Can Religious Liberals Talk About the Kingdom of God?

Language is always up for reinterpretation; language matters.  Two axioms to start this discussion.  The specific question here is whether religious liberals, such as UUs but including other groups as well, can authentically talk about the Kingdom of God, especially the desire to see the Kingdom of God here on earth.

What sort of metaphor is this?  Kingdoms are ruled by kings–they are not democracies.  Is there a disconnect here, especially on the part of American believers, who darn sure do NOT take kindly to monarchy as a political system?  Is the Kingdom of God that latter-day Social Gospelers and their kin are trying to build to be a democracy, a monarchy, or some other arrangement?  And if it is not to be a monarchy, can it still be called “the Kingdom of God” without too much dissonance?  Is Kingdom of God a misnomer?  Should we be talking instead of the Republic of God, etc?

Beloved Community, a term popular among religious liberals, seems to have edged out Kingdom of God to some degree.  Is this because it expresses a more modern concept, consonant with the lives and aspirations of contemporary believers?  Is Beloved Community an adequate replacement for Kingdom of God?  What is gained, what is lost?

Howabout Lord?  That is a feudal term, inserted into Christian English parlance when people were indeed subject to actual Lords.  Is such a metaphor appropriate for how religious liberals actually imagine God?  If you would not take kindly to a Lord in your political and social life, can you really pray to and wish to please a Lord in religion?

Even for religious conservatives, these terms seem poorly thought out in the modern world.  Most red-blooded conservative American Christians would not tolerate a Lord or a Kingdom in the United States; is there a disconnect then for them to spend so much time talking about a metaphorical form of organization that they repudiate?  The main function of Lords historically was to take your taxes, order you around, and keep other Lords from invading and appropriating your taxes for themselves.  Just doesn’t seem to jive with political conservatism or liberalism very well, so it seems worth asking whether these are appropriate terms for religious conservatism or liberalism.  It is very easy to imagine the Founding Fathers being rather discomforted by language about Kingdoms, even ones of God.

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5 Comments

Filed under Defining Liberal Religion, Unitarian-Universalism

5 responses to “Can Religious Liberals Talk About the Kingdom of God?

  1. We were just discussing this in my UU Christianity adult RE class. The “Kingdom of God” language is in the Bible, but we don’t know that those words are the best translation of the original Aramaic or Hebrew or Greek or other language.

    I think the kingdom of God refers to the mystery of the universe, which is always right here with us. The Kingdom of God is the energy that permeates all living things including our precious earth. (IMHO)

    To me, the beloved community is more human-centered. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be, though. On the other hand, the beloved community sometimes seems like a complete impossibility. And yes, it is still worth striving for! It’s the promised land.

  2. Of course, in the New Testament the contrast isn’t between God’s kingdom and God’s democratic republic; it’s between Caesar’s kingdom and God’s kingdom. The contrast is between worldly corruption and divine holiness, or between the false justice of earthly rulers and the true justice of God. It’s a political metaphor that undermines the claims of earthly rulers while affirming the ultimate value of, say, God’s respect for each human being regardless of rank.

    Theologically, I look at the “kingdom of God” and at “Lord” — and even at theism itself — as symbols of faith that radically undermine the ultimate claims of human loyalties to tribe, nation, self, or ideology. Stated positively, God reigns. Stated negatively, nothing but God deserves to be treated as God.

    The problem with “beloved community,” as UUs sometimes use the term, is that it’s little more than benevolent tribalism: Our congregation is a beloved community. But what is it beholden to? And whose love is being described?

    Martin Luther King Jr., who used the phrase as a gloss on “kingdom of God,” would have said that it’s God’s love sustains and holds the community accountable: It is the community called by God’s love and sustained by it that human beings are trying to become. But a strictly humanistic “beloved community” might symbolize only the community that this particular band of people happens to love.

  3. Philo wrote: “Stated positively, God reigns. Stated negatively, nothing but God deserves to be treated as God.”

    It’s funny, but I would see it as the reverse! Positive: nothing but God deserves to be treated as God; negative: God reigns. (Not being a scholar of the Bible or Christianity).

  4. Jeff

    Elizabeth: what does it mean to say that the energy that permeates the universe or the mystery of the universe is the KINGDOM of God. That’s really what’s being got at here–in what way is this energy/mystery a kingdom, as opposed to a republic, or a nation-state, or confederacy, or some other organization? It this energy in fact some sort of political body at all, and if not, why is it imagined in this way? And what does it mean to imagine it as a kingdom in this day and age, when kingdoms are few and far between and generally discredited as authentic styles of government from a liberal Western viewpoint?

    Philocrites: thanks for bringing some historical perspective. Of course you’re right that at the time, it was an apt and powerful political metaphor. But is it relevant anymore, when we wouldn’t truck with kings and kingdoms? Reading your remarks, it sounds like it is relevant to you, but would it be even more relevant if expressed in an alternate, more contemporary idiom that better matched our principles? Not to put too fine a point on it, but kingdoms and respect for the democratic process in society at large are typically antithetical in principle. There seems to be a disconnect here, but I’m not going to argue that religion, even in the Unitarian vein, is thoroughgoing in its rationality; there’s plenty of room for mixed metaphors and compelling ideas that remain powerful even when their original context has long passed away.

    I’m not trying to argue anyone out of using language that works for them. I’m just exploring the implications of the language that is available to us and wondering about possible alternatives, though I don’t know if they are improvements.

    I’m with you on beloved community. Growing up it was always made clear to me that it included all of society and ultimately the entire world in that community, yet most often it seems to be used to refer to whatever specific congregation I’m sitting in at the moment. That said, I think the world community could be a humanistic one, with no specific need for a theistic base in this utopian vision.

    Lots of idle musing on a day with no office work.

  5. It’s definitely not a “republic” of God: who are the representatives who are given power on behalf of us to do the divine work?

    And, for me at least, it’s not a “democracy” of God, either. Although there’s a strong sense in which the kind of ultimacy that God symbolizes is an aspect of human civilization and dependent for its power on the belief of human beings, there’s an even more important sense in which God does not represent the will of the majority.

    “Domain,” “realm,” or “reign” of God probably only get around the problem you have with “kingdom” by going a little more abstract, but they work well for me and are accurate translations of the New Testament phrase. Other options are “God’s world,” “God’s household,” or “God’s people.” Each of these also has limitations, too, of course. But that’s true of any metaphor.

    One goal I’d have for a political metaphor about divine community would be that it remain in tension with the rest of our political/social life and not be too easily subsumed into it. You’re pointing to what many UUs would experience as too much tension with our political and social expectations in liberal democratic societies. This is a question I’ve long wanted to think about in depth, but I haven’t come to a satisfactory answer.

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