Alternate Reality: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
From the Twilight Zone, to the Matrix, to Stranger Things, we are presented with science fiction scenarios suggesting the existence of alternate realities.
These alternate realities are dimensions in which the normal rules of physics and motion are set aside or, in some cases, reversed, such as the Upside Down dimension of Stranger Things in which there is an alternate reality that runs parallel with the world as we know it, and, upon occasion breaks through the barrier that separates the two. Such works of science fiction are enormously entertaining and, while wholly speculative, allows us to imagine a plane of existence in which life takes place within a context in which normal rules do not apply.
Of course, such flights of imagination are not limited to science fiction. From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to The Chronicles of Narnia, to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, we are drawn to worlds that, while vaguely familiar, present another reality far different from what we have known. Why is it then that as Christians we are seemingly unable to grasp the alternate reality of the Gospel and of the Church?
That alternate reality is there for all to see. The “rules” are literally “upside down”. If you want to live, you have to die. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. If someone takes your shirt, give them your coat as well. If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer them the other. If you want to be truly rich, don’t store up treasures on earth. If one wants to be first, he must be last and the servant of all. The one who humbles themselves like a child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. While we may be in the world, we are not of the world. This is a place in which weakness is strength and strength is weakness. I could fill columns with references from the New Testament along this line and pages more from the early church fathers.
Yet, all the references and citations apparently have failed to convince us of this alternate reality of the Church, even though it is at the very heart of the Gospel. It seems as though a message of unconditional self-sacrificing love is no longer in fashion. Maybe it never was… Maybe we have just relegated those parts of the New Testament to the genre of myth and fable. We read them, but we really don’t believe that such an alternate reality is possible. While that might be a tragedy, there is also the possibility that many of us simply do not want to believe that such a reality is to be desired. We don’t want to die, we want to live. We want to rail against our enemies, whether in the streets or online. If someone hits us, we’re going to hit them back. We want our money and our privileges. We want our place at the table and the power that goes with that place. Strength is to be desired and weakness is the occasion for insults. Our words and actions, all too often, betray our true thoughts and desires.
At the heart of Christian worship, however, we are given a reminder in the Eucharist. We live in a world that celebrates the accumulation of wealth and power. In this world, bread and wine would be hoarded and not shared. The bread would be retained complete and not broken. Yet, in our alternate reality, the exact opposite takes place. What we give in the offering of the bread and the wine is given specifically to be blessed, broken and given. It is, as my old friend Kenneth Leech said, “a contradiction of social reality”. It does not simply provide a pointer for how society might be changed, it provides an alternate view of what society should be. The early church fathers understood this. For St. John Chrysostom, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist was not merely a moral lesson of sharing with the poor. Instead, it was the recognition in this alternate reality of the Gospel and the Church that Christ was truly present in the poor and the oppressed. Here, we are very much in the world but not of the world.
I have often hoped that in our dealings with one another as Christians we could recover civility. I now think, however, that might just be window dressing, even in this fraught political season. I now believe that what is required is the recovery of that alternate reality of the Gospel and the Church.