Saving Paradise

Rita Nakashima Brock
The 2004 GTU Convocation Address

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Dr. Brock is visiting scholar at the Starr King School for the Ministry, and director of Lift Every Voice!, a project devoted to promoting the voices of progressive Christians in the public sphere. She lectures widely, is active in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and is the author of several books, including 2001's Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, co-authored with Rebecca Parker.

She delivered this address at the GTU Convocation on September 22, 2004.


The first five years of my life were spent on the island of Kyushu in Japan, in a family of Pure Land Buddhists. The Pure Land, is, of course, the Buddhist paradise. My memories of my early childhood have the quality of something like paradise.

My grandparents’ thatched roof farmhouse sat on the outskirts of the village of Onojo, a twenty minute train ride from Fukuoka. The house faced the mountains across the valley. A gravel path led through the entry gate, which was surrounded in spring by a profusion of pink and magenta azaleas and a lush yellow climbing rose. The path curved gracefully up to the granite flagstones laid before the weathered wooden sliding door. In this old-fashioned house with tatami floors and without indoor plumbing, my grandparents, Ji-Chan and Ba-chan, cared for me while my mother, a nurse, worked at the U.S. military hospital in Fukuoka.

Ji-Chan kept a store in the village and a garden at home. He wrote poetry and was a quiet, reflective man in a house of garrulous women. He was my bathing partner every evening. After dinner, Ba-Chan warmed the o-furo, filling the large, deep metal tub tub with water from the backyard pump.

After our long hot soak, Ji-Chan slipped me inside the top of his cotton yukata and carried me around his garden, murmuring to me. Ji-Chan’s low, hoarse voice rumbled above my head as he walked around the garden. The fall evening air was cool and refreshing after the bath. The tops of his beautiful mums were visible from my perch. Their pungent odor wafted upward along with the fragrance of the last of the roses.

Hearing Ji-Chan’s voice lulled me into drowsiness. What Ji-Chan said is lost to me, forgotten along with my fluency in Japanese. What I remember are his deep voice, the solidity of his body against mine, the tops of the flowers, the fragrance of soap and blossoms, and the cool night air.

Later, I was placed beneath layers of a cool cotton futon next to my mother, with Ji-Chan and Ba-Chan in the next room, beyond the paper walls. My mother breathed slowly as she lay beside me, a soft high note to my grandparents deeper rumblings nearby. The still, silent night was full of presence. The sounds were the leaves rustling on the surface of the ground, and silence was the root network of love—deep, solid, inexplicable—a presence both elusive and tangible. Swaddled in that silence, I felt safe, loved.

In some strains of Buddhism, one finds a religious practice that emphasizes attunement to the ordinary experiences of life as enlightenment itself manifested through attentiveness to living every day. The thirteenth-century founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, describes the basis of this awareness thus:

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.

Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky. The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky. . . .

Earthly objects, grass-tree-fence-wall, hold forth on behalf of sages and fools, and in return the sages and fools raise their voices on behalf of the earthly objects. Intrinsic to the world of realization of self and others is that all are fully endowed with an enlightened nature. . . .

For Dogen all existence is already enlightened, grounded in the activity of the world itself, in its interdependent arising and passing away. Enlightenment is the fundamental mode of activity embracing both body and mind, self and community. Value is at the core of all life and ultimately unavoidable, whether we realize it or not, whether we see the moonlight in a dewdrop or not. Carl Bielefeldt notes that for Dogen, Buddhahood is not a release from life into the unconditioned but its very grounding, revealed in the contingent conditions of life. “Our cultural traditions and institutions are not merely artificial, second-rate realities to be left behind in enlightenment but precisely the arena in which we practice enlightenment.”

This immanental emphasis of Buddhism has led critics to suggest that it is amoral, that it advocates passive acceptance of problematic social, cultural, and political practices. Dogen was clear, however, that only those who engaged Buddhist ritual and ethical practices in interdependent communities could come to understand the numinosity of life. Immorality—violence, discrimination by gender, greed—are the ego-driven activities of those who do not know that enlightenment is the enactment of truth, not simply a passive awareness.

