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The path to heaven

One of the biggest challenges to the exercise of reason is the recognition that it is not, and cannot be, enough. Faith, too, is required. Then the philosopher must distinguish between mundane faith (for, example, faith in the consistency of the laws of nature - a necessity of mundane faith discovered by David Hume) and faith in a transcendent order (for example, that this consistency is not accidental, but the design of a transcendent being - a necessity discerned by Plato and Aristotle, among others). And seeing, by faith and reason, a transcendent order of things, then grasping, by faith and reason, the need to be in right relationship to it. The ultimate goal, which we grasp by faith and reason, of conforming our lives to the transcendent design, is to find and to follow a path of transcendent growth. We might call this a path to heaven.

Starting from ground zero, it strikes me the bible describes two main paths to heaven. The first way, which is completely fruitless, is the Tower of Babel approach. The second way, which bears fruit only after much struggle, is the Exodus approach. The first is fruitless because it is man-directed. The second bears fruit insofar as it is God-directed. One can view the rest of the Judeo-Christian tradition as God-directed refinements of the Exodus approach in constant competition with the hubristic Tower of Babel approach. Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life, is the ultimate God-directed refinement of the Exodus approach.

The Tower of Babel approach declares that human beings will decide how to reach God. This includes how to pray to God (if there is one!), how to image God and how to become God.

By "image God" I mean how to envision/imagine/describe God. In our post-modern society, we tend to image God as we would prefer to see him/her, rather than how he actually is. One of the important innovations of 12 step recovery is that one seeks guidance from "the God of our understanding." If we enter that process believing we already fully grasp God, it is inevitable that our "progress" stalls.

In the Exodus approach, God teaches human beings how to pray to/worship him, how to image God (including how NOT to image God!) and, ultimately, how to be like God. There are mediators, called prophets, who are fundamentally human beings who have achieved a point on the road further ahead than the rest of us. We call the most important of these prophets saints, and we also have officially designated prophets who are aided by the sacrament of Orders. (When God influences the selection of these designated prophets, he gives special graces that move them toward sainthood. We can think of Orders as anointing in the Old Testament sense, but under the new Covenant. The new Covenant includes an organizational arrangement in which Jesus deputized those who would lead the Church. We call that arrangement Apostolic Succession. The successors of the apostles know, at least in theory, that they must do what God directs in order to bear fruit. Jesus taught what the Father taught him [John 8:28, 12:49], and he acted as the Father directed [John 14:10,31] and possessed what the Father gave him [John 16:15]. When God directed the anointing of Old Testament prophets, they became filled with his Spirit.) These prophets help us to better understand how God is leading us in the critical growth areas.

The ultimate destination is unknowable in this life (with the rare exception of saints gifted with what is called the beatific vision), but the path to get there is knowable. Alas, that path is not simply following a rule book. Even the bible must be considered only an aid to understanding, albeit one of transcendent depth and beauty. When I say the path is knowable, I do not mean that it can be known all at once. No human being can grasp "the Way" entirely in this life. Identifying Jesus as "the Way" helps us to understand why that is. Although we can achieve much by following Jesus because he, himself, perfectly fulfilled the Father's expectations, we cannot simply "ape" him. We must come to know the mind of Jesus as best we can, so that why we do what we do conforms to "the Way" as much as what we do.

In an excellent posting on the biblical theology blog, The Sacred Page, Prof. Michael Barber wrote,

The Way of the Lord and the New Exodus

It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord,make straight his paths.
Here John linked to Isaiah’s famous New Exodus prophecy. As in the Exodus, in the New Covenant (=New Exodus) God is preparing a "way". In Greek the word is hodos. "Exodus" (ex-hodos) means the “way out”, i.e., out of Egypt and in the wilderness.

(See "'He Will Baptize With Fire': The Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent".) Jesus is generally identified as the new Moses, whose arrival was prophesied by Moses himself [Deuteronomy 18:15], yet it might be more accurate to say that Jesus is the new Joshua, who actually led his people into the Promised Land. It is surely no accident that the name Jesus is a derivation of Joshua, or rather, the Hebrew version of Joshua.

Perhaps one could also say that the life of Moses, who led his people into the wilderness for 40 years to prepare the people for their entrance into the Promised Land, is recapitulated in the very brief mission of John the Baptist, who led his fellow Jews out into the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. In the same way, the life of Joshua is recapitulated and also fulfilled in an unexpected new way, in the three year mission of Jesus, which culminated in his passion, death, resurrection and ascension. And just as the lives of Moses and Joshua overlapped, so did the life of John the Baptist overlap that of Jesus. And just as Joshua served Moses, Jesus presented himself as subordinate to John in the Baptism in the Jordan River.

