This is America

Part 1

Public expressions of violence are not merely a matter of the number of lives lost; their impact cannot be measured in such terms. Rather their impact is shaped a great deal by the lens we view them through, through narratives already present in society. Take, for example, the Orlando shooting two years ago - the impact of that mass shooting was felt in such a way because it was very explicitly motivated by homophobia. The cultural battle lines were already in place, this shooting just heightened the stakes. Its impact was felt all the more acutely by the LGBT community, and friends of the LGBT community (hence why at the time, I felt an immediate need to respond). Or, take the ongoing violence along the Gaza strip this week, Palestinians being killed by Israelis upon the border. Again, we are all the more conscious of this event, because we are very familiar with that ongoing conflict.

The narrative really matters. We experience the world through stories. We live our lives through stories. It is stories which shape the way we understand our selves, and the world we inhabit. Take William James’ work from last week, ‘our belief creates the actual fact.’ The temptation is, within our numbers-driven world, to quantify the impact of these events. We wrongly believe that numbers, the number of those killed, the number of those affected, somehow gives us a better grasp upon an incident’s severity, upon what’s real.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve become convinced that this is a completely wrong approach. It is that which shines forth to us, that which we notice, which is the most real. The impact of an event upon our consciousness, and upon our collective unconscious, goes far deeper than the numbers. I think it’s important to emphasise this point, because it runs so contrary to what the world tells us. The world wants to lessen the significance of our personal experience, and heighten the significance of (so called) objective reality. But how foolish this is. Don’t they know nobody lives in objective reality? We all live in the world of belief. Belief shapes reality, our belief is our reality (to qualify: all so-called 'facts' to which we subscribe, are channeled through the psyche, and are as such foremost 'beliefs', even if they happen to be 'beliefs' which are 'true' and correspond to 'reality'.)

Part 2

‘This is America’ has been occupying my mind of late. It came out just a couple of weeks ago, and since then I have watched the music video more times than I can say. It’s by Donald Glover, AKA Childish Gambino, an American actor, comedian, and rapper. A man of many talents: this song in May, and next month playing one of the starring roles in the new Star Wars movie, as Lando Calrissian. ‘This is America’ is a rich, layered piece of commentary upon American black culture, in particular the racism, the shallow entrepreneurialism, and the gun violence which frames it. As I said though, most of the depth is encoded not so much into the music, but far more so into the music video, which is a violent articulation of the world as Glover perceives it. During the course of the video, a clever trick is played on us. We are entranced by Glover’s dancing, while in the background, the world slowly descends into chaos. While you listened, you would have heard the moments when the song’s tone becomes more sinister, that deep base tone which punctuates the video with explicit scenes of violence, before the dancing resumes. Clearly a characterisation of an American culture, shocked by violence one day, and then the next going on as if nothing has changed. After each violent act in the video, the gun responsible is carried away carefully wrapped in red velvet, while the bodies are disregarded - clearly a comment upon a society which respects the sanctity of guns, but not that of life. The violent act is committed, and the singer declares, ‘This is America’.

 Donald Glover as 'Lando Calrissian'

Donald Glover as 'Lando Calrissian'

I asked in the first part of my address this morning: what is reality? Is reality found in impersonal statistics, like homicide statistics, or economic disparity statistics? Or is reality found within the individual experience, the individual’s beliefs concerning reality? And I believe the latter gets far closer to the truth, because as I said, we don’t live in the objective world, we live within in the world of the psyche, and that can’t be expressed in numbers. In fact, they can often flat out contradict each other. The numbers might suggest upward momentum, economic progress, while the reality within the psyche may be a spiritual void, in which the individual has been alienated from their truest self, and is thus inhabiting a perpetual struggle. Perhaps amongst young men in the west, this is particularly the case today. On paper they can be shown to be doing fine, but spiritually are in crisis. The measurable surface of things distorts the nihilism beneath, the meaninglessness and lack of identity. In many circles today, it’s taken as a given that masculinity in the 21st century is by its very nature a toxic force.

