The Space to See Things Differently
Process Theology and the Ascension of Christ
For the kingdom of heaven is with us today.... What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands.
Alfred North Whitehead
If anything challenges the contemporary imagination, it is the image of Jesus being taken up into heaven forty days after his resurrection. Christians call this the ascension of Christ, and it might also be called the departure or the disappearance of Christ. The disciples loved their rabbi, happily returned from the dead, and then he disappeared, taken up to heaven in a cloud.
Why did he leave again? Jesus had been on earth with his disciples and friends; he died and then reappeared, staying forty days, and then left again. Was he indecisive? Our pediatrician turned Episcopal priest, Reverend Teri Daily, helps us think about this. She says that his disappearance made possible the coming of a holy spirit which enabled his disciples to see things differently.
Her idea makes such good sense to process theologians like me. Don't we all need space, interior as well as exterior, in order to imagine the world in different ways? And isn't this act of imagining one of the most important ways that the mystery at the heart of the universe is present in our lives? If people are always in our face, offering counsel and guidance, the counsel becomes oppressive. We need the freedom to think for ourselves, to imagine things in fresh ways, to make mistakes and enter fully into the human experience. Sometimes departure is an act of love. Maybe Jesus left a second time because he loved the world so much. He wanted to make space for thousands upon thousands of second comings, which occur each time we human beings extend love to one another in small acts of kindness. Take a look at Patricia Adams Farmer's KIndness: The Beautiful Contagion. You will see some of these second comings in the living flesh.
Roots and Wings
But in a way we are all Jesus. I am reminded of my own role in life as the parent of two sons. My wife and I love our sons and we want to provide counsel for them all their lives. But we also realize that we must let go of them, and let them let go of us, if they are to find their own voice. We want them to have roots and wings. They cannot find their wings unless we stop clinging to them. Even we must disappear from them, for their sakes.
The letting go is very difficult. Our sons do not want their parents to ascend to heaven and we do not want to ascend either. We think the earth is a pretty good place. We like touch and taste and smell and the poignancy of felt relationships. They are miracles in their own right, just as amazing and maybe more amazing as any ascent to heaven. And yet we know that death is natural and that the ascending is necessary for love to bear fruit on earth.
Perhaps Jesus felt this way, too. Perhaps he ascended, not simply to enjoy the presence of his Abba in heaven but to make space for love on earth. Perhaps his ascension was an act of love. The philosophy of Whitehead lends support to this idea with his own idea, adumbrated above, that love is recycled. Below I offer a Whiteheadian appreciation of the ascension of Christ, meant to complement to beautiful reflection offered by Teri Daily.
Whitehead writes that the love in the world passes into heaven and then floods back into the world. He thinks that this happens all the time, everywhere. When a young woman offers a helping hand to an elderly man crossing the street, her love ascends to heaven and returns to the world, enriched by God's love. When a man reaches back to help his wife climb the hill, his love ascends as well.
Always there is the ascending of love. Mother Teresa puts it well. She says that whenever a small act of kindness occurs in this world it becomes infinite. It becomes part of the fellow sufferer who understands.
Jesus as Love Incarnate
Christians believe that this love became incarnate in a young Jew from Nazareth who, at age thirty, entered into a healing ministry for the sake of the world's salvation. He may well have understood his ministry as a reform movement within the tradition that nourished him. It is not clear that he wanted to establish a new religion; he was a rabbi among rabbis. He died a tragic death and then reappeared three days after he died. For those who loved him and who were heartbroken at his death, these reappearances gave them profound hope. It was not really Jesus' teachings that gave rise to a new religion. They were important but not unique. It was the re-appearances -- the resurrection appearances -- that launched the religion that claims his name.
Even these appearances were not unique. There are many, many stories in many, many cultures about people who died but then returned after death either because they had unfinished business or because they wanted to help others. There is no reason to think that the reappearances of Jesus after his death are the only reappearances that really matter. Indeed, there is no reason to think that they violate the laws of nature, whatever they happen to be. There are many cultures in which continuing journeys after death are thought to be as natural in their way as is gravity in its way. On this view life after death is natural, not supernatural and reappearances can be natural, too.
