Up, up and INSIDE!

Luke 24:44-53

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

When European missionaries came to South Africa, they were faced with a theological conundrum.

The indigenous people, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Mpondo et al, believed that “God” who they named Nkulunkulu (The Biggest One), Camata, Modimo or Vulindhlela (The Way opener) lived in the ground. Caves and holes were sacred spaces which is why they were adorned with lithographs which in turn were animated by flickering fire in the caves. To this day the traditions of Africa see their beloved dead buried in the kraal, (corral). When an African is facing life’s challenges, a sacred ritual is to return to the kraal at one’s home and pour the froth of traditional beer into the earth before asking advice of the ancients who are buried there amongst their cattle.

The European missionaries were creed bound to teach that God lived in the sky, and also that there was a place called hell (which African cosmology had no reference, or need for)  deep in the earth. The way they did this “preaching” was to literally turn the psyche of Africans around from the God of the deep to the God of the sky, thus creating a deep tear in the soul of Africans who were already, by their very nature, profoundly theistic people.

What the missionaries did not have the insight to examine in their time was how they, as Westerners had come to believe in the God of the sky. Our post-modern deconstructed age has given us that insight and we understand how those early, pre-biblical thinkers could have concluded from their environment that the earth was a flat disk standing on pillars in the midst of water. This water threatened the earth and was kept back at the shore and in the sky by a dome that held back the chaos and destruction. This theme has been interestingly revisited by Stephen King in his latest novel “Under the Dome” but this time the chaos comes from within the dome and not from outside!

On a flat earth it was easy to point to where God lived. God was up beyond the dome and in fact was partly the dome itself holding back the chaos that seemed so close in that early world devoid of simple scientific rationale.

Coming with this middle-eastern cosmology to the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection and re-assimilation into God it was easy to speak of him having “ascended” back to God. Back beyond the dome.

In 2010 it is not so easy to speak of the notion of the ascension.

I remember one of my sons as a junior school learner, looking at a globe of the earth and asking who had decided that the North Pole should be on the top. “There is no up or down in space” was his insightful comment. Of course he was quite correct!

Now that we know what we know about third millennium cosmology, to speak of Jesus ascending is nonsensical. Where is up from a ball? Also given what we now know about the size of the Universe, ascension gets us into all sorts of problems such as how far, how high, which galaxy? Silly stuff.

As a concept the ascension is almost unworkable in our day. Thank God that there are only ten days between the Feast of Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost. Wherever Jesus goes dimensionally, it is only for ten days, and perhaps that is why Jesus, knowing the complexity of this phenomenon, blesses the proto-church disciples and tells them not to do anything until he gets back!

I am tickled however, by the African notion of the abode of God in the earth and not in the sky, so indulge me while I play with an idea that is every bit as speculative as the Ascension doctrine has been.

What if Africans are correct and Jesus came from God who lives in the earth? He would then have descended on this Feast day, back into the earth from which he came. I wonder how that simple change of orientation would have changed our world history?

What if the Africans had sent missionaries with this message to Europe and her Industrialised siblings instead of the other way around? Would the earth be groaning as she is now? Would we have raped and pillaged the abode of God as we have, all the while believing that God was “up there” blessing our “taming and subduing” of our island home in space”?

Of course, I have no way, and no mandate, to alter our doctrine nor our history, but I can’t help musing about the possibilities of a saviour who is earthed more deeply than the one I am duty bound to point to somewhere up there.

Perhaps after I have preached this Ascension Sunday I will go and have a beer in a kraal and wait for the Pentecostal breath to save our land.


11 responses to “Up, up and INSIDE!”

  1. Howard White avatar

    Boy this concept captured my imagination. I look forward to the conversations with African friends and for the things that will “bubble up” from the sacred spaces as a result of this image living in my imagination for the next few days. My preaching will be “deeper” because of the listening hermit. Thanks.

  2. wendy maclean avatar
    wendy maclean

    this is so beautiful…thanks. I can almost see the flickering firelight on the caves, with the painted blessings looking on from the walls…
    reading Ephesians (1:22), I was struck by the idea of Christ in this new age: “And he has put all things under his feet.” Imagine if this means that he is grounded, coming up out of the ground, like the African image of God…Having dirt on his feet would be familiar to Jesus of Nazareth. Is it too great a stretch to imagine Paul speaking a cosmic vision, of sky and star and dust and body, not a hierarchical strategy for dominance?

  3. Bob avatar

    Great article. Our western European worldview from ages past have locked us into much theological nonsense today, the Ascension being one. I think Spong and others are right that theology has to change- but how do we do that and what damage can that do? (Let alone what congregations might do to the person in the pulpit…)

  4. Peter avatar

    Thanks Juan
    Glad it is of some use to someone.

  5. Juan Smith avatar
    Juan Smith

    Hi Peter

    A helpful start to my sermon prep fro tommorow…greetings from Cape Town


  6. Peter avatar

    Thanks Jessica
    Appreciate you stopping by The Listening Hermit

  7. Peter avatar

    Hi Dianne,
    Thanks for stopping by at The Listening Hermit and for your affirming comment.

  8. Dianne avatar

    I LOVE this concept of God of the earth, and it would indeed have turned our European thinking around, I agree. Perhaps it is time for us to realize that, as Tracy Chapman and others have put it, we are raping the world.

    Thanks again Peter, for opening my eyes.

  9. Jessica Zolondek avatar
    Jessica Zolondek

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece!

  10. Peter avatar

    Thanks Sue,
    Appreciate your comments and visit to The Listening Hermit
    Feel free to reference the post if it helpful
    Greetings from Africa, where we are watching the big gloop with horror.
    I live on the Wild Coast where sea disasters have been frequent.

  11. Sue Crannell avatar
    Sue Crannell

    You have opened my eyes, especially given the oil spill we are watching here in the US. What wonderful insight! Thank you! I would like to post this on facebook for the students in our World Christianity class at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA.

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