From the beginnings of the Christian movement and up to this day, there have been endless disputes about what it means to say that Christians are “in but not of the world.” All accept the words of Jesus that we are to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. But there is continuing argument about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. When Christian faith is most vibrant, the accent is on not rendering to Caesar what belongs to God. But there is no reason to doubt that those who, like Eusebius, relaxed the tension, and even conflated the realms of Caesar and God, were also acting in good faith.
The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church says that we should “read the signs of the times,” and, in fact, Christians have been doing that since the time of the apostles, and are doing that today. Different times, different signs.
The apostle Paul depicts the Church as being in a situation of permanent conflict. In the sixth chapter of Ephesians we read: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” It would seem that Babylon has not definitively fallen, and will not definitively fall, until it is finally displaced by the New Jerusalem of biblical promise. For the Christian, the warfare has not ended; we are still far from our promised home.
The New Testament letter to the Hebrews dramatically portrays the continuing struggle of the saints who are far from home:
They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they were destitute, afflicted, ill-treatedof whom the world was not worthywandering over deserts and mountains and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect . . . But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel . . . For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (Heb. 1113)
Note the tension. We might call it the dialectic. Some see it as a contradiction. On the one hand, we have come to Mount Zion, the New Jerusalem. On the other, we have here no lasting city but seek the city that is to come. This is frequently described as the “now” and “not yet” of Christian existence. Christians live “between the times”meaning between the time of Christ’s resurrection victory and the time of its cosmic fulfillment in the coming of the promised Kingdom. All time is time toward home, time toward our true home in the New Jerusalem.
And so it is said that there is a continuing tensioncall it a dialectic, if you willbetween the “this worldly” and the “other worldly” dimensions of Christian existence. Some Christians put the accent on their duties to making this world a better place to live, to make this world more home-like, so to speak. There are even those called post-millennialists who believe that Christ will not return in glory until we have established a millennium of justice and peace, making the world worthy of his kingly rule. This has at times in Christian history, and not least in the history of Christianity in America, served as a powerful incentive for social and political activism on the part of Christians. In this view, it is as though we can turn Babylon into the New Jerusalem by means of radical renovation.
There is good reason, however, to question the ways in which “this worldly” Christianity is pitted against “other worldly” Christianity. Other-worldliness is often derided as escapism from the problems and tasks of the here and now. It is, according to many critics, a piety focused on “pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye.” One thinks of the old hymn, “I’m but a stranger here/ Heaven is my home.” We should at least entertain the possibility, however, that other-worldly hope can intensify one’s engagement in the responsibilities for this world. The other in other-worldly is not entirely other. It can be anticipated as this world fulfilled and transformed, at least in part. The book of Revelation speaks of a new heaven and a new earth in which those who are faithful in their time are at last at home:
They shall hunger no more, neither
thirst any more;
the sun shall not strike them, nor
any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the
Throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs
of living water;
and God will wipe away every tear
from their eyes.
Even in the Babylon of the present, the New Jerusalem that “comes down from above” is anticipated. The word for this is prolepsis, an act in which a hoped-for future is already present. The entirety of Christian existence and of our efforts in this world can thus be understood as proleptic.
For Christians, the supreme act of prolepsis is the Eucharist in which we take bread and wine in obedience to the command of Jesus and “do this” in remembrance of him. Thus is the Eucharist, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. It is a supremely political action in which the heavenly polis is made present in time. The eucharistic meal here and now anticipates, makes present, the New Jerusalem’s eternal Feast of the Lamb.
So it is that in the eucharistic liturgy Christians say that they join their song to that of “the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” around the throne of the Lamb. In this act, past and future are now because, as the Lamb says of himself, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Christ is the A and the Z of the human alphabet construed to tell the story of the world.
In this understanding, it is not a matter of “balancing” the other-worldly against the this-worldly, or the this-worldly against the other-worldly. Each world penetrates the other. The present is, so to speak, pregnant with the future to which the future gives birth. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” declares the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Charged as in electrically charged; the present is given new urgency, raised to a new level of intensity, because it is riddled through and through with a promised future.
Now and not yet. Between the times. Babylon is our permanent circumstance. Or at least until. . .
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things.
"Babylon: Then and Now" by Richard John Neuhaus