Before arriving in Winnipeg just over a month ago, I lived in cities in Ontario, the UK, and, briefly, the American Midwest. What links these distant places to Winnipeg is how important their rivers are to the social life of the city. Guelph, Ontario, has the Speed River; London has the Thames; Oxford has the Cherwell; Northfield, Minnesota, has the Cannon River; and Winnipeg surrounds the intersecting Assiniboine and Red rivers.
We should not be surprised that societies gather next to rivers. There are obvious reasons for this, which are both biological and prudent: water satisfies our thirst and cleans our bodies, but rivers are also a very effective way to transport things and people. Beyond the obvious, or maybe because of it, or perhaps in spite of it, rivers have tremendous symbolic and narrative power for us. Think of the Ganges, the Nile, the Danube, and the Amazon, to name only a few.
On the importance of rivers, the Bible is no exception. In fact, with respect to the Christian Bible as a whole, we can say, “a river runs through it,” from the primeval garden where our life in relationship to God began (Genesis 2:10-14) to the kingdom-city vision that represents a restored society for creatures and creator (Revelation 22:1-3).
Rivers can also help to make sense of our complicated spiritual relationship between the eternal and our daily life. (And like rivers that meander, I will wind my way to what this means). The complication is this: while we are spiritually drawn to the eternal and the infinite, we are nevertheless also undeniably temporal and finite creatures. This is an anxious tension within us. It causes anxiety because the temporal and eternal seem to compete for our singular attention.
On the one hand, we desire to honestly and responsibly attend to the material conditions that we and our neighbours face today. On the other hand, we strive in hope for greater human possibilities beyond the minutiae or structures of the status quo. We want to acknowledge that our life in God, in light of resurrection, is not confined to strict material processes. Paul’s epistles represent the epitome of this anxiety, maintaining the day-to-day operation of newly forming Hellenic-Judaic congregations and expressing the eternal significance of God incarnate/God resurrected.
Where do we look, to the future in hope or to the present with sober prudence? Where do we look, to the spirit in possibility or the material world in necessity? It’s a question of direction and attention. We are reminded in prayer to “look for the resurrection and the life of the world to come,” but we are also warned against worrying about tomorrow, for today has troubles of its own that require attention. One religious task, then, is to combine these two directions into a single movement, which takes seriously our daily and historical life, but which is not cut off from God’s life-giving kinship with the eternal. How can that double direction be managed for creatures such as ourselves?
This brings me back to the river, and specifically, to the image of a rower. The Danish theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, once wrote, “The one who rows a boat turns his back to the goal toward which he is working. So it is with the next day. When, with the help of the eternal, a person lives absorbed in today, he turns his back to the next day. The more he is eternally absorbed in today, the more decisively he turns his back to the next day; then he does not see it at all” (Christian Discourses).