Reflections on the Fascination of Apocalypse

Our culture generates countless end-of-the-world scenarios, countless representations of apocalypse. They can be settings for comedy or drama or horror; they can also be incitements to political, ecological or religious mobilization. At one level we know very well what it is to contemplate the violent unravelling of cosmic and social order. We are readily conversant with the eruption of previously undisclosed destructive forces, whether in nature, in the hearts of men, or at the instigation of supernatural beings – typically not divine beings, exactly, but rather their culturally approved avatars: mutants or cyborgs or aliens, powerful, mysterious agents of retribution. The-end-of-the-world is in fact something like a permanently available frame of reference, capable at any time and in varying degrees of becoming the context for explorations of the human condition. Apocalypse, if not always now, is always somehow pending. It is the unforeseeable yet always foreseen horizon of life-as-we-know-it: at once feared and cherished. And our fascination with apocalypse also circulates more remotely through other cultural preoccupations: the simultaneous attraction and repugnance we feel towards violence as both entertainment and punishment; our inchoate sense of guilt; our anxieties both to master and to protect the environment; our hope (for every apocalypse brings with it a hero of some kind) but also our pessimism and even fatalism. The pervasive fluency we display in imagining apocalypse makes it a cliche. It is exhilarating, it is perhaps sometimes genuinely revealing, but it is also often embarrassingly melodramatic, even vulgar.

And this in turn can’t help affecting how we hear and appropriate apocalyptic passages in the Scriptures. The endless borrowing and elaboration of such words and ideas, in largely post-Christian contexts, unavoidably infiltrates the impact they make, when we attempt to hear them once more as sacred, as revelation, as utterances of God in Christ. What would it be to purify them of all these secularizing, de-Christianizing associations? How can we avoid this aspect of revelation becoming just one more iteration of the apocalyptic destiny which so preoccupies us? What would a properly and fully Christian reading of such passages be like?

Underlying that question is the enormously complex issue of the relations of Christianity to culture.  More specifically, there’s the question of how cultural forms of understanding shape our religious understanding and imagination, in ways which we perhaps only very imperfectly perceive. Undoubtedly they must shape it – there couldn’t be any such thing as men and women existing in a purely religious, culturally disembodied state. But in considering this we need to avoid extremes, assuming neither that cultural influence upon Faith is necessarily malign, nor that a fully integrated Christian culture was once, or in the future could be, a reality. No culture of which we are aware, and perhaps none of which we can realistically conceive, adequately embodies or reflects the Gospel.

So perhaps the most that we can hope for in thinking about Christianity and culture is to become less naive. We cannot let ourselves assume that a culture is Christian because it proclaims itself to be so; we should rather press the question of where it fails to be. And conversely, we should not assume that a culture is non-Christian or post-Christian just because this is often said of it; in some ways, undoubtedly, it will be true, but in other ways perhaps not.

Christ does not, I think, ask us to endorse or condemn cultures. He asks that we seek to understand them, so that we can participate in them and reform them, always in His light, and above all so that we can pray for them. This is always and necessarily unfinished business. Is this perhaps in part what He means when He says that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”? Christ’s words question and break open, disclosing both the truth, and also the limitations and transience, of every worldly order.

That is why contemporary cultural fascination with apocalypse presents both an opportunity and a temptation for the interpretation of apocalyptic passages in the Scriptures. But it is a very interesting and significant fact that similar opportunities and temptations also existed at the time the Scriptures were actually composed. In ways perhaps not wholly different from our own, the religious culture which produced the later Old Testament writings was intensely preoccupied with apocalypse. And scholars tell us that New Testament apocalyptic language reproduces these pre-Christian, specifically Jewish, poetic and dramatic representations of the ‘end times’. What are we to make of this?

One way of responding would be to say that Christ is the fulfilment of pre-Christian expectations, and this explains why the New Testament writers, in showing Him as such, sometimes use the inherited imagery and ideas in which that expectation was expressed. And that seems right. But we need in turn to avoid the danger of thereby fitting Christ too neatly into pre-Christian categories, as if the only difference He made was as the missing piece in an otherwise completed jigsaw. Shouldn’t the Incarnate Word of God have a more radical impact than that? In His light, doesn’t everything get transformed, including the questions we thought we were asking, the patterns we thought we had discerned, the kinds of answer we were expecting? And this transforming impact applies just as much to His first disciples, including the Evangelists and other New Testament writers, as to ourselves. In this way Christ goes beyond mere ‘fulfilment’ or ‘completion’. From this perspective, whatever came before Christ, including the apocalyptic expectations recorded in the Gospels, might indeed be used to speak of Him, but not necessarily in an absolutely definitive way, for in Christ everything has to be taken up towards unforeseen horizons and subjected to radical transformation.

So now we can ask, when we listen read the Gospels, whether we perhaps hear the Evangelist using language which is in transition: trying to express what he has learned from Christ and about Christ, and doing so by drawing upon already existing images and ideas, and therefore in language that had not yet fully caught up with what had happened, which had not yet been fully purified and transformed by the One of Whom it speaks.

At the deepest level, this question goes beyond apocalyptic language in particular: it has to do with all human language used to speak of God.

We try to speak of God, which means speaking of Christ; we try to express His uniqueness, which means the difference He makes to everything. Now what else can we do, except use words that we already have, words therefore not yet touched by Christ’s transforming presence, and in using them try to let them be, over time, made new in Him?

Scripture, of course, gives us not just any words, but special words, privileged words, what we call inspired words. This means that it gives us words with which, and in which, our learning to speak of Christ is intended by God to unfold. But does the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures imply that for the Evangelists and other New Testament writers the learning was over, the unfolding complete, by the time they came to write as they did? Perhaps, instead, the Gospels show us the sacred writers in the process of learning to speak of Christ, each one out of his own context and from his own perspective – inspired, yes, but also, inescapably, limited?

Perhaps. But why would God choose to inspire writings in which we are shown a process of learning? Wouldn’t He be more likely to inspire writings which show us something fully and definitively learned? Well, maybe the answer is that being shown the process of learning is very important for us, important enough for God to inspire it. Christ reveals God, and God always exceeds what we can say of Him, even when what we say is according to His inspiration. Perhaps God’s transcendence of every human way of speaking and thinking about Him is a very valuable thing for us to be shown, a very valuable thing for us always to recall. Maybe that is why we have four different Gospels, rather than just one. And why, in addition to the Gospels, we have other New Testament writings, once again very diverse in context and perspective. Most importantly, perhaps this is why the Catholic Church has always insisted that it is in the Church and by the Church that the Scriptures have to be read.

Because it was, after all, in the Church that the New Testament itself was inspired. The process of learning to use human words to unfold the mystery of Christ is a process which did not begin in the inspired writings, but in the Church. The writings originated in the Church and were only one of the ways in which she sought to give expression to her unfolding understanding of the mystery of Christ. And this unfolding understanding not only pre-existed the New Testament writings, it also continued after them, and in fact continues still. It does so in various fundamental ways, one of which is the Church’s on-going reading and interpretation of the New Testament writings themselves. And just as the Church’s production of the Scriptures was the work of a community of interpretative learning, so too is her reading and interpretation of them. These are all aspects of a vast unfolding process, which in this life, at least, is never complete: the process of learning and teaching how to speak of God in Christ.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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