1. Preface: Andrew Young on Faith and Religion
A few years ago Boston University was graced by the voice and presence of Andrew Young—activist, pastor, theologian, congressman, ambassador, mayor and close confidant of Martin Luther King. One pastor said: “He is one of our ‘wise men’”. We were honored to be at breakfast with him, across a round table in the Howard Thurman center, guests too of the office of the Dean of Students. BU students, Ken Elmore, and Kathryn Kennedy provided the hospitality.
For those of a certain generation—those of us now with bifocals, aging joints, haphazard memory, thinning hair—Andrew Young is a wise man and an icon too. We are aware, too, that for ranges of humanity in other generations, his name is slipping from its household word quality into more of a vintage mode. C’est dommage.
Mr. Young answered several questions. One: “What should the relationship be of politics and religion?” You might be surprised at his answer. It recalls Paul in the 15th chapter of Romans, extolling the virtue of those, his enemies, who nonetheless were preaching Christ. There is wisdom in magnanimity, and there is magnanimity in wisdom…
Every great revolution in the history of this country was supported by a religious revival or enthusiasm—the Revolutionary war, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement…No, I do not agree with Pat Robertson and those folks, but I also recognize that they are doing some good in the world…they are sending missionaries and feeding the hungry and other good things. Faith and politics invariably go together.
2. American Eschatology: 21st Century Consolation Literature
It is a particular, peculiar, and potent intersection of the two which concerns us this morning. In our time, religion and politics have intersected at an unusual point, that of the doctrine of the last things, of eschatology, or the doctrine of the Christian hope. As we have propounded for six years from this pulpit, on a reliable hope hangs our future. But to approach such a globe saving, history opening hope—I speak here of salvation in the little and in the large—we shall need to clear the ground of unreliable hope. The remaining historic churches (orthodox, catholic and protestant) have done a poor job in contesting the region of hope. We have not steadily and repeatedly reminded both church and culture about what, historically, and so theologically, we may understand regarding biblical teachings about hope. We have not done our job, to translate tradition into insight for effective living. To some degree we have turned aside from the apocalyptic language and imagery of the New Testament, in turn embarrassed, frightened, offended or simply baffled by the ancient hope, like that in Mark 13, read some moments ago.
And what has become of the void of interpretation we have left behind? It has become filled by material about being ‘left behind’! Of all the dangerous literalisms which can infect the pseudo-interpretation of scripture, none has become more damaging than the literal, non-historical, rendering of apocalyptic material in the New Testament.
A summer or two ago, one of our Marsh Chapel members came by the office. He told me about his workmates who were reading popular apocalyptic material, from The Late Great Planet Earth to Left Behind. “Can you do something to address this part of Christianity for the rest of us?” His question is the basis for our national summer preaching series this year, 2012. Over ten weeks we shall do our best, with a little help from our friends at Boston University, to respond. I thank in advance the Dr Knust, Dr Walters, Dr Jacobson and Br Whitney for their support in the preaching of the gospel on the theme, ‘Apocalypse Then’.
This summer we are excited to present sermons, in June, July and August, which intend to provide reasoned, historical and theological reflection on some of the apocalyptic passages and themes in the New Testament. Our hope is to provide publicly accessible yet theologically responsible perspectives on these texts, in contrast to some other current and popular forms of interpretation. We are privileged to present preachers from the Boston University School of Theology, each of whom brings particular interest and expertise in this area.
For many people living culturally outside the range of religious reality that encourages literal apocalyptic language, the broad reading and public enjoyment of such literature can seem unbelievable. How did 20 million homes accommodate copies of the fictional accounts of rapture, in the Left Behind series alone? How did this series become the primary lens through which, for many, the Christian hope is seen? Kevin Phillips recent work, American Theocracy, in his two chapters, Radicalized Religion, and Defeat and Resurrection, put a full spot light upon this phenomenon, including its connections to political agendas. According to Phillips, 55% of all Americans believe the Bible is literally true and 59% of all Christians expect the events of the Book of Revelation to occur (p 102). When combined with the sort of covenantal ‘exceptionalism’ and ‘righteous remnant’ perspective that often accompanies such a reading of the Scripture—found in Ireland, South Africa and the American South at crucial junctures—the influence of literal apocalypticism has become significant. ‘Lost Cause’ religion becomes the seedbed for left behind theology (p110ff).
Further, these affirmations and perspectives are often tinged with a particular kind of understanding of God’s will. A few years ago, during the outing of a bright, effective large church pastor who homiletically condemned but also apparently practiced homosexuality, several evangelical commentators reflected on ‘God’s timing’ in bringing forth this ‘revelation’ about Pastor Haggard. ‘God just decided that it was time to bring this to people’s attention’ is a comment typical of this position.
Timing is everything , but is everything God’s timing?
On this (mistaken) view, God is free, but we are not. God is free to be, but humans are slaves of providence. God is making the choices about when outings occur, not actual humans. At crucial points, there is, on this worldview, a hearty willingness to let go of human freedom, human responsibility, and human wisdom gained through hard experience, and to let God take the blame.
Which, of course, is the sad heart of literal apocalyptic. In apocalyptic, the future is not open, not evolving, not influenced by the myriad choices of individuals and groups–and so not my responsibility. I let that go. No, in apocalyptic, the future is assured by God, controlled by God, chosen by God and so is God’s sole responsibility. So, in letting go, I let God be, well, God. It is a temporarily consoling perspective for those who crave such fleeting consolation. It is a darkly fascinating rendering of the slogan, let go and let God.
But it is not true.
Not to our reason, not to our experience, not to our tradition, and finally, in careful interpretation, not to our Scripture either.
3. Ancient Christian Apocalyptic Eschatology: 1st Century Consolation Literature
On the basis of sound biblical interpretation, it is time to leave behind ‘left behind’ thought.
Our gospel lesson, Mark 13 was probably written in or near the year 70, in the shadow of that century’s judeo-christian version of 9/11, the final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Our chapter today assumes that the reader—‘let the reader understand’ (v14) will intuit the imagery of buildings and stones. More, the later Gospels are written in the ever lengthening shadow of a truth hard to swallow, at least for the early church. The end was not in fact in sight.
Jesus, Paul, the earliest church and most of the New Testament carry the common expectation that within days or years, but soon, the apocalyptic end of the world will occur. All were mistaken. Even 2 Peter, who changes the math, and makes a day equal to 1000 years, has grudgingly to wrestle with the delay, the postponement, of the first Christians’ fervent hope. Recite 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 several times and you will get a sense of what this apocalyptic hope entailed. It is early Christian mythology. As with all myth, it carries meaning, including meaning for us. But as a world-view, as a view of history, it is wrong.
It did not happen.
What Jesus predicted, and Paul expected, and Mark awaited—did not happen. The end did not come. And centuries of further sparkles of expectation, from the Montanists, to the Medieval mystics, to the Millerites of upstate New York, to the Jonestown community of 1978, to the Y2K enthusiasts of just a few years ago, did not make it so. December 12 2012 will also come and go with the sun rising and setting the next day. This biblical apocalyptic may be mythologically meaningful, but it is chronologically corroded.
Further, the language and imagery of the New Testament are apocalyptic through and through. Apocalyptic is the mother tongue of Christian theology, especially of Christian hope. So our beloved Bible must be interpreted anew, in a non-mythological way.
Fortunately, the New Testament itself begins to do so. Some of that reassessment is beginning in our passage this morning—‘the end is not yet, this is but the beginning’. Some of the ethical application and communal reinterpretation of this will come in a few verses: you have no idea if or when the end will come so, in scout fashion, be prepared. But most of the courageous imagination in this regard is found in the Gospel of John, aided somewhat by the later Paul.
The fictional, pseudo-biblical, consolation literature of our 21st century apocalyptic literalism needs to be left behind. It is not true: not to the Bible, not to the church, not to the mind, not to your experience. Humans may make of this earth the scenery of the new novel, The Road. We pray, pray it may not be so. But even if it were to occur—the end is not yet. You cannot escape your responsibility for the future of planet earth by hiding behind the skirts of an unfounded, ultimately unbiblical apocalypticism. It will not do, in this sense, to let go and let God.
We are not free to avoid our responsibility to the environment, with the excuse that the Lord may return in a generation or two anyway, and who needs gasoline in the rapture?
We are not free to avoid our responsibility to seek a common global peace, cognizant of the hard won insights of pacifism and just war theory both, on the bet that time is running out for the late great planet earth.
We are not free to construe current events in the Middle East on the templates of colorful but unhistorical apocalyptic myths, for the consoling succor of somehow thinking that God handles the Middle East any differently than Asia or the Alaska.
We are not free to project our anxieties about the dilemmas of the current age—an age by the way that was supposed to have seen ‘the end of history’!—out onto a far-off falsehood, like the raptures of fancy, fiction or facsimile—in order to avoid what we of course have to do in every other sphere of life: negotiate, compromise, discuss, trade, and muddle through.
Most especially—places like Marsh Chapel with a rich heritage of hope must also expect of ourselves a rich offering to the future that comports with our inheritance, to whom much is given, from him much is expected—we are not free to neglect a common hope.
Here is our freedom. Pray daily for the hope of the world. Think creatively about the hope of the world. Act specifically, week by week, in communion with a reliable hope. The future is up to you.
And for goodness sake, leave behind ‘left behind’.
4. Coda: Andrew Young’s Worldview
We could see at breakfast that Andrew Young had aged. He walked more slowly. His skin is weathered. He carried some more weight.
But he is a wise man, our wise man. And he lives in hope.
Asked about his education, he recalled a single informal study group, led by Professor Bill Bradley of Hartford Theological Seminary. The students gathered for hours of conversation, encouraged by their teacher. “That group gave me hope. They gave me my worldview. The worldview I have to this day. It is a worldview centered in Christ”.
Young’s worldview owes something to Reinhold Niebuhr, with whom we close:
“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”
~Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel