A cold apocalyptic light

May 11th, 2019
by Chris

I spent most of last week at Peter Rollins’ “Wake” festival in Belfast. I can strongly recommend this yearly gathering of around 80 people interested in radical theology (and associated fields) to anyone who has a liking for thinking outside the theological box.

This year, the two main international speakers were Todd McGowan (a theorist working on generally left-leaning and postmodern topics, notably influenced by Jacques Lacan, and author of “Enjoying What You Don’t Have” and “Capitalism and Desire”) and Jamieson Webster (a practising psychoanalyist and author of “Conversion Disorder”, largely Freudian but also influenced by Lacan). The evening of day 1 saw a fascinating three way conversation between the two of them and Pete, largely focusing on the motif of conversion.

Todd, it turned out, has a pessimistic anthropology. He considers that we are not born free, but everywhere in chains as Rousseau famously remarked, but are born in chains and might aspire to become free, for some value of “free”, a conversion of some description, though preferably not one which exchanged one certainty for another. There was general agreement between the three of them that mankind suffers from a fundamental lack, as one might expect of three Lacanians.

We have, it seems in Lacanian terms, a disrupted set of drives, and Jamieson quoted Freud’s “Civilisation and it’s Discontents” to the effect that “something unhinges us and disrupts our libidinal system”; put in the terms of a motif of creation, we might see this as an outpouring of God into creation, but Todd insists that “something went wrong”. Between Pete and Todd, indeed, we had what was looking like the start of an emanationist creation story very much along the lines of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah or some strands of Gnosticism, in which the immensity of God is poured out into vessels which are incapable of containing the fullness of the Divine emanation. In Gnosticism, one of the first of these is the Demiurge, who thinks himself God as a result of this surplus of being (or power) and goes on to deceive us into neglecting the God-behind-God.

There seems to be a possibility that Meister Eckhart at the very least had elements of this thinking when he wrote “before creatures were, God was not God albeit he was Godhead which he gets not from the soul” (from Tractate XIX) and “When I go back into the ground, into the depths, into the wellspring of the Godhead, no-one will ask me whence I cam or whither I went. No-one missed me: God passes away” (from Sermon LVI). Indeed, Eckhart also wrote “The authorities teach that next to the first emanation, which is the Son coming out of the Father, the angels are most like God. And it may well be true, for the soul at its highest is formed like God, but an angel gives a closer idea of Him. That is all an angel is: an idea of God. For this reason the angel was sent to the soul, so that the soul might be re-formed by it, to be the divine idea by which it was first conceived. Knowledge comes through likeness. And so because the soul may know everything, it is never at rest until it comes to the original idea, in which all things are one. And there it comes to rest in God. “, so was definitely thinking in emanationist terms.

This is obviously fruitful ground for the mystics among us!

The overall impression I got between the three of them, though, was that we are congenitally in severe need of conversion, of a far-reaching overhaul of all of our psychology. That, I suppose, would agree well with the standard evangelical original sin -> fallen state -> need for salvation/metanoia paradigm (and I keep getting the feeling that some bits of Pete’s former protestant evangelicalism have not so much gone away as transformed into a slightly different form, a conversion which perhaps skates too close to exchanging certainties for my liking). Todd went on to reference as evidence of this collective lack of rationality the fact that we seem unable to form a sufficient consensus to act (to a large enough extent and soon enough) on climate change.

Now, I don’t know whether Todd used the words “end of the world” – my notes don’t include that, but my memory says that by the end of the discussion it had been used.

Even if we do absolutely nothing to combat climate change, of course, it will not be “the end of the world”; the planet will continue more or less unscathed. Even though we have already started a mass-extinction event, with the loss of countless species, it will also not mean the end of the natural world. What it will produce is widespread famine, the loss of huge areas of low-lying land (on which a substantial portion of the human population currently live) and mass migrations. Indeed, I’ve seen suggestions that the Syrian crisis, with its attendant refugees, can be blamed ultimately on drought and thus on climate change; so can a substantial proportion of the African refugees who regularly try to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Canada and Russia will gain quite a bit of cultivable land from the permafrost, but most of the rest of us will lose agricultural production.

The result will assuredly be a huge reduction in the human population attended by the wiping out of a lot of national borders, and in all probability the end of our current economic systems. “The end of civilisation” is a distinct possibility – but not the end of the world, except as we know it, and probably not even the extinction of humanity in its entirety. Probably not even reduction to as low a number as the 144,000 some of my more extreme Reformed friends talk of…

Having said all that, the thought crossed my mind that against the background of the impression that humanity was a possibly irremediable species, perhaps I should not be so concerned. Perhaps we deserve to die off… and given what we now know about evolution, species will evolve to fill the gaps left by the mass extinction, as they have many times previously.

The further thought crossed my mind as a follow up to that that we tend to think in an extremely anthropomorphic way. Thinking that the world comes to an end because our species is in some peril reflects this. Our religions tend to suggest that the whole thing was created so that we could exist and thrive.

But what if God created the world in order to form a habitat for, say, cockroaches? There are many more cockroaches on the planet than humans – indeed, studies have indicated that there may be a greater weight of cockroaches than humans, which at several thousand cockroaches per human is a sobering thought. They have most certainly been fruitful and multiplied. Cockroaches are also exceptionally durable – there is little or no doubt that they will survive any climate-change extinction; they are better fitted to a multitude of environments than is humanity.

Perhaps they (or some other insects) are actually the pinnacle of creation, and humanity is somewhere between a cosmic mistake (which is in line with what the panel were saying) and a means to an end to create a beneficial environment for the cockroaches?

Then again, perhaps it’s all designed to support viruses…

It would seem that those of us who take a similarly jaundiced view of anthropology (for instance, proponents of original sin) should perhaps pause for thought before welcoming the End Times…

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