Last Things First
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Eschatology literally means “Last Words”, speaking of final things. It is the theology of how it will all end.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice. [Robert Frost reminds us]
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Well, fire or ice – it is fair to admit that apocalyptic visions of the destructive end of all things are an ever-present topic of consideration for more than a few people. The Mayan calendar is supposed to end in 2012. Not one to pay too much attention to apocalyptic predications, I had not realize the calendar is set to run out with the Winter Solstice, December 21. So, we have a little more time. But I hadn’t tuned into that detail of the 2012 buzz until preparing to speak today. Besides, January 1st is our time for beginning not endings. Thus my title leads us to speak first of last things. Mayan or otherwise, end-times are forever on the minds of many people these days.
Progressive religion has its own versions of the end-times, of the ultimate outcome. Unitarian Universalism, my favorite iteration of progressive religion, has much to say about eschatology. Does that surprise you?
Here is one trick to remember. Some eschatological visions are dystopian while others are utopian. It is not always destruction. Hell, for example in a dystopian vision, while heaven is utopian. Some imagine the Mayan long-count calendar running out as a prediction for the physical world to end in fire or ice perhaps. Others eschew the dystopian prediction and declare the event will be a global transformation, a grand spiritual awakening into greater consciousness. Or as gamers say: we’ll all level up.
Me, I suspect December 21, 2012 will be the same sort of experience we had last night, or when 1999 rolled along into the year 2000: no big deal except for the paperwork. I suspect it will be neither dystopian nor utopian. It will be another beautiful day with all the variety of possibility spread out before us as usual. And that is the wondrous vision of the end of all things that I cast based on my faith and understanding of the world.
Let me explain.
Over the years, progressive religion has cast several compelling eschatological visions – none of which involve Armageddon or an apocalypse. Everyone here in the room this morning (or everyone reading this sermon online) shares some version of an eschatological vision, however subtle, undeveloped or subconscious. Such visions give us a sense of how the world should be, of what we are aiming for, perhaps even what we are striving to co-create. Our visions of the future – good, bad, or indifferent – inform how we act today. The eschatological vision of the Christian radical right certainly has an impact on behavior and what is going on in the world today.
Rebecca Parker, author of the reading I used this morning, writes about this in her chapter on eschatology from her co-authored book A House for Hope: the promise of progressive religion for the twenty-first century. She says:
Scripts about the end of the world tend to become compulsive, self-fulfilling prophecies. They feed what theologian Catherine Keller calls the West’s “apocalyptic habit,” the predilection to see the impending end of history in one’s own time and to act it out. Mesmerized by stark, apocalyptic either/or choices in a complex world, people drive toward solutions that place hope in destruction. Such theologies imagine that the promise of a new heaven and a new earth – a new paradise garden with its river and trees of life – will arrive in a future on the other side of apocalypse. In the meantime, they bless war and offer no resistance to environmental abuses. Journalist and commentator Bill Moyers notes that “people under the spell of such potent prophecies” represent a significant voting bloc in U.S. politics. As one leading U.S. senator aligned with this theological perspective put it, people cannot be expected “to worry about the environment. Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible?” [Parker, Rebecca & Buehrens, John, A House for Hope, p5)
The vision of the radical right has so infiltrated U.S. politics and culture that it is hard to imagine a positive alternative. It is tempting to think their version is the only game in town. But that simply is not true. Rebecca Parker contends that there are at least three compelling alternatives offered by western progressive religion alone. And that doesn’t even get into the Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and other visions. So please don’t get caught thinking the version sold by the Christian radical right is the only vision of what we are aiming for.
Parker lists three progressive alternatives, all of which are utopian rather than dystopian, all of which are grounded in a paradise here on earth rather than after we’re all dead, all of which offer hope not through destruction but through compassion. She identifies them as “Social Gospel eschatology, universalist eschatology, and radically realized eschatology.” (ibid p 6) She goes on to give three one-sentence synopses: “We are here to build the kingdom of God on earth,” “God intends all souls to be saved,” and “Paradise is here and now.” Let me unpack these for us. Perhaps you will find your understanding of it amidst these visions.
Over the years I have regularly used the phrase “Beloved Community.” It is a phrase that comes out of the Social Gospel movement. The Social Gospel is the vision that Jesus’ compelling message to the world was to create heaven here on earth by lifting up the oppressed, by having compassion for those in need, and by loving our neighbors as ourselves. We can build a better world because that is what God wants of us; our work is to co-create the Kingdom of God on earth. The term Beloved Community is the egalitarian, non-monarchical version of the Kingdom of God. The vision is that through justice and compassion we can make paradise for everyone in this world.
When we work for fair immigration policy, when we petition for safe drinking water rather than water laced with fracking chemicals, when we campaign for marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, when we speak out for peace among nations, when we hold vigil in solidarity with Muslims on the anniversary of 9/11, when we educate ourselves about racism and oppression, and when we send our money to local and global agencies working to build a better world, chances are we are living out the eschatological theology of the Social Gospel movement. We are doing these things, working for justice, because we hold a vision of a world made fair and all her people one. “We are the hearts and minds, hand and feet,” as our responsive reading by Kathleen McTigue (#544) reminds us.
Rather than thinking we can ignore environmental collapse because there will be a big cosmic battle in which flood and famine are signs that the righteous are about to be raptured, we are thinking we must respond to the environmental collapse because that is part of the beatific vision of the beloved community in which nothing and no one are considered disposable or unworthy of redemption and restoration.
