Through the Apocalyptic Glass

Through the Apocalyptic Glass
"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake".

We often hear that, as a human society, we are not prepared to face the challenges of the modern world. We hear this as a mantra when it comes to discussing issues like the future of AI or climate change. Our world, our societies, our legal systems, and our job markets are simply not prepared to face a global challenge.

I think the reason why it gets repeated like a mantra is because there is a lot of truth in it. Our nations, at least in the Western World, were designed, if at all, to solve 19th century problems, and respond to a series of challenges and narratives that belong to that period. Among other things, that is the era of the birth of what today we call nationalism, the idea of a nation as such is unquestionably a 19th century product. A Folk, a Nation, a Law and, more often than not, a God. If today those expressions sound terrifying to our ears it is because they were funneled in the totalitarian ultranationalisms that became the signature of the 20thcentury, a “Short Century” marked by the extremization of those narratives.

As a matter of fact, when the anarchist M. Bakunin had to write against the spirit of the modern nationalism, which for him was oppressive and local, as opposed to an internationalist idea that animated his and other forms of socialisms, he aimed at the Italian conspirator Giuseppe Mazzini, an important figure in the construction of the modern and unified Italian State. One of Mazzini’s favorite mottos was precisely «One Master, God; One Law, Progress; One Interpreter of God’s Law on Earth, the People».

Bakunin would have agreed with us: the modern world calls for a different kind of unification. What for him was the revolutionary task of the liberation of the oppressed strata of the population worldwide, what today we would call the “Wretched of the Earth”, for us is climate change. Bakunin repeats it over and over: until everyone is free, no one is free. It is, simply put, a challenge that cannot be faced from a nation-based paradigm.

My focus in this article is not to walk once again on this well-trodden path, but rather to offer a different point of view. Although is true that our nations are not designed to respond to global challenges, in the West there is an important element of our history that is, almost by definition, up for the task. I am talking about Christianity.

Let’s take a step back and have a look at the quickest and shortest history of biblical religions that you have ever seen. We have the Old Testament, what the Jews call Tanakh, in which God stipulates a covenant with one chosen people. Now this is already pretty awesome, in the old meaning of the word, as in something that inspires awe or dread, because classical gods were usually deployed in human contracts as sacred seals: they acted as awe-inspiring witnesses to guarantee the fulfillment of the contract by the two parties. Never before had a god personally established a covenant with a whole group of people. The nature of this pact is by definition exclusionary and self-exclusionary: the chosen ones are automatically granted an exclusive status that is manifested through God’s love, a love that is granted in exchange for exclusive worship. There is one more condition: the pact needs a token of recognition in the shape of a prepuce. In other words, the agreement gets inscribed in the male flesh as the world’s most binding signature. Needless to say, this is a very delicate covenant that gets betrayed by the people time and again, but a covenant, nonetheless.

At some point something really weird happens. Someone comes along with astonishingly good news: now everybody is part of the covenant. «Because all of you are one in the Messiah Jesus, a person is no longer a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a male or a female. And if you belong to the Messiah, then you are Abraham’s descendants indeed, and heirs according to the promise» (Gal. 3:28-29). This is unbelievable stuff.

In other words, if you believe that Mr. Jesus is the Christ, meaning that he came to redeem us from our sins, you are automatically a part of the covenant. At this point it doesn’t make any sense to distinguish between a slave of a free person, male or female. All these distinctions, all these exclusions, belong to the past, to a world of us and them: «For the Messiah is the culmination of the Law as far as righteousness is concerned for everyone who believes» (Rom. 10:4). The Law that came bundled up in the original and exclusionary covenant is now superseded. The incision in the flesh is thus pointless, Christ leaves his trademark signature in your soul in case you decide to accept it. In other words, if you believe in the Messiah, you’re good to go.

This is one of the most incredible affirmations of a universalistic thought of Antiquity. That is not to say it was the only one (most notoriously stoics had universalistic tendencies) but nothing like Paul, nothing like Christianity.

But the universality of this new phenomenon didn’t stop here. Already in the last book of the New Testament, in the Apocalypse of John, Christians started considering the problem of the end times: will Christ come back? Will he fight off the enemies? Will he usher us into a new world altogether? Lots of questions and tons of different answers that over the course of the centuries engendered what we now call the “apocalyptic tradition”.

This is where things get interesting. One of the defining features of the apocalyptic tradition is the concern with the so-called “universal history”. Christians and Jews alike are meant to live in a history that is defined from key-moments that beat the time of the drama of creation. Moments like Creation itself, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and, eventually, the Apocalypse, are like beats that mark the tempo of a journey that happens only once and it happens for everyone, no one excluded. In principle we are characters in a story that can be conceived as a unique history, the progress towards salvation. History in light of the biblical narrative, in contrast to Greek history, lives not only with its myths but rather in them: all history is sacred history, manifestation of God’s power. This is usually called the “exegetical mind”, which leads theologians of history to reinterpret every event in the light of the biblical myths, which in their totality constitute the sacred history. Every history, time as a whole, is therefore sacred. The historical significance of the myth draws its vital lymph from the fact that not only every victory, but also every defeat, that is, every punishment, is proof of the covenant and ultimately proof of God’s love for humanity.

To make a very long story short, the apocalyptic thrust that runs deep within Western thought and worldview is primarily concerned with the notion of world history as a whole. Now, obviously this idea of a “universal history”, piece de resistance of a long tradition of heavyweight philosophers like Kant or Hegel, is nowadays somewhat frowned upon due to the suspicion cast on by postmodern and especially postcolonial studies. Intellectuals from those ranks usually contend that the “universal” history, when the rubber meets the road, it just means a Western, white, male, heterosexual, etc. narrative. According to them there would be nothing universal about it, but rather just a small group speaking as if it was the whole.

But my point is that, although it is true that our legal systems are not designed to face global challenges, since they were bred of an era of fragmented nationalisms, our apocalyptic heritage does allow us to think globally, and it provides a useful framework to think about the future of humanity as a whole. And thanks to the magic of secularization, we don’t need the actual theological content, made of Second Coming, Redemption, and whatnot, to make the apocalyptic machine run smoothly. We can forsake all that and keep the framework: the time that humanity seems to have left is not much, or at least is deemed as not enough. It seems like our world is subjected to an incoming deadline, and, in a true apocalyptic spirit, our actions matter. Without getting into too many details, apocalyptic thought is not necessarily a top-down game: humans get a say in it, both in terms of withholding and speeding up the end. If it sounds familiar is because it is. Through the apocalyptic glass it is possible to get the sense that we are part of a universal history that goes beyond national frontiers, that we are characters, although not necessarily protagonists, in a much bigger drama which endgame is ever to be written.