05 The Sheikdom of Heaven

Paul was merely following the customs of his day when he wrote his letter to the Ephesian churches. Those first verses in chapter 1 string together a huge image, and in most English translations, it’s poorly rendered. That’s because it’s written by a Hebrew mind trying to stuff mystical truth into the Greek language, and this passage is one those where English just fails completely. You have to read it over a dozen times and toss it around in your head for a little while.

It helps if you avoid any translation that uses “dispensation” in verse 10. That is an inexcusable mistranslation, exposing a serious anti-Hebrew bias. Here’s the deal: Paul chose the Greek word oikonomia to capture the image of a very large Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) feudal sheikdom. You really need to move as far away as possible from words that permit Western notions to leak back into this picture. His words draw the image of a very powerful ANE nomad potentate living in tents. Someone like that doesn’t think in terms of real estate; he has the power to protect his turf and keep out folks who aren’t welcome. But it’s not a permanent occupation; intruders can have it once he moves on.

Rather, his true wealth is his people. It’s not even the flocks and herds, because that’s the means to keep his people alive and healthy. But his people are the real treasure, because good people can always produce more material goods. Being nomads, their needs are pretty simple in the first place. His whole focus in life is their social stability and welfare. His sole claim to greatness is his success in those terms. Wherever they travel on his business, they flaunt the richness of his provision. That’s his glory.

Paul’s point here is that we need that image to understand how God does things. His primary objective in what He does in this world is just like any ANE nomad sheik. He has His one Heir who has entered His co-regency apprenticeship, having performed the heroic act of winning back the rightful inheritance consisting of many souls. So there’s this transition period where He demonstrates His rightful place on the throne by carrying on His Father’s business. At some point that apprenticeship will be complete and the Father will call in all His vassals and settle up, ensuring that the Son knows precisely the magnitude of what He inherits.

Meanwhile, this is feudalism; the Son has called into His service all kinds of folks and adopted them as kin so that they can inherit their own share of interest in this sheikdom. People with a shared investment tend to act together with an eye to increasing value. And their whole business is to carry His fame throughout the world and attract more investors, people who will in their turn become vested family members, too.

All of that is in those first few verses of Ephesians, folks. This isn’t about you finding your personal peace and keeping it inside. It’s about showing off the glorious treasure of our Divine Sheik, flaunting His rare and fascinating symbols of wealth. We are so loaded up that we can afford to leave our loose change and small bills on the counter when we leave. In other words, we see no great need to correct people’s minds on some objective truth. Rather, we display our casual attitude about concrete reality in favor of what really matters — moral discernment. They can keep all they want of this world, but that means we know they aren’t moved by the implication that they could have something far better. If they want that better stuff, they’ll have leave this world behind, same as each of us have done.

Again, we are raiders of souls. We don’t intend to colonize; we don’t want this world. Let the dead keep their dead world. We’ll sneak in and flash His glory around until someone reaches out for it. Then we’ll hook them up with our Rich Daddy Sheik and keep fishing for more. Eventually our mission will end and we’ll go back home to our own noble household within the Sheik’s domain.

And somewhere way down the road will come that Final Day when the Son is finally paraded before the world as the Heir, and He’ll take possession of everything. Those who cling to this world and their moral blindness will be forced to stand in His Holy Presence with no protection of kinship. God alone knows what that will be like, but for the rest of us, it’s a whole new dawn into some blissful eternity none of us can imagine.

Faith Does Not Compute

Here we take a short tour through the history of Western Christian theology. Our attention is focused on the business of fallen nature and human reason.

First, we have to understand that Hebrew Scriptures assume a wholly different anthropology from what is common in the West. On the one hand, both use figures of speech, but use them differently. In ancient Hebrew culture, human nature is divided up differently and associated with different parts of the body as mere symbolism. When it comes to understanding human behavior, it really didn’t matter whether the mind was literally rooted in the brain — there were too many other factors in human nature that affected how the brain worked. In other words, Hebrew culture downplayed the importance of intellect compared to the Western image of it.

