I heard Glenn Beck’s talk radio show a couple of weeks ago; when a woman called in to suggest that because President Obama appears to be raising the tax rate to around the same as what it was under President Clinton, is exercising some accountability mechanisms with banks and car manufacturers, and has approached the nations of the world with humility, that he is a prime candidate for the Antichrist. Such absurd and offensive speculation has been around for nearly two thousand years; and, of course, there is a 100% failure record among those who would predict the time of the end of the world, along with the identity of the person who, dispensationalists allege, will lead us there.
The general principle – that those who make eschatological guesses tend to be socially bigoted and give the appearance of suffering from religious neurosis – combines with the specific example – that some people are so outraged by Obama’s election that they need to find a theological justification for their anger, and produces some of the most debased public conversation I’ve ever heard. Glenn Beck’s response to this woman appeared to endorse her religious terror, with mysterious allusions to people he says he has met and talked to and heard things from that he isn’t ready to tell us about yet.
The sum: I don’t know what Glenn Beck actually believes about the Book of Revelation (for what it’s worth, I happen to think it’s an amazing book of metaphorical prose offering comfort to people being persecuted and naming the metaphysical core of the universe: that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it, rather than a dimestore almanac of future events), but he’s certainly happy not to challenge his listeners when they suggest that President Obama is in league with Satan. I know many of us feel like we say this every day: but we need a better conversation in this country.
In ‘Doctor Zhivago’, Boris Pasternak is at pains to develop the notion that human freedom is found in facing reality. This is not a new idea, of course; we need only remember ‘the truth will set you free’ to be aware that it didn’t originate with Russian novelists…But Pasternak adapts an old Chinese proverb, and announces his prophecy – in his case, of resistance to the death-dealing ways of Stalinist Russia, but really it could stand for anywhere, anytime, by stating that the beginning of wisdom is ‘to call everything by its right name’. He means that life is a journey through confusion to clarity. That wisdom, and healing, and growing up derive from seeing things as they really are.
This does not mean of course that we understand all things – that would make us into God. No, it just means that a key function of being human is the power – and responsibility – to discern – to distinguish between this thing and that, and that thing and this. The psychologist Carl Jung knew this – he could tell the difference between organized religion and what we call God. Desmond Tutu knows this – he can tell the difference between a religion of the superficial intellect and the spirit that gives rise to human revolution. The Irish mystic John O’Donohue knew this – he understood the difference between the frightened functionaries of fundamentalism, and the vast riches of the mystic tradition to which they think they hold the keys. Our task is to learn the difference between form and content. Our task is to learn the difference between what we believe, and how we believe it. Our task is to call everything by its right name. Our task is discernment.
Every day we are given the opportunity to find beauty in the face of other human beings. I come from a religious tradition that sometimes left its members unable to encounter other people without seeing them as missionary targets. We failed in discernment. Of course, those who harbour anti-religious sentiment are also often incapable of having a conversation with believers in which they treat their opinions with respect. They fail in discernment too. Yet if human beings really are made in the image of God; or even if we are better understood in other ways, then perhaps we might find it in ourselves also to learn that every encounter between you and me, or me and anyone, or you and anyone should be an opportunity for God, or whatever you want to name the ground of all being, to speak to both of us.