Sunday, February 9, 2014

"An Apocalyptic Shift", Or, "Why Church Tradition Matters"

One of the things that demarcates mainline churches and traditional churches from the fundamentalists is the importance that the former places on the church's own traditions and on reason. For fundamentalists there is only one revelation... the words of scripture itself... for mainline traditions, God reveals Himself in church tradition and reason also. Of course, I've written countless pages arguing that the Bible cannot be the sole revelation of God, because of the circularity of justification involved in appealing to the Bible to justify the Bible, and because of the internal contradictions in the text. But there is another issue that comes up with the issue of ethics that needs to be considered.

Fundamentalists tend to be pragmatists when it comes to ethics. Most fundamentalists are also political conservatives and tend to support a strong military, the death penalty, etc. Politically liberal Christians rightly point out that many of these positions are inconsistent with the gospels. But liberal Christians fail to realize the degree to which they, too, are guilty of supporting positions that are not consistent with the New Testament's overarching ethical discourse. The very idea of political involvement is really anathema to the message of Jesus OR Paul. Jesus eschewed politics as a satanic temptation (Luke 4) and Paul tells us that our only political duty is absolute obedience to the reigning political order (Romans 13).

The two men had different views on the nature of political power, which I've expounded at length on this blog. However, at the heart of the political vision of both men is a simple fact that few Christians seem to acknowledge: apocalypticism. Both men expected the world to end in their own lifetimes, and so both men held up a vision of life in the world that is completely at odds with our normal way of thinking about morals and ethics. They sought an ethical existence that was predicated on an immediate expected end. If you think the world is going to end, like, tomorrow, then you don't go out and have a family, or even fight for civil rights (for God is about to come and establish the proper rights for all people... why fight a battle about to be won by God alone?), you get into a church and you pray.

There is an immediacy to the messages of Jesus and Paul, a message that right here, right now, everything is about to change because God is coming and so 'what are you going to do about it?' This, then, makes sense of the fact that so many Christian movements have been End Times movements, and why things like Rapture Theology take such deep root today.

Of course to continue to pretend that the world IS going to end "any day now" is to ignore the fact that the Christian community has now been here nearly 2000 years, and to refuse to account for that fact in your moral reasoning seems irresponsible. The truth of the matter is that the Church cannot and should not live as if the world WILL end any day, though it must and should act as if the world MIGHT end any day. This shift is subtle, but very important. In the first case working in and for life in the world as it is presented to us makes no sense. In the second case living and working in and for life in the world makes a lot of sense, since you know you MIGHT be here a long time.

An analogy can be found in waiting for a flight. If I know the flight is on time, then I wait expectantly, listening for boarding instructions and not buying a pretzel at the kiosk down the way, for I leave at any minute. But if a flight is delayed, and I don't know how long, I might go get that pretzel, for I may be in my seat for quite a while. I still do things differently: I watch the flight ticker to see if new information is available, and I keep my ears open, but knowing that flights can be delayed a long time, I also ready myself for the long haul.

The Church, as time went on, had to modify Jesus and Paul's end-times ethical and political vision to deal with the fact that it might be the bearer of the Christian message for a long time. The injunction by Jesus to eschew politics altogether or of Paul to simply obey whatever those in power had to say, simply is not feasible if the Church is to live and work in the world. It cannot operate, for instance, in a country without religious freedom, and fighting for those freedoms is important to its mission. It cannot properly serve the poor for the long haul if it is in a racist environment. So the original apocalyptic ethic of the New Testament had to be modified.

But any such modifications have to stand the test of time. New thoughts about how to apply the words of scripture in the world have to come up, be examined, and be applied where necessary. Tradition should have authority, but not unquestioned authority. Advent used to be a time of somber reflection, and Christmas was treated as a season... a season of celebration. But those 'times' were set when most people lived near extended family. Christmas involves too much traveling for the Church to fail to make Advent itself the time of celebration. Of course all of this would be a moot point if we still lived as if the world WILL end any moment.

Jesus and Paul's ethic, then, stands before us as something truly transcendent. It is an ideal we cannot, truly, live up to. Or we could, but we'd have to forget the world and the last 2000 years of history. It sets a standard before which we can only bow in repentance. We can only say before their standards "we have uttered things too wonderful for ourselves, that we understood not, and wherefore we abhor ourselves and repent in dust and ashes." I think God came in the form of an End Times Prophet for a reason. For only in such a person could the transcendence of God's goodness be contained without there being some inconsistency at the heart of His message. Jesus could be iconoclastic without being dishonest: He truly believed the end was near, and His morality beyond morality thus spoke to that. So any system of ethics we create must be opened up to the strange alien world of Jesus and Paul, we must let their truly divine way of life serve as a light upon our own, reminding us that the world will indeed some day be over, if not for everyone than for us, at the time of our deaths. We should have no moral place where we stand comfortable, so long as our own ethics seeks the balance between the Gospel and the world that is necessary for anyone who wants to live in the world. But neither should we fail to see the necessary role of interpretation and balancing that came before. The Church must go through a process of interpretation and re-interpretation, building up an ethical and political philosophy that seeks after the truth of possible persistence in the world, all the while admitting of itself that it is not the same as the message that inspired it.

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