Garden Table Apocalypse | Diana Butler-Bass

Mike’s note: The following reflection from Diana Butler Bass – an excerpt from her book Grounded: Finding God in the World.

Not surprisingly, in the wake of 9/11 certain Christians proclaimed that the attacks were part of biblical prophecy. God was warning America to prepare for CHrist’s return, and this signaled the end times. One might expect such a message in fundamentalist churches. American religion, however, turned apocalyptic on a larger scale. The end of the West! The end of Christianity! The end of the world! It was an orgy of cataclysm, the last days unfolding on the nightly news.

The book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, is an oddly influential text in Western history, and most especially in American history. Written by an unknown Christian to encourage a persecuted church, the book has always been controversial. Many theologians – including Martin Luther – argued that it should not be in the Bible. Critics have often pointed out that the book’s bizarre tales foster ambivalence toward the world, violence toward nonbelievers, and an escapist mentality toward faith. God will destroy everything in the end, and believers will be taken up to heaven (and nonbelievers thrown into an eternal lake of fire). Except for the fact that the world is where we must decide to follow Christ, the earth does not really matter. Such disregard for the world has had profound consequences in history – and not just during the years since 9/11.

But the book of Revelation is not a heavenly escape story. Instead, it tells the opposite tale. We do not go to heaven. Heaven comes to us. The end of history is not destruction; rather, its end is sacred restoration. When sin and evil pass away, a holy city descends to us:

See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
They will be his peoples,
And God himself will be with them. (21:3)

The Christian scriptures end with a vision of a beautiful world. Water, trees, and sparkling streets: “Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel” (21:11). The land is healed and bears fruit. The Bible does not end in heaven. It ends here. On earth. “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new'” (21:5).

The Bible begins in a perfect garden and ends with a sacred city. And that sacred city draws together nature and human community into an intimate relationship with God, the One who dwells in the midst of it all. Here on earth.

Sacred Cosmopolitanism

We do, of course, live on earth – but we dwell between the paradisial garden and the holy city. We live in the world as it is. And earth is, of course, not as it used to be. More than seven billion people inhabit the planet, many of them in huge urban areas, now connected to one another through economics and technology. Neither nature nor humanity has ever been in this particular situation before. Philosophers, historians, and social scientists have begun to describe the twenty-first-century world as “cosmopolitan,” meaning that all human beings are citizens of the world, that is, “citizens of the cosmos.” Boundaries have thinned between nations and cultures, and we participate in multiple worlds and our lives are simultaneously local and global. Although the idea of being world citizens has a long and noble history, a history that began with Greece and Rome, it has taken on a particular meaning in our time. Today we are interdependent global tribes, people with different governments and faiths, yet who depend on one another in the same web of politics, economics, and technology. And religion.

Some call this globalization, but that is not quite the right word. Globalization flattens the world and makes us all the same. In many ways, globalization is an economic system and political vision imposed from outside any particular culture. And there are plenty of “outside” interests who would like to force this agenda on the planet. But cosmopolitanism is not that. It is, rather, a disposition and an inner awareness that our individual lives and national identities are playing out on a vast global stage. This implies recognition and a shift of perspective – of seeing and experiencing the web in which we live. Recognition, in turn, gives birth to empathy and the profound realization that we really, truly, are in this together.

In my book Grounded: Finding God in the World, I attempt to demonstrate that a sort of sacred cosmopolitanism – an awareness of the connections we share with God and others here on earth – has been born, something that is visible in religious attitudes, membership, and practices and revealed in stories, experiences, and data. In certain ways, this awareness has always been with us. In the past, this understanding has embodied humankind’s greatest aspirations, and it has guided artists, prophets, gurus, mystics, and saints through the ages. But what was once the vision of only a few has now become a theological revolution of the many. It is an understanding and experience of God that goes over boundaries:

The boundary that once divided Creator from creation, that boundary that divided nature from the human community, the boundaries that divided human communities, and finally the boundary that divided God from humankind. Instead of living inside of tight religious boxes, many people are experience a borderless kind of spiritual wareness that has enabled them to find God in the world of nature and in the geography of human life. Although I write about this from a largely Christian perspective, it is not distinctly Christian. Part of the boundary crossing involves going beyond religious boundaries as well as ethnic and national ones. And the recognition of the sacred cosmopolitan – that we are citizens with God and one another in holy cosmos together – is found among people in all faith traditions.

