Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Folly of the End Times

One night, stumbling through the channels on late night TV, I came upon a show in which a group of young people were depicted being lectured by a zealous Christian speaker of similar age. The subject was the “end times,” and the speaker was making numerous connections between current events on the world stage and passages from the Book of Revelation. Such talk has become, to my dismay, familiar in the culture, since Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth in the 1970s, and particularly in the last decade with the Left Behind books and other “Rapture” related writings. But what struck me in this case were the expressions of the actors playing the audience in the show (for this show was obviously a scripted performance and not an actual talk). As the speaker continued to draw supposedly compelling conclusions about the Biblical significance of the Middle East conflicts, the European Union, and so forth, young people in the audience would look at each other with a mingling of fascination and alarm, as if to say, “Maybe it’s true! The world might be ending soon! How do we get out of this alive?”
I leave aside the irrational and arbitrary nature of the connections drawn between current events and scripture. One might as well try to argue with the logic of a paranoid schizophrenic in the mistaken belief that reason can have an effect on pathological delusions. What I do find interesting, however, are the basic attitudes or assumptions that are displayed here regarding religion and spirituality, and especially what is missing from the picture. At no point in the show was there any mention of love, compassion, or for that matter even moral belief. There was no evidence of any awareness of faith as an aspect or expression of one’s way of life, either in terms of one’s sense of self or in relation to one’s conduct towards others. In fact, the only feelings one could sense in the presentation were fear of calamity and death, and a desperate desire to survive.
This “end times” sermon could be summed up simply as, “If you want to save your ass, hitch your fate to Jesus Christ and hold on tight. “ If you substituted the name “Moloch” for Jesus Christ, the message would be the same. The religious seeker’s motive is reduced to fear of pain, death, and annihilation. The selfish desire for personal survival has masqueraded itself as spirituality, as “religion.” Faith, belief, worship: these are mere means towards an end that is wholly defined by self-centered fear, the ever-shifting anxiety of the ego.
The spiritual nullity of apocalyptic beliefs is not, however, a mere symptom of bad motives. I would argue that millennialism as religious doctrine is inherently false, philosophically mistaken in itself, and for reasons that are deeper than the familiar deceptions of self-interest.
All meaning in the spiritual sense refers ultimately to our subjectivity. Spirit, or soul, is always the starting point—thus the word “spirituality.” In theological terms, spirituality always involves the relationship of the soul to the ultimate reality—that which is absolute and unconditioned, the Divine, or God. But for reasons too involved to explain in this essay, spirituality as expressed through the social order—i.e., religion—became largely alienated from the soul, taking on a separate life of its own, as a force of social cohesion and control. The connection with spirituality is still there to varying degrees, but the alliance is often an uneasy one, because religion surrendered, along with humanity in general, to a view and a way of life that values our abstract knowledge of existence over the only direct knowledge we have, namely experience. The effect of this view and way of life is to elevate the idea of the objective world to an absolute value, and to devalue the soul, the self, to an insignificance that, for all intents and purposes, is identical with non-existence.
One of the consequences of this inversion is the notion of a god who works through history. We imagine a narrative of human life through time, as if gazing on humanity from above, and this is useful to our understanding, and valid in the same way any abstract knowledge is valid for us. But once we attach a transcendent value to this abstraction, we eliminate the basis of spirituality—the relationship of the soul to the Divine. Now the soul is merely one of a myriad of tiny particles that is part of a huge process known as “history,” and it is this process that supposedly has meaning and purpose. History now contains a goal, and we are just indirect means toward that goal, and not ends in ourselves as we are in the direct relationship of spirituality.
Since this imaginary goal is transcendent and absolute, it alone lends value to life. The consequences of this error, this attribution of absolute value to history, is that human beings lose all value, and are ultimately expendable, necessary sacrifices on the way to the goal. The end of the world involves the utter destruction of millions of people, yet the “religious” person who has made an idol out of history welcomes these deaths as necessary. We can see the foolish and extremely dangerous consequences today, when zealots actually hope for nuclear war in the Middle East in order to confirm their beliefs regarding the Book of Revelation, and will even seek to help this horrific result take place through political means.
The sad fact of the matter is that the believer in the historical god is denying the absolute and transcendent nature of his deity by making its will depend on an historical process. In the twentieth century we witnessed a political movement, ideologically opposed to religion, which posited an inevitable, and supremely desirable, result of the historical process. I’m speaking, of course, of communism. Under Stalin’s rule, for instance, millions of people were murdered and enslaved in the belief that this was a necessary step towards the historical goal. When millennial religious believers seek to enact an “end times” scenario in the world, the purpose is ironically similar to Stalinism. Although the rapturists project their desires onto their deity, the existence of nuclear weapons makes their dreams, if they “help” their god to make them come true, more deadly than Stalin’s or Mao’s, and indeed fatal to the world itself.
The crucial point that needs to be understood here is that by putting absolute value on a future “end,” the apocalyptic believer eliminates all human values. Existing individuals do not live in a timeline of history. They can only be seen as such by taking an imagined stance outside of them—an “objective” view which is without spiritual meaning, and therefore merciless.
I am convinced that any belief system, religious or otherwise, that is founded on the expectation of an historical result rather than on the human spirit itself, is inherently false. Yet even in the New Testament, the millennial conviction is coupled with the warning that “…of that day and hour, no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36). In these words Jesus presents a basic and essential humility, an awareness of inescapable human limitation, as the proper attitude of a human being regarding God’s times and purposes. In Christian terms, then, our modern rapture-mongers, with their certainty that they’ve decoded God’s plans as revealed in the scriptures, are nothing more than blasphemers. Not only do they claim to know all the signs, they think that God might need their help.
This essay is not aimed at such believers. The self-centered fear and thirst for power that informs the Left Behind crowd makes them all but impervious to reason. My words are intended as an aid to understanding for those who do not share the millennial delusion. It is important to realize that the “end of days” is a perversion of spirituality and a very degraded form of religion—a religion without meaning or conscience. This realization may also, I hope, aid those who are engaged in the direct experience that I call spirituality—whether they are Christian or otherwise—to understand the error of turning the Divine into an historical actor or puppeteer, and thus avoid the consequences of this error, to their own inestimable spiritual and moral benefit.


Anonymous said...

well I for one was 'repulsed" by this presumptious article.

First of all.. the "world will not end"

300 times it says in the bible.. the earth abideth forever. so your reasoning is false!!

Chris Dashiell said...

How about the Last Judgment? The rapture? Armageddon? If that's not the end of the world, fine. Is it the end of time? The end of sinners?
Please explain further. To say that you're repulsed by a philosophical essay, calling it presumptious, and then quibbling about the meaning of the end of the world in the doesn't really answer anything. What's presumptious? That I even question such things? Should I should accept such things because it says so in a book?