Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock cofounded an organization of which she is now Executive Director, Faith Voices for the Common Good. Dr. Brock is the only person recommending a sermon for this series that I don’t know personally. I mean, we are professionally acquainted, and we’ve exchanged a few emails across the years, but we have never met; and I do not, therefore, have any connection with her other than professionally.
I first heard of her when the first book I wrote, And Blessed Is She, was nearing initial deadline at the publisher, and my co-author, Dr. Edwina Hunter, had prepared a chapter about Dr. Brock that included some of Rita Brock’s own reflections about herself and her views of preaching; then there was one of her sermons, and I was hooked.
She has challenged me in many positive ways across the years and inspired me too. I respect her tremendously. Her interfaith concerns are timely and on target, and I was delighted to hear her speak so boldly against the Christian doctrine of the atonement, the idea that God couldn’t love humans until Jesus’ blood was shed on the cross in our behalf. I heard her make her comments in one of the “Living the Questions” videos several of us watched together some years back at our midweek gatherings. She called the doctrine of the atonement one of the greatest heresies that has ever been perpetrated against people seeking religious truth.
Dr. Brock’s latest book has the title, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. This is how one blurb describes the content of her controversial book:
[It] restores the idea of Paradise to its rightful place at the center of Christian thought. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker offer a fascinating new lens on the history of Christianity, from its first centuries to the present day, asking how its early vision of beauty evolved into a vision of torture, and what changes in society and theology marked that evolution.
Given her concerns as expressed in this book, I’m not surprised at the sermon subject she suggested to me: the whole world as paradise.
The ancient Hebrews couldn’t figure out for the life of them why a good God, a Creator God, would bother creating plant and animal and human life only to be involved in the ending of that life, namely through death. The ancient Hebrews who came up with stories to explain why things were the way they were postulated that something had gone seriously awry after God finished God’s creative work. God’s original intent, God’s original dream if you will, was of a world where all people affirmed life as it had been given to them, and they did all they could do to make the most of what God had given them. Everyone and everything lasted forever. It was paradise. The Hebrew word for “paradise” seems to have been borrowed from the Persians who, for a time, kept the Hebrews in exile; and in Persian “paradise” meant a walled-in wooded park in which everything is peaceful and beautiful.
As God had intended it, again according to the sacred storytellers who tried to make sense of life for themselves and their people, once life had been created it was eternal life; death was not a part of the original created order. At the outset, God had created life, but not death. Evidently, God hadn’t thought about why there would need to be death in a world intended to promote and sustain life so beautifully as it went along in Eden, in paradise. Death comes as an afterthought to the Creator; it was clearly not a part of the Creator’s initial design.
God changed God’s mind in the ancient poets’ understanding because human beings violated the one rule of Eden, earthly paradise--not to eat of the fruit from the tree in the center of the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Doing that, eating that particular fruit, would be a sign that humans weren’t content being human and had set out to put themselves on par with the Creator. That was a no no.
God retaliated by bringing the reality of death into what had been a deathless realm, and every living thing suffered. Human disregard for God’s one rule brought death to all parts of the created order--not just to the humans themselves. So, after humans failed to live up to God’s expectation, they were dismissed from paradise, and death would eventually come to them and all humans after them. Furthermore, death would come also to the animal world and the plant world.
Death and paradise are, at the outset, essentially opposites; at least, by the most ancient reckoning, there can’t be one if the other exists. If there is paradise, there can be no death; if there is death, paradise has dissipated.
As God became more and more angry with humans, according to the powerful ancient myths, God would take active steps to end life immediately for plants, animals, and humans--sometimes, all at once as in the Great Flood. While the picture of paradise is inviting in this schema, the picture of God’s role in creating and then destroying a part of God’s own creation is disturbing beyond words.
The truth, of course, is that there was never a time in the world when any living thing existed that would live forever. Everything that lived was subject to death. This was not God’s punishment on any part of the created order. Death is a part of life. There’s nothing punitive about it. It is a part of life’s essence and mystery.
The enemies are disease, natural disaster, war, random violence, drunk driving, and text messaging while driving. These hasten death. These take people out of this world before their time, before biological functioning has worn out on its own.
So death was always a part of life in this world, and if this world is paradise then we’d have to say that death is a part of paradise. Death and paradise are not enemies and are not mutually exclusive realities. People can die in paradise, and paradise does not preclude death. Death was not created by God after the fact to deal with unexpected, inappropriate human behavior.
