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The Fall of God


Old Testament Reading: Genesis 23:1-24

New Testament Reading: Luke 17:20-21

Text: Gospel of Thomas, saying 3: "Jesus said, 'If those who lead you say to you, "See, the kingdom is in heaven," then the birds of the air will precede you. If they say to you, "It is in the sea," then the fish will precede you. But the kingdom is within you. If you will know yourselves, then you will be known and you will know that you are the sons of the Living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty and you are poverty.'"

Last week we took the briefest possible look at the Eden story. Today I want to return to it. Let's see if I can manage it – or whether I will be turned back by that cherub with his flaming sword!

Let me summarize for you two very different accounts of the separation of God and human beings. The first is that of Saint Augustine, followed by the whole of the Western Christian tradition. In this version we are to understand that God posed fledgling humanity a simple test: he arbitrarily chose one single tree and told the primal pair to keep their hands off. But they just couldn't resist the lure of forbidden fruit.

In this interpretation Augustine was perhaps unduly influenced by his own Tom Sawyer escapades in which as a youth he made away with pears from a neighbor's orchard. From this episode he learned the lesson that forbidden fruit is the sweetest.

In any case, humanity failed this simple test. As a result we inherited both the guilt and the taint of sin. God had no choice but to drive our first parents out of Eden, as his eyes were too pure to look upon sin. From there on in, our acceptance by God is a chancy matter, made possible only by extraordinary favor shown from on high.

But as Saint Augustine saw it, the distance had not even yet been overcome, since even after Jesus Christ, we remained sinners sold under the bondage of iniquity. Doomed forever to moral and spiritual defeat, yet forgivable thanks to Christ.

Here is the other account, in some ways the opposite of the first. It is the theory of the 19th Century Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach. (Feuerbach's very name, by the way, is redolent of mythology: it means "the Brook of Fire," the Phlegethon!) He postulated a primordial shirking of human responsibility, a primeval repudiation of the divine image in which nature had cast humanity. So far it sounds rather like Augustine, doesn't it?

But according to Feuerbach, 'twas moral cowardice did the deed. We had divinity in ourselves, all the godly traits of righteousness, love, nobility, justice, faithfulness and the rest. In short, all the divine attributes were first ours. But we were too lazy or too self-distrustful, so what we did was to fantasize the existence of another being who could vicariously bear our righteousness.

We decided there was a divine being up there in the clouds who was perfectly loving, just, righteous, etc. To endow him with these perfections we had to empty ourselves of them. We had to bow and scrape, to confess our unworthiness and his entire worthiness. For him to be morally perfect, we had to call ourselves totally depraved. Theologically we said it would be presumptuous to claim for ourselves what was his alone. Namely, righteousness in all its forms.

"Only thou art holy!" So chants the worshipper, and it sounds pious, but Feuerbach says it is the greatest blasphemy against the spirit, the Holy Spirit of Man, who must be unholy if only God is holy.

Feuerbach knew he would be called an atheist, but he said he believed in the reality called God; he just wanted to put it back where it belonged: inside the human breast.

These accounts, those of Augustine and Feuerbach, at first seem to be antipodal, as opposite one another as two views could possibly be. Yet I suggest one could hold both at the same time.  In fact, to me, they are merely the two sides of the one coin.

Both stories tell us that man and woman renounced their righteousness, their divine image.  And both agree that as soon as this happened there sprang into being what had not existed before: a vast distance between man and God.

It was Thomas J.J. Altizer who first helped me see this (I paid him back one day, let me assure you! Once I helped him find the right subway to the San Francisco airport!).

Altizer somewhere theorizes that man is alienated from God because of the Fall. But equally and in the same moment, God becomes ­transcendent­ of man because of this alienation. His ways are not our ways, he is high and lifted up. You must go seek him in his temple. Because he no more walks among us in the cool of the evening.

For man to be fallen away from God is for God to be transcendent. And for God to be transcendent is the Fall of God! Alienation was mutual. A fallen humanity means a transcendent deity, the alienation from man of the divinity innate in him but now banished by his own act! There would have been no other God separate from us but for the fall. So it was equally the fall of man and the fall of God.

But Jesus Christ came to negate the effects of the Fall, did he not? He has joined the separated. He has knit into one piece that which was sundered. In him the God has come near who once was afar off. His kingdom is close at hand.