You may wonder why, as a feminist Christian theologian, I have wandered off into medieval Buddhist religious ideas. I have done so because, sometimes, we are able to hear and understand our own traditions in fresh new ways when they are related to other traditions. This is, I believe, one of the hallmarks and strengths of intellectual and religious life at the GTU, the diversity of religions in its community and their interactions. Against the grain of the dominant modernist assumptions of academe, the GTU affirms that having a religious life is an added dimension of scholarly pursuits, not necessarily a detriment to them. We know from experience that interacting with colleagues and friends from a variety of religious convictions and practices can open one to knowledge, even to fresh ways of seeing one’s own tradition. My lecture is, I hope, in that GTU spirit of cross-fertilization and insight.

I am not staying long with Dogen, but I ask you to hold the thought that everyday life is numinous, that it offers, to those who practice rituals in community, spiritual truth. His this-worldly affirmation of ordinary life may seem a bit at odds with my own Christian tradition’s otherworldliness, with ideas of salvation as post-mortem existence.

I want to suggest to you today that Dogen’s medieval Buddhist sensibility about Enlightenment is closer to early Christian ideas of paradise than the other-worldly afterlife Western Christianity began to emphasize in its second millennium. In using Dogen to “read” early Christianity, I am suggesting that an earthly sense of paradise is rather common in religions, from ancient Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, to Judaism and Islam, to various indigenous traditions. It is this ubiquity of paradise, or something like it, that I want to propose as a lens to understand the purpose of theological education in a multi-faith context. From these various religious hopes for beauty, social harmony, abundant life, luxuriant moments of awareness, wisdom, and peace, I propose that we envision the task of theological education as saving paradise.

For the past two years, I have been working with Rebecca Parker of Starr King on a project called, Saving Paradise, through which we are constructing a remixing of Western Christian theology that retrieves a counter-intuitive tradition: an affirmation that this world is paradise. As we spent hours looking at images and standing in community ritual spaces of the first millennium of Christianity, we gradually came to understand that, when we entered such places, we stood in paradise—and that paradise is this world, not another, not a destination after death, but this life itself.

The Christian belief in an earthly paradise has roots in several ancient cultures. From fourth-century BCE Israelite ideas of the Second Temple, Christians inherited the sensibility that paradise was found on a mountain with springs of water, which, in the post-exilic period was identified with Mt. Zion and the Temple, an idea returning exiles may have adapted from Persian ideas of a walled garden as paradise. The early church went on to locate paradise in the life of Christian community and worship. Jesus had said to the thief in Luke 23:43, “today you will be with me in paradise.” The church believed that the resurrection confirmed his words; paradise had been reopened.

Early theologians reasoned that God had created the garden on the earth and it was found here in this world. Through baptism, Christians entered the church, “the paradise in this world,” as the second-century Bishop Irenaeus called it. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 5.20.2) At baptism, Christians received the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the white robe of glory. Jesus Christ, through his transfiguration, led the way to God for those who followed him toward divinization. Jesus, as the incarnation of wisdom, was a model or forerunner of transfigured life in his roles as teacher, friend, and healer. The transfiguration was the story of the spiritual ascent, not just of Jesus, but of all who had been reborn into his church. Transfiguration saved the world. The tenth-century mystic Simeon says that the glorified person

Is made worthy to look upon the revelation of great mysteries. . .; I speak of mysteries because, whereas all can see them clearly, they cannot understand. He who is glorified by the newly-creating spirit receives new eyes and new hearing.” (quoted in Arseniev 1979, 71)

Sanctified souls lived in a transfigured world and found paradise there. Paradise was the earth filled with the Spirit of God that was breathed on all creation in Genesis 1—the same Spirit Jesus Christ later bequeathed to the church.

