Martin Henry: What worlds do we live between?
Jesus talked much about the 'kingdom of God'. But, asks Fr Martin Henry, where is it - and in which 'kingdom' are we now living?
IT is frequently claimed that we live between two worlds, this world and the world beyond, the main difference being that this concrete world we experience day in and day out, but the world beyond can't be so directly observed.
Those who accept such an understanding of existence no doubt mainly suspect that the world beyond lies somewhere up ahead of us. In this perspective, the moment of death would tend to be thought of as the moment when we can most fully pass over into this other world, the world of the beyond, the world where God, we imagine, lives most unambiguously.
Now, that may not necessarily be a false way or indeed the worst way of looking at reality, even if in more recent centuries it has often been censured for allegedly diverting attention away from the more pressing concerns of the 'here and now'.
This criticism has been humorously encapsulated in the contention that people don't want 'pie in the sky' any more, they want rather 'jam where I am'.
Whatever the justice of such charges, a couple of parables from the Gospel of Mark (towards the end of the fourth chapter) suggest that there might also be another way of looking at reality, while still retaining the notion that we do in fact live between two worlds.
In the two parables in question, Jesus throws out hints about how the kingdom of God might be symbolised. In doing so, he uses images of growth: an image of sowing and reaping, in the first instance, and, in the second, an image of dramatic development and transformation, in which the tiniest seed, a mustard seed, produces ultimately the biggest shrub on earth.
Interestingly, in both cases, human involvement from the beginning to the end of the various processes described is more or less zero. During the actual time of growth, those engaged in the initial planting or sowing do nothing further, at least nothing directly related to the growth process as such, but go about their ordinary business, working presumably by day, and resting by night.
In these parables, therefore, we can also detect the existence of two worlds - the ordinary workaday world of human beings, and the mysterious world of growth and transformation that exists alongside and in fact within the world of the everyday.
The two worlds evoked in the parables in question aren't, then, so much the world of the here and the world of the hereafter, but rather – the parables seem to suggest – the world of the here and now, in which we live and act, and the world of God who is also active in this same world of the here and now, but active on his own terms and in his own way.
The distinction between these two worlds is, I think, important; indeed it appears to be indispensable to our religion. Above all, it may help us to deal with a fairly obvious question often raised against belief in the kingdom of God.
And the question is: If Jesus talked so much about the kingdom of God, as the Gospels indicate, then where is it, and where is it now?
There is a story told about a conversation between a priest and a rabbi in which the priest tried to persuade the rabbi to accept Jesus as his saviour, as the redeemer of the world.
The rabbi, in response, just went over to the window of the room they were in, opened it, pointed to the world outside and said: "The world doesn't look saved or redeemed to me."
And this indeed is one of the oldest of objections to Christian faith. We talk about the good news of the kingdom of God, but the world is still full of pain and anguish. The world is visible, but the kingdom is not.
The Church is of course present in the world, but so too are sin and evil, present sadly in both Church and world.
If such problems seem difficult or impossible to cope with, we might still take heart from the parables alluded to earlier about the kingdom of God.
These parables can encourage us to believe, even contrary to appearances, that the coming of the kingdom is as sure as the coming of a harvest, or the flourishing of a mustard seed.
But it's something we can't force along, any more than we can naturally force along the growing and maturing of any seeds sown in the ground. We can observe mysterious processes of growth and transformation, but we didn't create or invent them, and we can't replace them.
As the term 'kingdom of God' itself implies, only God's power and God's wisdom can make the kingdom of God come. It is a process that happens according to its own laws, which are ultimately beyond our control.
What we believe, however, is that God's ways are deep and wise and good. And even if they are beyond our understanding, they are still dependable and continuous and can't finally be frustrated.
Hence, we don't have to wait until the day we die to accept that God is active in our world and in our lives – in the here and now – in ways beyond our imagining.
God can't ultimately be outwitted or thwarted. This is the hope that lies at the heart of Christian faith, and it's a hope that, Christianity promises, can guide human life eventually to a divine denouement.
Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.