The elusive land of promise

in 1984, at a time when there was an air of expectancy in the country, I delivered a course of lectures entitled Envisioning New Zealand’s Future. It was shortly after the Economic Summit Conference. We had come to the end of the Muldoon era and were looking into the future with very positive hope. I explored the need to prioritise our values and clarify our goals if we were going to achieve any worthwhile ends.

Since that time New Zealand, both in the economy and in society generally, has experienced a great deal of restructuring. The degree to which we have achieved our goals, however, is debatable. There is no longer the sense of buoyant expectancy we had then. What we were hoping for has proved to be more elusive than we thought. Now that we have entered a new century – and a new millennium to boot – it is a suitable time to look again at where we want to go, both as a nation and as part of the wider world.

Even since 1984 the global scene has changed considerably. We are much more aware of the process of globalisation than we were then. We are being forced to acknowledge our interdependence with the rest of the world. We can no longer ignore environmental and ecological issues. The Cold War is over, for the time being at least; yet there are many pockets of deep unrest and local violence around the world.

What sort of better world can we now expect or would we like to see? We shall address these questions particularly in the second chapter. In the third we shall explore how to go about trying to reach the world we hope for, and in the fourth we shall examine the obstacles in the way. First, however, we shall be looking into the past to get a better understanding of how we got here.

The most basic question to begin with is actually this: Why should we even bother thinking about a world better than this one? Why are we not satisfied with what we have? The very fact that we are so often yearning for a better world points to something deeply embedded in the culture which has shaped us. We owe it in part to the Bible, which has provided so much of the content of western culture in the last two millennia. The quest for a better world is a theme that runs through the Bible from beginning to end, even though that future world came to be envisioned in a wide variety of forms.

Abraham and the Promised Land

It started with the story of Abraham, who was later to become, for Jew, Christian and Muslim, the very model of a person who walked forward into the future with faith. All that we know of Abraham has come down to us in the form of a legendary saga. Even that was shaped by later generations, who used it express their own aspirations. It is not the historicity of these ancient legends but their symbolic meaning that is important for us.

Abraham is portrayed as a voluntary migrant setting off on a journey in answer to a divine call. He heard a voice which said: “Go from your country, away from you family and neighbours, to the land that I will show you.”

Very much later an unknown New Testament writer added to the saga by saying that Abraham was “looking for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God”. But the earlier Hebrew people simply referred to the destination as a land. Abraham was making his way to “the land of promise”. The hope of reaching a land promised by God not only initiated the Judeo-Christian cultural path, but has sustained it for nearly 4000 years.

The Abraham legend does reflect historical facts. Early in the second millennium before Christ various nomadic pastoral tribes migrated from Aramaea in Northern Mesopotamia to settle permanently among the more highly cultured city-states of Canaan.

It is worth examining the patriarchal legends which that migration gave rise to. First, they describe life as a journey. This has long been a useful way for us individuals to understand the nature of our personal life. But the metaphor is just as true of the human species as a whole. Only in the past 150 years have we been able to appreciate that fact: it is only since then that we have become aware of the long evolution of life on this planet.

An important part of that story is not only the biological evolution of the human species but also, subsequently, the evolution of human culture. By culture I mean the mode of thought and style of living which make us human. For some two million years humankind has been engaged in a cultural journey, and still is. It is a journey in which we are not at all clear where we are going. We are like Abraham, of whom the New Testament said “he went out, not knowing where he was to go”.

An urge to go somewhere

We humans as a species do not know where we are heading on this planet – or even whether we are going anywhere. Yet from time to time we experience an inner urge that we ought to go somewhere. This manifested itself in the European motivation to explore the world and colonise it. It is reflected in the widespread desire in the scientific world to be continually making progress. It was shown in the passion to put a man on the moon. It is felt by individuals in the urge to climb the highest mountain, or simply set off on what they call their OE. It is reflected in a term dear to all economists – the achievement of economic growth. We are told we should be always improving our material standard of living. Deeply embedded in the culture that shapes us is this urge to go somewhere.

