A discussion aimed at Christians of my own generation (Part II)
There is a common mythology that has taken hold among peoples whose ancestors were attentive to the Gospel. It is a view that dominates those who continue to seek to live as Christians after having been introduced to the Gospel from their attendance at public worship, Sunday School, youth club or student group. The mythology grabs hold of people who have lived the Christian life with significant self-sacrifice. As they get older, gaining respect for service rendered, they pause and reflect. They are induced to think of themselves as being somewhat naïve in their earlier years. Apparently experience and struggles have taught them to see things in a clearer light. At least that is what they come to believe. Somehow, in their self-examination, they see themselves preparing to face God’s judgement in the life after this one. They presume to begin the process by passing judgement upon themselves. With such a mindset they come to believe that the passage of time, and their own experience of life during their lifetime, has given them this greater clarity (a possible Pauline antidote to this predisposition may be found in I Corinthians 4:3 – “I don’t even pass judgement upon myself”).
Sometimes the mythology comes from out of their own thinking about the Gospel, about the faith they have sought to pass on. They think and feel there is an anomaly that goes to the very heart of their faith, their trust in the Bible as God’s word. This train of thought (I might even call it mythological) goes something like this:
If Paul or the writer of Revelation were alive today, the first thing we would have to say to them, in relation to all the things they wrote about, is that they were obviously wrong. Why? Because it has been so clearly proved by the passage of time that their expectations about God’s Kingdom were sadly mistaken on one very fundamental point: the Kingdom of God, which they so clearly believed to be then just around the corner (see Rev 1:3), has not appeared. And so, since on this matter these writers have proved to be unreliable, it casts a shadow upon everything else they have written. The mythology is not so dogmatic as to say that all of their teaching needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but it does imply that if their teaching is to be of benefit to us then we need to critically re-examine their writings with this mistake of theirs in mind.
This is the mental reservation of the missionary couple who, in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, were busily serving in Taiwan, the Solomon Islands or New Guinea. They look back from the perspective of the new millenium, as a new generation of leaders have come to the fore in their denomination and wonder what’s left of their mission organisation. Instead of evangelism and bible teaching these organisations are now maintained with the assistance of aid from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in “aid and development” programmes. They therefore find themselves interpreting their previous “mission field” efforts in a new way. Perhaps there is an element of embarrassment in this reflection. After all, evangelism and bible teaching is interpreted in their church circles as the kind of activities of dogmatic fundamentalists and that has surely been superseded by later enlightened post-colonial ideas.
Their views are often an ambiguous mix. Their denominations pay them some respect but they now see that their previous stirling efforts in Bible translation and Bible-school teaching, respecting the languages of the people they served, have merely prepared the way for western cultural dominance. Increasingly, these elderly dedicated Christians are encouraged to see “mission work” in terms of a primitive form of “aid and development” and hear continually about the fatal misunderstandings that led to missionary activity in former times. The exposition of the Bible they now hear regularly proclaimed from the pulpits in their church, if their church still has need of a pulpit, leads them step-by-step to reinterpret “love of neighbour” in terms of “capacity building” and respect for the “identity” of the “other”. Embracing those who are “other” is the only way to overcome the imperialistic and colonial ideology that motivated “mission field” efforts and historically compromised any efforts for a more enlightened Christian understanding.
This is the mental reservation of the one-time evangelical union leader of the 1960s and 1970s, who then gained a reputation as a fearless Bible-study leader from the leaders of the movement, and began a nation-wide student ministry. Gaining doctoral qualifications in sociology and theology this former Christian student leader passed through successive stages of critical functionalsm, Marxism, feminism until finally recognising just how much this intellectual trajectory had presupposed the dominance of the intellect over all other human atrributes, became an advocate of post-modern “spirituality”, the theological advisor of a denominational synod for ecumenical and inter-faith issues.
Now, how are we to respond to this pervasive (mythological) mental reservation (arrière pensée)? How do we deal with this mental set about an imputed failing in the “theologies” of Paul and John. We will note that one thing that needs to be kept in mind when considering this theological exposé is the dogmatic assumption that Paul and John were actually writing as theologians, that their writings are a collection of theological treatises. That is an error from which many other common errors arise.
Is the Kingdom for which we pray “Thy Kingdom come!” and of which Jesus has been announced King by being raised from the grave, shaken because of the passage of time? Do the scriptures anywhere give support to this view of time? Is time merely some kind of an independent variable that, by its own power eluding our grasp, causes whatever was once “so surely believed among us” to meet its fate in dissolution? Has the Kingdom been delayed in its coming because our own birth and life-time has proved that Jesus has been wrong to say,
Surely, I am on the way! (Revelation 22:20)?
Are God’s promises to be subverted by the passage of time? Does not Peter address this myth in specific terms, clearly dismissing it as a presumption of naked unbelief:
For what so evidently escapes the notice of those so self-assured in this matter is this: there were heavens a long, long time ago, and there was also an earth, brought into being by God’s word of command… (2 Peter 3:5).
Peter is the one, we recall, whose view of the time-line of God’s Kingdom was completely upstaged by His Master’s death and resurrection.
God forbid, Lord, that shall never happen! (Matthew 16:22)
Though all the others take offence and fall away, I’m loyal to you forever! Even if I had to suffer death by your side, I shall never ever disown you! (Matthew 26:33-5).
So, his later view of such mocking – and that is what he calls it – is that it simply lacks true belief. He ought to have known. He, too, seriously misunderstood how the Kingdom comes and that meant he had lived with the burden of basic misunderstanding about how the Creator continues to work in mercy as He always has done. That is, he lived with such a burden until Jesus, by His Spirit, eased it off his back and he was enabled to give leadership to the company of Jesus’ disciples.
The Lord keeps His promises and fulfils His purposes in us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And further, has not Jesus proclaimed Himself to us as He who lives henceforth, forever more? Indeed, do we not now pray “Thy Kingdom come on earth as in heaven!” because by rising He has proclaimed to us that He is our King, that He is the One to whom our lives are now subject in every last detail? Is not the profession that “The Lord has risen” part of a faith that He lives forever more? Does not the Gospel assure us that because He lives we can thereby face tomorrow? And just as important, we can face today when we have to start to think about what’s coming up the day after tomorrow.
So, given that this is the Christian message, the more relevant question is this: why the emergence of this presumed lack of confidence about the teaching of Paul and John? How does it arise and how is it connected with the alleged delay in the trumpet’s blast announcing Christ’s appearing?