Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fear & Loathing Among The Saved

During a session of the Progressive Bible Study at Street Prophets, Pastor Dan asks some questions not exactly rhetorical for serious reflection, concerning the eschatological dimension of Christianity, its narrow interpretation by certain elements within the Christian tradition, and the way fear of "The End Times" is exploited by some for nefarious reasons:
Given its authentic presence in the Christian tradition, what place should [Apocalyptic] be given in that tradition? Do we ignore it, explain it away, or try to recover it? And how can we explain to those outside the faith the difference between belief in Christ's return and black helicopter fantasies?

Another set of questions presents itself. The apocalypse is always with us, as noted above. Why then are some Christians so easily moved by fear, as with 9/11? How does fear of the apocalypse lead to easy manipulation by cynical authoritarians, and how can those of us not so afflicted lead our fellow believers out of their captivity?

Or to put it another way, how can those of us who trust that God will not allow a hair on our head to perish lead those who believe in a continual existential threat away from a presenting and re-presenting "wars and conflict...natural disasters and cosmic terror" and toward the realization that "when these things begin to take place, (you should) stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near”?

These are not unimportant questions. In fact, in light of the way Apocalyptic has been exploited in the past generation (The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lyndsey is among the biggest "Christian" best-sellers in publishing history), the questions are highly pertinent.

While I do not endorse it, German Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann made the daring move of taking Karl Barth at his word and reformulated Christian theology almost entirely from an eschatological perspective. With this hermeneutic, Moltmann was able to incorporate much of the neo-Marxism of Ernst Bloch, especially The Principle of Hope in to a Christian context, opening up opportunities for rethinking the possibilities of Christian renewal and even revolution in contexts where the Church had heretofore been an adjunct to reactionary power.

I think it is important to deal honestly with the fact that this aspect - whether we call it apocalyptic, chiliasm, eschatological thinking, or what have you - is part and parcel of the Christian tradition, and has been used in a variety of ways throughout the history of the faith. Whether it's Augustine historicizing it in Civitatis Dei, various dispensational plans from the medieval Joachim of Fiore through contemporary dispensationalists who see us perpetually on the brink of both a bloody catastrophe and their earnest hope to avoid all the trauma - we must accept the very strange idea that Christianity teaches as part and parcel of what it is that some day, God will make right, once and for all, what has been wrong with the world since Eve listened to the serpent rather than walking away.

In the near term, the exploitation of the fears of apocalypse by those who interpret it both narrowly and (in my humble opinion) incorrectly, result in a political opportunism ripe for exploitation. Yet, why exactly are they afraid? According to their own readings, they certainly have nothing to fear. By their own statements, they also spare little sympathy for those who will be "left behind". Yet, their fears have become our fears; their distaste for Judaism and condemnation of Jews is tempered only by an insistence that the contemporary state of Israel last long enough for the Jews to rebuild the Temple (on the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) signaling he return of Jesus on clouds; and the constant search for the new anti-Christ (at one time it was Saddam Hussein; as he is now a worm smörgåsbord*, I think their attention may have shifted to Ahmedinejad. Or maybe Hillary Clinton.

In any case, I think that it is one thing to profess a faith in the final triumph of God's righteousness, even in the midst of the chaos of life. It is another thing altogether to exploit the fears of that chaos in order to move forward a narrow political agenda that is destructive of God's creation, and the well-being of the people who inhabit it.

*As a footnote, I would just like to note that when I typed "smörgåsbord", spellcheck didn't recongize it without the Swedish umlauts and such. Among the choices offered, besides versions with those little Swedish helpers, was "orgasm". I found that funny. Who would have linked a meal with many wonderful varieties with an orgasm?

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