Indeed, one can take this comparison one step further. The lengthy saga of Moses and Joshua compares with the lengthy history of humanity prior to the arrival of Moses and Joshua on the scene. This lengthy history of humanity was largely, with some notable exceptions, a history of humanity trying to reach heaven according to the way of the Tower of Babel and God trying, century after century, millennium after millennium, to demonstrate the fruitlessness of that approach. Jesus summarizes this endless series of futile efforts in his prophesy of the end times.

For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs. [Matthew 24:7-8]

And which St. Paul also summarized in Romans 8:19-25,

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Our efforts to build civilization along the lines of Babel are as fruitless, as subject to futility, as the effort to build a sand castle in the midst of the desert [cf. Matthew 7:26]. The arid and shifting sands of time inevitably obliterate any such effort.

As we see, St. Paul, and other great teachers, also used the metaphor comparing civilization to a woman struggling to give birth, yet ultimately failing for lack of either a husband or a midwife, until guided by God. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, but are utterly incapable of bringing it about without God's help.

Instead, century after century, we seek the solution in the scientific and technological equivalents of the Tower of Babel. Placing all our trust in ourselves, alone, we ignore God. And, as a result we achieve nothing in the realm of true human happiness, and century after century, countless human lives are wasted and discarded. This state of affairs is well described in Ecclesiastes. It is also well described in 1 Corinthians 13, for there is, and can be, no real progress apart from the divine gift of Love.

The bishops of the Church, assembled at Vatican II, wrestled with this problem in Gaudium et spes (see ¶ 4).

Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the worlds citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty, while countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy. Never before has man had so keen an understanding of freedom, yet at the same time new forms of social and psychological slavery make their appearance. Although the world of today has a very vivid awareness of its unity and of how one man depends on another in needful solidarity, it is most grievously torn into opposing camps by conflicting forces. For political, social, economic, racial and ideological disputes still continue bitterly, and with them the peril of a war which would reduce everything to ashes. True, there is a growing exchange of ideas, but the very words by which key concepts are expressed take on quite different meanings in diverse ideological systems. Finally, man painstakingly searches for a better world, without a corresponding spiritual advancement.

In the passion of Jesus, one finds the contrast between the two approaches to salvation placed in stark relief in the dialog between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, related in John 18:33-38.

Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"
Jesus answered, "Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?"
Pilate answered, "Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?"
Jesus answered, "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world."
Pilate said to him, "So you are a king?"
Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice."
Pilate said to him, "What is truth?"

In spite of themselves, the people of the civilization of Babel seek heaven, yet, in the end, they cannot find enough faith even to know the existence of truth. Oh, they can know the truth of a mathematical proposition. They can know the truth of scientific explanations of physical phenomena. Sadly, however, nothing the Positivists can be truly positive about can lead to human flourishing in freedom. This is because the positivists cannot come to know the transcendent nature of the human person, and therefore cannot know any meaningful purpose for human existence.

Every major civilization has ultimately struggled with the great existential questions. As Pope John Paul II noted in Fides et ratio, ¶ 1,

…a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives.

Even atheists generally recognize the existence of an upward path, and grasp that there may be no limit to it. For example, the so-called Human Potential Movement developed out of such reflections in the 1960s, virtually concurrent with Vatican II. Already, by the 70s, critics noted the degree to which the drive was motivated by such narcissistic characteristics as the will to power, and that the primary drive focused on attaining immediate and personal results. This approach was effectively replaced in the 80s by Transhumanism. At issue, of course, is the question of human transcendence itself. If we are mere biological automatons, then this inexplicable drive to grow beyond ourselves inevitably leads to seeking greater and greater technological means. If, in fact, we are transcendent, not because of our biology but because of our spiritual nature, then the path to growth can be recognized as fundamentally spiritual, as well.

If, as the ancient philosophers taught, the unexamined life is not worth living, a life that discovers no meaning or purpose beyond itself is also ultimately pointless. What's true here for a single man's life is far more so for humanity as a whole, and no tower of scientific achievement can change that.

If, on the other hand, a spiritual growth path, with a transcendent spiritual purpose, exists, it stands to reason (and faith) that the ultimate transcendent (whom we call God) has left breadcrumbs, if you will, on that path for us to discover. As I have suggested elsewhere, we can find such breadcrumbs in scripture.

