Saturday, July 26, 2014

What Do You Mean By "Soon?"

"In the year seventy-five ten
If God's a-coming, He oughta make it by then"
—Zager and Evans, 1969

Mixed messages, somewhere west of the Mississippi River

Christians have been proclaiming the imminent return of Jesus for almost two thousand years, with nobody seeming to notice or care that the claim has become absurd, that the trail has gone cold.

Whenever someone says that Jesus is coming soon, the first thing you should ask is what do you mean by "soon?" After two thousand years of waiting, the word has been stripped of any meaning that might be reasonably ascribed to it. When your message hinges on a meaningless word, your message becomes meaningless as well. Time for a new message.

I've long been puzzled by the fixation of some Christians on end times predictions. If you'll allow me a phonetic pun, it's impossible to get the "scat" out of eschatology. The joke would be even better if the spelling would cooperate. But for practical purposes, and in the context of one's own salvation, what does it matter? If the intent is to warn the sinner that time is short, the point is better made reminding him of the precarious and undeniably brief duration of his own life. If the second coming of Jesus and one's demise both represent cutoff points in opportunities for salvation, why not go with what we know for sure? Presumably you'd get agreement from the hundred generations of Christians who have expired while waiting for the second coming that never came.

Interestingly, the notion of Jesus' return has undergone considerable revision and theological development over the centuries, but particularly in the first hundred years or so. It's fascinating to examine that development. As we do so, never forget that Jesus was a Jew, and that his public ministry was among and to fellow Jews. Jesus proclaimed a very Jewish message: that the end of time was near, the kingdom of God was at hand, and so time was short for Jews to repent and get right with God. Because of this teaching, many scholars view Jesus as a Jewish "apocalyptic prophet."

On this matter there are endless opportunities for confusion among modern day Christians who, after all, are not Jews, and who would not necessarily understand the first century Jewish context in which Jesus taught. It's really easy for Christians to misunderstand certain formulations they encounter while reading the New Testament.

For example, first century Jews understood that the "kingdom of God" (a.k.a., "kingdom of Heaven") was to be a true earthly kingdom, the ultimate fulfillment of God's relationship to his people. The kingdom would be led by a "messiah" (literally, the "anointed one"), who was a "son of God." Note that the Jewish notion of "son of God" does not imply divinity; it is not a reference to the second person of the Trinity. To first century Jews, a son of God is a man highly favored by God, who is specially engaged in furthering God's purpose. There have been sons of God throughout Jewish history, such as the great prophets.

Jewish expectations about the messiah varied. Some Jews thought the messiah would be a great warrior king, in the mold of King David. This king would vanquish Israel's enemies and occupiers—in particular the Romans—and restore the greatness and independence of the Jewish state. Given their centuries-long history of occupation, exile, and oppression, this made a lot of sense to the long-suffering Jews.

Others thought the messiah would be not so much a warrior as a great religious leader—one who would restore the relationship between God and his people through spiritual renewal.

Jesus taught that at the end of time—the establishment of God's kingdom—a judgment would occur that would welcome the righteous and exclude the corrupt. Thus the need to repent. Again, he's talking to Jews. The winnowing would be conducted by a shadowy figure referred to as the "Son of Man," a cosmic judge explicitly sent from heaven at the end of time. The term "Son of Man" likely comes from Jewish apocalyptic texts such as the Book of Daniel, and would probably not have been widely understood by all Jews at the time. There is some possible connotation of divinity (though probably not full equality with God) in the term, but this is debated among scholars. It is not at all clear that Jesus believed himself to be the Son of Man; the New Testament is ambiguous on the question.

Jesus surely believed that the kingdom of God would arrive very soon. He tells his followers that some of them will not "taste death" before the kingdom arrives (Matt 16:28). But then Jesus himself is put to death, and the distinctly Christian notion of "suffering messiah" (unthinkable to Jews) arises. Things are changing.

Jesus, according to his followers, was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, but would return. Perhaps, in the early days after the ascension, his return was thought to be imminent. His followers certainly expected to be around when it happened. Furthermore, they became convinced that Jesus himself was the Son of Man, the cosmic judge. Now things made sense: Jesus was presently in heaven; the Son of Man would be sent from heaven at the end of the age. Ergo, waiting for the kingdom now meant waiting for Jesus.

