666 and all that, 6 – Conclusion

(Photo credit – One Mile at a Time)

How can the Christian world ever shed the broken model of the Imperial Church?  For 1700 years the siren-song of worldly power has lured prelates and zealots to the Circean Shore (see Homer’s Odyssey if you’re not sure what that is) of using the power of the sword and state to drag the unwilling into a phantom of the Kingdom of the Prince of Peace. 

It started with the Roman Caesars’ call to the pre-Schism Catholic clergy to bolster the Roman state in return for building it cathedrals and episcopal palaces, and granting extensive lands and benefactions.  After Rome fell, the various new kings discovered they also desperately needed the Church’s ministrations to help them rule and organize their fractious realms.

In the high Middle Ages Pope Innocent III (of ultra-ironic name and fame) claimed that the “Vicar of Christ on Earth” (a.k.a., himself, the Pope) had the power to anoint, even appoint, and dethrone monarchs of all ranks of power.  Popes called on princes to bring fire, sword and anathemas down upon Muslims and infidels of all sorts.  They authorized Inquisitors to flush out, hunt down, and eliminate dissidents, heretics, witches (sic.), and rogues of every description to force them to recant (under terrible torture) and all too often be consigned to the flames even after repenting as an example to any who might dare to question the anointed guardians of the Sacred Mysteries.  Sometimes even the greatest saints stood on the brink of condemnation. Too often they ended up bitterly disillusioned with the co-opting of their message and example to be channeled back into paths more readily manipulated by the ecclesiastical bureaucracy and office-holders.

During the Reformation, Master Reformers like Luther kept the old lie alive as they called on the princes to wipe out Anabaptists like wild dogs, root out and crush Jews as Christ-killers, and bring the wrath of God down upon the Harlot Papists. 

We will leave that tormented (and far from complete) record there.  

The great illusion is that somehow the old imperialist ways can be married to the Gospel of the Prince of Peace as “Christendom” and produce the Kingdom of God. In the New Testament that Kingdom is described as “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit”, the “peaceable Kingdom” where justice and mercy kiss each other and oppression and violence are banished for ever. The early Christian witness to their persecutors was “see how they love one another” not how they condemn and slaughter one another, let alone the unbelieving pagan masses.

Still, the light of hope has never departed.  Messiah has ever found little lights to fan into flame with new hope and to fulfill the call to go out into all the world and heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, teach and lift up the downtrodden, and defend the defenseless – even if it means going to die with them as Christ died with the criminals on his right and left hands and suffered the penalty of death for all who are alienated from their Maker.  Most of Christ’s light-bearers and truest witnesses are anonymous and unknown, even today, and as they ever have been.  Some come to wider notice and stand out so starkly that even the most brilliant high-flyers and loftiest and power-robe bedecked Church-leaders are made to see their own arrogant bankruptcy.  These humble ones no one can ignore come like Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa.  Most have gladly died unrecognized. Many have been women, ignored and erased from notice by men who declared them out of place and outside God’s proper order.

An imperialist church seems primarily to be a Western phenomenon.  African Christians, as those in the Arab world, and those in hostile places like the People’s Republic of China, have never known this phenomenon of the church openly partnering in the molding of society alongside government in order to gain and hold onto the reins of power.  It is in the West, and perhaps now especially in the USA, that the allure of holding the levers of power for Christians still lingers.

In the West the general populace also most resists the claims of Christians to speak truth about the Creator and His desire to bring the Good News of peace and goodwill to all humanity regardless of gender, colour, language, tradition, and socio-political class.  For it is from the once “Christian” West that the most terrible offences against these very benchmarks in the quest of equality and equity have issued, or so it is commonly claimed and widely believed.

The paradox is that it is also from the much-maligned former leading nations of “Christendom” that all the greatest steps in progress towards actually achieving meaningful advances in these very things have issued.  It is from these same nations that the forward movement in snapping the chains of oppression against women, racialized oppressed peoples, and downtrodden impoverished classes has come.  It is from the West that modern medicine and science have emerged to alleviate so much suffering.

The Capitalist West did not invent oppression and slavery and exploiting the poor.   Crushing peasants, serfs, and labourers and keeping them in their “assigned places” has been universal to almost every culture in recorded history.  Slavery in its many guises has been found in every society ever discovered, from primitive to most civilized.  The impetus to actually end it has flowed almost exclusively from the Christian heritage of the West.

Rather than recoiling from hopelessness at the retreat of its influence (as Western Christians tend to lament), the Church (as the united community of followers of Jesus) needs to rejoice in its apparent powerlessness and impoverishment.  We need to wholeheartedly renounce all the old imperialist ways and to take up the enormous challenges of doing the things that our Founder and Master called us to do from the very beginning. 

Let us take to heart that taking up the sword leads only to dying by the sword; seeking power by the “world’s” (the usual broken human methods) means only leads to corruption and destruction because they violate the Master’s criteria of successfully advancing His Kingdom.  To be great in His Kingdom is primarily “being the servants of all” and shaming the captors and oppressors by standing up to them and showing what real freedom looks like, unshackled by the delusions of grandeur based on showy exhibitions of glitzy one-upmanship based on money and position in the socio-political hierarchy.

It is the deep paradox of simplicity defying complexity. Yet if is so deep it defies the nimblest scientific and economic calculations.

As we conclude this extended meditation, let us return briefly to the enigma of Revelation, that last trumpet-blast of the Bible.  The picture it ends with is of the New Jerusalem in the New Heavens and New Earth, the renewed and redeemed Kingdom of God brought in by the triumphant return of Yeshua Messiah – Jesus Christ.  In that book He appears as both the Slain Lamb who redeemed the world and the Lion of Judah who will judge all the nations, setting right all wrongs and ending all sin and rebellion against the Creator.

Some find the book too gory and bloody to accept as a legitimate picture of the Loving God’s final word.  Yet our culture’s narrative does not quibble about a tremendously violent beginning called the Big Bang.  “Yes, but no one was alive to die yet,” they reply.  And that is true as far as it goes.  But what ensued – billions of years of evolution with death upon death upon death until now – untold quantities of death so that we might live.  “Yes, but that’s just Nature’s way (with nature as a personified stand-in for God). It’s completely impersonal and without malice.”  But somehow it gives all the appearance of intentionality and has led to personality and individuality.

The paradox is that if it is all random and apparently impersonal (yet somehow intentional), it is OK.  But if there is a Creator who made things happen and gave us life, the whole thing is unjust and wicked.  Especially because, according to that narrative, the Creator dares to pronounce that some of His/Her creatures can and will live forever because they have accepted an offer to reconcile with Him/Her and join His/Her family.

On the one side, everything will cease to exist, forever, and everyone who has ever lived and will live dies and stays dead forever – but that is not evil because it is mere impersonal (?) Nature, although it appears personal and individual everywhere you look…

The alternative narrative says a Personal Creator has left His/Her signature everywhere and on everything and in everyone. He/She offers eternal life to anyone who chooses to accept it by coming into relationship with Him/Her through His/Her chosen representative Redeemer.  But since masses of people want no part of Him/Her and that offer, He/She is unloving and wicked for not adopting them all and saving them all anyway, dragging them into something they reject and abhor with no respect for their personal right to choose their own destiny.  So in the case God is condemned for not being a tyrant and oppressor and not respecting your rights.  Sounds like having your cake and eating too…  In philosophical terms for the logical hair-splitters out there, this is a basic logical fallacy, a tautology along the “Gotcha both ways and either way, buddy!”

The message of Revelation is that we have a choice to come into reconciliation with the Creator; that the way of power, riches, exploitation, abuse and all that have no place or role or position in the Creator’s order.  They are human contrivances that enslave us to dark powers personified as things like the Great Dragon and a lot of smaller versions of the Dragon. 

In the end, all these things will be wiped out by the Creator.

In the meantime, we have a choice to take the old Imperial Highway – like the ancient “King’s Highway” that ran from Egypt to Mesopotamia and like the remorseless Roman roads built primarily to facilitate the expeditious passage of Rome’s irresistible juggernaut from one end of its dominion to the other.  Or we have the choice to take the King of Heaven’s highway down through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (death to all the delusions and illusions the other road offers) and out and up into the brilliant light of the Resurrection City of the Creator’s full purpose for us and all His/Her creation.

Maranatha!   

Mountain-tops and Dark Vales

(Photo credit – Lanark County Tourism)

I make no claim to be a mountain-climber.  I am more of a mountain-hiker – someone who has backpacked and hiked through a considerable variety of mountainous and hilly terrain since I was a young man.  These include the Canadian and American Rockies, the Pacific Coast Mountains and Cascades, the Alps, Mount Sinai in Egypt, the Appalachians and Laurentians in Eastern North America, and a variety of smaller heights elsewhere.  Some of the best are even close to home, such as Blueberry Mountain at this time of year with its sweeping panorama of orange and red and yellow and gold foliage stretching over at least two hundred square kilometers.