In terms of the story of how death invaded paradise in Genesis, chapter 3, we’d have to say also that there never was a time when God tossed humanity out of paradise as a punishment for their rebelliousness. That’s merely a literary illusion and, actually, a brilliant one. The truth is, there’s no way to exclude humanity from paradise as place because this place in which we live, on which we live, is the only place there is for beings like us--for now anyway.
Here’s another little thing--maybe not so little. Even though God, in the Hebrew mythology, created plants that would live forever on their own, once humans were in the picture the care of the whole of paradise fell to them. I need some of those CANNOT KILL plants at my house. God established an irrefutable bond, yeah an interdependency, between human beings and the created order. This is how it’s supposed to be in paradise. God made no provision for humans without green thumbs like me.
Outside of Eden, humans had to work hard, with no guaranteed results, in the hopes the plants would provide for them despite drought and flood. Again, a powerful imagine, but in fact there was never a time when plants and humans could get by for long without taking care of each other.
In an interview with UU World (Unitarian Universalist World), Rebecca Ann Parker said:
One important part of the biblical vision of the world is that the world—this life—is good. And beautiful. Salvation is the experience of freedom and joy on this earth. In the midst of violence, hunger, injustice, and betrayal, this world can be the place in which one stands in the presence of God, of glory, beauty, and goodness.
My dear friends, I call that paradise.
In Islam, heaven, the abode of God and the eternal abode of those who have properly embraced the Islamic faith, is also known as paradise. The Koran refers to heaven or paradise as jannah, and the widespread understanding of jannah is that there are levels of paradise for believers depending on how well they have served Allah in this world; righteousness is the key. The highest level in paradise and, naturally, the one most Muslims are encouraged to try for for is jannatul firdaus.
Muslims have to believe in heaven to be able to go to heaven, jannah, paradise. But the beauty over there in paradise is so breathtaking, and the rewards so staggering that humans can scarcely imagine what it’s like. Still, the teachings in the Koran about paradise are supposed to entice the unbeliever or the half-hearted believer to do whatever is necessary and thereby ensure that her or his name is added to the “approved list.”
The only people who can go to paradise are those who have worshipped Allah alone. An exception is made for those who lived before Muhammad was appointed by God to be the Prophet. This includes the followers of great prophets such as Abraham and Moses and Jesus, provided they never worshiped any other entity as God.
There is no greater reward for a human being than to spend eternity in paradise, and as important as what Allah has said about paradise, one Islamic tradition has the Prophet Muhammad saying, “Never mind what Allah has told you; what he has not told you is even greater.”
Once you get there, IF you’ve met entrance requirements, of course, you’re there for eternity. No one can lose her or his status there, and who would want to? Residents will be overwhelmed by both beauty and wealth in paradise. According to the Koran,
For them will be gardens of eternity; beneath them rivers will flow; they will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold, and they will wear green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade. They will recline therein on raised thrones. How good is the recompense! How beautiful a couch is there to recline on!
Evidently, Muslims will not have to give up sex in heaven, in paradise. Many Christians believe that in the next realm our bodies are entirely non-material, therefore precluding sexual involvement. That alone, for some people, helps them decide on Islam instead of Christianity! It’s a no brainer.
Among some Muslim extremists, those who are willing to become martyrs for their faith--as in becoming, say, suicide bombers--will be guaranteed admission to paradise. To make them feel welcome, each of these suicide bombers, assumed to be male, will be greeted in paradise by 72 hot virgins, assumed to be female, all ready to give up their virginity...with him!
In Christian scripture, the word “paradise” only occurs three times though many would take “paradise” and “heaven” to be synonymous, in which case there is much more attention to the issue. Still, it is compelling that “paradise” is used at all in place of the much more popular “heaven” and by three different writers, writing in very different times and places.
The oldest New Testament reference to “paradise” came from the pen of the Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in Corinth. He was a bit cryptic in referring to himself when he wrote to them:
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat (2 Cor 12:2-4 NRSV).
Paul apparently believed in levels of heaven too--whether literal levels or as a way of referring to the degree of closeness to God. This was clearly a visionary experience, but for some reason he makes reference to the “third heaven” as paradise. This must have been the place closest to God where things were being spoken that mere mortals cannot be entrusted to repeat. Paradise is clearly not of or related to what goes on in human experience in this world. Paul was taken away from his earthly, temporal struggles and to another place, even if in a vision.
