Little Systems of Order

As we begin Advent, the Church confronts us with Jesus’ teaching about the Second Coming. His disturbing warning is well-known in our post-Protestant culture:

As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left.Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming (Matthew 24:37-42).

It’s a text known, not only to every reader of Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins Left Behind series, but to millions of other people, Catholic, Protestant and unbeliever. And the way in which it is commonly read, not only by Evangelicals but even by many Catholics, is that those who are “taken” are the blessed, while those who are left are accursed or otherwise abandoned to their fate by the Lord of the Harvest. I have even heard sermons from Catholic pulpits which take that for granted.

Only, here’s the thing, as Scripture scholar Michael Barber points out, this is exactly backward from the Old Testament backdrop to which Jesus himself is pointing:

Now, according to the standard rapturist interpretation, when Jesus says, “one is taken and one is left,” he is teaching that the righteous one will be “raptured” while the wicked, unbelieving heathens will be “left behind.”

The problem with this view however is that it seems contradict what Jesus is actually saying.

The larger context of the passage is an analogy: Jesus is describing the time of the coming of the Son of man in terms of the flood judgment.

What is often missed is this: according to Jesus, in the days of Noah it was the wicked who were “swept away” (Matt 24:39). In other words, in the days of Noah, the wicked were the ones taken.

Hence, it would seem that in Jesus’ analogy, it is desirable to be among those left behind–i.e., those not swept away as the wicked were in the days of Noah. A careful reading then would suggest that the righteous are those who are left behind, not those taken.

I realize that the view that Jesus here links salvation with those being “taken” is very much entrenched, no doubt in part due to the influence of the rapture interpretation. Yet such a reading does not seem to flow naturally from the text. In fact, such a reading in fact reverses the imagery so that the days of the Son of man are unlike the days of Noah, contrary to what Jesus himself seems to teach.

So much for worrying about being “left behind.”

In other words, appealing to this passage as a basis for some Rapture is rather like appealing to Thomas Jefferson as a witness to the glories of monarchy. It’s the opposite of what Jesus is saying.

Does Barber mean to suggest that those who read it as a reference to the Rapture are deliberately deceptive? I doubt that. Certainly, Catholics I’ve known who have read it to mean the saved will be taken have no intent to deceive. In fact, the people I have heard reading the passage this way actually reject Rapture theology. But by a sort of mental habit, they have nonetheless gone on reading the passage in a sense contrary to what the words themselves actually import. Why?

To answer that, let us consult with noted theologian Qui-Gonn Jinn.

As a general rule, I discourage people from getting their theology from Star Wars because, well, it’s a dumb thing to do. However, understood rightly, there is a bit of Jedi wisdom to be had here and there—rather as fortune cookies sometimes make a good call by dumb luck. For instance, consider Qui-Gonn Jinn remark to Anakin Skywalker, “Your focus determines your reality.”

That statement is lunacy if you take it to mean, “Things are only as we think them.” Such insanity pervades every crank solipsistic philosophy on earth, from the people who tell you that your leg is only broken because you believe it to be, to the lunatics who believe that “will power” is the sovereign solvent for walking through brick walls.

On the other hand, Qui-Gonn’s remark can also be understood to mean that we tend to interpret (and filter) facts to fit our predetermined ideas. That’s just common sense—and it’s why we often miss facts that are staring us in the face. It’s a principle every magician relies on in misdirecting our focus to one thing as he does something else to create the illusion. Indeed, properly understood, “Your focus determines your reality” is a statement about the power of the human mind, not to create reality, but to radically misunderstand it.

And so, in our Protestant and post-Protestant culture, we drink in with our mother’s milk certain cultural assumptions about how to read certain passages in Scripture, much as we drink in certain pieces of “common knowledge” about the movies, or history, or other fields. Everybody knows the Constitution guarantees “separation of Church and state” (except it doesn’t). Everybody knows Humphrey Bogart said, “Play it again, Sam” (except he didn’t). Everybody knows Darwin wrote about “survival of the fittest” (except that Herbert Spencer did). And everybody knows that Jesus teaches that the good will be taken and the wicked left. So, even though not one of these things can ever be documented we go on seeing them in the text even when the text says something that directly contradicts “common knowledge.”