I am not laying claim to some sort of special status.  I’m just saying that, upon reflecting, I was actually quite surprised at the various places I’ve been, things I’ve done, and experiences I’ve had over seven decades of an all-too-brief and quickly passing lifetime.

God-willing, I may yet get to put a few more pips on my life-map, and even another hilltop or two.  I certainly hope so and have more on my bucket-list as long as my knees and other physical attributes hold out. 

For me, going up a mountain has always been as much about the trip up as the reward of the stupendous view from the top.  There are some peaks I would never consider attempting – Mount Everest, for example.  Or the Matterhorn, or Mount Logan, Canada’s highest mountain. 

I understand the tremendous allure of doing something above and beyond what the rest of the crowd have done.  It’s one way some gain the fifteen minutes of fame Andy Warhol talked about back in the 1960s.  But if the main goal of doing all that excruciating work and subjecting your body to often significantly life-shortening strain is to get some sort of recognition and public acclaim, a sort of flash of the next-best-thing to immortality with your name marked down as one of a select few who ever did A, B, or C, well, maybe you need to re-examine your perspective on what we are in this world for when there are simply so many other aims and goals we can choose to pursue. 

The thing about getting “up there” with all its thrill of “making it to the top” is that you discover when you get there that, even with all that amazing landscape or seascape spread out before you, the ground you are standing on is usually pretty barren.  It is very rarely a very propitious place to build a home and put down roots.  The paucity and special adaptation of any vegetation and resident critters to the generally inhospitable environment at the world’s rooftop graphically illustrates this truth.  After taking appropriate time to absorb the vast splendour down below and all around, and to bask in the thrill of having made a climb a relative few have made, it dawns on you that what goes up must come down.

Few if any humans can live on a mountain-top for any appreciable period of time.  The air above ten thousand feet is pretty thin, although some groups have been able to do it if there is enough plateau or valley terrain to allow them to glean or produce enough to survive on.  But even they do not live on the peaks.  Even they have to come down from them to get home where they can actually live and enjoy life from day to day.

There is a bit of a parable here, one of those succinct little stories based on real-life experience that illustrates a deeper, inner, even spiritual side of reality.

Think about any mountain-top or peak experience or achievement your have ever had.  Maybe it was finally breaking through in your career or chosen role in life and getting the recognition and reward you longed for and felt you justly deserved.  Maybe it was winning the heart of “the One” and believing your “live-happily-ever-after” dream was coming true.  Maybe it was winning a big competition, or the big championship, the gold medal, the highest individual honour in the that thing you are really passionate about!  Maybe it was an heroic act that wowed the people all around and astonished even yourself in the doing – and still does when you think back on it.  Maybe it was the “eureka” moment of your conversion to God when you decided to live to honour the Creator.

There have probably been several such moments.  How incredible, precious, even sublime it seemed then, and can still seem even now in its reflected glow down through the years.  Some have been higher and more intense than others.  Some you realize were one-off for all time and could never be recaptured. 

I have known people who have never gotten over some such moment or moments.  It’s like the tremendous rush a drug-addict gets on the first hit of cocaine or meth or opioids.  They are hooked on the high and run after it constantly.

There is nothing wrong about wanting to feel good and seeking a special sense of fulfillment, but life is lived mostly in the mundane, among ordinary people doing ordinary things.  An orgasm is a great thing in its time and place, but we cannot live in continual yearning for the rush and continual regret of what has been.

In doing that, we become blind and insensible to the beauty and wonder that lies just outside the door.  We also miss what lies inside the door as we discover each other and learn to enjoy what lies within as much as what lies without.  Inner space is as wondrous as outer space.

Continually lusting after the misty mountain-top splendour leaves us paralysed down in the valleys of life, especially when, as inevitably we must, we encounter Death Valley.  As Psalm 23, written 3000 years ago by one of the great poets and composers of antiquity, puts it, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” 

The poet has a secret for getting through the worst times, and it isn’t desperately trying to scramble up the steep slopes of darkness closing him in.  He knows he cannot escape the ordeal.  He must walk through, but not alone.  For he has learned that the key to everything in life is in recognizing and accepting that he is not just a heroic individual standing alone against a host of foes or fighting his way to the top of the heap by his own strength and valour.  He stands on and in a real, living relationship with his Creator.

In several of his Poem-Songs, of which we still have about seventy-five, this great writer, who was also a person of decisive action when the time called for it, describes this intimate relationship, based on total acceptance that he has not been made just to pursue his own appetites and purposes, but to submit to a greater purpose and calling, one he is discovering as he lives life from day to day and year to year.

We have other information about this extraordinary man in other parts of the Book we call the Bible.  He was far from perfect, and made many mistakes.  Some were real doozies which cost him, his family, and even his nation very dear.

He was no better, and sometimes definitely worse, at least in certain actions, than most of the rest of us.  But he gives us a vivid and true picture about Mountain-tops and dark valleys, things we all experience as we reach the heights and sink into the depths as we explore the adventure of life.

In case you haven’t heard of the Poet-Composer to whom I refer, his name is David and he rose to the heights of power as a shepherd-boy who became the King of ancient Israel.  He won everlasting fame as a teen-ager by single-handedly slaying a real-life giant named Goliath.  As to the rest of his story, including some real dismal valleys, I leave you to explore it in the Biblical record of the Books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.

666 and all that, 5 – The Imperial Church, 2

As long as the Christians faced—or feared—persecution by the Roman authorities…the book of Revelation provided consolation for their present sufferings, real or imagined, and the promise of a bloody revenge in the end-times.  But the contempt for imperial Rome that suffuses the book of Revelation was rendered suddenly and wholly obsolete when the Emperor Constantine (ca. 280-337) embraced Christianity in the early fourth century…. the Christian church was elevated from a marginalized and criminalized sect into the favored and protected faith of the imperial family, and, eventually, a kind of shadow government whose reach extended throughout the Roman Empire…. the condemnation of imperial Rome in the book of Revelation no longer made sense.  Indeed, the Christian church now styled itself as “the Church Militant and Triumphant.”

Jonathan Kirsch, A History of the End of the World.  (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 108

(Photo credit Wikipedia Pope Gregory 1)

The conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity (traditionally dated in 312 CE) was indeed one of the most revolutionary events of history, ancient or modern.  Within a generation, the once hounded and persecuted Christian minority within the Roman world went from underdog to top dog.  As that world fractured and withered on the vine, the Church became more and more the one truly cohesive social force within the Roman state, and increasingly a political power supplementing and sometimes even replacing the broken ligaments of the imperial administration.  Bishops became as powerful as governors in some instances.  As Kirsch puts it — “a kind of shadow government”.

When Constantinople became the primary imperial capital, the Bishop of Rome began to exercise an increasingly assertive role of overall leader of the Christian world, thus providing a counter-point to the distant Emperor for the Christians of the Western Empire, as long as it continued.  When the Western Empire died with a whimper in 476 CE, the Pope still stood in Christianity’s western regions as the symbol of Roman leadership, although no longer in the political sphere.

From that point on the divergence of the East and West of the old Roman world in culture, faith, and politics became sharper and sharper as the centuries passed.  We cannot rehash the whole tale here.  Plenty of accounts—short or lengthy—are available to the curious.  What is of interest in our reflection is how the Church was henceforth haunted by the memory and the nostalgia of its first 200 years even as it became anchored in its imperial identity.

Henceforth the Christian Church suffered from a dual personality, an inner tension between those who longed for and strove to recover the early days of innocence and total devotion to the true King, Jesus the Messiah, whose Kingdom is “not of this world” (or this age), and those who adopted a posture of “realism”, employing methods and models long used in human affairs for exercising power and influence and gaining control of the social and political agenda.  Increasing economic power followed, sometimes through huge donations and bequests of the rich and powerful seeking to buy “fire insurance” as death raised its spectral head in their path.

The resultant tension and sometimes open conflict between the two personalities inevitably resulted in a pendulum of guilty attempts by the “realists” to find ways of appeasing and even accommodating the prophetic elements confronting them with their sell-outs and compromises, punctuated by occasional outright repressions and persecutions of the fanatics, who were usually officially excommunicated as heretics before force was called out to either bring them to heel or eliminate them altogether.

The earliest of these brutal episodes was the infamous Donatist suppression in the fifth century CE.  In that case, there was abuse and guilt enough to go round on both sides.  The interested reader is invited to consult any competent history of the Church, such as Kenneth Scott Latourette’s.

The tension was quite visible well before that, when the first hermits appeared and became best known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  Yes, Mothers too!  There were thousands of women who also adopted withdrawal from the world and its affairs.  [i]  The hermits and desert communities of disciples gave rise to the whole monastic movement, which was born out of the need to provide, for those wanting and needing it, a release from the increasingly compromised and syncretised lifestyle of the now “official” religion of the Empire.

Another clear signal of a growing hybridization was the adoption of an elevated view of the Church’s leaders from that of “servants” to “Clergy” – an elite class of persons called out and set apart to lead and direct from a position set above the rest of the believing congregation.  It is significant that the chief proponents of this kind of elitism were people like Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprian of Carthage, and Pope Gregory 1 (the “Great”), bishops recommending the veneration of bishops especially, but presbyters (local congregational leaders, or elders) as well.

