Lee Harmon. The River of Life: Where Liberal and Conservative Christianity Meet. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2014. See here to purchase the book from Amazon.
In The River of Life, Lee Harmon talks about what he believes as a liberal Christian. He actually says what his religion is on the last page of the book: “Participatory Eschatology. This is my religion. This is Jesus’ dream, and it is happening. The world will become what we, through the help of God and the inspiration and example of Jesus our Savior, transform it into.”
Essentially, Lee Harmon maintains that Jesus was preaching a this-worldly religion, rather than one that focused on having a good afterlife. Harmon argues that, when Jesus preached about Gehenna, he was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., not hell. When Jesus spoke of the forgiveness of debts, Harmon says, he may have been talking about people forgiving literal debts—-debts that pushed people into poverty—-as part of the Jubilee that Jesus was inaugurating. Jesus also went about doing good, freeing people of disease, and he emphasized giving to the poor. As Harmon notes, there are different eschatological views within the New Testament. The synoptic Gospels have an eschatology that holds that Jesus will soon return in power to establish a literal rule on earth. The Gospel of John, however, has a realized eschatology, which regards Jesus’ giving of the Holy Spirit to his disciples shortly after his resurrection as his second coming. There are also different understandings within the New Testament about who exactly Jesus was (e.g., when he became divine). In any case, Harmon holds, there is a common notion throughout the Gospels that Jesus in some sense brought the Kingdom of God in his ministry on earth, a Kingdom that does good and alleviates suffering.
Harmon does not reduce religion to social justice or community service, however, for he does talk about personal piety and experience of the divine. He says in one beautiful passage, “I have sat in the churches of various denominations and seen strong people reduced to emotional puddles and then lifted into radiance” (page 2). He talks about his personal prayer life and how he prefers to pray to the Spirit that positively influences the earth: “With this focus, I feel silly praying selfish petitions—-a universal Spirit somehow transcends my selfish ambitions—-so my prayer naturally steers toward renewing my purpose to contribute to the Kingdom of God” (page 33). He has quotations of prominent liberal Christians and spiritual thinkers about the definition of faith and how it may differ from (or mean more than) having prescribed beliefs or accepting something without proof.
Harmon is also honest about his own religious questions, about such issues as what we can know about God, whether God is personal, and whether there is an afterlife. He says that he is not trying to encourage people who believe in an afterlife to abandon that belief, for he recognizes that believing in an afterlife gives comfort to people; he just wants to stress that Jesus’ mission was focused on this world. I appreciated Harmon’s approach here because he was presenting himself as a fellow pilgrim giving us something to think about, and he was expressing acceptance of people with different perspectives. He was communicating that one does not have to agree entirely with him to get something out of his book.
I found Harmon’s thesis about Jesus’ mission to be convincing, overall. I agree with him that Jesus wanted to improve the conditions of people in this world. On whether the churches of New Testament times were like that, however, I would say that it was rather mixed. On the one hand, the early Christians in the Book of Acts and Paul appear to focus on encouraging people to repent and believe in Jesus in light of a coming judgment, and, while they were concerned for the poor, their concern appears to be rather insular—-for poor Christians. On the other hand, Jesus’ apostles in the Book of Acts do continue Jesus’ practice of delivering people from disease and demon possession, and one could argue that Christians in New Testament times sought to have a positive influence on the world by demonstrating an alternative society—-one in which the needs of the poor are met and people from different social backgrounds embrace each other as family.
Harmon’s book encouraged me to think about the issue of Gehenna. I acknowledge the possibility that Jesus may have been referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. when talking about Gehenna, and yet there do seem to be some voices in the New Testament that posit a dreadful place for the wicked in the afterlife. I think of Matthew 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28, which say that many will sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom, while others will be cast into outer darkness, amidst weeping and gnashing of teeth. In terms of Harmon’s discussion of Gehenna, I wish that he had fleshed out more the significance of Gehenna to Jesus’ mission: Why was Jesus predicting the destruction of Jerusalem, what did that have to do with his Kingdom mission of beneficence, and what does the destruction of Jerusalem say about the character of God. Harmon in one place seems to suggest that salvation is not really about deliverance from God’s wrath, and yet does not the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. imply that God has wrath, according to the Gospels? In some places, Harmon appears to touch on the significance of 70 C.E.—-that it was about the end of the old covenant (and I wonder if this would conflict with Harmon’s view that the earliest Christians were Jewish Christians who valued the Torah) or was part of the pangs that accompany the Kingdom—-but I was hoping to see more about the significance of Gehenna, especially as it relates to Jesus’ Kingdom mission.
Overall, though, I found Harmon’s book to be thoughtful and thought-provoking.
My thanks to the author, Lee Harmon, for sending me a review copy of this book.