Lately I have been discussing the idea of being heavenly-minded, and I have suggested that to do any earthly good you have to be heavenly-minded.
My colleague The Rev. Chuck Alley pointed out that plenty of non-believing people do all sorts of earthly good and that I needed to clarify what I mean by “earthly good.” Otherwise, my argument never gets out of the starting gate. He is exactly right, so that is just what I will do.
What do I mean by “earthly good” when I say that we can do no earthly good unless we are heavenly-minded? For starters I have to admit that I am indulging in some playful hyperbole.
There is no denying that very earthly-minded people have accomplished many technological and scientific goods. The late Steve Jobs is a prime example. Without the slightest belief in an afterlife he gave us a universe of electronic devices that have changed how we manage and exchange information.
Similarly, researchers have advanced cures for disease, engineered drought-resistant crops, and invented safety devices that have saved thousands of workers from injury and death.
But to get at what I mean by earthly good I want to underscore the shortcomings of these technological and scientific goods. While using an iPhone, an iPad, and a MacBook Pro enhances my productivity, thousands of children remain unable to afford simple tools for learning like pens and paper.
Steve Jobs survived pancreatic cancer for years because of advances in medical science. By contrast, most American citizens—even those covered by health insurance—live only a matter of months.
Even an employed, middle class American cannot afford access to this kind of medical care. Thousands upon thousands have even more limited access to the medical system of the United States. And if we consider the rest of the world we begin to see an enormous disparity in access to medical advances.
The same point about the unequal distribution of resources can be made with agricultural advances and every form of technological and scientific discovery. Scientific and technological advances do not guarantee moral advances. Progress in justice does not follow progress in know-how.
On the contrary, the ghastly medical experiments and mass exterminations of the Nazis serves as a clear example of the possible disconnect between technical and scientific sophistication on the one hand and justice on the other.
As what I have already said suggests, by “earthly good” I have in mind something that has consequences for what moral theologians and philosophers call distributive justice. And yet the earthly good I have in mind is more fundamental. Let me explain.
Theories of distributive justice seek to arrive at the principles that measure the justice or injustice of actual social, economic orders. Every society has benefits and burdens.
Among the benefits are food, shelter, medical care, education, and security. An obvious burden is the cost of such goods and services. Theorists wrestle with how these benefits are distributed and who pays for them.
For instance, should these benefits be distributed equally to the many even though the burden for paying for them rests unequally on the shoulders of a few? Or, by contrast, should we receive only the benefits for which we can pay through our own industry and the charitable intentions of those inclined to help the less economically fortunate?
Christianity has social consequences. Jesus himself taught us to serve the poor. When he taught in his hometown synagogue, he declared the year of Jubilee. In other words, he declared the year of complete debt forgiveness.
But if we stop there we will not see what I mean by doing earthly good. That is because stopping here portrays Jesus as little more than a moral theologian who favors a welfare approach to distributive justice. Jesus did not come to offer a new theory of justice. He came to establish the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not a place. It is a relationship with God. Specifically, the Kingdom of Heaven is a relationship in which God’s will reigns, and that relationship begins in the human heart.
Social and political order can be the external expressions of obedient human hearts, but that order cannot abide if it is built on the sand of hearts still in rebellion against God’s reign.
This is not to say that God’s reign will be complete only with a theocracy or that only Christians can be just, charitable, industrious or generous. It does mean, however, that human political strategies that focus solely on social and political order will eventually miss the mark.
Totalitarian regimes like the Stalinist Soviet Union and Mao’s China pursued a completely godless vision of social justice at a terrible human cost. If some version of justice is the ultimate goal, then God is dispensable. The result is that individual humans can be expendable.
And for that matter neither the Holy Roman Empire nor Calvin’s Geneva achieved the perfect reign of God. Let’s posit for just a moment that seeking God’s presence was always their highest goal (an admittedly faulty assumption). Still, God’s Kingdom was not fully realized by these attempts to govern as Christians.
That is for two reasons. First, the reign of God is God’s achievement, not ours. Second, Jesus established the Kingdom with his incarnation and will complete it with his Second Coming. It is literally only with the presence of God himself among his people that the Kingdom of Heaven will be fully established.
The earthly good that we can accomplish in the meantime is always partial and flawed. We are clearly called to serve the poor and to make disciples. But we are not merely rearranging the social order. We are going deeper to the very logic of the Creation. The Fall turned the Creation upside down. We are God’s instruments in turning things right side up again.
Here is how the Virgin Mary put it:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever. (Luke 1:47-55)
Mary anticipates what the mighty God will do through her in his Son Jesus Christ. God will reign, being present to all his people. His presence brings along with it his justice.
God initiates his reign, but we have a part to play. We say yes in they way God ordains for us, just as Mary said yes to bearing the Messiah. By saying yes, Mary surrenders to God’s presence and to all the transformations that his presence entails.
The heavenly-minded do not set out to eradicate hunger as our final goal. We set out to obey God, to welcome his presence, to be in intimate relationship with him. Then, we cooperate with God’s project to change the hearts that bring hunger into the world. The same is true for sickness and poverty and every form of human misery and oppression.
Doing earthly good is our goal precisely because it is God’s goal and we prize our relationship with God above any earthly things.