Saturday, February 27, 2010
Thursday, February 18, 2010
7 The earth trembled and quaked,
and the foundations of the mountains shook;
they trembled because he was angry.
8 Smoke rose from his nostrils;
consuming fire came from his mouth,
burning coals blazed out of it.
9 He parted the heavens and came down;
dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The LORD thundered from heaven;
the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemies ,
great bolts of lightning and routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, O LORD,
at the blast of breath from your nostrils.
"What does that sound like?" I asked.
"The end of the world."
Then we looked at the description of the Psalm's setting, which is decidedly not the end of the world, but David defeating Saul. We talked about why David might use this kind of language to describe his victory. Then we turned to Jesus and why people in his day might use that kind of language to describe their expectation of deliverance -- or the destruction of a city.
"So it's kind of like a parable?" she asked, and that seemed like a good enough grasp to me. We discussed other things that were "kind of like" parables -- the creation accounts, Noah's ark, and so on -- and the need for discretion in how widely we broadcast the reigning "kind of like a parable" hermeneutic in our house. "Oh," she said, "I don't really talk about this stuff with anybody else." She went back to bed, confident that the world was not going to end in a cosmic conflagration while she slept, and much relieved by that.
A new reader recently asked me my thoughts on eschatology. I told him eschatology is a way of offering commentary on the present by imagining the future, which is one of many parallels to sci-fi, but that's another story. Whether we admit it or not, it probably has no correspondence to what the world might actually be like in some distant future, but it can say a lot about what we think about the present. It's a way of projecting our hopes and fears forward. Some people imagine a world in which there is no poverty, hunger, or injustice, and work to make such a world a reality. Others imagine a world in which there are no more Jews, or Muslims, or atheists, and -- well, you can connect the dots.
The world is going to end, of course, and no amount of interpretation is going to change that. Our sun could die out or go supernova. The earth's orbit could decay, and probably is decaying. We could go extinct, or evolve into something unrecognizable. We could blow ourselves up, or render the planet uninhabitable. These possibilities are either of unknown likelihood or happening on a timeline that can only be described as cosmic. We're all more likely to die first. This isn't very sexy -- more whimper than bang. We seem to crave some kind of more definitive closure, which is why I think the end of the world is such a titillating topic.
Believing that all the prophecies are fulfilled effectively takes the End of the World off the table, and I appreciate that. Another option, of course, is to just say that Jesus was wrong, that the New Testament is predicated on a non-event. It comes to the same thing, in many ways -- though I can see reasons for choosing each. By way of parallel, I like universalism because it effectively renders the afterlife a non-issue, even though my preferred way of handling the afterlife is to let go of it altogether. Whether we all go to heaven, or there's no such thing, we can focus on the human predicament of the here and now, and if the former is a more pleasant thought it's because it involves the perpetuation of our egos.
There's a song from White Christmas, a production number in the show (that is, the show within the movie) that indulges in a bit modern dance while making fun of it. It goes through several examples of old school dancing and laments the turn to the modern stuff. "Heps," one line goes, "who did steps...aren't steppin' anymore -- they're doing 'choreography.'" Maybe you just have to see it.
I'm not sure what it is we're not doing any more that's been supplanted by eschatology. Some ancient cultures believed that the world would never end, and this seems as well to have been part of early Hebrew thinking. This changed with the experience of exile, as they cried out that something had to give and implored their God to intervene. They seem to have found some of the mythology of their Persian oppressors useful and appropriated apocalyptic rhetoric to make sense of their own situation. Later, the expressions used by a particular apocalyptic sect (that of one Jesus of Nazareth) would be picked up by the wider culture and combined with Greek teleology, becoming more and more what we would recognize today as eschatology.
We can't escape it. We're locked into thinking that something's gotta give, that there's something waiting just around the corner, that there's a better future waiting to be realized. It may not be the End of the World or even utopia, exactly, but we seem to need something to look forward to, to hope for, something that helps us know how to comport ourselves in the here and now.
On the other hand, it might be possible to miss the here and now because we're obsessed with how things might be. I'm torn on this, not necessarily wanting to endorse the status quo, but not wanting to fall prey to disillusionment, either. Eschatology at its best mediates and modulates this tension; at its worst it exacerbates it. I'm wondering if there's a way to step out of it without becoming complacent. What's that line from The Shawshank Redemption? Something about making a choice to get busy living or get busy dying.
And maybe that's it: we're not living anymore -- we're doing eschatology.