All these changes, along with the early adoption of liturgy to formulize ceremonies and practices along with the selected “ministers” for these, created the “Church” as an institution sharing many of the same characteristics and ceremonial of the Jewish priesthood and even some pagan garb and titles.  When the priests of Jupiter in Rome ceased to carry the title “Pontifex Maximus” (greatest High Priest or ‘bridge-maker’ [between humans and the gods] the Bishop of Rome quickly lay claim to it as appropriate for the leading “Patriarch” (a Greek word meaning ‘father-ruler’) of the Christian world.  By that point the leading Bishops (Greek episkopoi) of the Church had adopted that title as appropriate for the highest-ranking prelates in a few of the great metropolitan centers (e.g., Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth).  Not all “Metropolitans” were equal either.  Eventually it boiled down to a supreme rivalry between the Patriarch of Rome (affectionately styled ‘Papa’ – Daddy, now rendered ‘Pope’ in English, ‘Pape’ in French, but still “Papa” in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese) by the Roman populace, and the Johnny-come-lately upstart Patriarch of Constantinople who only gained that dignity because of his close connection to the Emperor, now based in that city on the frontier between Europe and Asia.

Thus we see that by the end of the Fourth Century CE, the Imperial Church had emerged full-blooded, while the original sense of Jesus calling His followers apart to follow a different path was far from lost among millions of his followers who looked with alarm on this heavy-footed march into full-blown political and social involvement of the most injurious kind for a movement supposed to lead people into the peaceable and love-based Kingdom of God rather than a holy-water-sprinkled repurposing of “Caesar-is-Lord” (even of the Church) as per the Roman (morphing into Byzantine by that point) model.

TO BE CONTINUED


[i]  The very important and significant role of women in the early Church has been mostly buried since the 5th Century.  It is a tale which men have too often refused to admit took place and that their counterparts of those generations actively sought to suppress. 

666 and all that, 4 – The Imperial Church, 1

Above all, the Book of Revelation has always been used as a kind of codebook to discover the hidden meanings behind the great events and personages of history—war and revolution, kings and conquerors, pandemic and natural disaster.  And the words and phrases of Revelation, its stock figures and scenes, have recycled and repurposed artists and poets, preachers and propagandists—all in the service of some religious or political or cultural agenda.  The conquest of Jerusalem by medieval crusaders, the Bonfire of the Vanites [1492-4] in Florence during the Renaissance, the naming of the newly discovered Americas as the New World, and the thousand-year Reich promised by Adolf Hitler are all examples of the unlikely and unsettling ways that the book of Revelation has resonated through history.  Even today, end-of- the-world fears and fantasies are peddled by Hollywood moviemakers and best-selling novelists, hard-preaching televangelists and presidential hopefuls.

Jonathan Kirsch, A History of the End of the World.  (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), pp.3-4.

(Photo credit – Alamy)

Professor Kirsch has given only a very short list of examples of how Revelation has been (ab)used by fanatics, zealots, and cynical manipulators to justify their own wickedness as Divine will.  From Augustine of Hippo (early 5th Century) calling for the Emperor’s wrath on the Donatists to the Inquisition to some of the US’s farthest Right in the last few decades, the refrain has been the same.

The sincerity of someone’s belief in their own rationalization for taking on the role of God’s avenging angel to bring judgment on apostates and infidels does not reduce their delusion or the downright wickedness of their deeds.  All the more if those deeds were done in full knowledge of their ability to inflame others to do their dastardly work in the name of Christ.

It is the shame of the Church (the Universal Church of Jesus, not any particular denomination) to have sanctioned and participated in some of the bloodiest and most reprehensible deeds of history by invoking the glorious King of Kings as their Commander in launching aggressive and murderous war.  As Kirsch notes, even Hitler used that angle to deceive, or at least salve the consciences of, millions of German Christians as he went about “cleansing the earth” of the unworthy in order to inaugurate his own version of the millennium.

Fanatics are not peculiar to Christianity.  We have seen them in action within other religions with the same manifestations of justifying heinous and diabolical actions in the name of their god(s).  We have seen them in action in atheistic socio-political ideologies with fury that at least equals and often exceeds that of religious zealots.  When Christians slide into that yawning abyss it is a fundamental betrayal of everything their Master taught and exemplified.  Only the deepest (self-) deception about who Yeshua is, why he came, and what he did can move those calling themselves his disciples to behave like the Devil himself.

Which brings us to what I call the “Imperial Church”.

The Church (Greek – ekklesia – the assembly of the people, of the citizens, of the community) is the institutionalized form of the community that Yeshua left behind him when he left this world, promising to return someday to renew it from top to bottom.  Meantime he instructed his disciples and followers to go into all the world and teach and demonstrate what the Kingdom of God should be like in action, not just in a theology about judgment and punishment of sin (human failure to turn back to the Creator and to treat one another and His creation as they should).

In the Bible there are plenty of metaphors and images of what that Kingdom is and what it should look like when put into place and lived in action in the here and now, not just in some future age when Yeshua will return to actually rule as the final King.  Jesus once told his disciples that they should be “in the world, but not of it”, that they should not seek to rule and dominate “like the rulers of the nations do” – by fear, coercion, manipulation, oppression, and violent force to bring compliance or face annihilation.  He told his followers, “If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom, be the servant of all…. Wash one another’s feet.”

“Aye, and there’s the rub,” as Shakespeare would say.  The Yeshua way is a lot harder than gathering a powerful army, marching into some place, ordering everyone to believe or face the alternative of, at best, being a slave or lower-class menial serving the elite, or, at worst, death and destruction.  The Yeshua way is feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the poor and destitute and downtrodden, lifting up the oppressed and bringing them hope, and even offering mercy and the opportunity to repent and change to the most depraved and criminal.

The truth about the Yeshua way is that it takes a long time to bring about change in human hearts and society itself.  And you still have to always contend with the rebels, the recalcitrant, and the plain old incorrigibly wicked who still want to use and abuse and control and dominate others.

In an ideal word where people were really inherently good rather than broken and selfish and prone to take advantage of others for self enhancement and personal gratification, we could bring in the Kingdom of the Messiah by lived example and persuasion.  According to all the evidence available in history, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, we find ourselves in a world where humans do not naturally (perhaps with some odd exceptions) treat one another nicely and fairly with any constancy.  Even the best of us fall into patterns of behaviour that put ourselves in the place of the Creator at the core of our being.

Which is why we need one another’s help; which is why we needed (and need) the Creator to take a direct hand in showing us the way out, and giving us a changed heart.  Which is why the Creator sent the embodiment of all that in an actual living human being – Yeshua of Natzeret – two thousand years ago.

We will not engage here in the debate about whether what Christians traditionally believe about Yeshua-Jesus is true.  The purpose of this reflection is to consider what those who profess to follow him and to desire the coming of his Kingdom in this realm of time and space have made of his legacy.  That legacy was entrusted to a community, not merely to individuals to figure and live out on their own.  Yeshua called that community his ekklesia – see the definition above – more like a great extended family acknowledging God, the Creator, as its Father-King, and the members as sons and daughters, sisters and brothers.

For about 250 years after Yeshua bodily left the earth, the Ekklesia more or less remained true to the intent of its Founder.  But things were often hard.  Most of the family lived inside the Roman Empire, and the Roman authorities were capricious in their treatment of them.  Some Emperors ignored them as relatively harmless idealists suffering from delusions of mystic grandeur.  Some decided they were a threat to the social and even political order of the Empire and sporadically persecuted them.  Some local governors sometimes took it upon themselves to use force and coercion against these dissidents who claimed there is a heavenly King even above the Emperor and discouraged their sons and brothers from serving in the Roman military and government.

The numbers of the family grew into the millions over the generations, and finally the Roman State decided to destroy this insidious social infection.  Massive persecutions broke out in the Third Century.  Tens of thousands of Christians were killed.  Tens of thousands more recanted, at least publicly.  Tens of thousands more went underground, but carried on – and the numbers continued to grow.

A crisis was at hand.  It seemed that one side or the other must give way in the great contest of Caesar versus Jesus Christ (Messiah Yeshua).

TO BE CONTINUED

666 and all that, 3

Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. – Yeshua/Jesus in Mattthew 26:52

God’s Kingdom, you see, isn’t about food and drink, but about justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. – The Apostle Paul to the Romans, chapter 14, verse 17.

The large majority of American white Evangelicals have adopted a particular brand of militant, militaristic, and America-is-God’s-chosen-land centered “gospel”.  In their view, the message of peace and reconciliation so loudly and clearly proclaimed by Jesus and the early Christians is relegated to the sidelines as a sort of wimp-out only fit for acceptance after the Second Coming when Jeus will destroy all the infidels and mete out hell-fire justice on all unbelievers.

