“It seems to some people that you are saying there isn’t an afterlife,” a reporter recently asked the new Presiding Bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church.
“Well,” replied Katharine Jefferts Schori, “I don’t think Jesus was focused on that. I think that Jesus was focused on heaven in this life primarily...”
The reporter tried again. “So does that mean that in your view there is no afterlife?”
“That’s not what I said. I said what I think Jesus is more concerned about is heavenly existence, eternal life, in this life.”
Never mind the conundrum of what ‘eternal life in this life,’ means, it is clear the first female leader of the 2 million-member Episcopal Church isn’t coming down on this one. And ‘this one’ is a big one. If there is no life beyond this life, if the grave is our ultimate home, then Camus was right in saying that the only question with which we must wrestle is that of suicide.
Yet the mainstream press has largely missed the enormous gravity of what is happening in the Episcopal Church. Most have labeled it a conflict over homosexuality. But those who know, know better. The debate is about nothing less than a complete overhaul of Christian orthodoxy—claim by claim of its creeds, line by line of its hymns, and word by word of its historic doctrine.
Yet to hear Jefferts Schori talk about it, it seems a bit of a sport—this fascinating armchair speculation about what might or might not be true, what Jesus did or didn’t mean and which tenets of orthodoxy to keep and which to toss on the pyre of the zeitgeist.
That’s why it’s time for a visit from Innocent Smith, not just for Jefferts Schori, but also for all the Episcopal leaders who regularly assemble in the lounge of progressive thought for a head rush of theological gymnastics.
Madman, criminal or other?
If you’re unfamiliar with Innocent Smith, you have plenty of company. He is a little-known character created by English writer and thinker G.K. Chesterton in his book Man Alive, published in 1921. The character is largely autobiographical of Chesterton, sharing the author’s large girth and boundless sense of humor.
But there is a darker side to this larger-than-life character who bounds over brick walls and turns summersaults in the grass. Sometimes he breaks into houses and sometimes he shoots at people’s feet. Is he a madman? A criminal? Or other?
In the following exchange, Innocent Smith, the university undegraduate, pays a nocturnal visit to Professor Eames who is one of the most popular professors on campus and a purveyor of the philosophy of pessimism.
Smith: “I came at this unearthly hour because I am coming to the conclusion that existence is really too rotten… And knowing you were the greatest living authority on the pessimist thinkers—“
“All thinkers,” interrupts Professor Eames, “are pessimist thinkers.”
After a few hours of this depressing conversation, the Professor lays out his philosophy plainly:
“A puppy with hydrophobia would probably struggle for life while we killed it; but if we were kind, we should kill it. So an omniscient god would put us out of our pain. He would strike us dead.”
“Why doesn’t he strike us dead?” asks Smith.
“Because he is dead himself,” says Eames; “that is where he is really enviable.”
Suddenly the professor turns to find that Smith has pulled a gun on him.
“I’ll help you out of your hole, old man,” says Smith. “I’ll put the puppy out of his pain.”
The professor makes a run for the window and the balcony, leaping onto a kind of flying buttress, high in the air and sits astride it, hugging it with his legs.
“Help! Help!” he cries. “I shall go mad!”
The day breaks. The professor begs and begs to be let down.
“Do I understand that you want to get back to life?” asks the undergraduate.
“I’d give anything to get back,” says Eames
“Then, blast your impudence, give us a song!’
“What do you mean? What song?
“A hymn, I think, would be most appropriate.”
The professor sings a song of thankfulness as instructed. Then Smith commands him to lift his hands and thank God for the things he once derided as vulgar and unsophisticated, the vain delights of the ignorant—especially the yellow spotted blinds of the house across the way.
Smith concludes the interview this way,
“In strict biological fact, you are a very nice fellow, addicted to talking putrid nonsense…I shall therefore fire off all my cartridges round your head so as not to hit you (I am a good shot, you may be glad to hear) and then we will go in and have some breakfast.”
The point is that when Professor Eames was forced to the logical conclusion of his own philosophy, he broke. The façade of his pessimism fell away to reveal a yearning for life and a heart of gratitude.
G.K. Chesterton wasn’t just writing a comically instructive story. He was fighting the battle of his life. Surrounded as a young man by the philosophies of pessimism and nihilism, he fell into a place of personal depression and despair, from which he was saved only by his embrace of Christian orthodoxy. (See his book Orthodoxy)
A new nihilism
What does the vignette from Man Alive have to do with the current state of the Episcopal Church in America?
First, its leaders are preaching a new form of nihilism. On the surface, of course, their revisionist theology is anything but pessimistic; in fact, it sounds down right optimistic. Just listen to the rhetoric about spreading ‘the love of God’ and working to alleviate poverty, illiteracy and AIDS to help fulfill the United Nations Millennium Goals. They speak of carrying ‘light’ into the world’s darkness. But one must ask how strong a light can be that is snuffed out at the moment of death.
Rather, in suggesting that Jesus did not literally rise from the dead (see quotes below) and that the afterlife is anything but certain is, Episcopal leaders are, according to the Apostle Paul, preaching nihilism.
“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain…If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
Second, some Episcopal leaders are “popular professors” whose enticing rhetoric is swaying many into their new brand of pessimism. What would happen if they had to truly confront the logical end of their nouveau philosophy and to consider its real implications for themselves and others.
Maybe all it would take would be a visit with James and Emily A, Episcopalians who. last year, lost their two-year-old son to leukemia. For 17-months they held round-the-clock shifts in his hospital room so that one of them would always be by his side. All who knew them made his battle their own.
The funeral was crushingly sad, but it was not hopeless. In fact, it was full of hope. James and Emily spoke of their son’s ultimate healing in the hands of God, his new home in heaven and their eventual reunion. And today, a year later, what gets them through the day is still the hope—no, the assurance—that one day they will see their son again.
But now the leader of their church is telling them it might not be so, that the last time they would ever see their son may well have been when they closed his small brown coffin—at least, she can’t say for sure.
“Let not your heart be troubled,” said Jesus, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)
For the foremost leader of the Episcopal church in America to beat around the bush when asked about the afterlife, to speculate about the resurrection of the dead, to reinterpret Jesus’ very plain statements about heaven as referring to some sort of earthly paradise is not just an exercise in innovative thought or a courageous step of honesty, it is an act of perjury, and a cruel one at that. It is an undermining of the hope of every Christian heart that longs to be reunited to a lost child, a beloved spouse or a best friend once more.
If Innocent Smith were to reappear today, perhaps he would do his work on the spires of the National Cathedral. Perhaps he would force the new nihilists not only to beg for their lives in the face of the imminent extinction they apparently believe in, but also to raise their hands and thank God for those vulgar, backward, maddening folk who are causing so much trouble by refusing to be modern, enlightened and progressive. And perhaps they, like Professor Eames, pried from the comfort of their armchair speculations, would see the façade of their humanitarian utopianism crumble away to reveal in their own hearts the longing for eternity God has placed there. Then perhaps they too might be saved.*
(Note: Given the spate of recent law suits re: the Episcopal Church conflct, let me be clear that I am in no way suggesting that anyone should pull an “Innocent Smith” on any Episcopal leaders (except maybe in the avatar world of Second Life.). Innocent Smith is fictional, and fictional he should remain.