"Bless the Lord O my soul....who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be moved forever. O Lord how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches." Psalm 104
My father regaled me with a reminiscence from his childhood in Galicia - Spain. In a small fishing village near to where he lived there was a preacher who, much like Cassandra in Troy, was predicting the soon to occur end of the world. (Fortunately unlike Cassandra this prophet of doom was not blessed with correct foresight!) Very few people were convinced by this prediction and continued their daily lives unchanged. However one day, while my father and his family were spending a day at the beach an event occurred which would be seared onto his memory. A helicopter flew over the village! What is so shocking about that you may ask? Well in the Galicia of those days such flying machines were not often seen, in fact never seen. With the sight and sound of this modern contraption tearing up the sky a panic swept through the people. Scattering in every direction, screaming-out in terror at the imminent demise of the world, running into the nearest church to beg God for deliverance, the streets and beach were cleared of people most of whom were now convinced that the end-times had arrived. Now accepting that Galicians are historically a superstitious people surrounded as they are by the Atlantic rains and mists that often shroud the ancient landscapes of this Celtic corner of Spain, I was amazed to hear about the reaction of these people, people I remind you, who had not believed the warnings of their local doom laden seer. If nothing else, this story shows that what we hear and what we see influences us, even if we think otherwise, and who knows if in a moment of stress such irrational beliefs could rise up in the most reasoned of minds.
This leads me to wonder what might have happened in the minds of many, if yesterday at 6pm some innocent yet rare natural phenomena had struck, might the reaction have been larger than if it had occurred on any day other that May 21st?
Rapture day, however has passed, and the elect do not seem to have launched into celestial orbit leaving the rest of us to face disaster and destruction. Although it does seem that Harold Camping's reputation (the existence of which astounds me) as an accurate forecaster of such events, seems to have been struck down by a spectacular non-event. Well perhaps I too risk misreading the present and inaccurately predicting the future, as it seems that some of his followers are already striving to reinterpret events in order to save themselves the pain of having to reassess their beliefs. As a wise person once said "you can't reason someone out of beliefs they were never reasoned into in the first place".
The saddest thing in this whole saga is not the bitter disappointment of those who had prepared themselves, financially, socially and psychologically for imminent rapture, bad as that might be, but the fact that these people ever believed the abject nonsense expounded by Harold Camping in the first place. I doubt that Camping's numerological speculation, devoid of substance as it was, could have been the prime reason for such belief in his prophecy. It seems that what convinced people was their desire to be convinced, (A phenomena that is a risk to us all). But why would people wish to be convinced of such a negative and dark viewpoint; that of the salvation of a Divinely approved minority and the destruction of billions of innocent human beings? Well perhaps a Mr Bauer's comments on the BBC are representative:
"I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this Earth,"
These 17 words should strip from us the desire to mock these believers and instead cause us to pity them for what seems to be a hopeless sadness in their hearts. A sadness that faith should assuage not pander to.
A few of those who most rejoice in mocking the end of the worlders are themselves guilty of breathtaking irrationality in pursuit of their own faith. I have grown a little tired of some professed atheists claiming that this episode is representative of the stupidity of religion. Did the fact that the overwhelming majority of religious believers throughout the world took no stock in the claims of this California preacher pass these critics by? Does the fact that no mainstream Christian church endorses Harold Camping's view sway the opinions of these anti-theists? Seemingly not. Indeed it is a special irony that other than Harold Camping's minuscule number of followers the only other group of people making such a fuss on May 21 were atheists falling over themselves to use this episode to pour scorn over all those who believe in religion of any kind.
Nor have some secular ideologies been free from such eschatological speculation. Do people remember when Prince Charles in 2009 warned that mankind's survival was in peril with a mere seven years remaining before the "levers of control" over Anthropogenic Climate Change would be lost? Dr James Hansen, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies was even more alarmist than his Royal Highness when he said, also in 2009, that President Obama had "only four years to save the world from imminent peril". This Mr Hansen, like Harold Camping, had previously gotten his predictions a little bit wrong, predicting as he did that 2007 would be the hottest year on record. (It wasn't). Then again perhaps Mr Camping and his Family Radio group were motivated by the same idea as motivated Stephen Schneider, a professor of environmental biology and global change at Stanford University to say; "We need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of doubts we might have." It would seem that for some "The End of the World is almost here, the Bible guarantees it" slogan, might be rewritten as "The End of the World is almost here, Science guarantees it". The lack of humility of ideologues of all colours eventually harms them and their causes.
Very much in the spirit of the second century Rabbi Shimon Ben Zoma who said;
"Who is wise? He who learns from all men"
the minister in my chapel reminded us this morning, that there is something significant to be learned from Mr Camping and his fellow believers. (He also had us all giggling at the thought that perhaps those members of the congregation not present this morning could have perhaps been raptured yesterday but that's another story :-)
He reminded us that we are all survivors! That's right, we have all survived "the end of days" (could that be a new T-shirt slogan?) and awoke this morning to a new day. This is not a facile comment, for after all yesterday at 6pm some of our fellow Britons and many people around the world would most certainly have breathed their last breath. When we went to bed last night none of us had any guarantee that we would awake this morning. None of us has any certainty that we will be alive the next moment. How grateful we should be therefore, for all the blessings in our lives, for the gift of life itself, bestowed upon us every second of the day and how much should this awareness provoke us to infuse each moment of life with meaning, sanctity and virtue.
And on the other hand how tragic are those beliefs that demean the life of this world in pursuit of the world to come. How tragic are those who see only the negative in this world of blessings and who see contentment and happiness as existing only in the life beyond the grave. How wasteful are those who allow the life in this world to go un-enjoyed in the pursuit of a future life, the nature of which we can never know with any certainty. Such beliefs seem to turn their back on the face of the God of life, whose creativity has given us a world of unparalleled beauty and sanctity, and who privileges us, above all creatures, with the minds and hearts to appreciate it to its full. And how sad that some Christians, seemingly so desperate for the destruction of this world, and the majority of its people who do not share the same views as themselves, have in turn embraced a world view that unintentionally turns its back on the life giving teachings of our master Jesus:
"Or what man is there of you who, if his son shall ask him for a loaf will give him a stone? Or if he shall ask for a fish will give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is heaven give good things to them that ask him?" Matthew 7:911
"That ye may be sons of your Father which is in heaven for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust." Matthew 5:45
Our society often takes a jaded view of life, and yet in our midst we have millions of exemplars of a different way of seeing our world. Those exemplars are children! While retaining our maturity our reason, our sense of duty and propriety, how much more beautiful our lives would be if we could only learn to see and feel the sheer joy and excitement of life through childlike eyes. Only then can we open our hearts and mouths in praise of the Author of all that exists and the glories of His Kingdom.
For the order and constancy of nature; for the beauty and bounty of the world; for day and night, summer and winter, seed-time and harvest; for the varied gifts of loveliness and use which every season brings:
We praise thee, O God
For all the comforts and gladness of life; for our homes and all home-blessings; for our friends and all the pleasures of companionship; for the love, sympathy and goodwill of men:
We praise thee, O God
For all true knowledge of thee and the world in which we live; for the life of truth and righteousness to which thou hast called us; for prophets and apostles and all earnest seekers after truth; for all lovers and helpers of mankind, and all godly and gifted men and women:
We praise thee, O God.
Orders of Worship for use in Unitarian and Free Christian Congregations 1932.