Radio evangelist Harold Camping has calculated what he believes to be the exact date of the rapture: May 21, 2011. His followers are fanning out across the nation, bringing his message of impending doom, and they’re getting more than a little attention. In fact, I have been asked by numerous publications, what I think this is all about. I share with you what I have already shared with others in the media.
I am a Jew, and one who believes in the coming of the Messiah, but I am far more interested in making the world messianic – peaceful, plentiful and teeming with life, than I am with the question of when the Messiah will actually arrive. In fact, I think that is our best shot at bringing the Messiah. And even if wrong about that, it is surely our best shot at making a better world.
Jewish tradition as a whole takes a dim view of calculating the exact time of the Messiah’s arrival (see for example warnings against such practices in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, 97-98), although that hasn’t stopped more than few Jewish sages from making exceptions to the norm and offering their own predictions over the centuries. Needless to say, they have all been wrong.
Most recently, there has been genuine controversy around this topic as significant segments of the Chabad Lubavtich movement have held firmly to the belief that their “departed” (as opposed to dead) Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory, was and is the Messiah. This is by no means the view of all members of the movement, but enough believe it that the controversy continues.
I mention this because messianic expectation, calculation and identification are not limited to any one religious tradition. I also mention it because such behavior is not the province of fools, however wrong they may be.
Such thinking usually grows out of deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and the genuine belief that it could get much better at any minute. That is actually the approach which lies at the heart of pretty much all western, and much eastern, religious thought. Of course, that doesn’t mean I have a “messiah calander” or think that anyone should. It simply means that I have deep empathy for the intense desire to see things change for the better.
The real problem is not offering a date for when the Messiah will show, it’s what to do when he or she fails to show up? Historically, one of two things happens and neither of them is good. Either the believers become deeply disillusioned and embittered, or, they find it impossible to admit that they were wrong and the entire focus of their spiritual lives becomes proving that in fact that were not wrong.
In the latter case, the believers’ world becomes increasingly narrow and disconnected from the very reality they sought to change, or they pursue aggressive means to force others to join them in their erroneous beliefs. The former is pathetic and the latter is dangerous. Certainly both should be avoided — in the first case, for the good of the faithful, and in the second case, for the good of the rest of us.
I am pretty confident that the world will still be here after May 21st. The real question is what to do on May 22nd. As long as those who think that I am wrong about what will happen on the 21st can also answer that question, I wish them, and the rest of us, the best of luck.