Given then that I can discern this lack of direction amongst men of my generation, Glover highlights the extent to which this is far amplified within African American culture. Therein, as the video suggests, there are only two paths available: a life of crime, or a life of celebrity for celebrity’s sake. As the song repeats, ‘we just want the money.’ These two directions contrast with each other sharply. The celebrity, the entertainer, the rap artist, who distracts our gaze from the world of violence, of police brutality, of race motivated attacks. The entertainment provides the distraction, the drug, so that we need not confront the harsh truth. Many have commented that Glover is making reference to Jim Crow, the racist black caricature from when white people in the 1800s and 1900s dressed as black stereotypes for entertainment. If entertainment provides the distraction, and black culture was once hijacked to that end, so today it continues to be hijacked, though hijacked not by “white imperialists”, but by a willing black subculture. America then applauds these outward expressions of black culture, and is entertained by them, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the rife injustices besetting the African American community.

One of the expressions of violence which momentarily jolts the watcher away from Glover’s otherwise hypnotic performance is aimed at a church choir, which has been taken as a nod to the 2015 Charleston Church massacre in South Carolina, which was again racially motivated – white on black violence. To what extent is America turning a blind eye to racism in its more explicit and implicit forms, while at the same time merely paying lip service to affirming black culture? And perpetuating the illusion that there are only two paths, the path of crime, and the path of celebrity. There is a sense in which this two-fold path illusion is perpetuated because it serves the economic interests of America for it to be perpetuated. One of the lines sung is ‘This a celly, That's a tool’ - a “celly” as in a cell-phone, a mobile, the mobiles which is held up to either film the celebrity or the violence, or the mobile which is held up to be watched, to lock us into this world of violence and celebrity ever being perpetuated. A generation of people who watch and record events but never speak out. This is the apocalyptic reality, the nightmare illusion Glover is trapped within. He expresses this sentiment by having a white horse ride across the backdrop towards the end of the video, when the chaos, the rioting, and the violence is at its heights; a reference to Revelation, “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.” The personal apocalyptic moment that must bring about the new before it’s too late, before all is lost.

 The White horse from Revelation 6:2

The White horse from Revelation 6:2

Of course, in doing what Glover is doing here, in problematising this dichotomy, and exploring these issues in such an intricate manner, he is creating an alternative path for American black culture. Or at least showing that an alternative is possible. When Glover performed this song live for the first time on Saturday Night Live, he had himself introduced by another black American actor, Daniel Kaluuya, which I think is significant. Last year, my two favourite films were Paul Anderson’s ‘Phantom Thread’, and Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ starring Daniel Kaluuya – it’s the role he’s best known for. This horror movie ‘Get Out’ addresses many of the same issues the music video does, that black culture is demeaned into a token to be wheeled out and exploited for the pleasure of the white hegemony. It makes perfect sense that these two pieces of art, ‘Get Out’ and ‘This is America’, should be linked. They both offer a provocative and timely critique of the way African American culture is portrayed. The final few seconds of the video show Glover running in terror from the reality as he has framed it, attempting to throw off the illusion, and free himself from the horror he is within. The hope though, is of course that through these artistic expressions, he and other like-minded artists are able to find an alternative path anyway, in which they need not be framed by violent crime or trite celebrity for celebrity’s sake.

Two weeks ago, I gave my address on the apocalypse, and how our personal or communal conception of apocalypticism precipitates the possibility of the new. This is an example of that. And last week, my address on William James emphasised our own beliefs, our own worlds of meaning, which for all intents and purposes is the world. This reframing, and reorientation of the real, emboldens us to trust our own sense of things, and not to be subservient to the elitist, empirical, or hegemonic conception of the ‘real’. Again Glover’s boldness here is an example of that. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too… And this lends itself to a hope, to a prayer of sorts, that we will recognise the new which is needed, thorough our personal apocalypses, and be bold enough to trust our own sense of things.

Amen.

Reflecting on William James

 William James (1842 - 1910)

William James (1842 - 1910)

This week I have been thinking about the American philosopher and psychologist William James, in particular his most famous book, which was one of my birthday presents, ‘The Variety of Religious Experience’ (published in 1902). William James was born in 1842 in New York city. His father, Henry James Sr., was a theologian who became an ardent Swedenborgian, an interesting religious movement. As the ideas of Swedenborgianism make up the backdrop upon William James life, being his father’s preoccupation, I’ll begin by saying a bit about the movement. It was a new religious movement which formed here in England at the end of the 18th Century, and the denomination still exists in a small way today. There are two Swedenborgian churches in England, and a few house churches. There are about 30,000 Swedenborgians worldwide, so if you think we’re a small denomination…! They formed in response to the writings of a Swedish scientist, mystic, and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed to have had various visions concerning Jesus over a 25-year period (again in the mid-18th Century). It’s a universalistic religion; they believe that salvation is attained not through ascribing to a particular set of doctrines, but rather, it’s an inner experience of opening ourselves to love and understanding. They affirm then that pluralistic idea that all can come unto the sacred through our respective religious traditions. As to whether they’re Unitarian or Trinitarian, they sit somewhere in the middle, rejecting an orthodox Trinitarian theology, but affirming the divinity of Jesus. And all coalesce around their mutual appreciation of Swedenborg’s writings, which are mystical and esoteric in tone. Here is an example:

