No Abiding City
This world is not my home; I’m just a-passin’ through;
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.
I learned that song shortly after I was converted to Biblical Christianity at Mission Meadows camp on Lake Chautauqua in Upper New York State, at age 14. Years later, for want of a Covenant church in the town where I was then living, I attended an Augustana Lutheran congregation. There, when a member died, the pastor would announce the funeral using with unrelenting regularity this formula: “We are once again reminded that we are but pilgrims and strangers here on earth.”
Whether in the country music cadences of the Gospel song quoted above or in the more solemn announcement by the Lutheran pastor of a congregant’s death, churches influenced by Pietism seemed to have a strong sense that Christians do not really belong to this world, the present order of things. It is rooted in Scripture: “For we have not here an abiding city, but we seek after the city which is to come.” (Hebrews 13:14) Or: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4) Or: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” (I John 2:15) For St. Paul it was clear: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 15:19)
One hopes that not loving “the world” does not mean ignoring spring woodlands filled with Virginia bluebells or your grandson’s joy when he plunks a soccer ball into the upper left hand corner of the net. Rather, I think that “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world” refers to a sense of estrangement from the way things are set up here in society, on this earth, in this world among our fellow humans.
This sense of estrangement has grown keener for many of us who like to think of ourselves as both Christians and Progressives, especially since the latest American presidential election. One thinks of the poem by Pietisten’s Poet Laureate on the front page of the last issue. It lamented the “benumbing [of] sound reason with perjury and embroidered facts” that threaten “to diminish the noble spirit.” I’m fairly sure the poet was reacting to the election of 2016; I happen to know that his noble spirit, as mine, was in a major funk after last November.
Or just watch, as I have through March, 2017, the merry bands of unpaid “scholar-athletes” who gather in appointed arenas around the country to generate millions of dollars for the National Collegiate Athletic Association and for its member universities. These young men play 40 minutes of basketball that is drawn out to two TV hours by ads for expensive sedans or for vapid network sitcoms, ads that take up more time than the game itself. They crank out the dollar sums that are somehow, in the name of noble amateurism, kept from the players themselves. For first place, selling advertising time professional and college sports must be in a dead heat with presidential elections that feature an outrageous candidate blasting his opponents with outrageous insults.
Is there something going on, whether in politics or pop culture, that is out-of-whack? Doesn’t it seem that both Christians (and other thoughtful folk, as well) must feel some sort of alienation, of estrangement from the way things work in this world and its cultures? You don’t have to be a self-styled Progressive Christian to get a queasy feeling about the present order of things. In fact, it could well be that Christians with conservative inclinations may be just as uneasy about our society and its values as are those of us who are troubled by the last election or the deceit of big-time sports.
Karl Marx wrote in the mid-19th century about the deep sense of alienation or estrangement (Entfremdung) that had settled over industrial workers whose monotonous labor produced marginal livings for themselves and huge capital profits for the owners of the machinery and factories that they worked with and in. After the revolution in which these means of production were seized by those workers, Marx held that a better order of things would come to be: a classless society.
It is arguable that the Christian sense of alienation, of estrangement from the way things work here on earth, is deeper than Marx’s was. Orthodoxy, whether of the Lutheran, Pietist, or Barthian variety does not expect that some human activity, even a workers’ revolution, will fix the present broken order in which we live out our earthly lives. The revival of this pessimism about human society was characterized in the mid-20th century as “neo-orthodoxy”; it was skeptical about human ability to bring the Kingdom of God through programs and policies and parliamentary resolutions. That doubt about bringing the Kingdom was rooted in an understanding of human nature itself as essentially flawed; we are “fallen” creatures.
My argument is that the next election will not fix everything, even if the good guys win it (without meddling by foreign powers, of course). It may well be that better environmental policy, wiser immigration regulations, a fairer tax code, etc. will make life better for many people. For my part, I hope so. I wouldn’t miss all the tweeted insults, either (though lack of them might hurt TV revenues). But I think that skepticism about “the world and the things that are in the world” is, as odd as it may seem, one of the Christian virtues.
It may even be, if we take the Old Testament seriously, that YHWH is up to something which we haven’t figured out. At North Park, way back in the middle of the last century, my pals and I were reminded by Nikos Kazantzakis’ hero in Zorba the Greek (some of us read the book; others of us settled for the movie) that God was “tricky.” Maybe that is one reason that our forebears, whether Lutheran or Pietist or Neo-Orthodox, remained convinced that “here we have no abiding city.” And maybe that’s at least one reason why some Christians don’t think that around the next bend in the earthly road or after the next election lies either: a) ultimate disaster, or b) a truly just society.
Of course, deo volente, a year or so from now I’ll be making phone calls for my candidates in the upcoming congressional elections. And right now I’m praying that the overpaid Chicago Cubs win the Series again. (Seattle and/or the Twin Cities can just wait for World Series parades; no one can call Cub fans impatient and greedy.) But, if nothing else, what a Christian frame of mind suggests is that these matters may not be as ultimate as I often let myself believe they are. Your favorites can lose an election or a game; it’s a mistake to think that if they had won all would be well. We really can’t be sure what God is up to, but His ways are clearly not defined and directed by the things “the world” thinks important. Here we have no abiding city.