The Politics of Heaven and the Longing of Earth

There seems to be no shortage of evidence that our politics have become increasingly tribalistic. Every day we are offered a fresh batch of reasons why liberalism has failed. And while a plethora of commentators are eager to provide analysis explaining what’s wrong with our society, and there are certainly plenty of politicians pledging to solve our problems, none of these luminaries have actually made good on their promises.

This may be an indication of the inadequacy of our politicians, but perhaps we’d do better seeing an indicator of the limits of our political imagination in our current metaphysical situation. For we are pilgrims in this world and we will always have a lover’s quarrel with it, regardless of the political structures we build and inhabit.

The liturgy of the Solemnity of All Saints, which the Catholic Church celebrated this week, sheds light on this predicament. In the first reading of the Mass we have the following.

I had a vision of a great multitude,
  which no one could count,
  from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
  wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice:
  “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne,
  and from the Lamb.”

(Revelation 7:9-10)

This text from the Revelation of St. John is widely accepted to be a vision of the heavenly city in eternity. In other words it is a poetic image that reveals to us something about our ultimate destiny and calling as human beings. There are a number of elements in this image that are revelatory not only of the eschatological reality to which we are called, but also of our present condition as sojourners on the way to our eternal home.

These elements are particularly revealing of our contemporary political factions, all of which – being human and therefore sharing in our common nature – necessarily yearn for the final end for which we have been created.

The first element to be emphasized is that heaven is a city, a polis, a people. It seems hardly necessary to argue that the longing for community is hardwired in human nature. All of us crave incessantly to be together with a people, in our families, friendships, workforces, sports teams, book clubs, social networks, and yes, in our political parties.1 The scripture seems to be telling us that this is not only natural, it is supernatural; it is part and parcel of our heavenly destiny to live in communion with one another. No wonder then that our community allegiances, from the familial to the nationalistic, elicit the most powerful passions – they are intimations of the eternally passionate communion of saints for which we are created.

The second element is the hierarchical nature of the heavenly communion. The people are united together precisely in their communal adoration of the one true God; indeed their very communion is constituted by the common object of their worship, their common good. There is a throne to which the people willingly – ecstatically – bend their knees. Rather than demeaning the people, the scripture presents their voluntary submission to the true King of Kings2 as a glorified state, because through their worship they are united to God who loved them into being for this sacred destiny. Can we hear an echo of the longing for this destiny in the willingness of people the world over to submit to a “strong man” leader, or in the impulse towards nationalism?

The third element that bears noting is the cosmopolitanism of the heavenly city. St. John tells us that the “multitude” is “from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” Despite our obvious national, racial, cultural, and linguistic differences, we are, all of us, destined to be united together as one human family. The history of our species, which may be reasonably construed as a history of conflict and warfare, may make us cynical of such a destiny, and yet we still yearn for it. Can we hear an echo of this yearning in the insistence that we abolish all forms of institutional discrimination, welcome every minority and migrant, and advance the agenda of globalism?

A fourth element in St. John’s vision is its messianism. It is precisely the Lamb that the people are united in worshipping, the true sacrifice of God that has expiated all our countless transgressions and paid the price of our admission to the heavenly city. He is a Savior King, and we long for Him precisely because we know, consciously or subconsciously, that we need saving. Can we hear an echo of this longing to be saved in the political messianism which surrounds us daily?

What is more remarkable than any one element in St. John’s depiction of heaven is that all the elements appear to be harmoniously united. Where have we ever seen a people at once cosmopolitan and hierarchical? In modern English the very terms seem to connote opposite visions of the good. Yet in heaven all is one, with the transcendent goodness of God reconciling lesser goods that for us have become warring factions.

And here is the instructive point for us earthly pilgrims. Partial goods, abstracted from the whole, can never unite a divided humanity which was created and longs for the transcendent Highest Good. Furthermore we must recognize that – even this side of heaven – it is only common goods that constitute a people. Private goods inevitably divide, as the economists have been noting for years with the notion of “scarcity”. All the way back in the fifth century St. Augustine pointed out that there can be no lasting peace in the earthly city, because the “earthly peace” is “purchased by toilsome wars”, and based upon the enjoyment of earthly goods which by their finite nature cannot satisfy all the people who fight over them.3

What then are we to do this side of heaven? Rather than reducing our political factions to mere instances of our eschatological longing, we should rather see in this scripture an exaltation of politics, human and divine. Furthermore by seeing our earthly concerns in a far wider frame we can better find a way forward in dialogue with each other. If we can recognize that the seemingly disparate elements of our political agendas are united in our heavenly destiny, perhaps we can recognize that the other side of the aisle is not crazy or wicked after all, they’re just longing for heaven under a different aspect than we are, but we’re all longing for heaven.

Most importantly, what St. John’s vision teaches us is that we must relativize our earthly politics in light of divine polity, and what that heavenly city reveals above all is that it is only Christ that can unite the fragmented parts of the whole for which we yearn. Therefore, if we wish to heal our political wounds, we ought to first of all turn to the One who can heal us, for it is in union with Him that we will find reconciliation with each other.

 

 

  1. The phenomenon of introversion does not contradict this thesis. Even introverts yearn deeply to belong to a community; they just don’t want to spend every waking second with it.
  2. Cf. 1 Timothy 6:15.
  3. Cf. St. Augustine, City of God, Bk. XV, Ch. 4.
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