Second, there was a radical difference in cosmology, too. While the particulars varied among the multiple Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) civilizations, of which Hebrew is one, there was a common thread of belief in a distinct and separate spirit realm that was invisible to the senses. We cannot overemphasize how radically different this is from the Western assumption that this universe is all there is. The Greeks had no trouble with the idea that deities and demons were invisible, but such beings were still confined to this universe. Greeks honestly believed that it was possible to find a physical entrance to both the homes of the gods and the abode of the dead.

So deeply does this stain Western thought that you can discern the influence in Western Christianity. Early in Church history we find the official church teaching that human reason is not fallen.

Let’s see how the ANE viewpoint is expressed in Jeremiah 17. Starting in verse 5 God is castigating Judah for departing from the Covenant (the Northern Kingdom was already long gone at this point). In particular, He refers to the “heart” as the center of one’s will, the seat of commitment or faith. There is a specific reference to the kidneys as the seat of human motives, and it’s often translated in English as “reins” or “mind.” His point comes right up front: cursed is the man who trusts in human capabilities alone. Blessed is the man who humbly trusts in God for moral truth. Without redemption, the heart of commitment is wicked. In that state, no one can subject their lesser faculties to the higher faculty that should be in the heart. There is no sense of conviction, so the heart is effectively just as fallen and broken as the rest of such a man.

This is echoed in Romans 3, particularly in verses 9-18. Paul indicates that a covenant identity never kept Jews from being just as wicked and sinful as the worst of heathens. Paul goes on to assert that without redemption, there is nothing good possible arising from human capabilities. It was always a matter of divine grace. Western Christians are completely mistaken in thinking Jesus introduced a new concept in John 3 when He spoke of spiritual birth. We can find references to that symbolism throughout ANE religious writings. Without “a spirit of the gods” within us, we are doomed. Nicodemas as so Hellenized that he had completely forgotten the mystical roots of Hebrew culture. For him, there was no separate realm of the Spirit; everything was confined to his universe. Redemption was merely to earthly Jewish identity.

Even when we find Western church teachings about spiritual birth, we find that the net effect it is merely a changed mind. Somehow being more spiritual means nothing more than a different cerebral track. It’s a conversion of mind only, in the sense that religious leaders are looking for symptoms of orthodoxy. We find them saying in effect that “Jesus in your heart” equals “right belief and practice.” And that right religion always seems to look like the one that the present leadership espouses. “If you don’t believe and act like me, you ain’t born-again.” For non-evangelical traditions, it’s more like, “We are the arbiters or what God says, so if you don’t agree with us, you haven’t heard from God.”

This is precisely the fatal flaw in Judaism, and it goes all the way back to Jeremiah’s prophecy. Judah was at that time facing Babylon’s rampaging conquest. The Judean leadership insisted that, since the Temple inside the walls was God’s House, they were safe. Would God allow heathens to dirty His carpet? Was not this Hebrew nation God’s Chosen? Jeremiah was telling them that it didn’t matter where the Temple stood. It also didn’t matter their proximity to it; the nation had moved too far away from God’s protection in their hearts. Their faith, their feudal loyalty, was in something other than Jehovah.

In Hebrew thinking, spiritual birth does not change what you are, but who you are. It opens the door for a personal communion with our Creator so that His power can mitigate the Fall. Thus, spiritual birth is not some magic that changes the ideas in your head; it changes your heart — it registers as a sense of identity and commitment. You aren’t buying into a different package of human identity, but leaving all of that behind for an identity rooted in the Spirit Realm. Christ said His kingdom is not of this world. There can be no earthly kingdom of Christ; there can be no Christian nation. In this world there can be only provisional associations of fellow believers, acting like family in an eastern feudal setting. We as Christians are brothers and sisters with no earthly father. We are away from Home working together in a foreign realm. We don’t colonize; we offer adoptions out of this world.

Meanwhile, the only people who actually understand this world are those who belong outside of it. The only people who hold a valid assessment of human nature are those who denounce and renounce it. Only when we are linked to the Spirit Realm do we find communion with the rest of Creation. We still face the same natural world, but now are friends with it, not alienated from it in some god-forsaken mythology of something must be defeated, tamed and enslaved to our will.

