I follow on from my previous article on anti-intellectualism. It is obviously not a new problem, nor is it American. There are many fascinating themes in the works of the recently deceased Umberto Eco. The one many of us know best is the Name of the Rose. The story is set in a monastery in the mountains of northern Italy in the year 1327 during the Avignon schism and a particularly dark time of the Church’s history. It is read on different levels: a good detective story in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes – or a study of questions like laughter in the Rule of St Benedict. One I would like to highlight is apocalypticism. The early fourteenth century was one that heralded the Black Death, conflict in Europe and contestation of the Church’s wealth by groups like the Fraticelli and the Brothers of Fra Dolcino. This period would herald the first tendencies towards what became Protestantism two centuries later. Some of the art of that period is particularly gruesome with depictions of the end of the world, walking dead and demons torturing those who were still living.
The end of the world is something that is powerful in us all, and we all understand it is different ways. There have been extinction events throughout the history of our world. Simply, the conditions needed to support life on this planet are quite narrow. Change the composition of gases in the atmosphere and we all die. We can tolerate only a relatively narrow range of temperatures, and the complexity of our organisms depends on the food we eat, sunlight, abundance of water, a balance of micro-organisms between those that make us ill and those that help our bodily functions. Any major change is a cause of extinction: a comet or meteorite hitting the earth, major volcanic eruptions, climate changes, disease, lack of food, so many things. The life of the sun is limited, functioning as it does by nuclear fusion. The day the sun explodes or collapses in onto itself, it is over for all life in this solar system (none has as yet been found elsewhere than earth). We humans can now destroy ourselves by the use of nuclear bombs or manufactured diseases and pandemics. There are already plenty of natural pathogens that can kill us all in the “right” conditions. So the list goes on. Sooner or later, this world will come to an end.
Before that happens, each of us will die from any number of natural and man-made causes. After the dissolution of our bodies, two things can happen. If our brains are the cause of our consciousness, that’s it and we’re gone. Nothing matters but we pass from existence to non-existence. Alternatively, our consciousness survives and goes into another state of being independently from the body it inhabited for the lifetime of that body. Various religious traditions have an explanation of the possibilities according to revelations from their seers and prophets. As the psalm says, we get threescore years and ten, and fourscore if we’re strong and healthy. Very exceptionally, we might get ninety or even a hundred years. The record so far is 122 years, and even that is nothing compared with geological history. Some people will still be alive when the world ends, when it does from whatever cause. The event will be the cause of their deaths. Alternatively, humans might become extinct and the world might continue with another species dominating it. Everything in this “material” world has a beginning and an end.
We seem to find problems in the world at all times of history. I wonder if there was ever a period in which people thought of themselves as living in a “good” time. I suppose the 1950’s and 60’s was quite nice, but I only experienced the 1960’s as a child. There are ups and downs with economic conditions, jobs, absence or wars or totalitarian states like the Germans under Hitler. We in Europe have had much more than half a century without a major war, but we do read of foreboding developments. Where is the dividing line between objectivity and our own psychological needs to justify our desire for mayhem and death?
In history, several events have triggered the kind of apocalypticism. The most major events during the period of Christian history seem to have been the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Black Death, the Reformation era and the French Revolution.
The period after the French Revolution not only appealed to religious prophets but also to the Romantics. The Last Man in the 1820’s and 30’s was as much an archetype as it was in cinema of the 1960’s (Cold War) and up to our own times. The year without a summer of 1816 brought lurid visions of perverted science and Frankenstein monsters. The general gloomy atmosphere was a fertile field for evangelists and prophets in those days. Lord Byron wrote Darkness also in 1816, imagining the death of the sun.
Enthusiasm abounded in the early nineteenth century as in the days of the Convulsionnaires of Saint Médard in seventeenth-century Paris. I recommend readers to get Monsignor Ronald Knox’s book Enthusiasm. We recognise the same traits from Montanism all the way up to the Pentecostalists and Charismatics of our own days. Religion truly becomes a sickness, where adepts take leave of their senses. In the Romantic era, many self-proclaimed prophets amassed followings of hundreds of thousands, and their hysteria was taken for miraculous grace. Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, wrote a novel about a quack in Paris who claims to be a prophet and gains a large following as a plague kills millions.
The movement spread to America during that period. One particular theory that emerged was that of the Rapture, according to which the just would be spared the great tribulation by being taken up to heaven whilst the rest of the world’s population would be left to suffer all the events that would take place during a tribulation. The theory is derived from several passages of Scriptures in the Gospels, the epistles of St Paul and in the book of the Apocalypse / Revelation. The Unites States also was born in great conflict and had its ideological roots in the French Revolution, and the transition from the British Empire to an independent Republic founded on similar ideas to those of Voltaire, Diderot and others.
