Thursday, August 5, 2010

The God Who Cried "Wolf!"

I got quite a nice e-mail message about Monday's post, from a reader who identified himself as a Catholic priest. He made an observation that gave me a lot of ideas:
Permit me to offer, however, that the real problem with Christians is that we don’t truly believe in the end-times, we use it as code and cover for other political agendas. If we truly believed in the apocalypse we would not be so interested and busy in trying to acquire the wealth of this world. We are idolaters who pay lip service to God. The imminence of the Kingdom can be seen (though rarely is) as an antidote to our exploitation.
Well, first, I don't think there is only one "real problem with Christians." I'm always taken aback when a Christian stereotypes all Christians, since as an atheist I'm so often told that I think all Christians are alike. But I also suspect that this sort of statement is just an element of sermon style, a popular way for Christian clergy to get their flock's attention; I don't take it too seriously. (Another sign of sermon style here is "We are idolaters who pay lip service to God.")

I agree that most Christians don't truly believe in the end-times, but I think there's a good reason for that -- namely that Jesus is roughly 1900 years late for the appointment he made, according to the gospels. Part of the history of Christianity is the recurring appearance of Christian teachers who claim that this time Jesus is coming, really and truly, for sure and certain. Most people are ignorant of this history, but it doesn't matter, because each time it happens it's always different: yes, people have been wrong before, but this time it's really going to happen. And who knows? Maybe this time Lucy really will let Charlie Brown kick the football.* While fervent belief that The End Is Near has its uses, especially for driving missionary activity, it eventually runs out of steam, and the believer either gives up on the belief altogether or reinterprets it. The early Christians prayed for the speedy arrival of the Kingdom, but within a couple of centuries they prayed that the judgment be delayed. The churches downplayed the imminence of the Kingdom when it became clear that the Kingdom was not imminent.

I wonder how much effect a real belief that one is living in the end times would have. After all, our mortality and, from a Christian perspective, judgment, is more certain than the imminent return of Jesus, but most people manage to push that certainty from consciousness most of the time. I don't think that really believing in the certainty of one's own death would only take one predictable form in a person's life; different people and religions have come to different conclusions about how to deal with it. When I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead some years ago I was struck by how clearly it was not really about death, but about life and how to live it. And in that sense, human mortality is used as code and cover for other political agendas. But it wouldn't be used so, if it didn't work much of the time, if people didn't use Mortality as a metaphor for the limits of human life.

I suspect that the concept of the end times has always been used as code and cover for other political agendas. One question that fascinates me is what agenda it has been used for. The classical apocalyptic literature from Daniel onwards is heavily coded -- that's a characteristic of the genre -- and one explanation for this has been that the writers feared political persecution if they denounced the authorities openly. That may have been part of it, though it's hard for me to believe that any imperial censor who actually read the Revelation of John, for example, would have been able to miss entirely its political implications.

Part of the answer, I think, must lie in the genre of apocalyptic. These writings are often explicit that no one understood these strange symbols until now because the time was not right, their meaning was sealed, but now their meaning is opened to the true remnant, the true believers. This idea turns up in the gospels, too, as when Jesus rejoices that God's secrets have been revealed to the "children," and hidden from the wise and prudent (Luke 10:21). Mark has Jesus telling the Twelve that his teachings are obscure in order to hide their meaning from outsiders, "but to his own disciples he explained everything" (Mark 4:34). In both biblical apocalypses, Daniel and the Revelation, a heavenly being explains the weird symbols to the seer, over whose metaphorical shoulder the reader is peering. The revelation is for the benefit of the reader. In the major apocalyptic section of Matthew (chapter 24), Mark (13), and Luke (21), the revelation is explained to his disciples by Jesus; Mark even highlights one bit (verse 14) with "Let the reader understand!" This sort of thing is a reminder that, contrary to Frank Schaeffer and other writers, apocalyptic Christianity is not the result of a "literalist reading of the biblical Book of Revelation," but a theme that runs throughout the New Testament, including the teaching of Jesus himself. It's one of the defining traits of early Christianity.

Does that mean that Christians must believe that the Second Coming is at hand? I'm not a Christian, so that's not for me to say. It doesn't seem to me that Christians are bound in practice or even in theory by the New Testament in general or the teaching of Jesus in particular. The trouble with apocalyptic belief, in my opinion, is not that it is incompatible with "political, economic, or personal stability, let alone social cohesion," as Schaeffer claims, but simply that it's false.  (In fact, it appears that at least some of the time, apocalyptic belief functions to reinforce social cohesion within the sect.)  The Kingdom is not imminent; the Second Coming is not at hand.

*By the way, I want to disclaim any implication that Charles Schulz might have seen the ongoing football gag as a metaphor for the ongoing failure of Jesus to come on clouds of glory. Schulz was a devout Christian, and I have no idea what his beliefs were about the Second Coming. I suppose it's possible that he could have seen a parallel between Charlie Brown's gullibility and that of people who fall for the latest End-Times fad, but I have no evidence that he did. I find the parallel irresistible, but we all know that I'm an infidel and a mocker who will burn in the fires of Hell.