Who rules the world?
In thinking about worlds – the ones we are experiencing, the ones we’d rather be in, and the one’s proposed as possible and available to us – there is a significant factor that comes to mind. It is the question of governance. What are the things – values, ideas, expectations, even personalities – that govern this world? What, or maybe better, who gets to decide what happens or how things happen in this world?
After living a decent amount of life, I think I can confidently say that there is much more about life that I cannot predict than what I think I can. I used to concentrate on context, situational understanding, to navigate life. I think I’m shifting. I now know that contexts can change – circumstance and situations will come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The thing that seems to be consistent is that people are involved. Personalities, histories, dreams, narratives, thinking, acting, and relating all come to bear down on contexts, and profoundly shape them.
For example, a person who can accept (but not necessarily celebrate) the grief that comes with deep loss, will have a different contribution to any situation than either a person who cannot accept the grief, or a person who celebrates the pain of it.
I’ve also noticed that I have a tendency to like principles and rules as a governing idea. Just tell me explicitly what the right choice is and I’ll be good. Tell me how to explicitly measure the goodness or evil that is a jumbled mess around me and I will feel equipped to navigate my world. I so deeply want to know – to be sure that I make right choices, good choices. Doubt here can be a crippling thing. In the middle, between crippling doubt and complete knowledge, is trust. Trust is placed in whatever we think can bridge the gap between the end of our rope and the beginning of our vision. Whatever it is must occupy a position of greater knowledge than we have, of greater power than we have, and of greater love than we have. In thinking about worlds, this position is normally occupied by the governor.
Structure and Character
As we relate to one another, and attempt to do things together, some structure of organization inevitably arises. These structures are neither inherently good nor inherently evil. Rather, they arise to articulate basic roles and responsibilities. Who gets to decide what? And who will be compelled to act in certain ways on account of these decisions? As hierarchies arise, and responsibilities are delineated, the position of a leader arises. The leader is the ultimate authority. They occupy the top position in the hierarchy. There is no higher. In order for goodness to flow from their leadership, they must be trustworthy. Their knowledge, power, and love, must cover the gap between the end of our own ropes and our collective vision. That makes their leadership good.
I almost wrote the word “unquestionable”, instead of “good”, but that’s not necessarily correct. It actually must be questionable, so as to be testable, to be found to be true and good, and therefore trustworthy. On the human scale this is difficult as we all operate with some degree of blindness to reality, and so we all have the potential to do evil unknowingly. At a large scale, we hope that our leaders are wiser (even more experienced), so as to have less potential for evil (even the unknowing kind). At any scale however, forgiveness is a necessary practice for relationships to form towards goodness, especially in the midst of inevitable evil. At the scale of the proposition of the Kingdom of Heaven – something that is almost inescapable – the character of the governor of such a place is exceptionally important. In every hierarchy – even the flattest ones like bands, committees, or groups – the question of character becomes important.
The question of character applies to everyone. However, it may be more applicable to those who have been afforded the most responsibility. After all, those who have the most responsibility will likely have to make choices that effect the most people. If the choices are not trusted, considered imposing, or worse, outright malicious, those who are being compelled to act on account of the choices will likely resist or rebel.
The Proposition of the Kingdom of Heaven
I keep returning to the proposition of Jesus and the Kingdom of God because it is the most radical proposition I have found – albeit in my limited exploration. Admittedly I grew up in a home that believed the testimonies about Jesus, and pursued a life in light of that belief. However, as I have grown, and revisited these beliefs, I’ve found myself surprised by the underlying assumptions these testimonies allude to. Things I realize I often took for granted, now looking back.
What if there was a world in which the entire hierarchy was flat? No role more important than the other. No voice of greater value than the other. Yet everyone having different roles and different voices, and all being needed in order for the entire structure to function well. What would be required? I suspect the focus would turn towards the kind of people who occupied this world.
What if everyone in this world were kind, gentle, self-composed, joyous, and peaceful, regardless of the “job”? What if they were helpful, generous, creative, and hospitable in their spirit? What if these things were the natural output of their character, not something forced or made to come to life out of imposed, manipulated, or incentivized compulsion? Can you imagine this world?
