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Essay

The End of the World as we Know It

By April 22, 2016 6 Comments
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The longevity of REM’s song “The End of the World as we Know it” speaks to it’s symbolic creativity. It pops up in the strangest places—from movies like Chicken Little, to political speeches decrying the cultural shifts that have transformed the idyllic peace and harmony of mid twentieth century American culture into the turmoil of today. I just think the song is catchy. Truth be told, I’m fine with the end of the world. As traumatic and painful as it can be, it’s also necessary. Of course I’m not talking about the end of the physical earth and temporal life, I’m talking about the conceptual worlds we construct to give our lives meaning. Our human tendency it to make these worlds after our own image, to constantly construct idols (as Calvin says) as a way to name and control. Like the architects of the Tower of Babel we get to work building our institutions, our systems, our forms of Christian culture, not as a way of receiving the revelation of God and our neighbor, but as a way to manage and control the message. Christian piety in this context becomes a way of baptizing the status quo—do everything for Jesus and the “Glory of God”. I’m reminded of the story in Judges…“For the Lord, and Gideon!” Wait, what?

During a conversation around the dinner table I told my kids that the movie “God is not Dead” (and for that matter “God is not Dead II”) is a terrible movie. (“Stupid” is the word I think I used.) My kids like it when I offer a critique of movies; they always remind me of how I told them that “Heaven is for Real” is not for real. I tried to give them a Nietzsche lesson but it quickly deteriorated into giggling. I want my kids to know that Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God is an affirmation of life. Like the “end of the world”, the “death of God” refers to the obliteration of our idols, of all the ways we make God in our own image. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer this manifests itself in the call for a “religionless” form of Christianity. For Karl Barth, it is the call to a particular form of Christian faith that rejects religious idolatry as we are opened up in faith to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Barth writes,

The atheism that is the real enemy is the ‘Christianity’ that professes faith in God very much as a matter of course, perhaps with great emphasis, and perhaps with righteous indignation at atheism wild or mild, while in its practical thinking and behavior it carries on exactly as if there were no God. It professes its belief in him, lauds and praises him, while in practice he is the last of the things it thinks about, takes seriously, fears or loves. . . God is spoken of, but what is meant is an idol that one treats as one sees fit. Who can acquit himself of this third form of atheism? Let all who believe themselves to be Christians consider this: that in this third form atheism is a really evil thing. But this is the form in which it prospers in Christian families, homes (including ministers’ homes), groups, associations, institutions, [political] parties and newspapers. This is the form of atheism that is fertile soil for the growth first of the mild, then of the wild, first of the Western and then of the Eastern type, and from which both continually draw their strength. The atheists of the other kind live on the fact that we are not better Christians.

So here’s to “the end of the world as we know it”, to the death of God as the revelation of God’s love for the cosmos in Jesus Christ, and to the affirmation of a life grounded in faith.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

6 Comments

  • Laremy De Vries says:

    Jason,
    As someone who has spent the past 7 years of my life creating a business institution formed in my own image, as someone who has spent 13 years creating a marital institution in (half) of my own image, and as someone who has worked in many other institutions, I take issue with your understanding of “idolatry” as we create institutions.

    It seems to me that if you apply the transitive property of image bearing, if God made me in God’s image, and therefore I create a business in my image, then the business must also be somewhat made in God’s image.

    Perhaps the transitive property here applies about as well as sports, but at the very least, you must admit that as we create our institutions and as we do it in our particular cultural was that are peculiar to us, we are responding to the cultural mandate and to our own first call as stewards of this good earth.

    I think your overstating your point. What was idolatrous about the tower of Babel? Not so much the tower itself or the fact that it was in someone’s image, but the totalitarianism of it all, the disrespect of the other. The demand that the whole world join in this particular institution. We are called to make things in our own images. I don’t think we can make things any other way. But when we don’t respect the things made by others in their own unique and peculiar image bearing way then we overvalue our own image-bearing ability at the expense of the other’s.

    Now, certainly Barth’s critique applies to a lot of people. And certainly the Babel critique applies to a lot of people. There are lots of “Christians” don’t see themselves as image-bearers but rather as the source themselves. There are lots of people who don’t respect the other as an image bearer and try very hard to impose their will on the whole world. There are lots of misconceptions of God that should die. There are lots of institutions that cast too long of a shadow.

    But that doesn’t mean that creating institutions in our own images is such a bad thing. We are called as human beings to actualize the call of God in all parts of our lives, and this means doing it in our way, in our historical context, in our image. I mean, don’t you want your wife to proclaim that your marriage is, “For God and for Jason!”?

    • Jason Lief says:

      I’m afraid that you’re focusing on the wrong point. The issue isn’t so much the creation of institutions, which is an important part of being a human being, it’s the “question of God”. The problem with the tower, and what makes it idolatry, is that they are seeking to “make a name for themselves”—which inevitably is inscribed into the very nature of the institution that is created. When we seek to make God in our own image, when then inscribe idolatry into the very cultural structures that we create. However, if by grace through faith we are opened up to the revelation of God and God’s word about what it means to be a human being, we are better able to create cultural institutions that are also opened up to the possibility of loving our neighbor.
      Barth 10 Dooyeweerd 1

    • Gerry says:

      As an analogy, you have a point, but you’re being far too literal with it. We should leave the transitive property to math and logic unless we want to be neo-scholastic metaphysicians trying to ground within God’s mind (and “unassailable proofs”) the work and ideas we hold dear. This all too modern, western cognitive-propositionalist bias is at best 90% idolatry, I’d guess.

      Barth’s point, which he elaborated in many different contexts, calls us to intellectual humility out of awareness that God and His Providence must always exceed our comprehension, so we must remain open to the fact that our best understanding and even our hopes are imperfect — and may even be disastrously misguided.

      This does not mean our work isn’t necessary or can’t be good but that it is compromised, limited and ultimately doomed — within a view of divine judgment that refines, restores, and completes.

  • Amen. And, welcome back to Northwestern!

  • Laremy De Vries says:

    In the article you didn’t talk about “making God in our image” but rather about our conceptual world’s that we create. These conceptual world’s (institutions) are made in our own images and are therefor idols that should be torn down, so went the logic of the blog post.

    Then you double down on that concept by positing that work done simultaneously for the glory of God and some human institution (for the Lord and for Gideon) is a sense of simply baptizing the status quo.

    I, for one, am not sure how to serve God without also serving Gideon. I don’t know how to act outside my finite role as contextual creator.

  • Kim van der Giessen says:

    Dr. Lief, in a Secular Age, Charles Taylor speaks about how is it that we have come to a place where Christianity is not the automatic religious choice in the 21st century and I wonder how you react to his thoughts. I do really appreciate your critique of God’s Not Dead. As Caputo would say, you cannot have faith until faith is not a possibility, and proving that God exists seems to get rid of any need for faith.

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