A discussion aimed at Christians of my own generation (Part III)
When we hear views of this sort from former clergymen or student leaders or missionaries, we might ask ourselves this question: What are we actually hearing here? What is actually going on in these attempts at self- correction?
It may be more than merely an arrière pensée about the teaching of Paul and John. It might be a profoundly personal, late-in-life embarrassment about an earlier expression of faith. Sometimes people are thrust forth into “full time Christian service” only to find that the task required so much more than enthusiasm! Those caught in this situation might well have been entrapped; was their “full-time Christian service” supported as it needed to be by those doing the sending?
It might also have to be concluded that the “all for Jesus” commitment was made by one who was totally unprepared to meet the dominant cultural and political pressures with a Christian view of life in this world? Was the choice – whether to go out to the mission field or to stand up at the student demonstration against the war in Vietnam and declare one’s faith in Christ Jesus – an attempt to assert in public one’s own self-sufficiency? Of course the spirit of toleration, with which post-modern humanism says it is imbued, respects “spiritual” choices? Of course it does, but then “spirituality” can look very much like a hobby, and what happens to those involved when, in retrospect, “missionary service” seems to have presupposed a presumptive spiritual elitism?
After all, the generation of this latter-day reservation about “Christianity in my younger days”, seems to arise from a later-in-life cross-examination of one’s former way of viewing things. Of course we may be justified in acknowledging our own presumptions, but why should we then proceed to read that back into what the Biblical writings tell us about the lives of Paul and John and what they taught? The common attempt to pin-point Paul’s and John’s misunderstandings about the second coming of Christ (i.e. that they are supposed to have believed it would happen in their own lifetimes or at least a few years after they had left), may actually find its true root in a change in attitude to a particularly misleading theology, a change in a theologically-formed attitude to one’s own theology. Is the problem then that one has assumed that a part of the theologian’s task is to tell us what the future holds? Could it be that it is that presumption which lands so many Christians in deep trouble later in life? If John and Paul were wrong about the return of Christ, might they not have been wrong about other things as well, other clauses we have formed into the Apostles’ Creed?
This latter-day “reserve” also seems to coincide with a deeply embedded suspicion of fundamentalist readings of the Bible. Is it not “fundamentalism” that has affixed itself to various phases of what is called “western imperialism”? In Christian circles to this day, there are still fierce ideological battles waged between advocates of alternative millenarian views – whether these be a-, pre-, post- or whatever. In that context, theological approaches to the interpretation of the Biblical literature have persistently tried to adjust Biblical teaching by construing it in terms deemed relevant. And for many the prevailing assumption is that it is the results of historical research that is normative for our understanding of the Bible. Presumably, the Bible cannot be read and understood without the results of such research.
And so we confront many theological attempts to re-read the New Testament in our day. Some Christians will find themselves totally compromised by overseas military “interventions” commissioned by their own western governments and particularly so when such “interventions” are justified by appeals to the Bible. And then the New Testament is read as implicitly opposed to the idolatry of Caesar-worship, and so we confront the question of whether it should be read in toto as an anti-imperialist tract. To do so would seem to countenance, on Biblical terms, a political disaffiliation with such foreign intervention as a matter of course. And we see the emergence of a way of reading the writings of the New Testament, particularly Paul’s Letter to the Romans and John’s Apocalypse, with such “deconstruction” in mind. But does such an approach to the reading of the Bible therefore lead to the promotion of a distinctively Christian or Biblically-directed politics? No it doesn’t. More often than not, it leads instead to forms of citizenships that are more concerned with allying Christianity against a common foe (in this case imperialism) than with the long-term and laborious work that would give expression to an authentic Christian political option.
In this context, is it any wonder that John’s Apocalypse becomes a book of coded messages? Its alleged “underground” message is understood to cast a spell upon Caesar and all imperialists that follow in his train. It may not be cloak and dagger stuff but it does assume that the Book’s obscurities are there by a conscious design. But when this Bible book called “Revelation” is read in terms of this presumed theological intention, it conveniently and ambiguously supports two sides of the same theological argument – one fundamentalist view which supports American imperialism and its world-wide aspirations, and the other which is opposed to imperialism because it sees Paul and John to be arch critics of the Caesar cult, presumed to be the fastest growing religion in the Roman world at that time.
Thus the world-view of Paul and John, as derived from their writings, is represented as a theology to be compared and contrasted with the alternative theological frameworks that have emerged – seemingly triumphant – on the pages of such writers after 2000 years. It is assumed that theology constitutes the defense of a credible Christian life. We, just like Paul and John, have to construe our context to make our lives meaningful and so, “theology” becomes the means by which we are supposed to do this. Reading and expounding the Bible becomes a matter of Biblical exegetes mutually recounting their own “encounter” with Christ through the text of scripture, or at least that is the confessional gloss this approach gives to this culture of deconstructive re-reading.
This then is the kind of taken-for-granted understanding of religious thinking, also of the thinking that would concern itself with the Bible, that with great confidence makes pronouncements about the failure of the eschatological expectations of both Paul and John. Presumably these leaders of the early church, unlike today’s theologians basking in the wisdom of our more enlightened time, had not yet learned that they could not predict the future. Their naïve “theologies” were well-intentioned but ill-conceived. But by means of common sense (i.e. our own rational reflection) we can still receive, or better retrieve, what is of lasting significance and spiritually uplifting, from these writings and do so to our spiritual benefit. The contemporary church stands in need of such a theological orientation to make it happen. That is the prevailing view.
And it is a view with which I cannot agree. I hope to demonstrate this alternative way of “reading” John’s Apocalypse in the pages that follow.
Here one can gain access to the complete document.
This is the third in a series of eight posts.