And thus the answer of Jesus to the questions posed him in today's gospel readings. Where is the kingdom of God? It is not out there somewhere, as if one might go somewhere else to find it. As if one might spot it if only one took up a powerful enough telescope. No, the way to miss it is to look for it out there somewhere, because all along it has been right here!

If it is here, then the way to lose it is to go off somewhere in search of it. If I think I have misplaced my car keys, but in fact they are just where I thought I put them, then I am only assuring myself that I will not find them as soon as I start canvassing every place else where I think I might perhaps have lost them!

This actually happened to me a few years ago! I finally went to the trouble of replacing all my keys, only to find them many months later just where I thought they were in the first place!

And strangely enough, it is just as easy to forget where the keys of the kingdom are! And when you do, religion will be erected on a false premise. Life will become a quest throughout the universe and the heavenly spheres to find something that all along was near you, in your mouth and in your heart: the Kingdom of God.

You can see another example of the same dynamic in the same chapter of Luke we read from. The disciples said to him, "Lord increase our faith." They thought they lacked it because they were looking somewhere else for it, but their very words showed where it already was: within them. Their very request showed they had it! Or did they ask him for faith in a spirit of cynical hypocrisy, never for a moment entertaining the possibility that he might answer their prayer? They already had faith or they would never have asked the question to begin with!

What if...? Every time you bemoan your sinfulness, your lack of the moral perfections of God, all you are doing is reinforcing the false belief that you don't have them! You are a sinner all right --because you tell yourself you are! Your pious confession of sin makes you a sinner! To announce your moral bankruptcy is to create it! To "admit" you are a miserable worm before a holy God is to impute unrighteousness to yourself by faith -- surely a perverse twisting of the Reformation gospel!

When you pray for the Kingdom of God to come, where do you suppose it is going to come? Outward from within! For it is already there like a planted grain of mustard seed that is able to sprout into a tree so vast that all the birds of the heavens may come and nest in its branches.

Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God and explaining it with parables of seeds growing secretly. The lesson? The harvest is ripe! It is time to put in the sickle!

The Book of Revelation envisions a glorious consummation when religion shall be no more! Because in that day the separation between God and humanity will be overcome, as it already has in Christ. There simply is no Temple in the New Jerusalem, because the dwelling of God is henceforth with men and women! So says the text.                                    

In the Bible "Kingdom" is pretty much equivalent to "country." They were all ruled by kings. But I suggest that the phrase "Kingdom of God within you" points beyond the limitations of the word "Kingdom." For there is no more any difference between ruler and ruled!

Marx, a follower of Feuerbach, retained some of the vision of the Bible. He saw that if the Golden Age should ever come, the state would wither away. There would be no need for it. And Jesus Christ has brought that consummation, at least in the kingdom of the soul: there is no servile obedience where the king and his subjects are one. The divine king has doffed his crown, for there is no more ruling to be done. Once more he walks with you in the evening cool of the garden pathways within.

What will this mean? I can concretize it for you and for myself, if you wish. When you pray the Lord's Prayer and you get to the part where you ask, "Thy Kingdom come," why don't you visualize it coming to fruition from within, from the only place, in the nature of the case, it could come from?

When you receive communion, why don't you experience it as taking the Kingdom of God from out there and bringing it in here?

When you have a moral decision to make, grow up enough to realize that your responsibility is not done when you simply recall which rule you have to obey. Your responsibility is to look at the situation and creatively engage it. You are no one's flunky or slave. You are the king! Do what Solomon did: decide for yourself what is right!

When you worship and are rapt in wonder, let yourself pause to wonder in astonishment at the divine glory that is within you, that you did not make, and hence which you cannot be absurdly conceited over, but which is simply and gloriously there.

Just how "within" you is the kingdom of God? I remember reading somewhere in Panikkar that when we say that God is within us, we do not really mean it. We really think God is like pill that we have swallowed, a metal plate surgically implanted. a bullet fired into us. In other words: a foreign body that is now on the other side of the skin from where it used to be, but which is still external in its alienness. But to say God is within you must mean that he is truly within you, as your DNA is within you! It has penetrated so deeply that it simply is you.

The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say "Lo, here!" or "There!" for the Kingdom of God is within you! It is behind the eye that sees!




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