• Ian Sutton

Exile to Babylon

Updated: Jul 6

Into Captivity. James Tissot. Credit: Pixabay

In the late 1990s John Spong, an Episcopal bishop in the United States, published the book Why Christianity Must Change or Die. (Spong, 1998). His theme that the images of the world presented to us in in the Bible and the creeds no longer make sense. They do not match the world in which we live.

Bishop Spong and Christianity Must Change or Die. We are in exile.

Bishop Spong

Spong describes the exile of the Hebrews at the time of the first Temple period after Jerusalem was conquered by Babylonian invaders, led by King Nebuchadnezzar II, around the year 590 BCE, more than two and a half millennia ago. Of this event Spong says,

Exile is never a voluntary experience. It is always something forced upon a person or a people by things or circumstances over which the affected ones have no control. One does not leave one’s values, one’s way of life, or one’s defining beliefs voluntarily. . . . exile is not a wilderness through which one journeys to arrive at a promised land. Exile is an enforced dislocation into which one enters without any verifiable hope of either a return to the past or an arrival at some future desired place.

The faith of Hebrew people of that time was based on worship and sacrifice in the Temple. Therefore, when the Temple was destroyed their faith — at least in the form that it had then — was also shattered.

The Lord sent Babylonian, Aramean, Moabite and Ammonite raiders against him to destroy Judah, in accordance with the word of the Lord proclaimed by his servants the prophets.

2 Kings 24

Spong goes on to say,

In the despair of meaningless, these Jewish people were forced to leave everything they knew and everything they valued . . . There was no hope of return.

The key point that Spong is making is that the exile of the Israelites people was irreversible. Although they were allowed to return to their homeland about fifty years later, they could not return to the old way of life — too much had changed and could not be unchanged.

Solomon's Temple. Credit: Johnreve

Spong compares the exile of these ancient peoples with the manner in which people of faith in the 20th century were reluctantly forced to abandon the statements that the Bible and creeds made about how the world worked. For example, how can a Christian who understands the basics of astronomy read or hear the following words of the Nicene creed without feeling as if he or she is in some kind of exile?

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven . . . he ascended into heaven.

A person of faith in our time may reasonably wonder what the term “down from heaven” mean at a time when our vehicles are exploring the planet Mars, and when “heaven” is increasingly full of our space junk? ​ We no longer rely on Biblical statements to explain how the world works. Instead we obtain our understanding from the laws of physics, thermodynamics and biology. One of the earliest and greatest of the scientists and mathematicians was Isaac Newton (1642-1726), of whom Alexander Pope said,

Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night; God said, Let Newton be: and all was Light.

The concept of exile applies even more to the world of climate change, resource depletion and biosphere destruction — the world in which we are living now. As people become increasingly aware of climate change they also realize that we are entering a new world, and that we cannot return to our old life. It is gone for ever. We are in exile. Most people continue to hope and believe that some technology such as hydrogen cars, or Gen IV nuclear, or a carbon tax, or carbon capture will allow us to return to the old Jerusalem, to our current energy-profligate lifestyle in which we treat the atmosphere as an open sewer. But an increasing number of people realize that these technologies are not going to “solve” the climate problem. They may help, but they are not going to make it go away. We are in exile. So what does exile look like? Spong makes the following suggestions:

  • Exile is never a voluntary experience Our current lifestyle based on the rapid depletion of finite resources, principally oil, is not something that we want to give up. Nor do we want to give up all the modern conveniences that make for a prosperous way of living, but that also create greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Only a tiny number of people choose a more basic, off-the-grid, way of living.

  • Something forced Many writers and speakers assume that we have a choice — that we can somehow can have our planet and eat it. This is not the case — all that we can do is try to control the speed of decline, and the impact of the changes. We treat climate change as something with which we can negotiate, as if we are working with other human beings. But the laws of physics, thermodynamics and biology do not negotiate. The have no interest in our needs, attitudes or beliefs. They are what they are.

  • Promised land We have no guarantees as to what a future world may look like. Indeed, some people predict that the world will be so degraded that human civilization may cease to exist. The catch phrase is TEOTWAWKI — The End of the World as We Know It. Our exile is indeed an “enforced dislocation”. We need to recognize that we are in exile, and there is no promised land. There may be a new Temple, just as there was for the Hebrew people once they returned to Jerusalem, but it will not be the same as the first one. (Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE came a new and vibrant Hebrew faith and culture, but it was not the same as what had been destroyed. no longer Temple-based, it was the faith of the diaspora.)

The challenge that people of faith now face is to develop new ways of worship and living in a world that will be very different from the one that we are living in now.

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