Clarence Larkin, Book of Revelation, 1919. Click on the image for a high-resolution (3 MB) version. Amazing, isn’t it? It’s a much nicer presentation that the one I was offered in Sunday school when I was 11, but it has a lot of the same general features. Although Rev. Larkin was by all accounts a good and humble man, and although his work undoubtedly expressed his great love for God and the Bible, I just can’t understand his theology. Image source: News from Sergey. See more of Larkin’s charts here
For some reason I’ve been thinking about the whole Harold Camping rapture fiasco. Wondering what he and his remaining followers will do on 21 October when God does not destroy the world, spiritually or otherwise.
It has put me in mind of a story.
When I was growing up, Dad took the family to church at least twice a week. One day a special visitor presented my fifth-grade Sunday school class with a timeline unlike any I had ever seen. It was on a large poster he had brought with him. Across the top in bold letters it read:
THE PLAN OF THE END.
It was a full-color flowchart of the future. Based upon the book of Revelation and extravagantly detailed, it was divided into three main sections: the Church Age (you are here), the Tribulation (seven years), and the Kingdom Age (one thousand years). The Rapture and Second Coming demarcated these segments. Featured prominently was the binding and loosing of Satan and something about judgment seats and bowls. Armageddon was in there somewhere and biblical citations were scattered throughout. The Old Testament Saints, New Testament Saints, the Unsaved of All the Ages, the Beast, and the False Prophet were all major players, as was (of course) the Lamb himself, Jesus Christ. There were arrows indicating who would go where and when. All the arrows, if faithfully traced, led to one of two terminal stations: The New Heaven and New Earth (in the upper right) or the Lake of Fire (in the lower right).
The only thing I recall about the visitor himself is that he seemed a bit zealous and unpleasant.
I was only moderately interested. I had no reason to disbelieve him, but there were incongruities. My dominant thought: Dad knew a lot but he had never once mentioned Judgment Day or the Rapture or the Lake of Fire. If something so terrible were true, surely he would have briefed us.
I asked him anyway. He was at his desk working. He looked up at me and said, “Son, that’s just not true.”
It was the first time — but not the last — that Christianity made no sense to me. In particular, there was a long march of years during which I considered religious thinking — theology — to be so much nonsense. During much of this time I possessed a genuine faith in God and was an active church member. But the Trinity? How could we ever know such a thing? The Resurrection? Were there video cameras present?
As a seminary student and ex-scientist I was struck time and time again with the sensation that theology is a frustratingly slippery enterprise. Good experiments and careful observations constrain scientific theories, giving them a kind of substance and texture and reality I have not encountered in the large majority of theology I’ve read. Often, when I would write theological papers I felt as if I was playing a kind of game and not talking about the world as it really is. Next to science, theology can seem weak and unconvincing, unrelated to the world of facts.
But I loved theology then and I love it today, just as I love science. I think about God and write about God all the time. How can this be, if theology is so unconvincing? If science is so real?
It’s because theology and science are just plain different. This difference has to do with their objects and their relationships to their objects. When theological concepts are disconnected from their source and object, which is God and the church, they spoil quickly. This is not so for science. Scientific concepts, once abstracted and placed on the shelf, can maintain their integrity and self-evident quality for decades, if not centuries. The end-times chart based on Revelation is an extreme but clear example of what can happen when theology is disconnected from its object. That vision has nothing to do with the world I live in.
When God-talk is disconnected from God, the Bible is reduced to an information clearinghouse and biblical theology to puzzle-solving. It comes to look a lot like science done badly: The empirical data are pre-selected biblical passages; abstractions are drawn therefrom, and a system is built around the “evidence.” The final result is fully abstracted from bits and pieces of reality, but has nothing whatever to do with reality.
Where did the disconnect come from? In the case of the flowchart of the future, it came from the mistake of treating the Bible as a book written by God’s very hand, and — even more fundamentally — from treating God like a mystery author with a cryptology fixation. That God is not only distant, but comical. That God asks nothing and gives nothing. That God is a concept and not a present reality. That God is dead.
Unlike scientific claims, which seem to have a practically infinite shelf life, theology must be vine-ripened and vine-ripe to make any sense at all. It must be read and written and spoken when the reader and writer and speaker are themselves placed in the context of the divine. I don’t think our statements about God can be removed from God and the church and stand alone as self-evident or even falsifiable claims about the world. So long as theology is taken as an abstract system of statements, meant to make sense to any rational person who knows their way around the Bible and has an interest, it is utter nonsense.
This seems true and right to me. There are many more questions here, of course: How to remain connected? How to do theology — which can be plenty abstract — and not lose sight of God? What is the role of the church? What are some less extreme examples of theology gone bad? Interesting questions, no doubt; but that’s all I have tonight.
Here’s to a fine week for all Alert Readers.