Saturday, November 22, 2014

The religious divide over the apocalypse in the "west," especially in the U.S.

Over water coolers, in coffee shops, in supermarkets and malls, and even in the corridors of colleges and universities, many people are wondering out loud about the turbulence in the earth's atmosphere, linked in the news with the violence being perpetrated by lawless thugs, the confluence of nuclear talks over Iran, the invasion of some 7500 Russian troops into Eastern Ukraine (according to president Poroshenko), the abduction of hundreds of girls in Nigeria, and the wanton bombing of buses, schools and any other targets available to the Islamic terrorists. Extreme weather colliding with extreme ideology and extreme egoism is prompting various kinds and types of reflections from all quarters of the planet.
Humans are not accustomed to the cataract of information, all of it generated by the various news outlets, each with their own world view and each attempting to compete for the almighty advertisers' dollars, in order to stay in business. There is a general malaise (not to borrow from then President Jimmy Carter's 1980 speech about the fall of American confidence) among all individuals, families, and organizations about what kind of world we are living in, what the reasons for the extreme might be, and what possible alternative measures are needed, if any, to counteract the dangers.
There is, from some perspectives, a global existential crisis, not merely an Israeli existential crisis. We all know that Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and other Middle East actors, including potentially the PLO, would welcome the Israeli destruction and naturally opinion  outside the Middle East is divided about both the gravity of that crisis and the steps appropriate to meet it, including talks this weekend to blunt if not terminate Iran's ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons.
Global politics is never simple, unless one resorts to simple bromides that will never take into account the multiple variables in all circumstances.
"There are too many foreigners  being allowed into our country" is one such bromide, as if any country, especially one like Canada that has welcomed immigrants from everywhere for decades (with significant exceptions like the Japanese internment in World War II) could even exist or operate as successfully without the enrichment of millions of new immigrants from all countries, languages and even religions.
"Those people in the Middle East are always fighting, so let them have at it; it has nothing to do with us," is another of those dangerous and simplistic bromides. The world's scope and dimension may not have changed, geographically, but it clearly has in terms of the gathering, dissemination and consumption of critical information around the world. And consequently, we are literally and metaphorically "all in this together" whether we like it or not.
And for many of us, extreme weather, linked to extreme crises in the military and quasi-military arenas, linked also to a very slow recovery from the 2008-9 economic collapse, amid the mountains of evidence from many quarters of the disintegration of the political capacity and will to accomplish necessary goals for the domestic populations, as well as for the international community, in spite of the many high-sounding examples of political rhetoric that emerge in communiques from all international meetings of political leaders poses questions without easily or demonstrably effective answers.
We have for some years lost trust in our public institutions.
We have for some time lost respect for our political leaders, our corporate CEO's and the Public Relations and Legal Machines that protect them from both public criticism and potential law suits. We have, indeed, become a western world of paralysis, exemplified by the lack of respect for the United Nations among too many of the major powers, without a comparable body forming to address global issues with both credibility and strength and "spine".
For some, we have become a western world of obsessive compulsive behaviour that reeks of narcissism, without regard for our obligations to one another, as in "our brother's keeper" although many non-profits,  both religiously based and secular have taken up the challenge in the developing world with considerable philanthropic support from the more affluent nations and individuals.
Of course, the issues are complex, and their number and confluence continue to grow exponentially.
However, at the core each of us has a perception and conception of how the world works and what our place is in it that gestalt.
And central to that individual perception and conception are our earliest formative experiences and "lessons" about the perceptions and conceptions of our teachers and mentors, of the preceding generations to ours.
For most of us in the west, there was passed on to us a notion of a deity, a notion of a complex and exciting beginning to the earth's existence, much of it as yet unproven and undetected in its fine details. We were raised between Darwin and Genesis, as if both were irreconcilable. We were also raised in the vacuum that was generated at Munich, that fateful conference from which Chamberlain emerged declaring "peace in our time", and between archetypes that exemplified both of those extremes, Hitler and Chamberlain. Connotations for both "heaven and hell" are linked to visions of a peaceful world of empathy, compassion and genuine altruism and those of endless conflict, destruction, indifference and hatred and bigotry respectively.
We have struggled for generations to ascertain the appropriate definitions of strength, of both hard and soft power, of how to exercise both individually and collectively, in our pursuit of those things commonly referred to as "national interests" and national security, and economic security and energy independence, and the brain development industry competitively measured, the "best place to live" scale, and many other scales of similar resonance.
