Click on the image for an enlargement and the details of this horror.
I often read alternative news sites to try to get a different slant on what’s going on in the world. I naturally look for signs of hope, but it is all very subjective. Hope in relation to what? If I read what Putin says, I would be led to blame the banking cartels, the American elite and the powers-that-be under their influence. The conspiracy theorists say the same thing. I have no faith in the French political authorities, nor the English ones. The situation seems so hopeless. I suppose it depends on the way we look at it. The glass is half full or half empty.
Human beings are complex creatures. We have different personalities and ways of seeing reality – or making reality. The older I get, the more I doubt Aristotelian metaphysics and the notions of truth and reality. Things can go a long way along that path!
We read all over the place about prophecies of doom and what we have to do to “prepare” ourselves and survive. Many things threaten us in our day. In particular, there is the possibility of World War III (which can turn nuclear), countries in such massive debt that the prospect would be one of a total collapse of the economy followed by collapse of civilisation and culture. We are reminded of this possibility when considering local cataclysms like hurricanes, big earthquakes, war, persecution by ISIS / Daesh throat-cutters. Terrible things have happened before in history. There is the super volcano in the Yellowstone National Park, the effects of extreme weather – perhaps caused at least to some extent by human industry and greed, the possibility of the earth being struck by a comet or asteroid. So the possibilities go on, and I have already had occasions to express my fears.
After all, what is the worst thing that can happen to us? Simply death. The way we go might be more or less painful, but we are brought to face our mortality. If our consciousness does not depend on our physical brains and bodies, we have hope and faith. If there is no life after bodily death, then there is still nothing to worry about, but the idea – usually expressed by atheists – leaves us only with absurdity in this life, the complete pointlessness of our culture, society and everything we care about. That’s about it in a nutshell.
For most of us, for the foreseeable future, things won’t change very much from today until tomorrow. There are contingencies we take into account, like accidents and illness. We read about this or that end-of-the-world prophecy, and it always fails to happen. The date goes by and nothing happened. We still have to pay the bills! The gutters still need repairing and my translation order has to be sent to the agency on time. I still have to pick up my wife at the railway station. Perversely, there is a sense of disappointment that the “big bang” didn’t happen. All those things we bought from the “prepper” store will be for nothing and will have to be replaced as they go past their shelf life dates. How dull…
This is something I find odd, and there aren’t many studying the question. If we get World War III or a meteorite strike, we are simply going to die or find that our day has been well and truly ruined. What makes us think we are any more privileged than those who will perish? We can prepare for some things, but not for others. Looking at things another way, we have to run a check on ourselves and see if we are in some way looking forward to something that would bring a conclusion, to end the waiting. This is the business of apocalyptic cults and the more “extreme” elements of religions like Christianity and Islam, and Judaism also to an extent.
Running through the Old Testament is the theme of the Messiah and the many prophecies. The Evangelists went to great pains to demonstrate that Jesus Christ fulfilled these prophecies and was the true Messiah. Not all the Jews accepted Christ, and at least in theory still wait for the Messiah. If we are Christians, what difference did the Messiah make? Was there really a redemption or an atonement? If not, Christianity is simply a moral philosophy, a peaceful and appealing one, but no more than that. If so, all fallen creation was re-created and transfigured in an anticipation of God’s Kingdom. Sin and death no longer mean the same thing and man can hope for ultimate happiness and all he has sought on earth.
Why hope for death and catastrophe? Any answer to that will not only enable us to understand jihadist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians, but we will also get more insight into ourselves and our “dark side”. It is more or less extreme in each of us, going to the extreme of the jihadist head-choppers and various doomsday cults in the world that also commit acts of terrorism and murder. It is present in many films and books, the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley, stories of the Antichrist and a final victory of the Devil over God. In a less extreme form, there is the “prepper” community in America, but also in England and Europe, who store quantities of food and other supplies to face any possible adversity. I have to admit that such a way of thinking was a part of my motivation for wanting to live in the countryside. It would seem that apocalyptic beliefs have increased over the past fifty years or so. In the 1960’s, we had the Cold War and I had nightmares about the nuclear war and the mushroom clouds.