But also amazing and hope-giving. Certainly those who loved Jesus were amazed and given hope by the reappearance of their beloved rabbi. They realized that nothing at all -- not even death -- could separate them from the love at the heart of the universe, which had been revealed to them in the healing ministry of their rabbi.
Was Jesus love incarnate all the time? It is doubtful. There were times in his healing ministry as recounted in the New Testament when he lost his temper, cursed fig trees, was unkind to his family, and a bit too hard on some of his teachers. It may well have been the case that sometimes he was love incarnate and sometimes he was not. I have a hard time imagining that, when he was thirteen, he did not fall into a few teenage blunders. But it is likely that he was much more open to that spirit in his way than are we in ours. Whereas we may at times in our lives be windows to God's love, he was a doorway. For those who followed him he was a way in which there was more truth and life than they had ever seen. They wanted to share in his faith, walk in his footsteps, follow him even unto death. His death was a tragedy for them.
We can well imagine that, after he reappeared, they hoped he would hang around for a long, long time. Maybe forever. But he didn't. According to legend, about forty days after he reappeared, he ascended into heaven. And then, after he ascended, again according to legend, he sent a holy spirit to help bring forth new life on earth, again and again and again. In the column on the right the Reverend Teri Daily puts this simply and beautifully: "The ascension doesn’t so much close the final chapter as it does open up volumes and volumes of new beginnings."
Among process theologians these new beginnings are called initial aims. They are the fresh possibilities that arrive on earth, moment by moment, from the well of God's love. They are possibilities for hope and love, for courage and wonder, for strength and adventure, relative to the circumstances at hand. In Whitehead's words, they are "the particular providence for particular occasions."
There may be Christians who think that the ascension occurred only once; or that when the spirit was sent after the ascension, it was sent only to Christians.
Process theologians and many other Christians, including Orthodox Christians, disagree. Indeed many Orthodox Christians believe that, when the love on earth passes into heaven and floods back again to the world, people are participating in the space within the Trinity, quite apart from whether they are Christian. (See The Space within the Trinity: All Beings Included.)
Moreover, Process theologians and many Orthodox Christians believe that love is always ascending to heaven and always returning in enriched form to provide healing and hope. And they -- we -- believe that this love is available and actualized by many, many people, including those of different faiths and those of no faith.
Christ in a Pluralistic Age
For Process theologians like John Cobb, this ascending and descending love -- this ongoing process of spiritual recycling -- is the very reality in the universe whom the Gospel of John calls the Logos. In Christ in a Pluralist Age, John Cobb develops a Process Logos Christology in which the word "Christ" names the living wisdom of God at work in universe in all of its dimensions, luring the universe toward whatever goodness, truth, and beauty is possible in the situation at hand, and luring human beings on our small planet toward a perfection of love: a perfection which is intimated Jesus and for which he is an historical doorway. Jesus reveals but does not exhaust the Wisdom of God.
Today, says Cobb, Christians rightly share in Jesus' faith by extending his healing ministry, one expression of which is inter-religious dialogue in which they share with and also learn from people of other faiths and no faith. Hence tht title of Cobb's book: Christ in a Pluralistic Age.
Process oriented Christians know that other people in other contexts may have different words for the ascension and the sending. Radically orthodox Christians know this, too. A person does not need to be a Christian to find hope in the ascension of Christ, that is, the passing of love into heaven. And a person does not need to be Christian in welcoming the return of this love as a providence for each occasion. All people receive guidance and love from heaven's grace, each in his or her way, relative to each situation.
