When I was in seminary, someone asked why we couldn’t simply get rid of those parts of the Bible that don’t make any sense anymore. After all, if we accept that the Biblical canon was created by people, we should also accept that it can be uncreated by people. The professor gave a very wise answer. She said that we never know how the world will change, and the things that seem meaningless to us now might be rich with meaning a year from now. For a long time, the eschatological parts of scripture have seemed meaningless to me. I grew up in the seventies and eighties, when we were afraid of nuclear armageddon. But then the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet bloc broke up, and that fear dissipated and became like a half-remembered nightmare. Even after September 11, 2001, fear seemed manageable to me. Yes, it was possible that I and my loved ones would die in violence, but that’s always been possible – car accidents are violent, storms are violent, even heart attacks are violent. Fear of personal violence wasn’t as bad as fear that the world might end. It’s only in the past few years, when dire warnings of coming environmental catastrophe have grown so loud, that I’ve again become afraid like I was as a child. Apocalypse and eschatology went away as a spiritual concern, and now they’re back again.
I’m trying to decide whether I find Jesus’s apocalyptic discourse comforting or upsetting. The comfort comes from the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven is already surrounding us. God’s great beauty and presence is here, now – it’s not something we need to wait for. We need only pay attention, and learn to peacefully align our minds with God’s mind, God’s compassion. And there is no preparation we can make for anything else – no bunker will keep us safe, we can plan for no post-apocalyptic utopia. Our endings, whether individual or collective, will find us in the midst of life. We’ll be sleeping, we’ll be doing kitchen chores, and then we’ll be gone. If we lose our lives now, giving ourselves up to the praise and love of God, if we allow ourselves to become lost in the vast environment of God’s love, then we already have everything we can or could ever need. Time disappears, and we subsist in the eternal now of the divine, and endings, if there are endings, become unimportant.
I can accept, and even rejoice, in this for myself. I have a harder time accepting it for my daughter. I do believe that I can never lose her, that no matter what happens, I will be with her within the mind of God, outside of time and the fears of the everyday. As John of Patmos says in his Revelation, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Yet I love the way she’s grown and changed, and am excited to see who she will become. My love of her roots me to time. This is probably what Jesus meant when he said that we must turn away from our loved ones for the sake of the divine. Perhaps he does want us to hold our interpersonal loves lightly, so that we can expand our love for everyone and everything. But I find that I can’t do it. The great loves of my life – my love for my daughter and my wife – root me in this world, this existence, this sweep of time.
Given this, maybe the most that apocalyptic thinking can do for me is to help me focus on the present moment. I don’t know what will become of my loved ones, but if I let my worries for their futures infect my love for them, if I turn from joy to fear in the way that I relate to them, then I will have lost a kingdom for nothing. I cannot hold my love for them lightly. But I can hold my sense of the future lightly.
This is not nihilism. I have no intention of giving up, of despairing of the possibility of averting environmental catastrophe. But my reasons have changed. I believe that God grieves for the species that go extinct. They are part of God’s abundance, and their absence wounds creation. God also grieves for all of those whose lives have already been disrupted or destroyed by environmental change. If God grieves for them, because God loves them, and loves them intimately, then I, if I am truly aligned with God, must grieve for them, too, and try to help them. But my motivation must grow out of this love, this collusion with the divine, and not out of fear.