Sing a Song, We’ll Make Heaven a Place on Earth

“Heaven is a harmony of diversity.” –Marjorie Suchocki, Professor Emerita of Theology, Claremont School of Theology

Here’s a big reason why I would fail as a journalist:  I don’t know where that quote comes from.  I can’t find it.  I know I didn’t make it up, and I know it was Marjorie Suchocki who wrote it, in one of her many books about Process Theology…but I can’t find it.  Grr….But it’s a thought that has, over the past couple years, shaped my view of Faith, and what the Life of Faith means.  Then a couple months ago, I found myself coming back to that image so much that I felt the need to explore it more in depth.  What does a “harmony of diversity” mean, and why does Professor Suchocki offer that as a Heavenly vision?  For help, I turned to Travis Meyers, Musical Genius.

Travis is a phenomenal musician, and I asked him to apply his knowledge of music theory to this theological one.  I sent him a message asking: “So…dicitonary.com defines harmony as “any simultaneous combination of tones.” But some tones sound better together than others, yeah? And the more I dive into what real “diversity” looks like, the more I wonder what Suchocki has in mind when she says “harmony of diversity.” She is talking about entities that don’t fit together at all being made harmonious in God, and it is the combination of those diverse entities that she calls Heaven. So…anyway, here’s my question.  What are two chords that would sound pretty terrible together? Like, you just sit down to the piano, you play one chord with your left hand and one with your right….and the result is a terrible, chaotic sound. Which chords would you reccomend? you let me know and then I will go listen to it.”

My thinking has become, essentially, that all our adolescent, or childhood concepts of faith–what God looks like, what Heaven looks like, what our concept of this life and the “After Life” may be–need to be reworked as we move on into adulthood.  If you hold on to exactly what you believed as a child, even as everything else in your life changes and matures and grows more complicated, then it becomes increasingly difficult to life a life of faith.  It would be akin to trying to live your life as a literate adult, but refusing to learn to read beyond the Sesame Street level.  And this is where a LOT of us end up.  We hold on to the hopes and happy thoughts of our childhood faith, without allowing our theological concepts to confront the more complex, more challenging, more stressful “Real World.”   And so we live two lives; one of faith, where all our hopes and dreams rest somewhere Out There…somewhere beyond our current lives, in the Dreaming somewhere, in whatever we hope awaits us when we live this world.  And we have our “Normal” lives, which we feel are too complicated and too imperfect for our faith to actually play a roll.  So we dream of a perfect, fluffy, happy Heaven that takes the place of our suffering, imperfect world.

Marjorie Suchocki’s metaphor for heaven pushes us a bit, challenges us to understand better the full greatness of God.  Heaven is where we come to rest in God, no longer separated by our finite, temporary existence.  And for there to be One God the Great Creator of all things, that means that EVERYTHING and EVERYONE in creation come to rest in God.  Which means to dream of Heaven is to dream of the time and place when all of creation come to rest in God, not in some fluffy, “perfect” harmony…but as a Harmony of Diversity.

So my question for Travis was an attempt to hear an example of what this might be like; disparate sounds that may not be pleasing to our ear, and understanding that God transforms that noise into a beautiful harmony.  I wanted to know what this might sound like.  So I asked Travis, and, as usual, Travis schooled me. Here’s his response:

I love that.  I asked him to do something that I thought would help illustrate a complex idea, and then he points out that there are layers to this–like aesthetic, style, “tonal space”–that I hadn’t even considered.  And Travis’ response pushed this image of Harmony of Diversity to a new place for me, beginning with:  What does it mean to be “Diverse?”  The post-Civil Rights Act rhetoric in America seems to suggest that diversity means treating everyone the same, trying to treat everyone equally, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, skin color, etc.  This attitude is, I think, a lie.  An illusion.  As the Rev. Sam Mann pointed out at a retreat a couple years ago, we have never truly had an “integrated society,” we have just made it slightly easier for people who are not strait, white men to enter into that world.  I remember Rev. Mann pointing out that an integrated society would be a society that embraces, adopts, and is informed by many cultures and lifestyles.  We haven’t done that as much.  We all agree that discrimination is wrong, we all agree that no one should be left out because of factors that are beyond their control…but that doesn’t mean that those of us on the inside, in the places of power, are going to change.  Just because a young black man from an inner-city school gets a better chance at higher education, doesn’t mean that I am expected in any way to know about, understand, or be changed by that young man’s experience.  An integrated society wouldn’t have ghettos on one side of the street and gated communities on the other.  There would not be a disproportionate number of black men in prison for crimes that white people commit more frequently.  It seems that the more we talk about how important it is for everyone to be treated equally, the less equality actually exists.  In a recent conversation on the radio program Smiley and West, the founder of Teach for America,  Wendy Kopp, ,talking about what it takes to improve education in inner city schools said, “It doesn’t even take equal resources, it takes a very activist approach, it takes more time, more resources, more hours because, of course, the kids we’re working with …face so many extra challenges.”  We can not pretend like we have a level playing field, because then it covers up the truth about how much MORE it takes to bring the lower part of the field up enough to decrease the slope a bit.