It was not always so. For most of the two million years of human cultural evolution, so far as we can tell from scanty evidence, our far distant forebears were chiefly intent on preserving the way of life they had inherited from their ancestors. They looked back to the mythical time of origins as the golden age; since that time any change they usually judged to be for the worse. We, too, often show a bit of that nostalgia for better times in the past, even though we have a tendency to look at the past through rose-coloured spectacles.

But from around the time of Abraham, human culture began to change. Starting with a few pioneering souls at first, humans began to look ahead and picture another kind of world better than the one they knew. It was this shift of attention from the past to the future which, among other things, led to the Axial Period in the first millennium BCE – the period which gave rise to the so-called “world religions”. The term “Axial Period” was used to describe how human culture seemed to make a giant shift on its axis. For the first time humans were no longer content simply to preserve the status quo, but chose to take the initiative in changing things for the better. They began to develop the notion that human society was also on a journey. This is one of the symbolic and permanent meanings of the Abraham saga.

A pivotal change

Our widespread concern with history – the human story – came to birth in this period. Previously time had been experienced as a matter of going round in circles – days, months, years, generations – in which one kept returning to where one had started. From the Axial Period onwards time came to be seen as a line stretching out into the unknown future. You never pass the same point twice. Each moment is unique. Each generation can build on the products of the past. Culture can be accumulative and progressive. Now there are goals to be reached. As the Bible tells it, all this began with Abraham.

The second aspect of the Abraham legend which remains very relevant is that Abraham was looking for a land to possess. This element of the legend also reflected a fact – the cultural change that was taking place quite generally in the ancient world. The cultural event that is described symbolically in the story of one man was spread over several millennia. This was the change from the migratory life of food-gatherer, hunter and pastoralist to the settled life of the agriculturist, a change that involved settling down in permanent residence. The agriculturists needed to possess and protect the land on which they depended for food.

This cultural transition is reflected also in the ancient myth of Cain and Abel, where there is hostility between Cain the agriculturist and Abel the pastoralist. In the end it was the agriculturist who won, but at a cost. This myth was shaped by memories from the patriarchal period of the clash between the incoming Hebrew tribes and the indigenous Canaanites.

The transition to an agricultural way of life made land possession a necessity. Yet this cultural transition is quite recent relative to the total period of human habitation of this planet. Before that, the earth was one vast common, owned by nobody. There were no humanly created boundaries and people were free to wander wherever they chose.

Since the time of the agricultural revolution, that has no longer been wholly the case. This is why, when the population of a society suddenly expanded, it felt obliged to go out and take possession of more land, if necessary by conquest. This is why, even in more recent times, the European nations went out and colonised the world. As European population expanded during and after the Industrial Revolution, nations found it desirable to export their surplus population. In the 20th century the expansionist designs of Japan, Italy and Germany led to major wars.

Today land possession has become a more urgent issue than ever, and will become the source of increasing tension and dispute during this century. It is sadly ironic that the Israelis and the Palestinians are today both vying with each other to possess the very same piece of land over which the Canaanites and the Hebrews fought 3000 years ago. And Israelis still claim it is theirs by divine right, since it is the land promised by God to Abraham long ago.

The urban revolution

There is still a third aspect of the agricultural revolution which remains relevant. It not only brought about a population increase, but it led to the building of walled cities for self-protection. Life in the city led in turn to a diversification of skills other than agriculture. Urban life had some great advantages, but there was a price to pay. It was the loss of the complete freedom experienced by the pastoralist – a freedom jealously preserved by the Middle East Bedouin to this day.

The biblical myth of Cain itself connects this loss of freedom with the advent of urban life, though in a rather quaint way. Cain the agriculturalist had to bear the mark of a murderer because he had killed the life of the pastoralist, as symbolised in Abel; so he went off and built a city.

When humankind lived the life of the hunter and food-gatherer, and even the life of the pastoralist, people were the passive recipients of the fruits of the earth. When humankind developed the life of the agriculturalist, people became active developers of the earth. By their skills they increased the fruits of the earth. Then, as humankind developed an urban existence, people began to live not only from the fruits of the earth, but also from the products of their own cultural activities. To a degree they began to be separated from the forces of nature. All these changes followed after land possession became important.

