The end of the world (May 21), has come and gone. Commentators of almost every stripe will have their moment of fun, bless them. Honestly, it’s fair game. The desire to resolve problems by apocalyptic intervention or escape from them by rapture is inherently dangerous and a good target for satire.
But beware of snobbery; keep in the way of charity. Seek always to understand. There is a tendency for culture to split between those who take its central symbols as in fact symbols, or metaphors, and those who take them literally. The educated classes, those with symbolic sophistication, regard the literalists with amused contempt, but this distinction can and should be viewed in a scientific, dispassionate way. I commend that task to my sociological friends.
We also will inevitably err in what we choose to take literally. Fr. Adam Thomas, in a marvellous post, quotes from C.S. Lewis the sense that God in God’s mercy must always take our meanings in the metaphorical sense:
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
( “A Footnote to all Prayers”)
The Bible is strong symbolic medicine in our culture. The teachings of Jesus make powerful prophetic statements about the end of time.
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed;
nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and you will not see it.
And they will say to you, ‘Lo, there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them.
For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of man be in his day.
But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of man.
They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.
Likewise as it was in the days of Lot—they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built,
but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all—
so will it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed.
On that day, let him who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away; and likewise let him who is in the field not turn back.
Remember Lot’s wife.
Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.
I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.
There will be two women grinding together; one will be taken and the other left. (Luke 17:20-35)
At remove of two millenia, with all that we know about their historical context, these great passages warn us against assuming an indefinite continuation of human history. They try to induce in us a sensitivity to crisis, an inner lightness with respect to our assumptions about the things and people that surround us, about our supposed possessions and ideas about the future.
These passages can be an embarrassment to “liberal” interpreters of the Gospel. If we deny their literal content, we still remain with the “symbolic” message that we should live as though the end were imminent. OK, this lends itself easily to platitudes in the vein of, “Make every day count,” “Live in the moment,” etc. Let’s push it a bit further. In these apocalyptic pronouncements I see a warning against the idolatry of history. I mean the assumption that the evil of existence, if it is to be overcome, will be overcome strictly through the medium of historical evolution.
This assumption, conscious or unconscious, is so pervasive as to be, plausibly, a defining trait of the modern world view. It is often called the doctrine or ideology of progress. If we call this idolatry, then it is linked to other recognizable types of modern idolatry: the idolatry of science and technology (the engines of progress), the idolatry of society and of its inevitable counterpart, the state (national or multiethnic), as the agents and protagonists of history. When we view history as the true narrative of human affairs, the prime actor is not individual but collective, an expansive notion of human society with its evolving structures of power and authority. The intellectual establishment is passionately critical of society and the state, of course, but that is because these are the entities or referents that truly matter. Toward what is called “religion,” and other prophetic strains of culture, it is condescending at best.
Note the peculiar neurosis that accompanies such idolatry. If we don’t actually observe that things are getting better, if it seems that progress has the constant by-product of ever more virulent and entrenched forms of evil, how do we respond? By elaborating more arcane and sophisticated intellectual frameworks, understandable only to (indeed, intended only for) a closed, self-maintaining academic and ideological elite, a priestly class if you will, which by this process becomes increasingly isolated even from the well-educated strata of the larger society. I think this is precisely a neurotic reaction, and you can see the actual neurosis come out in the typical fear (real or affected), contempt, and revulsion expressed by some academics for persons and attitudes outside of their domain.
As is well known, the Bible inveighs against idolatry in a wide range of meanings and contexts. There is a more general point to be made here, however. The Biblical narrative is about persons, whose stories are of paramount interest, and about a people, coherent enough that their relations maintain a familial or at least communal character (Gemeinschaft rather than Gesellschaft). The question asked persistently throughout the Bible concerns the relation of individuals and of the people to God. God also appears also eminently as an individual, and God’s relation to God’s people is personal, familial, communal. All the great drama of Biblical narrative turns on this conflicted relation. Can that be the source of its great disaccord with secular modernity, rather than any specific propositions, rules of behavior, or expressions of worldview?