Have you heard!? The world is ending!! It’s very exciting. Fires. Floods. Hail. Earthquakes. Wars. All manner of natural and human-made destruction.
At least, this is what most readily comes to mind when the language of apocalypse is invoked in our late modern context. It is a bit distant from the Greek definition of something hidden being made manifest or revealed, which is far tamer. Interestingly, in the biblical witness it is not the fires and floods and hail and earthquakes and wars that in themselves constitute the apocalypse, but rather they are signs pointing to what will immanently be revealed. Biblical apocalyptic vision arose in continuity with the prophetic tradition of Israel. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, and all the rest spent half their careers warning of all of the bad things that would happen to the Israelites if they did not repent and return to right relationship with Yahweh and then they spent the rest of their careers warning that the nations of the world would come to naught if they failed to recognize Yahweh and the chosen people Israel. There are at times glimmers of more positive prospects in the prophetic witness, of what good things will come upon turning back to Yahweh. Apocalyptic follows in this pattern of warning of dire times ahead after which a new, just, righteous age will follow.
Occasionally, as I am returning to the chapel from hither and yon on campus, I encounter an apocalyptic preacher on the sidewalk along Commonwealth Avenue in front of Marsh Plaza. These preachers usually have a great deal to say about how tragic, unfortunate, and painful events in our world are signs of God’s judgment upon society for all manner of evils. They have a constitutionally protected right to freely speak their views on a public sidewalk, just as I have a constitutionally protected right to think them wrong. I have two problems with contemporary apocalyptic preachers. The first is that the social and cultural evils that these preachers are decrying are the very same sociocultural changes that I take to be achievements over prejudice, violence, and inhumanity. Gay marriage and a woman’s right to control her own body often top their, and my, lists. Apart from our contrasting ethical visions, however, my second problem with the contemporary apocalyptic preachers I encounter is that they almost never provide the second half of the apocalyptic vision. There is much talk of judgment, damnation, and destruction, but no talk of the new order to be ushered in in place of the judged, damned, and destroyed one. While biblical apocalyptic can be considered good news as it offers the promise of a better tomorrow in spite of the toil and tribulation of today, contemporary apocalyptic seems to offer nothing but toil and tribulation, which is nothing more than bad news.
One of the things that differentiates the apocalyptic worldview in the bible from the prophetic view is that in the prophetic view it is still possible for humans to self-correct, while in the apocalyptic view humanity has passed the tipping point. The prophets were constantly adjuring Israel to repent and return to Yahweh. “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Thanks be to God!” It is actually not the case that apocalyptic figures and writers actually thought things were worse in their societies than prophetic figures did. Rather, the prophetic figures felt that the leaders of their society still had enough control over the society to bring about changes that would return Israel to Yahweh. Apocalyptic figures, by contrast, felt entirely out of control. This largely had to do with the fact that they were living under the occupation of the Roman Empire. Even if Israel wanted to go in a different direction and become more godly, they could not because they did not have any control over their own destinies. Thus it is that since humans are unable to rectify the situation, only God can step in and fix things. Only God can overturn the present order and usher in a new order of peace, prosperity, and right relationship with God.
This feeling of being out of control marks the apocalyptic view in our contemporary context as well. Karen Armstrong, an independent scholar of religion, spoke at Ithaca College during my freshman year there in October of 2001. She was extraordinarily helpful in interpreting the events of September 11th of that year in terms of the fundamentalist mindset that inspired and motivated that day of death and destruction. Her book The Battle for God explores how fundamentalisms across religious traditions are responses by religious people to a loss of control brought about by the apparently secularizing forces and assumptions of modernity. These religious people then follow their fight or flight instinct, and those who follow the fight path often understand themselves to be instruments of God in righting the world. Certainly, there is a great deal more to religious fundamentalism that an apocalyptic worldview, and not all people with apocalyptic views are religious fundamentalists. However, the feeling of having lost control that drives the modern rejection of modernity that is fundamentalism is the same feeling of having lost control that inspired the apocalyptic texts of the bible.
One of the challenges in responding to apocalyptic texts, apocalyptic preachers, and fundamentalists is that the view that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket and there is nothing to be done about it but wait for God to set it right can feel very foreign. I wonder, however, if we might not be a bit too quick to abide in the feeling of otherness, perhaps as a strategy for not having to face how familiar the apocalyptic view might be. Perhaps I am the odd ball out, and perhaps none of you have ever felt like things had gotten totally out of control. Life in ministry, I have discovered, provides frequent exposure to the feeling and experience of things being totally out of control. Ministry also provides ample opportunity to see how, if people would simply make this, that, or the other decision and act on it, as opposed to the one they did decide on and act upon, things would have gone so much better. I confess, I have at times found myself daydreaming about how things might have gone had someone wiser been in charge.
Is this really so much different than the apocalyptic vision? Not really. After all, the apocalyptic vision is very much an imagination that things do go better when someone of infinite wisdom, namely God, is in charge. On the other hand, my imagination of how things might have been better inspires me to decide and act more wisely. This is to say that I learn something from watching how the decisions and actions I and others take work out, as well as from the imaginings of how things might have gone. At the end of the day, however, my imaginings remain in the subjunctive mood of what might have been or what might yet become. This is in stark contrast to the way in which the apocalyptic imagination of what might be inspires fundamentalist decision-making and action. The fundamentalist is so inspired by the apocalyptic imagination that she or he attempts to impress the subjunctive mood of what might become into the indicative mood of what actually is.
The work we do together here in this space, week by week, in gathering together in worship, is very much a subjunctive imagining of what life might be like if God were in charge. The readings, prayers, sermon, music, and sacrament of the liturgy reveal to us the ways in which we ought to live in the ideal world of God’s realm. Live justly, walk humbly, confess your shortcomings, forgive one another, rejoice in joy, weep in lamentation, and break bread with one another. Of course, life in the world is not nearly so ideal. Justice is ambiguous. Humility is mistaken for weakness. Confession leads to judgment without forgiveness. The joy of one is the sorrow of another. Those we break bread with may stab us in the back. We learn from these experiences as well as the imagination we return to, week by week, of what would be better. Furthermore, our worship practice provides a safeguard from thinking that we should attempt to impose the subjunctive mood of worship on the indicative mood of life. That safeguard is the strangeness of the liturgy. The clergy wear funny robes. The windows are made of stained glass. The pews have no cushions. These things, and many others, provide a sense of strangeness to remind us that, while much of what we experience here may point to a better way of being, in the end, a worship service is not life. That better way of being exists apart from the day-to-day walk of life. The better vision informs life, and so transforms our lives, by reminding us that life is not always and necessarily out of control. The ongoing work of transformation by information indicates that at every moment of our lives the world is ending, and is beginning anew out of what was and what might yet be. Thanks be to God. Amen.
~Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+