The Eclipse, “The Rapture,” and St. Augustine

These days after a solar eclipse are probably a good time to remind ourselves of this extended quote from St. Augustine of Hippo.
(picture taken by me during “totality”)

St. Augustine was a wordy writer, so I’ve edited it down a bit…and it still runs long. But it’s an important word for all of us who suffered through Biblical literalists and Evangelicals telling us the “Rapture” would happen during yesterday’s Eclipse.

Leaving aside the fact that only a small swath of humanity actually saw yesterday’s eclipse, I’m hoping to remind you that not all Christians believe in rapture-literalism.

AND! I also want to remind you of this: Interpreting scriptures (specificaly the “Creation Narrative”) metaphorically, allegorically, and symbolically, IS NOT a modern thing…but can demonstrably be traced back at least 1600 years.

This might be news to many raised in White American Evangelicalism. But it’s true.

This week, I saw many a meme making fun of Biblical literalists for saying a Rapture would happen yesterday.

Hell, I made fun of them…
I posted one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite shows, “Six Feet Under,” where a Rapture-obsessed Christian mistakes helium filled blow up sex dolls for the end of the world.
That show is decades old now, but the underlying issues are much older.

Apparently St. Augustine was having to confront these things in the year 408 CE!!
His writing is a bit dense. But his clear point is that Christian scripture should not be taken as a literal account of the physical world or universe.

In this writing, and others like it, he sets forth a doctrine that would be misunderstood by both the church and scientists over and over….for the past 1600 years.

The gist is this: If rationality, science, physical observation, shows something to be at odds with an attempted “literal” reading of scripture, that “literal part” of the scripture reading can’t be said to be essential to Christian faith.
(Note: Like all ancients, the word literal would not have made much sense to Augustine…)

In other words, if science determines something to be factually true, believe science.

Scripture can, and should, be read metaphorically, symbolically, not literally. And if you do want to read-in some literalness, allow for your faith and views to change, based on what you find out later through reason and experience.

We United Methodists embrace some form of this through our “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” which seems to be a reinterpretation of Augustine’s thought, created by Dr. Albert Outler. (Perkins Prof and Northaven member…)

We United Methodists say that to rightly understand things spiritually and theologically we must use “scripture, history, reason, and experience.” This assumes that like our lives and the world itself, theology and scripture interpretation must be constantly changing.

There is indeed Spiritual truth that is eternal.
But the implications of those truths change, as culture and knowledge change.
And I would add to this: In any known universe, with any God worth understanding and conceiving, those last two sentences must be so.

Process theology helps me understand this from the faith-side of things. Some part of God feels to be “unchanging;” but other parts of God must —definitionally— be always changing. Or else it makes no sense to imagine God as having any connections, whatsoever, to this world.

It’s a bit like the feel you have of always being YOU.
You have always been you, even though your physical body is constantly been changing throughout time.

God is the same. At both and the same time as God has always been “the same,” and also always adapting to each time and historical setting too. This all means that there is no hard inconsistency between science and religion. (Unless we want to take science as metaphor…and many modern folks clearly do…or religion as literal…and many modern folks clearly do that too…)

Even Galileo’s famous spat with the Pope was likely more a personal spat between the two men than it was a clear reading of Augustine’s theology…which should have been known to the Pope, of course.
(That doesn’t mean the spat wasn’t damaging. It just means it’s too flat a historical reading to assume it was “stupid theology verses enlightened science” and not ALSO a very personal spat where theology was used and abused by the Pope…)


OK…enough of that…

Back to yesterday and the beauty of that moment…
I love reading the online reactions of all my friends to this eclipse. I love how many folks say…

“It was spiritual…it was mystical…”
“It reminded me of how small we are in the universe…”
“It felt like all my problems went away for a moment, and everybody was just ONE…”
“I was filled with awe…”

It was all those things for me too.

And I can’t help remind you that this should be the purpose of our religion and our spiritual practice, just like it’s the purpose of music and art…

Some years back, writer Patricia Hample said, “I don’t know if everyone has to come to terms with religion, but everyone has to come to terms with mystery, which is the business of religion.”

I think that’s deeply true. Religious faith, at its best, points us to some world beyond this one….the mysterious world of Spirit. We are continually misunderstanding this world, and speaking way too literally and confidentially about it.

The implications of a faith that takes the Spiritual dimension seriously, but not literally, means reading the Bible in a very non-literal way, but trying to understand the meaning of the stories.

It’s become a credo of many progressive Christians to say “We take the Bible seriously, but not literally.”

Frederick Buechner once talked about the great Karl Barth’s understanding of reading scripture. A memory of this quote flooded back to me today, because it’s also a lot like watching an eclipse too….

..reading the Bible is like looking out of the window and seeing everybody on the street shading their eyes with their hands and gazing up into the sky toward something hidden from us by the roof. They are pointing up. They are speaking strange words. They are very excited. Something is happening that we can’t see happening. Or something is about to happen. Something beyond our comprehension has caught them up and is seeking to lead them on “from land to land for strange, intense, uncertain, and yet mysteriously well-planned service.”

Used to be we didn’t understand what eclipses were, and we shaded our eyes, freaked out, and thought the world was going to end.
Now, thankfully, science helps us understand what is happening.

Some of us still read Bible stories the way Barth/Buechner, and apparently St. Augustine, describe.

We shade our eyes, we seek out the metaphorical meanings… we “come to terms with mystery” like the natural world, life, death, love, hate…evil, justice…

We still find guidance to these big picture things in the ancient stories of scripture.

But like some Christians for these past 1600 years, we know enough to not take them literally.

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