This does not mean, however, that all religions are alike or that we shall be happily forming a single world “church” anytime soon. Indeed, the sacred cosmopolitanism of nature and neighborliness might also be described as a humane localism, a way of life in our worldwide web that cherishes the distinctiveness of our particular traditions and cultures while embracing the universal aspects of human community and the larger quest for God and meaning. Even the book of Revelation describes a vision of diversity, of people from every tongue, tribe, and nation, who gather in the New Jerusalem. In the holy city, we maintain our uniqueness while God dwells in our midst. Unity is experienced in love and friendship, not doctrine or dogma. There is no coercion in faith.

In the book of Revelation, a throne is at the center of of the sacred city. In a hierarchical world, thrones are elevated chairs, the special places where kings or queens sit. But a throne is just a fancy chair. If asked to think of a room where there are chairs, most of us do not say “throne room.” Most of us say, “dining room.” Instead of thinking of Revelation’s sacred city as a sort of imperial throne room, perhaps we should see it as a dining room. And round the table are many chairs. The places are marked with cards: “Christian,” “Jew,” “Muslim,” “Buddhist,” “American,” “Arab,” “Chinese,” “African,” “Human,” “Animal,” “Fish,” “Tree,” and so on.

No one owns the table. No one gets to take it over. We receive this table; it is the gift of heaven to earth. Our job is to pull up more chairs. And to make sure all are fed.

Where is God? God hosts the table at the center of the world. The sacred cosmos is a feast, a party of hosts and guests, seated around the table that practices hospitality for all. The only requirement for joining is that you want to be there.

Mike’s Postscript: Diana’s earthy, hopeful reflection here reminds me of one of my favorite contemporary bluegrass songs, I Hear Them All by Old Crow Medicine Show. They sing in part:

So while you sit and whistle Dixie with your money and your power.
I can hear the flowers a-growin’ in the rubble of the towers.
I hear leaders quit their lying
I hear babies quit their crying. 

I hear soldiers quit their dying, one and all.

I hear them all
I hear them all
I hear them all 

I hear the tender words from Zion, I hear Noah’s waterfall.
Hear the gentle lamb of Judah sleeping at the feet of Buddha.
And the prophets from Elijah to the old Paiute Wovoka.
Take their places at the table when they’re called. 

I hear them all
I hear them all
I hear them all

Amen – so be it!

About Diana

Diana Butler Bass is an author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.

She holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University and is the author of nine books, including Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution (HarperOne, 2015), which this post is drawn from, and the widely influential Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (HarperOne, 2012). Her other books include A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (HarperOne, 2009), nominated for a Library of Virginia literary award, and the best-selling Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (2006) which was named as one of the best religion books of the year by Publishers Weekly and was featured in a cover story in USA TODAY.

Diana regularly speaks at conferences, consults with religious organizations, leads educational events for religious leaders, and teaches and preaches in a variety of venues. She writes at The Huffington Post and The Washington Post and comments on religion, politics, and culture in the media including USA TODAY, Time, Newsweek, CBS, CNN, FOX, PBS, and NPR.

Dr. Butler Bass is the recipient of numerous grants and awards including the Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize of the American Society of Church History and an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from The General Theological Seminary in New York. She also serves on the board of Public Religion Research and is an advisor on the project for a National Museum of American Religion in Washington, D.C.

Additionally, Dr. Butler Bass has taught at Westmont College, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Macalester College, Rhodes College, and the Virginia Theological Seminary in subjects ranging from church history, American religious history, history of Christian thought, to religion and politics, religion and race, and congregational studies.

She and her family live in Alexandria, Virginia. You can catch up with Diana on FacebookTwitter, and her website – and get to see her in person at the Gospel of Peace Conference in Santa Fe this November!

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