On the Way (Part 1)

This is the first part of an extended eschatological parable I wrote in 2012 after encountering the work of Oliver Davies and the emerging school of “Transformation Theology” at King’s College London (you don’t need to know anything about that to understand the story). The original dedication read that “It is dedicated to them in one sense, but in a more important sense also to all who continue to ask  questions even if they do not expect an answer.” The central question that the story addresses is “where is Jesus?” 

Written in Birmingham, AL in Summer 2012. 

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I sat in the pews for years without producing a single question. I was afraid to ask them. I was afraid because I had no confidence that my vicar knew the answers. He was a wise old soul, but he knew little of modern advancements in science and engineering. He knew nothing about genetics, new medicine, or anything that I had studied in university. It was a shame, really, that priests could not know everything. Otherwise, I think they would be better theologians. In lieu of that reality, I came to the parish church each Sunday to take the Eucharist but I never asked any questions.

I always wondered about the elements. How could they really be the Body and the Blood? Was there a way to understand that as being really true? I knew something happened, but I did not know what. The vicar’s words from the epistles of St Paul were of little comfort to me. I had little interest in what St. Paul thought but why he thought what he thought and how I might perhaps think what he thought after him. Same thoughts but different. Old thoughts in a new way. Was there some way to think the old thoughts with the new thoughts to know things we always wanted to know? Was there a way with new thoughts to find what the old thoughts claimed to know?

As it was, I visited the parish as often as I was able.

However, as I became more advanced in years, I became uncomfortable not asking these questions. No longer was I permitted to embrace some pre-critical naïveté or some quite critical cynicism. Neither seemed enough. So, I started asking questions again but with a different spirit than before. If I had asked them years ago, I would have forsook what little faith I had. But now … now, they enriched me, but they troubled me greatly.

The vicar had died a few months prior and the new priest seemed much more amicable to questions. He made us aware of who did and did not write certain things. He was skeptical of claims and truly sought to find historical truth to inform his faith. He even questioned what had once seemed like fundamental beliefs. Was Jesus born of a virgin? He became very popular. Somehow, I fear it may have been a mistake to come to him with my question that fateful Friday afternoon.

I sat in his office staring at the icon on the wall. It had belonged to the previous vicar and the new one never felt like removing it. The Mother and Child seated … it retained sentimental value for him, I suppose. I held an ornate copy of the Scriptures from the library in my hands. It was open to the Gospel of St. Luke. I read the vicar the story at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, the one where Christ ascends into heaven. My job had always made me interested in the Ascension. He nodded as I read it to him. I closed the text and we were silent for a moment.

I spoke. “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

He made a noise indicative of deep thought.

“It is a simple question, vicar,” I said. “Where is Jesus?”

“Such a question would be answered by children,” he said, “in our hearts.”

“Is not such a statement better made of the Spirit than the Son?”

“Invariably.”

“So where is Jesus?”

He looked at me. He seemed confused by the question. Indeed, “Explain,” he said.

“We believe that Jesus’ nature is consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead.”

“We do.”

“We believe that Jesus’ nature is also consubstantial with us according to his humanity.”

“We do.”

“We believe that one and the same Christ is acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably…”

“… the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union,” he said, rather annoyed, “but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person. I know it. I am surprised you do.”

“Yes,” I frowned. “And did that change?”

“I don’t suppose so.”

“That then is the root of the problem.”

“I don’t understand.”

“In medieval theology,” I saw him visibly groan. Such a way to begin a sentence was scarcely more popular in the Church than in public. “In medieval theology,” I continued, unhindered, “heaven was seated above the earth beyond the heavenly bodies. Dante was not just metaphor. Heaven was up there. If you had a tall enough ladder, you could get there.”

“And?”

“And up there was Jesus, still fully human, seated at the right hand of the Father.”

“You know that isn’t true …”

“Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, the Scientific Revolution made abundantly clear that this was not so.”

“Obviously.”

“So heaven isn’t up there. We can’t just go up to heaven. If I had a spaceship, I could not just fly up past Pluto and find Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father.”

“Of course not.”

“Then where is Jesus?”

He was frustrated at this point.  He said I was being nonsensical.

“I am not,” I replied in earnest. “If Jesus is still fully divine and fully human, he must exist somewhere. I wonder where that is.”

“How am I supposed to know?”

“I did not think you would, but as a vicar, I thought you would at least appreciate the question.”

He looked at me curiously and it became increasingly obvious that he did not appreciate the question. At that, I left.

I walked out of the church onto the street. Cars buzzed by on the road, large red buses obscuring my vision of the other side. A light rain and fog had set upon the city. The rainwater dampened my coat and I popped up the collar to conceal my face from the wind. As soon as I saw it, I ducked under cover into the station as the rain began to come down harder. I passed art projects from decades past meant to illuminate and liven up public transport for the rest of us. The mayor’s posters hung in most of the advertising slots along the escalator. I rushed onto the train just as the doors were closing. Taking my seat, I got to thinking.

A dangerous thing … thinking.

What if all of those things that I had talked about with the vicar were true? What if this Jesus had those dual consubstantial natures? That word seemed odd and out of place in society now. No one really knew what it meant, but we said it in the creed anyway. But what if it was true? What if it did matter? If Jesus existed somewhere, that somewhere would be heaven, would it not? If he had some single locality, that is where he would be. And that heaven would have to be a physical place. It was not at the top of the spheres, granted, as Dante once supposed. However, what it if it was out there? What if there was some dark spot concealing the heavens? What if there was some bright corner of the universe where everything was perfect? What if it was part of this universe? That is what the ancient teachings implied. What if it was true? If Jesus was still real, if heaven was a real place, if the humanity of this man the Church kept talking about truly was real, I could get to him. If I just had a ladder high enough, I could summit the mountain, I could climb it through the planets all the way to heaven. What a day that would be …

>> Part 2

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