This thinly disguised, racialized and military form of “gospel” has seized control of the dialogue in the “good-ole-USA” and driven the socio-economic divisions between the haves and have-nots in that great nation deeper and deeper.  Despite the heroic “we’ve got to save the country from the Beast (whatever the latest appearance of that may be)” rhetoric, it is a gross distortion of the spirit of everything Jesus exemplified and taught.  It uses very select excised Bible references to create a pseudo-Jesus transformed from the Redeemer, the Reconciler, and the Prince of Peace to the ultimate warrior and avenging angel.  

Interestingly, the deepest roots of this dark ideology are in the Deep South, the states that once formed the slavery-based Confederate States of America and launched the Civil War, which very nearly destroyed the United States.  The current ideology does not, of course, promote old-style slavery, but preaches the need for virile white evangelical manhood to stand up strong and keep the wrong sort of people from running the USA.  From these roots, southern-style colonial enclaves of “Jesus the ultimate Manly-man and Warrior” ideologues have established camps in other key areas, such as Colorado Springs.  This baptized and thinly spiritualized socio-political ideology appeals most deeply to white working class and middle-class people feeling threatened by the rise of egalitarianism and the progressive movement’s quest for recognizing in fact and not mere words the full equality of women, Afro-Americans, and other long-sublimated ethnic groups.

To legitimize this “Church-militant” stance, a crusade is always essential.  Causes against which to take up the battle for the national soul and throw down the social gauntlet may shift as needed.  First there was Communism in the Cold War, along with its many leftist disguises, such as disarmament.  That old bogeyman still lurks in the closet to be pulled out whenever the Left moves into power and espouses radical changes ranging from social medicine to gay rights (and all the latest addenda to that original social revolutionary sex-wedge).  Terrorism is another and Islam is its most virulent form, making Muslims a choice target.  Family values and issues are always a great rallying point, as is abortion. 

Even fellow Christians of the more moderate and liberal strains can be good foils to mobilize the troops.  After all, the clear-eyed warrior must push out those who compromise and even betray the “true Gospel”.  This “gospel” somehow seems to be found only in America and only among the right kind of passionate disciples who stand on a particular set of principles regarding Biblical inerrancy and exclusive male leadership and headship, especially as regards the family and the Church.

What has all or any of this to do with 666, the Apocalypse (Revelation), and Eschatology?  It is essential to hold to the imminence of Christ’s return in order to stimulate the necessary zeal and garner the necessary funds to keep all the machinery of evangelical empire and socio-political culture strong enough to heavily influence the power-brokers and decision-makers in Washington and the states which form the core of this power-bloc.  Fanning the hope of Christ’s imminent return creates urgency, and the threat of the latest iteration of 666 and the Beast makes that more real, and justifies the massive propaganda machine that has been erected and underpins this huge bloc.

To expose all of this is far beyond the scope of this blog and its blogger.  What is of enormous concern here is that this whole worldview permeates the lives and lifestyles of between 80-100 million Americans, the massive majority of whom are white Evangelicals who have adopted a triumphalist, ultra-nationalist ideology disguised as “true Christianity”.  Its chief promoters are no doubt fanatically convinced that they are the exclusive elite who truly understand and must lead the rest, even at times by subterfuge and outright manipulation of the truth, if necessary. 

It matters little how often such distortions and manipulations are exposed for what they are.  It matters little how often the preachers of purity and righteousness and strong family values are caught out in flagrant scandals that totally discredit what they proclaim themselves the champions of.  The other leaders then provide covers and excuses and half-truth justifications, or offer some token of reprimand, but then declare that the truths are still true and the cause is still pure and just.

The narrative declares that America is still the only real hope of the world, the home of freedom and the true light among the nations.  Despite whatever seems to contradict this, the USA still has its sacred mission, appointed and anointed by the Lord Jesus Himself, built on the faith of the Founding Fathers as the City on the Hill in the New World.

There is no mistaking that at times America has been an agent of enormous good in the world, and still has the potential to be so again.  But it has also produced another image and persona of itself that puts it out of line with anything the true Gospel of Jesus Christ could be as a genuine reflection of the Master who willingly died on Golgotha at the hands of the ancient world’s greatest Superpower and the instigation of the ancient world’s most God-fearing religious establishment.

What the US brand of ultra-Evangelicalism most resembles historically is the fanatical Crusaders who believed that killing those who refused to accept Christ or opposed the preaching of His message was both just and essential if His Kingdom is ever to be brought into the world.  There is none of the humility and self-understanding of being a fallible sinner who might even betray the Master that we find in the Apostles or the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Fathers and Mothers of the ancient Church.  There is no hint of the first believers who “turned the whole world upside down” and shook the foundations of the Empire itself by turning the other cheek, turning back to be crucified with his people, as Peter did, or heading to Rome to face the Emperor himself even if it meant death, as Paul did.  There is no hint of “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you and persecute you, and so you will prove yourselves to be the children of your Heavenly Father”.

Instead we see a militant, militarized, triumphalist pseudo-Gospel ready to wage war on all evil-doers (as identified by the rabble-rousers naming the latest incarnation of anti-Christ) and changing the Jewish Rabbi Messiah into a westernized Terrible King of vengeance bringing the wrath of God on all sinners because the time for soft-hearted mercy has passed.  In the world of America’s iteration of Evangelicalism, “true Christian men” must stand up and man-up and take up arms to defend their wives (who need to submit and accept what hubby says as God’s will) and protect their children.

It is perhaps not too far-fetched to say that in all this what we are witnessing is a national cult, and a genuine 21st-Century heresy.

(Suggested reading for the dubious, the curious, or the furious: Jesus and John Wayne, How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristin Kobes du Mez, 2020)

TO BE CONTINUED

666 and all that, 2

You see, the royal appearing of the Son of Man [Jesus’ own term for himself] will be like the lightning that comes from the east and flashes across to the west.  Where the carcass is, there the vultures will gather.

Jesus – Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, verses 27-8

(Photo credit – Jesus film project)

When faced with the kaleidoscopic symbolism found in the Biblical Book of Revelation, many readers of the New Testament throw up their hands and decide to ignore it.  It is among the least read books of the Christian Scriptures, although among the most written about in the last half century or so.  Those who favour it believe that it holds the secret to understanding “the Last Days” or “End Times” and deciphering when the “Great Tribulation” will begin and what that will look and be like.

For instance, certain verses in the book suggest that that terrible last age will last seven years and be characterized by the coming into global rule of “the Beast”, seconded by the great “False Prophet”, his main henchman.  Behind the Beastly throne stands the Great Dragon, Satan, whose spirit the Beast incarnates and whose word the False Prophet speaks with deadly authority.

One popular school of interpretation among Conservative Evangelicals includes the Pre-Millennial “Great Rapture”.  This particular approach to the overture of the Great Tribulation (and, by extension, Revelation) is largely rooted in a brand of North American (and especially United States) Evangelicalism mostly held by whites.  There it has taken deep cultural root, while many Evangelicals of “colour” find it a largely racist, militarist, nationalist stream that contributes to their own continuing exclusion from the mainstream of American society.  Unfortunately, there is rather good reason for their perception.  The early genesis of this peculiar form of eschatology is found among some eccentric sects of extreme mid-19th Century English Brethren (Darbyites and Millerites) and offshoots, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

It is rather concerning that the presently favoured (North American) Evangelical doctrine about the “End Times” was born among such origins.  It crossed into more mainstream and “respectable” Evangelical avenues largely thanks to Schofield’s innovation of Dispensationalism.  This took root in the Pentecostal Movement, and later in the charismatic prophetic strand of American Evangelicalism, and now in a generalized way across many denominational lines.

The Pre-Millennial Rapture perspective was thus unknown until less than two hundred years ago.  The ancient Christians knew nothing of it.  In current use some verses of the Apostolic writings are interpreted to say that it was the original teaching of the Apostles and what Jesus meant in a few of His Apocalyptic sayings, but for 1800 years the greatest interpreters of the Scriptures said nothing about this understanding of how the End Times would play out.

Sadly, many of those who hold most steadfastly to this special understanding of Eschatology (the study of the last or final things) seem unprepared and unwilling to consider very powerful arguments that place the accuracy of this whole scheme into serious doubt.

For instance, in the first part of this series we noted that seven is one of those especially important numbers in The apocalypse.  Throughout the rest of the Scriptures, its primary meaning is “complete, whole, full, perfect” and not primarily, although it may be that sometimes, a mathematical quantity.  Tribulation means “great trouble”.  Anyone who lives past the age of seven knows that trouble and even great trouble is not and cannot be limited to a seven-year window.  And such is true in history too.  The primary meaning is not seven literal years, but the fullness of time till “the age of the Gentiles is done” as Jesus put it in talking of the destruction and desecration of Jerusalem.

