Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Eulogizing Harold Camping
Ah, Harold. It was tough to see you go.
It's not that I agreed with you theologically. I don't, and we wouldn't have seen eye to eye on almost anything where our relationship to the Creator of the Universe was concerned. I suppose you now know the truth of it, as I will one day.
Here's hoping I'm right, because I'd like to share this with you, and maybe talk for a little while. Or do whatever it is one does where you are now.
Though we wouldn't have agreed about most things, it's still hard to see the way that you are remembered, with slight snickering.
In your latter years, you crossed a line, one you'd been toeing for a while. From your earnest, self-taught heart, you made a deeply unwise call that made you a global laughingstock. Pesky thing, this social media era, particularly for the unwise.
But you weren't a charlatan, a two-faced huckster just out to fleece his flock so's he could have another Bentley for his "ministry." There are plenty of those out there, but you weren't one of them. You really believed what you said, which made it painful watching you fail. I never thought you were right, of course. You were wrong in some very significant ways. But that does not give me the right to mock you, or to snicker and smile at your pain.
Your response to your error was telling about your soul. You didn't double down. That's what cultists do, and the insane, and the evil. They find a reason they were right. They cling to their error, no matter what.
After a humiliation of global proportions, you said, publicly, to everyone: "I was wrong. I wasted my long life on this pursuit. Faith is about other things. I'm sorry."
No excuses. No rationalization. Just, "I was wrong." That takes a certain type of person, it does, and it speaks well of who you were.
We probably still wouldn't have agreed about most things, even then, but let me share with you three good things that I can honestly tell you about your life and the effect you had on me.
First, in the midst of the hubbub of your globally publicized mistake, you stirred my thirteen year old Jewish son to talk with me about what it meant to be a faithful person. Did I, as a Christian, believe what you believed? I was able to tell him that I did not, and to explain why. Teens are notoriously hard to open up, particularly about matters of faith and meaning, and double-extra-particularly if you're their father. I still remember that conversation, and I'm grateful to you for making it possible.
Second, as I've grown spiritually over the years, my worldview has changed. I'm shaped by a peculiar fusion of faith and science, one that you'd probably have found a bit heretical. OK, a lot heretical. Given that your creation was only 6,000 years old, and mine is…well…an infinite multiverse…we understood our place in the scheme of things rather differently.
What's peculiar about my view, though, is that within it, there's a place where you weren't wrong.
Oh, sure, you were completely wrong in this space-time. But in the wild and crazy multiverse of creation, there are functionally countless universes, identical to our own. In more times and spaces than we can shake a quantum stick at, a six-kilometer wide hunk of mostly-iron came barreling out of the inner solar system on October 21, 2011. Blinded by the sun, all of our sensors and telescopes would have missed it.
Just as we were all collectively tweeting our snarkery to #haroldcamping #lol, the heavens would have lit with the fire of a species-ending epochal asteroid strike. I'm not sure how validated you would have felt by that, but hey. "Close enough" counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and apocalyptic events.
More importantly, in the infinite multiverse of God's creation, some mistakes are wrong, and some mistakes are evil. You were just wrong. Your life has reminded me, as I often need reminding, that there is a difference.
Third, I've found myself reflecting on the impact your wrongness had on your followers. Here's what they did. They gave up all their possessions. In those months before things did not go as you'd said, those who took your message seriously lived their lives as if every moment mattered. They abandoned the drab routines of our culture, and set themselves towards doing something they viewed as being of ultimate importance. That thing did not involve doing permanent harm to themselves, or harming others. They just set all the crap aside…all of it...for a season.
This, in reflecting on your life, strikes me as interesting. Because Lord knows I feel that desire now and again, as materialism and consumerism sits heavy on my soul. But I am just too much of a coward to do it.
In countless churches around the world, that's what gets preached every week, and particularly in this season of Advent. This time matters! Possessions are not what counts! Wake up! Spread the word!
This is kinda sorta what Jesus asked us to do, thems of us who take him seriously. We preach this from our pulpits, but more often than not we fail to live it. Sometimes I wonder, frankly, if the only way to pull people out of the mire of our broken culture is with a message as radical as yours.
And wondering that is a good thing.
So, Harold. Thanks for really apologizing, in an era when that skill is almost forgotten. Thanks for helping me talk with my son, and for the way you were wrong but not evil, and for the reminder about what it often takes to stir us to action. I'll see you on the other side.