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Aching Visionaries

By February 1, 2011 No Comments

“Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status-quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into Heaven, it has been made the tool of much earthly villainy.” So proclaims Wendell Berry in his essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” from his book Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (pp. 114-115). A bit further on, Berry argues that Christianity “has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire.” As a result Christianity has been complicit in the plundering of communities both human and natural.

Many would, perhaps, challenge this as a sweeping overgeneralization and overly harsh judgment, but I think we should hear Berry out. He is one of our most perceptive contemporary cultural critics. And though he has a lover’s quarrel with the Church, his Christian faith in large measure funds his cultural critique. He suggests in the quotes above, and argues at greater length elsewhere, that a dualism of body and soul and a mistaken view of the future are at the heart of many of the Church’s problems. An emaciated anthropology (the incanting of anemic souls into heaven) too easily underwrites the destruction of the material world, for that world is seen as ultimately unimportant. And an unbiblical eschatology “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through” too easily allows itself to be taken captive by the empire du jour.

Each of the three main essays in this issue provides support for Berry’s seemingly outrageous claims. Merold Westphal, among other things, explains why Christians ought to be predisposed against any Platonic/Cartesian mindbody dualism. He further points out how such a dualism denies our radical dependence on God. Brian Walsh juxtaposes different biblical voices, and with the help of Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn shows how stark the contrast is between the homemaking vision of Scripture and the homewrecking practices of our culture. What we need is not more technical information but a biblically inspired imagination–set free from the shackles of consumerism and violence. And Norman Wirzba shows us how the everyday habits of eating remind us of our embodied emplacement in the material world. He, furthermore, shows how eating can become a means of reconciliation with each other and the world.

Formed by the opening chapters of Genesis and the gospel of John, tutored by the last lines of the Apostles’ Creed, shaped by the second verse of the Doxology, molded by the Lord’s Prayer, Christians should know that matter matters. At the center of our faith is the Incarnation, and the hope for which we yearn is the resurrection of the body and (bodily) life everlasting. We followers of Jesus are, to use Nicholas Wolterstorff’s fine term, aching visionaries who yearn for a renewed world in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. No anemic souls in sight. No ethereal heaven on the future horizon. No empire save the kingdom of the slain Lamb who now reigns as Lord. This kingdom–the antithesis to all human empires–is marked by a peace-making sacrifice on a bloody cross.

May we seriously ponder the reflections of those among us–whether Wendell Berry or the contributors in this issue–who worry about how we may be incanting anemic souls into heaven when we should be feasting at the Eucharistic table of the resurrected Christ.

Steve Bouma-Prediger teaches in the Religion Department at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
Steven Bouma-Prediger

Steven Bouma-Prediger

Steve Bouma-Prediger joined the faculty at Hope in 1994 and is currently the Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Reformed Theology. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including For the Beauty of the Earth, is a former board member of the Au Sable Institute, and regularly writes and speaks on environmental issues.