There is no need to knock on heaven's door, heaven is always already knocking on our own door. The good news of Christianity is not that Christianity is the way and the truth and the life. This is idolatry or, to be more specific, christianolatry. The good news of Christianity is that love passes into heaven and floods back to earth, opening up volumes and volumes of new beginnings
If this article was interesting to you, you might also enjoy:
Kindness, Music, Sunlight: The Religion of Daily Life
Mothers of God, by Teri Daily
The Space Within the Trinity, by Teri Daily
Bearing Witness to Broken Bodies, by Teri Daily
Holding a Broken Heart, by Teri Daily
Love Made Gritty, by Teri Daily
The Ascension of Christ
One of the best ways to gauge a person’s chronological maturation is to look at the item that person collects or takes pride in. As we get older, our lego-hoarding two year old selves don’t really change, we just shift our attention to new objects. And for many of us, what fills us with pride, excitement, and an overly possessive sense of ownership are our books. Although there was a time when owning even one book was considered by some to be a privilege, now a new work of fiction is published every thirty minutes in the United States, and over 170,000 new book titles are published every year. At least in the excess of middle and upper class America, books are everywhere. They’ve taken over our desks, our kitchen tables, our bookcases, and our cars. With books in every direction, many of us struggle with an ever-increasing number of books in our “to be read” stack, while the “already read” stack lags woefully behind. And this challenge has prompted me to employ a new set of guidelines for what it means to “read” a book in the first place. For example….
Many Ways to Read a Book
If a book you read cites, critiques, or is remarkably similar to another book in your collection, it is acceptable to count both books as “read.” If you lend an unread book to a friend who then gives you their opinion on said book, you may move that book to the “already read” stack. If a book remains on your coffee table for a three month period, not impenetrably buried under other items but close enough to the top that it is picked up at least ten times during that three month period, you may count the book as “read.” If you begin reading a book, but through no fault of your own are compelled to switch reading materials due to a conflicting demand from one’s job or the need to contend with a home emergency (be that a parenting dilemma, an appliance malfunction, or the purchase of a new electronic item), then grace is granted and you may boast of having read the book you originally started. When the due date rolls around without your ever having gotten your library book out of the car, if the car has traveled a minimum of five hundred miles and at least three friends have commented on the book as they climbed in or out of your car, then the book in question may be considered to have been “read.”
The Last Chapter
Now while I do believe that the overwhelming number of books that exist in many of our homes calls for a gracious and liberal interpretation of what it means to “read” a book, there are inherent dangers in such a system. Because when we move on to something else before reaching the last chapter of a book, we risk leaving with an incomplete picture. There’s always the possibility that what comes at the end will cast a new light on all that’s come before, that in missing what happens at the end of the story we also underestimate the richness of all the events leading up to it. And I think that’s what sometimes happens with the ascension.
As we find ourselves in the latter days of Easter, it’s tempting to look straight ahead to Pentecost, to go right from the glory of the resurrection to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit without skipping a beat. But glossing over the ascension would be like closing the book prematurely. Because the ascension isn’t just an epilogue tacked onto the life of Christ; without the chapter on the ascension, the whole narrative of Jesus’ life is incomplete. The incarnation speaks to us of God’s desire for us, of God’s longing for fellowship with humankind. And the fulfillment of that desire, when played out in the shape of a human life, is the ascension. The ascension reveals to us the incredible truth that, through Christ, God has brought humankind (and all creation) into the very heart of God’s life, to be bound together forever.
The Departure of Jesus
So, if the ascension is so central to our faith, why do we so often stop at the resurrection? Perhaps one of the reasons we tend to overlook the ascension is that it makes us uncomfortable, in several ways. For one thing, in this day when scientific knowledge reigns supreme, it’s hard to escape the obvious question: Where did Jesus of Nazareth actually go? Since the farthest star in our galaxy is approximately 95,000 light-years away, if Jesus were to travel at the speed of light, he would still have about 93,000 years to go before he left the Milky Way. Now I realize the argument can be made that God (even in the person of Jesus of Nazareth) is not subject to the same speed barrier that we are. But the point remains: Our scientific mapping of the universe can make it difficult for us to conceive of an event such as the ascension.
