I have recently been thinking through one model of how we respond when our belief system no longer coheres with the world around us, with our experiences. This is the ground of constructive theology.
A great example is the shifting “doctrine of God” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Layers of text show us a shifting understanding of YHWH. God begins as the warrior/tribal god of the Moses people that leads them out of Egypt and assists them in conquering the Canaanites. By the time of the Babylonian Exile, God has been reconceived as the Creator, the God of all nations. Faced with repeated defeat, the Israeli cultus could either abandon its god as weak, or change its understanding of God. The “doctrine of God” continued to change. It was transformed by Hellenism, by neo-Platonism, by the Enlightenment.
This theological trajectory represents one strategy for the crisis of incoherence. The other strategy is the prophetic call, the requirement that we change our experience in the world to bring it in line with our theology. We might think of the Civil Rights movement (and its predecessor, the Abolitionist movement) as one example of this strategy.
The final strategy is apocalyptic. I have been working this out in a number of papers, but the basic idea is that when the tension between experience and theology has become so great as to cause cognitive dissonance, and neither of the above listed strategies will resolve the crisis, reality (experience) is marginalized. Since one can assume that certain events in the real world are not responsive to prophetic demands (earthquakes, military defeat, plague), this is primarily an issue when theology has become too rigid.
The period after the Exile, especially the Hellenistic age, is a great example of this move. In the rise of apocalyptic thought, exemplified in the Book of Daniel, we see an abandonment of “real world” strategies. The “world” is understood as imperfect or corrupt, and our theology only need cohere with an “ideal world” as imagined by the apocalyptic author.
The resulting theology may well serve as a anesthetic, but it cannot motivate a people to be involved in the world, except where so doing will bring about the eschaton, the manifesting of the ideal world. And this is almost always seen as a crisis event, bloodshed and destruction.
Those who hold an apocalyptic theology in today’s world have no reason to work for peace, for ecologic sustainability. For them, actions that accelerate the crisis are good. They are among the elect, they need not be worried.
Today’s world is in crisis. Since the bombs first dropped on Japan, we have rapidly moved towards the destruction of humankind and all life on earth. Scientists tell us that this generation of children will live to see the oceans die. The “Left Behind”crowd must be rejoicing in the destruction and injustice so evident in human action.
Progressive Christians must renounce apocalyptic theologies as inadequate guides for living in the world. Like many important scholars, theologians, and clergy persons of the past, going all the way back to the Patristic period, we must question the canonicity of apocalyptic texts in Scripture. Martin Luther had his doubts, so can we. The Revelation of John and the Book of Daniel, both fictions, have little place in our pulpits. And when they are used it must be done with extreme care.
Apocalyptic as a theological strategy is dangerous. I am still trying to understand how this relates to other forms of eschatological thought, to Jesus’ own pronouncements of the kingdom. Surely Jesus’ call for social justice represents a theological model of eschatology that does not accelerate crisis!