It has been present in history all the way along. We have the eschatological passages in the canonical Gospels in which Christ affirms that terrible things will happen before “this generation” passes away. What does “this generation” mean? During the great plague times of the middle ages, it was rife. That is not surprising. Millions died leaving humanity on survival mode. The two world wars were a fact, as every other war ever since. Dresden, Hiroshima and Auschwitz happened and left their mark on our history and collective consciousness. We face the same thing today as we fret about the Middle East and all the other things we read about in the news.
The explanation may seem to be quite simple. The problems we face are beyond our capabilities for solving them. Only God can solve them. Perhaps God will only help us by means of destroying everything and rebuilding anew, hopefully a world “with me in it”. There is something very wrong with our present existence, but we still believe in a higher good and purpose. Of course the atheists would say that if we get rid of the higher good and purpose, we would be incited to solve our own problems. There is also a form of Christianity that does away with the “pie in the sky” and emphasises the same goals as secularists and atheists. If Christianity is merely a moral philosophy, why not?
Prophecies of doom have invariably failed. Evidence of that is that we are still here. Only two nukes have ever been exploded in anger, back in 1945, and many other threats like Ebola have been (more or less) halted in their tracks. It is tempting to see even Christ’s prophecies as “failed”, unless there is some extraordinary interpretation of his words. What do we make of the prophecies of Fatima and La Salette? Some people go on and on about them. There is a psychological dimension. The failed predictions lead to new predictions. 2012 passed by three years ago – and we are still here.
What is perverse is the expectation or even a delectation in doomsday, and expecting to survive it. If survival is not by our own means (“prepping”), then we find that some exegetes have gleaned notions from the Gospels and the Epistles of St Paul of some kind of “rapture”. The good guys would be plucked off the face of this earth before everything gets blown to smithereens. The “prepper” world is just as odd as the cults. Some get satisfaction from the idea of surviving a nuclear war, a meteorite hit, a total financial crash or some other Mad Max scenario. We just need our “bug-out” bag that we buy from such-and-such a retailer advertising such goods!
I think some of this comes from the idea of existing outside the norms of western society in terms of money, status, fashion and so forth. I like to live in the country and go camping with my boat and a little tent. We like to be children again and enjoy our little adventures, like Swallows and Amazons! But, it can only last for a few days or the space of a summer break, and then we have to be back to normal life. That is something we have to accept as responsible adults. We don’t have to go along with everything in society, but that is perhaps an advantage of liberalism, multiculturalism and modernity. Perhaps going away for a little minimalist break is good for us. I do it a couple of times a year with my boat. Others go hiking in the mountains or forests, living on as little as possible. It’s great fun, but we are also glad to get back to a comfortable home.
How many of us could survive a winter outdoors like so many people who are homeless? Perhaps we should try it and develop a little more empathy…
We are faced with dangers and miseries, and we are right to be concerned. We face our own deaths sooner or later and the causes are infinitely variable: accident, getting murdered, illness or old age. Why fret? It’s going to happen. The rub is finding our vocation in this world before it’s too late – not surviving something that is going to kill everyone else, but doing good and caring for others at cost to ourselves if necessary. The world will end, or perhaps it never existed in the first place except as an illusion. I am tempted to think along those lines as quantum physicists deduce from their experiments and calculations.
We are faced with the problem of evil, the greatest obstacle to faith in God, depending on what we believe to be the cause of creation and evil. Genesis gives the mythological narrative to which orthodox Christians and Jews subscribe. Gnosticism offers another. Every world religion and philosophy has its myths of our origins and and explanation for our sufferings. When someone asks us the question, we blush with embarrassment when we try to offer an answer. There isn’t one in real terms, so we invent myths like our ability to survive the end of the world. We still go in our struggle for meaning and resolution.
These are thoughts I offer in these last weeks preceding Advent, as the autumn season (here in the northern hemisphere) ebbs away and we face the coming winter. Winter seems to stare us in the face also in metaphorical terms. The signs of the times… But, we do have to realise that things were no better in the past. There have always been wars, catastrophes, inhumanity and death. There is no refuge in the past!
I struggle with these things as we all do. There are no easy answers. Whatever God means to us, we have only to trust in him and care for others.