Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Post-Modern Apocalypticism

A poster at the Jihad Watch website made an observation partially in response to a rather long-running conversation I have been having on a particular thread over there. That poster’s observation helped me to see that I need to modify, slightly, the list on my previous post, The Epochal Sea Change of the West.

In that post, I enumerated a list of twelve factors that denote the manifestations/causes of the epochal sea change of the West. Factor #5 was:

the massive subculture of religious syncretism beginning in the 19th century.

Included in this rather terse and somewhat opaque descriptor is:

a revival of interest in mysticism, spiritualism, supernaturalism, Satanism, multicultural eclecticism, the fabrication of new-fangled sects (pseudo- or quasi-Christian like Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormonism, Christian Science, etc., as well as others with no affiliation with Christianity per se), the proliferation of quack remedies and health techniques, the rise of science fiction, the obsessions in Romanticism with erotic and passionate surrender and self-annihilation to primitivism and ‘Nature’, the rise of modern psychology...

It is likely that I have left out one or more significant features.

One feature I did leave out is apocalypticism, about which the aforementioned poster from Jihad Watch reminded me; and this particular feature might be sufficiently remarkable to deserve a place outside of a list of features within #5.

Of course, apocalypticism as a general sociocultural phenomenon—albeit an amorphous one that has waxed and waned at various periods—dates back to what Voegelin calls the ‘Ecumenic Age’ and what more ensconced scholars in Academe refer to, in somewhat fastidious fashion, as the ‘Inter-Testamental Period’.

Apocalypticism has been a perennial constant—waxing and waning, to be sure—in the West for over two millennia, pre-dating the epiphanies of Jesus Christ. Scholars cannot pinpoint any beginning of apocalypticism, but it seems to have originated with Zoroaster or his followers in Persia approximately over 500 years before Christ, and subsequently influenced certain Judaic circles in Mesopotamia during the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ when most of the influential scribes and priests—i.e., the intellectual ‘elites’ of Israelite culture—were transferred by conquest to Mesopotamian regions heavily influenced by Persian symbolizations. Persian influences, as well as other eschatological tendencies, throughout the vibrantly eclectic syncretism that was rampant throughout the Ecumenic Age colored Greek spirituality and later Roman spirituality in myriad ways. And, of course, when the Roman Empire became Christian, the vast
kinesis began whereby all these syncretistic strands and streams coalesced—even as, on the surface, many were proscribed under rational paradigms of orthodoxy—into the grand synthesis of Christendom. Along with the orthodox synthesis there embarked a geographically and sociologically sprawling, rag-tag, semi-incoherent career of various streams of heterodoxy and outright heresy that flourished—or festered—underground for centuries, generating the most bizarre modulations of apocalypticism (most notably the Pseudo-Sybelline Oracles); and, incidentally, providing much pathological nutrition for the rise of Communism, Nazism, and Fascism).

It would therefore be perfectly legitimate to say that apocalypticism has perdured for the last 2,400 years in the West, with a career of complex waxing and waning as well as permutations, but not with any significant breaks. Apocalypticism is an important component of the eschatology which, in turn, is the major feature of the differentiation of consciousness which my previous post explored.

If apocalypticism has been with the West since pretty much the very beginning, what sense, then, does it make to identify it as a feature of the latter part of the epochal sea change of the West which by my definition is delimited by the past 500 years? The only new aspect seems to be the literally global interconnections that have been realized in the last 50 years, and their consequent impacts on psychology and mythology (in a future posting, we will discuss how mythology is not necessarily a false construct). In this context of ‘Globalism’—whether it is good or bad or, more likely, a little of both—apocalypticism has acquired a sufficiently distinct contour by which it may be identified as a discrete factor in the overall epochal sea change of the West.

Post-modern apocalypticism—as we may call it—involves many flavors: revivals of Christian apocalypticism with attention to the increasingly volatile situation in Israel; inspiration from heterodox eschatological texts from history (ranging from Nostradamus to the Aztec calendar); Leftist doom knells about the environment; conspiracy theories about secretly machinating cabals who either already control everything or are trying to control everything or—paradoxically—both; fantasies about alien beings with plans to pleromatically invade the Earth according to some timetable; and probably the most significant—and increasingly perilous—example in our era, the apocalypticism which millions and millions of Muslims believe literally and which has not been significantly modified or suffered much appreciable deterioration socio-psychologically from its pre-modern forms. I include this in my survey because the Islamic apocalypticism and the eschatology of which it is a component were drawn directly from Western mythologoumena; indeed, it seems in many instances Islamic texts (the Qur’an, the Ahadith and the Sira) preserve apocryphal fragments and variants of lore, fables and myths relating to Judaism, Christianity and Gnosticism that may have been otherwise lost.

All of these examples of post-modern apocalypticism tend to share the Gnostic pathos of contemptus mundi as well as its implicit or explicit arrow of eschatology pointing to an end of history and subsequent transfiguration of one sort or another, often involving—as all the classical apocalypses did—mass catastrophes of nature and warfare as death throes of the Cosmos.

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