Yeshua (Jesus) said “In this world/age/time/life, you will have tribulation/great trouble.  But take comfort, for I have overcome the world (the brokenness of the creation and the pains of our existence).”  Seven stands for something quintessential and “full-up” with regard to many things in other references.  To insist that in this single instance it must be a literal time so it fits with a certain modern way of interpreting the most symbolic and allegorical of all Biblical books does not do it justice and even distorts it.  The real point is that very great trouble is always to be expected in this age before it ends with the coming of the “Son of Man”.  Jesus warned, “If the Son of Man had not returned, no one would be left,” and “When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith in the world?”  That is a perennial existential question.

The “prophesied time” has already been much longer than seven years.  There has already been unimaginable tribulation in many places over the last two thousand or so years since the Ascension of Christ.  Ask the tens of thousands who died in the Roman persecutions under some of the most horrific tortures ever devised.  Or the millions who have died in “religious wars”, or under Nazi, Soviet, Chinese Communist, and Islamist persecutions.  It is the filling up, the finishing that is being emphasized, not the specific number of days, weeks, months, and years that we need to be counting down.

In describing the signs (in The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, verses 27 and following)that will accompany or precede his Second Coming Jesus says:

You see, the royal appearing of the Son of Man [Jesus’ own term for himself] will be like the lightning that comes from the east and flashes across to the west.  Where the carcass is, there the vultures will gather.

Vultures gather where dead bodies lie.  The Son of Man comes and is coming and is to be looked for at all times, and all the more in the times of great trouble when the bodies pile up.

Straightway… after the suffering that those days will bring, “The sun will turn to darkness, and the moon won’t give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will shake.”

We are not being told that the universe will cease following the laws of physics here.  We are being told in Apocalyptic language to expect the most extreme forms of evil and spiritual darkness to break through.  It will seem as though all of existence is crashing down.  There may well be physical phenomena at play creating the blocking of light.  In God’s order, the physical and spiritual are one reality, not two.  The heavenly bodies also speak of “the spiritual powers of wickedness in heavenly places” (Ephesians chapter 6:10 and following) which battle against the coming of the Kingdom of God with all their might and main.

And the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven; then all the tribes of the earth will mourn.  They will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.  He will send his messengers [angels] with a great trumpet-blast, and they will collect his chosen ones from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other….

Nobody knows what day or time this will happen…

In His own time, the Messiah will break through and come (again) to deal with the rebellion and chaos of satanic lawlessness, but trying to lay it all out in a modern schemata is a diversion.  Moderns (even modern Western Christians, who are people of their own time) want to calculate it all like we calculate an engineering problem, but we cannot box God or His plans in no matter how minutely we dissect the verses that tantalize us.  It is our modern rationalism that drives us to do what the ancients knew better than to attempt.  It is actually weak faith, not strong faith (trust) that drives us to this kind of obsession.

The royal appearing of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah.  What does that mean?  Well, in those days, before the flood, they were eating and drinking, they were getting married and giving children in marriage, right up to the day when Noah went into the ark.  They didn’t know about it until the flood came and swept them all away.  That’s what it’ll be like at the royal appearing of the Son of Man.

This is transparently not about being snatched out of peril, but being swept up in it because of rejecting the way out (salvation) God has provided.

On that day there will two people working in the field.  One will be taken; the other will be left.  There will be two women grinding corn in the mill.  One will be taken; the other will be left.

In this illustration, Yeshua was speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, not the Great Rapture at the End of Days.  The whole description is of a terrible siege as per the Roman Army’s masterly way of taking strong cities and fortresses.  It is also what happened in the fields around Jerusalem when Titus’s juggernaut descended on that area to lay siege to Israel’s great city.

So keep alert!  You don’t know what day your master will come.  But bear this in mind: if the householder had known what time of night the burglar was going to come, he would have stayed awake and wouldn’t have let his house get broken into.  So you must be ready!  The Son of Man is coming at a time you don’t expect.  (The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation)

We think the “burglar” in this little parable is the bad-guy and the householder is the good-guy, but the whole context turns that on its head.  The “householder” is the strong-man (as he is called in a parallel passage) who invaded the house and usurped the property of the rightful owner.  It is the Satan who has done this to the beautiful world God created.  The “burglar” is the rightful owner coming back to claim his own.  That is why Jesus says “he will come like a thief in the night”.

It is time we started seeing our time more clearly by shedding some distorted lenses we have fallen into using for the last two centuries or more.  It is time to also begin to see the lamentable condition of the Master’s House partly caused by distortions of reality we have adopted in the name of the Kingdom of God since ancient times.

TO BE CONTINUED

666 and all that, 1

“This calls for wisdom.  Anyone with a good head on their shoulders should work out the monster’s number, because it’s the number of a human being.  Its number is Six Hundred and Sixty-Six.”

Revelation 13:18 – The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation

(Photo – Nero. Credit: History.com)

For 1900 years, the number 666 has spooked Dooms-Day prognosticators.  It has been much used in horror movies, fantasy, and science-fiction.  We find it in religious sensationalism and prophetic predictions.  It is strewn across centuries of literature and dire warnings of the coming of the Final Judgment.[i]

It is the Apocalyptic Number of “the Great Beast”.  For those who first heard it used two millennia ago, it was code for the mad Roman Emperor Nero.  Then he died.  Then he was rumored to have come back to life, like the head wounded unto death but returned to life in the final book of the New Testament, Revelation, also called “the Apocalypse of St. John”.

To many and perhaps most readers who try to fathom that mysterious scroll, it comes across as a fantastic sounding and seemingly confusing set of visions (confusing to us two thousand years later) full of sevens within sevens, wheels within wheels, conspiracies within conspiracies, and mysteries within mysteries.  Six Hundred and Sixty-Six was also the “Mark of the Beast” stamped on the hand or the forehead, or both, of those who would give in and become the servants and slaves of the Beast.  This last book of the Bible has given limitless scope to fertile and fervent imaginations, both for those who revere the Bible and those who see it simply as a fascinating source of imagery and fantasy.

There is no doubt that the Apocalypse (a Greek word that means “unveiling” or “revealing” – thus the translation “Revelation”) is a fascinating book, even to those who do not adhere to Christianity or the Bible.  It is actually an especially powerful example of a certain genre of ancient literature known as the “apocalyptic”.  The ancient Jews were especially prone to produce such works in the Second and First Centuries BCE, with some carryover into the First Century CE.  There were even some non-Jewish apocalyptic works.

John, the author of Revelation, is firmly anchored in the apocalyptic tradition, although quite unique within it as well.  Unlike most other apocalyptic writers, John (usually believed to have been Jesus’ “beloved Disciple”, the Apostle John) is actually crystal clear in the central message of his story (and yes, he does tell a story – a very powerful one).  Many other such works are rife with mysterious obscurities and veiled meanings only the special initiates (Gnostics) can fathom.  John’s basic purpose and story are totally transparent when you get past a few primary keys that open the locks to the combinations of sevens and other numbers – such as the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”, references to three and a half “times”, and the use of triple six.

The book and its story are obviously not a literal history of the times and culture of the late First Century CE, but they are full of recognizable allusions to that time and its major cultural features, just as other Biblical books are the products of their time and set within the culture of their periods.  Revelation is set in the form of an extended letter to seven particular late First Century Christian congregations in the Roman Province of Asia (now west-Central Turkey).  That is an important contextual point.

This series will not rehash and reinterpret all the Book’s very complex structure and imagery.  The intention is to set out a few major points which will provide us with a basis to deal with some of our own time’s and culture’s critical issues.  Despite the temporal difference of almost two thousand years, there are remarkable parallels which we may do well to consider as we work our way through the turmoil of our own years of great and rapid change.

First, a point about numbers and numerology.  There are many numbers in Revelation.  They almost never mean an empirical, scientific, mathematical quantity.  They are representative of other notions and ideas which bridge the visible, sensory Cosmos in which we mostly, consciously experience reality and the spiritual but just as real side of reality.

Two numbers in Revelation stand out above all others – 666 and various groups of seven.  In ancient Biblical numerology (the study of the symbolic use and meaning of numbers), six is the number of humans, “Man”, the human race (see opening citation).  Why?  Humanity was the apex of all creation, created last on the sixth and last day of creation.  In contrast, seven is God’s number, as well as the number of completion, wholeness, finality.  God rested after the creation on the Seventh Day, consecrating and declaring it holy – set apart for Him.  There are not seven days of creation, but six, for seven is the “Sabbath” – the Day set aside for rest, renewal, regeneration.  “And God rested on the seventh day.” (Book of Genesis 1)  It is the number of completion, maturation, perfect work.  God named it His own day.  On it humans were to turn to their Creator and be renewed, stopping all their work and striving.

