By Alexander Earl
I was sitting on a plane the other week on my way home from a conference when the gentleman sitting next to me, upon learning I taught theology and philosophy, asked, “So what time period do you think Moses lived?” He followed up that question with an inquiry about which seal from the Book of Revelation I thought we were on. These kinds of questions always startle me. As a teacher, they continue to challenge any preconceived notions I have as to what kinds of questions people are interested in. I have been formally thinking about curricula for the past couple of years, and while it is clear where I want my students to end, the kinds of skills they should have, what kind of vices they should un-learn through the journey, and so forth, it is always an open question as to the best way, the best sequence, to get them there.
That sequence is more complex when you consider this man’s questions to me. For not only in the classroom, but in any conversation, at any moment we have to share the beauty and complexity of the Gospel, we must ask ourselves, where to begin? It’s an important pedagogical question. I can’t say with any certainty where this man came from or why he had the questions he did; all I can say is that the first thing that came to my mind was that these questions were acutely American ones. I don’t say that because I possess some rich experience of the world and its inhabitants. I more-so speak historically: it is not the kind of question I’ve encountered studying theology and philosophy. It is not the kind of question I find the great theologians and saints concerned about. That leads me to think it is not quite the right question. Not because it wasn’t asked in the past as if by some principle of rigid traditionalism, but because it doesn’t even seem in the same spirit. It has somehow missed the mark or is moving in unfruitful directions. Since we believe that the saints are indelible manifestations of the work of the Spirit, then missing the mark in this case should alarm us. Something has gone wrong, something needs correction.
To this end, the best teachers I’ve known are capable of taking misplaced questions, cutting to the heart of them, and reorienting them in intellectually fruitful ways. A charitable reorienting is the mark of good pedagogy. How do we bring about palpable conversion of vision, metanoia? One method that’s continued to be useful to me is a rather simple question: what’s the point? Why is this question important? What are the ramifications of the answers? I find a passage from the Gospel of Luke particularly apt here:
Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
It is almost as if I was being asked just this question. When is it? Where is it? What seal are we on? When and where was Moses? Is it here, or is it there? There is a lot of temporal and spatial language here. I also suspect deep down there is a concern about being a part of the experience. I need to know the whens and wheres or I’ll miss out. That’s an understandable concern, one that shouldn’t be dismissed. Nonetheless, Christ always challenges our assumptions, and in this case says that the Kingdom is within.
Yet the term ‘within’ is dangerous talk. It is dangerous for those who are hellbent on finding it without, that is, outside themselves, but it is also dangerous for those who go within unprepared. Speaking existentially, the former finds disintegration and desolation of their very selves pulled apart by so many endeavors, so many little projects, that they have no center of gravity to keep them whole. It takes but a little push to descend into an identity crisis. Speaking spiritually (and there is always a ‘spiritually’ at stake), I have often found something related with my students who wax a little fundamentalist. Somehow their whole faith hinges on historical questions, whether Genesis is literal and so on. They speak of, and engage with, the Old Testament like it’s a source of data to prove their faith. You have the prophecies of Christ, and you have all the historical and archeological details. They’ve somehow come to think historical accuracy reveals metaphysical truth. They’re shocked to learn that the Fathers did things quite differently and instead found in the Old Testament Christ, in every jot and tittle. To inquiries about some discrete historical truth of the Old Testament, I can only respond that the truth of Genesis is Christ, the truth of Moses is Christ. It is all Christ, and how liberating Christ is!
As for those who travel within, it is all too easy to find a mirror of a thousand pleasures; like the tale of Narcissus they fall into their own reflection: narcissism. The fruits of this perverse turn inward are varied and numerous: egoism, relativism, and pseudo-spirituality, among others. I think the difficulty of our time is that it would be convenient to say we’ve descended into mere externals: a society gone secular left to be consumed by unchecked materialism and hedonism. The truth is more painful. If we are at bottom religious creatures, that is, creatures that will always worship and pursue the transcendent, then secularism is a fabrication. Contrary to Nietzsche, there will never be the “death of God,” just the trading of one vision for another; if we tend toward nihilism by attempting to reduce the transcendent to the immanent, then we will have to start capitalizing the N. Not even ‘Nothing’ will escape our capacity to construct idols. All of that to say, both the directions of without and within can be toxic and destructive, both can be liable to the most perverse fundamentalism and self-delusion.
But let us look more closely at how Jesus answers the questions of whens and wheres. He goes on to warn us, “They will say to you, ‘Look here!’ or ‘Look there!’ Do not go after them or follow them.” In short, there is no place we need to run to. We should not be concerned with a where. If you ask “where is the kingdom,” the answer is “nowhere.” But why? Simply put, there is nothing outside ourselves that will satisfy us. We have made a mistake in thinking the material is the condition for the spiritual. To this point, Christ exhorts us to imagine lightning flashing from heaven and filling the earth. As it is with lightning, so it is with Christ. We need to reverse the order; it is not from earth to heaven, but from heaven to earth. We will not find heaven by looking to the earth; we will find earth by looking to heaven.
