Last night, a throwaway line in HBO's Game of Thrones about "the end of the world" by some men exploring the edge of their territory made me think of the phrase's space and time definitions. Thanks to circumnavigation we no longer believe it applies geographically. Is it time to remove its temporal meaning too?
Today is the one-year anniversary of the end of the world, according to Harold Camping. In a fantastic report for Religion Dispatches, titled "A Year After the Non-Apocalypse," Tom Bartlett tracks down some of his followers and seeks to understand the past and sometimes even present nature of their faith. He gets beyond the usual gawking media approach and actually listens to their stories, their evangelistic appeals, and their explanations for what happened. As others have done, he hears them in light of apocalyptic movements like the Millerites, and helpfully, he also contextualizes these experiences through Leon Festinger's 1956 classic, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of A Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. Festinger writes:
Although there is a limit beyond which belief will not withstand disconfirmation, it is clear that the introduction of contrary evidence can serve to increase the conviction and enthusiasm of a believer.
This understanding of believer disappointment and belief rationalization provide opportunities for serious self-awareness at an individual and community level. Do we have a flat earth eschatology?
Why care about the end of the world? It seems to get folks into trouble. But can it also be a good?
Out of error comes new truth. The time of trial also provides a catalyzing context for the recreation of faith for a new temporal context. The worldly success of Adventism is not the only example, as apocalyptic movements have renewed many denominations and even birthed entirely new belief systems. Bartlett shares his experience trying to understanding the Camping followers, some of whom were very serious thinkers.
When I asked how they could be so sure, the answers were fuzzy. It wasn’t any one particular verse or chapter but rather the evidence as a whole. Some believers compared it to a puzzle. At first the pieces are spread out on a table, just shards of color, fragments of meaning. Then you assemble, piece by piece, finding a corner here, a connection there, until you begin to make out a portion of the picture, a glimpse of the scene.
Confusion out the geographical end of the world also led to new discoveries. Some good and some terrible. Over time our sense of the shape of the world changed and almost everyone realized that a spherical understanding of the earth modeled reality better.
These days Adventism is torn apart by fights not only about the end of the world but also its beginning. As we argue about Genesis, we simultaneously give out millions of book providing an outline of the apocalypse. These signs of the times appear to define our human identity to the core. But then, not that long ago, so did the four corners of the world.
Rather than worrying that Adventism might lose something on its edges, perhaps we can focus on something greater. What's worth saving? What's salvational? After all, in that great book of apocalypse, which really connotes the revelation of deeper truths, Jesus defines himself as the alpha and the omega, the final Word on the beginning and the end. It's not an event that began or ends it all. It is a mediating Presence. Focusing on that Truth just might save us from having a flat earth eschatology in a spacetime world.
(Thanks to Keith Lockhart and Robert Jacobson.) BTW: We have not turned off commenting forever. We're just waiting for DISQUS.