What is the Kingdom of God?
The Kingdom of God is difficult for Christians to understand because we live in an individualistic culture. This way of looking at the world is so pervasive that we have difficulty thinking any other way. Thus we need to take two steps back before we can begin to explain what the Kingdom is. We must explain individualism, show why it is problematic and then explain the Kingdom of God.
Individualism believes that the basic unit of understanding our place in the world is the individual person. For most of us this seems like common sense. Of course, the individual is starting point. This is the problem. Individualism is so deeply engrained within us that we have difficulty understanding that this is a relatively new way of understanding our place in the world. Early Modern thinkers were pivotal in cementing this individualistic framework in the intellectual world. Descartes was famous in framing his theory of knowledge around the individual self. His famous dictum, “I think therefore I am” is not important for what it proves but for setting the agenda for Modern Epistemology for the next 500 years. Knowledge begins with the individual and must be proved to the individual. Other early modern thinkers applied this revolutionary individualistic understanding to their area of expertise. In politics, we will look at the work of Thomas Hobbes. Almost all surveys of modern political thought begin with Hobbes and yet everyone rejects almost all of his writing in the Leviathan. Why do people continue to keep studying him? Because he set the agenda for political theory by explaining politics in an individualistic framework. More about this on the Thomas Hobbes page. Individualism is pervasive within our intellectual world today. However, it has not always been the case and it does not have to continue to be the case. We must be clear that individualism is not how people understood their world in the Old and New Testament. If we import our individualism back into the Scriptures we will systematically distort our understanding of it. Unfortunately, this is what happen to much of modern Christian theology over the last few centuries.
Fortunately, with the break down of Modernism, Christians are no longer faced with a monolithic intellectual culture that tempts us away from a proper biblical understanding of the Gospel. We can begin to free ourselves from the intellectual apostasy of individualism. Ironically, the Postmodern critique of Modernism has often been instrumental in helping Christians question individualism. One stream of thought, arguably flowing from Fredrick Nietzsche, is nihilistic naturalism. This line of thought pushes the idea that God does not exist to its logical limits. If God does not exist then nothing is left but atoms and the physical laws that govern them. This calls into question the belief that individuals are the basic things that matter. Aren’t people just a collection of atoms (or sub-atomic particles or we could follow the reductionism down even further) governed by physio-chemical laws? If we reduce the individual down to atoms what happens to the Self of the individual? In the end, the Self becomes an illusion. We think we are a conscious being but we are only a complex web of neurons. Should Christians be threatened by this naturalist reductionism? Certainly not. Rather, we should see it as a useful intellectual exercise to help us dispel the allure of individualism.
The power of reductionism is its ability to help us see the world in a whole new light. This new way of viewing things strikes us as a “revelation.” Its power and newness makes it appealing to people with a revolutionary predisposition against those in authority. The point here is that while we can see why a given reductionism would be appealing to some particular group, there is nothing intrinsic to the reductionist argument that makes it either true or false. Reductionism gives us a new way of looking at things but it does not help us determine whether they are true or false. By changing our focus on what we believe constitutes the most important factor we are determining before hand that the thing we took our focus off will be seen as false. Hence, if we move from a world in which the primary focus is God and by a reductionist argument change the focus to Humanity then God will come to be understood as an illusion created by people. If we live in a world that focuses on the Individual then the naturalist reduction to atoms will end up considering the individual self as an illusion. What is real and what is an illusion then? Well, it depends on what you focus on as most important: God, Individual, Atom or some other group. Does this leave us with a relativism where truth is determined by what the thinker focuses on? Well, yes and no. If you insist on a Cartesian framework of knowing where I am the center of knowledge and everything must be proved to me then, yes. We end up with an epistemological relativism because nothing in the end can be proved. However, if we step back and question whether this is the only way to look at things then we will realize we have argued ourselves into a box. Reason and argument are very powerful as long as everyone is committed to the framework of the argument. However, as soon as one person steps outside that framework then all the previous reason and argument will appear to that person as foolishness. In our case here, why do I assume I am the center of the epistemological universe? Who made me judge over whether something is true or not? Does the truth of reality depend on what I think about it? Why should the truth of reality conform to rational argument I make in my head? Truth does no depend on me but on whether there is one true God. My knowledge of the truth does not depend on me but on whether that one true God has told us about it. For Christians, all this is not a problem. There is a God and He has revealed himself in Jesus our Lord and King.