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Faith Exchange: Is religion not for prophets?

The Globe and Mail

If you spent any time using social media in mid-May, you've probably heard or read a joke about Family Radio and Harold Camping, who predicted that the Rapture would arrive on May 21. It was the second failed prediction for the California preacher, who now says that he miscalculated, and that Judgment Day will actually take place on Oct. 21. Comedians and religious skeptics had a field day, and Mr. Camping's crestfallen followers, many of whom made significant decisions based on his interpretation of the Bible, were left to pick up the pieces.

Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss prophecies and religious beliefs about the end of the world.

Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B'nai Tikvah, Calgary's Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.

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Michael W. Higgins is a biographer, a CBC documentarist and currently the vice-president of Mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal.

Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master's degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and executive producer of Listen Up TV on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. Eastern time.

Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe and Mail's online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.


Guy Nicholson: Thanks for taking the time to join us. Panelists, even a non-believer like me can accept using faith as a philosophical guide. But this case seems to me like a clear-cut argument against using a religious text as a literal script for life and death. Do you agree?

Michael Higgins: Being a literalist can be a consoling option - it certainly can go some way to simplifying the complexities that make up what we call life. It also caricatures religious faith, diminishes the importance of a sophisticated and intellectual approach to the appropriation and maturation of a personal faith, and can result in the reduction of religion to the risible and inconsequential. Reading most texts - scriptural or otherwise - in a literalist manner can be a recipe for disappointment. I don't recommend it.

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Howard Voss-Altman: The persistent use of biblical text as an instrument of doom is always depressing. Such claims manage not only to alienate the non-believer, but also delegitimize organized religion as a force for social change. Why is it that biblical prophecies are always about destruction? Wouldn't it be wonderful if a religious leader predicted that on Oct. 21, we'd all be "welcoming the stranger" as the first step toward world peace? There's a prophecy worth waiting for.

Michael Higgins: Good point, Howard. Consummation need not be equated with ruin, fire and destruction. It can, and should be, fulfilment, integration, the arrival of a reign of justice, love and mercy.

Sheema Khan: I think we have to be careful in using this particular example to generalize how religious texts should or should not be used. There are many Christians who did not believe or follow Mr. Camping. I think the issue here is whether believers should blindly follow a particular leader without asking questions. Mr. Camping claims that he made mathematical calculations based on religious text. Did anyone actually challenge him on that? Ask to see those calculations and verify them? In science, we do this all the time. Claims are met with skepticism until there is tangible proof and evidence. Even in theoretical physics, if the math doesn't pan out, the claim is tossed out. I think it is Mr. Camping who has lost credibility, not the religious text.

Lorna Dueck: I agree that the wacky numerology that was used to predict the end of the world was a gross misuse of the Bible, a literal tragedy of trying to create a script out of spiritual mystery. Yet Christianity firmly believes that the Bible contains teachings that illuminate how we approach "end times" events - our own death and the return of Jesus Christ to Earth. That academic discipline is called eschatology, and is about the study of God's goals.

Michael Higgins: Eschatology does not, however, I am sure you agree, provide a map of the "end days," nor furnish us with the specifics the millenarians delight in spouting.

Lorna Dueck: And like in conspiracy theories, it's puzzling how people gravitate to trying to put a certainty into mystery. As Sheema pointed out, the religious text holds the credibility, not the person who interprets it. In the case of Christianity, the source of all these rumours that world is going to end in a calamity is the statement in Acts 1 that the Jesus who left this world will one day return. In my Anabaptist tradition, our forefathers once predicted that date would be 1533. It was an aberration from the words of Jesus in Acts 1 that "it is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set."

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Guy Nicholson: Lorna, there will be many readers who ask how much more credible it is to talk about the return of Christ than to talk about Mr. Camping's "end times." What would you tell them?

Lorna Dueck: Christianity does have a core belief that Jesus will come back to be seen by people on Earth, and to adjust our world into the beauty that has always been intended for it since "the beginning." It's credible to talk about that because our text, the Bible, contains so much of it in the teachings of Jesus. What's not clear is how to interpret it - will this arrival of Jesus be Armageddon-like, or what? I would tell people to take the advice of Scripture on that mystery and be prepared to meet God.

Howard Voss-Altman: Of course, the problem with such a return is not the return itself. It's those who preach that non-believers, e.g. Jews, will be consigned to darkness and hell for not believing in Jesus's divinity. Sadly, such teachings have led to systemic anti-Semitism in Christianity.

