Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Rapture - the ultimate blasphemy

I want to start with an apology for things being so quiet here. I keep meaning to write and I have notes and some semi-completed posts but nothing is ready for posting. I've also started a private blog where I record all manner of ideas and thoughts  and personal impressions in a quite rough way. It will remain private open only to one or two others. For the astrologically minded it's also interesting to note that I have had a lot of transit activity in my 12th house of late and Jupiter remains there throughout the year so this kind of hidden writing world is probably an apt reflection of these transits. In addition, I also have been busy with a number of community and writing projects. The writing projects are all due for publication down the track next year again reflecting the the transit pattern too.

But I'm taking time out from all of that and writing a public post here today because of the international brouhaha over the  end of the world predictions of a silly elderly rich man in the US, Harold Camping (!). He declared that the Rapture would take place at 6pm on Saturday 21 May and from what I can make out, progressively time zone by time zone. What's more because he is a rich man he spent millions of dollars in an international advertising campaign promoting his message. By the Rapture, he referred to the idea, abroad in Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal movements that there will be a wholesale lifting off from the planet of the true believers, the saved, the born again to be taken up to Heaven by Jesus, body and soul (but apparently without clothing), there to wait until the Second Coming when they will return, a kind of immortal elite, to rule the planet alongside Jesus for a thousand years. Camping (!) also declared that the world itself would end in October and that for the vast majority of us left behind the coming months would be a dire time of disasters, misery and oppression before the Second Coming wipes the slate clean and we are all, presumably, cast into Hell. From his timetable, Camping (!) clearly holds a kind of pre-Wrath Rapture position unlike most Rapture believers who hold a Pre-Tribulation or Mid-Tribulation view. Camping (!) is also innovative  in that he teaches that the main trigger for the Rapture is the amount of homosexuality in the world. That it didn't happen I presume means that we queer folks have to work harder to make sure that this planet is riddled with homosexuality through and through.

Many people might think Camping (!) a fool and wonder why I would waste my time writing about this. He is a fool and the millions he spent on his promotion campaign could have been much better spent. He would have made a much better testament to his Lord if he had followed the Gospel dictum to sell all he had (no small fortune) to give it to the poor and embrace a life of poverty and prayer and works of mercy. Instead he traduced the gospels utterly and brought Christianity into complete disrepute. The most depressing thing is that he has played into simple media binaries, in this case Christians vs unbelievers/secularists/atheists/humanists with Camping (!) himself as a key exemplar of what Christianity is all about. And of course Camping (!) is an exemplar of a type of Christianity or I would say a perversion of Christianity that has taken root in the US and, with the US global hegemon, is spreading throughout the world, like a noxious toxic bloom. In my opinion it's a heresy of the worst order, a vile pernicious heresy that perverts and inverts the central Christian message. Thanks to Camping (!)  unfortunately a large proportion of of the world's population believe that this pernicious theology is normative, traditional Christianity. It's not, it's a 19th century aberration that took root in the United States in the mid-19th century in a time of major transformation and upheaval.

It's all based on a single word in the Christian scriptures. It's found in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and in the Greek in which it was written, the word is harpagesometha, 'we shall be taken away' or 'we shall be caught up', derived from the Greek verb harpazo. In the Latin translation the word is rapiemur, from the verb rapio. In the passage, Paul is talking about the very end, the final things of the world, the Second Coming and he says that when it occurs, first the dead will be raised up from their graves and then the living will be caught up from the earth to meet Jesus as he returns at the end of the age, which Paul and the audience for this letter considered imminent. The issue that is being addressed here is not an elaborate end times scenario, that we see in the modern Rapture cult but rather the concerns by some in the Thessalonian community that those who have died will  not participate in the final moment of the Lord's return, or even, possibly by some, that those who are living who are alive at the Second Coming are in some way better or more fortunate than those who have died. This passage is written to disabuse  these Thessalonian Christians of such concern, or conceit. And the thing is, its context is the last things, the last day, the end of the world as we know it, the transformation and reconciliation of heaven and earth, that has always been key to the Christian proclamation. And throughout Christian history that's how it's always been understood and still is for the vast majority of the Christian world.

