Absolute (adjective) 1. free from imperfection; complete; perfect, positive, certain
--Random House Dictionary
I’m still here. We’re all still here. So apparently the end of the world is not yet, much to the chagrin and surprise of a band of fundamentalist Christians who were absolute in their beliefs, absolutely certain, that God would initiate the end of the world last Saturday, May 21, 2011, at 6 pm. (Not sure which time zone.) What was supposed to happen? The “faithful”, a tiny band of “true believers” in Jesus Christ would be bodily transported up to heaven in a “rapture”. Those left behind would then live on in a six month period of global tumult and catastrophe: earthquakes, wars, etc. Then, finally, all would truly cease to be on October 21st, later this year.
But Saturday night came and went without anything out of the ordinary occurring, cosmically speaking. Folks ate dinner with their families. People went to the movies or tuned into the Red Sox-Cubs game. Preachers like me toiled away on sermons for Sunday. Parents tucked kids into bed. No rapture. No global apocalypse. No end times. Interviewed at his home last Sunday morning, 89 year-old fundamentalist preacher Harold Camping, whose “prophecy” about the 21st led to all this global speculation, had this to say about the non-event. “I’m flabbergasted.” It’s actually the second time Camping has struck out in his predictions. In 1994 he also declared the world was supposed to end.
As a very visible person of faith it was an odd weekend. At a party on Sunday folks asked me what I thought about this brouhaha. I found myself having to justify my faith, to explain that most Christians are not as fringe or out there as Camping’s followers. In all major world religions, predictions of the apocalypse are pretty standard material in sacred texts like the Bible. Jesus did say, “Heaven and earth will pass away” but then followed up with this warning: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only [God].”
The press and wider culture certainly picked up on Camping’s prophecy and had a field day, in most cases mocking the notion of end times, portraying those who actually believed in the event as naive at best, buffoonish at worst. Facebook too was filled with sarcastic, funny, snarky and at times downright nasty remarks about religious faith. I even heard about one band of entrepreneurial atheists who offered, for a hefty fee, to take in the house pets of folks who were convinced they’d be raptured. Funny? Kind of.
But sad too. That some people, almost always of a religiously inspired fundamentalist bent, have such a desperate need for absolute certainty. About life and death and this world. About all the questions every human being naturally has about existence. What is it about life on earth which drives this longing: for absolute answers, absolute outcomes, absolute guarantees, and an absolutely “correct” and unassailable faith in God?
Absolutism is a wide philosophical stripe which runs throughout all religions and all ideologies, secular and sacred, which form the narrative for our lives here on earth. So folks of faith declare, my group is in, on the way to heaven, and your group is out, on the way to hell. Absolutely. No doubt. Folks in politics declare, my party knows the right way to civic salvation and your party is dead wrong. Absolutely. No reaching across the aisle to cooperate. That would be heresy. Nations declare, we are exceptional and the rest of you are run of the mill. Absolutely. My country right or wrong. And underneath all of these hard line assertions? Fear. Plain old human fear. Of the unknown. Of mystery. Of ambiguity. Of this deep truth: that in spite of our deepest desires for certainty, most of life cannot ever be controlled or predicted, that instead life is anything but absolute.
And so we respond to this reality in one of two ways. We frantically and sincerely try to box life up in neat little categories and then stand our ground and hope for the absolute. Or we fall back in to mystery and in faith. We trust that somehow God is holding it all together, the good and the bad, the victories and the defeats, life and death, and that it is not up to us humans to somehow declare in arrogance that we know how it all turns out. For we don’t know. We can’t know. Creation, in all its beauty and banality, its preciousness and its brokenness, is all too much to fathom.
So it’s not the end of the world, not yet, not now. Absolutism may bring short term comfort but finally, God only knows. That I can say absolutely.