Heaven On Their Minds

mandylion_str_01Years ago, I recall hearing someone complain about zealous Christians, “They are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” The truth of the statement depends entirely on the understanding of heaven and earth. It is possible to pursue a version of “heaven” such that the spiritual life is undermined. It is also possible to pursue heaven in such a way that the world around us is transformed. It is an important difference.

The principle difference lies in a heaven of the imagination and a heaven that is an in-breaking reality. History, particularly modern history, is replete with various fanciful utopias. The promise of a “better world to come,” does not always come with a proper commentary to guide the hopeful. Thus everything from Marxist totalitarianism to America’s Shining City on a Hill have been thrust forward as “better worlds.” Both, of course, have their dark sides though I by no means draw an equivalence.

But for the Christian, a concern for the “things to come” is right and proper. Eschatology (the study of the “last things”) is an irreplaceable part of Christian understanding. The eschatology on which I was raised was a version of Darbyite Dispensationalism. There was a fascination with world events and the expectation of a soon return of Christ. But the end of things only brought another literalism – a world better than the one we inhabit – but in many ways, not so different. The imagination was not concerned with the “things of heaven” but with the events that would bring us there. Of course there are dangers associated with this form of eschatology, primarily from its inherent involvement with politics. It is a dangerous thing to vote on the Second Coming of Christ.

Orthodox eschatology could best be illustrated from Scripture:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known (1 Cor. 13:12).

Of course, I could choose many other passages to consider Orthodox eschatology – but, rightly read, the entirety of Scripture is eschatological. For the Scriptures bear the truth to us (which is always from the eschaton, the end). The truth of things is only to be found fully in their end.

It is this in-breaking of the truth to which the faith bears witness. Though it be seen but dimly in a mirror – it is still the Face which we shall behold ourselves when all has been done.

It is this same Face that is manifest in everything about us (though some mirrors are far more dim than others). It is the sight of a Face that does not render us “too heavenly minded to be of earthly good,” but a Face that reveals to us the true character of earthly good. 

To see the Face of Christ in the face of another human being is not becoming “of no earthly good,” but to begin to see clearly the true character of our brothers and sisters. The Face also reveals to us the true character of the sinful distortions we would cast into the mirrors around us. Only with the vision of the one true Face, are we able to correct the distortions and find ourselves corrected as well.

Orthodox eschatology makes no extreme claims of “realized eschatology” (as in Dodd’s work), but of an unrealized eschatology that nonetheless makes itself manifest to us in a manner that is frequently more real than the mirror in which it is beheld. The theology of icon and the revelation of beauty both point beyond themselves to the Image that has already come among us, is already abiding with us, and is yet to come (Rev. 1:8).

Christ offered a glimpse of the eschatological principle when he said: “Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). The union of heaven and earth (which is how St. Maximus the Confessor describes the eschaton) is not the destruction of earth – but its fulfillment. The Face that we behold is the True Image – in which we were created and according to which we will be recreated. That is a great earthly and heavenly good.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


13 responses to “Heaven On Their Minds”

  1. wpatrick Avatar

    Father, have you read any of John Romanides’ writings? I’m thinking of The Ancestral Sin, or Original Sin According To St. Paul. He often wrote about these misunderstandings of the nature of God/nature of man–he has even mentioned a “three-storey universe”–much the same as your “two-storey universe.”

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, I am familiar with Romanides. He is quite helpful on many points.

  3. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    Father Stephen,

    We have a sophisticated “visioning process” campaign going on in Chattanooga right now, where the key question, asked to thousands, is the following:

    Imagine the best possible Chattanooga region. Describe it.

    Having asked myself that question for many years and done much visioning myself on it, I am still flummoxed by the question when I think of it theologically. What are your thoughts?

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Sounds like a Chamber of Commerce question. “The best possible” is simply too amorphous.

    Theologically (and this would not work as survey) it would be interesting to me to think about how I have encountered heaven in Chattanooga. It would probably not include any of the normal commercial aspects. I think the art event that Warren Caterson used to run had interesting possibilities for such encounter – and of course my time with St. Tikhon’s mission…

    And maybe a few of the jazz clubs you took me to,,, 🙂

  5. David Avatar

    When folks make such accusations aren’t they ultimately being utilitarian? I mean, they end up judging every act someone does in terms of it’s efficiency toward some goal, rather than the act being a possible end in of itself.

