Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

5.23.2011

Evolution or Revolution?

The world was supposed to end a few days ago, on May 21. I know this mainly because I was invited to numerous post-Rapture events through Facebook, but it was a big deal because someone spent easily $100 million on an ad campaign, including more than 5000 billboards, telling everyone so. It's possible, even with all the ads, the message could have gotten lost in the noise, except this seems a topic Americans find interesting and timely. According to a Pew Research poll last year, 41% of Americans think it will happen in their lifetimes, within the next 40 years.

The Bible does say Christ's second coming is imminent, it's true. I think I first became aware of it when I was in middle school in the 80s. This wasn't typical for our church, but one of our Sunday school lessons was a look at how all the current events in world culture and politics matched up with the predictions in Revelation about the end times, so to expect it before we graduated high school. Then in seminary I learned that the biblical authors expected it to happen during their lifetimes 2000 years ago, that they believed it was something they would personally experience. Those same predictions were in part so obscure and veiled because they referred to the people in power at the time and couldn't be stated straight out. People have been calling for the Rapture ever since, reading their situations and contexts into the biblical references and assuming they'll be the ones to experience it.

Where does this desire for the end of the world come from and why do so many people get excited about it? About a year ago I had a post titled Eschatological Tranquility, which included: Somewhere along the line I lost my eschatological tranquility and would now rather see a grand evolution than revolution. That's really what it comes down to, this interest in the Rapture and even Heaven and the afterlife to an extent, whether people feel the world can be redeemed and made into something good and worthwhile or they feel it's rotten to its core and we need to just give up on the whole thing and look for something better.

Both veins would seem to be present in my Mennonite background. There was a strong sense from the very emergence of the denomination that the church needed to be a group apart from worldly things, that we believers should live our peaceful, loving lives as God directed in community with each other and let the world go about its unrelated business. See the Mennonite-offshoot Amish for the most radical example. But, particularly in more recent Mennonite history, the church has been actively involved in peace and social justice issues through missionary work, including many in my family. Dad lived eleven years of his childhood in Argentina as part of a missionary family, for instance, and I've said before most members of my extended family on both sides have been missionaries or teachers at one time or another. So there's always been both the sense that we shouldn't try to be like the rest of the world because it can never be what it should and the sense that we need to try to help it become something good.

One of the things I came to realize about myself in seminary was that I've picked one side of that coin. Also from the "Eschatological Tranquility" post: Part of the reason I don't know that I belong in the church is that I'm almost exclusively focused on this world and really don't care that much about "salvation" or the afterworld - I have my sense of God grounded in Christianity, but with the express goal of "Heaven on earth." Oh, wait, it's "on earth as it is in Heaven" - Lord's Prayer. Sure, I think it would be nice if the current, flawed, nature of things could be completely overthrown and replaced with people who only live in peace and happiness, but it doesn't do me any good to sit around waiting for that to happen. The temptation is to feel that's an unattainable goal, that we might as well give up on hoping the world will ever be a decent place, and hope that God will take care of what we can't accomplish--first individually in the afterlife then through the grand revolution that is the Rapture. But I'm not content to sit around doing nothing while I wait for that to happen--sitting around because I have no role in making it so--so instead I'd rather spend my time doing what's in my power to accomplish and see if I can't help slowly improve and evolve things while I'm waiting. When and if a Rapture happens doesn't really concern me because it's out of my hands, so I'll focus my attention on what is possible for me to do.

This post has actually been in my head since long before the whole recent Rapture hubbub, because it started in reaction to something an old classmate posted on Facebook a month or more ago. She took a lot of flack from more conservative Christians for an article she shared there. In her excellent blog post reflection on it, she mentioned: I was rebuked by someone I’ve known for years (and considered a friend) and promptly removed from this person’s friends list because “they don’t choose to feed their soul with people who deviate from God’s word.”

So what was this twisted, deviant article that got her in so much trouble? It was a Time cover article about a popular Christian pastor saying things that sound pretty similar to what I've been writing so far, Pastor Rob Bell: What if Hell Doesn't Exist? He suggests that, contrary to traditional Christian doctrine, it's possible that salvation is universal. One of his critics quoted in the article even accuses him of "eras[ing] the distinction between the church and the world."

One of the paragraphs says almost exactly what I did in one of my sermons after seminary on the section of Romans on the certainty we can feel regarding God's love and salvation for us and "the elect." Some have followed that logic to its conclusion to establish a doctrine of predestination and the reverse double predestination, that God has elected some for damnation in addition to salvation. I made the case we shouldn't concern ourselves about who is "in" and who is "out," but instead walk away from that passage with trust that God will take care of us and we needn't worry about it. The paragraph from the Time article:

Bell insists he is only raising the possibility that theological rigidity — and thus a faith of exclusion — is a dangerous thing. He believes in Jesus' atonement; he says he is just unclear on whether the redemption promised in Christian tradition is limited to those who meet the tests of the church. It is a case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.

As to the evolution vs. revolution question:

Belief in Jesus, he says, should lead human beings to work for the good of this world. What comes next has to wait. "When we get to what happens when we die, we don't have any video footage," says Bell. "So let's at least be honest that we are speculating, because we are." He is quick to note, though, that his own speculation, while unconventional, is not unprecedented. "At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church," Bell writes, "have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God." . . .

Things many Christian believers take for granted are more complicated than they seem. It was only when Jesus failed to return soon after the Passion and Resurrection appearances that the early church was compelled to make sense of its recollections of his teachings. . . .

For these new thinkers, heaven can mean different things. In some biblical contexts it is a synonym for God. In others it signifies life in the New Jerusalem, which, properly understood, is the reality that will result when God brings together the heavens and the earth. In yet others it seems to suggest moments of intense human communion and compassion that are, in theological terms, glimpses of the divine love that one might expect in the world to come. One thing heaven is not is an exclusive place removed from earth. This line of thinking has implications for the life of religious communities in our own time. If the earth is, in a way, to be our eternal home, then its care, and the care of all its creatures, takes on fresh urgency.


Like this pastor, I'm not ready to conclude the world is beyond redemption, to give up on it and just sit around waiting for God to make something better happen, but instead do my best to make the world a better place in the small ways I can every day, hoping to inspire others to do the same.

(Tangent: One of the things Lori mentions in her blog post is struggling with feeling like a worthy Christian even though she doesn't attend church regularly, drinks whiskey with her husband, and in other ways doesn't fit the mold of a "proper Christian." For my very unconventionally stated thoughts on whether following or not following a set of lifestyle rules makes one a Christian, look about two-thirds of the way through Thoughts on Trolling, Part III for the paragraphs surrounded by triple asterisks. Read more than just those paragraphs for helpful context.)

Jumping the Shark moment: I've written before about my socialist tendencies. I don't think its such a bad thing to agree--officially, legally, through our government--to share and make sure everyone is looked after. I think it's a good thing, in fact, and more in line with how God would have us live together. I think our goal should be to make the world a better place, hope that everyone is provided for and experiences a good quality of life. So I'm not opposed to the benefits that come from wealth and privilege, I just think it's wrong when those benefits come at the expense of others. My vision is one where we help each other climb to better heights without leaving any behind instead of using each other as stepping stones to get there then discard.

I would never call myself a Marxist, but that doesn't mean his thoughts don't have merit and lessons we can learn from. With that in mind but without further elaboration that will lengthen this post even more, I'd like to share a bit from an article titled In Praise of Marx:

The truth is that Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition. For one thing, Marx would have scorned the idea that socialism could take root in desperately impoverished, chronically backward societies like Russia and China. If it did, then the result would simply be what he called "generalized scarcity," by which he means that everyone would now be deprived, not just the poor. It would mean a recycling of "the old filthy business"—or, in less tasteful translation, "the same old crap." Marxism is a theory of how well-heeled capitalist nations might use their immense resources to achieve justice and prosperity for their people. . . .

There is a sense in which the whole of Marx's writing boils down to several embarrassing questions: Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality? What are the mechanisms by which affluence for a minority seems to breed hardship and indignity for the many? Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? Is it, as the good-hearted liberal reformist suggests, that we have simply not got around to mopping up these pockets of human misery, but shall do so in the fullness of time? Or is it more plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality, as surely as Charlie Sheen generates gossip? . . .

This is not to suggest for a moment that Marx considered capitalism as simply a Bad Thing . . . No other social system in history, he wrote, had proved so revolutionary. In a mere handful of centuries, the capitalist middle classes had erased almost every trace of their feudal foes from the face of the earth. They had piled up cultural and material treasures, invented human rights, emancipated slaves, toppled autocrats, dismantled empires, fought and died for human freedom, and laid the basis for a truly global civilization. No document lavishes such florid compliments on this mighty historical achievement as
The Communist Manifesto, not even The Wall Street Journal.

That, however, was only part of the story. There are those who see modern history as an enthralling tale of progress, and those who view it as one long nightmare. Marx, with his usual perversity, thought it was both. Every advance in civilization had brought with it new possibilities of barbarism. The great slogans of the middle-class revolution—"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"—were his watchwords, too. He simply inquired why those ideas could never be put into practice without violence, poverty, and exploitation. . . .

How does this moral goal differ from liberal individualism? The difference is that to achieve true self-fulfillment, human beings for Marx must find it in and through one another. It is not just a question of each doing his or her own thing in grand isolation from others. That would not even be possible. The other must become the ground of one's own self-realization, at the same time as he or she provides the condition for one's own. At the interpersonal level, this is known as love. At the political level, it is known as socialism. Socialism for Marx would be simply whatever set of institutions would allow this reciprocity to happen to the greatest possible extent. Think of the difference between a capitalist company, in which the majority work for the benefit of the few, and a socialist cooperative, in which my own participation in the project augments the welfare of all the others, and vice versa. This is not a question of some saintly self-sacrifice. The process is built into the structure of the institution. . . .

What, though, of the fearful Day of Reckoning? Would not Marx's vision for humanity require a bloody revolution? Not necessarily. He himself thought that some nations, like Britain, Holland, and the United States, might achieve socialism peacefully. If he was a revolutionary, he was also a robust champion of reform. . . .

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