Terrorism and the eschatological moment
The events of the last month, and especially scares about biological warfare, have made many people think about the possible end of the world. Such speculations are usually confined to the very old. Winston Churchill, in his last speech to the House of Commons, hinted at God becoming tired of his creation. The present Pope, ancient in years and wisdom, has wondered aloud how much longer God will tolerate the wickedness of his creatures. Astrophysicists agree that the world will end some day from purely natural causes, but they can't agree when, other than that it will be countless billions of years in the future. That is of little interest to us. The idea of the world gradually petering out at an unpredictable date in the unimaginable future carries no threat in the way that a decision by a supreme being to end humanity at a stroke — whether using crazed Muslim zealots or any other agency — makes most people tremble and think about things they prefer to push to the back of their minds.
Things such as: why am I here on Earth? Is there any purpose to my existence? What am I supposed to do with my life? Where can I go for guidance? Is there a God after all? Despite their feebleness, hypocrisy and divisions, are the Churches telling me something I ought to hear? If I am shortly to come to judgment, will I pass the test? And, if not, what can I do in the short time remaining to improve my chances?
The last question is the most pertinent. I remember hearing my grandfather, who radiated the commercial rectitude of Victorian Manchester, say that a man who felt he was approaching the end should make quite sure that all his debts were paid, as 'executors were often inexcusably dilatory in doing justice to creditors'. But this advice has little point if all of us are due for the chop. Dr Johnson, as his published prayers show, prepared for death every day of his life, and his last weeks merely intensified his fearful invocations. Jane Austen, too, knew that she was dying, though only in her early forties, and became more constant in her church attendance.
An interesting case was Andrew Carnegie, who came from nowhere in Scotland to amass the largest fortune in cash then known in America, the best part of half a billion dollars at 1900 values. A lifelong unbeliever, he had clear ideas about moral conduct. It was acceptable, he argued, for a man to accumulate an immense fortune by lawful means, but 'he who dies rich dies disgraced'. His last years, therefore, were spent disposing of it to a host of good causes, including supplying almost 5,000 organs to churches — an odd benefaction for an agnostic. But then the first world war, which turned so many against Christianity, had the opposite effect on Carnegie, shaking his rooted belief in irresistible human progress without benefit of a deity. The second world war had a similar effect on H.G. Wells, the title of whose last book, Mind at the End of its Tether, reflected his anguish. Almost his last act was to chalk up on the side of his house 'Time to Go'. But go where? Wherever it was, he seemed in a hurry. At the secular service before his cremation, as the congregation was assembling, someone inadvertently touched the button, and the coffin containing H.G.'s mortal remains slowly disappeared from human sight before the eulogiums could be pronounced — which many of the humanists present took to be a portent. But a portent of what?
The earliest Christians were quite clear that the end of the world and the 'Second Coming' were imminent, and prepared for the event accordingly. In the Dark and Middle Ages believers still assumed that the eschatological sequence — death, judgment, Hell and Heaven — was an actual future they had to face, and were reminded of it by wall paintings in the churches they attended. They saw futurity in exciting and colourful detail, and the prospect gave meaning to their lives even if it inspired fear too. But the fear was mitigated by the teaching that Christ was infinitely merciful and that his Passion and Death were the means by which redeeming Grace was made available to mankind. That was why the Crucifixion, and the events leading to it and from it, formed the central theme of European art until the end of the 17th century. In the life of a great artist such as Bernini, the work he created with his hands and brain and the faith which burned in his breast were inseparable. He went to Mass each morning, and in the evening, when it was too dark to work, he walked to the Gesir church in Rome to pray. His principal book of devotion — I think he knew most of it by heart — was Thomas a Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. When Bernini knew that he was dying, he placed at the foot of his bed a composition of the crucified Christ hovering over a sea of blood, his personal profession of faith that the world was cleansed of its evil by Christ's blood. His very last work was a tender little drawing of Christ as Salva
tor Mundi, now in Rome's Galleria Nazionale.
We cannot now hope for such a bona mors. The certitudes that enveloped Bernini have been undermined. Those of us who still believe in God and a new life to come do so with many unresolved questions in our minds. We have grown up in a thoroughly secularised and materialistic society, where the values of the world form the horizons of thought, and it is difficult to escape from the prison they constitute into the wider universe of infinity and eternity. I like passing from the busy street into the calm of a church because there I find completely different preoccupations and priorities, and people who share my thoughts and act as comforters by their mere presence, just as I, by being there, comfort them. I gaze around at the statues and the images in the stained-glass windows, and these, too, sometimes seem to me to be real persons, friendly and comforting, offering solace and reassurance from the other world, which they already inhabit and where they are preparing a welcome.
This is the faith I profess: a peaceful and equitable faith, threatening no one and loving to all, held strongly by only a minority, perhaps, but including all mankind in its promises, and looking to a future where all creation will be united in the glory of God — an instant of total happiness which, since time has stopped and space contracted into nothing, becomes a disembodied eternity.
But I am brutally reminded that the events which prompted this line of thought were the work of men whose faith is even more fervent, however misdirected it may be. Religious faith is creative and destructive — the redeeming blood of Christ is part of an enormous phenomenon of sacral forms, which include Moloch and the Juggernaut, fallen angels and Satanic forces, ziggurats and Aztec altars stained by the blood of countless victims. How exactly does Christ's sacrifice differ from theirs? I cannot pretend to answer such questions except by a further expression of faith. Nor can I explain, except by overwhelming conviction and intuition, why my faith is wholesome while the fanaticism that drives people to plot genocide against Israel, and now America and Britain — all who are 'Western' or 'White' indeed — is devilish. These are mysteries that only God can resolve. But we can pray, for enlightenment, justice and peace. And that is what I do, and many are doing, at this troubled time.