when good semantics goes bad


I was sitting in a systematic theology lecture last month, taking in a 50,000-foot flyover of Christian eschatology (study of the end), when my professor took a intriguingly loaded position, essentially that the theological position of the imminent eschaton should be taken to mean that it can happen at any moment. Having my attention for taking considerable license with the word ‘imminent’, I pushed back, asking if there should be a statute of limitations on the adjective: the role players in the New Testament held this position, but at some point, imminent can’t mean imminent anymore. Imminent is closer to impending in a temporal sense than with regard to a tenuous state of affairs. The professor cordially reiterated his position and moved on.

I quickly did some rudimentary etymology (thank you, interwebs!) and found that ‘imminent’ and ‘impending’ are not just linked, but synonymous. The fact remains that if the protagonists of scripture thought the end to be imminent, then we in the 21st century cannot. Something can be impending if it is scheduled. My wife’s birthday is imminent, in less than two weeks. The deadlines on my final papers are imminent, due by Sunday night. I could even say that my wedding anniversary is imminent, in four months. Even then, though I have a hard time thinking without reservation that’s right around the corner. It’s not. Anticipation for an unplanned event (e) is not the same as saying that e is impending: how does one go about anticipating something that is unplanned, anyway? Either it is planned and we have no say in the matter (including the lack of say in our individual matters), or it is unplanned, and we go about our business.

Words have meaning, though they are not always clearly defined. ‘Love’, for example, has meaning, but attempts to define it starve it of its relational power or reduce it to something akin to homeopathic remedies. Without meaning or definition, they hold no communicative power and keep us from understanding one another or the world around us. To say something like “‘the eschaton is imminent’, and by ‘imminent’, I mean ‘it could happen at any moment'” is to say that it is imminent, except that it is not. And this is a persistent problem within academia: more often than not, scholars and contributors spill a ton of ink establishing the framework of definition for their terms for a few pounds of actual content. In required reading for another class, I burned off more than a few brain cells reading an article attempting to justify an author’s definition of ‘love’ according to himself.

I understand that words and their meanings can shift over time, but that does not mean that earlier definitions are somehow invalidated in the process. Why would historians value material insight into an event closer to the occurrence of the event, while theologians and linguists warn of falling into the root fallacy when we discuss the meaning of language? Ought we not pay close attention to the source material with due diligence to the later commentaries? How did things get turned upside down, anyway?

Should Christians expect the eschaton? I would say no, if for no other reason that our religious forebears thought that Jesus was coming back next Tuesday in 3o-something-or-other AD and he didn’t. They continued this expectancy for decades, a remnant of Pharisaical Judaical philosophy mingled with the Hellenized dramatic influences of divine intervention. For this, we can thank Saul/Paul, in the most culturally-located sense of his names. It is his legacy we carry on by assuming the eschatological position. And the continued implied insistence within American Christianity that he’s-right-because-he’s-in-the-Bible-and-the-Bible-has-to-be-right-because-God-wrote-it-and-God-can’t-be-wrong-because-God’s-God does not say so much about the futility of our faith as it does about our futility and our greater interest in God doing things on our terms. We’re not waiting for God, we’re Waiting for Godot.

In the meantime, I have a lawn to mow and papers to write. I have imminent matters to which I must attend.

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