Monday, March 31, 2008

Why I'm Not a Fundamentalist -- Part 5, Jesus' Return

I have seen many lists of the fundamentals over the years. At one point I was on the executive of an organization whose faith statement was fundamentalist in base (I said nothing about my objections, nobody asked to closely -- I was going for the community and the theological differences were not overriding that at that point in time). The fifth point has always been the acceptance of Christ's (imminent) return. I note that the Wikipedia page I referenced at the beginning of this series has another option that is a subset of Biblical literalism.

Christianity of course is all about living in the now and the not yet. We live in a world where the Reign of God is among us here and now but also is yet to come. And the yet to come is a point of contention.

For all of Christian history there have been those who expected to see the coming of the end-times within their lives. This includes Paul and, apparently, the Gospel writers. Every once in a while a new group or spokesperson arises claiming to know exactly when it will happen. And of course history shows us that every precise prediction has been wrong.

I personally have no trouble believing in some form of end-times/2nd Coming*/eschaton/parousia. Christian hope means looking forward to the Reign of God becoming more real. But I strongly believe that we are called to live in this world and not focus on what may happen in a new world. On a personal level this means that we live faithful/righteous lives not to win some heavenly reward after we die but because it is the right way to live. On a corporate level it means that rather than waiting for some cataclysmic change to happen we actively work to make the world we live in closer to the ideal. Why else do we pray weekly (or weakly) Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?

The other issue I have with much of the dialogue around the end times is the interpretation of it. I think people appear to have difficulty with what Apocalyptic language is. Instead of seeing it as metaphor and image it is taken as precise predictions of actual events. You can always re-interpret events in the day-to-day world and make them fit some part of that imagery. For centuries Christians have derided Judaism for "failing to understand their own Scriptures" and not seeing Jesus as the Messiah. In fact to make Jesus fit the Messianic passages of Jewish Scripture involves some re-interpreting. When we belong to a tradition that had to re-interpret the Scripture we inherited because our experience of the Messiah didn't fit a literal interpretation, why should we believe that the next step in God's Reign becoming more real would follow a literal interpretation of Apocalyptic imagery that was likely never meant to be taken literally?

When the eschaton comes, it is likely to be in a form unlike what we are expecting. I have no doubt that it will come. I just don't think we should be spending a lot of energy trying to calculate when and where.

*I have always found the term 2nd Coming of Christ wrong. The Christian story is of an Incarnation in a man who died and then was resurrected. That is already the 2nd coming in my books (assuming dead means dead and gone. Therefore I think the end-times would in fact be the 3rd Coming.

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