There may well be another reason, though, that we shy away from talking about the ascension of Christ—and that’s the departure of Jesus of Nazareth. Coming face to face with the ascension means we also have to acknowledge that Jesus left his disciples just standing there gazing up at the heavens—that their paths take a different course right at that moment in history. At first glance, the ascension then seems to speak a confused and difficult message to us—is Jesus taken up into the life of God while the earth and all those in it are left to continue as best they can?
Pouring out of the Holy Spirit
But this parting of the ways doesn’t really signal desertion or failure, because just sixteen verses later in Acts the Holy Spirit is poured out onto a whole assembly of men and women. The world isn’t left behind as Christ ascends but, through the work of the Spirit, will be taken up and perfected in the fullness of time. So if this departure of Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t mean that the world is left behind, what does it say about how the salvation of the world will play out?
When I was a pediatrician, I spent a lot of time giving advice—even before I had children of my own. Biting, ear infections, night terrors, and nutrition—I had ideal scenarios for how each of these should be handled. And I wondered how my advice I would change once I became a mother. Well, when my daughter was born, what I said to parents didn’t really change at all, except for the addition of this one concession at the end of most conversations—“and sometimes you just do the best you can.” Wise advice for parenting maybe, but not necessarily words to live by or have engraved on your tombstone. Too often we accept the status quo or the options we see in front of us as the only or best way forward. We look at all the possibilities the world seems to give us, and we forget that any other way might exist—we just do the best we can.
The Space to See Things Differently
But the ascension creates a space to see things differently. The parting of the ways that takes place at the ascension serves as a reminder that to follow Jesus presupposes a very different final destination than that of world history, because to follow Jesus is to bear witness to our hope and belief that, in the end, all things are taken up in Christ. The Holy Spirit won’t be constrained by the systems of the world or limited by the options we see in front of us. Instead, God’s power and love break into the world—altering its trajectory, opening up new possibilities, and leaving it forever changed. And that alone lets us imagine that things can truly be different from the way they are now.
For example, instead of seeing capitalism and communism as our only economic options, we can imagine a world where we live according to the abundant generosity of God’s kingdom—where there’s enough for everyone, the only issue is whether or not we live as if there is. Instead of using human rights to protect us from one another, maybe we can imagine a world where we see each other as a gift from God to be treasured. When we find ourselves ensconced in conflict and unable to agree on any of the options that lie in front of us, can we dare to just keep coming to the table, trusting that a new path will open up that allows us to move forward together? Instead of trying to protect ourselves from the dangers of the world at any cost, can we imagine a life lived in the freedom of knowing that our ultimate security rests in something absolutely beyond our control—in the love and goodness of God? Whenever the world seems to have closed the book without offering us any new way forward, God’s saving love breaks into the world again and again, making things new, transforming the world and changing it forever.
Each year we celebrate the ascension and, like the disciples, we stand gazing up at the heavens. We won’t stand here for long, though. Because the words of the angels will turn our gaze back to the world, and our vision will never be the same. For we’ve seen firsthand the hope to which we are called. We know the end for which we were created. We have seen humanity taken up into the very life of God. And with the eyes of our heart enlightened by faith, we are free to really imagine a world where all things are being gathered up and perfected in the fullness of time. The ascension doesn’t so much close the final chapter as it does open up volumes and volumes of new beginnings.
Acts 1: 9-11
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
Luke 24: 50-53
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Mark 16: 19
So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.
Kindness: The Beautiful Contagion, by Patricia Adams Farmer
The Quaking and Breaking of Everything, by Patricia Adams Farmer GO
Spacious, Gracious Simplicity, by Patricia Adams Farmer
The Art of Savoring, by Patricia Adams Farmer GO
Heaven, by Patricia Adams Farmer GO
Replanting Yourself in Beauty, by Patricia Adams Farmer
Pollyanna: I Dare You to Read This, by Patricia Adams Farmer
Turtles and Whales (and Us), by Rabbi Bradley Artson
What are We Doing When We Pray?, by Rabbi Bradley Artson