But how soon would he return? Not right away, to be sure. At least that's how things were developing in the first few decades after the crucifixion. The rejection of Jesus by the Jews meant that salvation was now available to the Gentiles, and the mission to the Gentiles would take some time. And realize that by the time the first gospels were written—The Gospel According to Mark, the earliest, was written around 65 C.E.—Jesus had been dead for thirty to forty years. Over that time, many of his disciples had also died. The author of The Gospel According to Luke (written at least 15 years after Mark) and of Acts of the Apostles takes pains to say that Jesus would not return in his disciples' lifetimes, which was pretty much stating the obvious at that point. Still—and we cannot know this with certainty—"Luke" may have believed that, since the gospel had already been preached "to the ends of the earth," he, Luke, was in the final generation to live before the end time. In any case, Luke stresses that his readers should be concerned not with the future but with the present, and to continue to spread the gospel until the clock runs out.

The Gospel According to John is the latest of the four canonical gospels, written near the end of the first century, and represents a Christian theology that has already evolved significantly, even in comparison to the earlier gospels. By the time of John, the non-return of Jesus had been going on for perhaps sixty years or more. The gospel's author engages in a bit of semantic jousting to say that Jesus never actually promised that the "beloved disciple" (John, himself) would not die before Jesus' return (John 21:21-3). Apparently that explanation was necessary because the beloved disciple did die. Anyway, John says there's no need to wait for the end of time and Jesus' return to have eternal life; eternal life is available in the present, for all who believe in Jesus. Apocalypticism has been jettisoned. Good riddance.

There's a clear aspect over the first hundred years or so of making things up as you go, and that's not surprising: You have to adapt to unfolding developments.The imminence of God's kingdom as preached by John the Baptist, and by Jesus, didn't pan out. Jesus, a possible candidate for the job of messiah, went and got himself killed, necessitating a revised understanding of what the "messiah" was supposed to be. The earliest three gospels—the "synoptics"—never actually claimed divine status for Jesus. The latest—John—definitely does. An evolving Christology tried to make sense of who Jesus was, and of his program. Non-Jews increasingly entered the fray, bringing their own theological baggage from across the ancient world. Much remained to be worked out. Gnosticism, and a host of other "heresies," had to be defeated. "Orthodoxy" (the name by which we now refer to what remained after the theological battles of the first couple of centuries) had to be defined. It was not until the third century that Tertullian explicitly referred to the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was not until the fourth century that the thing was codified in the Nicene Creed. Over time, Jesus actually became God, a development that may have surprised him.

So now we wait—for what? Good question. Christian theology still acknowledges a second coming, an end of time. The book of Revelation provides some of the bizarre details. But when? We can't know. No less an authority than Jesus himself warns that not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, know when it will be. Only the Father knows. Given what we've subsequently worked out about the Trinity, it's hard to understand how the Father keeps the secret from the Son, but never mind. (Yes, I know: Jesus knew nothing about the Trinity; he was referring to the "Son of Man," who apparently had to remain perpetually on-call for his big moment.)

Point is, if someone pretends to have an idea about timing, you should be suspicious. What we do know for sure is that nothing has happened for two thousand years. So if you tell me Jesus is "coming soon," first thing I'm gonna ask is what do you mean by "soon?"

Postscript - The billboard in the photo gives decidedly mixed messages. Presumably Christians can agree that Jesus is Lord—whatever that means. But as we have seen, the claim of  "coming soon" is decidedly suspect. Extending the incongruity, John 3:16 has nothing to do with the lordship of Jesus, nor of his return. It succinctly explains that God's great salvific act is an act of love; it is through love that God sent his Son, so that all who believe in him can be saved. It's a nice thought, even if it's unclear why "belief" is the criterion for salvation, and even if there's no evidence that it's true.

 Copyright (C) 2014 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

On Being Right, On Being Wrong

In the early days of the "Lesser Depression" that followed the financial crisis of 2008, Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman made three fundamental claims about how the economy performs during a depression. Krugman said that while the economy remained depressed and interest rates were at the "zero lower bound,"
  • The government "printing money" would not would not cause inflation
  • The government running massive budget deficits would not lead to higher interest rates
  • Fiscal austerity would be economically contractionary
And so it came to be, despite howls of outrage by right wing economists, commentators, and politicians. Remember Paul Ryan's accusation that the Fed was "debasing the currency?"

