Three ways of seeing the world
It seems to me that there are three main ways you can look at the world.
The first is monism, and it holds that everything is one. God and the world and heaven and earth and you and me are all one blur, and all our dividing lines are illusions to be wiped away with a warm washcloth. As John Lennon sang, I am the eggman, they are the eggmen, goo goo g’ joob.
This is a favorite in progressive spirituality, and it has a lot going for it. It seems to provide us with a basis for love right down at the root level of existence. It also has a ready-made type of salvation: simply wake up to the illusion you’re living in. Simply wipe away the lines between you and the rest of existence.
Its answer to the problem of evil is also simple. Pain and suffering and so on are simply inescapable things, and it’s up to you to adjust yourself to them. You need to learn to see past these problems, and embrace the world as it is. And since God is one with the world, and these problems still exist, they must actually not be bad things.
The second way is dualism, and it holds that God and the world are poles apart. In some forms of the idea, this separation is even due to human sin — we’re so evil, God has to stay a universe away.
This is a favorite in conservative spirituality, and it’s compelling for a couple of reasons. It seems to provide us with a natural framework: the world is bad, God is good, and whatever is least like the world is what we should pursue. For some people, that means cultivating the mind instead of the body. For others, it means practicing religion instead of engaging with culture. For still others, it means actively rejecting any truth claims but one’s own.
Salvation in this framework can mean escapist visions, like the Left Behind series, where a select few people are snatched up to heaven, and the rest of the world gets to burn. Or it can mean simple negation, where people feel that their body is a cage, and they are just waiting to escape it.
Its answer to the problem of evil is likewise simple: God is letting this place go to hell, and you shouldn’t expect any different.
The third way is less known. We might call it conversion, because it holds that heaven and earth are in the process of coming together. This, to my mind, is the worldview of great Christian writers like CS Lewis, NT Wright, JRR Tolkien, and GK Chesterton. In this view, and really only in this view, time and history play an important role.
Here, it is not simply that God is good and we are bad; rather, God is good, and we are in the process of being conformed to his image. Nor is it simply that heaven is great and earth is hell; rather, heaven is filled with the glory of God, and the earth is coming to progressively reflect that glory.
This seems to be what Jesus had in mind when he prayed: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Salvation in this framework isn’t escapism, it’s resurrection. It is life fighting back against death, it is the light overcoming the darkness. It is transformation in the present, and the promise of ongoing and ever more dramatic transformation in the future.
And here, the answer to the problem of evil is pragmatic instead of theological. Instead of telling us why things are often so bad, it insists that we must work to make them better. And it assures us that God himself is doing the same.
In my mind, the first view is compelling, but ultimately demoralizing. If you want to make the world better, you must be sure not to want it too hard, because striving too much against the way things are is a moral failure on your part, a giving in to the great illusion.
Similarly, the second view has a lot to offer, but also serves to destroy your motivation for doing good. If this place is going to burn, why bother making it better? Why bother improving the schools or the libraries or the parks? Why bother starting a business or working for a good cause? If all of this is horrific anyway, why waste the effort? Why not (to put a twist on Paul) just eat and drink, knowing that tomorrow all the good things we work for will die?
Only in the third view can I see a way forward, a way to fully engage as a human being in making the world better. Here, we do not accept the world as it is, nor do we reject it as incapable of redemption. Instead, we recognize the good, God-given nature of everything, as well as his intense desire to reclaim what he has made. Here, we do not accept politics as usual, nor resign ourselves to the evils of existence. Here, we affirm our physicality, yet look forward to transformation. Here, we cherish the past, and yet are not chained to it. Here, we value the present, but do not make it an idol.
Here, we have a future.