Te Deum Tedium (Godforsaken Talk)
The objective factors in the ascendancy of neo-fascism in our times are well known. The demographics of biopower, the two-income earning family as a general necessity, the marginalization of male labor, the public appearance of alternative family and community due to technological advances in logistics and the military, and so on. But none of these, either alone or together, should be enough to convince a human being that their world is coming to an end. Change, certainly, but not apocalypse. So if more macro and historical factors have been exhausted without resolving explanation at this human level, what other variables might be present that would turn this specifically difficult trick?
I am going to suggest here that there is one such stressor in particular, which in turn contributes to an existential anxiety; the kind of concern that leads a person to believe in the coming void, and not merely become frustrated that the world has left one behind. For the Calvinists, it was their earthly or material conditions which were taken to be a sign that they themselves were to be saved, that they were of the elect. The Reformation had brought with it a renewed interest in the sense that one could not know of one’s fate until and unless the day of judgment arrived. One’s Christian destiny was predetermined, true enough, but one lived on in ignorance of the final result of this prejudgment. Originally adopted and thence adapted from the Egyptian scales of judgment, with Horus asking the shade if it had struck a balance between its potential and its acts in life – the few who punched above their ethical weight class were honored in the afterlife, but woe to those who did not rise even to their own gifts, no matter how slight – the Christian version of evaluation eventually did not need to ask, per se, but rather one was simply informed of one’s record upon death. So a person, thence a culture, for the apocalypse, a personal judgment writ large and an historical one completing the narrative in the ‘end of all history’, was to evaluate an entire species’ accomplishments and its deficits alike. To be found wanting as a soul within the arc of the Oversoul was to determine one’s final fate.
And for all eternity. How could there then be a more stimulating motive to make one’s earthly existence into a paragon of the good? The Reformation sectarians who invented the Protestant Work Ethic could in no way find fulfilling the idea that one could not, in principle know anything at all about one’s destiny. Just as there had been signs of God’s presence in the world, the narrative of the Medieval period suggestive in the sense of the authorship, the creation, of that world as being autographed by a divine hand, so there must be similar signage which pointed to, in an individuated sense this time, a greater meaning for one’s life. This sensibility, originally regionally Dutch alone, rapidly spread, through the Anabaptists and into North America with the Puritans and by the early 18th century, the Baptists themselves. It should be recalled that this American church, now associated with the historic South and Mid-West, had its origins squarely in the Yankee mindset, with the very first Baptist church, which is still standing in Providence. This is not insignificant, for it was the unique amalgam of faith and works which animates much Christian orientation in today’s America, that could only have been forged in the revitalized region of Puritanism and its work ethic. Indeed, part of the Salem effect, perhaps its largest part, was the sense that those who worked through uncanny means were simply cheaters to the general ethic, whilst most others slaved away in the duller light of the day to day.
So then as now. The alternative genders, the wealthy urban professionals, the intellectuals, the leisure and vice of the inheritors and the like, all these are the contemporary witches. They have attained such numbers and power that surely this too is a sign, this time of the end times; the day of judgment must be nigh. Puritanism may have lost its purity, but it has maintained both its faith and its works, or better, it has fostered a faith in works while at the same time a working faith. And if divine judgment seems distant and even a trifle aloof in our modernity, earthly judgment can itself provide a sign, a way to winnow those who might yet be saved from those who have given up salvation for the salacious salivations of this world alone. In order to make that evaluation, of course, the remaining Puritans have to wrest power from those accursed, as well as those who may well have cursed themselves; those who were never Christian certainly, but also those who had been, but then had let their mortal desires overtake their better sense of self. This is the political aspect of sectarianism: a way to prove that evaluation still exists.
But in order to vouchsafe its efficacy one must go a step further, and it is this I will suggest is the motivating leitmotif of Evangelicalism today. If for half a millennium Protestants could rest something of their living soul, their conscience, upon the pillow of earthly wealth and success, and thus correspondingly, of a relative lack of material impoverishment and failure, the loss of these worldly props would prompt a crisis, not just in culture, but rather in existence. If one loses the signs of one’s elect status, this is no mean historical shift. It is not a question of demographics, technology, economics or politics, but rather one of ontology itself. I am no longer amongst the elect, or I am in danger of losing that status. There could be nothing more devastating, to the point of its appearance as a patent and potent evil in one’s life, the very worst thing that could ever even be imagined. I mock them not, but am rather attempting to convey some of the emotion that must be present in any heart which has witnessed the very promise and premise of its eternal existence suddenly vanish.
Any one of us can surely empathize with such a tragedy. The loss of a loved one would come the closest, but even here, while it calls into question one’s own life and one’s future, one indeed lives on, even perhaps with the solace that we might at some point ‘meet again’, as the old song has it. But to be told, even in indirect terms, that one’s eternity is now annulled, that one is at least as liable to find oneself in hell as in heaven, overtakes even the most intimate of losses. So too then does the kind of mourning involved overtake any personal grief. For such faithful, no matter that this intuitive belief has been muted by both the day to day and its distractions as well as the simple passage of time blunting the edge of its soteriological suasion, such a loss has to be reckoned with before the time in question, if there could be any possibility that salvation was still an option.
Enter leaders who are either cynical opportunists, narcissists, or perhaps even a few authentically concernful persons who, like their needy followers, also see their souls awry, and thus the faithful must risk choosing a political Anti-Christ of Revelations in order to make a meaningful choice at all. This only adds to their burden, which the rest of us may witness if we care to do so; tragic, solemn, and desperate as it is. For at its deepest level, sectarianism and neo-fascism in today’s society rest upon the sense that those involved within its ambulatory aura are trying to save themselves and for all time. In doing so, they have asked, nay, begged us to join them. That we refuse to do so, that we indeed mock them instead, is only the further proof that we are the damned after all, and that God would forgive His faithful of even our outright murders, since we had the same choice they themselves did, and rejected it out of hand.
And so this is our current scene: a large minority of the once-elect searching with all due diligence and desire, desperation and doxa for any possible sign that their eternal souls will not suffer the dismal dirge of a devil’s drag. That the rest of us are blind to both the metaphysics, and much more importantly, the social reality of this ultimate motivation, truly is a sign that we are in for a coming hell on earth.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.