Economics is different from the hard sciences because it is difficult to conduct economic experiments to test your hypotheses. Krugman's claims, however, came from a fully articulated economic model, and the severely depressed economy proved to be a remarkable "natural experiment" in which that Keynesian model could be verified.

It has now been over five years—half a decade!—since The Wall Street Journal editorial page warned ominously of sharply higher inflation and interest rates. The "bond vigilantes," suggested the Journal, would have their way with the government's misbegotten policies of fiscal and monetary imprudence.

So what happened? Interest rates fell to historic lows. The yield on the 10-year bond was over 3.5 percent when the Journal issued its warning; it subsequently tumbled to less than 1.5 percent, despite trillion dollar deficits and massive expansion of the Fed's balance sheet, and remained at historically low levels. Throughout the half decade since the Journal's warning, the government has been able to borrow essentially for free, since the real (the nominal rate minus inflation) interest rate paid on government bonds has remained close to zero. The bond vigilantes are nowhere to be found.

Inflation has also remained very low, at or below the Fed's target. This despite vast new monetary reserves due to the Fed's "quantitative easing"—a more technical term for "printing money."

Meanwhile, economic growth has been tepid, with millions still unemployed or under-employed. No surprise: Despite the long-gone Obama "stimulus" (which Krugman said from the beginning was far too small) and the deficits caused by soaring safety net expenditures, government policy has been one of de facto austerity, with massive cutbacks in state and local spending, large net reductions in government jobs, and anemic levels of aggregate government spending growth. In fact, the miserly spending by government has been quite unprecedented in comparison to past periods of economic weakness; the norm is for the government to adopt a fiscal posture that leads the country out of recession. But not this time.

It's hard to over emphasize how remarkably important Krugman's predictions were. Taken together, they constitute a fundamental understanding of how a depressed economy works, an understanding that has profound implications for economic policy, even as it violates conservative orthodoxy.

Have conservative economists, commentators, and politicians stepped up to say that they were wrong? They have not. Mostly they offer conspiracy theories (the government is lying about inflation) or explanations involving "uncertainty" among businesses and the markets caused by ad hoc government actions. In the ideologue's mind, ideology can never be disproved, certainly not by evidence. Being an ideologue means never having to say you're sorry. Has The Wall Street Journal explained what became of the bond vigilantes? Don't make me laugh.

Conservative beliefs burnt to smoldering ashes should cause everybody to take note. Being profoundly wrong should have consequences. Take Obamacare, for example. There was every reason to predict it would work. After all, it was closely modeled on Romneycare in Massachusetts, which has been undeniably successful.

But conservatives just knew Obamacare would be a stunning failure. In particular, they were overwhelmingly convinced that
  • Enrollment would be low
  • Those who do sign up won't pay
  • More people will lose coverage canceled by Obamacare than gain it
  • Insurance premiums will increase dramatically
  • Young people won't sign up, causing an demographic "death spiral"
  • Health care costs will soar
So who was correct? Enrollment substantially beat expectations, despite two months of a nonfunctional web site. Insurance companies say the vast majority of enrollees have paid. There has been a sharp drop in the number of uninsured, at least in states that adopted Medicaid expansion. The claims of canceled policies have collapsed under press scrutiny. Premium costs have come in below expectations, even as consumers have more choices. Insurance companies say the risk pool demographics are fairly good. And health care costs are rising slowly compared to historical rates.

Early estimates have insurance premiums rising by perhaps seven percent next year, but that's still far lower than the double digit increases we'd become accustomed to. And a number of additional insurance companies have announced they'll be joining the exchanges, which amounts to a vote of confidence in how things are going.

As always, conservatives respond to facts with a mix of conspiracy theories (the administration is cooking the numbers), but the incessant hammering on Obamacare has largely ended in the conservative media. Apparently they've moved on.

But this meandering story is a tale about being right and being wrong, and whether there are consequences. How completely, spectacularly wrong is it possible to be? Oh, my. Very.

In selling the 2003 invasion of Iraq, necons in and out of government claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It didn't. The Bush administration later explained its mistake by saying everybody believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Everybody didn't. The Bush administration, particularly Dick Cheney, claimed Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda. It didn't. Neocons in and out of government claimed the war would be quick (weeks, not months), easy, and cheap (at most a few tens of billions of dollars). Americans would be greeted as liberators. A new democracy would flower in the desert and remake the Middle East.

