Christianity has been criticized of being too heavenly-minded to be of earthly good. Here’s why that’s not the case.
Grounded in Heaven
By Michael Allen
Friedrich Nietzsche viewed Christianity as suspect, not least for what he deemed its “slave ethic.” He believed a philosophy ought to encourage first self-empowerment and then also self-expression; Christianity’s religious approach, in contrast, seemed an unacceptable restraint on the modern spirit. Language of service, discipleship, obedience, law and the like suggested narrow conformity and a debased, subservient posture.
Nietzsche’s take has been widely influential, and in this era divine rule is read as human repression. In particular, Nietzsche’s heirs have seen Christianity’s heavenly focus as a distraction or opiate: Focusing upward, on the mythic heavens, we acquiesce to our miserable earthly plight. The spiritual, then, preserves the material status quo. The ethereal props up earthy injustices and frustrations.
Nietzsche’s influence has been wide enough that even the audience of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity needed to be addressed along these lines:
“A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither.”
The Oxford don knows that modern people worry that a focus upon eternity actually amounts to “a form of escapism.” His reply deserves our attention. Not only atheistic folk like Marx but also Lewis’s thinly religious audience in mid-twentieth-century Britain had imbibed a good dose of Nietzsche’s criticism.
A cynical approach to heaven is not required, however. In recent years, D. A. Carson has pointed to the prayers of Paul as an exemplar of the Christian way. In a set of lectures now published under the title Praying with Paul, Carson offers exposition of several prayers found in the Pauline epistles (2 Thess. 1:3–12; 1 Thess. 3:9–13; Col 1:9–14; Phil 1:9–11; Eph. 1:15–23; Rom.15:14–33). While each chapter warrants unique attention, readers are alerted quickly to a common theme and emphasis. Carson shows the notably spiritual inflection of Paul’s concerns.
While Paul would address some very earthy situations, he did so with a spiritual lens and theological focus, addressing spiritual realities and needs more than common concerns or comforts. Paul’s prayers manifest the pattern called for by his Lord and our Savior: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). Whenever I have observed or participated in a conversation about this pervasive theme in Carson’s book, readers have invariably sensed that it undermines legitimate concern for earthly matters (not only their own but those of their neighbors, indeed, of the whole world).
Theology not only seeks guidance or answers regarding the questions we bring to the table, but all the more to find our very questions reshaped by God’s revealed instruction. In this chapter, we want to show how the heavenly-mindedness that so marked the prayers of Paul and the kingdom priorities espoused by Jesus himself can reframe the way in which we consider Christianity this side of Nietzsche, Marx and the materialism of the modern era. Building on the exegetical work of earlier Christians, we will seek to show some connections between elements of the gospel and this heavenward focus and spiritual lens. While such synthetic analysis may not convince the modern masters of suspicion, we may nonetheless appreciate the way in which a heavenly tilt invigorates a genuine humanism rather than leading to its undoing. In that regard, we hope to make good on the apt suggestions of Lewis by showing how heavenly-mindedness is part of the very warp and woof of Christian discipleship, not some mere appendage. We do well to retrieve the heavenly imagination for our contemporary Christian vocations.
Excerpted from Grounded in Heaven by Michael Allen. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Used by Permission. Copyright 2018.