At the heart of those multiple considerations, we all held some notion of the existence of or the non-existence of a God, however we perceived that entity and what sources formed our bases for our perceptions.
There have been Gods analogous to Kings, to Shepherds, to Gardeners,  to Prophets ( Dramatic playwrights of both tragic and comedic material,) to Healers and to the OrdinaryMan/God notion of God, as exemplified in Jesus of Nazareth.
Correspondingly, there have also been attempts by all civilizations and religions to portray EVIL,  in the Christian tradition named as Satan, and in between the notions of God and Evil, we have all been raised, education and attempted to discern our "fit" in this universe.
A simplified and powerful God is to some the answer to all of our life's problems both personally and globally. God will provide.
A more complex God has a deep and profound interest in our decisions but has left us to make those decisions in our own will and way, without, as the theology goes, ever abandoning us.
A more distant and regal God has wound this universe up and lets it tick-tock as it will without any interest in or concern for the outcome.
And for others, there is no God with whom to develop a relationship no matter how tenuous or intimate.
And what we are witnessing today is the playing out of many of those archetypes of the deity in many competing forms in our public discourse. And at the centre of that discourse is an age-old debate about a biblical term, the apocalypse, the end of times, as recorded in the book of Revelation, when there is supposed to be a "Second Coming" of the Christ, in Christian terms, and for which we are all supposed to prepare, spiritually, ethically and morally.
One of the countries most impacted by these teachings is the United States where recent polls demonstrate some of the roots of the divisions in our political paralysis.
Read and cogitate this recent report:
Snowmageddon, snowpocalypse, snowzilla, just snow. Superstorm Sandy, receding shorelines, and more. Hurricanes Isaac, Ivan, and Irene, with cousins Rammasun, Bopha, and Haiyan.
The parade of geological changes and extreme weather events around the world since 2011 has been stunning. Perhaps that's part of why, as the Public Religion Research Institute reported on Friday, "The number of Americans who believe
that natural disasters are evidence of the apocalypse has increased somewhat over the past couple years."

As of 2014, it's estimated that nearly half of Americans—49 percent—say natural disasters are a sign of "the end times," as described in the Bible. That's up from an estimated 44 percent in 2011.
This belief is more prevalent in some religious communities than others. White evangelical Protestants, for example, are more likely than any other group to believe that natural disasters are a sign of the end times, and they're least likely to assign some of the blame to climate change (participants were allowed to select both options if they wanted). Black Protestants were close behind white evangelicals in terms of apprehending the apocalypse, but they were also the group most likely to believe in climate change, too. Predictably, the religiously unaffiliated were the least likely to believe superstorms are apocalyptic—but even so, a third of that group said they see signs of the end times in the weather. (By Emma Green, The Atlantic, November 22, 2015)
The Christian theology includes something known as eschatology, the study of the end of times, including the apocalypse. And for two millennia, some have been declaring the imminence of that denouement to the human condition on this earth, with the promise, for the elect of God, of eternal life of a quite different and more rapturous life in heaven with God. Christian theology also includes something known as soteriology, the pursuit of salvation, in whatever forms and definitions it may take, depending on that both engaging and enervating activity called "biblical interpretation".
Some Christians take their pursuit of eternal life, "by the grace of God" to be the central focus of their discipleship. And in human terms that often means the separation from the 'ways of the world' and the embrace of holy and sacred things like church worship, good works, conflict resolution, and attention to the protection of the environment. For others, it might include the activity of protecting children conceived out of wedlock, through active participation in the 'right to life' issue along with the questions of artificial birth control and in vitro fertilization, believing that God's will has been expressed in "natural" processes that are not to be interfered with by human/scientific manipulation.
Salvation, then, has both personal implications as well as broad human application, and some faiths have stressed one over the other of these concepts. Some even have attempted to blend both the individual with the more abstract, through such spiritual pursuits and activities as prayer, meditation, worship and reflection linked to social justice projects both at home and around the world.
It seems that humans struggle with the responsibility of choosing what Plato called the "good life" by attempting to balance both the personal belief in and pursuit of a heavenly afterlife with the activities that embrace the survival of the planet, and the building of that proverbial "city on the hill" the New Jerusalem, as noted in scripture.
Turning weapons into ploughshares, for example, inspires those in the peace movements.