         ‘I have often talked with angels on this subject, and they have invariably declared that in heaven they are unable to divide the Divine into three, because they know and perceive that the Divine is One and this One is in the Lord.’

 Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 - 1772)

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 - 1772)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, given all I’ve said, that Unitarians too were drawn in by his ideas. By way of mutual appreciation for Swedenborg, Henry James Sr. (Williams’ father) befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson. Henry was also associated with the New England transcendentalist crowd more broadly, alongside figures such as Thoreau. It was into this general intellectual milieu that William James was born, his godfather being Emerson himself. Henry, the kindly eccentric that he was, was not a fan of mainstream American schooling, and so William received an eclectic education, for a time being put in boarding schools in Europe (in England, in Germany, in France), for a time being under the tutelage of private teachers, and for a time being taught by his father. A very broad set of educational experiences.

They were a family always reading and discussing books. William’s brother, Henry James Jr., would go on to become one of America’s leading 20th Century novelists, winning the Nobel Prize in literature. Theirs was a dinner table with ongoing, often ferocious, intellectual debate. All this variety though made deciding what to focus his life on difficult for James. For a time he considered becoming an artist, before finally deciding to go to Harvard University and study medicine. Though he never practiced medicine, as soon as he graduated he had a call to adventure, to exploration, and accepted an offer to go on an expedition to Brazil with an academic friend of his, who was going to collect specimens. Brazil at that time was an unknown entity. No sooner though had he arrived, and being amongst the bugs, the snakes, and the tropical diseases, he longed once more to be back amongst his books. Adventure wasn’t for him after all. So, he returned to the United States, and Harvard University offered him a researcher’s post. He’s in the medical research department, and his attention turns to psychology. Over the next ten years, he works on his seminal book, ‘The Principles of Psychology’, published in 1890. Up until then, psychology as a distinct discipline within medicine didn’t really exist; the book defined the field. He went on to become the first American professor to teach psychology, and he’s regarded today as the father of American psychology.

If I use the term ‘Stream of consciousness’, you all know what that means - the flow of thoughts in the conscious mind. It was during this period that William James coined that metaphor. He also observed something that we now all take for granted, that our emotional state modulates our experience of any given stimuli. For example, the depressed person feels pain more acutely. The thoughts of each person then exist solely within the personal domain; each thought in each moment is unique to that individual and to that moment, it cannot be repeated. I can try and explain an idea to you for instance, but I can’t know you’re having the thought in the same way that I’m having it. You’re almost all certainly not. This point is profoundly important for religion. If you have a supernatural (out of time) conception of God, your inner mind, your inner self, though it cannot be known by another person, it at least can be known by God. If that conception of God falls away, then in this most profound sense you cannot be known.

 Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

James spent almost his entire academic career at Harvard, from his initial appointment in 1873 to his retirement in 1907. Over this period, he oscillated between his two overlapping fields, psychology and philosophy, all the while being deeply engaged in the sorts of religious questions his father and godfather planted within him. This all ultimately culminated in his most famous book, ‘The Variety of Religious Experience’, published in the wake of the speaking tour he embarked upon in retirement. The book, ‘The Variety of Religious Experience’, is not really a book, rather it’s a series of twenty lectures strung together, lectures he gave as part of ‘The Gifford Lectures’ on natural theology at Edinburgh University. These lectures were set up by Lord Gifford. Lord Gifford, the Scottish judge, who in his 20s had the fortune of hearing William’s godfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, speak on religion. Gifford found Emerson’s ideas so inspiring and uplifting, in contrast with the stuffy Scottish Presbyterianism he grew up on, he wanted to fund lectures of that ilk in perpetuity. In short then, during these lectures, William is reflecting on one question: what is truth? The scientist, the empiricist, may say there is no evidence for God, and therefore there is no God. But given that, what does one do with all these people throughout the world, throughout history, claiming to have had spiritual experiences? Though William never directly references the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg in these talks, he is a case in point, clearly at play in the back of William’s mind. Swedenborg, that 18th Century scientist, who at the age of 50, suddenly and quite inexplicably starts having these profound mystical visions, which are extraordinarily insightful. That must count for something?

