Month: October 2011
The following is a somewhat expanded and revised version of a post I made five months ago, the last time the Rapture didn’t happen.
From suggestions that we should all release blow-up dolls filled with helium at exactly noon on May 21, to an invitation on Facebook for post-Rapture looting (here’s the Oct. 21 event; after all, many cars will be “unmanned,” you know), it seems that the world has taken notice of the latest prediction of the Rapture, although not quite as much notice as it did five months ago. Even atheist Stephen Hawking grabbed a headline or two with his characterization of Heaven as a “fairy story.” Well, today’s the day, at least according to (revised!) calculations by Harold Camping, who has figured on the precise date of the Rapture’s occurrence as being October 21, 2011. The bit back in May turned out not to be the Rapture, but was rather the deadline for “getting saved.” (If you didn’t make it in by then, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.)
The Rapture is that moment a certain minority of Protestant Christians believe that Jesus will come back to Earth, hovering in the air, and then call all the true believers to fly upwards with Him, leaving the rest of the human race to suffer through some years (depending on your particular Dispensationalist eschatology, this could be before or after and be of varying length) of terrible tribulation—wars, earthquakes, the formation of a world government run by Satan, etc. An even smaller minority claims to be able to predict when the Rapture will take place. Some people make books and movies capitalizing on the idea.
Most Christians do not believe in the Rapture. (After all, it’s less than 200 years old as a doctrine.) They do believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, which is when Jesus will come back, raise all the dead, and then everything will all be over.
That said, though, predicting the end of the world (sometimes preceded by the Rapture) is nothing new. Indeed, my personal favorite new discovery is a 1956 booklet called 1975 in Prophecy!, which bafflingly does not mention my August 29th birth. Nor does it even mention the clearly apocalyptic omen of a presidency by a man elected neither president nor vice president. Surely Gerald Ford must be worth something to apocalypticists. Alas, poor 1975.
Of course, Harold Camping originally predicted in his book 1994? that the world would be ending around September 15-17, 1994 (a three-day stretch, sure, but he needed some wiggle room, and I guess that question mark bought him another 17 years).
What occurs to me especially on this Second Apocalyptic Moment here in 2011 is a higher-order question: How do you know that what you believe is true? This is of course a big question, and one which I imagine a few of Harold Camping’s followers must have asked themselves on May 22, especially those who’d cashed out their life savings, quit their jobs, etc. Why should you trust a preacher? If you belong to a religion, how do you know that your religion’s teachings are true?
A Christian may believe the Bible, sure, but there are a lot of ways to read the Bible, and there are many contradictions between the doctrines of those who claim to be relying on it solely. Why is Harold Camping right, and others are wrong? Or, if Harold Camping is wrong, why is your preacher right? What is the basis of his authority?
For most Protestant Christians, the history of their particular traditions can be traced no further back than the 16th century Protestant Reformation. To be sure, the first Reformers believed that they were restoring primitive Christianity, but on what basis did they make that claim? If it’s just on their reading of the Bible, well, again we have the problem of whom to believe. They had that problem themselves, as Protestantism began splitting almost the instant it appeared.
For Roman Catholic Christians, the history of their tradition does indeed extend back to the primitive Church, to the very 1st century. For them, the question of authority rests on showing that that primitive Church is identical with their own Church. Analyzing that claim is somewhat more complicated, because it means looking at 2000 years of Christian history to determine whether Roman Catholicism stayed on track the whole time. As an Orthodox Christian, I do not believe that it did, especially in terms of teachings such as papal supremacy and papal infallibility, neither of which are apparent in the primitive Church. (Indeed, papal infallibility can be handily dated to the 19th century.)
For Orthodox Christians, the question of authority is similar to Rome’s, but of course as an Orthodox Christian, I believe that the evidence is in Orthodoxy’s favor—it teaches the same things it did 2000 years ago, and that consistency is constant throughout all those centuries.
In the end, though, even if you can determine which Christianity (and there are many!) is the right one, that leaves the question of whether Christianity is true, whether Jesus Christ is God, and, indeed, whether there is a God (or gods) at all. The atheist would claim to give an easy answer to this question: “I see no god(s), therefore there must be none.”
But what does “see” mean? There are a lot of things we cannot see or cannot yet see—that, it might be said, is one way of describing the history of science. We seem to take it for granted that skepticism should be our default philosophical position—believing nothing without incontrovertible evidence—yet we do not live our lives depending on such evidence for everything we do. We all live by faith in one way or another. It would be utterly exhausting to constantly be measuring and testing whether the floor on which my chair rests in fact is not going to collapse out from under me. Perhaps it might!
So there are lots of reasons not to trust preachers. But there are also lots of reasons not to trust other people who make truth claims, even scientists, who (if they are good scientists) will admit that scientists are often wrong. (It’s part of what keeps the new ones in business.) It probably goes without saying that politicians are often wrong, too, and not to be trusted on their face. (“Trust, but verify,” as one of them once said.) The more painful truth, however, is that I cannot necessarily trust myself. I am not, after all, more qualified than anyone else in the world so that I might judge them all.
My hope is that, on this second day of likely disappointment in terms of major eschatological import for 2011, we would all ask ourselves what we have faith in and whether it’s worth putting our faith in it. I also hope that we would, as part of searching for the answer for that question, investigate our worldviews, whether they really stand up to some scrutiny, especially historical scrutiny.
The key virtue in all this is humility. Without it, the doors to the truth will always remain closed. But with it, they will keep opening.
After all, today really could be the Rapture.
October 9, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
I have a friend who is a Ph.D. student at a university in New York City. He is a brilliant, traditional Orthodox Christian who is serious about his faith in Christ and also serious about doing real scholarly work. He is also possibly the smartest person I’ve ever met. I recently had the privilege of spending some time with him at a history symposium in Princeton, and he and I began talking about the doctoral work he was pursuing.