This has other implications than simply how we will read of a rather mysterious passage concerning the Judgment. For instance, as an Evangelical, my eyes fell, for years, on passages like “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). I didn’t “reject” such passages. I simply… didn’t see them. It was one of those weird things Paul said. Nobody knows why. If I read similar words in any other context (i.e, from a Catholic writer) then there was a place in my scheme of reality for it. It was “Romish works salvation adding to the finished work of Jesus”. But when I read it in Paul, it was simply a blank.

It wasn’t until some Catholic writer pointed out that Paul’s remark actually fit into the Catholic understanding of our sharing in the work of Christ by uniting our sufferings to his in penance that I actually began to incorporate it into my thinking and “see” it. This applied with other passages as well, such as Paul’s remarks about “holding fast to tradition” (1 Corinthians 11:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:15). Until you begin to grasp the fact that sola scriptura is inadequate for dealing with reality and start looking for some other way to explain the world, you can go for years with your eyes falling on these passages but the words simply bounce off. Your system has no place for these facts.

We constantly construct what Evelyn Waugh called “little systems of order” and tend to feed into it those facts which fit the system in some way or another. Facts which do not fit the system tend to not be seen or are interpreted in such a way as to preserve the system of order we have created. Sometimes this is perfectly legitimate, sometimes not. Medievals very sensibly valued the Duck Principle: If it walks, quacks and looks like a duck, odds are it’s a duck. This doctrine was known by the more starchy term “saving the appearances.”

And so, for instance, Geocentrism was a little system of order that worked well enough for ancient scientists who came up with epicycles and so forth to “save the appearances” of a sun and stars that sure looked like they moved and an earth that sure felt like it didn’t. Then heliocentrism came up with an explanation that covered the same facts more elegantly (and incorporated more facts the earlier system had not dealt with well). Appearances, while nice, could still be deceiving after all (as medievals, steeped in the doctrine of Transubstantiation, also knew well). Then Einstein came up with yet another explanation that covered the same facts (and more we had not been able to fit into a Newtonian universe). Eventually, the older systems of order had to incorporate more and more facts (and, who knows?, may yet have to incorporate more). So little systems of order gradually give way to larger systems.

In the same way, the American founders could grasp that all men were created equal, yet could not incorporate into this picture of the world the fact that “men” included black men and red men (and women). The little system of order would simply not see these inconvenient facts for quite some time (and not without great violence). Indeed, at this hour, millions of our countrymen still fail to see the unborn child. Their little system of order can’t cope with the fact of the humanity of the unborn. Facts get sacrificed accordingly.

The principle can be seen everywhere. For instance, a little system of egalitarianism from the recent past insisted that everybody was equally at risk for AIDS, despite the fact that AIDS is, overwhelmingly, a plague afflicting those who swap body fluids outside the bounds of committed heterosexual marriage. It was a fact that could not be admitted because the system of order decreed that we not acknowledge that sexual promiscuity and drug use were the main transmission vectors. Facts were sacrificed. In much the same way, we have, in this country, a little system of order which declares that everybody is equally at risk for being a terrorist. Those in the grip of it persist, against all the blandishments of common sense, in treating nuns in wheelchairs as being every bit the threat to passengers that a radical jihadist is. The system of order decrees which facts are admissible for consideration and which are not.

Little systems of order often grasp part of a larger truth, yet prove stubbornly resistant to embracing the whole of reality. For instance, a system of order which opposes the abortion of children in their beds on August 6, 1945 for the purpose of ending a war of aggression can enthusiastically approve of aborting them in the womb for the purpose of fighting crime or poverty. Likewise, those committed to the proposition that innocent life can never be deliberately taken in the womb can be passionate defenders of deliberately murdering it on a Japanese playground in Nagasaki.