ANYWAY…the point being, we are all created equal, but once we’re here there is a whole network of economic, political, historical, racial, sociological and psychological and all manner of other systems that create quite a lot of inequality from birth on out.  Diversity does not mean being the same, it means being diverse, being different.  The question for us, really, in light of Suchocki’s conception of heaven is: Can we live harmoniously with The Other?  Can we fit ourselves into God’s great plan of harmonious diversity, or can we only get along with people who are the same as us….even if they’re not?  To the great point that Travis made musically, as difficult as it is to imagine living in harmony with those who are truly different than us, it only becomes more difficult when we live in close proximity to one another.

I went to my first political demonstration in Germany yesterday, and it was, stay with me here, an anti-anti-anti-protest.  It took us about 30 minutes and 2\3 of a beer on Friday to figure that out.  Essentially, it began with a group wanting to do a protest.  They were protesting groups who are “anti-fascism” (which is to say, 99.9% of Germany).  See, to this day, Germany wrestles with the legacy of Nazi political thought.  A tiny portion of the country alligns itself with the political leanings of the Nazi regime, and the rest of Germany struggles to silence and educate these small extremist groups.  Terms and symbols from the Nazi Time are, understandably, outlawed, so these extremist groups have re-worked their platform.  Instead of being “pro-facism” they envision themselves as an oppressed political minority and they defend their right to be “anti-those who are anti-facism.”  Still with me?  So when these groups decide to make a public demonstration, large groups of German citizens get together to go out and counter their protest, thus being anti-anti-anti-facism.

The Anti-cubed Group, however, simplifies matters by just calling it an anti-Nazi protest.  Even though the group has changed its words, discarded its symbols, and generally given itself a 21st Century makeover, the rest of Germany has no qualms about calling a duck a duck; especially when that duck promotes policies and spews rhetoric that harken back to the country’s darkest hour and greatest shame.  So we were told the Nazis, or Neo-Nazis, were coming to town, and we needed to go tell them to go away.  It was a rather historically interesting day as well, the Nazis were coming to protest in Wuppertal, where they had not bothered to go for about 42 years because of the city’s diverse, liberal-leaning population.  And they chose to come back on the weekend that marks, almost to the day, 78 years since the Third Reich came to power.

It was an impressive show of German citizens; children barely old enough to walk, older folks barely able to hold themselves up.  Citizens whose grandparents and great-grandparents survived the regime and the war, and recent immigrants standing up for their right to live peaceful lives in their adopted homeland.  If there was one way to describe the difference between this march and the many I have attended in America, it was the energy in the air.  In America, we primarily march to raise awareness of injustices, in hopes that someday we might have the kind of support needed to end these injustices.  As I marched with friends yesterday, it was clear that we weren’t making a slow hike towards a hoped for goal.  We were running to put out a fire, lest the country find itself engulfed once more in a blaze of dictatorial hatred.

The energy and immediacy of the anti-Nazi demonstrators was enhanced by the presence of approximately 1500 police.  They were set up throughout the city, attempting to keep people from gathering in large groups, and barricading entire neighborhoods in hopes of stamping out any violence before it errupted.  Because even though the intention was to have a peaceful protest, there was no denying the palpable anger that wafted through the air.  Even though peaceful resistance was the word of the day, the last thing someone said to me before we left the house was, “Make sure you have your passport with you.  In case you get arrested.  You know, for fighting with a Nazi.”  Obviously part of the heightened tension comes from the collective memory of fairly-recent events.  These are the people–or at least, the ideological descendants of the people–who nearly destroyed Germany, committed horrific acts of violence, and tainted the country’s image around the world.  But, I think another part of that tension lies in the simple fact that in Germany–as opposed to America–you live in close quarters with everyone else.  I have mentioned before, the population of Germany is like taking the population of 3 Californias and putting it inside Arizona.  When you live that close together, and when so much of your daily life depends on everyone’s ability to work together, differences matter.  I have seen people leave their cars to go yell at the car in front of them for turning a corner too fast or darting too close in front of them.  So BIG differences, matter greatly, because in the end, they only have each other, and there is a great sense of civic duty to make sure that everyone gets the message.  That they’re all on board.  You can hear it in the rhetoric at the event; there was no demonizing of the Nazis (other than calling them Nazis), and no slogans that claimed crazy things or threatened crazy threats.  The most popular chant of the day was, “Wuppertal hat kein platz für Nazis,” or “Wuppertal has no place for Nazis.”  It was clear, simple, what you promote does not work, kindly leave our city, you do not represent what we are about.  It was very civil.  And then people started throwing bottles and the cops busted out the tear gas.  The police were, generally, quick to quell any hint of violence, doing what they could to ensure the Nazi’s safety.  And who can blame them?  There were 200 Nazis and 5,000 other citizens.  The police were very nervous.

