The Wisdom of "Reverent Agnosticism"

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father...keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming...Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." Matthew 24:36, 42, 44

If you read the Doonesbury comic strip (as I do), you know that Garry Trudeau is currently poking fun at the doomsday predictions of Alameda, California preacher Harold Camping. Camping, based on his reading of the Bible, declares this Saturday, May 21, 2011 to be the Second Coming of Christ. For weeks now, news reports from NPR to local TV stations have been highlighting Camping's audacious claims. This fellow's done this before: last time he claimed Christ's return was to be in 1994, which he then readjusted based on fresh understandings of Scripture (or so he says).

There are two mistakes we can make with predictions like these. The first is dismissive skepticism: "What a nut!", we might say, "Who does he think he is?!" and laugh it off without another thought. Clearly, the secular media is chuckling like this now. That's certainly what Doonesbury's doing. While this is understandable from those who don't have regard for the Bible, for those of us who do, to dismiss a concept like the end of the world is ill-advised. Scripture clearly teaches the return of Christ (and the oft-recited Apostles Creed makes it clear).

The opposite mistake is to do what Zonker's gullible neighbor is doing: give away all your possessions, quit your job, and hunker down til Saturday, trusting that somehow Harold Camping accessed the divine timetable.

The third and best way, is to take to heart the words of Jesus in Matthew: recognize that Christianity has always taught the return of Jesus to judge the earth, right all wrongs, and usher in a new heaven and new earth. But don't set a timetable! If Jesus himself doesn't know the day or hour of his return, how can Harold Camping? Or you or I? What's needed is a reverent agnosticism, a humble refusal to try to manage, manipulate, or otherwise predict the return of Christ. Rather, we must live in readiness, doing the things Christ would have us do--love God and neighbor, serve the poor, work for justice, feed the hungry, heal the sick, teach the truth, and welcome the stranger. In other words, we are to be faithful.

No one knows the day or hour. But we do know what he wants from us. That should do until Saturday...and beyond.


john said...

i confess, i'm a bit of a "clanging cymbal", but i am not fond of mockers. because they closely mimic behavior of "the real thing" (whatever that is), it can create a great deal of confusion. furthermore, when you examine the basis for this particular prediction, it is particularly ridiculous. it's numerology is so bad, it's an insult to numerology!

i think it's actually fair to have the reaction of dismissive skepticism: "what a nut". there's nothing useful in camping's message, theologically or otherwise. many of us have adult minds, with adult reasoning capacity. and while there are more knowns than unknowns about our futures, camping's ideas have no more basis in reality than unicorns.

a lot of people have donated a lot of money to him. some have quit their jobs, sold their homes. sunday morning will be a very difficult time for a lot of people. calling out mad rantings is fair game to me, regardless of your theological persuasion.

Carl Hofmann said...

Thanks for your thoughts! Camping's prediction does challenge us to be charitable, to speak the truth in love as we (strongly) disagree. God give us all grace!
I just hope this doesn't become our Christian version of "the sky is falling!!!", if you know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I've been following Zonker & his neighbor this week and I was grateful to Garry Trudeau for citing Matthew this morning. His sarcasm and cynicism are not always mean spirited, I believe.

Carl Hofmann said...

I share your gratitude about today's Doonesbury strip--and I agree, Trudeau is not always mean-spirited. I am curious about what lies ahead in the strip after tomorrow!