Paradise was not heaven. The divine realm of heaven was remote, mysterious, in the sky, where God dwelt with the angels. The paradise garden was created on the earth from the materials of creation, or so Augustine asserted in his third commentary on Genesis. The earth held all the traces of this blessed, original human home. The soft breezes, heady fragrances, lush liquids, and joyous songs of the Garden drifted forth from its re-opened portals into the church.

The earthly gifts of paradise came especially from its rivers: the Jordan flowed from paradise, split into the four rivers in Genesis 2 that moistened the earth, and then returned to itself. By this everlasting flow, the entire world and everyone in it, past, present, and future, dwelled in paradise. Christians in the church were charged with the transfiguration of each other to conform to the moral virtues, theological knowledge, spiritual insights, ritual practices, and aesthetic sensibilities that gave evidence of paradise in the community of God.

Paradise included postmortem rest, but was not a place removed from paradise on earth. Physical death separated the paradise of the departed from the paradise of this world, but the veil of separation between living and dead was a gossamer golden curtain, like the pellucid light of an Easter dawn. The veil was strong enough to keep Satan from passing through, but sheer enough for prayers to seep across and for the dead to visit in dreams and visions to bless the living. The living and the dead communed with each other through the veil, praying for each other. In this communion of memory and presence, everlasting life flourished.

The church’s understanding of life in paradise was not utopian; exorcism of personal demons and the struggle against the principalities and powers of empire dominated the political and spiritual life of early Christianity. There is wisdom in knowing that the daemons of our souls, when not confronted and worked out, force us to act them out. The church sought to help its people grow in moral virtue and responsibility toward the common good. And the conditions of life under empire made human existence short and miserable for most of the lower classes. Always clear that their God was higher than any imperial power, Christians elevated themselves spiritually as one with that divine power. And while they often fell into re-inscribing imperial coercions and terrors as sacred power, most obvious in the political visions of apocalyptic texts, they also articulated an alternative power, one that could outlast the betrayals, denials, despair, violence, and sorrows inflicted by political might. They called this power love.

Peter Brown describes this optimism and confidence in humanity in Gregory of Tours of the sixth-century, as it was slowly slipping from the grasp of Western Christianity:

Unearthly events were intimations that innumerable holy men and women, dwellers of Paradise, stood ready in all places, and even in the most out-of-the-way areas, to help Catholic worshippers in their everyday needs. . . . Through these many saints, Paradise itself came to ooze into the world. Nature itself was redeemed. Because of his faith in the proximity of Paradise, Gregory allowed sacrality to seep back into the landscape of Gaul. The countryside found its voice again, to speak, in an ancient spiritual vernacular, of the presence of the saints. Water became holy again.

In the heady, cross-cultural, inter-religious brew that produced early Christianity, the assurance of paradise in this world was an inebriating grace, a life-giving recipe drawn from

many ancient sources. Christians drank the elixir at the Eucharist, where they communed with the risen Christ. Their sense of assured salvation colored their Christianity with a confidence in human capacities for change and an appreciative sensibility toward the world, despite its many, many difficulties. They believed the spiritual journey was not toward greater innocence and purity, but toward a complex understanding of the forces of life, an understanding they called wisdom, Sophia, and its fruits were works of love, a passion for justice, an appreciation of beauty, the discernment of the spirit in the world, and the embrace of this world as good, as blessed. They did not believe suffering was a good thing; they sought to alleviate it by taking care of each other. They saw in the courage of those who resisted imperial persecution, models of steadfast faith that benefited them spiritually from beyond the grave.

Paradise was present for them in this life, especially in the church, where a great cloud of witnesses who had passed through the curtain of death returned to bless their communities. The garden of paradise was alive in the rituals, ethics, and beauties of liturgical life. It was guarded by wisdom, the wisdom of those who had confronted and neutralized their own demons and who were astute about the evils of domination, war, and power. Joy and wonder seeped into a world afflicted with violence and sorrow. Life, granted through the re-birth of baptism, encompassed death and overcame it.

