Christians, Jews look for clues to future Prophecies studied as millennium ends

November 04, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

With the end of the millennium fast approaching, spiritual gurus, visionaries, religious fanatics and simple believers are looking to Holy Scripture for clues of what the future might bring.

In Baltimore, congregations from white and black Christian churches and Jewish synagogues will meet six times over the next five months to explore what their religious traditions have to say about their visions of the future, including the often-disturbing biblical descriptions of the Apocalypse.

In the End is the Beginning: Jewish & Christian Visions of the Future, a congregational study program of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies, began last night.

During the program, about three dozen congregations will study the Bible and other sources to explore what Jewish and Christian religious traditions say about the future and the way that vision shapes the lives of believers. The congregations are grouped in threes -- one white Christian church, one black Christian church and a Jewish synagogue alternating the meetings at their buildings.

Last night, Neil Gillman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, told the audience at Woodbrook Baptist Church, on Stevenson Lane near Charles Street in Stoneleigh, that liberal Christians and Jews need to "recapture eschatology [the theological study of the future] from the fundamentalists."

"Eschatology has been appropriated by what I call the crazies on the right," he said. Liberal Jews and Christians, "by and large, have been afraid to talk about the end of days because it's taboo."

It is important to talk about the end of time, Gillman said, because "if there's no beginning and no end, there's no middle. And if there's no middle, I'm homeless. I have no sense of where I am."

Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, of Boston University's School of Theology, spoke of Ezekiel's prophecy of the Lord transforming the dry bones lying in a valley into living, breathing beings as an example of the hope contained in biblical eschatology in the descriptions of God's vision for the future for Israel. "Without those visions, the Scriptures tell us the people die the death of anomie and hopelessness," she said.

The importance of looking at ideas of the future and of the end of time during the course of this year's program is that the religious imagination of Christian and Jewish believers is shaped by their experience of their finitude, said Christopher M. Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies.

"What we're hoping to do is look at sacred texts to articulate the dreams of the future," he said in an interview yesterday. "Then we want to see how we make sense of those visions of the future and develop a critical viewpoint to distinguish when is hope a healthy, indeed an essential response to circumstances of oppression and despair, and when does it go awry? When does it claim the worst of us and bring out some deadly reflexes or reactions?"

These darker visions of the future are rampant in mass media, Leighton said, pointing to movies such as "Independence Day" or "Men in Black," and television shows such as "X-Files" and "Millennium."

"Our more recent millenarian dreams have taken the shape of a nightmare," he said. "The sense of being trapped and oppressed by cosmic forces goes hand in hand with a conspiratorial worldview that sees government as an enemy. That's a dramatic change. How did that come about and to what degree do our religious traditions play an important role in reinforcing that skepticism, that suspicion, that distrust?"

Pub Date: 11/04/97

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