Faith and Forests is a special monthly series by Joseph Frankovic. In the series, Joseph will explore how his deep connection to spirituality and faith intersects with our forests and the work of Dogwood Alliance. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by Dogwood Alliance.
As Earth’s surface and ocean depths warm, the potential risk of crossing a planetary threshold increases. That threshold, if crossed, could herald a new climate reality: self-reinforcing feedbacks causing warming within the Earth System—even while human greenhouse gas emissions taper off —according to the abstract of a recent study. To back the Earth System away from this threshold and to keep “it in a habitable interglacial-like state,” collective human action is singled out as the way forward.1
In the body of this scholarly article, which the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published, 16 science experts identified several things that humans, acting collectively, need to pursue. One of those pursuits is to adopt new values. Take a look at what this data-sensitive team said about the human side of the risk equation:
“Widespread, rapid, and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold . . . these include changes in behavior, technology and innovation, governance, and values.”
“These international governance initiatives are matched by carbon reduction commitments . . . but as yet, these are not enough to meet the Paris target. Enhanced ambition will need new collectively shared values, principles, and frameworks as well as education to support such changes.”
“The Stabilized Earth trajectory requires deliberate management of humanity’s relationship with the rest of the Earth System. . . . a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economies, and technologies is required”.2
In the Anthropocene—the name given to a proposed new geological epoch—the conclusions of climate researchers and a core concern of religion and classical philosophy are converging. To embrace life and escape the death trajectory, these researchers have informed us that humans must fundamentally reorient their values.3
A new set of collectively shared values—where shall we look; whose values shall we adopt? This may sound bold, but I can give a reliable answer. As part of our search, we should look back in time and give careful consideration to the lives and achievements of notable figures who flourished in antiquity or who lived in the modern era, but whose minds were suffused with premodern values and modes of thought. In the ancient group, I would include Socrates the Athenian and Jesus of Galilee, as well as others.4 In the modern group, these names come to mind: the leader of India’s independence movement Mohandas K. Gandhi, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and the American physician Charles A. Eastman, who is also known by his Sioux name Ohiyesa. Of course, I personalized the two lists according to my interests and current purpose.
As part of my contribution to find new collectively shared values, I will use the remaining content of this month’s blog post to place the accent on Jesus, on the movement that he organized, and on the values associated with that movement. While studying as a graduate student, I benefitted from a few outstanding teachers who generously shared their knowledge and helped me appreciate aspects of the life and teachings of Jesus. I hope to reflect some of that knowledge by sketching a big picture with broad strokes, minimal detail, and without citing too many sources. Readers who desire more detail may leave a comment, and I will provide additional citations or a short explanation.
Jesus was a sage, and like other Jewish sages who flourished in the first century, he came from Galilee equipped with a traditional education.5 By paying close attention to his adept handling of Scripture, we can grasp the depth of this education. Within Judaism, although he was aware of the achievements of the Dead Sea Sect (i.e., the Essenes), Jesus demonstrated a closeness in habits and ideology to a group known as the חסידים ואנשי מעשה (“pious ones and men of action”). Listen to what former Professor Shmuel Safrai of the Hebrew University wrote about them:
“Many traditions testify to hasidim [pietists] who were engaged in attending to public needs and [who] moved among the public, such as the story of the hasid who used to dig pits, holes and caves for wayfarers, or the collection of anecdotes concerning captive women who were followed by two hasidim bent on redeeming them. There are many similar stories.6”
These pious men of action were busy, attending to the public good. They were neither policymakers nor theorists, but doers who constructed shelters for travelers and accepted risk to help women in a dire situation. These men of action were also associated with rainmaking and healing, two highly prized public services.7
Like activists and organizers of our day, Jesus attended to public needs, spoke truth to power, discouraged dedicating one’s life to wealth accumulation, and proclaimed the advent of a new movement. When speaking of this movement, he referred to it as the kingdom of heaven (i.e., the kingdom of God) and sometimes used his special term in the phrase to enter the kingdom of heaven. He also spoke of inheriting eternal life (i.e., going to heaven after death). In rabbinic literature, the early rabbis spoke of receiving the kingdom of heaven. The three verbs are worth noting.
In the Christian theological tradition, a tendency to conflate the kingdom of heaven and eternal life started very early. The two concepts comingled with each other, and the two phrases—to enter the kingdom of heaven and to inherit eternal life—became more or less synonymous in sermons and teachings. This tendency started so early that it left discernable traces in the New Testament. The kingdom of heaven and eternal life, however, were originally two independent concepts that shared some overlap.8
According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven in two ways. First, he used it to describe God intervening in earthly affairs:
Εἰ δὲ ἐν δακτύλῳ θεοῦ ἐγὼ ἐκβάλλω τὰ δαιμόνια,
ἄρα ἔφθασεν ἐφ᾽ ὑμᾶς ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ.
