Eschatological Freedom

Of all church teachings, probably one of the most ignored is that about the second coming Jesus Christ. We await a miraculous intervention, a complete change of times, or the abolition of time as we know it. Christ’s rule effects the perfection of the world, whatever our efforts may have accomplished for good or ill. At the level of individual salvation, while we wait, we make the effort to live obediently, to contribute to  others’ well-being. Our actual successes and failures are not ultimately decisive, for we are saved by grace alone.

It is hard to give up the idea that what we do, or at least our willingness to do right, somehow enters into the transaction. The only alternative seems to be a doctrine of double predestination, leading into all the insidious anxieties of Puritanism in search of assurance, letting moralism in again, through a side door.

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Preaching Faith Forthrightly

One criterion of a good sermon is movement beyond belief that can be taken for granted, into territory that and go to where it feels unsafe to the preacher, who has to address an issue personally, without being sure how it will come out. Maybe it won’t come out at all this time, and will have to be left in suspense for weeks, or forever. A preacher needs to count on the hearers’ willingness to engage in such grappling when operating in this mode of risk. Hopefully, the risk of the thing communicates as excitement; the hearers are drawn in by the spectacle of someone skating close to the edge.

A minimally honest preacher will soon be forced to address the unfairness of life. Bad things happen to good people. Bullies make headway when gentle people don’t. These facts fly in the teeth of the civic virtue of optimism, the “positive outlook” which is often taken as the litmus test of Christian faith.

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The Frisson of Apocalypse

The Owl has promised to avoid wrangles and obsessions already amply displayed in public. What follows makes reference to some of those, without taking up a position on any of them. We address them as quasi-religious cultural phenomena, tangentially related to our other writings on apocalyptic and eschatology, and the consequences of foreshortening these, referring them back to the present milieu.

Our friend Ken sent a link to a news article entitled “California’s next nightmare,” predicting a big flood in the San Joaquin delta sometime in the next fifty years. I would answer him as follows:

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Fantasy Ideology

In Policy Review, August-September, 2002, there appeared an article by Lee Harris, entitled “Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology.” Harris writes from a resolutely secular point of view, to address America’s difficulty understanding the events of September 11, 2001. He uses terms of Georges Sorel (myth), Friedrich Nietzsche (Will to Power), and William James (religion). Especially the last functions as a point of scientific objectivity, explaining that William James and Vilfredo Pareto, “took up beliefs . . . and examined them . . . as a botanist examines the flora . . . cataloguing . . . not producing new ones.”

Harris covers the appearances of 9/11 well enough, but below the surface of his argument lies a polemic that needs to be addressed: the polemic against religion of any kind, in favor of Enlightenment empiricism. That has become such a part of our cultural atmosphere that even religious people scarcely notice it any more. The problem is, it leaves us no clear distinction between religion we ought to protect, and religion that needs attacking; between the liturgy of godly worship and the dramatization of Al Qaeda’s fantasy ideology. We need such a distinction, especially at this moment.

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Defining Religion

Several years ago I wrote to my friend Ken about the religious nature of political liberalism as it pivots on public moralism. We continued the exchange as follows.

Moralism is a matter of public politics as often as it is about private behavior. They both deal with what ought we to do. Liberals are as religious, and as perversely so, to the point of idolatry, as anybody, but they hide it from themselves and others as a point of class-based etiquette. They know as well as anyone how to use other people’s religion politically, and they do so with sneers and disdain, because that’s what their audience expects and pays for.

Ken knows there are both religious and non-religious liberals and conservatives. The sine qua non in religion is belief in some god. Beyond that, we differ. The Owl would define religion more generally, more like Paul Tillich, as a commitment to whatever the individual takes as the most important thing to believe, his or her ultimate concern. That could be an institutional program, a policy, an ideology; in short, anything at all. When it is not God, it will be a false god, an idol. To make that choice is what the liberal considers the sine qua non of human dignity, freedom of religion, of which freedom from religion is but one variety. The extreme examples of this are the three great anti-religious religions of the twentieth-century, Nazism, Marxist-Leninism, and Maoism.

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