” or “as Galileans”, but as people with a common Father in heaven.

At the same time, we are also to “render to Caesar what is his.” Community standards, state and national statutes, bi-national agreements, and international law should guide and constrain the actions of nations and other groups, to ensure orderliness and security – especially the security of those who are weak. As a nation, we should not act as “an island” (the bell tolls for all of us eventually) but as a member of a community of interdependent nations, especially in this globalized age.

Bagh Eram in Shiraz, Iran
In grappling with the question of what comes after this earthly life, many of us have trouble wrapping our minds around the Islamic vision of paradise (the very word “paradise” comes from the name of a fabled Persian garden created in the city of Shiraz). The Islamic concept actually is no more a literal prophecy than is the Christian conception of heaven as a cloudy realm with gates of pearl. What is true, however, is that Muslims tend to be so assured of life after this one, that the question, common in our own society, of how to "explain an unjust world” or how "a loving could God allow such things?” scarcely ever comes up. This worldly life is seen as such a small fraction of the complete arc of eternity. This view is, of course, not unknown in Christendom; one thinks of the English anchorite Mother Julian of Norwich: "Yet compared with that eternal bliss the length of my earthly life was so insignificant and short that it seemed to me to be nothing. And so I thought, 'Good Lord, let my ceasing to live be to your glory!'"

St. Sebastian, died 288
We have stumbled, too, over the concept of martyrdom. Again, we Christians and Muslims are not quite as far apart as some would have us believe. Martyrs are as much a part of Christian (at least Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) hagiography as they are in the Muslim tradition. We would readily accept that Christians place a premium on laying down one's life for one's brothers (“Greater love has no one than this” – John 15:13). Indeed, the most common justification for our highest and most revered award (the Congressional Medal of Honor) is self-sacrificial action under fire. In contrast to that, we often perceive Muslims as prizing the giving of one's life in a violent assault on innocents – typified, first and foremost, by the suicide bomber. (This may be conflated with some left-over emotional baggage associated with the kamikazes our fathers or grandfathers faced during World War II.)

When looking at Iran, there are four aspects of this topic that must be understood as much-needed cultural context; they will be the topic of my next few posts.

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