According to one Gospel writer, Luke, as Jesus was dying, his cross having been placed by the Romans between the crosses of two other Jews being executed for having offended the Roman government, one of them was sympathetic to Jesus’ cause and the other not. To the one affirming what he knew of Jesus’ ministry and message, Jesus said, “I am telling you today that you will be with me in paradise.” Lots of scholars have challenged the more traditional translation of that verse into English, which went more like, “I am telling you that today you will be with me in paradise.”
Again, the question is raised, “Why would Jesus or Luke use this word instead of the more frequently used ‘heaven’?” There is no good answer to that question. Some have said, picking up on some Roman Catholic leanings, that purgatory is the waiting room for people whose eternal fate hasn’t yet been decided; from purgatory, a soul might be condemned to hell or raised to heaven. Paradise, some of these same people would say, is the waiting room for heaven, and it’s reserved for those who will without a doubt enter heaven; the thing is, no one hits heaven instantaneously. There is waiting for one and all until permanent assignments are made.
I ran across someone a few years ago who said that paradise was the place where Old Testament persons of faith were kept until Jesus came along, and what Jesus’ suffering and death did to make God like people in the future was applied retroactively so that the good people of the Old Testament could get to heaven too.
In any case, it is clear once again that Luke’s Jesus conceived of paradise as place he would go to be with God after his earthly suffering had finally ended. It was clearly not in the here and now.
The third and final place that the word “paradise” is used in Christian scripture is in the book of Revelation. In that magnificent piece of dramatic literature, there are letters written by Jesus, now in heaven, to seven churches struggling on earth at the end of the first century when Roman Emperor Domitian, one of the true haters of Christians in history, is maiming and murdering Christians right and left for not worshiping him in addition to their worship of the God proclaimed by both Jews and Christians. Everything in the book of Revelation is symbolic so the seven churches, each of which get one of these letters, actually represent the whole of the Christian movement. The first of the seven, the Church at Ephesus, read this closing word in the letter addressed to it: “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7 NRSV).
The utterly brilliant writer or writers who pulled this great drama together, the book of Revelation, was/were thoroughly influenced by Judaism; therefore, we would know in a flash that “the paradise of God” made reference back to the original paradise of God, namely the Garden of Eden. The “tree of life” in the paradise of God is the tree producing fruit that the risen Jesus now in heaven permits conquerers to eat. Conquerers would be those faithful ones who refused to renounce their allegiance to the one God and that God alone regardless of the fate Emperor Domitian had in store for those who declined to bow down to his the idols he’d had erected to himself. Even if Domitian put them to death, the book of Revelation saw them as conquerors. Whatever the wicked Emperor did to them was not the final chapter of their lives; indeed, life was waiting for them in the next realm, and they would be living out that future life in the paradise of God.
The book of Revelation gives specific details of how grand and glorious the paradise of God is. Not only are there gates of pearl and streets of gold, but also all human suffering, including the horrors through which Domitian put faithful Jews and Christians, would be over forever. Ultimately, death itself will be defeated, and there is a transformed heaven or paradise and earth; Eden is essentially restored, and a deathless paradise once again, as in the beginning, is here, where mortals dwell.
Well, my dear friends, regardless of what you believe about an other worldly paradise, this planet is our paradise. The whole world is our paradise--not just those places that are immediately beautiful to the eye or peace-giving to the soul. There is only one tree producing fruit we may not eat, and it is from the apathy tree in the center of the garden. Apathy is what will kill us; apathy is what will destroy paradise, not the knowledge of good and evil. Finally, we have seen that knowing all we can know and taking responsibility upon ourselves to name good and evil for the whole of humanity is not a matter of trying to take over God’s role, but rather, just the opposite, a God-given necessity. Turns out that every act is good if it has to do with caring for the created order, in all of its parts, and this includes self-care. Turns out that every act is evil if it destroys human and/or plant and/or animal life. It’s really not so complicated when we get down to the absolute basics is it?
I wonder how often and in what places in time and locale these principles have been adhered to? Where have people known that this world is our paradise and acted to honor that fact and celebrate it? I am convinced that such views have been held throughout history, but not always widely.
