John Shelby Spong, in reflecting on Luke’s account of the Ascension, makes the observation that “…rising from this earth into the sky does not result in achieving heaven. It might only result in achieving orbit. The image of Jesus in eternal orbit with white tunic flying in the breeze does nothing for my spiritual understanding and trivializes the deeper meaning of the biblical story.”
I must admit, the image is rather funny.
The former Bishop of Newark, and others, seem to spend much time analyzing the scriptures and tradition from a scientific, Cartesian point of view. With excellent scholarly inquiry they are quite adept at deconstructing just about anything proclaimed by the Church and just as easily apply a poetic and fitting metaphor for us postmoderns. Phew! To think all this time I had been duped by scoundrels such as Rowan Williams, C.S. Lewis, Lancelot Andrewes, Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Nazianzus and Irenaeus of Lyons!
All joking aside, I certainly can appreciate the desire to address interpretations of scripture, often called fundamentalist, that can be hateful, close-minded, bigoted, if not downright evil. I also am fully behind good scholarship and I would contend that it is the duty of every preacher (or anyone interested in scripture) to invest serious amounts of time into good biblical historical analysis and to draw on the plurality of critical investigation available to us in 2016.
I do think, however, that scripture is not a scientific document. Tradition is not a mathematical equation. Like faith itself, they do not confine themselves to the tiny world of reason. It is no wonder that when we want to speak of love, words are left behind—we sing and make music, we write poetry, we act, we paint, we tell stories. Trying to limit oneself, liberal or conservative, to an analysis of truth based on the finite world of Cartesian thinking is just throwing sand at one another in a sandbox, while the holy mystery, God, smiles through the luminous darkness of the apophase (or is it through little peek holes in the dome of water in the sky?)
The intellect, reason, is critical and important. But it is only one tool, and a limited medium of exploring the infinite.
The Ascension surely mirrors the incarnation. The word entered into flesh, and became flesh: heaven brought down to earth. Like a diptych, the Ascension reveals the word as deified flesh returning to heaven, drawing the below to the above, the flesh of human nature drawn into heaven. If it was a miraculous effusion of a soul wafting into the nebulous, we would be back to the same old Platonic duality. We are our bodies, nail-holes and all. Holy bodies, with a now restored nature, capable of unlimited development, capable of being turned into Christ and deified. There is no more duality, God is all and in all.
Is it helpful to search for the molecular formula of such a mystery? I love my mother. Afraid I can’t prove it quantitatively—on paper my actions are just instinctual, natural self-centred biology: psychological habits according to “need theory.” Then again, I don’t know of anything more real, more true, than love. Do you?
The best way to do theology is in the act of praise and worship, Eucharist, hymnody. Turning oneself over, a metanoia, where we discover this mysterious God by being discovered by him. To think we can discover God by our own intellectual effort, is surely blasphemy. Is it not best to yield to his miraculous indwelling? Is this the true work of all God’s people, prayer and leitourgia?
See you in orbit.
Let Earth and Heaven Combine (Charles Wesley)
Let earth and heaven combine, angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine th’ incarnate deity,
Our God contract’ed to a span, Incomprehensibly made man.
He deigns in flesh to appear, widest extremes to join,
To bring our smallness near, and make us all divine;
And we the life of God shall know, for God is manifest below.
Made perfect first in love, And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove, and see his glorious face;
His love shall then be fully showed, and we shall all be lost in God.