The littleness of little systems of order is what periodically causes them to smash against their own internal contradictions, as happened, for instance with the attempt to maintain slavery in a Republic founded on the doctrine of human equality. In the same way, we read story after story after story of abortionists who, like Paul, find it impossible to kick against the goads and who wind up becoming ardent prolife activists (ever notice that one never hears of prolifers who are converted by conscience to become ardent baby killers?) All that rhetoric pro-aborts spout about “freedom” finally sinks in and they realize that you can’t be free if human life is cheap. The little system of order gives way to a completer view of human beings and their dignity that does not need to sacrifice human life to human freedom.

Similarly, those committed to the notion that the State requires extraordinary powers to subject human beings to “enhanced interrogation” in order to keep us safe are now experiencing the beginnings of the contradiction of their own little system of order. As long as it was Maher Arar and other foreigners being abused by the State, defenders of “enhanced interrogation” were fine with it, because they lived in the illusion that it was keeping them “safe”. Indeed, not a few have adopted the philosophy as they trembled in fear before the all-justifying “ticking time bomb scenario”. But now that the Transportation Safety Administration is stripping Americans of their human dignity on precisely the same rationale that has been used to justify stripping foreigners of theirs (and sometimes of their lives in the process), torture apologists like Charles Krauthammer are suddenly discovering that the two phases of history are “What could it hurt?” followed by “How was I supposed to know?” The longer this goes on, the better the chances are that former enthusiasts for “enhanced interrogation” will find a place for inconvenient fact like “due process” and discover that folding the punishment/humiliation phase of the justice system into the investigative phase could have negative effects, not just for faceless foreigners, but for lots and lots of innocent men, women and children in public places all over the Security State of Big Sis. Suddenly, the lie of “safety” through contempt for human dignity is becoming a reality. Experience is a great engine of paradigm shift.

Little systems of order are not, by themselves, bad things so long as we recognize they are human and provisional. Our lives are filled with them. We drive on the right side of the road, not because it was decreed by God on Sinai, but because that’s how we do things around here. We celebrate certain holidays, go here, do that, observe this custom, take it for granted that X is so because our lives are greatly helped by these widely accepted rules of thumb about how things are supposed to go. And generally, we rub along okay by doing so. But now and then, a little system of order reveals its weaknesses and we reconsider and even change it. So we pass from being a geocentric to heliocentric culture. We opt to give women the vote. We pass Dry Laws and then, realizing our folly, repeal them. All of this is part of the normal give and take of human history. None of it means that the bedrock of reality changes—merely that our very imperfect understanding of how we are to navigate the river flowing over that bedrock should be lived out.

This has everything to do with the Pope’s recent remarks about condoms and the kerfuffle it as engendered in our beer and shampoo selling media. The hope of our Manufacturers of Ephemeral Culture is, as ever, that the immutable truths the Catholic Church teaches—that God Almighty is Omniscient, Omnipotent and Love from Everlasting to Everlasting and that the human person is made in his image and likeness—will melt before the onslaught of Money, Sex and Power. And those who focus on that false trinity have their reality determined—that is, distorted—by it. Thus, the Pope makes a perfectly obvious remark founded on the mercy of God, which sees even the feeblest attempt at consideration for another in the light of charity. Result: the press, acting under the influence of what the Curt Jester calls the Ginger Factor, hears, “Blah blah blah condoms blah blah blah” and concludes “the Pope approves of condoms”. Their little system of order can admit no other interpretation of the data and whatever else the Pope says in all his voluminous teaching about human dignity and rightly ordered sexuality simply bounces off because there is no place to put those inconvenient facts.

What to do? In brief, keep doing what Pope Benedict is doing: stating the full-orbed truth of the Catholic faith. Because the media’s little system of order, like so many others, is merely of human make and design and will sooner later conk just as all the others eventually do. To paraphrase a wise man, “If the Church’s teaching on human sexuality is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (cf. Acts 5:38-39) My deep confidence is that, throw however many lies at it as they will, the MSM will discover that their little system of order cracks and the Church’s teaching will still be standing. For the Faith is not of human make or design and so will sooner or later carry the day. The MSM will be taken, and the Church will be left.


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