    Forgive me if I step out of my knowledge here, but didn’t the neo-Platonists define God as that for which all actions are ends? Because God is complete there is no intermediate steps. Only such activities can be subscribed to God are things such as “love” which don’t produce change in God? God doesn’t start or finish anything, but rather always is according to His essence.

    Christ was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world. Isn’t the very definition of the 2nd Person of the Trinity that He is the Incarnate Son? There was not a time when He was not the Son and there will not be a time in the future when it will be false to say He is.

    Aren’t we growing closer to that? Isn’t that the core of the Christian life? Prayer can be defended has having certain consequences, but isn’t it ultimately meaningful because it has no necessary external purpose to justify it? It is an activity which is also a goal.

    I don’t go to services, “so that” I can refuel and be instructed to better go out in the world and be a Christian (though it might have that effect). I go to experience the 8th Day. Worship is it’s own fulfillment.

    Even alms-giving could be said to be it’s own ends. The fact that it might lessen suffering is a blessed side-effect, but not it’s purpose. It’s purpose is that we might live in Christ. Not “learn to live” but giving alms IS living in Christ (or at least can be).

    I’m sure I’m speaking sloppily here, but it seems to me that any other answer puts man under the Sabbath.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am not familiar with the Platonic aspects – but I appreciate activities as an end in themselves rather than as a means to an end. If it is good to feed the poor (and it is) then it remains a good whether I have eradicated all hunger or not. The modern world is dominately utilitarian.

  7. David Avatar

    If you haven’t you might want to try David Bradshaw’s “Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom.”

    I’m not sure how specifically philosophical you are, but he arranges things in a way I find satisfactory. Of particular interest is that he’s tangling with some very precise terms without confusing an armchair theologian like myself.

    The IOCS in Cambridge has a Colloquium on his book available online.

    I am very poorly interpreting some of his material in my post above.

    He offers some brief and approachable essays on his faculty page as well:

  8. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    Father Stephen.

    Liked your comments, particularly on art events and jazz clubs.

    Do you think it is a wrong, or at least lesser model/rubric to view reality as a city? Should primary reality (“the most important thing”) rather be people, and the persons you encounter along your way in life?

    Abraham was always a’travelin, leaving the evil big city and looking for another city in the by and by. Jesus seemed to be more person oriented, though he did have some heart and passion for Jerusalem, Bethsaida, Copernium, etc. (albeit mostly “woes”).

    Then again, at the end of Jonah, God talks about caring about all the people in the city and the cattle as well.

    Seriously, is a city, metropolitan, community focus subservient to a person focused agenda? Being that we are in this world but not of it, a too-zealous commitment to the city just might cause a few problems. No?

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think losing the focus on the personal is almost always a mistake. The best cities allow for the personal. Jerusalem, though not large by modern standards, is intensely personal.

    Another place that has always struck me is walking along in the “Battery” section of Charleston, SC. The views and peaks you get into the small private gardens are stunningly personal. You want to be in that space.

    Some of the architectural thought that has gone into the “New Cities” experiments are also quite personal in their efforts – making place for smaller front yards, but good sitting porches – creating spaces in such a way that people we more naturally interact. Many of our present spaces are anti-personal – making it very difficult for people to do anything other than consume (many suburbs are like that). Ascension Orthodox Church in the Charleston area is in a development called Ion. It is built in a new cities model. Taking a walk in the neighborhood after Church only makes you wish the neighborhood was yet larger. It’s a delightful place. The Church is blessed to be in such a space and, in turn, is a blessing for those who live there.

  10. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    Emphasis on the personal. Okay.

    I think some of the motivation of my questioning is that the efforts to build a city here are more that just Chamber of Commerce stuff. There is a near religious aspect to it.

    Some of it I like a great deal. Some of it scares me, and I am trying to figure out whether to stay on guard or just chill.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is possible to make a city a more livable place. But place cannot guarantee a good life or protect us from a bad one. That city is the city built without hands, whose builder and maker is God. Chattanooga’s a nice place – but it’s not now nor will it ever be the New Jerusalem. I’d be scared too.

  12. Bill Harnist Avatar
    Bill Harnist

    I am what people call an “Evangelical Christian.” Now that can mean different things to different folks, but here is the deal I stumbled across your blog via a circuitous path which I probably could never find again. Thanks for Bookmarks!

    I am blown away by this article, Heaven On Their Minds. I looked in my Bible (NIV) to 1 Cor. 13: 12 and understood it. Then I went back and read the whole chapter and it all started to come together.

    I will be back.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    I look forward to more visits. Welcome

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

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