However, in the 19th century, that changed. In the 19th century we see the rise of industrial capitalism, a process which began in the late 18th century. The UK was the main centre of this process, a time of major dislocation, uprooting and misery for the masses. It was an 'apocalyptic' time and, of course, the great apocalyptic event heralding the new industrial age was the French Revolution, which brought to an end the ancien regime in Europe based on centralised dynastic monarchies, quasi feudalism and commercial capitalism. The ancien regime's death throes outlived the spectacle of Republican France, forming, generating all manner of strange religious movements. As I said, the eye of the cyclone that was the new industrial capitalist order was the UK and it was in the UK that we get two figures who develop elaborate eschatological systems on the belief that end of the age was imminent, Edward Irving and John Nelson Derby. Both of them in their thinking deployed a standard Protestant trope that the entire existing Christian church in all its forms was thoroughly corrupt and had departed from its true form which had to be restored. Ironically it meant that Irving, a Presbyterian/Church of Scotland minister embraced a form of apocalyptic High Church Catholicism, founding the Catholic Apostolic Church. Irving apparently taught a form of multi-staged end times theology which included a taking away of the saved at some time before the second coming. It's Derby, however, who stands behind the elaborate end time patho-theologies which underpin all the Rapture talk today. Derby, in contrast to Irving, was an Anglican/Church of Ireland priest, who seems to have had strong anti-Catholic views and held a Calvinist theology. He went the other way to Irving, leaving his Church too, but founding the highly evangelical Plymouth Brethren movement. Derby developed a highly elaborate historicalised schema called Dispensationalism as a frame for his end time millennialist Rapture theology. Key to Derby's thinking is the grossly heretical idea that the Divine plan behind Jesus' earthly mission somehow failed because he was rejected by the Jews and that the Church is a kind of Divine afterthought to the main game, which is the re-establishment of a Jewish kingdom ruled by Jesus. We live now in the Church Age, the age of Grace, but God still plans to fulfil his overall plan which is to establish the millennial Jewish kingdom. So in the Last Days, when the Jews have been restored to the land of Palestine, the Church Age will be ended and the Church itself taken away in the Rapture before the final Tribulation takes place, in which the Jewish people will be given the option again to accept Christ as the Messiah. Only a handful will, the rest being destroyed by the Anti-Christ. But at the Second Coming those Christian Jews will join the returned Church to rule with Jesus for a thousand years on earth. It's important to remember that the Derby's Church represents a minority of Christians. Roman Catholics, and presumably Orthodox Christians too, are not considered to be true Christians and so we have no stake in his Rapture and presumably neither do most mainstream Protestants either. Derby was a Calvinist and has no problem in regarding the great mass of humanity, Christian and otherwise (including the bulk of the Jews) as damned. His theology is one based on a thoroughgoing hatred of humanity.

Derby's ideas went west across the Atlantic where they found rich soil in the US. It's Protestantism had a strongly Calvinist flavour (I regard Calvin as the spiritual godfather of the US - it's whole culture both secular and spiritual is fully imbued with Calvinist thinking) and was also experiencing massive social change due to immigration, westward expansion and the blizzard of capitalism too. His ideas went viral, spreading through a variety of millennial and other Protestant sects and taking root in established ones too. Derby's thinking is canonised in the Scofield reference Bible which was published in  1909. It printed a commentary alongside the biblical text that was informed by Derby's Dispensationalist thinking and by being included in the Bible gave it an authority it might otherwise not have received (and didn't deserve). It also unmoored it from Derby's own work and so by spreading throughout much of the US it linked up with all manner of ideas that Derby himself might have regarded with alarm. It also generated a variety of schools of Rapture thought, pre-Tribulation Rapture, Mid-Trib, Pre-Wrath, plus a variety of perspectives as to how many Raptures or comings of Christ there would be. Derby taught one rapture or two Second Comings but there are folks who teach multiple raptures for different groups of people along the timeline of the end times. And there are different schools of thought as to how many people and who get raptured. The Left Behind series of novels reflect the view that all children are raptured along with the believers so that a couple of billion or so people get carried away including the Pope of the time (a notion that would, no doubt, appal Derby).

