Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Forget All That Mayan Stuff in 2012

The Countdown to Armageddon will begin on my birthday

The Last Judgement, by Peter Paul Rubens (1617)

I saw this in the Huffpo the other day:
Sorry, Maya. Just when peculiar apocalyptic interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar were about to thrust you into the media frenzy sure to come in 2012, some knuckleheads cut in front of you by predicting the return of Jesus on May 21, 2011.
It's a reference to a bold prediction by Harold Camping, described in Wikipedia as the May 21, 2011 Doomsday scenario.

I hope I have a chance to finish my cake and ice cream first. Even more importantly, I hope my wife isn't raptured up if we're in the midst of canoodling. If there's anything to this Millerite or Darbyite reading of scripture, she has a better chance of getting raptured than I do. It would be just my luck...

Joking aside, where lies hope? Christians are supposed to be hopeful people by definition, but just what is it that we are supposed to be hopeful for? In his autobiography Just As I Am, the celebrated evangelist Billy Graham described a meeting he had with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer shortly after the end of World War II, as Berlin still lay in ruins. Graham picks up the story as he stands waiting in the man's office as Adenauer gazes out of his window at the shattered city below.
Even more memorable was German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. One time when I was preaching in Germany, he invited me to his office. Coffee was served, but before my first sip, he started in.

“Young man, do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?”

“I most certainly do,” I replied.

“So do I. If Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead, there is not one glimmer of hope for the human race. When I leave office, I’m going to spend the rest of my life studying and writing about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s the most important event in human history.”
I don't know if he ever made good on that conviction or not, but I do know that Adenauer, a devout Catholic, skillfully led the rebuilding of Germany from out of the ashes with his Christian Democratic Union Party, which has dominated German politics almost up to the present day. After the war, Prussia lay behind the Iron Curtain. As a result, Catholics from the south and the west were quite influential in leading the way towards building a society and a body-politic in West Germany that was heavily influenced by Catholic social teaching and the principles of social justice. Germany became a highly prosperous and efficient social democracy, respecting both the rights of capital and labor (union members sit on corporate boards and consult with management at every level), while providing universal health care and affordable education to its citizens. Even today, despite having high labor costs, it is a creditor nation, a net exporter of goods, and has even been able to bail out struggling neighbors after having successfully absorbed and re-integrated a failed socialist state. Perhaps in all this, they've been too successful. In parallel with this lofty and enviable level of security and equality, the practice of faith in Germany has fallen through the floor in a manner that surely would have distressed Konrad Adenaur.

On the other hand, in a land with far less security, equality and public trust, Billy Graham's son Franklin has been parlaying a less hopeful message about what lies ahead for mankind to the benefit of his own success (examples here and here) in a manner his father probably never would have.

So who's right?

Ironically, to borrow the German term of "schadenfreude," many so-called evangelists in the USA have been doing very well for themselves presenting a vindictive vision in which their enemies - the secularists, the unbelievers, the liberals, the skeptics, the scoffers - will suffer their just deserts at the hands of a wrathful God, while they themselves are whisked away from the awful tribulation beforehand.

This represents no small fringe movement in the USA. Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth was one of the biggest selling books of the 1970s and 1980s, and the books in Tim Lahaye & Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind Series have been some of the biggest sellers of the 1990s and 2000s. There are even video games based on them.

Earlier this week on Drudge there was a big hoopla about a CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) report that the clerics in Iran are saying that recent world events point to the imminent arrival of the Mahdi (also known as the "Twelfth Imam") and a series of apocalyptic events to shortly follow.

With alarmist tones, and with typically superficial simplicity they make it seem as if the entire Islamic world puts stock in this. Never mind the fact that the majority of the world's muslims are Sunnis who discount it, resent Iran's muscle-flexing, and reject "Twelver Shi'ism" out of hand.

In any case, why all this alarm on the part of the CBN? Well, actually, I know why. It's because they are heavily lobbied and funded by AIPAC to show alarm over it, but in their heart of hearts, don't they actually predict (and actually hope for) essentially the same thing?

Now, it's true that it is a tenet of faith for all Christians that Jesus will return. After all, we recite in our Creed at every Mass "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end." When we consider, however, the "End Times," or the "Last Things," what is it that we are hoping for?