Learning and applying the techniques of reconciliation, for others, applies this injunction in another equally honourable direction. For others, including many of the world's best composers and artists, generating their original compositions dedicated to their God is their way of worshipping the deity.
Others, like Kierkegaard, considered the manner in which the Christian church was heading was misplaced, and took up vehement intellectual  arguments against it, as part of his pursuit of the life of a Christian disciple. Quite expectedly, those within the ecclesiastical hierarchy have regarded such criticism as heresy, a word and a concept for which hundreds if not thousands have been persecuted, out of a conviction by the authorities, that whatever their 'sins' that was the punishment that God demanded, and as the agents of that God, they had to carry out those directions.
Wrapping both individual lives, and as a natural extension, the lives of political parties and political ideologies with the words of holy writ is a drama that has been witnessed in all periods of history from all religious affiliations, as leaders attempt to seduce followers that their way is the "right" path to eternal life, and their prescription for the immediate situation is based on their belief that they have received God's word clearly and unequivocally. And such confidence and clarity has much heft among those whose struggles have resulted in both confusion and fear.
The old argument that a "new convert" is much more intense in his or her commitment to the faith than someone who has been raised inside the sanctuary for generations. And "knowing the mind of God' is another of the central division points separating various faiths, with the Jewish faith taking the admirable yet demanding position that God is much too awesome and mysterious to be fully known, so they pursue a process of continual engagement through dialogue, study and debate to interpret and to re-interpret the words of the Torah as integral to their relationship with G-d.
Today, we see evidence of the clash of both civilizations and "religious" convictions especially through the daily feed of atrocities from Islamic terrorists who are finally and forcefully being condemned for their perversion of Islam by imams in both North America and the Middle East.
Some infer the potential demise of Islam itself, should these thugs continue in their massacre of those infidels who have not converted to their brand of Islam. (Just today, in Kenya, near the border with Somalia, another 28 who did not recite verses from the Koran on demand were shot in the head in cold blood for their "infidelity" to Islam, as the Al Shabbab terrorists conceive it and impose it on their victims.)
There is a danger in some of the poll results above, that faith and fear will be so enmeshed that their distinction will become diffused and that some people through some intimate and potentially unconscious blending of both will envision their own participation in the end of times. And one of the results of such over-played hands will be that such an outcome will become self-fulfilling, through some inadvertent action or words or stampede of some instant mob and that a single shot/spark will ignite a much larger cauldron of events from which our conventional processes will not be able to extricate the human population.
Voices of moderation, temperance, toleration of differences, mutual respect and even human rights, including those who advocate and pursue the right to worship in freedom of religion and the freedom from religion of all kinds, do exist among all faith communities. They are, however, being drowned out by the monster megaphones and atrocities of the thugs whose persona of religion (in this case radical Islam) is nothing more than their illusory belief in their own holiness and their attempt to justify their hatred, bigotry and sinister cynicism directed first against all Jews and emanating out to all Christians, and even to all Muslims who do not subscribe to their ethnic and religious cleansing of all infidels. And, ironically and predictably, they will use whatever "gifts" of weapons and strategy they receive from all of those infidels and take inordinate pride even hubris in turning those gifts against their infidel "benefactors".
Also unfortunately, for our part, we must guard against being seduced into their entrapments in our pursuit of our "honourable" world view that provides some basis for inclusion, although that inclusion has eroded in the last two or three decades through the commodifying of people and things and the transformation of human interactions into highly recorded business and profit-oriented dramas. Our seduction into and by the world of technology is in danger of replacing what was one considered wisdom and faith by reductionistic concepts like "intelligence" and "metadata." And, consequently we are all in danger of replacing what passed for the pursuit of the good life through the pursuit and generation of beauty, love, poetry and art with what now passes for affluence, narcissism, social status and influence and the desecration of all of those people who "can't and don't pass muster" in our highly sophisticated and detached rationalization of  what can never be considered holy, the pursuit of "rugged individualism" in spite of the virulent efforts of the religious and political "right" to transform that idol into an article of faith.
And those of us who oppose such thalidomide-like transformations must seek and deploy all means to point out the dangers and the minefields contained in such self-serving addictions, without resorting to or falling into the trap of defeat out of desperation.
No G-d worthy of the name would or could endorse our abdication of our best angels and our best efforts, both individually and collaboratively, just to insure our personal place in a heaven that may or may not exist, as if we were competing in some holy and spiritual Olympics, including our status with the deity of our choosing.

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