Literalism and apocalypticism

A (typical) quote from N. T. Wright that I forgot to publish:

„Yesterday’s literal statement may become today’s metaphor; tomorrow things may reverse again. Nobody takes all the Bible literally, and nobody takes it all metaphorically, whatever they may say; we are none of us as wooden as our slogans suggest. In order to interpret any passage, particularly any passage of apocalyptic, the way of wisdom is to go through it one step at a time, deciding what is literal and what is metaphorical on the way. When Daniel says “I saw four beasts come up out of the sea” (Daniel 7.2), the “beasts” and the “sea” are metaphorical (the “beasts” are human empires, and the “sea” is the source of evil), but “four” is literal. When he says that “the little horn was making war on the holy ones and prevailed against them” (7.21), the “little horn” is metaphorical (referring to an actual human ruler), but the “war” is literal. And so on. This, of course, requires caution in serious Bible study, something that is not always much in evidence.

Though I dislike technical terms in general, I find it helpful to use the word “apocalypticism” to denote the worldview in which certain people come to believe that their group is set apart from the rest of humanity, that it is righteous and all others are sinners, and, more particularly, that an event will soon occur which will sort things out once and for all. The sun and the moon will be darkened, literally not metaphorically; the Lord will descend from heaven and snatch the saints up in the air, literally not metaphorically; the Mount of Olives will be split in two, and rivers of fresh water will flow down to the Dead Sea, literally not metaphorically. And of course if you believe this sort of thing about yourself and your group, certain social practices follow: a tight drawing of boundaries within the group, a rigid exclusion of those outside, a carelessness or even downright rejection of most of the concerns of ongoing society, a focus on particular styles of worship and holiness. As history both ancient and modern will show, such groups are often internally fissiparous, fragmenting into smaller groups that then reserve for one another their bitterest anathemas.

My point is this: the duality between heaven and earth is very different from the dualisms of sectarian religion. The mindset that tends towards apocalypticism normally thinks of the heavenly realm, or the spiritual realm, or simply the non-physical realm, as always good, and the  earthly, material, physical world as always bad. Hence the readiness to imagine the present physical world being blown apart in some great Armageddon, and the sublime confidence that “we” – whichever group that might be – will be rescued from the ruin in a “heavenly” salvation that has left earth far behind.“

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