William makes the case, and I’m not sure I would entirely go along with this, but he makes the case that a true belief is such because it proves useful to the believer. Which is going back to that previous point regarding the wholly personal nature of our interior world; we are each worlds unto ourselves, and if in our world we experience a divine presence for example, then that divine presence is true and there’s nothing more that can be said to negate that. Whether that inner truth corresponds with an outer truth is an irrelevant question to William, which is frustrating. We don’t just want our beliefs to be true in a solipsistic internal world of our making, we want them to be true in a broader sense, to correspond with ‘reality’ in some way. But this belies the extent to which we as human beings are constantly putting things and ideas into thought categories, and believing that in doing so, we are describing reality. But really, we’re just creating worlds of meaning which are satisfactory to our narrow frame upon reality, but not to reality itself. William then is making the claim that we cannot access capital ‘T’ Truth, but only our interior worlds of truth, interior worlds we should and must develop and shape to be as useful to us as possible, because the more useful to us they are, the truer to us they are. As I intimated, I would go along with William most of the way. I certainly do believe our access to reality is compromised in a way seldom acknowledged. Though I don’t believe truth categories are wholly confined to the individualistic sphere, I think William undervalues the extent to which truth can be carried by a community of people collectively, and furthermore I wouldn’t rule out the presence of a mythological substrata, a primordial collective unconscious, comprising truths therein. But in saying that, you need only disagree with me, and William’s point would triumph. That’s the irony of William’s position. He is making a truth claim himself by saying that truth operates in this individualistic manner, and by disagreeing with him you are bolstering his point.

‘The Variety of Religious Experience’ then, is a survey of the types of religious experiences people have the world over. He skirts between two positions in the book. On one hand William wants to assert that there is value in such religious experiences, that they can provide the contours of meaning for our lives, while at the same time, William wants to maintain the integrity of the scientific perspective. He does so by affirming that there is no conflict, and that the appearance of conflict only arises when you ask bad questions. On the other hand though, contradicting himself a little, he really wants to go slightly further than that. He wants to assert that there are truths one can access through religion which are unattainable to those with a wholly science originated worldview, a naturalistic worldview. I share this conflict with William. I too believe there is something in religion inaccessible to those without religion, but also, like William, it’s not clear to me what that ‘something’ is. I would speculate it has something to do with an awareness of our collective unconscious, the primordial mythological substrata. Despite the fact that William is writing before Carl Jung, he nevertheless does anticipate many of Jung’s ideas. As an aside, it seems far more natural to see Carl Jung as not so much the successor to Sigmund Freud (as we have been led to believe), but rather, the successor to William James, as both Jung and William believed the unconscious could play a redemptive role in our lives, unlike Freud who believed it was merely a disruptive force. There is an interior, wider self, from which redemption flows.

 Henry James Sr. (1811 - 1882)

Henry James Sr. (1811 - 1882)

In closing, I want to return to Henry James Sr, William James’ father. In particular I want to return to his dining table, a dining table around which the James family were ensnared in passionate (often ferocious) debate. Discussing theology, philosophy, literature, and of course the writings of Swedenborg, Henry did in fact move away from Swedenborg’s ideas in later life, as he came to regard Swedenborgianism as too narrow in outlook. Nevertheless, he was always in accord with that kind of universalism, which in turn shaped their homely climate of free inquiry. After all, if you believe that we all can access the sacred, or truth, on our own terms in some sense, then it allows you to release others in their search for meaning. It allows you to welcome disagreement. As William developed his own philosophical views, he certainly disagreed with his father a great deal. But a passion for the cut and thrust of debate, and a passion for ideas, always made such disagreement affable. Because after all, to paraphrase William, although I may disagree with you, although I may strongly disagree with you and try to convince you of my point of view, I cannot make what you believe wrong. Only you can make you wrong. It’s all then a matter of character, a matter of attitude. Intellectual disagreement should be a joyful activity. If you enter into some intellectual sparring after all, if you disagree with someone, that should be taken as sign that you respect the other person’s opinion enough that you want to change it.

And finally, to quote William James directly, “The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”

Amen.

