Monday, May 23, 2011

Apocalypse Not Just Now

Part of the unacknowledged problem of Harold Camping is right here in this CBS sub-headline:

May 20, 2011
How Harold Camping marketed the Rapture
Self-made prophet with $117 million radio network spreads worldwide message that the Apocalypse will begin at 6 p.m. ET Saturday
Harold Camping, as CBS goes on to point out, is "a civil engineer and self-taught Biblical sage." Of course, "self-taught" and "sage" are, or at least should be, a contradiction in terms, like "Jumbo Shrimp" or "Military Intelligence."

No, seriously.

There are no "self-taught" sages, not in the sense of learning from their own store of knowledge, and there is no wisdom that is not gathered from and approved by, the larger community, and by community I don't mean self-selected groups of persons, i.e., "followers." We know what's happened to the followers of Harold Camping, the ones who approved of his sagacity:

"I don't understand why nothing is happening. It's not a mistake. I did what I had to do. I did what the Bible said."
Poor Mr. Fitzpatrick has become the poster child for Camping's disappointed followers:

In New York's Times Square, Robert Fitzpatrick of Staten Island said he was surprised when the six o’clock hour simply came and went. He had spent his own money to put up advertising about the end of the world.

“I can’t tell you what I feel right now,” he said, surrounded by tourists. “Obviously, I haven’t understood it correctly because we’re still here.”
That community almost represents Godel's theorem of incompleteness, as their method of reasoning has produced questions their method cannot provide answers for; that is, "What is the world doesn't come to an end?" They refused to accept that as a possibility. Some of them still do:

Family Radio's special projects coordinator, Michael Garcia said he believed the delay was God's way of separating true believers from those willing to doubt what he said were clear biblical warnings.

"Maybe this had to happen for there to be a separation between those who have faith and those who don't," he said. "It's highly possible that our Lord is delaying his coming."
I'm reminded of the story in the gospel of John when Jesus addresses God and God answers from heaven, but some people hear the voice of God, and some only hear distant thunder. And I'm also reminded that "apocalypse" doesn't mean "catastrophic ending of the world in pain and turmoil," but more simply "revelation." It is the promised revelation that every eye will see, and every ear hear, that is usually anticipated in any eschaton. Surely there was an apocalypse this weekend; and just as surely, some only heard distant thunder. The difference is in my understanding, and the community that provides an explanation to me.

When "I" haven't understood "it" correctly, it is the community that supplies the answer and even surrounds one with the comfort. You can understand incorrectly and make a mistake in your life choice; you can understand incorrectly and make a mistake in your marriage choice; you can understand incorrectly in so many ways, and there are no bootstraps by which you can lift yourself out of that problem you have created. There is only the community. There is only the rest of the world.

"World," of course, has taken on a new connotation in modern times. "World" now means the entire community of humanity dwelling on all the continents; but we can no more imagine that community than we can literally imagine the 19 million people who live in New York City. We can't even imagine the crowd they would make could they assemble in one place; it's nothing more than a number, one we know is large because we compare to other, equally abstract, numbers. We no more live in the "world" today than our ancestors did, than did the people of Jesus' time. We live in a place, and we imagine the world as some extension of what we know. The world is too big, too vast, to incomprehensible at once, to be a community for anyone. But community is not limited to just the people we know, either.

"Community" cannot be a wholly self-selected group, although that principle has become one of the bedrocks of Protestantism. The revelation is never known to an individual; the revelation is known to all, and the community needs skeptics just as it needs doubting Thomases, just as it needs Peters to balance Pauls. Mr. Camping is "bewildered" and "mystified" now because he is a self-taught Biblical interpreter who draws inspiration from his own predilections, not from the discipline and decisions of a community. He is a community of one, and only those who think as he does have any importance for him. That sounds to some like the very definition of a religious community but it isn't; it isn't at all.

Community is more than the people you know, but less than the world. It is the people you can reasonably be in relationship to, but that doesn't have to be just the people you can possibly know. Christians speak of "the Church" and can mean anything from the body judicatory that ordains or authorizes priests, pastors, sacraments, and doctrines, to the "clouds of witness" which are believers in time and across both time and space. What the community cannot be is a group cut off from the presence and the knowledge of that larger group. It cannot be a self-selected body convinced of the rightness of its cause because it likes that cause. That's like building a tent with only one main pole. No matter how tall the pole, or how sturdy, it cannot hold up a tent large enough to include all the people who need to be inside it. And "need" is a crucial aspect of community; a community must not only be the people who want to be there, it must be the people who need to be there. Not necessarily for their sake, but for the sake of the community. The community needs people just as people need a community.

I was watching yet another filmed version of "Murder on the Orient Express" as I worked on this, and in this version Poirot, upon discovering the identities of the murderers, tells them that the judge and jury cannot appoint themselves. By the same token, neither can the religious leader. But that's precisely what Harold Camping did. And apparently he is figuring out there are consequences to being self-appointed:

Before May 21, many believers quit their jobs, left their families and gave their savings to Family Radio, which then sent out caravans and put up billboards announcing the end. Evans, the Family Radio board member, says now that the date has passed, all they can do is pick up and move on.

"I don't know what the future holds for Family Radio or for any of us," he says. "We just have to pray that God will be merciful."

Evans says he hopes the organization will repay people who gave their money to the cause. But at this point he can't guarantee it.
There is something bitterly ironic about hoping for God's mercy for yourself after expecting God's cosmic wrath being visited on everyone else. But then there is an appalling strangeness to the mercy of God. That's another consequence of a self-appointed community: you set yourself apart from everyone else and declare your group protected and privileged over all others, if only because it is "yours." Which is yet another warning against doing so. We do not know God in a vacuum, nor in a self-contained unit of our own making. We know God in the world. The sad followers of Harold Camping learned that lesson this weekend; at least, I hope and pray they did.

And the world is not laughing with them; it is laughing beside them.

P.S. Oh, and now it's October 21, 2011 for the "end." See you then.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:24 PM

    Saturday night, while just about everyone on the blogs was mocking and slanging The Staple Singers' "It's Gonna Rain" kept going through my head.

    False prophets were warned about. There's there's nothing about this that's a surprise. I hope the deceived find their way but it will happen again.

    "We live in a place, and we imagine the world as some extension of what we know. The world is too big, too vast, to incomprehensible at once, to be a community for anyone. But community is not limited to just the people we know, either."

    Yes, we use words and don't even know that we construct metaphors and the reason we do that is because we can't say what it is we're really talking about but we think it's something like something else. Our entire address of these issues has to rely on metaphors because the reality of our experience, the certainty that we've experienced it isn't matched with the erudition to know what that experience was and what it meant. The most profound thing we can know is that it means we have to try to be more intentionally just and kind without a self-interested motive. That's more profound than anything we can articulate.

    Anthony McCarthy