The End of History

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.

Bob Dylan

DaisyAdOk. 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?

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    I received in the post a 8 page newsletter written by an old friend that I haven´t seen or heard from for over 30 years. In it he is speculating that all these end of the world themes will start around 2012-15 and then the end will come around 2030. I emailed him back and wished him a blessed long life that he will see all these events…he will be 86 or 86 in 20 yrs . My main theme back to him that I now live a life of daily repentance and faith in Christ, and the eucharist, the body and blood, gives me that blessed hope that I am in Christ and Christ is in me.

    I haven´t back from this old friend.

  2. says

    It is sad when the glorious hope we have in Christ is minimized to end of the world themes. That someone could imagine it possible to write novels about the revelation of our Lord and God is perhaps among the saddest turn of events. It’s one thing when the faith is not proclaimed at all, but perhaps worse when what is proclaimed is vapid.

  3. asiaticus says

    “Before the ending of the day…” Indeed, Father, our culture(s) is(are) permeated with false apocalypses that seem to doom men to a godless After. Modern, post-modern societies and civilisations are projecting their own inner void into the future and this moulds their apprehensions concerning this After. The hope for a future life in God is blurred and deformed into the illusion of pagan gotterdammerung, ragnarok. But we Christians must strive to cling to this one hope, however desperate it may seem, that Christ is Risen, and not only, is He the Risen but also the King who comes in glory to judge the quick and the dead. “The King before the ages” as the Akathist to Our Lord sings, comes triumphing. Maybe should we meditate on the mystery of Christ’s eternal Kingship and be more conscious of the Gift given at Liturgy, as Father says, and this would help us and give us inward hope.

  4. says

    Asiaticus

    Well said. “Projecting their own inner void into the future life in God.” This conjures the stories I’ve read of the fall of Berlin with the Russian army closing in, Hitler commands (from his hole in the ground) that the Berlin Philharmonic give a performance of the Gotterdammerung. State craft as grand opera.

  5. asiaticus says

    Wow! That must have been something: the smoke and music rising as a sinister sacrifice in a bloodied twilight. I must confess myself to be a fan of Wagner’s music(but not of the ideology). Have you noticed, Father, how people, on the strength of some dry physical laws or unlaws, also think the world to be devoid of order and ceremonial. I’m always impressed when i read how Byzantine court ritual was so ordered as to try to reflect the Celestial order. Maybe God has ordained an order, a ritual, a ceremonial for the Universe, of which the Creation, Fall,Sacred History,the Incarnation, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection were such sublime dramatic parts that presaged an even greater and more glorious Finale in which all will be laid bare and He shall reign for ever and ever. Forgive my lack of articulation but i hope you see what i mean.

  6. Moretben says

    One of my favourite quotes from Dylan is something he said to a journalist several years ago, when asked about how he understood his faith:

    “I believe the songs”.

    Me too. Lex orandi, lex credendi

  7. says

    Fr. Stephen,

    I don’t think it betrays your age at all! I’m a huge fan of Dylan & I’ve only been on this earth a little while.
    One thing I’ve noticed about Orthodoxy is that while it does give attention to the ‘end of things’, it is always in quite a vague sense. By this, I mean compared to, for example, Roman Catholicism, which if I have understood correctly has a doctrine of actual fire in purgatory and/or hell. Is this apparent vagueness a misunderstanding on my part, or just in line with the broader Orthodox attitude to ‘mystery’?

    Marigold.

  8. says

    I have long thought that Dylan wrote far beyond his understanding – as if he had plugged into something else. That same phenomenon turned him into a cultural “prophet,” a role he has always refused (to his credit). It’s a hard place to be and save your soul at the same time.

  9. says

    The mystery of the end, like all the greatest mysteries, is often understated in Orthodoxy, and yet, if you know it, it can be heard in every syllable. I understand indeed what you are saying.

  10. Theo says

    Reminded me of another Dylan line: “well it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

  11. Steve says

    Reminded me of this line:

    “You can fool all the people some of the time… but you can’t fool all the people all the time. I think Abraham Lincoln said that.”

    Bob Dylan

  12. Theo says

    “The only thing we knew about Henry Porter was that his name wasn’t Henry Porter”

  13. Benjamin says

    Fr. Stephen,

    These are profound thoughts. Your comments on the Eucharist are especially fascinating to this evangelical (where the meal is usually treated as something far less than even a “memorial”). I have come to appreciate, admire, and learn from Orthodoxy in many ways. I know this is off topic, but do you feel that Orthodoxy can glean anything at all from evangelicalism?? I am interested to hear your thoughts. Thank you for your blog.

    Benjamin

  14. says

    There are Orthodox who come from an Evangelical background – and I’m sure that there are things that they have found useful. Though I suspect that these things had to be “reappropriated” with an Orthodox understanding.

    For instance, the Biblical familiarity of many evangelicals is, of course, helpful. Though the Scriptures frequently have to be reappropriated. But this is true of our lives. Who I am is crucified in Christ – nevertheless I live. It’s a mystery.

    Orthodoxy once existed without any other kind of Christians around them and possessed a fullness. In that sense, there was nothing lacking. The fragmentation of Western Christianity has left its component parts with pieces of a puzzle and sometimes less than that.

    But God, I do not think, does not waste anything good. Whatever is good is His. If one has a heart for God, that is of use at all times and places. I have known many Evangelicals whose heart for God was truly great. I admire them and believe God’s favor rests with them. My father-in-law was a Baptist deacon, and one of the greatest men of prayer I’ve ever known. His life was a living praise of Jesus Christ. I rejoice in my relationship with him (He died three years ago).