Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guest Post - Of Apocalyptic Murmurings

     This post is something my friend Dallas wrote recently on the subjects of Advent and the supposed (and now past) Mayan End of the World.

One hears rumors that huge numbers of people take the supposed Mayan calendar seriously, and expect the world to end sometime today. This seems highly unlikely - that is, that large numbers of people are actually taking it seriously, but it may be so. The BBC is reporting mobs of New Agers descending on remote villages in Serbia to escape the wrath to come. (Did the Mayans have anything to say about Serbia?) Disturbingly, the BBC is also reporting on a crackdown of the Chinese government on a Christian sect that is rabble-rousing about the coming apocalypse and "spreading discontent," riding on the back of 2012 angst, I do suppose. I must be far from the global pulse, finding this all so unlikely.

One is more used to hearing about the coming apocalypse from our own Christian evangelicals - a motley group who can put aside most differences to agree on the pre-tribulation rapture. A walk through any Lifeway Christian Bookstore is enough to make any impressionable evangelical a part-time survivalist. "End Times" literature has an unusual appeal, for it is supposedly where the Bible intersects with commentary on contemporary Mideast politics and the most recent election in Washington. The literature combines the excitement and terror of the seven bowls of God's wrath with the excitement and terror of the most recent violence in Gaza or Damascus. The "End Times" commentary and speculation will not pan out, of course. It will not be like Harold Camping's apoplectic failure in prediction. The "Left Behind" blockbuster will fade more quietly out of memory without utterly ruining its authors and champions only because it was less specific in the timing of its predictions. Commentary about the end of the world will continue through the shelves of the Christian bookstore because it is excellent business, and the prophecies of the Bible, taken alone, are inscrutable enough to support any amount of interpretation. This, however, is not my point.

"End Times" literature is the concern of all who claim the name Christian because the most vocal Christians in America (the ones on television, by definition) have associated the religion strongly with speculation on the end of the world. The best selling "Christian" books are littered with novels of the end of the world, speculations on the end of the world, and the inevitable Shacks and Purpose Driven scholarship. No matter where the serious-minded Christian may fall in the spectrum of opinions, one faces disturbing odds of being identified with Christian apocalypticism merely because one identifies as a Christian. I seriously doubt even the average New Ager wants to be identified with the supposed Mayan apocalypse of 2012. The error ultimately lies in the whole mess being based in individual opinions and sectarian notions of the apocalypse, and the salvation in the stability (and the refusal to politicize doctrine) in the teaching of the Church. Any brief comparison between the teaching of an evangelical sect and the Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church on eschatology will illustrate the difference between the new and political with the old and measured understanding.

When Christ told us to keep watch because no man knows the day when the Lord will come, He was not telling us to peddle tales of the end of the age, or invest our energies speculating on the coming apocalypse. We are meant to keep watch, but this is far secondary to the life of the Church. In the divine liturgy we remember the creed, that we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. In Advent, we recall Christ's first coming, incarnated in the womb of the Virgin, and we meditate on His second coming as foretold in the prophecies. We prepare for Christmas through prayer, holy readings, and spiritual discipline, and talk of Christmas each year as a holy feast, and a visitation of God in the mystical sense of the Christian calendar. This is what keeping watch and following Christ's command looks like.

Apocalypticism is stultifying and paralyzing. It brings disrepute on the our religion for obvious reasons, but it has serious, negative effects on the life of the Church. One who is convinced he lives on the eve of destruction cannot build for the future, of course. The smugness of evangelical apocalypticism lies in the conviction that the prognosticators speak from a hell-proof cocoon to denounce and warn of the end. This attitude is repulsive and naive, for no one is ready for virtually everything they know and see to burn. For the unconvinced outside of the Church, how can the evangelist convince the unbeliever of the love of Christ when the Christians are vocally calling for the destruction of the world and anticipating it with a devilish happiness? This is in contrast to the life of the Church in Advent, which is focused on spiritual discipline in community, preparing together to celebrate Christ's incarnation and to anticipate His second coming with prayers that we will be worthy of Him. When the Church meditates on the end of all things, we pray for God to postpone His judgment. We remember the scripture, "who can abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth?" Any man who claims to be ready and eager to stand before God and be judged is a man beyond my understanding. I remember the last words of an Orthodox saint: "Lord, give me more time! I have only begun to repent."

The Christian apocalypticism of the American imagination is unfortunate baggage of American Christianity. The rumors and speculations will most likely swirl around and fade away rather than be confronted with authority and dismissed, and this is a bad state of affairs. The stable testimony of the Christian tradition, which extends past all the strange teachings of our age, will reward all who search for it. The bad effects of apocalyptic convictions have damaged the faith of many in our own lives. The cautionary tales of the Jehovah's Witnesses and the false prophecy of their day of judgement, or the Seventh Day Adventists with their false prophecy, did nothing to slow the zeal of Camping and his followers. The sensational apocalyptic teachings always backfire, and the false prophets with the day and the hour are only the most disastrous and the most visible. The dark teachers in American Christianity who call for the day of judgment with excitement have a much larger and more damaging effect in the long-term. Through them, our faith is associated with their frank desire to watch the world burn and to watch the sinners suffer. We have a word for this desire, and it is sadism. Those who call for military maneuvers to bring about the end of the world are beyond the pale.This kind of teaching is perverse, and all of the faithful are best advised to join the Church in prayer that God will delay His day of judgment: that we will all have time to reform our own lives and to make ourselves and the world itself holy and prepared for His coming. Let us reflect this Advent on the wisdom of the Church, and may we use it to banish these confused speculations and the disrepute they have brought on our holy faith.

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