I discovered this Rapture world  when I was doing the PhD because unsurprisingly its also marked by virulent homophobia. When I first heard about the Rapture, I was seriously taken aback. It really is nothing but a 'get out of gaol free card' theology. It is predicated on a Calvinist notion of complete rupture between the cosmos and the Divine. A key notion is that the full Tribulation with Anti-Christ can't take place until the Church is taken away because it brings to an end the Age of Grace when the Holy Spirit is abroad in the world. With the removal of the Church the Holy Spirit is also removed from the world. From a Catholic perspective, such a notion is incoherent if not grossly heretical in its dichotomy of Creation and the Divine. In Catholic understandings Creation is imbued with the Divine as stained glass windows are imbued with the light on which they depend for their effect.  The Rapture doctrine contradicts sacramental theology in every way. In a Catholic perspective, God is grace and so a notion of an end to grace is bizarre, a diminution of the deity.Furthermore the Derbyite notion that Jesus' mission has to be rebooted requiring the removal of the Church and that his life and death and resurrection marked some kind of failure or derailing of the divine plan, is Christologically flawed, thoroughly heretical. It marks a complete contradiction of the entire Christian tradition in an even more radical way than any 'liberal' or 'modernist' Protestant theology of Jesus, that the exponents of rapturism usually loudly deplore.

But it is far worse than that. I found one or two sites that I started following and one, in particular, Five Doves, I've remained 'loyal' to, primarily for its entertainment value. I've written about them here before. It maintains a forum, The Latter Day Letters, to which believers share hopes, fears, and rapture/end times news and speculations. Most of it is pretty appalling, not least for its homophobia, but several things strike me as someone who thinks I understand a bit about the Christian tradition in its fullness across time and in its diversity. While the contributors not only evince an ignorance of that tradition and lack of even the most basic curiosity that would make them explore that tradition in its fullness, they seem quite willing to blend their 'theology' with a, to me, surprising blend of pop culture items such as TV shows and films. Many of them feed uncritically off New Age and UFO sites, especially, the most paranoid of them, but then give them a unique dispensationalist twist. And I should point out that the Rapture has gone so viral that it has even torn loose from Dispensationalist framework to re-embed itself in UFO and New Age contexts. The UFO cults give a lot of scope to Rapture thinking, except here instead of Jesus its the Space Brothers or Rael's Elohim who will come down in their space ships and save us - or some of us, anyway. I first encountered this phenomenon in the early 80s when I met a popular, psychic aura reader who proclaimed the imminent arrival of the Space Brothers who would take many of us away from the planet (but not all) while it was cleansed of the mess we'd made of it. He went so far as to say that they had taken away some people already and as proof cited a then recent earthquake in Italy where many hundreds or thousands had died. They weren't dead they'd been taken away.

This psychic alerted me to something that is a hallmark of all such Rapture cults, Christian and New Age alike. These really are death cults of the worst sort. If you read the Latter Day letters at Five Doves, you'll be struck by the yearning to get out of this place, to 'go home' as some of them put it. Home is heaven but usually there's only one way to get to the heavenly realm and that's by death. These people are crying out for  and yearning for death. They mask that by their belief that they will be transported body and soul but the reality is that death is what they desire, it's a deflected suicidal mentality. Because of course when you read the letters you soon detect that for many, though not all, life is hard, it's a struggle and it's often made worse because of the type of religious beliefs they hold. Many of their family members or neighbours or workmates don't share their rapture/end times beliefs (even though they might also be Christians, and it's more galling if they are than not) and so make fun of their beliefs or react against the proselytising that these people are attempting. And so for many of these rapture believers not only is life a struggle but it is also marked by conflict too over their faith. That drives their yearning even more. The Rapture becomes not just a get out of gaol free card but it's also a vindication and even reward for what they have put up with.

Vindication for them and pay back time for the scoffers and unbelievers too. The other side of the rapturist cults is a very nasty schadenfreude. The Left Behind series of books and films is not really an evangelical tool so much as a vindicatory vehicle for the confirmed believer. Both the books and the films are too awful in their execution to seriously entice anyone to join this sort of  religion. The books have been on bestseller lists for a long time but I think very few unbelievers, Christian or otherwise, would bother parting with their cash to purchase them. Their main audience has been the rapturists themselves and so they actually serve as a vehicle of vindication. Their rapturist audiences get to vicariously enjoy not so much the rapture itself as the opportunity, as pre-rapturees, to witness the sufferings of the left behind and be confirmed in their own special spiritual status. Fred Clark has repeatedly made this observation on his long running commentary on the series. I think it's not just the books but the doctrines themselves. They are built on schadenfreude and hence their appeal, especially in a rawly capitalist society like the US. By its very nature capitalism requires victims or losers and the more untrammeled it is the greater the number of those who have been screwed over. Rapturism with its arcane secret knowledges, its conspiracy theories (much of the material on Five Doves could provide inspiration for a stack of X-files series) plus its promise of ultimate escape from a cascade of horrors that will engulf everyone else not saved promotes the ideal sort of false consciousness that capitalist societies need to prevent serious critique and transformation. 

