This long-overdue installment of Imaging the Kingdom will be focusing on what I consider to be a healthy degree of agnosticism in the Christian faith, and I’d like to begin with a personal story. In my first year as a theological studies undergraduate student I became aware of an interesting issue within American Christianity: the age of the earth and the interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Coming from a more scientific background, accepting the idea that the universe originated with the Big Bang was no struggle for me. Belief in the God of creation and the discoveries of contemporary science were not contentious, unless of course those scientific conclusions depended entirely on an exclusive naturalism, a presupposed atheism that is just as certain of the non-existence of a deity as theism is of the existence of one. Despite claims of the purity and certainty of science and reason, I found these atheistic presuppositions to be more experienced-and-feeling-based, like a religion – but I digress.
Through my late exposure to American Evangelicalism I was confronted with another story, a story that claims with certainty despite strong scientific evidence (proof even!) that the earth alone is some 4.5 billion years old, that argues for a ‘young earth’ model. If the earth is only several thousand years old, then how could biological evolution have happened? Exactly. This view also claims that the ‘theory of evolution’ (as if emphasising ‘theory’ makes it less legitimate straight away) is a fabrication of the godless scientific community. While many evolutionary biologists have presupposed atheism—seeing evolution, as opposed to theistic creation, as a legitimate way of explaining the diversity of life on earth—I still found no significant tension between the concept of evolution and my belief in God. That may simply be a matter of my own ignorance, but indulge me.
So as a first year undergraduate student I was confronted with these ‘young earth’ views and I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with them. I decided to consult someone I trusted, someone whose name was synonymous with ‘wisdom’ in the seminary I attended: Ed Curtis. Dr Curtis was (and still is) a white-haired sagely Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies who specialised in the Hebrew language and Wisdom Literature. On top of this, prior to pursuing theology he studied physical science and worked as an engineer and physicist. I approached Dr Curtis during a theological staff-student lunch and shared my recent confrontation with the conservative Evangelical position on creation. He told me that he found himself confronted with the same tension, but in his gentle Texan-drawl he delivered a profound piece of wisdom that has stayed with me since: ‘If we only concerned ourselves with that which we can actually know we’d have enough on our plate.’
This reality puts a significant perspective on how we approach issues of doctrine, belief and practice as Christians. The ‘that which we can actually know‘ that to which Dr Curtis referred is essentially boiled down to the love that God has revealed to us so explicitly. In other words, as Christians we know that God loves the world that they created and the incarnation and giving of Jesus Christ in order to upend the power structures of this world is a profound demonstration of this love. Not only that, but in response to this love, empowered by God’s Spirit, we are called to love God and to love our neighbour. In fact, loving our neighbours is very much synonymous with loving God, as we hear in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV):
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”’
Truly, if we primarily concerned ourselves with caring for the holistic needs of all of those around us we would have plenty with which to occupy ourselves. That all sounds so beautiful, but that still leaves the issue of uncertainty wide open and Westerners don’t like uncertainty, right? A more troubling thing is that these adamant ‘young earth’/’anti-evolutionary’ views are not bound the sidelines of public discussion – the prominent Republican political figures Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (
the latter two are currently competing for the Republican Party’s nomination for president) all hold to and promote conservative Evangelical views on these issues. In our society these people have a right to hold these views, but the general intolerance demonstrated by many who hold such views only seems to promote needless division.
So what happened? How did we get to this point? At one point our Enlightened Western world accepted that through the power of our good science and our right reasoning we can solve anything; we can have certainty. Over the last few centuries, the findings of science and reason began to challenge the way that we understand Christianity, from Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to remove all things supernatural from New Testament in writing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in 1820 to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book The Grand Design, which asserts that the origin of the universe need not be explained by the existence of God but by physical laws alone. In reaction to these assertions, many Christians (primarily, though not always, those of a more conservative brand) have outrightly rejected science and reason, or have tended toward developing their own exhaustive analytical philosophies and pseudoscience.
While there is no room for half-baked, reactionary ‘science’ in the marketplace of ideas, providing a rational defense for Christian belief/theology is not entirely out of the question. But what I’ve come to appreciate is the freedom to simply not know. In other words, the inevitable transcendence of God (the inability for humanity to know everything about God) means the inevitable ignorance of humanity. The sheer otherness of other people should be enough to help us realise our inevitable, eternal ignorance. Even our inability to know ourselves fully shows us our ignorance. We don’t need to be insecure about uncertainty and paradox. It’s okay to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ – it’s even okay to answer, ‘I don’t know and I probably never will.’
Over the last few years I’ve engaged with this issue of agnosticism with a close philosopher friend who directed me to the eminent 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein stresses the importance of holding onto epistemological humility in Philosophical Investigations (426):
Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series and he sees into human consciousness. For us, of course, these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.
In the actual use of expression we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.1
It seems that Wittgenstein is telling us that both our language and our ability to know are significantly limited, thus necessitating a self-reflective hint of humility in how we argue for/hold onto various ideas. I see this fitting perfectly with a healthy Christian agnosticism, as Barth expresses in his Dogmatics in Outline,
Christian faith has to do with the object, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of which the Creed speaks. Of course it is of the nature and being of this object, of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action.2
This is not to say that we stop our pursuit of the knowledge of God, but that while we pursue a better knowledge—a knowledge that, when coupled with action, has the potential to transform lives and deliver those who are oppressed from their oppressors—we must always hold onto that which is most central to the Christian faith: the grace and love of God. We can and should disagree with one another, as diversity is part of what potentially makes the Church so effective, counter-cultural, welcoming and healthy, but we should also take very seriously the fact that none of us will ever know everything.