This life-affirming sensibility began to fade in Western Europe with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the unpredictable violence that escalated in the seventh and eighth centuries. In the ninth century, a debate about the Eucharist erupted between Saxon theologians and Charlemagne’s court theologians. The Saxons held to tradition: the incarnate, resurrected Christ was on the table. The Carolingians insisted on an innovation: the crucified Christ lay on the table to judge Christians of their sins. After over a century of debate and the Carolingian imposition of the new theology by the point of the sword, the crucified Christ displaced the risen Christ. With that displacement, Christ’s death changed ontological status from something that had once happened and could never happen again to an eternal reality. Paradise was shifted into the afterlife, eventually disappearing into a vague post-apocalyptic hope. Western Christianity transferred salvation from incarnation, transfiguration, and resurrection to crucifixion, judgment, and the destruction of this world.

By the time Columbus plowed the Atlantic, Western Christianity had replaced paradise with purgatory, not only as a destination of the dead, but also as the world Christians inhabited spiritually, on earth, where suffering and austerities led to salvation in the afterlife. Postmortem purgatorial and purifying penalties appeared as a formal doctrine in the Second Council of Lyon in 1274. Masses were said to pray for the deceased and indulgences were sold to free them from the worst punishments. The dead, instead of being a source of spiritual power to the living, became a spiritual concern and financial burden. The church heaved humanity into a sodden, joyless pit of failure in this life, where no confessions or penances were adequate to wipe away sin, and in the next, where further punishment awaited sinners. Today, the experience of paradise Christians once created in their liturgical spaces is more commonly found in Muslim mosques or Eastern Orthodox churches. While Western Christians lost the sense of paradise on earth, Islam and Eastern Christianity maintained it.

In the Western European imagination, the longing for paradise lingered as a hunger after it was displaced by crucifixion. The pangs are felt in the nostalgia of utopias, in poetic longings, in idealizations of wilderness, in romantic movements, and in the long horizon of hope in a new age to come. The Enlightenment and the Social Gospel, the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and the anti-war activism of the modern period sought justice and peace in this life, not salvation in the next.

The values of these movements infuse American culture and society, even in secular forms. Modern movements for justice have empowered the condemnation of systems of oppression, but they often frame the world in polarized, dualistic, either/or terms: male or female, white or black, power or weakness, straight or gay, oppressor or oppressed, perpetrator or victim, insider or outsider. Liberal thinking and social movements share in the Protestant tendency to be text-driven, anhedonic, dualistic, reductionistic, and prone to splintering into narrow specializations. Among their acts of iconoclasm in the sixteenth century, Protestant reformers destroyed visual art works in churches, defecated or urinated on crucifixes, built their own sanctuaries in austere, stripped down styles, and denatured worship of its most richly sensual and embodied dimensions. American movements for justice have largely marginalized or trivialized aesthetics and beauty, an iconoclasm inherited from the Protestants. In addition, the Protestant emphasis on personal faith has attenuated the importance of commitment to community and the social nature of human life.

In speaking of paradise, I neither think we can uncritically reclaim pre-medieval ideas of paradise nor do I think the nineteenth and twentieth century foci on justice, human rights, and peace are adequate to sustain liberal religion into the next century. We live in a very different world today. I suggest re-mixing earthly paradise to construct a heuristic for thinking about a way of being in the world that includes appreciation for the beautiful and the power of aesthetic forms, care for the material life of nourishment, respect for the numinous world, reverence for life, and the commitment to create just communities. These commitments ground the struggle for justice in a response to the gift of life in this world. They encourage a responsibility for the common good.

Responsibility for the common good is at the heart of theological education. It has become commonplace to speak of the crisis in theological education, of the problem of forcing new wine into old and cracked wineskins. Some of the problems we face are tied to the larger crisis in higher education, but theological education also faces unique problems of its own.