There were walls of police, separating the counter protestors from the Nazis.  It was just enough space to minimize injuries, but not enough to disipate the anger, the rage, coming from both sides.  Now here’s the interesting thing:  There is a heaven where that space is occupied by God, and the tension between these groups rings out, in harmony, throughout eternity.

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2 thoughts on “Sing a Song, We’ll Make Heaven a Place on Earth

  1. Go wuupertal! Do the Nazi, or anti anti fascists (and can’t you be fascist a dn not racist or nazi? I have never understood fascism fully…I will google…) have a platform, like are they seriously promoting anything specific and political aside from what we may assume, you knw gernal waspy stuff- just like a ne0-nazi/white supremacy group in the U.S., who’s point is as far as I cn tell entirely to do with race and …uhh white supremacy. I would be interested to know what taht point is if there is one….so you thin in heaven peoples hate will be part of the harmony, or could that hate be changed into something else upon being and seeing / becoming part of God? Like when you put a bunch of stuff ina recipe and make cookies, there was a diversity of ingrediants, and then there is the cookie, which is part of everything, but the coco has lost its bitterness and become yummy sweet chocolate with the sugar…like this I would think the Nazis in heaven are no longer tied by any hate to their earthly ideas, and the teleevangelists arent picketing gay funerals, even mentally, etc…I mean I dont think Hate is possibly harmonious, it has to shift…..xxoo

    • Yay, Jamie! 1. That was my exact question to my friends, “So…are they just ‘Nazis were right,’ or do they have specific new ideas, or…?” And everyone answered, “Nazis.” I never actually saw the name of the group or a website or anything, so i have not researched further yet. I feel like there has to be some differences. But they are definitely the descendants of that line of thought. How it’s evolved exactly…not sure. It’s definitely different than American hate groups in that…at this demo, people were seriously worried about physical violence. And if a hate group did a march through a city in America I don’t know if there would be the same level of, “Dude, people are coming out with the express purpose of beating on us.” (A neo nazi group marched through central phoenix last year during the whole stupid bill thing…which isn’t a great comparison to here. Wuppertal is more like Madison, WI. Would a neo nazi group be attacked in Madison? That actually seems potentially likely. Although…the KKK was started in Janesville, WI which isn’t too far from Madison. But I still can’t imagine it being the same threat level. Anyway…)

      2. That’s the mystery: What I love about this idea of “heaven” is it challenges all the pre-programmed concepts of heaven we’ve grown up with, like the idea that you only get in if you change in some way. For some people it’s as simple as “say this prayer,” for others it’s a complete change of your lifestyle, for others it’s the denial of systems of oppression and injustice for the expansion of love and service. “Harmony of diversity,” implies that, in some way, it’s not as important that you personally “change,” it’s more about the power of God, Creator of All Things, to transform different entities–no matter how diverse, disparate, or incompatible they may be–into harmony. What does that mean? I have no idea. But I like it because it is challenging. I agree that when I think of “eternal peace,” I can’t find any room for any kind of hate or rage…and maybe the act of dying dilutes some of that in some way…but that’s what I like about this…it means that “entry” into heaven is simultaneously way easier than anyone wants to think (read: you’re in, everybody’s in, don’t worry about it, now let’s see how far we can get on this planet before we all die) but the reality of it is so much more fascinating and beyond our expectations or imaginations or personal taste than we could think. The idea of “harmony” suggests that we wouldn’t be angst-y, that people would be washed clean of their anxieties and anger. Travis’ music analogy, and the concrete image of counter protesters existing in such close physical proximity to each other that it produces such rage and anger…I like these images because I have to look at these and ask, “How does God make this harmonious?” I have no idea how it happens as much as the image of it challenges me to widen my own scope and understand that to love and serve the One True Creator of All Things is vastly more complex and beautiful than my little brain can manage. I read this great quote recently which is going to make its way into the blog (maybe this week) “Categories are our way of managing chaos.” That’s from Cornel West who was (possibly) quoting Robert Frost…or someone? Anyway…I think that’s another way of talking about “heaven as harmony of diversity.” We tend to think of Chaos as our enemy or something to be at war with or something that messes up our lives, but in truth chaos is just as necessary to our lives as order. As limited human beings we just need ways of managing the chaos, so we come up with order and categories and we find ways of separating things out so we can better deal with all of it…and Suchoki’s idea sort of says, heaven means coming to rest in God, and ALL things come to rest in God which means that we will be happy next door neighbors with the Chaos Monster. THAT’S how powerful and transformational that love is. Now how does that inform my life on Earth? It’s a lot of mystery, so I can’t really explain it….but I love the image.

      And i love Jamie Paul. It’s great to hear from you!!! oh wait…you wrote more? Reading it now!

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