I hear that it boasts the highest viewership in the history of its hosting network. Amazing, isn’t it? That they would be interested, much less fascinated, in what happens on their pitiful planet long after they have been wiped off its face. And yet they are fascinated in it. Somehow, it matters to them.
Yes, for mortals it is natural to wonder, “How will it end?” While it is generally best to steer them from serious contemplation on metaphysical matters altogether, we have found that provoking their curiosity in eschatology can be quite effective.
Such was not always the case. After that Patmos exile penned his nasty little fantasy about our defeat in a future epic battle, many of our would-be “delicacies” threw in their lot with the tale’s Victor—despite his demonstrated ineptitude in real life to vanquish the lesser foes of poverty, persecution, and plague!
Their gullibility for that prattle caused us to play “catch up” for centuries. In fact, it wasn’t until the middle of the last century that things began to turn in our favor again.
When the atomic bomb was dropped it produced one of the highest yields of human loss for any single event in history and, consequently, one of the most prodigious immigrations ever experienced down here. As joyous of an occasion as that was, the more significant outcome was the effect it had on confidence and age-old certainties.
In the decades preceding the War, the successes of the scientific age created unprecedented optimism for the future. As man’s technological achievements mounted, so did his confidence that his mastery over nature would lead to an era of ballooning progress. But when his ultimate mastery resulted in the annihilation of two cities and hundreds of thousands of people, it deflated the belief that technical wizardry would usher in the utopian age.
Had the Bomb accomplished nothing more, our situation today would be most dire. For the aim of all our schemes is to feed their hubris until they are so absorbed by what they can accomplish and will accomplish, that their thoughts of Him evaporate behind the fancies of their self-sufficiency.
Consequently, there were a lot of nervous ninnies down here after the War. But a few visionaries, like yours truly, saw a way to gain advantage and wrench victory out of apparent defeat.
I was the first to recognize that disenchantment had been building for decades. The Great War, the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the persistent issues of poverty, crime, and hunger each cast a pall over the “modern moment.” I also recognized that their optimism had been founded on trust—trust in the omnipotence of science, trust in the objectivity of experts, and trust in the integrity of authorities.
As confidence in the triumvirate began to erode, so did confidence in the cohering principle of universal truth. And that presented us with an exceptional opportunity to dust off the relativism of Gorgias and put a postmodern sheen on it.
When I laid out the plan before the theater commanders, they instantly saw its merits but none, not even I, imagined the rapidity of its success.
As soon as the artists, poets, and musicians fell under our spell, the collapse of Truth was inevitable. The cynicism wafting out of their coffee houses spread quickly to academia, inspiring a new generation of philosophers whose ideas eventually caught on (quite unexpectedly!) in the seminaries and the Church through the energies of theologians and clergy who were concerned about “keeping up with the times.” Little did they realize that to keep up with the times they would travel back 2,500 years to the salons of the Sophists.
Once the acid of relativism worked its way through culture, it left, as one of the avant-garde put it, “a shattered and deserted stage, without a script, director, prompter, or audience, [where] the actor is free to improvise his own part.”
Free, indeed! Free from any fixed purpose, meaning, or direction. Free to follow their creature instincts—instincts that we have been attending to and nurturing ever so patiently. In short, free to be our slaves, whose only real freedom is choosing how they will cope with their absurd existence. Will they ignore it, end it, or embrace the irony of it all, like one tortured soul who quipped:
More than at any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
Do you feel that, Swillpit? Cloaked in comedic insouciance is the torment of a man not knowing yet wanting to know, but, having lost hope in certain knowledge, grasping at anything that will make not knowing tolerable, even the laughter of others.
Since one of the things they most want to know is how it will end, many are drawn to doomsday scenarios and their Hollywood depictions, which proliferate according to the fear du jour.
In the flying saucer mania of the ‘50s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and War of the Worlds captured public fears of aliens and an Armageddon showdown. During the ‘60s, Cold War anxieties over a nuclear holocaust gave birth to Fail-Safe and On the Beach. More recently, films like Dante’s Peak, Deep Impact, and The Day After Tomorrow bowed to the devastating power of nature delivered by a cataclysmic asteroid, a supervolcano, climate change. The Matrix, I Robot, and Terminator suggested the takeover of earth by artificial intelligence. Outbreak and Epidemic insinuated an eschaton brought on by malevolent microbes. And those are but a small sample.
Although Hollywood has not kept pace, some of the more current and exotic speculations include a gamma ray burst from a supernova, a massive cosmic wind from a solar flare, and an annihilating encounter with black hole or “strange” matter.
Amazingly, the descent from modernism to relativism to nihilism to doomsday-ism took a mere few decades, in no small measure because of the quick and clear-headed thinking of your mentor, me. In fact, my work was deemed so vital in this masterstroke, that I was bestowed the coveted “Tempter of the Year” award at the annual stygian banquet. Yet how quickly appreciation in Hell fades, as I remain the pedagogue of slack-jawed greenhorns, like...uh, like I was saying...
The popularity of these scenarios is due to their urge to know not only how it will end, but what will remain afterward. And be assured, something always remains—a resourceful couple or group on whose shoulders rest the responsibility of re-building civilization, one better than the previous; a lower life form that will come through the crisis more fit, thereby becoming the evolutionary progenitor of a more robust ecosphere and planet; or lifeless monuments that will stand long enough for man’s achievements to be discovered, appreciated and recorded by visiting extraterrestrials.
Cheerfully, none of the popular depictions involve a moment of moral reckoning, a Record-keeper, a Judge, or a conscious afterlife to assign meaning to their existence. Their only hope of significance is to become a link in the evolutionary chain of progress by passing on a gene, a footprint, a memory.
Your man’s recent interest in Life After People may signal that he is rounding the corner from spiritualism toward nihilism. If so, your work to nudge him from the meaninglessness of his sister’s unexpected death to the meaninglessness of everything has been more fruitful than I have given you credit.
You certainly want to keep him on this trajectory. As I have counseled you before, nourish his existential angst by guiding his reflective moments toward the cold, impersonal universe in which he finds himself—a place unguided and unattended, where the senseless havoc created by earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornadoes demolishes those infantile notions of watchful Benevolence; a place where he, and he alone, must define the purpose of his existence.
So by all means, encourage his fascination with “the end.” Put him on to every novel scenario peddled by the doomsday merchants until one hits the emotional beat that harmonizes with his internal sense of things. Then, with minor murmurings here and there, you can guide him to a life-purpose that he will think came from him, but in fact, came straight from the unhallowed halls of Hell.
Your Prodding Pedagogue,
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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