If I expel demons by the finger of God,
then the kingdom of God has come upon you.9
The way that Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God (i.e., kingdom of heaven) in this verse reminds one of part of a prayer that is repeated in synagogues around the world every Friday evening. The prayer celebrates God’s intervention on behalf of the Israelites when they were pinned between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s war chariots. The important line reads as follows:
מלכותך ראו בניך
בוקע ים לפני משה
זה אלי ענו
Your children saw your kingdom
[when you] split the sea before Moses.
They exclaimed, This is my God!10
In rabbinic texts, the demonstrative pronoun zeh (i.e., this) can be a pointing word.11 Here it may have suggested to early Jewish commentators that the people pointed at their God as he parted the waters.
Secondly, Jesus referred to those who had responded to his new initiative as constituting the kingdom of heaven.
Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι,
ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
because the kingdom of heaven is [composed] of them.12
In other words, people who enter the kingdom of heaven are poor in spirit. They depend on God for everything. This dependency is a requirement for a simple reason: Those who enter the kingdom of heaven usually find themselves serving the public in circumstances of extreme hardship and at great risk.
Although I may be a candidate for inheriting eternal life because of my lightly packed knapsack of good works and God’s densely stocked warehouse of grace, I do not regard myself as having entered the kingdom of heaven. Allow me to step aside and recommend medical director Thomas Catena of Mother of Mercy Hospital, which is located in the Nuba mountains of Sudan, and his coworkers as examples of people who may have entered the kingdom of heaven.13
Without a doubt, some readers of this blog post can identify others whose superlative lives merit the same recommendation.
If I were to compose a motto for the kingdom of heaven, I would propose: The obedience of the few profits the many. Four hundred years before Jesus, the classical Greek philosopher Socrates conducted his life in a manner that foreshadowed this characterization. Always obedient to the Voice who whispered restraint, Socrates described himself as the “benefactor” of the “men of Athens”––one poor man whom God had given to the city, in the role of a “gadfly,” to arouse, persuade, and reproach its citizens through public instruction and without remuneration.14
God underwrites the kingdom of heaven’s capital-less economy, and the poor in spirit flourish within it. Dogmas and doctrines cannot clarify its mysteries; walls of institutions can neither stop its penetration nor contain its expansive, centrifugal dynamic.15 Accordingly, the kingdom of heaven may start up anywhere––within any institution, within any organization, and within any creed.16
My characterization of the kingdom of heaven has been influenced by Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who said: “There is only one God and He is God to all . . . everyone is seen as equal before God. . . . we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic.”17 A radical and ultimate conclusion of seeking to become a better who-you-are could draw a person toward the kingdom of heaven.
Let us evenly apply the brakes and slow down, put on the turn signal, and look at this subject from another angle. Former Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University described one of Jesus’s objectives as a “transvaluation of all values.”18 That transvaluation has attracted the attention of others and won their approval in some cases. When Dr. Charles Eastman was working as an organizer for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), he met with groups from the Cheyenne, Cree, Ojibway, Sioux, and other indigenous nations. In these meetings, Eastman presented “in simple language the life and character of the Man Jesus.” On one occasion, after hearing the Anglo-Sioux doctor speak, an old warrior stood up and said:
“We have followed this law you speak of for untold ages! We owned nothing, because everything is from Him. Food was free, land free as sunshine and rain. Who has changed all this?”19
This elderly gentleman heartily endorsed Jesus’s approach to economics. In his words, I hear echoes of Mt 5:45 and 6:25–34. These 11 verses from Matthew’s Gospel belong to a special part of the Synoptic tradition (i.e., the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke). That special part is called the Sermon on the Mount. His comment also highlighted a conflict between Jesus’s agenda and the values held by Americans whose gene pool of European origins had been absorbing the ideology of free-market capitalism, in both the Old and New World, for a century or more. Remember that capital-less economy underwritten by whom?
Eastman himself gave a more precise insight that is worth noting for our purpose:
“The Christ ideal might be radical, visionary, even impractical, as judged in the light of my later experiences; it still seemed to me logical, and in line with most of my Indian training.”20
The clear-eyed doctor saw the yawning divide between American society and its values, on the one hand, and the kingdom of heaven and its values––which he called the Christ ideal––on the other. Moreover, Eastman described most of his Indian training as being in alignment with the values of the Christ ideal. He also recognized that the philosophy of the education that he had received as a child and the values of the kingdom of heaven (i.e., the Christ ideal)––although lacking pragmatism, perhaps relevance, as well, in the modern world of the early 20th century––were radical and visionary.
Another beneficiary of Jesus’s transvaluation of all values was Mohandas Gandhi, who, incidentally, thought that politics was a very good place for religion: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”21 Chicago Tribune reporter William L. Shirer covered the independence movement in India. During that time, he became a personal friend of Gandhi. They had regular opportunities to converse, and Shirer heard him explain his opinion on many topics.