This possession of the land of divine promise has remained an article of faith in Judaism ever since. It has sustained Jews through many centuries of being forcefully exiled from the land and of being shamelessly persecuted by the Gentiles, even to the point of genocide in the Nazi Holocaust. The symbolic words “next year Jerusalem”, spoken at the celebration of every annual Passover, kept alive the hope of their ultimate return to the land of promise some time in the future.

As the long history of the people of Israel makes clear, it is not sufficient merely to possess the land. Equally important is the kind of society in which people live on the land. Further basic components of a desirable world are social order and harmony. The very entry of the ancient Hebrews to the land of Canaan, both under the patriarchs and under Joshua, led initially to a period of social upheaval bordering on chaos. The Bible describes it simply as a time when “everybody did what was right in his own eyes”. That is a euphemistic way of referring to anarchy.

The ancient Israelites overcame anarchy by establishing a kingdom. The one period when the institution of monarchy was relatively successful for the Israelites was the short period of 40 years under King David. So much was this the case that the kingdom of David came to be regarded as a golden age which, once lost, all later generations wished to be restored. Yet for centuries their hopes for this future eluded them.

Jesus’ kingdom

At the time of Christian origins the restoration of the kingdom of David was still a paramount concern for many Jews. Even the disciples are reported to have asked Jesus: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

It is widely acknowledged today that the chief message of Jesus was certainly about a kingdom – but a very different kingdom from that of the past. After all, the human rulers of the Davidic kingdom, including even David himself, had proved far from ideal. Some of them, like his son Solomon, had shown themselves to be eastern despots. Jesus called the kingdom he talked about “the kingdom of God”; and much of his teaching, particularly in his parables, was intended to describe what such a kingdom would be like. Since God was conceived as the source of all justice, love and righteousness, then any domain ruled by God would be one in which those virtues prevailed, shaping people’s relationships and the general life of the community.

It is now becoming doubtful if the first Christians ever adequately understood the teaching of Jesus about the kingdom. They expected God to establish this kingdom by some cataclysmic event, and went out proclaiming its imminent arrival. Although that expectation is clearly evident in the New Testament, many scholars today question whether that was ever taught by Jesus. In any case, that original expectation was never fulfilled; it was the failure of that kingdom suddenly to arrive that led, during the second, third and fourth centuries, to the mental formation of quite a different world to come.

A spiritual alternative

Eventually Christians lost all hope of ever seeing a better world in the here and now. They transferred their hopes to a more spiritual world beyond this physical world of space and time. This transition took place over some four centuries, and occurred unconsciously more than consciously. Some of it went back to ideas already taking root in pre-Christian Judaism.

In Maccabaean times, 150 years before the Christian era, even the Jewish hopes of the restoration of the Davidic kingdom were being sorely tested, particularly when their young men were being killed in their prime in defence of the faith of their fathers. Jews began to entertain the hope of a great Last Judgment, when God would justify the righteous and punish the wicked. To make this possible God would need to resurrect the dead to hear the final sentence and receive their just reward. This is all clearly stated in the Book of Daniel: “And many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

We now know that many of these ideas which were taking root in the Jewish thought of the time emanated from the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. They were particularly dominant among the Pharisees – one linguistic theory is that the term “Pharisees” started as a nickname for those Jews who adopted Persian or Farsi ideas.

One of many elements in Jewish thought which reflects this Persian influence is the word paradise. It was the Persian name for a garden park with trees and flowers, something for which Iran (or Persia) is famous to this day. When the Jews translated their Bible into Greek some 200 years before the Christian era, they borrowed this word “paradise” to translate the “garden” in which Adam and Eve were placed.

By the time of the Jewish philosopher Philo (a contemporary of Jesus), many Jews had come to refer to the Garden of Eden simply as Paradise. Not only was this usage carried on by the Christians but, as their ideas about a new world beyond the grave began to develop, they increasingly referred to the new life of bliss to which the righteous would be sent as “paradise”. This usage is reflected very succinctly in the great classics of John Milton, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

The original Christian hope, as we have seen, was for the transformation of the world of here and now into the kingdom of God. The words of the Lord’s Prayer make it clear: “May your kingdom come. May your will be done here on earth, just as it is in heaven.” But though the prayer remained, all talk of the kingdom of God on earth became muted in the course of time. The kingdom of God came to be associated exclusively with God’s dwelling-place in the sky.

This transition was aided, incidentally, by a linguistic accident. You may have noticed that whereas the Gospels of Mark and Luke speak frequently of the kingdom of God, the Gospel of Matthew refers nearly always to “the kingdom of heaven”. This is because Matthew’s Gospel was intended for readers with a strongly Jewish background. The fourth commandment forbids Jews to take the name of God in vain, so to be on the safe side they avoided using the word God altogether. They replaced it with a synonym. Heaven, the dwelling-place of God, was such a synonym. The kingdom of heaven was simply another way of referring to the kingdom of God. In time, however, it had the effect of causing Christians to associate the kingdom of God with heaven rather than the earth. Even St John’s Gospel refers only twice to the kingdom of God. By the time of the creeds it found no mention at all.

Hopes transferred to heaven

In what became the classical form of Christianity, all the earlier hopes of a better world to come were thus transferred from this earth to the heaven above. Devout human imagination eventually created an elaborate mental picture of this spiritual world to be reached after death; it was divided into paradise, purgatory and hell.

Only with the Renaissance did the focal point of attention begin to return to the earth. In the 16th century there began, step by step, the deconstruction of this spiritual world that had been constructed by ancient Christian imagination. The Reformers abolished purgatory in one fell swoop. By the 19th century theologians were raising moral objections to the concept of hell as a place of eternal punishment. During the 20th century the reality of heaven began to lose conviction, so much so that in 1999 even Pope John Paul II declared that “heaven is not a place but a state of mind”.

For much more than 1000 years, Christian hopes of a better world were fastened firmly on an unseen world above. It was to this that the spires of the great mediaeval cathedrals pointed.

But eventually this world also proved to be elusive. From Galileo onwards our whole understanding of this world of space and time began to change and to expand even beyond the limits of our imagination. It completely engulfed the heavenly spaces.

It is fascinating that during the very time when the superstructure of the heavenly world was being dismantled, Christians began to sing hymns about building the kingdom of God here on earth. William Blake, strange visionary and theological conservative though he was, expressed it in his famous Jerusalem in the early 19th century. Note the words:

I will not cease from mental fight . . .
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

 Those words would have seemed heretical in the High Middle Ages. These modern Christians were learning again to speak of the kingdom of God coming here on earth. Later Charles Kingsley wrote a hymn which ends:

And hasten, Lord, that perfect day
When pain and death shall cease,
And thy just rule shall fill the earth
With health, and light, and peace.

When ever blue the sky shall gleam,
And ever green the sod:
And man’s rude work deface no more
The Paradise of God.

Christians were rediscovering that this earth could be the paradise they sought. But, whereas the first Christians fully expected God to establish his kingdom by some cataclysmic event, the Christians of the 19th and early 20th centuries knew they had to build it themselves. That is why they began to sing such hymns as:

Rise up, O men of God!
His kingdom tarries long;
Bring in the day of brotherhood,
And end the night of wrong.

Christian and other socialisms

This is why a Christian Socialist movement arose about 1840, led by such people as Charles Kingsley and the theologian F.D. Maurice. The seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885), even though he was a deeply committed evangelical Christian who expected the imminent return of Christ, nevertheless became one of the most effective social and industrial reformers in 19th-century England.

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which was considered to be extremely progressive. It enunciated the Roman Catholic position on social justice, especially in relation to the problems created by the Industrial Revolution. While critical of socialism, it showed deep concern for the condition of the working classes.

The western world entered the 20th century with considerable expectations that this world could be turned into an earthly paradise. Christians thought it would come by the spread of Christianity over the whole globe. Even the British Labour Party had its roots in the Methodist Church. From the early Christian socialists through to the liberation theologians of South America, the more liberal modern Christians have been working for the new world here on earth, and believe that it will come only if humans take the initiative.

But because so much attention was now being focused on the earth rather than on heaven, the Christian West was becoming secularised. (The word secular simply means “having to do with this world of space and time”.) Besides Christian visionaries like Blake and Maurice, there were now secular visionaries intent on building a new world. Robert Owen and Karl Marx became so critical of the church for continuing to defend the spiritual superstructure that they felt the church was a stumbling block that prevented the coming of the new world order here on earth. They dismissed the churches as offering only “pie in the sky when you die”.

Then came World War I, a bloody struggle fought by the very nations which had been Christian for the longest time. It was a great blow to Christian expectations. Liberal Protestantism has never wholly recovered from this. Yet the western world generally, still motivated by its Christian past, tried to interpret the disaster of World War I as “the war to end all wars”. It proceeded in 1919 to found the League of Nations for the express purpose of preventing all war in the future. In the late 1920s and early 1930s there was a widespread wave of pacifism among Christians and secularists alike.

All these efforts largely came to nothing. The new warless world did not eventuate. The League failed because of the refusal of member nations to put international interests before national interests. It was powerless in the face of German, Italian and Japanese expansionism.

In the meantime social reform began to develop at the national level in the western world. Most drastic was the Russian Revolution, by which Lenin tried to implement Marx’s vision of the classless society. Elsewhere there was considerable social change, though less dramatic, resulting in pensions for the aged, free medical care for all, and the dole for the unemployed. These moves came to fruition in various social security systems, commonly known now as the welfare state. Michael Savage, in introducing New Zealand’s social security policies, referred to them as “applied Christianity”.

For many people it seemed that the earthly paradise was at last coming within reach. It did not mean that the kingdom of God had fully arrived. Certainly there was much about the new secular world that seemed consistent with the Christian teaching about the kingdom of God.

Yet too many things seemed to be going badly wrong – the Great Depression, World War II, the Nazi Holocaust, the Cold War and the threat of an all-out nuclear war. Humans, both Christian and secular, had been working hard to try to build paradise on earth, but despite some success, the setbacks were massive.

Rising tempo of cultural change

We have seen how the ancient biblical myths and legends reflected in symbolic ways the drastic cultural changes taking place in human existence both before and during the Axial Period. In the past 300 years there has been a parallel transition. We have moved from agriculturalism to industrialisation, with the consequent explosion in global population. There has been a sudden increase in urbanisation. Only 200 years ago less than three per cent of the world’s population lived in cities of 20,000 or more; today more than half of humanity is living an urban existence. We humans are increasingly becoming divorced not only from our rural roots, but also from our kinship with the forces of nature. As we have moved into the modern global world the same changes which marked the first transition have suddenly become magnified and cultural change has increased in tempo.

From Abraham up until today our forebears have been looking for a better world. This they have successively referred to as the Promised Land, the kingdom of David, a kingdom ruled by God, a paradise in heaven, a paradise on earth, a classless society, a warless world, the welfare state. Sometimes the vision ahead seemed almost within reach, but each time the vision has faded.

Each time paradise has eluded us there may have been a feeling of failure. Yet as we look back over this long cultural journey we can also see that, in cultural as well as material terms, we have come a long way. None of us really wants to go back even to the 19th century, let alone to the distant past.

We have learned certain things about paradise in the course of our cultural journey. We now know that the only paradise we can hope for will be in this world of space and time. If we are to reach it, it will be by human effort and not by appeal to any supernatural forces.

Further, it will come only by our collective efforts as a community, as a species. We must surrender any hopes of a paradise to come which are primarily for our own personal benefit. For us as for Moses, paradise will always be ahead of us: others are likely to benefit much more from our efforts to reach it than we ourselves do, and this will test our virtue to the limit.

As we stand at the beginning of this new millennium, amid the pressures of rapid cultural change, globalisation and dramatic technological progress, what sort of “brave new world” can we now envisage as the paradise to come? We shall explore that in the next chapter.