Moses' first encounter with God is deeply suggestive in that way.

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Mid'ian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, "I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt."

The burning bush that is not consumed is already a profound sign of transcendence, for it violates the law of entropy. But the breadcrumb here is not an isolated one.

Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations." [RSV]

[Note: most translations render the name as "I AM WHO AM" without the additional invocation of the first-person pronoun, which tends to suggest a rhetorical, rather than a substantive response, a rhetorical response which is inconsistent with subsequent usage of "I AM..." in the same paragraph. It strikes me that translators should think long and hard about the linguistic, philosophical and theological consistency of their translations.] Biblical scholars have estimated that the time of the Exodus dates prior to 1200 years B.C., which we can recognize as the end of the Bronze Age in Egypt and elsewhere. Thus, Moses, living in a Bronze Age culture, encountered a philosophical concept (i.e., non-contingent being) that only begins to emerge many centuries later. The culture he helped to found, however, clearly grasped the importance of the name, which is denoted by the Tetragrammaton, a name which, to this day, is regarded as sacred in Jewish culture and faith. Regardless of the precise translation, there clearly is something here which cannot be explained as consistent with the level of culture in Moses' time. [Note, in particular, the etymology section of the Wikipedia article.]

Religion scholars debate the record of the Exodus, doubting its authenticity or its pre-Iron Age historicity. Nevertheless, the evident profundity of the Tetragrammaton (a profundity regarded in very ancient times as sacred) is difficult to explain in any theory that does not invoke revelation. In that sense, it is of a piece with the related claim of a violation of the law of entropy, a law that only came to be expressed in mathematical terms in the 20th century, but that was clearly understood at a mundane gut level even prior to recorded history, namely, that things that burn, burn up. This is the genius of Exodus, chapter 3!

The announcement of the name, of course, is accompanied, as we can see, by an expression of intended relationship. It is also accompanied by a prophesy.

Go and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, "I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt; and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Per'izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb'usites, a land flowing with milk and honey."' And they will hearken to your voice; and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, 'The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, we pray you, let us go a three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.' I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and smite Egypt with all the wonders which I will do in it; after that he will let you go. And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of her who sojourns in her house, jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; thus you shall despoil the Egyptians."

It is worth noting, here, that this early reference to divine mastery over fire, has many echoes in the Bible. For example,

  • 1st Kings 17:13-14, in which entropy and conservation laws are reportedly violated in the miraculous replenishment of the widow's oil and flower stock.
  • This is followed immediately by the reported revival of the widow's son, which might be another violation of the law of entropy (though it may also be a case of artificial resusitation).
  • 2nd Kings 2:8-12, in which entropy is reportedly violated in the parting of the river, and a fiery chariot takes Elijah up to heaven.
  • Isaiah 43:2 tells of God's protective mastery over water and fire.
  • Isaiah 66 concludes with a curse that tells of an eternal violation of the law of entropy.
  • Jeremiah 17:4 tells of God's vengeance taking the form of an eternal fire.
  • Ezekiel 1:26-28 relates a mystical vision that gives a hint of a potency that has mastery over the laws of nature, especially the law of entropy. This image is repeated numerous times in later scripture, and has an echo in the Revelation 10:1.

This consistent tradition of scripture takes on a clear purpose in the passage from Romans 8 already noted.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Thus, St. Paul, living in a clearly pre-scientific era, grasped the importance of the law we describe today as the law of entropy, in dominating the history of humanity, and of creation itself as we know it. And, at the same time, he grasped the significance of the divine promise to liberate humanity and creation from it.

One way to categorize Christianity as a religious faith is that it is the faith in which resurrection to eternal life plays a central role. In other words, it promises the ultimate repeal of the law of entropy, a promise that is clearly expressed in this passage from St. Paul's letter.

In effect, it throws down a challenge that no imagined science will every master. Indeed, no conceivable science will permit the survival of humanity beyond the heat death of the universe itself. Thus, it is this very mastery over fire that distinguishes, in the bibleical record, the potentiality of humanity from the potentiality of God, and thus underscores the point that only God can set us on the path to this transcendence.

It may well be that the New Testament image of the Holy Spirit as fire (found in Acts 2:3) is intimately connected with this very point, as is the reference in Matthew 3:11,

I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.

And, in this we can see, in a deeper way, the separation of the Old and the New Covenants!

To close this reflection, I remind you of the image found at the very end of Genesis 3.

Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever" — therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.

[Emphasis added for obvious reasons.]

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