To be more precise, we will only find the fullness of reality, ‘earth,’ in heaven, and that is not some post-embodied state in the hereafter. That would be to let go of the where while holding on to a when. Let us not forget the beginning of this passage when the Pharisees ask, “When is the Kingdom?” Not only is there no “where,” but there is no “when.” The kingdom is not a question of space or time. We cannot go about life thinking our fulfillment comes at some when or some where. Our fulfillment is not at X place at Y time. It is now, through the Eternal Now that broke into space and time in the person of Jesus Christ, and is present to us now through the Spirit, not in some distant past, not in some unforeseeable future, but now.
Through the example of Noah the Lord teaches us about the futility of placing our hope in such externals. It says, “They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage” right before the flood; so too with Lot, “They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built” before the city was destroyed by fire. If we want to find the real kingdom, the real source of our meaning, we must take flight from these material concerns. We love to be busy bodies, to occupy ourselves with every distraction imaginable, anything to keep us from the silence where the heart encounters God. The real danger is our distractions can sometimes guise themselves as ‘spiritual’ ones. Let us be warned, we will drown in the flood of distraction and we will burn out in the flames of preoccupation. And what will be left of us afterwards besides a pile of material things which moth and rust will destroy? Any material thing can be lost, and if it can be lost, then I’m vulnerable to the pain that comes from its removal, a removal that is inevitable given the fragility of all material things. Over time that pain will eventually leave me an empty shell of a human being, whether I recognize it or not. I will give up my soul, and not even gain the world. I will trade everything for nothing. Moses will not save me. Archeological dirt will not save me. Genealogies will not save me. Institutions will not save me. Only living communion with Jesus Christ will transfigure the cosmos.
That claim upon my life is more radical than we can fathom. It would perhaps be easy enough if by material things Christ meant material luxuries, or abstract ideals capable of inspiring submission. The radical nationalist or budding guerilla warrior may easily give up material comfort and think they have succeeded in the call to renunciation; the financier who is apolitical and ideologically allergic may be enthralled to the acquisition of shiny gadgets. But it is not just luxuries we need to be careful of. Notice how basic the things listed by Christ are to human life. Yet it is not just basic material needs we need to give up. Ideology can be even more poisonous. As Christ says, it is not what we put in the mouth, but what comes out of it that defiles us. Without a doubt, this radical renunciation is terribly difficult. So difficult, in fact, that we are often quick to allegorize away the need to do so, or we like to swing one way or the other, whichever brings more comfort and satisfaction. We somehow must leave everything to follow Christ. Two thousand year later and it still convicts us.
The fate of Lot’s wife teaches us as much; she looks back to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and turns to a pillar of salt. What could this mean? Certainly not that God has exacted capricious vengeance upon her. Here the Lord teaches us that the turn inward begins with a renunciation of material things, all material things, which is represented by Lot and his family fleeing Sodom, a city which serves as an example of material and ideological perversity. In that flight, we are warned that a part of our soul will desire to “look back”; even after the soul recognizes that these pursuits are bound to destroy us it will desire desperately to flee outward again and run to the things that only lead us to destruction. So the Lord says, “Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” I do not think that ‘body’ here is meant in a purely literal sense, a purely dualistic sense that would make the body inherently evil, nor is it obviously some mundane recognition of the cycle of nature. Rather, if we stake our meaning in bodily things of any kind (and ‘ideas’ can be quite bodily), we will be subject to death and decay, consumed by the greatest predator, the pride of the world: the eagle.
So much for outside; let us return to the question of ‘within.’ As I mentioned, this language can be dangerous talk as well. In our age of rampant self-help, self-care, and self-improvement, inward can sound too comforting. Let us likewise not think this condition is something novel, a product of the modern age (even if this age exacerbates its symptoms). It is the condition of the heart turned away from God. It is the false sense that not only can I do things on my own, but that I deserve to. I have the power and I have the right. This variety of pride is the real failure of modern political thought, for emphasis on rights fails to recognize that all is grace; everything is a gift from God, for what do you have that you did not receive? And so we must look to Christ if we ever hope to be healed of it, for every step and every breath He takes is for our salvation. If we want to be healed, we must examine the scriptures with utmost care and attention and in every word look for the truth of the Gospel.
The salve to this false interiority is given to us through Christ’s exhortation to prayer in Luke 18. We are shown that true interiority is prayerful. Moreover, it is prayer that occurs “day and night”; it is constant and unceasing prayer. What might that look like? Consider in contrast the Judge “who did not fear God nor regard man.” Does this man have interiority? Indeed he does. It says that despite his abandonment of God and humankind that he speaks “within himself.” But what does he say within? That he wants nothing to do with the widow seeking justice, for she troubles him! How petty this reason; what incredible narcissism! How often do we reduce our fellow human beings to the status of pests? And yet it would be a mistake to think that this state of soul is easily discerned in the human heart from outside. In fact, his outward actions appear just, and he even thinks to himself that they are just, for he says, “I shall avenge her.” It is, therefore, for our benefit that his interiority is displayed to us. The Lord searches his heart and lets us know that he is indeed an unjust judge despite appearances, not so that we might condemn him, for that is the Lord’s work, but so that we might have faith when Christ comes to search our own hearts. In this example we are not only further confirmed in the dangers of living and judging outwardly, but of the ambiguities of living and judging interiorly. We are also shown why we must move beyond appearances and discern spiritual reality.