Since the Reagan years, extreme right-wing secular foundations have sought to disempower mainline churches and move them rightward. According to the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy’s 2004 report, Axis of Ideology, right-wing foundations have funded think-tanks such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, the Institute on Religion and Public Life, the Faith and Reason Institute, and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Grants totaled $7,620,000 in 2003 alone. These think-tanks seek to spread the impression of a nationwide moral decay, to instruct citizens in the ethical basis of capitalism, to affect public policy, to make mainline churches conform to conservative politics, to evangelize for conservative Christianity, and to use churches to distribute government assistance.

This right-wing campaign has affected candidates for ordination and resulted in some seminaries becoming more conservative. Over the years, the campaign has mired ecclesial bodies in controversies over such issues as abortion and homosexuality, at the expense of their historic commitments to opposing war and advocating for economic justice. While I believe reproductive freedom and gay rights are crucial issues, the way they have been raised and debated, with incendiary, polarizing heat bears the marks of a religious right strategy. The most recent United Methodist General Conference, caught in yet another debate on homosexuality, neither lifted up the church’s historic commitments to peace nor criticized the administration’s war in Iraq, to the dismay of many committed Methodists, conservative and liberal.

Mainstream religious associations and theological schools have been slow to respond to the campaign of the Religious Right, and their responses have been ad hoc and disorganized, for reasons grounded in liberal values. Progressive and liberal religious leaders stress reasoned dialogue and tolerance. Consequently, many sought to include conservatives, to engage them in dialogue. In addition, liberals tend to use secular language and meaning systems borrowed from law, public policy, and the social sciences when speaking about social and political issues, reflecting a commitment to the separation of church and state. Their tendency to respect secular scholarship and the separate sphere of religion has made mainstream religion all but invisible in the public square because we have not developed a public discourse recognizable as religious.

The views of religious Americans who consider ourselves moderate, liberal, or progressive are poorly represented, and our values, politics, and policy interests are obscured by the Religious Right’s activities. The current muting of mainstream religious voices has led the secular left and media largely to forget that religious people have long advocated for democratic principles and justice in the United States. The renewal of mainstream religion is essential to our best political traditions and to vigorous debate in American public life.

The religious right is, I suggest, like the Wizard of Oz. Loud, vivid, and large at first glance. However, when we pull back the curtain, we can see the truth. Masked as grassroots religious uprisings, their work is in fact orchestrated by well-funded think-tanks, not so much religious as political. The Religious Right advocates intolerance, prefers to give to the haves and have mores, and believes wars make peace. Their smoke and noise cannot disguise the fact that their politics are based neither in religious nor in democratic values.

I am convinced the religious right campaign has done its worst damage and is going to fail eventually. The Presbyterians spoke clearly against the Iraq war at their General Assembly this summer, calling it “unwise, immoral, and illegal.” Progressive people from a variety of religious traditions now teach in significant numbers in leading institutions of theological education. When Rebecca Parker became president of Starr King in 1990, she was the first permanently appointed woman head of a theological school in the history of this country. She is no longer alone—other schools also have feminist presidents and deans leading them—far more than were in place even five years ago.

There is currently a major resurgence of mainstream, liberal, and progressive religion sweeping the country. Faithful America, an interfaith internet coalition, has 120,000 names in its database. The Sojourners’ petition “God Is Not a Republican” has been signed by 65,000 people. Various religious groups are organizing local communities for the November election. And on Sept. 11, over 1000 people from across the country had signed up to write a consensus document called Lift Every Voice! a Declaration on Christianity and the Future of America, which they did in just over 36 hours on Sept. 13-14. Members of the GTU community were among the drafters, who were two-thirds lay people, twenty percent people of color, two-thirds women, ten percent academics, and one third mainline Protestant. The average age was 51; 20 participants identified themselves as evangelicals and 3 as transgender. The zip code list is a cross section of the U.S. The Lift Every Voice! Declaration said the following in sum:

From a Christian faith central to our vision of America, we declare that we honor the inviolable dignity of every human being and treasure the natural environment as God's creation.

