Thursday, October 28, 2010


Final Concepts of the End
When I wrote the book on apocalypse and science fiction, I relied heavily on the work of one Paul D. Hanson, and his book, “The Dawn of Apocalyptic.” Hanson has no real quibble with Buber’s schema, except that it does lead to view apocalyptic as a corruption of prophecy—by which Buber and others mean that apocalyptic has given up on the present order. Hanson argues to the contrary that prophecy and apocalyptic share the same essential vision: “Yahweh’s people restored as a holy community in a glorified Zion.”
I put it this way in the previous post: prophecy and apocalyptic share the same essential promise of God to his people, “I will be with you always, even to the end!”
So what is the difference between the two? Hanson describes it thusly: Prophecy is the “announcement to the nation of the divine plan for Israel and the world; witnessed by the prophet unfolding in the divine council; and translated into terms of plain history, real politics, and human instrumentality.”
Apocalyptic, on the other hand, is the “disclosure (usually esoteric) to the elect of the cosmic vision of Yahweh’s sovereignty as he acts to deliver the faithful; no longer disclosed in terms of plain history, real politics, and human instrumentality; because of a pessimistic view of reality, due to post-exilic conditions.”
The difference, of course, lies in the fact that apocalyptic no longer sees how God’s plan can be understood in terms of the human action needed to help bring it into being; i.e., there is no way to get there (Zion) from here (a broken world) by any usual means (politics).
Prophecy works in a world that works. One clear example was/is the prophetic presence of Martin Luther King. Another was the prophetic action of Eugene McCarthy, when he opposed LBJ in the presidential primaries.
Both their prophetic messages worked , not because people agreed totally with their “politics,” but because they saw beyond their actions and words to the deeper vision MLK and McCarthy had for the future of our nation. And people saw that there was a way to get there.
Apocalyptic does not work in that world—because that world no longer works in that world. And apocalyptic’s message is that is does no good to wait for a new “prophet” who will lead us; what we need to wait for is a new world. And we have to be ready when that new world comes. What so many of the readers of The Book of Revelation miss is exactly this point: it is not the end of the world we are waiting for, not even the end of the “old” world (although this would be an improvement); it is rather the coming of the new world we await.
Still, the passing of the old does “reveal” something to us. This, we will take up in the next post.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Beginning Concepts of the End
(I realize that the ending of my previous post may have terrified some readers out there. I do not want the old world “out there” to pass away. I want that to happen to the old world in my head. Ah, the joys of writing on the fly!)
So, to proceed along a more rational, analytical path, let me propose some tools I will use in talking about the end time.
The first one is this: there is a distinction to be made between prophecy and apocalyptic.
This is how Martin Buber (of I-Thou fame) characterizes the differences: Concerning the eschatology of the two (i.e., where it comes from and how each views future events unfolding), Buber says of prophecy that it is native and monistic. Prophecy is grounded in Israel’s monotheistic faith; it sees one being, Yahweh, responsible for all events. Of apocalyptic, he says it is foreign and dualistic. Apocalyptic is influenced by foreign thought, specifically a dualistic world view: Yahweh responsible for the good in the world, Satan, etc., responsible for the evil. In the end it all comes down to a struggle between those two forces.
Concerning the object of hope, prophecy describes it as the fulfillment of creation; apocalyptic as the dissolution of this creation (the world of Satan) by a different world (a new heaven and a new earth).
And concerning the judgment (what Yahweh says about the course of future events), prophecy says it is conditional: announced, but revocable; that is, it depends on how people respond to the word of God. If they believe and live according to the demands of God, all will be well. If they whore after false gods, their fate will be doom and despair. Apocalyptic, on the other hand, says of the judgment that it is final: unalterable, fixed and determinate. It will play out exactly as it has been revealed.
There are a couple of things that need to be said in commenting on this distinction—well, actually three:
1) As with all distinctions, this one over-simplifies. Not all prophecy is monistic, not all apocalyptic is dualistic. As a rule of thumb, whatever apocalyptic there is found in the canon (Hebrew and Christian) tends toward being monistic; whatever is found outside, tends toward being dualistic. And so forth down through the categories of “object of hope” and “judgment.”
2) Buber’s schema of the differences leads toward the view of apocalyptic as a corruption of prophecy. All I would be willing to concede is that sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Even further, sometimes prophecy has become so corrupt (see the tracts in Isaiah and Jeremiah against the false prophets) that new responses are demanded. (This will lead to my next post.)
3) If I were forced to reduce what I have learned about prophecy and apocalyptic to one statement, it would be this: Neither prophecy not apocalyptic are about God’s predictions, they are about God’s promise. And the core of that promise is this: I will be with you always, even to the end!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Are we at the End Time?