Hence why another example is given to us, a prominent one from the liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church: the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. We even have here some useful criteria for discerning perverse interiority. Search yourselves and see if you can find this same condition, for the Lord speaks to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.” Two points are presented for us to consider. First, the self-assurance that we are in the right, that we are already good, virtuous, ‘saved’, and so on. Second, that this status of ours makes us better than everyone else, so much so that we are in a position to despise them. In short, self-righteousness coupled with misanthropy. Who has escaped it?
The Pharisee appears to meet so many of the conditions for genuine interiority. He fasts twice a week and tithes, he keeps God’s commandments, he is living prayerfully, standing in God’s holy temple. His prayer is not only directed to God, but its context is one of thanksgiving. Yet despite all that is noteworthy, what is he thankful for? Not being like them: the Other, the defiled, the unworthy, the sub-human. Again, self-righteousness and misanthropy.
What this parable demonstrates is that the journey within is even more dangerous than we could anticipate. For you might not only have interiority, but also be engaged in prayer, and yet still live a delusion of true communion with God. We need further qualification as to what true interior prayer means, and that is why we are given the example of the Publican. Not much is said of him, and that is because those details are unnecessary. We are only told what we need to know at this point:
The tax-collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)
If there is a simple Gospel, it is here, and it is enshrined in the Orthodox practice of the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!” The cure to all we have seen thus far is humility and repentance. The Publican will not even raise his eyes to heaven, he makes no presumption that he can do so. He has no sense of power or of right. He recognizes he has neither. He does not even dare to come close to the Holy, instead he stands a good distance off. He has only one recourse, to call upon God’s mercy in prayer. The Lord assures us that in this Publican we glimpse vindication; let us be quick to imitate him.
Is it any wonder that the Church places this very teaching just before Great Lent, when we will engage in a withdrawal from basic material existence (not only luxuries, but necessities), and yet before doing so must be exhorted of the dangers of false interiority? Lent balances the material and the ideological, the inner and the outer, the mystical and the social because we are prone to separate them. The Body of Christ is the only recourse to the perfect balance, since the Body possesses the Spirit of Truth. As the Council of Chalcedon teaches, in the person of Christ we find this perfect balance, for Christ is fully human and fully divine, without confusion, change, division, or separation. In Christ we discern the radical affirmation of the created order and that it can no way be in conflict with God. It is not God or the cosmos, God or time, God or history, God or human. No, for God through Christ has assumed the cosmos in his flesh. It is both/and.
Just after this parable we are even further edified. It may seem out of place, an almost random aside to what came before and what is to come after. Yet now we can see how appropriate it is, for the scriptures say that “they also brought infants to [Jesus].” The disciples, who have clearly forgotten the grace of their own call to discipleship, try to stop this act from happening, and the Lord corrects them:
Let the little children to come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the Kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it. (Luke 18:16-17)
The Kingdom is within, but it is not ours by nature, but by grace. We must be especially careful of the dangers that lie in the human heart. To turn inward can simply be self-projection, a heightening of the pride that one embraces outwardly. The Gospel teaches us that true interiority is prayer, but it is prayer that is humble and repentant, concerned only with God and his mercy. It is the prayer of little children, who are completely helpless, totally dependent, and in need of everything from those who care for them. So it is with us before God. The Kingdom is found within, in the infant heart that cries “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Everything else is death and destruction.
So what did I end up saying to that man? Probably not what he was looking for, if he was even looking for anything besides polite conversation. All I could really say, in whatever way I did in that moment, was that I do not know when or where; I’m not sure that’s something we should worry about. In fact, it seems a distraction from what is most important to be a Christian: to grow in communion with God. How could knowing, for example, that the end of time was next week inform that goal, except motivate me for all the wrong reasons, out of fear instead of love? All we can do is continue the daily struggle to truly pray, and to ask God to search our heart and to transform it. Let us pray that should that day and hour come, like a thief in the night, that we are found in His mercy: awake, sober, prayerful. Ready to see Him face to face. That is all we can hope for, is it not?
 Matt. 6:19
 Mark 8:36
 Matt. 15:11
 Luke 14:25-27
 1 Cor. 4:7
 Rom. 12:12; 1 Thess. 5:17
 John 16:13
 Matt. 24:43; 1 Thess. 5:2, 4; 2 Pet. 3:10; Matt. 26:40; 1 Pet. 5:8; Neh. 4:9
 1 Cor. 13:12
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Alexander Earl currently teaches Theology and History at a college-preparatory school in Santa Monica, California. He holds a Masters of Arts in Religion and Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School.