A Personal Apocalypse

Part 1

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

I’m going to begin the morning by thinking about the apocalypse. The apocalypse, as you know, is the final destruction of the world. When we think about the apocalypse our thoughts often turn to those Christian fundamentalists who prophesy the imminent end of the world. They who believe that any day now, a series of events will unfold in such a way that it will bring about Jesus’ return and the end of everything as we know it. Apocalypticism appears initially to be a mystical worldview far removed from our own, a realm of fanaticism beyond our comprehension. I wonder though how true this is? Is apocalypticism not an integral part of modern politics, and the modern imagination? Perhaps within Christian circles, apocalypticism arises with such regularity because it is baked into the Christian narrative. Jesus was first and foremost a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who believed reality as we know it was about to pass through an event horizon, beyond which everything would be wholly transformed. Take for example Mark 13. It reads:

“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

Very apocalyptic sounding stuff. Passages like this (or even more so what we read in the book of Revelation) suggested to first century listeners that they were expecting a totalising shift in reality as they perceived it. This passage breaks down into three parts. First it begins, ‘But in those days, after that suffering…’ The suffering of the present moment is established. Then we have a list of things that happen in the near future. The sun is darkened, stars fall from the heavens, thunder and lightning. Then we have the result: the Son of Man coming in glory to gather together the elect and establish a new order upon earth. Apocalyptic thought often arises among people groups who perceive there to be a fundamental inequity, like those within the first century Jesus movement, who felt themselves politically oppressed under Roman Rule, and religiously alienated from the Pharisaic Temple tradition. The status quo is arrayed against them, and so they pray and long for a fundamental shift that will bring about a whole new state of affairs. Because the shift itself is unimaginable, it is couched in grand apocalyptic terms. As it’s hard to see beyond the status quo, it’s hard to see what’s beyond the fish tank you’re in.

 Classic Soviet Poster

Classic Soviet Poster

Our time is again and again proclaimed to be an apocalyptic time. Take another comparable example: 20th Century Marxism. It follows the same three-part process, an acknowledgment of the inequity and injustice of the present moment, a calamitous though non-specific set of evets, a class struggle or a war of some kind, and finally a new utopian state of affairs. Apocalyptic thought of this kind has recurred over and over throughout human history. In the same way that it recurs upon the macro level, upon the geo-political level, it also recurs at the personal subjective level. We all go through our own apocalyptic moments. We cannot imagine inhabiting the world beyond X happening. And then X does happen, and we’re plunged into a previously inconceivable way of being in the world. It’s these personal apocalyptic moments which are going to be my focus this morning.

Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I was in Belfast, at an annual theological conference called Wake. A wake as in a vigil held beside the body of someone who has died; the someone in this case being God, or at least God as he has been traditionally understood. The idea is this, that when we become Christians we often take on a very realist, concrete conception of God as being out there somewhere, and then, as we mature perhaps, or enquire more deeply, or undergo some period of introspection, we may deconstruct this concrete conception of God and make a sudden gear shift in our mind towards an understanding of God which is deeper. And that takes many forms: the God within, God as a metaphor for loving action, God as synonymous with nature, or God as spirit within our midst, etc. Now, not everyone goes through this process of unravelling or deconstruction. People, for example, who have always inhabited religion at its more liberal ends, often just slowly deepen their conception of God over time, and never undergo these sudden gear shift moments. For me however, I can pinpoint the day I took on a concrete conception of God when I was 17. And I can pinpoint the day when that concrete conception of God collapsed for me, when I was 22. Everything in my life subsequently has been an outworking of those two days. This was for me then a personal apocalyptic moment. A day when the way I perceived reality changed gear. When I shifted from subjectively perceiving the divine as tangibly presence, to not. Subjectively many have described this shift as not unlike a death. Hence then, the reason for this language, a wake, a group of people from across the world coming to hold a vigil over God in decomposition.

