The 94th Academy Awards ceremony is scheduled for March 27, and the apocalyptic black comedy “Don’t Look Up” is nominated for the best picture.
In that engaging movie, warnings about a Mount Everest-sized comet on course to crash into earth with extinction-level impact go largely unheeded.
The main characters, tragically unable to convince political leaders to take steps to divert or to break up the comet, gather for a “last supper” type of meal just before their impending deaths.
At the beginning of their final meal, Yule, a young man who is described as an “evangelical shoplifting skater punk,” offers a fine prayer, but neither he nor anyone else at the table gives any indication that they believe in a “life beyond” the soon-to-end world.
“Don’t Look Up” is clearly a biting satire of the widespread government, political, celebrity and media indifference to the current climate crisis.
Not long after seeing the film, I watched a few videos by Michael Dowd, a man who started his faith journey as an evangelical Christian. Later, he was ordained as a United Church of Christ minister, and now is most closely aligned with the non- (or anti-) theist Unitarian Universalists.
In “Facing the Grief of Looking Up, Looking Forward,” a Jan. 25 article posted to my personal blog, I wrote about how Dowd’s recent work has been focused on the worldwide ecological crisis, which he is certain will lead to the end of the world as we know it.
Just as people in the movie couldn’t bear to face the grief of looking up, Dowd addresses the grief of looking forward. He thinks that the coming collapse of industrial civilization is certain, regardless of what actions might be taken now.
So, he suggests that the only way to face the future calmly is to work through the stages of grief and accept the coming fate. In that connection, Dowd produced a 25-minute video titled, “Serenity Prayer for the 21st Century.”
But Dowd, like Yule in the movie, gives no indication that he believes in or hopes for a “world without end,” which transcends this physical world in which human civilization is on the verge of complete collapse.
In contrast to this lack of belief/hope in a “life beyond,” there is little doubt that from New Testament times until the present, traditional Christianity has asserted a firm belief in a “world without end,” that is, the reality of an eternal world that in every way transcends the present physical world in which we now live.
Ephesians 3:21 exclaims, “Unto [God] be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (KJV).
Based on these words, the Roman Catholic Church, and some liturgical Protestant churches, regularly sing the Gloria Patri doxology: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
Similarly, the Apostles’ Creed ends with words affirming belief in “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” And the Nicene Creed concludes, “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
For those who grew up in non-liturgical churches, belief in “eternal life” and heaven was central to our understanding of the Christian faith. We remember how strong the emphasis was on “soul-winning,” that is, getting people “saved” so they would go to heaven when they died.
But that basic belief seems to have been weakened, neglected or even denied (in practice if not in words) by “progressive” or “liberal” forms of the faith. This is likely a reaction to the strong conservative evangelical emphasis on the “end times.”
This evangelical focus was usually accompanied by a marked lack of interest in the plight of people living in the world now. Hardly any emphasis was placed on social issues such as war, systemic racism, poverty, destruction of the environment and so forth.
Although the roots go back much farther into the past, since the 1960s, “progressive” or “liberal” Christians have placed more and more emphasis on the social issues of the present world and less and less emphasis on the idea/hope of a coming world without end. The realization of an ideal society, the kingdom (or kin-dom) of God, became the strong hope for the future of humankind on this earth.
But is there not some radiant center position between the two extremes?
Surely, there is a viable Christian faith that affirms the reality of the traditional emphasis on a “world without end” and the necessity of loving hurting human beings now and taking care of this earth on which we live.
Similarly, there is surely a viable Christian faith that works diligently for the kingdom / kin-dom of God now (“on earth as it is in heaven,” Matthew 6:10) and waits in hope for the realization of that realm of God in the coming “world without end.”
Thus, I encourage all of us to beware of the excesses and distortions of the extremes on the right and the left.
May we find and expand a radiant center where the legitimate concerns and emphases of both traditionalists/conservatives and progressive/liberals are fully embraced.
Editor’s note: This is a revised and expanded version of an article that first appeared on Seat’s blog, The View from This Seat.
A missionary to Japan from 1966-2004, he is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.