This schadenfreude is what I find most disturbing and it also represents the most heretical inversion of Christian tradition. From the very beginning Christinaity has celebrated the divine generosity that underpins the creation. The entire cosmos represents an act of divine graciousness, generosity. In Christian theology God has no need of the creation but creation would not exist without God, the overflowing lifegiving love of God, and a God that does not give up on the creation either but ultimately becomes incarnate in a human person to come down to our level in order to offer us friendship. God is love, John declares, and those who love know God. Jesus on the cross represents the ultimate kenotic self-emptying of God to demonstrate the divine solidarity with and friendship for the creation, for humans, for all of us.  Such divine friendship and solidarity has consequences not least in the lives of those who respond to it and Christian history is full of examples of people who answered the call to instantiate in their own lives the call to divine friendship. They lived that friendship directly and very  practically and often at very great cost for their lives, taking up their crosses and following their Lord. Many of these people are commemorated in the calendars of saints of the various Christian communions, many lived humble lives and their stories have been lost or they were the companions of these saints. But they stand in striking contrast to the rapturist cults whose members get excited at any news of  earthquake or war, who actually anticipate and hope for another major Middle East war because that will  be sign that they soon will be out of here. Their theology is marked by a hatred of humanity and of the creation in which we live. They have replaced the traditional Christian God of superabundant love and friendship with a narrowly vindictive deity of schadenfreude. The God of rapturism is not the God of Christianity, although it has been dressed with Christian drag, it's an idol built on human vindictiveness and selfish petty resentments. That's the sort of spirituality and religious ethos cultivated by rapturism. 

The Rapture is kind of oddly akin to much of the discourse around euthanasia, which again rapturists deplore. It could be said that much of the euthanasia discourse represents not so much a fear of death but a fear of dying and seeks an intervention to circumvent that. Rapturists likewise yearn for death, to get out of here and 'go home', but they don't want to experience dying. Instead they want divine intervention to circumvent the messy dying process and translate them instantly into the next world, body and soul. It's a divinely assisted suicide they seek and worse, it has resonances with the suicide bombers of various Islamic fundamentalist groups. By their collective suicide the rapturists know the full horrors of the tribulation will be unleashed on the rest of us. Their yearning for their own deaths is also a yearning for our suffering which they know will be unleashed by their rapture. And in some of the Latter day Letters that payback desire is expressed quite clearly.

Harold Camping (!) has done more to traduce Christianity and bring  it into disrepute than any Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins could ever hope to achieve. The anti-religious movements have started a blasphemy day, which I think originated in the US where so much of this silly thinking seems to  originate, the shadow or inverted mirror of the original. But Harold Camping (!) has performed a blasphemy that a Hitchens or Dawkins could never  hope to match. I have termed Rapturism a heresy of the worst order. I would go further and declare the Rapture doctrine and all the attendant Dispensationalist schemas in which its embedded, the ultimate blasphemy. Back in the 2nd century St Irenaeus of Lyon declared that the glory of God is humanity fully alive. Rapturism rejects that fundamental Christian principle in favour of vindictiveness and suicidal schadenfreude and hence tries to debase the Christian vision of the divine that Irenaeus and so many other Christians have celebrated over the centuries.

On Saturday I put up this status update on Facebook:
It's Rapture day! Silly idea. The world won't end today except in the usual way, sadly, for too many people. I hope for not too many, today, and for none of you who I love.
I chose this deliberately because that morning I'd also learnt of the death of a friend a couple of days before. Death comes to us all. We will all die, a fact our society tries to deny all the time. So again it's no surprise that a notion like the Rapturist fallacy should prove popular because it also tries to deny the fact of our own deaths. But Christianity celebrates a God who so loved all of us and wanted to be our friend that this God accepted death to live in full solidarity with us, to meet us on our level. My friend who died wasn't religious and didn't believe in any sort of God but I hope she has been found and eagerly welcomed by this God who so sought our friendship as to be willing to die shamefully under the boot of power and  is regularly betrayed by the Howard Campings (!) and so many other religious functionaries and charlatans and homophobes. It's a shame I can't believe in eternal damnation and like Dante, and people my own Inferno with popes and preachers and tele-evangelists. But my God is much bigger than that and I have no right to ever dare diminish God to my own need for vengeful satisfaction and vindication. To do so is an act of idolatry and diminishes my own faith and betrays the friendship this God offers to us all.