To willingly pour out our lives

April 03, 1997|By Christopher M. Leighton

Death seems to provide us with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject. . . . The tale must be about dead bodies or very wicked people, preferably both, before the Tired Business Man can feel really happy. -- Dorothy L. Sayers

THE BIZARRE EVENTS of the ritual suicide in San Diego make sleuths of us all. We seem incapable of breaking free of our voyeuristic fascination.

How are we to account for the fusion of technological sophistication and a religious devotion obedient unto death? What significance is narrated by the astrological wonders sweeping the sky, the Hale-Bopp comet, the demise of one millennium and the arrival of another? How do dark theories of government conspiracies merge with apocalyptic speculations and form a plot into which people willingly pour their lives?

Legions of commentators encourage me to observe deluded followers of a freakish cult from a comfortable distance. Yet the recently released video recordings delivered a shock to my system. It was the shock of recognition.

The final testimonies, delivered with unnerving calm, expressed hopes and dreams in an afterlife at least vaguely familiar. In the midst of their apocalyptic musings, I detected the vulnerable reflections of my neighbors and children. Most terrifying, for an instant I glimpsed an image of my own Christianity, the sacred tradition that I hold as an indispensable antidote to self-deception and societal delusion. Could the visions of the future generated within my faith be co-opted and put in the service of death?

Cultures steeped in the traditions of Jews, Christians and Muslims dream extravagantly. A day of judgment looms just over the horizon. A reversal of cosmic proportions will make short work of the wicked. The righteous will at long last find a seat of honor and feast at the banquet table.

Despite the prevailing systems of injustice, our faiths are animated by hopes of a new world order. The fervent prayer for the messianic era often serves as a powerful protest against the status quo, an act of resistance in the face of persecution, despair and societal collapse. When hope is unable to sink roots in the desperate conditions of the present, hope often takes an apocalyptic turn.

Apocalyptic disclosures point to a future that will not arrive painlessly. To storm the gates that open into a new and heavenly kingdom, great personal sacrifice may be required on a cosmic battlefield that pits the forces of good against those of evil. The metaphysics of violence is woven into the apocalyptic writings of Jews and Christians. Out of this tradition can spring not only radical hope, but demonic nightmares.

The modern impulse is to bleach the apocalyptic tendencies out of the religious imagination. However, the visionary reminds us that we are not only shaped by the past, we are constituted by our perceptions of the future. Without hope we are powerless before the forces of cynicism and despair. Without a dream for the future, no ethical imperative can stand.

The challenge posed by the Heaven's Gate cult is not to censure apocalyptic dreaming, but to examine our particular allegiances to the future and to distinguish healthy from pathological attachments. In the proclamations of the San Diego suicides, I discern the echo of first-century Gnosticism. The radical asceticism, the commitment to leave behind the material trappings of the body, the claim to arcane knowledge inaccessible to the uninitiated remind me of a religious movement that competed long ago for the hearts and minds of Christians and Jews.

The opposition to Gnostic spirituality was fierce. Rather than cede apocalyptic yearnings to an other-worldly realm, the rabbis and church fathers countered with eschatological visions of their own. They championed a future in which the creation would be brought to perfection, a world to be redeemed and not discarded like an empty shell.

Unlike the ancient Gnostics and the members of Heaven's Gate, Jews, Christians and Muslims refuse to give up on God's creation. Which of the competing visions will we choose? Will we yield our wildest and most daring speculations to religious fanatics and charismatic cult leaders? Or will we plumb our historical religions in search of redemptive visions?

The gambit for the future turns out to be a matter of life and death, a pastime neither as amusing or innocent as we generally presume. If we allow our apocalyptic imaginations to collapse, what kind of future will we inherit? Will the content and character of our hopes inspire commitments for which we will sacrifice ourselves?

Christopher M. Leighton is the executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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