One of my favorite features of The Christian Century is an ongoing series entitled “How My Mind Has Changed,” in which well-known theologians are asked to address how their own theological convictions have changed over the years.
In my own life, my mind has changed about the very meaning of the gospel over the years.
I grew up in an environment where the gospel referred to my personal salvation and forgiveness of sins so that I could experience eternal life in heaven after my physical existence. That’s what I was taught concerning the reason for Jesus’ sojourn on earth.
But after reading the Gospels myself, and reflecting on the wisdom of the church over the ages, I discovered – shockingly, at first – that the gospel, or “good news,” is rather that the kingdom of God is now present, at hand, ready to be implemented.
It’s a mind-altering realization. It will change everything one thinks is true about the church, morality, politics, and everything else that one thinks.
I don’t worry anymore about where someone will spend eternity, I worry about where they are living in the present. I don’t concern myself with someone’s eternal destination, but with her temporal location and situation. I’m not bothered with what they believe about Jesus, but am terribly concerned that I treat them like Jesus would have treated them.
Everything changes when Jesus’ news of the kingdom of God becomes the storyline of Christianity, rather than the salvation of the individual, or the expansion of the church.
Having embraced the message that the kingdom of God is among us, I still struggle with the actual metaphor.
The language of “kingdoms” and “kings” is problematic on multiple levels. For one, monarchies are antiquated and irrelevant, except on a purely symbolic, decorative level. The Queen of England has no real power; she will always lose a fight to the Prime Minister and Parliament. Which raises another point – the language is patriarchal. When one speaks of the kingdom of God, one is tempted to visualize an old white man sitting on a throne.
And furthermore, kingdoms are hierarchical systems, with decisions being handed down from above, from master to slave, colonizer to colonized, imperial authority to peasant subjects. Kingdom doesn’t begin to capture the nuance of what God intends for the earth, which is captured best in the Hebrew word “shalom” — peace, abundance, prosperity, and good will between peoples, nations, and races.
So, even though I despise the mixing of religion and marketing, I’ve been searching for new names, new metaphors to use in place of the Scriptural phrase, “kingdom of God.” The intention is to move closer to what the phrase really means, not to simply sell an idea with a sexier title. Here’s some of the alternatives I’ve heard proposed:
Kin-dom of God: This has the appeal of looking and sounding very similar to the original, but with a postmodern twist. It also has the advantage of referring to a family system, thereby connecting with family and household images in Scripture. But if your own family is dysfunctional, this term can be a turn-off. And it’s just a little too clever for my taste.
Reign of God: This is the most popular alternative I’ve heard to “kingdom,” but it still retains problematic aspects of the original phrase. Kings reign, after all. That’s what they do. I’m not sure I want to be “reigned” over.
Empire of God: This phrase is worse than “kingdom of God,” in my opinion. It conjures up frightening images of Roman emperors, Darth Vader, and the New York Yankees.
Dream of God: I love this expression – the idea that God has a dream for creation, which God wants to see come true, is extremely appealing, but it seems a little too vague. The Biblical concept of the kingdom has an earthly solidity, a physicality that a dream does not connote.
Beloved Community: Thanks to Martin Luther King, Jr., this expression has become a common replacement for “kingdom of God,” but requires a little bit of explanation. It’s not immediately apparent that this is a term for God’s ideal for the earth. On the other hand, I like the fact that it points to the reality of a community.
Blessed Community: I have introduced this term myself on this blog, in reference to the Beatitudes, but it is subject to the same criticism that applies to Beloved Community.
God’s Domain: This expression removes hierarchical and political implications from the term, but doesn’t refer to the nature or quality of the domain. One could argue that everything has always been under God’s domain.
Love’s Rule: Perhaps this term captures best what Jesus is pointing toward – the rule of love in every category of life, from the way we worship God, to the way we treat others, to the way we care for the creation. The idea of “rule” is present, but the image is softer, since love is ruling. It’s a little abstract, but it does have the advantage of needing to be endlessly interpreted and reflected upon.
The following suggestions all come from Brian McLaren’s writings:
The Love Revolution of God: This is a descriptive and dynamic phrase, but all I can think when I hear these words is John and Yoko.
Regenerative Economy: Ummmm, no.
Sacred Ecosystem: I like that this term encompasses the entire creation, but again …. no.
Commonwealth of God: This is an interesting phrase, and perhaps quite useful in interfaith dialogue. I suppose it’s a better image than kingdom, but it’s a little old-fashioned. Nobody talks about commonwealths anymore.
Party of God: (“Party” here refers to a banquet or feast, not a partisan group of politicians.) This has great resonance with certain of Jesus’ parables, but it doesn’t fully capture the wide-ranging implications of God’s shalom.
I don’t know if any of these deserve to be made the standard replacement for such an important theological and Biblical concept. I’m not sold on any one of them, but I’d be willing to use each of them in specific contexts.
The truth is that all our language about God is metaphorical. It must be. And so all our theological language is limited.
Do you have an alternative term that you prefer?