Sheema Khan: That's an interesting point you raise, Guy. The Day of Judgment is an article of faith in Islam. It is a day when all will be held accountable for their deeds. In Islam, no one knows, nor has the right to say when it will occur. However, there are "minor" signs and "major" signs of its approach. The minor signs deal mostly with the breakdown of public morality. One of the major signs is the return of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), who is regarded as a prophet, to slay the anti-Christ ( dajjal), and the ushering in of peace for a number of years.

Guy Nicholson: How much damage has Mr. Camping done with this prophecy?

Sheema Khan: Well, he has ruined the lives of those who believed in him. Those who never gave him much notice did not suffer anything. Of course, the larger question is, has Mr. Camping made religion a target for mockery? For those who looked disdainfully at religion, this event simply increased their "faith" in that. For those secure in their belief in the divine, I don't think much damage was done. Religion, or spirituality, continues to be a powerful force of sustenance for millions throughout the world.

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Howard Voss-Altman: Sheema, I disagree. I think Mr. Camping's idiocy diminishes Christianity to those who are not Christian. Many non-Christians read about this sort of nonsense and dismiss Christianity with a very broad brush. This dismissal damages interfaith dialogue and the potential for common cause that many of us work for on a daily basis.

Sheema Khan: Hmm … if anything, I saw Christians (clergy and ordinary churchgoers) distancing themselves from Mr. Camping. I did not paint every Christian with the same brush. I used the maxim "Do unto others …" I certainly don't want all Muslims to be painted with the same brush as Osama bin Laden, or other religious extremists.

I think those of us involved in interfaith dialogue have to remember, and remind, that one cannot generalize about an entire faith based on the behaviour of one highly publicized attention-seeker. Terry Jones burned a Koran. Very hurtful to Muslims, but we know he doesn't represent the majority. During my visit to the Middle East, this issue was brought up by Muslims in the region. I reminded them not to judge an entire faith or group by the extreme actions of an individual.

Howard Voss-Altman: But sadly, most people do paint with a very broad brush. Why does the U.S. Congress hold hearings on the dangers of radical Islam? To fan the flames of bigotry and to distract people from the real, substantive problems that the United States faces. People who wish to dismiss Christianity and Islam don't need more quivers in their bow.

Michael Higgins: I wonder if the larger question is not so much the authority or abuse of religious authority around the end days, but the extraordinary explosion of interest in apocalypse in the popular media and what that says about our political and cultural insecurities and, therefore, our collective vulnerability to false prophets.

Guy Nicholson: Howard, what does Judaism have to say about "end times?"

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Howard Voss-Altman: The Hebrew Bible, as far as I know, does not specifically mention any end times or end of days. Following the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, rabbis began writing about the Messiah and the "world to come," as a response to our darkest hour. Today, certain ultra-Orthodox sects speak regularly about the Messiah, when all the Jews will be resurrected - body and soul - and the world will be at one with God. However, this represents the beliefs of a very small minority of Jews. Reform Jews believe we are all working toward the day when, inspired by God, our world will resemble the kind of place that God envisioned for us in the Torah. Such days will be due to the work of our hands.

Lorna Dueck: Sometimes I have great hope in the work of our hands to bring about the shalom that the Hebrew Bible presents to us, but I'm discouraged at how evil can present with ferocity, or insidious systemic ruin in each new generation. I'm acting on, but also anticipating, a world where "there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." ( Revelation 21:4) That is where history is going … we just have no idea of when.

Howard Voss-Altman: As a voice of religious dissent, I must confess that I have no desire to see a world where "there will be no more death." If there were no more death or mourning or crying or pain, there would also be no life, no joy and no happiness. The old order of life and death (with some much-needed improvements) gives me great comfort and solace.

Lorna Dueck: That makes me smile Howard - so, in other words, this world is as good as it's going to get? No, I'm holding out for better.

Sheema Khan: It's interesting how the end seems to be similar in all three faiths. How we get there, is another matter.

Guy Nicholson: Sheema and Lorna have noted how lives have been ruined by following the type of prophecies we're discussing. Should a religious or spiritual leader bear any responsibility if his or her teaching encourages a follower to make bad choices? It's a much wider question than this case, wider even than religion itself.

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Michael Higgins: Those who exploit the credulous and/or the innocent bear a heavy responsibility. Admittedly, this is difficult terrain to police or judge, but a rhetoric that endangers lives or incites hatred should be held to account.

Lorna Dueck: Yes, a religious leader bears the responsibility for false teaching. That too is part of the end times warnings of Scripture - your actions do impact your individual death.

Howard Voss-Altman: The spiritual leader must bear responsibility for his or her hateful teachings. The recent example of the killing of the physician in Kansas (just outside the doors of his church) was triggered by the fanatical rhetoric of the anti-choice movement and its agents. In 1995, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, who was under the influence of a rabbi who called for Mr. Rabin's death. One cannot light a fuse and then be surprised when an explosion occurs.

Sheema Khan: Wholehearted agreement here. We all bear responsibility for our own actions and words. If our deeds inspire others to do harm to others, then we also carry some of the responsibility. This, however, does not diminish the responsibility of those who choose to harm - they can't just say "So and so made me do it." We are responsible for the choices we make.

Guy Nicholson: We are all talking about modern-day "prophets" with a certain skepticism, and yet some of the most respected figures in religious history were known for their prophetic teachings. Can anybody square that circle for me?

Lorna Dueck: Prophets in the Bible were often misunderstood in their own day and respected only later, once the wisdom of their words was evident, once events foretold had actually come true. In my own dependence on science, it's hard for me to believe anyone who shows up with the gift of prophecy, but in fact, that is a gift which still operates in the universe. For example, I think Bishop Desmond Tutu operated prophetically when he saw that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a way to heal South Africa. He used to go off to a monastery every month for a few days of silent prayer with God, nothing could interrupt that, and when he emerged, he had prophetic insights into how to engage his society. That was a gift of prophecy we could test with respect and awe.

Michael Higgins: I am not sure that the biblical sense of prophecy implies prognostication or divining the future so much as reading the present in the light of God's will, whatever that be at any given time. Prophecy is not fortune-telling; it is a searing, no-holds-barred insight into the "now."

Lorna Dueck: Yes - I like that Michael, I agree. God, help my unbelief, is my response to that. I wonder if your description is what Oprah Winfrey was divining in her last show when she exhorted people to be listening and asking God for what to do in the "now."

Howard Voss-Altman: Perhaps modern-day prophets are those who remind us that racism, injustice, poverty and refusal to care for the Earth are simply unacceptable in light of our religious texts. Such prophets may be just as reviled as the biblical ones, but they are no less relevant to our understanding of the role religion can play in our society.

Sheema Khan: Howard, I wanted to return to your earlier point about the fanning of flames, as well as Michael's point about the media's role in giving attention to those who have no business spouting their garbage to the world. Guy, you are a media professional - what are the guidelines for covering the pronouncements of a controversial individual?

Lorna Dueck: I think the angle to take on the reporting of a religious belief would be to have journalists go to source material and qualified experts in that content, rather than simply repeat what a minister happens to be saying. Go ask an expert in eschatology what to make of Harold Camping, and report that, rather than simply parse out a sound bite that titillates.

( Note to readers: The Globe's Ian Brown recently produced a piece that resembles Lorna's description:

Howard Voss-Altman: Yes, let's place Mr. Camping's belief in context. Then the media provides some education, and Mr. Camping is exposed as a charlatan. It's a win-win.

Guy Nicholson: Media professional! I need new business cards. Sheema, it would depend very much on the type of media. People working for The Catholic Register, The Globe and Mail and the National Enquirer would make different assumptions about whose pronouncements are controversial and whose pronouncements are worth covering, let alone how to cover them. I would like to think that all editors and reporters take the time to consider how much attention is worth giving their subjects, but their audiences, business models and underlying philosophical assumptions might make for different answers.

Howard Voss-Altman: The problem today is that the filter has completely disappeared. I remember, not too long ago, when legitimate journalists actually used their professional judgment to determine what content was considered newsworthy. Now, in the age of the Internet, the filter has disappeared, and the ravings of a religious lunatic are explored and dissected. Now it's all part of the great unwashed news cycle that covers anything and everything, as long as it grabs the public's increasingly child-like attention span.

Guy Nicholson: It's true, the new model puts more responsibility on the reader. Maybe the media are like the so-called prophets - some have more credibility than others, and it's up to the listener to determine who's reliable.

Everyone, we're out of time. Thank you for your thoughts on an interesting topic.

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