He’s in the theology department at the university, and he said that pretty much everyone on the faculty were almost entirely hostile to traditional Christianity and of course therefore to Orthodoxy. He said that they tolerate his presence but that they are so steeped in secular fundamentalism that they would never consider eventually acknowledging him as a colleague. I asked him why he was there, since he knew he would never break into their world. He answered that he was simply trying to get the work done, but that he regarded most of the modern academy, especially the theological academy, as really too far gone to even include the possibility of working in it from within.
“We have to begin building our own institutions,” he said. “We have to develop our own culture.”
I’ve been thinking about that last comment now for these past couple of weeks, and it came to mind again when I was looking at the epistle reading for today. In it, the Apostle Paul references to the Christians of Corinth from the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Ezekiel these words: “‘Therefore come out from among them, and be separate,’ says the Lord, ‘and touch nothing unclean; and I will receive you, and I will be a Father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Is. 52:11; Ezekiel 20:34, 41).
What did my friend mean? And what does this mean, when the Lord Almighty says to us, “Come out from among them, and be separate”?
It is one of the most basic problems of true Christian life. Indeed, the very word for the Church in Greek, the language used when the Church was conceived, is ekklesia, which means “those who have been called out.” We as the Church have been called out of the world. We have been called to be separate. What does that mean?
In the earliest years of the Church’s life, the separateness of the Christian was pretty obvious. If he was a convert from Judaism in Palestine, he was someone who was withdrawing from the majority Jewish practice. He no longer was ruled by the Mosaic Law and the customs of the rabbis. He at first supplemented his synagogue and Temple worship with the Christian Eucharist, and then, when the Christians were thrown out of the synagogues and when the Romans destroyed the Temple, he worshiped exclusively with Christians.
Likewise, a pagan convert to Christianity was even more conspicuous. He stopped worshiping pagan gods. He wouldn’t join the army, because serving meant worshiping the god your unit took as its patron and also worshiping the Emperor as divine. The Christian also held to a much higher moral standard, and he even was known for loving and caring for the pagans, not only members of his own group, something no one else did.
Whether a convert from Judaism or from paganism, the Christian understood himself to be separate from the world, if only because the world was quite often prepared to put him to death for his faith. And he knew he was separate, because he now belonged to a new community, the Church, the first truly counter-cultural community.
As time went on, in the fourth century Christianity eventually was not only legalized but gradually became the majority religion of the Roman Empire, and the idea of Christendom was born, in which the separateness of Christians from the world was no longer quite as literally obvious as it had been, because now almost everyone was at least formally a Christian. One did not have to leave society in any sense in order to become a Christian. Indeed, being Christian became expected by society. About this time monasticism arose as a major movement, because the fervor of those first martyric Christians had been replaced by Christianity becoming “normal.”
And now we live in the age of post-Christendom, when the ruins of what had once been Christian society are here and there around us, but we again find ourselves in an empire that is becoming more and more hostile to the Gospel. This time it is not paganism, however, but secular fundamentalism. And like all fundamentalisms, secular fundamentalism will not stop until it has taken over every moment of our lives.
If you don’t believe that that’s true, consider the kinds of changes that have occurred within the past couple of centuries and even within many of our own lifetimes. In the great age of Christendom, daily participation in corporate worship was the norm for every Christian. Your day was regulated not by alarm clocks but by church bells. No one went to work on Church holy days—not just Christmas and Easter, either, but all of them. Rulers were not only comfortable with using sincere religious language in their governance, but most of them had actually received a theological education. Now, they’re almost all lawyers and businessmen.
As time has gone on, Christ’s name has been less and less comfortable to use in public life. People eventually whittled down their personal investment in worship into just an hour or maybe two on Sunday morning. And for a while, Sunday was still regarded as sacred. Stores weren’t open on Sunday. It was a quiet day, begun with God and continued with family. But now, even Sunday morning is under assault, and there are all kinds of activities that are impinging, bit by bit, on Christian education and on Christian worship.
I wonder whether most Christians will simply quietly surrender, and yield the last little scrap that we had once reserved for God, so that now all seven days of the week, all 365 days of the year will be dominated by the anesthetic of activity. Personally, I think the moment came a long time ago when we returned back to those first days of the Christian Church, when choosing Christ meant truly giving something up, when the Church functioned as the ekklesia, those who have been called out. But make no mistake that the moment has indeed come. And perhaps the moment will soon come again when choosing Christ may mean giving up our very lives. It already means that for some of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world.
We have to begin building our own institutions. We have to develop our own culture.
As Orthodox Christians, we are not called to reject the created world that God made and filled with His creatures, but we do reject Satan and all his angels and all his works and all his service and all his pride, either at becoming catechumens or being baptized. That is “the world” which we are called to reject, the corruption and the fundamentalism of secular society, the endless and mindless pursuit of pleasure and possessions and prestige. When will we say, “Enough!”? When will we say as the Prophet Joshua did so long ago, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15)?
While there have been periods when the mind of Christ forms culture and even perhaps in a sense begins to rule over it, we are again in a time when we as Christians must be counter-cultural. We cannot afford to live life the way everyone around us does, just because it “makes sense” or because it’s “normal” or because that’s how we “get ahead.” I tell you the truth: None of that will count for one scrap when we stand before the Throne of God! Are you going to spend your life and your children’s lives getting prepared for success in this world, which might last a few decades, if you’re lucky, or will you spend this life preparing for eternity?
“Choose you this day whom ye will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
To our Lord Jesus Christ be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy received a thorough and favorable review from the Leitourgeia kai Qurbana weblog, which is written by Richard Barrett, a Ph.D. student in History at Indiana University. Read it here.