Sunday, August 16, 2009

Prophecy and Kairos

“From the moment when a (large scale) disaster appears inevitable and especially after it becomes a reality, it can, like every great torment, become a productive force for the religious point of view. It begins to suggest new questions and to stress old ones.”

“Dogmatized conceptions are pondered afresh in the light of events, and the faith relationship that has to stand the test of an utterly changed situation is renewed in modified form. But the new acting force is nothing less than the force of extreme despair, a despair so elemental, that it can have but one of two results: the sapping of the last will of life, or the renewal of the soul.”

I love this quote from Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian because it seems so appropriate for our times. And yet, it was not written in response to the threat of global warming, it was written seventy years ago, just after the second world war ended, a war which like the ancient Babylonian and Roman assaults on Jerusalem, threatened the very survival of Judaism. This quote comes, not from Buber's most famous work: I and Thou, but from a book called The Prophetic Faith, a book about the ancient Hebrew prophets.

Judaism is unique among the world religions in having a long historical line of major prophets – historical figures like Jeremiah who spoke truth to power at a time when there was no free press or human rights. The Hebrew word for prophet “nabi”, means “one who is called” . The nabi saw themselves as called to speak the word of God even if it was opposed to what the Hebrew kings and their subjects wanted to hear. The prophets challenged their rulers to adhere more strictly to monotheism and eschew the worship of other gods. They also protested against injustice and gross inequality. This was at a time when the Hebrew culture and religion were under direct threat of extinction from the much more powerful empires around them.

It is instructive to note the historical period when the Hebrew prophets were active. We are talking about a period of about four hundred years from the time of king David and king Solomon, to the rebuilding of Solomon's temple after the Babylonian exile. During these times the Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah were declining in power and increasingly threatened by the powerful empires of the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

Eventually in 722 Bce , the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian army and the population scattered to the four corners of the Assyrian Empire, where they disappeared from history. That's what happened to the ten lost tribes, by the way.

Two hundred years later Judah, the remaining Hebrew kingdom was conquered by the Babylonian army. Solomon's temple was reduced to rubble and the major portion of Jerusalem's population was exiled to the capital city of Babylon.

It was during these disastrous times that the Hebrew prophets were active. The amazing thing is that with all this destruction the Jewish religion not only survived it became more resilient. In contrast, there is no Moabite, Canaanite, Egyptian, or Babylonian religion today in spite of the fact that some of these countries lasted much longer than Israel and Judah.

After Solomon's temple was rebuilt the Hebrew Bible records no more major prophets. Ezra, the Jewish leader who oversaw the rebuilding of the temple was most likely the same person who edited and redacted the Hebrew Bible into the basic form that we know today. He wove together the various writings – the historical material, and the writings of the prophets into a single work which codified Jewish monotheism. A large part of the Hebrew Bible, in fact, is devoted to the writings of the prophets, and for a very good reason. For without these prophets the Jewish religion would not have survived.

A common misperception of a prophet is of someone who predicts the future. This is not what the Hebrew prophets were doing, and if it was they would not have been able to save the Jewish religion from extinction. I think Buber has the best description of what prophecy is about: “ A true prophet does not announce an immutable decree. He speaks to the power of decision lying in the moment and in such a way that his message just touches this power.” The future is uncertain. What decisions we make now will effect our future. The role of the prophet is to point out the consequences of our present actions and the possibilities of renewal if we change our behaviour.

Today, three thousand years later, our global civilization is under threat of extinction from the very different threats of global warming and eco-catastrophes. And religion does not play the same role that it did in ancient times. Because our civilization is global, and there are many world religions no single religion has the capability to unify and preserve our cultures. Our civilization probably doesn't have one hundred years left, let alone four hundred years. The world religions are slowly responding to the new ecological threats, but the role of the prophet is now paramount and the new prophets are not necessarily religious prophets. While religion has a definite role to play in all of this it is largely scientific knowledge that feeds modern prophecy, if we keep true to Buber's definition of what prophecy is.

In the Greek language there are two concepts of time: “chronos” which refers to sequential time, and “kairos” (pronounced keros) which refers to the right time or opportune moment. According to the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich kairos refers to a crisis in history which demands a life-changing decision on the part of each person. According to Tillich, the coming of Christ is the prime Christian example.

Today global warming is our kairos. This is what Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew has said, and he elaborates in his essay: “The Orthodox Church and the Environmental Crisis”

"Our way of life is humanly and environmentally suicidal....yet the crisis is not first of all ecological. It is a crisis in the way we perceive reality and relate to our world......At a time when we have polluted the air we breathe and the water we drink, we are called to restore within ourselves the sense of awe and delight, to respond to matter as a mystery of ever increasing connection."

I can't help seeing an analogy between Patriarch Bartholomew's saying that this is a crisis in the way we perceive reality and relate to our world and the Hebrew prophets' relentless emphasis on monotheism during their prolonged crisis. The ancient Hebrew prophets saw monotheism as the key to Jewish survival. The importance of monotheism to Judaism is that it redefined the relationship between the Jewish people and the divine and it changed the way they perceived the divine. Jesus called the “Shema” from Deuteronomy the great commandment: “You shall love the Lord God with all your heart and all your soul, and all your might.” It basically sums up Judaism in one sentence.

I am not advocating monotheism as the answer to the ecological crisis. Judaism was saved from extinction because a lot of people worked hard to change the Jewish people's perception of their relationship with the divine. To love God with all your heart is to make God personally meaningful, which means that this relationship can survive regardless of whether or not there is a temple, or official priests, or the proper sacrifices. That's why Judaism could survive and grow stronger after the destruction of the temple and the exile. Our civilization will only survive if we stop perceiving nature as something we can control and start seeing ourselves as just one part of the interdependent web of life. “We are called to restore within ourselves the sense of awe and delight, to respond to matter as a mystery of ever increasing connection.” I say amen to that.

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