Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Re-Post: The Double-Edged Sword of Apocalyptic Language

I am super busy and low on time today, so it is time for a re-post. Tomorrow, I will have something original, for sure:

One of the great spiritual 'advances' I've made in my own life in recent years was to become comfortable, really comfortable, with apocalyptic imagery and to come to a real understanding of it's value. When I talk of 'apocalypticism', I'm speaking of the kinds of images one finds in Zechariah, Daniel, and especially the Book of Revelation. When people talk about these books and the imagery contained therein, they usually focus on the prophetic aspect of the writing. But it is particularly the Combat Motif that has both bothered me, and intrigued me, for some time now.

The Combat Motif is the theme of there being some evil counter-force in the universe working against God. In contemporary Christianity this is imaged as something like a fallen angel. The idea of a devil is bothersome to most mainline protestants. We emphasize a juridical model of atonement, and so success or failure to receive salvation is based on the fulfillment of some moral demand: either in action or more commonly in terms of our beliefs. We are expected to do or believe something specific and our success and failure in life, at least spiritually, is based on us living up to this expectation. We believe in free will, and we want to take responsibility for our own actions. I am also inclined towards belief in free will and I'm big on personal responsibility. I don't like the possibility of giving someone the excuse 'the devil made me do it'. Plus generally speaking modern people don't like to sound silly or childish, like we believe in the boogeyman or something.

But as I've come to respect Eastern Orthodox visions of atonement, whereby Jesus Christ breaks the power of satan through his sacrifice, a healthier respect for the Combat Motif, and for apocalyptic language in general, has developed within me. I think that while we've recognized the danger of fleeing from responsibility, forgoing apocalyptic language altogether has robbed us of part of what we need to talk in a fulfilling way about the meaningfulness of life, the reality of evil, and even the glory of salvation. I wonder if part of the reason for the success of the more evangelical faiths, over the more mainline protestant and catholic movements, is because they are able to speak much more naturally about the cosmic battle between good and evil. By placing our own internal and social moral struggles within the context of truly cosmic forces within the universe, they speak to life as it is actually experienced by us. They have a phenomenological reach, if you will, that the more common denominations seem to lack. The reality is that the Combat Motif reaches back to antiquity, and it plays an important role both explicit and implicit throughout the Bible. This issue is big in my current unpublished book BREATH OF GOD. And many churches just don't do a very good job of really wrestling with its place in our lives.

William James once said that life 'feels like a fight'. I'd tend to agree with him.
Apocalyptic language continues to be relevant because it speaks powerfully to that fact. It can distort the nature of the fight, and it is a danger that we will spend so much time fighting monsters under our bed that we will fail to fight the ones in our own hearts. But without it, I'm convinced that the full measure of life as it is lived, and the actual meaning of life in the world, can be concealed. There is a reason it is called "revelation".

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