Apocalyptic Thought on the Rampage
Michael Grosso, Ph.D.

While American troops were massing for an assault on Baghdad, Saddam Hussein was invoking God against his Satanic Majesty George W. Bush. Saddam also ranted against the elder Bush during the previous war, calling him “Satan in the White House.”

Our own leaders haven’t exactly been light on chiliastic bombast. In fact, American power is quite at home with religious rhetoric. It was only recently that John Ashcroft proclaimed that Jesus is the real “King” of America or that General William Boykin announced that “the enemy is a guy called Satan” and “they’re after us because we’re a Christian nation.”

This link between violence and religion needs to be underlined, especially when we catch it growing in our own backyard. During a TV interview in October 2003, evangelist Pat Robertson wasn’t kidding when he said the State Department should be blown up by a nuclear device.

So, is this just rhetorical icing or a symptom of a real clash of civilizations? Neither, in my opinion. There is, however, a certain mentality common to Islamic and Christian extremists: call it apocalyptic, a collective way of imagining the world, and there is the danger. It has a long and complicated history and dates back to the Persian prophet Zoroaster. The real clash is not between Islam and Christianity but between the higher spirituality of both cultures and their belligerent shadow sides.

The tricky point is that Zoroaster invented a new conception of time: History is no longer a nightmare where everything compulsively repeats itself -- it becomes creative drama and something new and wonderful is coming. This is possible because God has a plan and the plan is that the world is going to end with a bang where Evil Itself will be crushed out of existence. According to this alluring fantasy, heaven and earth will be transformed along with humanity itself, and life will be prosperous, safe, and purged of evil.

The Jewish prophets borrowed and adapted these ideas from Zoroaster. Isaiah imagined that the lion will lie down with the lamb when the day of reckoning comes. Perhaps the most influential take on the myth is the Christian Book of Revelation. “And God will wipe away all tears,” we read in this scripture, “and death will be no more.” A cheery message for the downtrodden, the miserable, the hopeful.

Now what I’m pointing to -- this vision of cosmic transformation -- has spawned numerous movements and revolutions down the centuries. (See Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium.) And it’s been through many changes. In the Middle Ages it was tied to current historical events, sparking five centuries of mystic insurrections. Then the myth went secular. The 18th century philosophes converted the apocalypse into the idea of progress, replacing God with Science, Reason, and Technology. Karl Marx pictured the millennium as a classless society after the final clash of proletariat and bourgeoisie.

Now let’s suppose that two nations, or cultures or religions, share as part of their history the same apocalyptic mindset. In the event of major conflict, each side would view itself as embodying God’s will and the other as pure evil. In such a setup, it’s easy to justify the most inhuman atrocities. 9/11 is a case in point. On the other hand, Bush junior justified his Iraq war (surely a form of terrorism) by falsely linking al Qaeda and the Iraqi government.

I have yet to mention the most disturbing mutation of the apocalyptic mind. Enter the age of techno-apocalypse. By that I mean something very specific -- we acquire the technical expertise to destroy life on a grand, apocalyptic scale. Humans can play God or represent themselves as the avenging angels of God. The events of 9/11 leave no doubt that some people feel justified, according to their view of the world, to use any technical means available to inflict terrorist havoc on vast numbers of innocent human beings.

This combination of technology and apocalyptic madness is a worrisome thing; I see no reason to think it will go away. What can we do about it? It is, after all, beliefs that justify and inspire the use of murderous technology. For one thing, there’s no use feeding the fantasy our opponents already have that we are Satan’s minions. The more power we use against the fanatics who hate us, the more we pump up their apocalyptic convictions. Every Muslim we kill is another reason for them to demonize us, and as long as they demonize us, they will think nothing of using suicide as a weapon of mass destruction, a religious duty amply to be rewarded in heaven.

In the long run, the only hope is to alter these inhuman forms of consciousness. But how? In my millennial fantasy, America would lead the planet in the pursuit of justice, not profit. We need to be a model for the nations we hope to convert to democracy; as the Chinese wisdom masters knew, people are inspired by example. When we use our superior military might preemptively, we only justify apocalyptic malice. Ditto when we lie to ratify a murderous war against the Iraqi people.

In the long run, if we want to defuse the dangers of techno-apocalypse, we should de-literalize the myth we inherit from the Book of Revelation. The word apocalypse means “unveiling.” What we need is to unveil ourselves to ourselves: make friends with the angels and devils inside us. In short, enough of dualistic moralizing, enough of demonizing others; better to focus on our own projections. We’d all be a lot better off if we turned from Saint John’s call to arms to the Buddha’s call to conquer the lower self.

About the Book of Revelation, by the way, which is the darling of the Christian right, I made a fascinating discovery. I was unable to find the word “love” anywhere in it. The one exception was to praise those who didn’t “love their lives” and had the courage to be martyrs. The truth is that the Book of Revelation is not about love. The operative word I found everywhere is power. For example, in chapter 2 we read: “And he that overcomes, and keeps my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations. And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers.” Could this be the Jesus we know from the gospels? How would he differ from Genghis Khan or Adolf Hitler?
 
Michael Grosso, Ph.D. is the author of the new Paraview Pocket Books release Experiencing the Next World Now. He has taught philosophy and the humanities at Kennedy University, City University of New York, and New Jersey City University. He is on the Board of Directors of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, and is working with the Esalen Center of Theory and Research on a consciousness research project. His previous books include The Millennium Myth and Soulmaking.
 

 

 
 

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