Part of the spiritual landscape of American religion is the sizable role played by choice in a culture shaped in the free market – with freedom as a mythic symbol. It is not unusual to hear American politicians describing solutions to social problems as a matter of “trusting Americans as consumers.” It is as though we could “shop” our way out of life’s difficulties.
And thus it is that Calvinism, as a Protestant option, has never quite captured the mind of the American religious “consumer.” Our culture has long been driven by its own sense of freedom and the inherent right of every individual to make his or her own choice. Thus Christian teachings which do not give heavy weight to the importance of free-will (such as classical Calvinism) have never come to the place of dominance in American life. For Americans, religion is about a choice.
This is not all wrong – human beings do have freedom and it plays an important role within the life of salvation – even in Orthodox understanding. However, Orthodoxy sees our freedom as something flawed – we do not always choose as we should – nor do we always know what the good is to be chosen. Freedom has a role to play in the life of salvation – but is not itself what constitutes salvation. Indeed, our freedom is itself in need of salvation.
This brings me to the title of this short piece: the Kingdom of God is not a choice we make. There are many ways to describe the Kingdom – a variety of metaphors employed in the New Testament – but in every case the Kingdom is God’s Kingdom – not our response to God.
I occasionally state in sermons that “the Kingdom of God is coming whether you like it or not.” In this sense, particularly, it is not a choice we make – it is a gift that is given from God. In Christ, particularly in the fullness of His death and resurrection – the Kingdom of God has come. Though we still pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” we are not devoid of its presence now. “Thy Kingdom come” is a prayer for its fullness – but not for its inauguration.
The Kingdom of God is a reality already among us – though we frequently are oblivious to its presence. The heart of secularism is its assurance that the Kingdom of God is not here now, not yet, and perhaps only refers to something somewhere else or even nothing more than a utopian vision of the future. Of course, secularism and its infection of Christian thought is commonplace in modern culture. The world is not seen as sacramental, capable of bearing the Divine, but at best as a neutral playing field in which human beings choose sides in the religious contest of Christianity (or other religions or none of the above).
But the fullness of Christian truth and revelation is that the Kingdom of God has already broken forth among us, and the Christ who brought it forth promised that it would remain. Thus we eat and drink His Body and His Blood – not reminders of a historical event – but a foretaste of the fullness of the Kingdom. It is the Bread of Heaven – food, though not of the world yet in the world.
The whole of the sacramental life has this character of the Kingdom. And the sacramental life extends far beyond the Seven Sacraments that are traditionally described. The Kingdom has a quality that breaks into all of life unable to be restrained or hindered by man. We are not in charge of its arrival nor are we the masters of its growth. We may participate in its life and serve as its witnesses – even as citizens – but it is not our creation or something we offer to God. It comes from God and bears God.
I reflected on the song shared in the last post, written by St. Nikolai Velimirovich. There it seems clear – “Christ is risen, joy has been given.” Everything is made bright with the resurrection of Christ. It is not a choice other than for us to say: “Indeed He is risen!”
The photo is of St. Nikolai Velimirovich.
“Indeed, our freedom is itself in need of salvation.”
I have had this thought many times.
To believers, the Kingdom is not a choice. But, to others, it may appear to be. I am reminded of this quotation: “People will believe what they want to believe…In my experience, self-delusion knows no boundaries.” (Vincent Pearl in The Collectors by Baldacci.) Isaiah said much the same: “Prophesy not to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions…” Isaiah 30 v.10
This was my second Great Lent and Pascha since becoming Orthodox. During Lent I was able to read Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann. It was so helpful in deepening my understanding of the spiritual journey before Pascha. It did sadden me however to realize how far our society has alienated itself from what used to be the community’s normal observances of the seasons of the church. And that being, the whole community understood the beliefs and traditions that were passed on to them by family and the church from the beginning. There was a cohesiveness in the community in regard to the faith. Granted there were serious problems that arose because of abuses but there was a beauty of the life of the community of the church which was not separated as it is today. Coming from a protestant background it seemed to me that any serious observances of the seasons of the church were pretty much left at the doors of the church when you left. There was definitely no understanding of the “One-Storey Universe” or the “Kingdom is Not a Choice” concept. The season of Lent used to be a community affair and not individualistic as it is today which makes a very meaningful inclusive time very difficult to observe in this country.
Christ is Risen!
“The world is not seen as sacramental, capable of bearing the Divine, but at best as a neutral playing field in which human beings choose sides…”
So true. Scientific method brought so much good to the world through the centuries, but the bad side effect is that it also brought manner of objectivisation in fields where we need to remain subjective. We cannot measure love nor peace. Numbers are one domain, fullness is another. Albert Einstein said it nicely: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
How is that St. Seraphim of Sarov could live in peace with the wild animals, and I can only dare to watch them in the Zoo? That is the question… Why were they peaceful in his presence? It is a question to which I doubt that any science can give the answer…
Thank you Father
You may not be saying this, but Calvin was never a memorialist. He believed in a “real spiritual presence,” whereas Zwingli held to the memorialist view, where taking communion is a sort of pledge, kind of like one would do for entrance into the Swiss Army. I’m sure you know all this, but I just wanted to make sure.
Indeed, I agree. My point, viz. Calvinism, was simply its inability to rise to dominance in Protestant America, where a more Arminian and individualistic theology would eventually triumph in popular evangelical Protestantism.
There are certainly numerous sacramental elements in Calvin’s thought, particularly when compared to Zwingli, much less the utterly non-sacramental secularized theology of modern popular Protestantism.
Of course, when I speak of secularized, I do not mean they do not believe in God, but that they believe in a world that is somehow a neutral zone, “natural” now meaning something other than related to God. I have particularly focused on this aspect of modern religious thinking (conservative or liberal) in my articles on the “One-Storey Universe.”
You’re right. I and on staff at a reformed Southern Baptist church in Georgia and we have had several leave for exactly the reasons that you pose. It is difficult to grow our congregation in a society where everyone feels in dominion over their day to day affairs, and telling them they had no part in their salvation tends to not sit so well.
Your discourse here on the Kingdom is amazing. I also enjoyed your discussion of the sacraments.
Gotcha, and I would agree. It is nearly impossible for someone to claim to be purely Calvinist or purely Lutheran in their “sacramentology”, for since the Reformation, all of the various theologies of that time are now mixed together into a hodge-podge of so-called “Reformed theology.”
Your podcasts and articles here on the myth of the One-Storey Universe are fantastic.
What a blessing! I watched and listened first to the video and was in tears of joy at its beauty.
I love the statement you make, “the Kingdom of God is coming whether you like it or not.” We pray always for the Kingdom to come. My understanding of the Kingdom of God is that this spiritual reality means that I must live with Christ as Lord in my heart. My actions, thoughts, motivations, desires continually being submitted and re-submitted to His will each day.
I am new to your blog and find the discussions, articles, and thoughts very encouraging…and challenging.