With this as the basis, the conference, which is organised by Pete Rollins (a theologian from Belfast, who now lives in the US), opens up a space in which we explore a plethora of ideas. The conference is underpinned by three disciplines: theology, philosophy, and psychoanalytical theory. Within Anglican theology, there is the analogy of the three-legged stool. The three legs of the stool, scripture, tradition, and reason, are required to keep the stool upright. When you have an over-reliance or under-reliance on either scripture, tradition, or reason, an unhealthy imbalance arises, which causes the stool of Anglican theology to topple (that is the claim). The usage of theology, philosophy, and psychoanalytical theory operates in a similar way; three spheres of enquiry which can critique one another, keep one another in healthy tension, and hold one another accountable. It’s a model I find very useful, hence why I so often oscillate between these three disciplines. The conference packs a lot in. References to writers, philosophers, ideas, and books abound. One such book that was referenced in passing was called the ‘Ontology of the Accident’. It’s a philosophy book by a contemporary French philosopher who works in the UK, at Kingston University; her name is Catherine Malabou. The book is about navigating through life’s apocalyptic moments. It’s about saying yes to life, despite such calamities.

Part 3

Of hurt and healing, ebb and flow: we move with all things on the path of living, loving, learning now. Or as Catherine Malabou puts it in the opening of her book, ‘Ontology of the Accident’, in the usual order of things, lives run their course like rivers. The changes and metamorphoses of life due to vagaries and difficulties, or simply the natural unfolding of circumstance, appear as the marks and wrinkles of a continuous, almost logical, process of fulfilment that leads ultimately to death. Lives run their course like rivers. This is the usual order of things. But into that flow sometimes suddenly the river can veer off in an unprecedented manner, sometimes because of trauma, or existential angst, or for reasons not apparent. An unprecedented persona, as Catherine puts it, comes to live with the former self, who eventually takes up all the rooms.

Catherine Malabou

For me this rings true. These sudden deviations in the river are the apocalyptic moments of which I have been speaking. I experienced this in existential terms as I described it, as an abrupt shift in the way I perceived the divine, and thus reality. These apocalyptic moments take many forms, some existential, but probably more common are those unprecedented traumas of death, assault, or accident which reframe reality for us. Into this space a new you, a new persona suddenly comes forth. To quote Catherine, ‘A new being comes into the world for a second time, out of a deep cut that opens in a biography.’ Often one can imagine the you whose life was not interrupted by the apocalyptic moment; that other persona seems to us in a sense more familiar than this self we have been left with.

I think it’s appropriate to frame these cuts as apocalyptic, because we perceive them as such. The subjective depths of the self seem deeper than the world before us. And so, our frame upon reality is wholly subsumed by the trauma, making only a cosmic vocabulary adequate in conveying the depths of the cut. The apocalyptic moment shatters ones very perception of what this world is. This is why I chose as our second reading Shelley's ‘Ozymandias’. It juxtaposes Ozymandias, king of kings, the eternal all-powerful ruler, with his present-day state: nothing more than a long-abandoned statue, crumbling away in the desert. The mental reality of who the king understood himself to be is wholly at odds with the “reality” Shelley gives us. But which reality is more real? To Shelley the answer is in the picture he paints, crumbling stones in a boundless dessert. But to the King, ‘Ozymandias’, who inhabited the grandiose claims made, he was never any less. In the same way, our apocalyptic traumas are our very frames upon reality, and thus the very nature of reality as we inhabit it. As these moments lie in our past so too might they lie in our future, and as such force us to recognise that apocalyptic moments may one day make us become someone else, an alien other, alien even unto our present selves.

Most of the time the development of self happens under the low heat of everyday life. If effectual we find ourselves in that malleable space between our capacity for change and our predilection to remain the same, a malleability we lose with age. This results in the sort of gradual change we can easily plot, we can connect up the dots and understand how we got from there to here. A slow process of becoming. But the abruptness of apocalyptic moments causes a break in such continuity. It is as if a whole new distinct personality comes to inhabit our body, for now we lack a lineage of identity. There is a split in our history, there’s no smooth journey of becoming anymore. In a way, the cosmic wholeness which we all long for, seems somehow as if in retrospect it was more attainable to our previous persona. For now, our identity is colder, and more robust, more capable of integrating comparable traumas in the future. We recognise that this cosmic wholeness for which we once longed, and sought as a real possibility, is not merely beyond our grasp, but rather, never really there at all. After all, wholeness with reality would really mean the end of subjectivity, and we are moving in the other direction. At first this seems a bleak prognosis. But it is quite the contrary. In recognition of the voids we shall never fill, the lack integral to our being revealed by our personal apocalypses, we might untangle ourselves from a sense of destiny thrust upon us, for there is no grand narrative for anyone. Now that we feel this lack, let us not fantasise of a shore we shall never reach. We must positivise this absence of meaning. Cast off our utopian visions, and revel in this enteral present.

Amen.