There is an old joke about a man who went to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist showed the man a Rorschach ink blot image and asked, “What do you see?” The man answered, “I see an old, sad, overworked man, tired of doing the same repetitive tasks, visited only when others want something from him, blamed for things beyond his control, and never being appreciated sufficiently.” The psychiatrist responded, “I appreciate your honesty, but I was asking about what you see in the ink blot.”
The Rorschach ink blot images used by mental health care professionals are effective diagnostic tools because they engage the imaginations of those who try to interpret them. The abstract nature of the images allows people the freedom to see their own thoughts and feelings reflected in the images. In addition to Rorschach ink blots, many things can be seen as reflections of a person’s thoughts and feelings. The Scriptures are not abstract like ink blot images, but the Scriptures often provoke responses from readers’ subconscious minds.
The Book of Revelation, whence comes today’s second reading, is filled with kaleidoscopic images that lend themselves to wild and varied interpretations. The various interpretations, however, are the result of the personal perspectives of individual readers of the text. Today’s second reading provides an apposite illustration; it says, “I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” (Rv. 21:1)
There are various possible interpretations of the statement that “the sea was no more.” (Rv. 21:1) A real estate developer might interpret this as lost opportunities to build waterfront homes. An alarmist might interpret it as a reference to an ecological disaster. A nationalist might see it as portending unrestricted access by migrants who otherwise would have been intercepted by the Coast Guard. The cruise ship companies would see it as the demise of their industry. The author’s intended reference, however, was to the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the book of Genesis, God limited the boundaries of the sea in order to allow for the emergence of dry land. (Gn. 1:9) In the Exodus, God made a path through what otherwise would have been the impassible depths of the Red Sea. (Ex. 14:10-22) The book of Deuteronomy also portrays the sea as an impassible barrier. (Dt. 30:13) Psalms 46 and 93 describe the sea as possessing destructive power. The prophet Isaiah uses the sea as a metaphor to describe the confusion that plagues the lives of the faithless. (Isa. 5:30, 17:12) In the Hebrew Scriptures, the sea is a symbol for the natural chaos that reigns in the world; today, we call this chaos “entropy.”
In the Book of Revelation, the statement that “the sea was no more” is a statement about God’s redeeming action of removing chaos from the universe; it refers to the day of general Resurrection when creation will no longer be subject to the burdens of sin and death. The Scriptural author uses this image from the Hebrew Scriptures to describe what he meant by the previous statement, “the former heaven and the former earth had passed away.” (Rv.21:1) These are not statements about the destruction of the universe, but about the resurrection of all created things.
Some people interpret the Book of Revelation as being a saga of human depravity, universal destruction, and divine retribution. Such interpretations are at odds with the author’s intent to emphasize God’s merciful plan to redeem all creation. It might seem strange that this book provokes so many distorted interpretations, but it is sadly predictable. Religious images can be as revealing as Rorschach images; what one chooses to see in religion is largely a reflection of one’s own conscience.
To some people, God is a judgmental tyrant; to others, God is an impersonal, benign abstraction. Some people think of Jesus as an other-worldly magician (either legitimate or fraudulent); others think of Jesus as an icon of conventional middle-class ethics. It’s rare that anyone thinks of the Holy Spirit at all.
Most religious sentiment, the majority of religious practice, and the preponderance of images of God are accurate representations of the subconscious minds of those who hold them; sadly, these are rarely accurate representations of how the Trinity has revealed itself in human history. In today’s second reading, for example, the Trinity is revealed as sovereign over creation but intimately and lovingly concerned with the fate of all creatures.
It is perhaps surprising, but entirely predictable, that God’s vision for the future of the world is quite different from the expectations of many people. God sees the possibility for all people to live in peace and happiness, trusting in God, and respecting one another. This is the vision that the author of the book of Revelation saw. What do you see?