In his memoir, the newspaperman recorded Gandhi’s feelings toward Christianity:
“Though Gandhi got his principal religious inspiration from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, on whose poetic teachings, he said, he tried to base the conduct of his life, he was strongly attracted to Christianity.”
As a starting point, Shirer’s remark about Gandhi’s attraction to Christianity is interesting, but too general. Fortunately, he provided more detail in the next paragraph:
“The New Testament he loved. ‘Especially the Sermon on the Mount,’ he would say. ‘It goes straight to my heart. Like the Gita!’ And he would sing out the words ‘. . . whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to do, and to induce others to do, all my life,’ he would say. ‘It is the basis of my creed of non-violence.’” 22
I italicized Sermon on the Mount because we already encountered this special part of the Synoptic Gospels. Gandhi approved highly of the values contained in the sermon. He even credited Mt 5:39 for serving as the basis of his nonviolent approach to effect independence from the British empire through civil disobedience. He took the sermon’s teaching at face value; he accepted its plain meaning. At this point, the reader should not be surprised to learn that the values of the kingdom of heaven are concentrated in the Sermon on the Mount. I cannot think of a more value-laden part of the Synoptic Gospels than this sermon.
To derive greater benefit from the values associated with the kingdom of heaven––in terms of their relevance in this precarious moment; their application to the struggle for economic and social justice, for defending the environment, and for scaling back on military spending and interventions––we need to examine the relationship between entering the kingdom of heaven and inheriting eternal life. The question should be asked: Are these two achievements identical?23 When they are disentangled from each other, a conservative Jesus with some stunningly progressive values steps forward from a morass of tradition, theology, and scholarly opinion. These same values, Eastman described as radical and visionary.
The scientific community has issued a call to action. That call, we can ignore only at great peril to ourselves and to the other creatures with whom we share planet Earth. We must make a choice: reorient our values or take a risky gamble, using our biosphere as the poker chip. I find the stakes far too high for gambling and, therefore, recommend that we start the search for new collectively shared values, immediately.
- With 15 other contributors, Earth System Scientist Will Steffen coauthored the article “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America earlier this year.
The use of the word “habitable” in the phrase “habitable interglacial-like state” caught the attention of this writer.
- I added the italicization in each of the three excerpts from the article.
- Politicians are increasingly acknowledging that our response to climate change may have existential consequences. They too are adopting new ways of speaking about the problem. Consider the political assessment of Senator Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá and the candidate who placed second in Columbia’s most recent presidential elections:
“I no longer divide politics into left and right. . . . Today politics is divided between the politics of life and the politics of death. Climate change worldwide separates us into two major sides. . . . [On the side of life], you have those of us who want to respond and adapt as quickly as possible.”
- Recent examples of people who are looking to history for solutions include author and activist Brett Hennig and historian David Van Reybrouck, who promote an idea that Aristotle the Chalcidian helped popularize: sortition, a form of democracy that does not depend exclusively on elections.
In his book Political Illiberalism: A Defense of Freedom (republished 2018), Professor of Philosophy Peter L. Simpson clobbered the ideology of Neoliberalism in a way that only a classicist could do. I can recommend the chapter “Anti-Federalists and Federalists on the US Articles of Confederation” as an enlightening treatment of an early patch of American history with which too few Americans are familiar. Simpson is known for his academic work on Aristotle and relies on the ancient philosopher in his critique of Neoliberalism.
- Josephus Flavius referred to Jesus as a sage, and Lucan from Samosata called him “the crucified sophist.” Former Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University wrote:
“When Jesus’ sayings are examined against the background of contemporaneous Jewish learning, however, it is easy to observe that Jesus was far from uneducated. He was perfectly at home both in holy scripture and in oral tradition, and he knew how to apply this scholarly heritage. Moreover, Jesus’ Jewish education was incomparably superior to that of St. Paul.”
David Flusser, Jesus, 2d corrected and augmented ed. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University) 1998, pp. 29-30.
- Shmuel Safrai, “Teaching of Pietists in Mishnaic Literature,” Journal of Jewish Studies 16 (1965), 17.
For a study centering on Jesus and his relationship to hasidut, see Shmuel Safrai’s
״ישׁו והתנועה החסידית״ in the Proceedings of the World Union of Jewish Studies, div. B, vol. 1 (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1990), 1-7. In this article, which was written in modern Hebrew, Safrai noted that this stream of hasidut began in the first century B.C.E. and faded from rabbinic Judaism in the beginning of the third century C.E.
- Honi the Circle Drawer gained the reputation of a rainmaker ( Taanit 3:8); Hanina ben Dosa had a reputation for knowing whether a person for whom he prayed would live or die (m. Berachot 5:5).
- The Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) includes an article on the kingdom of God by Kaufmann Kohler. Rabbi Kohler touches on the tendency to identify eternal life (e., the world to come) with the kingdom of God (i.e., the kingdom of heaven). An excerpt from that article follows:
“Jesus preached the same Kingdom of God (Matthew has preserved in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ the rabbinical expression ‘Malkut Shamayim’) . . . .When, however, the trend of events led early Christianity to make a decided disavowal of all political expectations antagonistic to Rome, the conception of the Kingdom of God was made an entirely spiritual one, and was identified with the ‘olam ha-ba’ (= ‘the world to come’), the spiritual life.”
The Hebrew phrase “olam ha-ba” may be translated literally as “the world to come” or dynamically as “eternal life.”
Another standard reference work also has an article on the kingdom of God.
“In Christ’s teaching the kingdom of God is also declared to be actually present as He spoke and its coming is represented as a present . . . reality. . . . It is possible that this conception of the Kingdom as a present reality may have occupied a considerably more prominent place in the Lord’s teaching than it fills in the Gospels and elsewhere in the NT, where its centrality may have been displaced. . . .”
I added the italicized font. One of the purposes of this piece was to direct thoughtful consideration to this possibility. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2d ed., sub verbo “KINGDOM OF GOD, The.”
- Luke 11:20
- The Hebrew line of the prayer comes from the former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire Joseph H. Hertz’s Daily Prayer Book: Hebrew Text, English Translation with Commentary and Notes (reprinted 1985), p. 370. Rabbi Hertz translated the Hebrew word מלכותך as “thy sovereign power.” The demonstrative phrase This is my God / זה אלי is a quotation from Exodus 15:2.
- Compare Leviticus Rabbah 11:9 and Rosh Hashanah 2:8.
- Matthew 5:3. This translation treats the genitive pronoun αὐτῶν as a partitive genitive. Most English translations render the pronoun as a possessive genitive (e., theirs).
I offer William W. Tomes, Jr., of Chicago as another recommendation for somebody who may have entered the kingdom of heaven. Tomes helped gang members in Chicago housing projects on the city’s Near North Side.
- Socrates’s defense at his trial is accessible online. I benefitted from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Apology, which is available at the Internet Classics Archive
Regarding the Voice, Mohandas Gandhi also relied on a voice at key moments in the struggle for India’s independence for knowing what to do next and when to do it. William L. Shirer, Gandhi: A Memoir (New York: Washington Square Press/Pocket Books, 1982), pp. 87, 216.
- In the mid-eighties, Diane Rehm interviewed Albert “Race Hoss” Sample, who served 17 years in prison, on The Diane Rehm Show. While in solitary confinement at the Retrieve Unit, known today as the Wayne Scott Unit, in Brazoria County, Texas, Sample encountered the Light. To echo the jargon of Jesus, one could say that the kingdom of heaven came into that cell. A prison is a good example of an institution with thick walls. Institutional walls also may be built from the bricks and mortar of ideology and doctrine. In the audio, the relevant segment runs from 38:10 to 43:10. In the transcript, the relevant section begins at 10:45:57 and ends at 10:48:38.
- Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife Bilquis Bano Edhi, who ran the Edhi Foundation in Karachi together until Abdul Sattar’s death in 2016, lived lives that are consistent with the values of the kingdom of heaven. I recommend both of them as another example to consider alongside Catena and Tomes. On 28 July 2009, National Public Radio broadcast a segment and published a story on the Edhis by international correspondent Julie McCarthy.
- A Simple Faith, compiled by Lucinda Vardey (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), p. 31.
- Flusser, 97.
- Charles A. Eastman, From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977), p.
- Eastman, From the Deep Woods to Civilization, 138.
- Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1957; reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p. 504.
- Shirer, Gandhi: A Memoir, pp. 246, 247. On page 66 of his memoir, Shirer wrote:
“Two or three times he had touched briefly on what he called the value of comparative religion, suggesting that I give it some thought. Perhaps he had sensed my skepticism about my own Christian religion, which he himself said had so inspired him. Though a devout Hindu, he had explained that his religion was really a compound of the best in his own and other religions: in Buddhism, with its wisdom about man’s lot on this earth; in Mohammedanism, which he liked for its appeal for brotherhood; and above all in Christianity, as revealed in the New Testament.”
- The Rich Young Man story, which is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, should be read slowly before answering this question. See Matthew 19:16–24 and Luke 18:18–25. The encounter was initiated by the rich young man when he came to Jesus, seeking his opinion on the “good” (of Micah 6:8) that God requires ( Mt 19:16). In Luke’s version, the rich young man became sad, but remained in Jesus’s presence while Jesus looked at him and made his famous remark about a camel passing through the eye of a needle.