We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess on baptism for the remission of sins. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.3
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), 127e.
2. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, translated by Colin E. Gunton (London: SCM Press, 1949), 15.
3. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 33.
Maybe, but I’m suspecting no. [Greg adds: Suspicion was correct.] Readers will no doubt have heard about a Christian group going around, informing the world that 21 May 2011 is the day that God will issue his divine judgment upon the earth. This is said to include an event called the ‘Rapture’, in which Christians will be taken from the earth before God begins a period of judgment that is called the ‘Great Tribulation’ or the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’. Their efforts have spawned a waves of both curious attraction and intense ridicule (which they expect, going up against the ‘Antichrist’ – see 1 John 2:18). One public Facebook event, ‘Post rapture looting’, has, by this afternoon, amassed more than half a million ‘attendees’ prepared to take full advantage of the potential ‘end’ and illegally acquire new stereos in the event of a ‘Rapture’.
If I was going to even begin to really analyse the many facets of this convoluted and heterodox belief system it would take thousands upon thousands of words and I suspect that out of my own personal frustration I’d actually want the world to end after all. I am not trying to pick on these Christians, as I am certain that they truly believe the things that they are preaching, and that if I was convinced the world was going to end on 21 May 2011 I could only hope to demonstrate the passion and fervency to make that fact known like they are. But I really think they’re wrong.
Where do they get these ideas? Well, without getting into the interpretive and mathematical gymnastics required to extrapolate ‘THE END OF THE WORLD IS 21 MAY 2011’ from the Bible, it’s important to know why these people have been looking for this date.
We must begin our brief exploration of this issue in the Book of Revelation, which is probably one of the most misunderstood sections of Scripture. In American Evangelical Christianity (especially within the belief systems called Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism) there is a widespread view that the Book of Revelation foretells the end of the world in very literal terms. What is meant by ‘literal’, I can’t quite grasp, but it’s some way of applying a particular interpretive method described as ‘literal’ that is a somewhat willy nilly version of what we might understand as literal-minded (according to the OED, ‘having a literal mind; characteristic of one who takes a matter-of-fact or unimaginative view of things’, the term ‘literal’ being used ‘to denote that [an accompanying noun] has its literal sense, without metaphor, exaggeration, or inaccuracy; literally so called.’).
According to this interpretation (and there are many variations), the Book of Revelation is entirely futuristic and eschatological, that is, something that takes place at the end of all things. I’m not interested in exploring the legitimacy of this view right here, right now, but I will say that some startling insights for the Book of Revelation come from reading 1 and 2 Maccabees (considered apocryphal by most Protestant denominations) help illuminate the Second Temple Jewish context of the New Testament and the Book of Revelation and lead to some dramatically different interpretations of things like the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’ and the ‘Antichrist’.
Either way, this literalistic/futuristic view believes that God will bring judgment on the earth according to a complex set of events and periods of time. One of these events, as mentioned earlier, is called the ‘Rapture’. The concept of the ‘Rapture’ is primarily based upon one reference in Scripture, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18, which states,
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
This passage provides those who hold to the idea that the Book of Revelation informs us that God will judge this world during a period of ‘Great Tribulation’ with a bit of relief: they won’t have to endure this period of judgment. But in light of the Second Temple Jewish context of the Book of Revelation, I don’t believe in this future ‘Seven Year Tribulation’, and my disbelief is not a result of a lack of faith in God or an interpretation that isn’t ‘literal’ enough. I merely believe that the best understanding of this issue within the Bible would indicate that the great tribulation in the Book of Revelation 4-19 is a reference to the occupation and oppression that the Jews experienced in the Second Temple Period (i.e. the ruler of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus IV Epiphanes is the ‘beast’ from Revelation 13:5-8; see 1 Maccabees 1:20-28).
While I generally hold to this preteristic (as opposed to futuristic) view of Christian eschatology, I do believe that God will bring about his kingdom in its fullness at some point in the future. I certainly wouldn’t say that these doomsday folk are wrong in believing that there is something significant to come, but I do have trouble with their views on what that looks like and how/when it happens. With regard to the pressing issue of time (being that I may only have 24 hours before the end [15 in Australia!]), the time of God’s full bringing of his kingdom, the end of the authorities of this earth, Matthew’s Gospel (24:36) records Jesus as saying,
But about that day and hour [of my return] no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
I do not believe that the arithmetic these doomsday folk have derived from the Bible to draw the conclusion that the end of the world is tomorrow is actually faithful in any way to the content and purpose of Scripture. Even if the Bible was explicitly clear about this date, when tomorrow rolls by without the end of the world, God would not be made a liar. God is not the Bible. The Bible is a result of God inviting his people into his story. St Paul writes that no one will know when the end will come, as it will come as a ‘thief in the night’ (1 Thessalonians 5:2)
I don’t think we should waste our time with conjectures about when the unknowable will come to pass. Every Christian generation from the Apostles to our present generation has anticipated the immanent end, but no Christian generation has ever been the Church that loves and serves in the power of God’s Spirit; the Church that fights for the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised; the Church that extends to all people an open invitation into God’s loving family through the wholly effective death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the Church that has become what it is called to be. That is our goal and that is our priority. I hope that if tomorrow isn’t the end, these doomsday folk will experience the love and grace of God in a way that will encourage them to divert their incredible faith and energy back to the task at hand.
(Originally posted at Things & Stuff)