Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Future is Imminent, but it Might be Running Late

I'm sure you've heard recently about current events being read as Signs of the End Times, fueling apocalyptic religious fervor about the imminent destruction of the world. You might even have noticed that this kind of thing's been happening for a long time. In fact the End of the World tends to be a popular theme for some conservative premillennial Christians, and yes, a number of Mormons. On this blog Brett and I have already discussed whether the state of the world is bad enough to justify thinking that we're rocketing towards hell (spoiler alert: no), but lately I've been thinking the idea of Imminence  itself - what the word means and how it affects behavior and belief.

For most people, "imminent" is synonymous with "almost" or "very soon." So if your great aunt's arrival is imminent, you know to hide in your room to avoid pinched cheeks and sloppy kisses. But the word has another meaning that can have significant theological implications. "Imminent" actually  derives from Latin for "to lean over" or "to overhang" -- think of a Sword of Damocles dangling above, or an old dam threatening to burst. An imminent event may well happen soon, but more importantly, you're very, very aware that it's coming.

That definition of imminent broadens its meaning when we apply it to the future. The implication is no longer simply one of time until something, but of the looming presence of it. It reminds me of when I was a kid and would wait for my dad to get home from work: I knew it would happen some time after I got home from school, but when was often uncertain and would drive me crazy. My dad's arrival was imminent because it was on my mind all evening. I want to explore how thinking about future imminence in terms of Presence can affect our mindset as opposed to imminence in terms of Time, using the example of the second coming in particular.*

I think that lay Christians and Mormons typically think of the second coming in terms of Time. There is an unseen heavenly clock somewhere ticking down toward midnight, and events in the world, as predicted by scripture, are meant to be read as clues that the end has almost arrived. Though we don't know the hour, it is probably fixed and concrete. This idea is not a modern invention; you can find support for it going back to Matthew and Paul, it was enthusiastically picked up by early Mormons and, with varying emphasis, it continues to be taught today (naturally, midnights always gets pushed back a little further each generation.)

Perhaps the value of this approach is that it makes imminence concrete. After all, if the second coming isn't counting down then maybe we'll start to ignore it. Maybe we'll start believing that it will never happen at all. An unstoppable clock, on the other hand, can't be ignored lightly, and therefore it is our responsibility, our duty, to watch for any and every sign.

The downside of Time is that it can lead to extreme pessimism about the world, short-sighted decisions (think Harold Camper's followers), and fatalism. It may also promote unhealthy sign-seeking that can distract from productive activities and even hinder true spiritual preparation. It's like a kid peeking behind the window for hours, doing nothing but looking for headlights that look like dad's car while neglecting chores and homework. Whenever dad finally arrives he won't like what he finds. There's also the problem of disaffection if a sought-for second coming never arrives. I have no idea of the statistics, but I wonder how many have fallen away because they earnestly believed that the second coming was so close... but never happened. Or those who couldn't help but notice that nobody's been correct about predicting the second coming yet, and so concluded that the whole doctrine is false. I think that some of those problems may have prompted Boyd K Packer's recent conference address encouraging Latter-Day Saints to live their lives without worrying so much about future doom and destruction.

Imminence as Presence avoids many of these problems and to me offers more value in thinking about the second coming on a personal level. Presence indicates that the date is absolutely uncertain and unknowable, and perhaps not fixed at all. Prophesy and scriptural warnings are vague enough to encourage believers to see "signs of the times" in any era, which encourages a believer to ask "Would I be ready if it all ended now?" rather than "When is the world going to end?" Time externalizes the future; Presence internalizes it. In a sense, thinking about the second coming is like thinking about death: it can seem distant and remote but is simultaneously all around us, and we ignore it at our peril. There is also scriptural and prophetic support for this view, though perhaps not as much as for Time. I prefer Presence because it allows for a brighter, less apocalyptic view of humanity, and it provides space to avoid disappointment over a second coming that never seems to come.

The potential pitfall of Presence is that it might lead to spiritual anxiety. I compared it to death, and just like dwelling too much on the Presence of death can cause dread and paralysis, the Presence of the second coming might cause a sort of "righteousness anxiety" or feelings of inadequacy that we might be unprepared in any given moment. If you take both Time and Presence seriously, then the clock is ticking and it's going to happen anysecondnowsoyoubetterrepentnowPANICPANIC. What if dad comes home and you haven't finished chores? Will he be glad you're working or angry you didn't start sooner? By thinking in terms of Time, you could stave off anxiety by convincing yourself that there are still prophesies yet-unfulfilled and the clock can't possibly run out just yet. Presence might also tend to encourage (though not necessarily so) a non-literalist approach to scripture, which to me is a positive but can be threatening to some people.

So that covers the idea of imminence as it relates to the future. Hopefully you find if helpful as you think about the word in light of the what's to come and the End of Days, whatever you take that to mean. In the next few days I want to write about another aspect of imminence as Presence: its application to the past and present beyond just the second coming. I think that's where it gets really interesting, and it makes imminence useful in talking about topics besides eschatology. Stay tuned for more.

*I'm just using the words Time and Presence alone as shorthand for "Imminence defined primarily in terms of _____"


  1. Nothing like a good eschatological discussion, eh?

    I like your Presence model of the Second Coming a lot. It makes a lot of sense. Personally, it's hard for me to get super worried about the imminent end of the world when it so happens that the person who made that prediction lived thousands of years ago but said it would happen "soon." Yeah. Soon.

  2. I agree with Brett. You've put into words something that I have always intuitively believed, but never quite cognized. For me, the Second coming has always been more about the immediacy of Christ the a date of arrival- the notion that you must always be vigilant, because the moment when you need to be could be just around the corner. Frankly, over the years I've come to believe less and less in the literal implications of the Second Coming. I used to think Thomas Jefferson was nuts for cutting parts out of his Bible - now I think he might have been on to something. The amazing thing about faith is it's capacity to change lives, not its capacity for apocalypses and cataclysms.

    1. Well put. Also, you should write for our blog :)

    2. Jeff, I know I am digressing from the topic at hand, but had to respond to your comment re Thomas Jefferson. I am reading a most fascinating book about him written by David Barton. The Title is: The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You Have Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. Just wanted to point out that what Thomas Jefferson was doing when he cut parts out of his Bible was condensing the life and teachings of Jesus to use as a missionary tool for Native Americans. Later on, after studying all the great philosophers of the world he came to the conclusion that the words and teachings of Jesus were far superior to any other's so he compiled those and that collection was later put together and published by the US Congress under the title: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth and was given to every new member of Congress when they were sworn into office. This practice lasted for fifty years. Just a "lost" tid bit of history I thought might interest you and other readers...

    3. Sonia, appreciate your comments here. There's a great deal of info about Jefferson and his unique take on religion, and he was quite a character. I haven't read Barton's book, though I've seen him on the Daily Show and read some of his articles. I'd be very careful about what information you take from him... He's a political advocate, not a historian and his methods and conclusions tend to be at odds with even the most conservative historians -- his favorite method is to cherry-pick quotes from the founding era to prove that their values and beliefs align with modern, conservative, dominionist Christianity. Occasionally he's been caught flat-out making stuff up (if he were an academic his career would be over). Perhaps with Jefferson he's turned a new leaf, and but I doubt it. There are better sources.