It was easy among those religious and philosophical groups that promoted theories of dualism--that matter is inherently evil and spirit inherently good--to discount the value of the world itself and promote a spirit realm as the focus of an informed person’s true interest. That this world is passing away is affirmed by hosts of people from a purely theological point of view and hosts of others from a purely scientific vantage point; therefore, some wondered why bother too much with it. Because of these kinds of attitudes, some have not been antagonistic toward the created order, they have simply been nonchalant. It’s temporary; let’s not worry too much about it or get too attached to it.
Then, as the great epic poem, “Paradise Lost,” by John Milton demonstrates, there have been those who read scripture in such a way that the loss of paradise is a justified punishment. God is doing what God should do to punish errant humans, and whatever paradise becomes it is no longer an earthly experience. Milton claims to have written the great work of literature to justify the ways of God to mortals.
There have certainly been those pockets of people who have promoted Earth-abuse as the right of humans who were appointed by God Godself, they say, to rule over the created order--to dominate and subdue it. I have one word for people who are really deluded enough to think they can whip the natural world into submission: “Haiti.”
If we cannot show respect for our environment, for our habitat, chances are we will never be able to see this world--any part of it, much less the world as a whole--as paradise. Even so, all parts of the created order are sacred, animate and inanimate. The world just as it is, is paradise. It cares for us--providing us air to breathe, food to eat, water to drink, and little things like, oh, gravity that keeps us grounded and sunlight that keeps us warm enough to live.
I like these worship thoughts used by mostly Cherokee natives worshipping at the Cherokee United Methodist Church in Cherokee, North Carolina. These are largely the descendants of those few Cherokee natives who managed to escape the forced evacuation of their tribal homelands in southern Tennessee and northern Georgia and the herding of human beings all the way over to Oklahoma where the few survivors were forced to live on a reservation thanks to President Andrew Jackson openly and plainly violating the law of the land.
We have come to this holy place to worship our God;
yet sanctuary is not always built by human hands.
yet sanctuary is not always built by human hands.
Everywhere I go is a sanctuary, every place a place to worship God!
When we live as if this planet and all creation, even ourselves, is a sanctuary--a holy place full of the Creator's presence--we walk differently upon this earth.
I am always on sacred ground. I must move with reverence through all creation, and I enter this holy place now to worship Creator!
Creator made all that is, and proclaimed that it is good.
Creator, help us to discover in all you have made in nature, the good wisdom about the interconnectedness of all things, about balance and about living in harmony.
We are not above nature, we are part of Creation;
we live by the same laws as all of nature and need to learn from what God has made.
we live by the same laws as all of nature and need to learn from what God has made.
Creator, help us discover the power that lies in the wisdom and understanding of our role in the Great Mystery, and in honoring every living thing as a teacher.
We gather in worship of Creator, who has given us the power to be called Creator’s children, and the blessing of our place in Creation!
When I know my place, I respect the place of others--all my relations.
When we understand that humans are just part of the created universe, we have a better understanding of our place.
The Buddha had an interesting take on this theme: “Not one or two, but all the beings--men, women, animals, birds, trees, rocks. All the beings in the world. One should create such a determination that `I will lead all of them to nirvana.’”
If the whole world is paradise, then my obligation and my privilege is to do my part to care for the created order. From a purely selfish point of view, the more I take care of the created order, the more it can take care of me. If I wound it or destroy parts of it, if I abuse it, ultimately such damage will hurt me and my loved ones.
American environmentalist and ecologist, Aldo Leopold, died about half way through last century. He is the father of modern wildlife management. He once said,
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise....To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts.
Unitarian Universalists adopted a “Statement of Conscience” in 2006. It speaks to our concerns today:
Earth is our home. We are part of this world and its destiny is our own. Life on this planet will be gravely affected unless we embrace new practices, ethics, and values to guide our lives on a warming planet. We will not acquiesce to the ongoing degradation and destruction of life that human actions are leaving to our children and grandchildren. We are called to join with others to halt practices that fuel global warming/climate change, to instigate sustainable alternatives, and to mitigate the impending effects of global warming/climate change with just and ethical responses. As a people of faith, we commit to a renewed reverence for life and respect for the interdependent web of all existence.
My dear friends, the mandate is clear. This beautiful, this majestic world is our paradise. Unless we wake up and realize that, we are going to be in more trouble than we are already. Unless we live from here on out loving and caring for all aspects of our world, “paradise lost” will take on a new meaning that Milton never imagined.