It is certainly fair enough to hope for a transformed world, of God finally setting the world right and of peace and justice to reign. Professors like Bart Ehrman are quick to point out that in the academy, it is the widely accepted view among New Testament scholars, first posited by Albert Schweitzer a century ago, that this was exactly the agenda of Jesus - that Jesus was just who he said he was - An Apocalyptic Prophet for the New Millenium (think of the Son of Man as described in the Book of Daniel).

When we look at the fear-mongering going on, however, isn't it important to stress that no one knows the hour? Instead of looking for signs according to earthquakes, floods, famines, war, and rumors of war, isn't it at least equally valid exegesis to look at the words of St. Paul and realize that he thought all of these last things were to occur once the "full measure of gentiles" had been brought to faith (Romans 11:25-26)? By God's standards, who knows what that full measure might be? Nearly everyone? Everyone? Wouldn't that be a positive sign being manifested instead of the envious, vengeful, fear-ridden, and bitter scenario being pushed by the Armageddon peddlers?

Did God so love the world that he gave his only Son so that we may have eternal life, or did God hate the world so much that he punished his only Son so that a few elect could escape a doomed planet? This is one of those areas where the strength of the incarnational and sacramental emphases of our tradition can be brought to bear. Thomas Groome, in a recent review of a new book by Michael Leach, Why Stay Catholic, writes:
In my view, the two best reasons for staying Catholic, as the book stresses, are the twin principles of incarnation and sacramentality. Of course, Catholicism is incarnational in its focus on Jesus. Leach is convinced that the Jesus event and his paschal mystery is not about a God who needed to be appeased for our sins but one who came looking for us out of love....

The other side of the incarnational coin is the sacramental nature of Catholic faith. Again, this emphasis reaches a climax in the seven great liturgical sacraments that we celebrate in church, but these arise from and flow back into the sacramentality of the ordinary and everyday of life. Because “God is everywhere,” God looks for us and we respond through our lives in the world. In the words of St. Augustine, “If you have an eye for it, the world itself is sacramental.” It is the sacramentality of Catholic faith that makes it so humane, so life-giving. “Catholicism seen through the eye of a needle is a religion of rules and regulations.

Seen with the sacramental imagination, it is a unique take on life, a holy vision, a way of seeing the chosen part of things... These twin principles—the incarnational and sacramental—are what make Catholicism most worthwhile, why anyone can well stay, regardless of disappointments and complaints and the scandals that beset the church. Indeed, these very principles lend Catholic faith its rich spiritualities; “When it comes to spirituality, “the author writes, “the Catholic Church is a Garden of Eden

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Now What? From the 47 Ronin to the Fukushima 50

The 47 Ronin assault Kira Yoshinaka's mansion

Last week we all witnessed the horror of a tsunami wave racing across the plains of Sendai like the wrath of some dark agent, destroying everything and everyone in its path.

Shortly afterward, we all became increasingly aware that the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima complex was more dire than initially reported.

It's a bit surreal to see the way all of this is unfolding, to see our reaction to it. There is widepsread reporting and awareness, of course, about the immensity of the tragedy that has struck Japan, but just the same, we seem to be whistling in the dark and trying to wish away the reality of what is occurring at Fukushima.

I watch the content of the news, I watch the content on Facebook, but for the occasional rumblings underneath, we are going about our daily lives trying to consider the ramifications of this as little as possible. As a society, we still seem to be obsessed with stories built around the likes of Charlie Sheen and Vanessa Hudgens. Pity the Libyans and the Bahrainis who have been suddenly forgotten altogether.

As of this morning, I'm hearing that the idea of pumping water into Reactor 3 has become too dangerous and risky due to the high levels of radiation, and the option of a water cannon is being contemplated. If the Fukushima 50, who seem to be on a one-way mission and upon whom so much of the world's hope lies, fails to get these reactors under control, it's likely that a Hail Mary pass will be thrown to the US miliary.

We read assertions that the Fukushima 50 is not afraid to die. They're three men over, but in their willingness to lay down their lives in what might become a suicidal effort, I'm reminded of the Japanese story of the 47 Ronin.

Trying to repair damaged cooling systems with battery power, pumping in sea water while containment buildings explode around the reactors, dropping water from helicopters, using water cannons from a distance.... has each measure become more primitive and desperate?

If none of these work....?