Sunday, 18 March 2012

Sunday Sermon: Eschatology

Everything, infinite, ineffable and inescapable, I offer my words humbly before your general awesomeness, with integrity and ernest hope that they be true and helpful to those who read them. If my words miss the mark of the moment, and not be of use, may they be dismissed with good humour. So be it.

'Eschatology', in theology, means 'the doctrine of last things'. Most of its content in practice is not about finality however but merely about future events. Eschatology is a fascination and sometimes unhealthy obsession of many religious traditions, and I think it's fair to say that every religion ties its narrative of meaning up with conceptions of that which is to come to some extent or another.

Ironically perhaps it is secular science, armed as it is with hitherto unconsidered aeons of time and the law of entropy, which actually offers us a final moment, when all is done, when things really do cease to happen, when black holes are the only stellar bodies left, drifting apart in an endlessly diluting ether of nothing more complex than a positron. That will be in about (let me spell the number out), 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years, according to my current cosmology text, David Christian's Maps of Time. Whatever, really.

Perhaps a more practical number is 3,000,000,000 years, by which time the Earth will be uninhabitable by virtue of an expanding sun, but even this relatively humble number is a bit 'whatever' to human consciousness. By that time God will have moved on, one way or another.

Just incidentally, 3 billion years is about the time that life has been knocking about on Earth so far. All possibilities of premature demise notwithstanding, the living Earth is about middle aged.

As with other religions, it's the next 10, 100 and 1000 years that are much more interesting, and where any eschatological fears, anxieties, hopes and excitements generally reside.

In that famously overplayed Led Zeppelin song we are told that "there are two paths you can go by, and in the long run there's still time to change the road you're on." The 'two possible paths' theme is everywhere you look in the theologies of the world: 'heaven and hell', 'New Jerusalem and Babylon', 'final victory and utter vanquishment', 'apocalypse and utopia'. So much of our intellectual and emotional vocabulary has apparently evolved around a dualistic view of the future, despite the ultimate intellectual indefensibility of said dualism, that I would wager that it is at some level hardwired into our cerebral equipment. Like tribalism, sexism and indeed ignorance itself, I suspect that this dualistic reflex tendency to believe things in starkly polar ways is something that cultural practice can overcome.

David Christian's aforementioned 'modern cosmology' offers us an interesting observation about civilisation's more immediate (next few centuries) futures. "It is easy" he says, "to imagine catastrophic scenarios brought about by nuclear or biological warfare, or ecological disaster, or perhaps even a collision with a large asteroid." "Almost as easy", he suggests, is it to envision "utopian scenarios" where many of the world's problems are solved, the population has stabilised with the universalisation of education, and sustainable technologies have delivered a reasonable sort of life for all.

But then he makes this poignant observation: "it is the in-between scenarios that are both most likely and most difficult to imagine." I'm just going to leave that one with you.

Philosophically, The House of Everything believes in free will, but it is not just a philosophical matter. If we have choice and agency, and our choices and agencies might be shoulders to the wheel of one possible future or another, then articulating desired futures, and futures we may wish to avoid, becomes a very practical activity.

Inevitably given my protestant beginnings I find myself pondering the metaphors the Bible offers for us. In this case I am thinking of the general idea of a future heaven or hell on Earth, and that if we do the right thing we, or at least our descendants, can have heaven, but if we pursue merely selfishness then we will have hell. As a bit of mythology, it clearly has its bit of truth.

That portion of the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" should, in my opinion, deeply concern most people who regularly pray it. It seems to indicate a version of heaven and earth not as equi-existent, but with 'heaven' the Platonic ideal the 'earth' strives to achieve. There is no indication of a place of eternal afterlife. In any case Jesus here asked his followers to pray for things to be heavenly "on earth". Maybe I'm alone here but I've always found that of interest.

In a way today's sermon is a sequel to last week's sermon about cosmology. As with last week's I have not presented the subject under review with much content but merely sketched some thoughts about approaching the subject anew and without illusions. Of course we can not know what the future will hold. But we (collectively, as humans) will think about the future, and as with the broader cosmology I discussed last week, such conceptions are an important part of our identity and our capacity to act purposively.

If I have any general advice it is to avoid the apocalyptic prophet. Always question the motives of someone who says the end is near, as in my observations they are virtually always attempting to manipulate us toward an ideological position. It is in the name of rigour that I concede that one of them may actually be right, and that our critical faculties should remain capable of putting the question, but so far, of many thousands over many centuries, none of them have been. Meanwhile they haven't really helped anyone.

On an individual level, on a communal level and on a the level of the global House of Humanity, if we believe that things can be better and act with hope and vision, then they can be and more often than otherwise will be.

Conversely, it is impolite to tell a person or a community that they are beyond hope, even if it appears true, because it is the single best way to eliminate hope. Beware of telling the world, and yourself, and especially your children, that there is no hope. There is extraordinary hope as well as extraordinary challenge, and humans are extraordinary.

May the dance of all things bless the readers of these words, that the same are able to critically determine for themselves whether the words are of use in their respective pilgrimages. However it occurs, let the truth come to the light. Bless us all Every, bless all life on our beautiful planet, for a long, long time. Amen.

(Just in case you've got it in your head like I've managed to do, here's that song.)

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