Reason cannot be reformed. It can be properly subjected to faith, but you won’t see that often in organized Christian religion. Instead, we see the whole matter of “faith” as better belief and action, and “spirituality” as mere education and training. Theology is data; faith is much more.

The Taste of Truth

We are wired for narrative.

The Hebrew culture was mystical in nature; it was part of the Ancient Near East (ANE), which is a collection of cultures and civilizations that shared a mystical orientation. Westerners have struggled to make sense of that peculiar brand of mysticism because it is so very alien. Our language and culture makes mystical things “spooky” and dangerous, whereas the ANE folks took it for granted and were entirely comfortable with it. Their “unknown” was never threatening; it was where man could find God.

It’s further exceedingly difficult to get across to Westerners that there is a third level of awareness beyond first, fleshly wiring in appetites and emotions, or second, intellect and reason. This is why genuine faith and trust in God is so very difficult for Westerners. What Western Christianity ends up with is a requirement for orthodoxy (“right thinking”) to force pre-approved outcomes. We simply cannot have something open-ended like faith is meant to be. Thus, it provides a phony “faith” that is some form of iron logic, which is supposed to conquer the flesh. But it cannot conquer flesh because intellect is still flesh; it’s still man doing something the mind imagines is God’s work. To be “spiritual” means some better quality of cerebral exercise in reason.

The only real difference between that kind of belief versus atheism is simply a matter of starting assumptions. It rests entirely in the fallen flesh. It’s all the same kind of thing. People choose their assumptions on some grounds they cannot comprehend because reason cannot admit to dependency and need. The seeming power of reason is too enthralling to ignore; intellect cannot choose to surrender the myth of superiority in all things. It is the God-complex woven into the human soul. In other words, you cannot start from logic and arrive at truth because there is nothing on which to stand. Logic is a tool; it has no substance in itself. Thus, the choice to believe or not is nothing more than subconscious sentiment.

This remains the sad story for the vast majority of those seeking to practice Western Christian religion. Especially as the size of the organization grows, the portion of people in it who are simply believers without genuine commitment on that third level grows higher because the size of the crowd makes it easier to hide the weakness. There’s so much shared enthusiasm that it feels like it must be the power of God; it didn’t come from within the self.

This, despite the rather flatly literal teaching in Scripture that genuine faith in the individual defies the whole world if necessary; even the end of reality itself does not vanquish true faith. Move those individual members to a hostile environment and their belief suffers. Something nibbles away at the edges of the fragile belief. It requires a constant exposure to that mass enthusiasm to reinforce those cerebral boundaries. There’s no fountain of life welling up within.

Nobody says the mind cannot be strong; it’s never strong enough. It can’t bear you into God’s Presence. We don’t need more teaching. There is no truth in explanations that meet the tests of intellect. I use it here in our virtual parish only to deconstruct, to indicate how you shouldn’t rely on it. I use the tools of reason and intellect to poke holes in what the brain can do by itself.

The truth of God isn’t in teaching. The closest we come to divine revelation in human language is parable and narrative. Do you understand that two or more narratives can conflict on the facts and still tell the same truth? Two people can come away from a narrative with entirely different experiences, but still stand in the same faith. Narrative brings with it a whole raft of experiential truth that touches the places mere data cannot find. And it’s those other places in the soul where we can provoke or crush genuine faith. A well told story that rests on certain assumptions will convey those assumptions by drawing the listener into them. It becomes the reality in which that soul stands for a time.

Thus, the very concept of communication and language in the ANE was all about the narrative, drawing us into the place where we can find truth. We are wired to absorb that truth. Once we get used to this, we can detect lies because they bring us to the wrong place, a place that feels alien and hostile. But only if we are used to thinking in terms of the narrative and its purpose as communication. As long as we hang everything on the data, anyone can slip vast deceptions into the narrative and we’d never know it.

A morally strong narrative finds a witness in your convictions. It feels like home; it restores your faith. It tastes like something eternal.