If you have a sense that we are working to create the beloved community then that is your eschatology; that is what you offer the world as an alternative to this fuss of rapture and Armageddon.
Now, you might be thinking: “Hey, beloved community sounds perfect. We’ll take that one. We don’t even need to look behind door number two.” Ok, but I should warn you, there’s an edge to this one. You might want to hear about the other two progressive alternatives. And quite likely, we have a general mix of all three in practice, but I’m getting ahead of myself with such comments. First let me say: there is a down side to the Social Gospel eschatology.
If paradise is defined as the beloved community and our work is to eradicate injustice and to usher in an era of peace and equality, then clearly we have traded the pie in the sky heaven hereafter for a pie on earth ideal that is equally unrealistic. The efforts we offer to make heaven on earth will never be enough. We’ve ended slavery, for example, but that wasn’t enough. We’ve legally stopped Jim Crow laws and racial segregation but that wasn’t enough. We’ve achieved civil rights and voting rights for racial minorities but that wasn’t enough. We elected an African-American as president but that wasn’t enough. Racism is still alive in our society. We have not arrived at the beloved community.
In the Social Gospel model, God’s great vision is the beloved community, but we are the ones to build the better world. “We are the hearts and minds, hands and feet.” In the Social Gospel’s message, it is we who create the beloved community. And despite generations of labor, we have not worked hard enough or smart enough to bring it into reality yet. The hoped for future perpetually judges the present as still wanting. We strive to realize ‘the dream’ but it remains hauntingly out of reach. As an ideal it is glorious and worthy of our efforts. But the demands it holds when lifted up as THE ultimate end are exacting ones. It feeds us the same line of dissatisfaction the consumer culture kills us with: all you have and all you have done is not enough, and by all the evidence of history and experience, it never will be.
So let me tell you about a few other eschatological alternatives. They mix well with the Social Gospel message and allow a way through the fix that a thoroughgoing Social Gospel message traps us in.
Universalist eschatology also has deep roots among us, obviously. It is the vision that all souls will be united with God in the end because God’s love demands no less. This does, quickly, get tangled up with the Social Gospel message because as Rev. Gordon McKeeman puts it, “We are all going to end up together in heaven, so we might as well start learning to get along now.” This eases the pressure applied by the Social Gospel message. We don’t have to accomplish the full vision now and it doesn’t all rely on our work. God’s plan is for us all to be together in the end – that part is set. It’s going to happen. Our work now is not to make it all happen here on earth but to start it, to take the steps that are before us now toward that ideal, that vision.
A universalist eschatology does not let us off the hook. We can’t rejoice in war or ecological destruction as the Christian radical right’s version does. We can’t sit back and let God do all the work, but neither does God sit back and let us do all the work. In a universalist vision, God has set the course, has defined the arc of the moral universe. We still have a role to respond to God’s love and God’s vision by helping to usher in more justice and compassion here on earth. In a way, the universalist eschatology takes the whole question of eschatology off the table. It’s already set. No cosmic battle is needed. No earthly striving for justice will change the ultimate end. Instead, the striving for justice is our response not our duty.
Of course, the old critique against universalism still stands: why bother. If my efforts don’t change the outcome, if I and my loved ones will end up in heaven no matter what, if building the beloved community here on earth is not a condition by which I can experience heaven then why bother. “Brother Ballou,” one circuit riding preacher said to Hosea Ballou, “If I believed your theology there would be nothing stopping be from knocking you off your horse and stealing all your belongings.” To which Ballou responded, “Brother if you believed as I do, such a desire would not enter your mind.” A lot rests on trusting good and beloved people to act as good and beloved people. And history and experience teaches us that this is not always something we can count on. But then I suppose that is why it is called faith.
Let me offer the third vision of progressive religion, radically realized eschatology. The “realized” part is to say, the hoped for end is already happening. It’s not something that will happen in the future, we’re in the middle of it right now. The “radically realized” part pushes this further saying not only is it already happening, it is always happening; not as some transhistorical grand performance but in every moment of history. It is not the end of all things, but the ever unfolding transformation of all things.
Rebecca Parker says this:
Radically realized eschatology … begins with affirming that we are already standing on holy ground. This earth – and none other – is a garden of beauty, a place of life. Neglecting it for some other imagined better place will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. … Our religious framework can shift from hope for what could be … to hope that what is good will be treated with justice and love and that what has been harmed will be repaired. [ibid p 12]
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says “But the hour is coming and now is when the true worshipers will worship god is spirit and in truth.” [John 4:23] “The hour is coming and now is.” I’ve always loved that phrasing. It is about to happen and it is already happening. I could perhaps spend a sermon on the second half of that verse, but today I am caught by just that opening phrase: “the hour is coming and now is.” It is ever unfolding anew. Or as Peter Mayer sings about it: “everything is holy now.”
All three visions fit our progressive liberal religious understanding and faith. “Social Gospel eschatology, universalist eschatology, and radically realized eschatology.” “We are here to build the kingdom of God on earth,” “God intends all souls to be saved,” and “Paradise is here and now.” [ibid p 6] Perhaps you will find your understanding of it amidst these visions.
In any case, you need not resign yourself to a terrible vision of what we are hoping for. You need not resign yourself to either nothing or the Christian religious right’s dystopian destructive version of the end of all things. You need not set your hope for the future as the end of the world.
As progressive people of faith we can cast our eschatological hope for a world made fair by our work of justice and compassion with room for all and beauty abounding. Indeed, perhaps we are already here.
In a world without end
May it be so.