The first part of this article is from one of my earliest posts. Appended to it are some current reflections. If it was worth reading the first time…
O, Mama, can this really be the end?
To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again.
Ok. I’ll confess it right up front – I’m a Dylan fan. It shows my age and generation. My children have had to learn to put up with his voice, but more than that, to put up with a parent who seems to find lines from Dylan songs that fit almost anything – at least anything significant. It must be ok. One of my daughters took me to my first Dylan concert as a gift. And I took my youngest to her first Dylan concert as a gift to her. There’s nothing liked shared pleasures with your children!
I read a review recently of Dylan: The Essential Interviews. In it, the reviewer says of Dylan: “…he started off singing about the end of the world, and he ended up adopting the theological beliefs that made sense of his musical prophesying.” The comment made me realize much of what I enjoyed about Dylan. His sense of the “end of things” (it is indeed a frequent theme in his lyrics) inevitably gives meaning to the songs themselves. Because, in the end – it is only in the end that anything has meaning.
Back at the fall of the Soviet Union, the historian, Francis Fukuyama, spoke about “the End of History.” Such would have been possible (one supposes) if the end of the Soviet Union had meant an end that carried meaning. But, as it is, the end has not been much of anything.
I used to ponder (in my college years) what the end of the Soviet Union might mean. I was reading a lot of Solzhenitsyn at the time – not to mention a heavy diet of 19th century Russian writers. I was able to imagine an end that would mean the beginning of a new spiritual rebirth for the whole of the West. But I probably had higher hopes in the spiritual resources of Russia, and seriously underestimated the power of our own vapid commercialism.
The great battle in the West today is not about democracy (though we are told democracy is what it’s all about), but about the end of history. For democracy, and the freedom it presumes, has no meaning unless it has an end in mind. Freedom is useless if it is not freedom for something.
I went shopping this afternoon (or, more accurately, I accompanied my wife and daughter as they went shopping). I had a lot of extra time on my hands – time to stand outside and think. I don’t smoke anymore so thinking is about all that’s left to me. Looking at the newly constructed vast commercial enterprise that has recently been driving our shopping malls out of business (it is a massive commercial development on the West end of Knoxville – I suppose it has clones all over the country but it is a wonder to behold), I could not help but ask, “Why?” What are we shopping for? For what end? And Dylan came echoing into my head, “Can this really be the end?”
For us to survive as a culture for any serious length of time it will be necessary for us to be able to answer the question: For what end? Militant Islam has an answer to the question and not the answer we would choose. But no answer is not the answer.
Christianity is inherently eschatological – it is precisely about the end of things and about a very specific end. The meaning of Orthodox worship is found in the fact that we believe ourselves to be standing in the very end of all things as we celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Even the Second Coming is referred to in the past tense. The End has come and Christ is victorious and as His people, Baptized into His death and resurrection, that End is our hope and our own victory.
But democracy and freedom for the sake of commercial enterprise are not the same thing and they will consistently prove insufficient for us as a nation and as a people. One of the stores we visited this afternoon was inexplicably decorated with crosses. Jewelry – crosses with clocks in them – crosses that were just pieces of wall art. One splatter of crosses had words scattered among them. One of the words, “Indulge,” stood out. If the cross has become one more bit of art to indulge, then the End will never come. We’ll be stuck inside of Mobile for ever so long, with only the Memphis blues. We will be stuck in one place wishing we were somewhere else while the End of history never comes to redeem the time in which we live. Can this really be the end?
Every age in the West seems to have its own mythology – particularly its own version of the apocalypse. We live in a culture that has enough of a Christian basis that the idea of an apocalyptic end to things is a significant idea even for some of the most hard-bitten secularists. One manifestation of this is that things are important – particularly if they can be described in apocalyptic terms.
As I wrote above – it is the end of a matter which gives meaning to the thing itself (or so it seems to our Western mind). I do not deny this – its truth is an inherent part of my Orthodox Christian faith. But just so, it is important to ask about the end of things and how that end relates to us.
I take it as a given that there are many false ends – both religious and non-religious. There are many ways that we seek to describe the world, and its end, in order to understand where we are, why we are, and why others should agree with us about both. It is thus that political parties, frequently in their most strident elements, describe one another in apocalyptic terms. A president of the opposite party whom one opposes is not just a poor choice, but is “the worst president in history.” The other party’s candidate is a threat to the entire American Way of Life. I am sure that such conversations can be extended and found elsewhere across the globe (though not necessarily everywhere).
Current apocalyptic imagery includes mysterious musings about the year 2012. I lived through the end of the world in 2000 when computers across the world were supposed to fail and bring civilization as we know it to an end. I was not very well prepared.
Current interest in climate politics generally describes the threats to the environment in apocalyptic terms. I grant the possibility, even the inevitability of radical climate change. It’s something that happens on this planet from time to time regardless of the culprits. But, it is not the apocalypse. It is, to quote the title of a book, an “inconvenient truth.” How inconvenient is a matter of conjecture. My guess is that it will be worse than those who oppose the idea will admit and not as bad as its apocalyptic preachers predict.
My concern as a believing Christian is the creation of a false apocalypse. The meaning of the world is not to be found in avoiding radical climate change. It would be a good thing if it is possible – but it is not the defining apocalyptic event by which all life must be judged. Even Christian rhetoric on the environment would do well to speak in measured terms and be wary of the abuse of apocalyptic imagery.
There is a very grounded understanding of the end of things within the Tradition of the Church. It is not an end that will be understood outside of the life of the Church – or not well understood. Our faith is that Christ is the End of things (He is also the Beginning – the “Alpha and Omega” in the words of Scripture). His life, death and resurrection are the meaning and definition of history. They, in some sense, precede all history, occur within history, and summarize and complete all history.
A purely linear approach to the end of things (such as is common in fundamentalist protestantism) does not comprehend the fullness of Christ as the beginning, middle and end of all things. The end of the world is simply a culmination of events – which many fundamentalists believe can be predicted through a study of “Biblical prophecy.” We have passed so many failed predictions within my lifetime that I wonder at the power of such predictions to sustain themselves.
A proper Christian understanding of the “end of things” sees Christ triumph over history as well as over sin and death. Thus, every week I stand at the end of all things as I stand at the Holy Altar and offer the Holy Eucharist. To not see this meal as the end of all things, the Messianic Banquet, is to miss a large part of the meaning, power and presence of the Eucharist itself. Thus for many Christians, the meal is only a memorial, an action as trapped within history as they imagine to be the very event which they memorialize. For the same reason the elements of bread and wine cannot be understood by them as the “Body and Blood of Christ.” For if this meal is a true participation in His body and blood, then how is this not the end of all things?
The Christian life is formed and shaped by the risen Christ (or it is misformed and misshapen). The Christian life formed by an ending that is other than Christ will have an apocalyptic shape – but only the apocalypse of modern mythology. Such mythologies abound – some even find intersection with appropriate Christian concerns. But such concern does not and should not raise them to the level of apocalypse. It is Christ Himself who is that which shall be revealed and has been revealed and is revealed even now. Let us keep the feast.
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