"It's The End of the World As We Know It...
...and I feel fine." - REMI begin with a cultural observation, limited in scope to my own experiences.
There is a major apocalyptic fever afflicting many people today, one day in advance of December 21st, 2012. Apparently, the calendar of the ancient Mayan civilization "ends" on that day, sparking the question, "What did they know that we don't?"
My cultural observation is that, living in the Rocky Mountain west of the United States of America, almost nobody I know of or have spoken to thinks a single thing about this curiosity. End of the world? Meh. We'll be celebrating Christmas on Tuesday. Who cares what a half-naked, pagan, Mayan scribe sitting in the jungle chiseled into a block of stone hundreds of years ago? He wasn't able to predict the demise of the Mayan civilization; why should we care about his predictions of the end of all civilization? It's been wonderful for cartoons and Internet memes, I will admit. Like this one.
I have a number of Scottish friends, from my time spent in that great country. And the impression I get from reading their Facebook pages is that many in their context, and perhaps even Britain more widely, are taking the Mayan calendar curiosity very, very seriously. Many truly seem to believe that the world might end tomorrow. In their worldview, this is a distinct possibility.
Here is a common narrative, so compelling it forms one of those "obvious" things everybody knows. The world before the Enlightenment should be called the "Dark Ages." It was a world of irrational superstition, desperately needing the Dawn of Reason provided by the likes of Descartes and Kant. The rise of science and reason was a fundamental break from the irrationality of the Dark Ages; never again would humanity suffer the mental disease of finding demons under every rock or suspecting witchcraft of every owner of a black cat. The world is a vast machine, ordered by unalterable physical laws; everything can be understood and known. There are no longer monsters in the closet, much less a God "up there" providentially controlling all things. The Enlightenment was the great demystification project. There is no more mystery. "Modern" people, scientific people, rational people are no longer captive to superstition.
And yet. Mystery, it seems, is not so easy to eradicate as the materialists dream. The coldness of materialist dogma and the pretensions of its absolute claims seem to spark the opposite cultural reactions than the ones they intend. Already in the late 19th century, with the splendors of naturalistic Darwinism in full flower, Europe was, quite literally, entranced with spiritualism and the occult. Shamans and seances were commonplace and extremely popular. In 2006 two Hollywood movies were released that capture something of the fervor of the time: The Illusionist with Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti and The Prestige with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. The historical setting of these films is the same: late 19th century Europe. Both surround the popular excitement with the spiritual and occult. And these films were hardly exaggerations. Janet Oppenheim, in her meticulously researched book, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 (Cambridge, 1988) writes:
[A] century ago, spiritualism and psychical research loomed as very serious business to some very serious and eminent people, such as the Fellows of the Royal Society, university professors, and Nobel prize-winning scientists who supported the Society for Psychical Research. Together with the industrious middle-class professionals and self-educated artisans who joined spiritualist clubs both in London and the provinces, these intellectuals turned to psychic phenomena as courageous pioneers hoping to discover the most profound secrets of the human condition and man's place in the universe [....] Their concerns and aspirations placed them--far from the lunatic fringe of their society--squarely amidst the cultural, intellectual, and emotional moods of the era.Few seemed particularly satisfied with the great "demystification" project. Scientists like Alfred Russel Wallace and William James were among those enamored with psychic and spiritual phenomena. Perhaps the narrative of the "Enlightenment" versus the "Dark Ages" is something more along the lines of a fairy tale.
The Middle Ages, too, had its share of apocalyptics, prophets, and soothsayers, particularly around the turn of the millennium. The "Chiliasts" or "millennarians." "The End is Near," read the signs, as our popular imaginations have it. And yet in the diverse "noise" of apocalyptic sentiment there was uniform structure. It was not just the "end of the world as we know it." It was Doomsday; or, if you prefer Chaucer's middle English, "Domesday." This was not an asteroid hitting the earth, zombies awakening to overrun cities, or the earth getting burned up by global warming. The apocalypse in the Middle Age imagination was directly linked to the "Apocalypse," the Apocalypse or "Revelation" of St. John. Doomsday, the end of the world, was initiated by the return of Jesus Christ to (as the Apostles' Creed puts it) "judge the living and the dead." This was a day when all injustice would receive its just recompense, when all would be put to rights. Not an end, but a new beginning: the "New Heavens and the New Earth," the inauguration of God's consummation rule.
It may all seem hysterical and wild, especially at this historical vantage point: but Christian doctrine, the basic articles of the Creed, provided rather strict parameters for the apocalyptic imagination. "The End is Near" was not open-ended or devoid of content. It meant something. It meant Doomsday, the Day of Judgment. The return of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Ironic. Christianity demystifies the end of the world.
Scotland is a strongly "post-Christian" society. It is commonplace to see the most beautiful churches with towering spires and stained glass windows now inhabited by nightclubs. Like this one, cleverly named "Soul." Scotland has moved well beyond the old "superstitions," all the nonsense about God and Jesus and the Bible and the Day of Judgment. A very grim and gritty "realism" characterizes its ethos. Walk along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh or Union Street in Aberdeen on any given night and you'll see Epicureans drinking themselves to death, for "tomorrow we die."
Yet the realism is actually surrealism. Divorced from the old architectonic norms of God, creation, history, providence, and judgment, people are left, quite literally, to their imaginations. Surrealism, as a philosophical school in the early 20th century, was committed to express thoughts "in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation," as one of its proponents, Andre Breton, put it.
A worldview with no boundaries, in other words.
Just as materialism spawned mysticism in the late 19th century, it does so again today. Pretend as he might, not even the great Richard Dawkins can ride to civilizational rescue now. In his magnum opus, The Blind Watchmaker, finding himself needing to explain the origins of self-replicating genes, he argued that the universe is so random, so contingent, so full of bizarre coincidences, that a marble statue of the Virgin Mary could conceivably wave at a passerby (p.159). And science was supposed to save us from superstitions.
In Umberto Eco's 1988 novel Foucault's Pendulum, protagonist Causabon and his companions, Belbo and Diotallevi, fabricate "The Plan," a fun and humorous game of weaving a tapestry of conspiracy from diverse materials provided by secret societies like the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians, occultism, hermeticism, and Kabbalah. The "Plan" is basically the secret knowledge that explains the deepest mysteries of the universe. Soon they find themselves stalked by real secret society devotees who, try as they might, cannot be convinced that they made it all up.
Causabon finally despairs because there is no way to distinguish the truth from the lie. "The Plan" was already ludicrous, a mishmash of tendentious historical and thematic stream-of-consciousness connections. He can hardly convince his antagonists by explaining the mishmash of tendentious historical and thematic stream-of-consciousness connections. That is precisely why they believe it in the first place.
Wandering the streets of Paris, a thought occurs to panicked Causabon, a quote he cannot place at the exact moment. It turns out to be a G.K. Chesterton classic:
When a man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes anything.The Enlightenment narrative has it oh-so-wrong. And Umberto Eco, himself an atheist, was making exactly this point, once reportedly saying he fashioned the entire 600 page novel around this single Chesterton quote.
The Christian worldview or framework (God, decrees, creation, providence, meaning, purpose, judgment and end) is not the source of superstition. It is the bulwark against superstition.
Is tomorrow the End Of The World As We Know It?
I don't care. I'm a Christian.
I feel fine.