If seven first of all refers to God’s finished, perfect, good work of creation, what is it with all the sevens of judgment and destruction in Revelation?  That is complicated.  It has to do with all the wickedness and rebellion and destruction of the Creation against the Creator – most especially by humans, egged on and bamboozled by the “Great Serpent” – the beguiler and deceiver, the “Great Dragon” we meet in the twelfth chapter of the book.  Judgment is primarily the failure to enter the Sabbath rest of the Creator, to take the extended hand of God and draw closer to the Creator.  That rejection entails abusing and exploiting the creation for our own purposes rather than what we and they have been created for.  The creation then becomes broken, twisted, contorted and full of pain and thrashing about in futility.  The sevens of judgment are all about what that looks like in various guises.  Over the millennia, this brokenness has accumulated and become an exponentially inflated mountain to the point that we have become capable of physically wiping out the great gift of life God made to us on Planet Earth.  Revelation talks about the filling up of the vials and cups of “the wrath of God”.  When the cup is overflowing, there is nowhere for all the putrid corruption to go but out, flowing down over the Earth and polluting everything. 

In the Bible, several examples are given to illustrate this outcome.  The two most terrible are: first, Noah’s Flood, and second, Sodom and Gomorrah.  Yeshua-Jesus refers to both in his comments about “the last days” – the days of coming judgment.  This makes these examples worth paying attention to as severe warnings to us in our time.

There is something of a conspiracy craze afoot these days, especially here in the West.  Conspiracy is a fascinating term.  If you’ve never noticed, it shares the same root meaning as “piracy”.  The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “Conspire – [to] Combine privily [secretly] for unlawful purpose, esp. treason, murder, sedition; [to] plot, devise [to ruin, attack].”  A conspiracy is the act of conspiring.  Piracy is the continual action of conspiracy to seize and take and even destroy whatever the pirate conspires to take for himself.

From the Biblical perspective, conspiring has been going on since the beginning of human history.  Most criminal activity is born of conspiracy.  Humans have been plotting and planning in all kinds of ways and at all times to undercut, usurp, and exploit the creation for their own goals and purposes rather than bringing it into its most perfect expression as God’s wonderful work and gift to us and all its participant creatures. 

In the Bible, there is a rebel counter-force named as “the Satan” – the adversary and accuser.  This power is portrayed as “the Serpent”.  The Serpent is a particular serpentine being, not a characterization of all snakes.  He/it is so subtle and deceptive that he is able to fool the most intelligent humans, hiding in plain sight.  Yeshua once described the goal of this anti-God force thus: “The Satan [usually identified as an actual personal being(s)] comes only to kill, steal, and destroy” and “is the father [inventor, originator] of lies.”

But humans are also “serpentine” on their own, not requiring the “Accuser’s” assistance to conceive and execute malignant schemes and behaviours.  The Serpent is only too glad to stimulate and spur those innate human tendencies into full activation.

The coming together of the Cosmic “evil one” and the human propensity to seek our own aggrandizement at the expense of everyone and everything else typically and periodically produce especially monstrous eruptions that leave the whole world reeling and the human race lying in a shambles.  Shifting the blame, we point the finger at God as if the Deity is responsible for allowing us to behave demonically rather than exercising His omnipotence to prevent such horrors.  The Accuser laughs all the while from behind the Oz-Curtain, and we fool ourselves that we are justified because God doesn’t just cut evil out of our hearts and kill the most monstrous perpetrators.

This series will follow some of the threads that emerge from this perspective and compare them to various episodes of history as well as aspects of our conspiracy-mad current global and Western culture.

I invite readers to consider their own ideas about these phenomena and to comment with their own observations.  I also invite interested readers to read chapters 12 and 13 of the New Testament Book of Revelation as a reference point.  Of course the more complete context is the whole Book of Revelation or Apocalypse, and not only two chapters.


[i] Belief in judgment of life by the gods or some supernatural beings (ancestors) after death has existed for many millennia.  The Final Judgment is not just a Christian doctrine about the Creator coming to judge everyone who has ever lived and assign them to Heaven or Hell, salvation or perdition.  In some version, It has existed from time immemorial in earlier religious teachings, including polytheistic systems and other major World Religions, such as Judaism (which gave it to Christianity) and Islam.  Hinduism has its twist on it, and the notion that wickedness will ultimately be dealt with by the supernatural forces of good extends far into the remotest reaches of antiquity.

Faith and Hope –  Assurance and Conviction 9 – Conclusion  – Hope and Assurance, 2

While there is life, there is hope. – Marcus Tullius Cicero

A ship should not ride on a single anchor, or a life on a single hope. – Epictetus

When hope is taken away from a people moral degeneration follows swiftly after. – Pearl S. Buck

A great Hope fell

You heard no noise

The Ruin was within.

– Emily Dickinson

So, now, faith, hope and love remain, these three; and of them, love is the greatest. – Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul.

(Photo credit – Wikipedia)

Life without hope is the slide into despair.  Anyone who has lost hope for any length of time has discovered that road.  Whether small or great, millions feel it.  Winston Churchill called it “the black dog”.  Abraham Lincoln confessed to times of deep despondency during his Presidency, particularly after the death of his youngest son.

The devastating disappointments and betrayals of life drive people into emotional dark depths where they find themselves in the pit of despair.  Occasionally it can be turned around by a momentous event or revelation of why there is reason to hope.  Churchill’s refuge of hope was his wife’s rock-solid faith in him and his deep faith in his sense of a Providential calling to play some great role in the world.  Knowing large swaths of the Bible by heart and many passages of classic literature gave him deep reserves to call upon.  He typifies Epictetus’ wise dictum that we need more than one anchor to get through life’s roller-coaster.

Cicero, Epictetus, and Paul were Roman-era thinkers of very different backgrounds.  Buck and Dickinson are great writers of the 20th Century.

Cicero, one of the great orators of all time, was also one of Rome’s truly original philosophers.  He believed in the essential benevolence of the Creator.  While observing and performing the public forms of Rome’s polytheistic religion, he personally believed that there was really but one great God.  He held that this Creator was fundamentally benevolent in creating a good world and giving us life in the first place when He had no obligation to do so.  Life is thus a declaration of hope that there is goodness in the world even in the midst of evil.  When death came to him by a vengeful Caesar Augustus’ assassins, he met it in keeping with his convictions.

Epictetus was a second century CE Stoic philosopher much admired by his contemporaries.  He inspired Rome’s unique philosopher-Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (d. 181 CE), whose Meditations are much read to this day.  The Stoics were not optimists, but strongly believed in a created order in which one must find and live by one’s calling and do one’s duty within that calling.  One must do as much good as possible for the greatest number and obviate as much as evil as possible. 

Stoics believed that since suffering and death are inevitable, it is one’s allotment to live well, suffer well when that time comes, and die well in the end, offering example and inspiration to those who follow.  They also believed in one Creator presiding over all, although not opposing the observance of polytheistic religious conventions for the sake of maintaining public unity and order.  The “Good Emperors”, from Trajan (98-117 CE) to Marcus Aurelius (161-181 CE), presided over the the second half of the Roman Empire’s “Golden Age” of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace).  They were Stoics.  Under them, the persecution of Christians was sporadic and largely confined to specific localities.  Marcus Aurelius found any form of persecution distasteful and inconsistent with his philosophy, but, as a Stoic with a higher duty to the Divinely sanctioned Empire, felt compelled to restrain the growth of this counter-culture which contradicted the Order of the world that Rome embodied.  For him, hate played no role;  it was nothing personal.

Marcus Aurelius’s successors proved to be far more interested in enjoying their power and playing god than being philosophical.  Buck’s comment (see above) about moral degeneracy resulting from the removal of hope had been seen previously under the worst of the early Emperors (notably Caligula and Nero) before the Antonines (Aurelius being the last of them).  It truly came to light during the next centuries when Rome drifted into constant internal and external strife.  Since then over the last 1800 years, societies everywhere in the world have played true to Buck’s observation.  By many appearances, the West of the 21st Century is acting out its own version of this drama.

Dickinson’s poignant lines tell us that the worst form of death is the ruin of the soul. Inevitable physical death is not the worst fate.  It does not at all mean the internal ruin of the person.  Moral ruin within is really a far worse death, for it renders life itself futile, meaningless.  To die well with hope that life means something and one’s own life has meant something takes away some of its sting.

Which brings us to Saul of Tarsus, better known as the Apostle Paul.  His statement is immortal.  It is among the most oft-quoted in history, even among those who know and care next to nothing about the Bible, from which it is taken.

Paul marries three of the great, “Divine” virtues that transcend worthy lesser ones such as honesty and valour.  It is hard to segment virtues in some sort of hierarchy, for the “greater” and “lesser” are really quite interdependent, giving life to one another.  But the “Higher” virtues are perhaps more readily linked to the core of how we are made in the image of God, at least in Christian theology.  One does not need relationship with God to understand the value of honesty and integrity, or even courage, for example.  It is even possible to find some degree of faith, hope, and love outside of consciously striving for relationship with the Maker.

But Paul’s point is about how such virtues can only be truly fulfilled and lived in their highest and best expression in relationship to the One who completes all faith aspirations, fulfills all hopes, and perfects love.  Over and over again, we have referenced the essential hopelessness of a vision of the Universe as an accidental congruence of totally improbable events for which we can provide no reason.  Lately we are seeing quite respected and respectable scientists admitting that the Cosmos not only superficially appears to have come into being as a result some intentional design, but consistently has behaved that way since its very first instant.

And this brings us back to hope.  Evidence says more and more convincingly (allowing us to live with conviction) that there is a true and real design inherent in the very fabric of all that is.  Denying it harder and harder will not make it go away.

We are now closing the circle that began, in the Enlightenment mythology of the emergence of modern science, with Galileo being persecuted and silenced by the willfully blind and ignorant dogmatists of the Catholic Church’s established hierarchy.  It is now the hardline dogmatic rationalists to refuse to see what the evidence more and more clearly declares about the probable existence of a Personal Designer. There is a diminishing number of real active scientists who say “it does not move”, while the scientific “heretics” are coming out of the woodwork and no longer whispering, but saying more and more boldly, “And yet it moves.”[1]

Why is all this hopeful?  Because when we have gone as far as reason can take us, we find there is much more to learn and experience beyond that boundary.  We can begin to accept the testimony of humans from all of our history that there is a Maker, there is a Creator who has put us here for a reason – to know and relate to Him/Her and to discover that wonder and majesty of all that He/She has made.  And within that incredible outpouring of His/Her glory, we discover who and what we are and have always been intended to be and become.

All human existence testifies to the incredible power of love to inspire, to move us to great things.  Behind all that is, is the Power of an infinite Person, not an abstract principle, calling us to know and be known in relationship to Him/Her, and through the One who is, to know and be known by one another.

And out of this understanding comes that which we began this series with – Trust-Faith.  For knowing the Maker, the Creator who is really and truly there, and even incredibly here and near (as close as your jugular vein in the graphic phrase of the Quran), grants us a real ground to hope, to love, and to trust.

As we conclude this series, let us reflect for a moment on why Saul-Paul said “the greatest of these” (the three paramount virtues – faith, hope, and love) is love.”  It goes back to what the Creator has done out of sheer love, without any obligation to any other.  The Maker of all that is needed nothing or anyone.  Out of sheer selfless love, He/She chose to make a universe where His/Her love could be given out without limit, like a super-explosion (Big Bang anyone?), and freely offered to creatures made in His/Her own image, who could choose to love back and love one another and manifest the nature of the Maker in themselves.

That, essentially, is the Judeo-Christian story which for most of two millennia anchored the West and gave it reason and even enabled it to produce some pretty amazing advances in shedding some of the worst aspects of what happens to people without that kind of faith, hope, and love. 

We will finish this series with an allusion to a very old story from Christian tradition.

It is said that, in the early 60s of the First Century CE, after many adventures, the Apostle Peter had made his way to Rome.  When 60-70% of Rome burned in the great fire of 64 AD, the mad Emperor Nero blamed it on the Christians in order to deflect the blame the populace was laying on him.  A terrible persecution of Christians broke out and thousands were being put to death in a series of great spectacles to divert the outraged populace.

The Christians of Rome urged Peter to leave the city to escape so that he might continue to minister and witness to Jesus elsewhere.  Peter headed south along the Via Appia, Rome’s equivalent to the I-95 in the eastern US or Highway 401 in Canada.  Somewhere along the way, the resurrected Jesus met him.  Jesus was walking towards the city. 

Shocked and trembling, Peter asked him, “Quo vadis, Domine? – Where are you going, Lord?”

Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again with my people, for you have abandoned them.”

Struck to the heart and weeping, Peter went to his knees and repented.  Jesus comforted and reassured him that He would be there with him.  Peter got up and hurried back.  Soon after he was arrested and crucified, having brought great comfort and renewed faith to the condemned.  The Apostle asked his killers to be crucified upside down because, “I am not worthy to die in the same way as my Lord.”

This very likely true story illustrates all that we have been trying to say about faith, hope, and love – and the assurance and conviction that give the strength to live by what one says about believing and acting.  The source of Peter’s trust in Jesus was a living personal relationship rooted in experience of his Lord’s love for him and for the people he too loved.  The source of Peter’s hope was this personal love and experience in seeing that this was the real deal, and that he would not be abandoned and proven deluded.  Conviction was part and parcel of it all.  Trusting what his Lord had promised, Peter fully committed himself to die well. His conviction was based on what he knew already and what he had good reason to believe would be fulfilled in the future according to his Lord’s promises.

The Christian story is not about “pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by”.  A future wonderful renewed world and an afterlife of bliss is all well and good, but the life we have today is to be lived in trust and hope that even now, we have good and sufficient reason to know we will have the strength to be a light in a dark world, even when that means figurative and literal crucifixion.

If you are not a follower of Jesus, you have no less need for that kind of trust and hope to make it through the inevitable trials life will bring you.

Pax vobiscum.


[1] I am referring the (in)famous trial of Galileo before the Inquisition in the 1640s, when Galileo, under threat of being burned as heretic, recanted his statements that the planets moved around the sun and the whole universe is in motion, and that the earth is not the center of the Universe.

Faith and Hope,  Assurance and Conviction, 8 – Hope and Assurance, 1

(Photo credit: Biography.com)

In 2021 the Ultra-Left term themselves “the Woke”.  Apparently they have entered a state of New Enlightenment that is wiping out the old one inspired by the likes of David Hume, John Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau.  A great many more names could be added to that honoured list, but the point is that, according to the Woke, all these old-school scientific and logical thinkers suffered from two major faults: first, they were all European, white males, and secondly, they had all been much too exposed to Christianity, even if they largely repudiated its institutional forms and most of its basic tenets.

It is true that Western society of the fourteen hundred years or so prior to our own much more liberated 21st– Century version failed to grant women their rights and proper and due place as the equals of men in politics, economics, and society.  It is true that for centuries it condoned slavery and belief in its own racial superiority.

For forty or fifty years a growing trend among the Western intelligentsia has been to eviscerate itself with conspicuous self-flagellation and deep shame over these failures.  Its abnegation of the foundational long-cherished adherence to reason, sound evidence, and scientific inquiry has rendered it a shadow of its former formidable force for finding truth.  Instead it has made itself a penitent lapdog of the boundlessly expanding Woke agenda, doing curious mental gymnastics to cover its self-inflicted abject spiritual and intellectual poverty. 

On the other hand, there is no avoiding historical Christendom’s dismal failure to live by the early Christian statement that “in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free” as the Apostle Paul put it in his letter to the Christian congregations of Galatia, a province of the ancient Roman Empire in what is now Turkey.  Neither is there any use in denying the successor First Enlightenment society’s equally dismal failure on the same account.  This guilty dual failure is the fodder the Ultra Left uses to induce the West’s self-loathing, screaming that it must all be torn down.  The Woke have only an agenda of destruction and offer nothing but nihilism in return, in flaming fulfillment of Nietzsche’s so-clairvoyant prophecy of 150 years ago.

Despite all the despair and hate-screaming, there is still a light shining.  Even today, 2000 years after he made it, the Apostle Paul’s statement is a beacon of hope in a dark world, a truly revolutionary statement, totally unlike the Ultra-Left’s pseudo-progressive nihilistic radicalism.  Despite the self-flagellating oddity of the West’s admission of guilt, it is paradoxically out of the much-maligned West that all these much needed calls for reform and equalization of injustices and rights have come.  The silence among all the other extant civilizations and cultures has been, on the whole and through many centuries, deafening.

On the surface, such a statement would seem to smack of yet more “racial” superiority – unless it is actually true.  However, as per the Woke’s screamology, even truth is racist if it has a “Eurocentric” origin.  But truth has nothing whatsoever to do with race or skin-color, which is after all nothing but melanin pigmentation.  By declaring truth we are not absolving the failures or excusing the perpetrators of crimes and abuses.  The West’s failures and crimes are just the “best” (or least) of a bad bunch.

We do not time or space here to produce the voluminous documentary and anecdotal evidence which substantiate that the West has been more progressive in its views and treatment of women and minorities over the last millennium and a half.  However, the evidence is real and abundant for anyone willing to find it and take an impartial look at it.

Of course there are some very dark places and times and backslidings in the progressive (in the true sense of that word) movement of the West to achieve something approaching greater equality of the sexes.  Incidentally, sexual equality is a different from “gender” equality, which has become the new cause of causes since “gender” was co-opted to refer to any and every choice of sexual behaviour.

In fact, the very emergence of the modern movement towards equalities and rights of all kinds emerged from the West, and no other culture, despite historians’ and anthropologists’ valiant efforts to offer spot-sightings and hints of these things elsewhere in the other major cultures and civilizations extant over the last two millennia.  By itself, the West’s pre-eminence in this by is infuriating back-door evidence of the truth of the claim.

Christendom’s emergence is not contemporaneous with Christianity’s appearance as a rising faith in the 3rd and 4th Centuries CE.  “Christendom” was a post-Charlemagne (ca 800 CE) idea.  For beginners, we find that Western womanhood in the last 1500 years has generally lived with a greater measure of consideration and respect, and even inclusion in society’s affairs at large, than her counterparts in other civilizations.  No doubt, this statement will displease some readers, but it is demonstrable historical fact.

When it comes to hope and assurance, the rights of women are the flagship of all human equality rights.  That is why Paul, that oft-maligned, supposed misogynist who apparently warped the ancient Church’s mindset to exclude and subjugate women, put women’s full and true equality at the head of his short list of the kinds of equality Mashiach Yeshua (Jesus Christ) opened to any who will come into his “Kingdom of God”.  This Kingdom was conceived as and offered more like a great extended family than any sort of “Kingdom” that has existed or exists in human governance in the records of history.

It is a declaration of real and true equality of men and women being made “in the image of God”.  Both have a full and equal part in manifesting and experiencing that “imageness” here and now as well as in the final consummation to come.  The physicality of sex is very real and is the source of begetting children and co-heirs for and in God’s Kingdom.  That is why this equality tops the three fundamental kinds of equality the Kingdom ushers in.

But what of the other two fundamental equalities: “Jew vs. Greek” and “slave vs. free”?

When Paul refers to “Jew and Greek”, he is speaking of all being fully equal before God and in His family, regardless of ethnicity, “race” (skin color and any other physically distinguishing characteristics one might choose to select as some sign of superiority), language, or culture.  None of this matters to the Creator or should to anyone claiming to truly seek Him/Her and follow His/Her ways. 

Finally, Paul designates the true and full equality of both “slave and free” within the Creator’s Kingdom.  This addresses all differences of social class and economic standing, both things which count for so much today – as they always have in “the present age”, the human Cosmos as we find it operating outside the Creator’s Kingdom.

Why is this triple declaration so powerful, so revolutionary, and full of hope?  Why did its first emergence “turn the world upside down”, as was noted by those who witnessed and feared its coming into their midst within the first thirty years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Yeshua-Jesus?

It simply challenged (and challenges) every means of creating division and preference humanity has ever devised or fallen into because of our broken “imageness” – our fundamental deviation from the design and purpose of the Creator.  It still challenges all of the same things, no matter how they have manifested themselves over the centuries and still do today.  Same-old, same-old.  “There is nothing new under the sun” – except the startling, dazzling coming of the Sent One, who came to lay the axe to the root and declare the true Revolution, the only Revolution that offers true hope and a real end to all our woes.

We will finish today with an ancient one-word Aramaic prayer – “Maranatha!”  If you are curious, look it up.

Faith and Hope:  Assurance and Conviction, 7 – The Smell of Blood

As far as I can make out in reading scientific treatments of the question of origins written for ordinary folks, the farthest the cosmologists can reach back is about 14-15 billion years to the Big Bang.  Whether and why there was anything before that to “Bang” is, for the present and foreseeable future, enshrouded in mystery.  Some evolutionary astro-physicists prefer to leave any hint of an uncreated Creative Power or Being which, or who, is not somehow the pre-Bang stuff of the universe itself, out of consideration.  This decision is an article of faith, a theological statement based on no evidence.  All that can be seen is that, from what looks awfully like everything coming out of nothing and nowhere, the original stuff of the Cosmos suddenly just was and at the very instant it was, it exploded with a violence and heat beyond any semblance of calculation.

Moving fourteen billion years forward, the Palaeontologists and Evolutionary Biologists tell us that 3-4 million years ago the first hominids appeared, walking upright and using their growing intelligence and hand-ingenuity to manipulate the environment.  Once more we meet mystery.  Why did these creatures appear in the first place?  It is part of the larger question of why life appeared, and how apparently chaotic combinations of atoms and sub-atomic particles could, would, and should formulate anything orderly, let alone life-bearing.  In other words, why did what, by all the odds, should have remained fundamental chaos begin to organize itself?

The scientifically unsophisticated are carefully instructed that someday science can and will be able to penetrate these great mysteries.  However, an rapidly increasing number of more forthright scientists do not dogmatically restate Stephen Hawking’s position on God that “we do not have need of that hypothesis”.  Instead, they gingerly use the word “God” now and again, without attaching a specific description of who or what God may be.  The tentative and usually unspoken admission is that the why of it all is beyond science to answer.  Even in the specifically scientific realm of why just the right sort of particles should appear in just the right proportions and just the right kind of combinations in defiance of all laws of probability is also a deep mystery, for it presents all the appearance of design and intentionality.

The particle researchers and Cosmologists admit the appearance of intentionality even at the origins of things, as if the “universe” or “Cosmos” somehow “knew” to go in a direction leading to increasingly complex organization and, finally, at least in some places, that most complex of developments – living things, with the most amazing of those being, as far as we can tell, humanity.

Nevertheless, believers in the Creator who follow ancient revelation are still seen as simpletons, fanatics, or irrelevant relics. Meanwhile, the new faith propounded over the last two hundred years, has entrenched itself against all challenge in a fashion every bit as founded on dogma as any creed proclaimed by any Council or Synod of Church or Temple, or any mullah or ayatollah.

The point we have been hammering is that at ground level faith is implicit trust in basic beliefs put into practice.  Ideologies and “secular”, god-denying worldviews (and materialistic Scientism, aggressive atheism, and militant progressivism are undeniable worldviews which now dominate our education systems and academic establishment) are every bit as dogmatic as any religion their proponents abhor, and at least as intolerant as any sect of Christianity has been.  “The proof is in the pudding,” or, as Yeshua said, “You will know them by their fruits.  You won’t get thorns from a fig tree and you can’t get figs from a thorn-bush.”  (I am liberally paraphrasing, but remaining faithful to all the sense of his aphorisms about such things as discerning the truth about things and people.)  In that last two hundred years, there have been 100-200 million corpses to illustrate the innate fanaticism of militant secular ideologies.

Here in Canada, it is facile and frequent to hear the denunciation of the apparent evil and hypocrisy of the rapidly eroding Judeo-Christian foundation and heritage of the West.  The more quickly we shed it the better, it would seem.  Then we will be free of all the vestiges of that cloying sanctimoniousness about the superiority of European civilization, largely rooted in that reprehensible Christian claim to be the one truth all need.  We must celebrate every aspect of the new diversity without judging any of it, however implicitly.  It would seem that “judgment” comes in almost every form of “euro-derivation”, even in the foundations of our mathematics and science itself.

Talk about having your cake and eating it too!  We are told on the “traditional” left that reason, logic, and science are the true way to enlightenment, then on the even farther left that that kind of thinking is also implicitly racist because it emerged from the West.  Anything tainted by the West (the European heritage of Canada), was, a few generations removed, Christian and founded on the Christian perspective of a personal God who made the universe according to definite design and is maintained in being by principles of order and function so delicately balanced that any slight change would have meant, and will mean, chaos and extinction.  But apparently we should disregard all that: (a) because it came out of the West and is therefore by definition racist and thus evil, and (b) because, having emerged from the West it is, by association, and however obliquely, rooted in Judeo-Christianity.

It would seem that the old progressives are now a prime target of the new radical ultra-progressives.  The new progressives have set their sights on the extinction of all vestiges of the old Christian consensus, and, secondarily, of its derivate, the scientific Enlightenment heritage.

If you find yourself a bit at a loss as to what this is even about, a look at what is being propounded in faculties of education and written into major curriculum revisions all across the West will quickly enlighten you.  Peruse the blatant ideological agenda of many of the trendy new faculties and programs of study on offer in our higher institutes of learning – even those still clinging to some vestiges of their old Christian founding principles.  Survey what major publishers are putting out – and what they are not offering anymore.  Watch the collections still available in your local libraries – and see what you can no longer find, at least very readily.  Watch how the news is reported and what is not reported.  For example, when was the last time you saw anything about the killing of hundreds of Christians because they are Christians every week across the globe? 

All these things are faith-inspired and faith-motivated, conviction-inspired and conviction motivated.  That is so self-evident, and we have belaboured it now so much for weeks, that we need spend no more time on it. 

What we still need to discuss are the aspects of hope and assurance, without which conviction and faith are desperate posturing akin to Ophelia’s declarations of her undying love for Hamlet. The desperation and tone have the opposite effect of causing us to doubt its sincerity.  Violence and vehemence are too often a betraying cover-up for the inadmissible but intuitively understood truth that the Emperor is wearing no clothes, no matter how often we admire their splendor.

The naked Emperor is exactly what the new ultra-radical left vividly portrays in all their screaming denunciation and shouting-down of their much more composed and rational opponents and targets.

As Jordan Petersen has brilliantly deconstructed this fanaticism, and as Friedrich Nietzsche so amazingly predicted 140 years ago, it all boils down to childishly murderous temper tantrums about rights to everything and responsibility for nothing.  It is all about what Nietzsche, the greatest modern philosopher, called “The Will to Power”.

Very strangely, the old enemies of Scientific Rationalism and Judeo-Christian fundamentalism (and not Fundamentalism) about basic truths may very soon find themselves allied in a desperate effort to save what is left of the West’s best heritage from what Arnold Toynbee dubbed the Internal Barbarians, who are far more dangerous than any assemblage of external tribes and circling vultures smelling blood in the sand.

TO BE CONTINUED