George W. Bush proclaimed victory beneath a banner saying "Mission Accomplished" a couple of months after the invasion, even as a massive insurgency was soon to erupt. Four years later, with 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, another 20,000 were on the way to conduct "the surge." Four years after that, the U.S. formally and completely exited Iraq.

The promised short little war took over eight years. Cheap? Not in lives. Over 4,000 Americans dead, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Not in money. The final cost is not yet totaled or paid, but the ultimate tally is estimated to be in the trillions of dollars. (By the way, the current difficulties at the Veterans Administration are a direct consequence of the Iraq war, and the U.S.'s failure to plan for a large influx of severely injured veterans needing care.)

And democracy flowering in the Middle East? Please.

Now a new Iraqi insurgency is very much in the news. An extreme Sunni Islamist group known variously as ISIS or ISIL or (now) "The Islamic State" has captured large portions of Syria and Iraq, including the large Iraqi city of Mosul. The far better equipped Iraqi army dropped its weapons and fled before the much smaller militant contingent. (Bush: "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Uh huh.) American military advisers say the Iraqi army is not now capable of retaking the territory, although it can probably defend Baghdad.

The success of ISIS has depended fundamentally on Sunni dissatisfaction at being mistreated by the majority Shiite Iraqi government. International advisers have long pleaded with prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to construct a broadly inclusive government that shares power and wealth among Iraq's three large sectarian groups, but Maliki has been unwilling to do so. The Shiites have largely rubbed the Sunnis' noses in their powerlessness. The Sunnis have had enough.

Now Iraq is suddenly embroiled in sectarian civil war, with the Kurds setting up a soon to be independent state in the north, the Sunni radicals setting up a wannabe Islamic "caliphate" in the middle, and the majority Shiites in the south. The "flowering" now occurring in Iraq's midsection is not democracy but a potential jihadist and terrorist stronghold that could have worldwide security implications. In selling the 2003 invasion, the Bush administration (Paul Wolfowitz, in particular) insisted Iraq had scant potential for sectarian division. Oh, yes, it is possible to be wrong, and all the more so when you are guided by ideology, not evidence, reason, or—God forbid!—understanding.

Now the U.S. has sent several hundred military advisers and security personnel to Iraq. It is uncertain how things will progress, but after eight years in country, the U.S. is not yet rid of this nasty neocon mess. Could conservatives been more wrong?

Ideology and theological certitude is everywhere you look on the conservative right. Right wing ideologues reject established science, and are thus happy to deny the reality of climate change despite overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter, and the plain evidence that the planet is dramatically warming. Right wing theists deny evolution, which is the foundational underpinning of modern biology, and they strive where possible to keep it from being taught in schools.

The story never ends, but I must, so I'll leave you with a tale of ideological and fiscal malpractice in my home state of Kansas. Governor Sam Brownback has implemented a plan to dramatically slash the state's personal and business income tax, despite warnings that doing so would lead to massive budget shortfalls. Brownback is convinced that the move will lead to an eruption of economic growth a la Texas, and he's reportedly been urged on by supply-side high priest Art Laffer, who somehow still manages, at this late date, to get the attention of some conservative politicians. Never mind that Laffer's economic predictions about the self-funding wonders of tax cuts were discredited during the Reagan years, and quickly rejected by Reagan himself.

So how are things going in Kansas? Well, the state's economy lags the nation's. The fiscal year closed at the end of June with revenues $338 million below predictions. That's real money in such a small state. The state's credit rating has been downgraded. State funding for higher education has been slashed year after year. And the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the state's funding of K-12 education is so unacceptably low that it violates the state's constitution, which requires a minimum level of education funding. Still, there's always room for tax cuts.

Where will it all end? In discourse with right-wingers, don't bother appealing to reason or evidence. It doesn't work. Conservatives have faith in faith. On the right, being demonstrably correct is irrelevant. Being demonstrably wrong is not a liability. Conservatives just know a thing is true, because they just know, and they have their own self-constructed media echo chamber to reinforce that belief.

Somehow, the nation needs to stop listening to, and empowering, ideologues—while cultivating a culture of informed critical thinking. But here's the thing: we'll not, unfortunately, be able to bring conservative ideologues along, because their brains aren't wired to think critically. Sad to say, we'll just have to cut them loose, and proceed without them. The sooner, the better. There is no other way.

Copyright (C) 2014 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved