In our posting on the “contract on the Episcopalians,” we referenced a comment by the new Presiding Bishop about her disparagement of the importance of eternal life. It’s probably worthwhile to reproduce that particular dialogue (ADG is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; KJS is of course Katherine Jefferts-Schori):
ADG: That reminds me of something else you said. This was a CNN interview when Kyra Phillips asked you what happens when we die. You had an interesting answer that got some Southern Baptists riled up.
KJS: OK. I didn’t hear their reaction.
ADG: Al Mohler – I don’t know whether you’re familiar with him –
KJS: I’m not.
ADG: He’s a seminary president [at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville] and has a blog and a radio show. [Mohler posted the exchange on his Web site]. It seemed to some people that you were saying there isn’t an afterlife.
KJS: I don’t think Jesus was focused on that. I think Jesus was focused on heaven in this life, primarily. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always said yes, there is resurrection. There is life after death. But I think Jesus was not so worried about that. I think he’s worried about what we’re doing to treat our fellow human beings as children of God. He says the kingdom of heaven is among you, and within you, and around you.
ADG: So does that mean that in your view there is no afterlife?
KJS: That’s not what I said. I said what I think Jesus is more concerned about is heavenly existence, eternal life, in this life.
ADG: So there again, that’s partly why the Millennium Development Goals are important to you? To improve people’s lives now?
KJS: Absolutely. The Anglican tradition of Christianity is world-affirming, it is focused on incarnation, and it insists that we’re not meant to shut ourselves off from the world in a pietistic sense or in a sectarian sense. That we’re meant to be in the world, and transforming the world into something that looks more like the reign of God.
ADG: Do you think there’s any part of us that lives on somewhere after we die?
KJS: Absolutely. But that’s not a question that concerns me day in and day out. I think I’m meant to use the gifts I have to transform the world in this life.
Only infinite things, such as eternity and salvation, cannot be equalled by any temporal advantage: and as such one cannot compare them with the things of this world. This is why the least degree of means to be saved is worth more than all of the goods of this world put together; and the least peril of being lost is more considerable than all of the temporal evils considered only as evils.
This is enough for all reasonable persons to make them come to this conclusion, by which we end this Logic: the greatest of all unwise things is to use one’s time and life for something else than to work towards and acquire something that never ends, since all of the good things and all of the evils of this life are nothing in comparison to those of the other, and that the danger of falling into these evils is very great, as well as the difficulty of obtaining the good things.
Those that come to this conclusion, and who follow them in the conduct of their life, are prudent and wise, whether they be little correct in all of the reasonings concerning matters of science; and those who do not, whether they be correct in all of the rest…make a bad usage of Logic, of reason, and of life.
Christians aren’t the only ones interested in eternity. When Muhammad led his followers in their first war against a neighbouring state in the name of Allah, he exhorted them as follows:
O ye who believe; what is the matter with you that, when it is said to you, go forth in the way of ALLAH, you sink down heavily towards the earth? Are you contented with the present life in the preference to the Hereafter? But the enjoyment of the present life is but little compared to the Hereafter. If you will not go forth to fight in the cause of ALLAH, HE will punish you with a painful punishment, and will chose in your stead a people other than you, and you shall do HIM no harm at all. And ALLAH has full power over all things. (Sura 9:38-39)
Such words have inspired jihadis for fourteen hundred years, and certainly do so today. Although we believe that these jihadis are in for a rude awakening when they blow themselves into eternity, nevertheless both Muhammad on the one hand and Arnauld and Nicole on the other recognise one thing: nothing in this finite life compares with the infinity that is eternity.
Based on the relation between the finite and the infinite (a subject we beat to death in My Lord and My God,) the Presiding Bishop’s contention cannot stand. But there are other reasons as well.
First, her idea that “Jesus is more concerned about is heavenly existence, eternal life, in this life” doesn’t square with what he said in the Gospels, starting with John 3:16 and moving forward. What the Positive Infinity New Testament calls “Immortal life” is the centre of the cosmic game plan in the New Testament. She (and you) might also consider the following:
“For, if the dead do not rise, then even Christ himself has not been raised, And, if Christ has not been raised, your faith is folly-your sins are on you still! Yes, and they, who have passed to their rest in union with Christ, perished! If all that we have done has been to place our hope in Christ for this life, then we of all men are the most to be pitied. But, in truth, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who are at rest. For, since through a man there is death, so, too, through a man there is a resurrection of the dead. For, as through union with Adam all men die, so through union with the Christ will all be made to live.” (1 Corinthians 15:16-22)
Second, her idea that this worldly/other worldly goals are mutually exclusive are the musings of someone who has wasted too much time in the upper reaches of our society.
Third, as a liberal she may be a univeralist. In this case, what you do in this life and what happens afterwards have no relationship one with another. There are many excellent demonstrations that the Scriptures teach that there is more than possible result in eternity, and we will allow these to speak for themselves. For our part, we continue to contend, as we did in The Three That Grows in Heaven, that life in the palms teaches that, if there is a “default option” for eternity, it isn’t heaven.
And that leads us to what is in our view the most compelling argument against the Presiding Bishop. In the novel At the Inlet, the heroine, having just been ordained as her Anglican province’s first woman minister, ends her first sermon at her first Holy Communion as follows:
When I came here, your dear Chancellor wished me long life here, for which I am grateful. But this life is too painful to love it so much. ‘Jesus, in the days of his earthly life, offered prayers and supplications, with earnest cries and with tears, to him who was able to save him from death; and he was heard because of his devout submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from his sufferings; and, being made perfect, he became to all those who obey him the source of eternal Salvation.’ ‘And so Jesus, also, to purify the People by his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go out to him ‘outside the camp,’ bearing the same reproaches as he; for here we have no permanent city, but are looking for the City that is to come.’
This life is too painful to put the stock in it that Katherine Jefferts-Schori does, and her responses to those who don’t agree with her–like those in Northern Virginia–only make it more so.
*The introduction to the site has been subsequently changed.