(I continue my examination of the end time)

Do we live in the “end time?”
Well, true to my training, I have to answer that by saying, “Yes, and No.” And, true to my stage in life, I have to answer that by saying, “My end time may not (indeed, will not) be the same as your end time.”
Allow me to explain. Frank Kermode many years ago wrote a seminal work in literary criticism called “The Sense of An Ending.” In it he postulated that the ‘ending’ of any literary work is what gave that work its deep meaning. That he argued it was the early gospel(s) that introduced this narrative drive to the literary world is neither here nor there. Nor, for the purposes of my analysis, is it necessary to limit his argument to the world of literature—that is, fiction or biography.
From the very beginning I have always thought that Kermode’s analysis explained to me what I sought in reading any book—whether philosophy, science, history, political science, theology, and so forth: I was captivated in good writing by the “narrative drive” of the argument; I wanted to follow the” story” as it unfolded; I wanted to be led from one point to another, until “in the end” I saw how it all fit together, how it all made sense.
So, we live in the end time in the sense that whenever we talk about things coming to a head, what we are doing is sensing that all that has gone before is culminating in this moment, and that this moment, what is happening now ,“explains” what has happened before.
This is what is so terrifying about the end time: it is always and only looking backward. But this is also what is so transforming about the end time: it is what frees us from the burden of the past and delivers us to the promise of the(completely unknown) future. Of course we honor this more often in the breech than in the observance. We don’t want the present to end, we don’t want anything to “happen” that would reveal what is really going and has been going on all along.
Having just recently celebrated my 70th birthday, I am well aware that my end time has more and more a personal element to it. But that is exactly what I want to celebrate in all what follows: I want the revelation; I want my old world to pass away, violently if needs be; and I want the new heavens and the new earth to surpass anything I have ever dreamed about.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The End Time--Finally!

The End Time—Finally! (Or, This Time I Really Mean It!)

Okay—so I was in a little funk for the last few months. Happened before; will happen again; and when it did/does/and will, I get through it by writing about what’s going on at the deepest level of my being—the level of the “Grand Explanation”, wherein I lay out the final meaning of life, the universe and everything .
You’d think I would have exhausted this genre by now. I did after all begin with the topic in my published dissertation: “Apocalypse ad Science Fiction: A Dialectic of Religious and Secular Soteriologies.” I was pleased when David Ketterer, author of “New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature’” called it “…the best theoretical treatment of science fiction currently available.” I had turned his treatment of the apocalyptic imagination on its head, by focusing on the readers’ expectations rather than on the writers’ extrapolations.
Ketterer’s response was indicative of the response the dissertation received in literary theory circles (it was well-received then and still to this day is so received and is being used in numerous college courses and scholarly studies of science fiction), while at the same time it was noted with passing (“dammed with faint praise”) or outright dismissed (as it was in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, on the grounds that it could not make up its mind whether it was a book of literary theory or a theological treatise). As the late Kurt Vonnegut would say often in his books, “So it goes.”
I went on to a glorious, even though unpublished, career of following up on that dissertation by choosing to focus on apocalyptic imagination rather than science fiction. I rarely read anything in that category any longer. Working through the “passivity” often associated with believers in the end times (i.e., we are waiting for God’s intervention), and arriving at length at the new category with which explore apocalyptic imagination, powerlessness, I slowly produced a corpus of works, beginning with the rather pretentiously named “The Praxis of Powerlessness: A Christological Reading of Emancipation”, in the late ‘80’s; a popularized version of that, “Doing the Powerless Thing”, wherein I extended that analysis to include our powerlessness over the natural world, in the early 2000’s; to a completion of that project (at least in my mind) by turning everything back to a reflection on the central theme of powerlessness embodied in a program I shall not name (hint, hint). That final analysis is ongoing and will never see the light of day in any of my writings—although all its components will.
I realize, of course, that in following the path I did I was trying to “prove” to the theological community that my dissertation at its deepest core did address theological issues as well as literary ones. But I am comfortable with that. Whatever it took to push me in a direction that let me explore issues that I was really interested in is fine by me.
Anyhow! Now I am back at the beginning: facing the end times. In most of the following entries I want to explore, and reconsider everything—I mean literally that—again. And I will begin with the end: where we all are right now!