An idolatrous deference to wealth and profits threatens our ancient and priceless concepts of the common good and mutual accountability.

Social policies must reflect the fundamental value of the common good:

  1. fair compensation for labor;
  2. access to health care for all;
  3. well-funded public education;
  4. regulation of industry to protect natural resources and the environment;
  5. return to the Fairness Doctrine in all media controlled or licensed by our government; and
  6. oversight of the criminal justice system with emphasis upon rehabilitative rather than punitive effects.

We demand justice for those of our society who live on the margins, those who cannot demand justice for themselves. We seek prosperity for all rather than wealth for a few. We value a criminal justice system that assures that every person be deemed innocent until proven guilty and that promises a day in court for all who stand accused, the right to a speedy trial, and basic human rights and dignity for the incarcerated. It is our mission to elect local and national leaders who demonstrate an unwavering commitment to social and economic justice and who will create the means to achieve that justice.

We speak because we are fighting for the soul of a great country, which we will continue to hold in our prayers and whose spirit we will honor through unyielding struggle for liberty and justice for all.

Empassioned, committed Christians are speaking up for justice, peace, human dignity and love, and the integrity of creation at a time when the Religious Right has gained influence at the highest reaches of U.S. government. Since the Declaration was posted on Sept. 15 at the everyvoice website, endorsements have come, not only from Christians, but from other religious people in solidarity with Christians who took the time to speak up about our values and provide an alternative to right-wing Christianity. If you haven’t endorsed the document, I urge you to go to the website,, read it, endorse it, and comment on it. Tell your friends and colleagues to do the same.

I also urge you to be in front of Starr King tomorrow at 5 pm. Ibrahim Farajaje, the school’s dean was, this week, the victim of a hate crime. Tomorrow is a rally to support him and to say, this is wrong and we will stand with anyone so treated to protect him. We should all stand publicly in solidarity with any member of our community of scholars who has been subjected to such treatment.

The election this November has added a note of urgency, perhaps, to the work of those who think saving paradise is a worthwhile task. The fate of the world hangs in the balance in ways it never has before in my lifetime. I hope we all commit ourselves to doing what we can in the next few weeks. I want to conclude today, however, by identifying the longer term tasks of theological education as a project of saving paradise.

Most of us here today have earned or are pursuing doctoral degrees in religion because we are fascinated by human life in its religious modes and want to understand it better. Many of us also have religious convictions and values that motivate us to want to change the power structures of the world we live in, to create greater justice and human thriving. We live in a delicate, constantly-shifting balance, as it were, of beholding the moon in a pool of water at the same time we ask if that water is acid rain. Paradise is saved neither by our uncritical adherence to religious traditions nor a corrosive demolition of anything that does not suit our own narcissistic needs. The best education combines two impulses, the urge to understand and the urge to change the world for the better. Remembrances of love, of beauty, of moments when we opened ourselves to the world’s pleasures and gifts enable us to to love and receive the life-giving powers that surround us. At the same time, we must engage the world with an astute, critical consciousness attuned to both our internal demons and the oppressive and destructive powers of the world.

If we grasp the complexities of saving paradise, we know that the tasks of theological education are not just the training of minds, but of whole persons in communities that honor the fullness of life. While it often falls short of fulfilling its tasks fully, the best theological education re-creates minds that ask more sophisticated questions and pursue deeper answers. Theological education renews spirits, enlivening a passion for engagement with issues that matter for religious life. It reinforces virtue by expecting the best of its members and providing adequate support for the development of sound character. And it grounds souls in wisdom by acknowledging the many, complex ways in which we live and move and learn together. Whether our projects are a puddle an inch wide or a vast lake, the moon dances upon them neither hindering nor breaking them, but reminding us of the limitless numinosity of the moonlit sky and the dark oceans of mercy held together in our consciousness of this wild and precious life—this paradise.

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