A Personal 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.