It may seem like worlds away. Of course, we can take a quick look around and notice how far we might be from a world like that. If we need to get there from where we are, we need a model. Someone to say, “This is the direction to follow.” In the proposition of the Kingdom of Heaven, such direction doesn’t come from contextual awareness, or situational knowledge. It is the person of Jesus. He says, “Follow me.” The testimonies of his life point to his way of being. Where he got his strength from and what he trusted and distrusted. How he interacted with others. His ideas of scale. His requirement of solitude. The proof of his propositions as actual reality. Even his invitation to others to interact, test, and learn, by literally following him. It is all there.
Jesus in turn points to who he is following – his source of knowledge, power, and love – and begins to unveil the personality of God. Here God is conceived as the personality (the spirit) who governs the Kingdom of Heaven. More specifically God is defined as love. Though, notably, love is not defined as God.
In light of the testimonies of Jesus we begin to find a kind of organizational structure. There exists a world, that is the Kingdom of Heaven, in which the experience of life is markedly different than the one we may know. Regardless of similarity or difference, the proposed Kingdom describes a kind wholeness, completeness, and goodness. Something that I’ve found to be fleeting and laborious to experience on earth. The governing spirit in this world is God, who is defined as love. And the model that we are given, and with whom we can test out all of these ideas, is Jesus. Jesus’s life and personality is offered as the path towards entry and immersion in the Kingdom.
This seems simple enough – the organizational structure is there, the leader is in place, and even the model citizen is provided. But there are a few possible stumbling blocks. The nature of the unseen world, the word love, the pathway to knowledge, and natural resistance to change all arise.
Much of this is unseen. Jesus is not standing in front of us in this time and place in the same way other living people may be. God is spirit, which is something unseen by definition. So how then are we to experience it? How are we expected to test the propositions in the seen world, when they are predicated on things that are unseen? Here, there is a necessary engagement of our ability to envision a reality that is unseen, alongside what has been shared with us by trusted sources about the propositions of the Kingdom of Heaven. I trust that we all will be given the answers we need to the questions we ask, such that we might be drawn closer to the truth of all of this. However, we must engage our entire selves in our pursuit if we want to get the fullest answer.
The word Love can bring some challenges with it. If God is the designated governor of the Kingdom of Heaven, and God is love, then by extension the way in which we define love will deeply affect the way we understand God. We must endeavor to define love. I’ve tried. I spent three years trying. I scoured the web to find examples of actions that seemed loving. I used Greek definitions of the word (there are at least four that are relevant) to help me be more specific. I found the word love to be significantly challenged. At times the word is sufficient to describe all the feelings that come with encounters of love – the depths of commitment and care and wonder and hope. At other times the word is confusing, misused and abused, and leads to the worst kind of manipulation. Only recently did I land on a concise definition that rings true and is expansive. Dallas Willard defines love as “willing the good of the object of love.” I’m just going to leave that here for now.
The definition of love begins to show the challenge we may face in defining another word – good or goodness. Defining the word good, brings up questions of morality, ethics, judgement, and justice. What is good? These are all incredibly important and may be difficult topics to engage in. Especially in a world that in many corners has rescinded its responsibility to pass on moral knowledge from one generation to the next. Today many institutions abstain from even talking about it as something that can be attained. However, the discussion and the formation that would flow from experimentation in this area is desperately needed.
This leads us to the definition of knowledge itself. Many of us have experienced or witnessed the idea of having known something, but not acting on it, or rather not acting as if it were true. There is cognitive dissonance when someone says something like, “I believe in loving my neighbor,” but then avoids them at every turn. The cognitive dissonance and example not withstanding, knowledge of an idea, concept, thought, or proved fact, is best express when we act on it. When we do this we are having an interactive relationship with what we say we know. What does that mean? It means that we are playing with it, we are trying different things with it – like acting as if it were not true, just to see what happens – and are interacting with it.
Now here’s the big idea. If the Kingdom of Heaven is governed by God, and part of the experience of being in the Kingdom of Heaven is knowing God, and knowledge is interactive relationship, then we are called to an interactive relationship with God. Our experience of the Kingdom of Heaven is almost predicated on what this interactive relationship looks like. Well, what can it look like? It might look like a bunch of different things. At the core, regardless of outward expression, it is a willingness to engage with, try out, and judge (correct or not) the ideas about God that are proposed. These ideas are proposed in a number of places. The Bible and other writings, considered sacred or not, offer propositions. In this endeavor we might also be on the lookout for propositions that would replace god with something else – success, fame, money, riches, or even ourselves. Some of these propositions are worthy thought exercises…others we don’t even have to entertain on account of the testimonies of others who have already tried. Either way, if we want to know about the Kingdom or its governor, the key is to engage.