Caring more about this life than the life to come is quite a fool's errand, except when it's not. I recently officiated a wedding of some friends that perchance was not inside a church building, which creates quite the awkward and hazardous task for a pastor in the 21st American cultural milieu. Simply put, most people there aren't Christians, and I'm there representing Christ.
I suppose most people aren't really sure what to say to me. They must think I'm no good at small talk. Or perhaps they think I'm a religious nut who will try to convert them at the drop of a hat. Or maybe I'm just weird.
Regardless, in the ceremony I faithfully proceeded with my beliefs-Christ, his cross, his wedding to his people at the end of time- and how they relate to the married couple in the here and now. Notice that connection- eternity and time both relate to another- that's crucial for what comes later.
Following the ceremony a friend of mine introduced me to one of his neighbors, also there to see the ceremony. We were introduced, and she remarks, "You are a pastor? That's nice. I'm Jewish, and we care more about this life than in any life to come."
Nice to meet you too?
As strange as it may seem, this interaction happens more than you'd think, as if people had lost all sense of civility, or not paid the compliment of actually understanding stated Christian beliefs or the beliefs of anyone they may skewer upon introduction.
These interactions, in all their glorious redolence, often affirm to me what people have been mistakenly thinking for years: that Christianity is solely about the afterlife. This was, after all, Marx' critique. And, in a way, it was Nietzsche's critique as well: humbly putting on the garb of Christ and following him into suffering was the way of perpetual poverty and hopelessness in this world, and surely no response to overcome it.
I always find this highly ironic, given that Christians claim Jesus, a person of human flesh, was in fact God. How could Christianity be only about the afterlife when God puts on human flesh and stays that way through eternity in a physical place, the new heavens and the new earth?
And yet, instead of taking a cosmic approach to such irony as that of the common Christian critique, David Bentley Hart takes a more particular approach:
In fact, if I may be permitted an excursus, it is conceivable that a theological answer to Nietzsche could be developed entirely in terms of the typology of wine. After all, the wine of Dionysus [Nietzsche's paradigm] is no doubt of the coarsest vintage, intended to blind with drunkenness rather than enliven whimsy...The wine of Christian Scripture, on the other hand, is first and foremost a divine blessing and image of God's bounty, an appropriate thank offering by which to declare Israel's love of God: it is the wine that 'cheers the hearts of gods and men,' to be drunk and shared with those for whom nothing is prepared on the day holy to the Lord, the sign of God's renewed covenant with his people, the drink of lovers and the very symbol of love, whose absence is the eventide of all joy; it is, moreover, the wine of agape and the feast of fellowship, in which Christ first vouchsafed a sign of his divinity, in a place of rejoicing at Cana- a wine of highest quality...the wine, finally, whose joy is imparted to the church again, and eternally, with the fire of Pentecost, and in which the fellowship of Christ and his flock is reborn with every celebration of the Eucharist.
David Bentley Hart (Scriptural citations taken out for ease in reading, but each statement is followed by a citation), Beauty of the Infinite, pg. 108.
How could a view of the world so infused by wine's goodness be solely about eternal life? And yet, wine is a symbol of what is to come: a real, physical feast in real, physical bodies with a real, physical Jesus. Earth and heaven both matter, because one day they shall become one in a new heavens and new earth.
Undoubtedly, this critique of Christianity is shaped as much by a culture that believes in some ethereal, bodyless afterlife than by this ancient view of the goodness of wine (more a product of new age spirituality than Christianity). C.S. Lewis explains this phenomenon in Mere Christianity by saying that the most heavenly minded Christians indeed do the most earthly good. Aim for heaven, he says, and get earth thrown in. Aim for earth, and get neither.
Who knew a theology of wine could answer one of the most potent critiques against Christianity? If only I had shared that with my new wedding acquaintance.