The roots of the Rapture idea would seem to be found in London of the 1820’s and the Presbyterian minister Edward Irving. In his teaching, there would be a revival of the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians chapters 12–14 just before Christ’s second coming. Speaking in tongues and prophetic utterances motivated by the spirit would remain with us to the present day. Irving had considerable success in his era, and was sacked by the Presbyterian Church in 1832. He established a “Catholic-Apostolic” Church, which had a low-church part and an amazing high-church section. In the latter, the hierarchy of divinely-ordained bishops or “apostles” had no need to ordain successors for the reason of the imminent end of the world. As a result, that declining denomination has no clergy.
Irving tended a sick woman who had a prophetic vision according to which Christ would appear in two stages. At the first, he would assume into heaven all the just, and then would judge the quick and the dead on the appointed day. John Darby, who was influential in the Plymouth Brethren and founded another body, was reputed as a brilliant theologian and exegete. He adopted this idea of the Rapture and popularised it. He was also dubbed the father of dispensationalism, which makes for some mind-boggling reading, compared with which Jesuit Scholasticism seems to be simplicity itself.
Without going into the details of these theories (which can be found in libraries and on the internet), they found their way to America. I think it would be fair to say that much of the current American “fundamentalist”environment reflects England and other part of Europe in the early nineteenth century. The difference is that this side of the Atlantic, it is mostly rejected and forgotten, and the church buildings were long ago sold off, demolished or re-used for secular purposes.
The extraordinarily speculative and categorised theology spread far and wide and influenced many American religious movements. I would be interested in knowing whether this belief is widespread in England among Evangelicals and fundamentalists. I doubt it, and I never came across it in England. “Enthusiasm” continues unabated in America in so many forms according to the inspirations of each prophet and pastor. Predictions of the date of the Rapture and the Parousia are most characteristic of many denominations.
The proliferation of fundamentalist (for want of a better generic term) denominations is quite bewildering, and linked with a gullible mindset one doesn’t find over this side of the Atlantic. I suppose that the North American continent is so vast that people are isolated – yet they have TV and internet. Canada is even bigger, but the people are as cynical and sceptical as in Europe. I’m sure the question has been studied, as it is just a question of finding the bibliographical references.
The big problem with such a degree of credulity and gullibility is like that moment during the night of Christmas Eve when a child pretends to be sleeping to find out what really happens. I remember the moment myself – my mother was very careful and quiet as she delivered the stocking and cardboard box of gifts, but my belief in Santa Claus was gone in an instant. So it will be with believers in such fantastic ideas when they reject Christianity entirely and completely.
When an atheist like Richard Dawkins is asked whether Christianity a form of mental illness, he will answer by citing the various caricatures that have been made of Christians, or which we have imposed on ourselves. If we are literalists in our understanding of biblical texts, then we have to explain things like invisible bearded old men in the sky, talking snakes and dead bodies burying each other! God and Christ become as caricatured and absurd to reason as Father Christmas to the growing child. Going through a typical atheist attempt to debunk Christianity, we find notions of comparison with psychiatry, mental illness and addiction. Many of the symptoms of anxiety, depression and psychosis are observed in those claiming to be prophets and seers. I am less sure about the pathological nature of psychosis and more willing to accept the notion of consciousness being able, exceptionally, to gain access to other levels of existence as would be explained to some extent by quantum mechanics. Most atheists who are true materialists lean heavily on psychiatry to debunk anything outside “normal” experience.
Studies in the phenomenon of addiction present a huge challenge to many of our assumptions. Some people are more predisposed to addiction than others, not only physical addiction to chemicals like drugs, nicotine and alcohol, but also psychological addiction to pornography, gambling, computer games and – religion. Religion is compared with drug abuse, consisting of the users (believers) and the dealers (TV evangelists, apologists, etc.). In America, religion addiction is big money, especially in the “mega-churches”.
Like the priesthood has to be detached from clericalism, Christianity needs to be available as something that respects our critical thinking, promotes freedom and love. It also needs to promote the human person as something inviolable and sacred. If our religion has become an addiction, then we need the right kind of help like when I stopped smoking cigarettes ten years ago with the aid of a doctor and a systematic treatment. Rebuilding becomes possible, and then a genuine Christian spirituality might be built on more human and psychologically sound foundations such as love, attraction to beauty and everything that has given nobility and knowledge to man.
What can we do to separate the wheat from the chaff, that Christ may not be abolished and chased from this world because of bad religion? Christ himself was faced with bad and corrupt Judaism, and his response was severe. So it must be with religious “drug dealers” and the hypocrites of our own time.