In the New York Times today, philosopher Denis Dutton meditates on our cultural fondness for the apocalyptic:
We wallow in the idea that one day everything might change in, as St. Paul put it, the “twinkling of an eye” — that a calamity might prove to be the longed-for transformation. . . . Such entertaining visions owe less to scientific climatology than to eschatology, and that familiar sense that modernity and its wasteful comforts are bringing us closer to a biblical day of judgment.
While I agree with Dutton about eschatology, I would also ask: where does eschatology come from?
My answer: religious psychology.
In other words, when I read Dutton’s passing gloss on modernity’s “wasteful comforts” I hear the voice of John Calvin, and I think, not just of the collective sense that the capitalist system has something coming to it, but that we, individually—by our narcissistic participation in the system—have something coming to us. Our collective fascination with (and barely concealed desire for) apocalypse is the product of guilt that has gone unpunished. Put still differently:
- The apocalyptic fantasy conceals a wish for our own self-harm as a way to relieve sin.
We terrorize ourselves with Hell Mouth—and the fear of being eaten—-because we ourselves have “eaten” too indulgently, and so our training in religious altruism has met up with our oil and technology generated secular abundance. The result? On the one hand, we have aspects of our culture that display outrage and aggression toward outsiders, unapologetic consumerism, anti-ecological big car driving, overeating, gun ownership, and torture advocacy. On the other hand, we have aspects of our culture that show a masochistic obsession with apocalypse, terrorist attacks, conspiracy theories, and dieting. Apparently, these ridiculous alternations are what happen when people who feel themselves to be both the children of monotheism and secular modernism try to integrate these two contradictory ways of being in the world into some sort of emotional whole.
It ain’t always pretty.
Here’s some inanity exploiting people’s fears (from the History Channel):