Religion is a complicated subject. And contrary to what appears to be popular belief, Religion (with a capital “R”) is not some abstract floating ideal somewhere out there for us to volley back and forth over our respective fences. Rather, as a cultural system, it infiltrates every aspect of our lives; including politics, economics, art and media, and day to day living. Whether you’re a Christian or a Hindu, Jew or Atheist, Muslim, Wiccan, Agnostic, Buddhist, or somewhere in between, the religious imagination is all at once immediately present, subconscious, and pervasive. In other words, Religion does not exist apart from those who practice it. And much like politics and economics, in one way or the other, we all practice it; whether we like it or not. Religion is us.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household. Today, I am a hopeful agnostic. Or an optimistic utilitarian, depending on what project I’m currently working on. I am also an anthropologist specializing in religion, theology and social theory, linguistics, and gender. In that way, the teachings of my childhood have transformed (consubstantiated, for those of you into a little sly Lutheran humor) from a dedicated and unquestioning belief in the presence of the Almighty on Earth to a view of religious practices as eminently human in nature. Where once I saw the work of divine mysteries, now I see the spectacular workings of the human mind. What was once the absolute Word of God is now the words of men. Flawed, struggling, questioning, seeking. But my sense of wonder remained.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t been exceptionally angry with Religion at times. I have, and spent a fair number of my adolescent years dismantling the very beliefs that had been instilled within me since early childhood. Even today, I find that far too many religious institutions are less than remorseful for the pain, suffering, and death they’ve caused. Far too many religious ideologies have failed to take responsibility for the unconscionable damage their beliefs have wrought. Racism, misogyny, terrorism, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and exclusion; all the worst things of humanity writ large on the faces of deities, icons, saints, and holy images. Preached from pulpits and lotus chairs, ghats and tree stumps, from stages and television programs. But what I came to learn over time is that none of this is especially unique to Religion. Richard Dawkins, and a fair amount of New Atheism in general, believes that if you were to eliminate all religion from the face of the Earth, violence would be eliminated as well. But they’re wrong. Violence exists in every cultural system: politics, economics, kinship, industry, literature, stratification, technology and so on. Its roots have more to do with power and identity than they have to do with thinking in the supernatural. Religion, like humanity, is more than its transgressions. It’s a form of individuality and community, a link to history, an organizing and ordering social collective, a method of explaining the world, a narrative of being and becoming, a way of understanding relationships and one’s place in the world, a system of birth and death, a form of communication with extraordinary forces, a framework for making meaning out of life, and a language for imagining the impossible.
My ethnographic work has taken me all over the world. While I primarily work in Nepal and India (with Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims), I have traveled extensively in Europe and the Americas as well and have written on everything from sacred stones to the politics of gods and monsters. Now, my aim is to start a new conversation. A conversation about the beginning and ending of ages and ideas.
This blog is about the Apocalypse and how we’re not getting there.
In Ancient Greece, an apocalypse literally meant an “uncovering,” a kind of disclosure of esoteric knowledge. A revelation, if you prefer. In terms of the religious traditions of the time it could also mean the declaration of something previously hidden or a mystical vision meant to explain a current reality. Most modern Christians (and by that token most Westerners in general), however, take their understanding of ‘apocalypse’ from the Book of Revelation in the Biblical New Testament. In this case, the revelation which John receives is that of the ultimate victory of Good (read as God) over Evil (read as Satan) which brings about the end of the world. Ever since then, the Apocalypse has figured strongly in the rhetoric of war, conflict, and social change. Or really among anyone just looking to escape their own Earthly circumstances. As a reminder of my own experiences with the Millennium, I have actually kept track of all the world endings I have managed to survive: from Leland Jensen’s nuclear disaster predictions in 1980 to Horacio Villegas’ most recent proclamations that the 100th anniversary of the visitation of Our Lady of Fátima would result in the near obliteration of mankind on May 13th, 2017, I have seen the comings and goings of some sixty-five ends of days.
So here’s what must be the most unpopular perspective: the world isn’t ending. And because the world isn’t ending, the worst scenario has come to pass: that we must take responsibility for the state of it. We are the ones who must strive for paradise because waiting for it isn’t going to amount to much. The irony here is that, in light of the fact that existence is likely to carry on yet for quite some time, I’m calling for an apocalypse; a new vision to help us make sense of our world and our place in it. While I talk about Religion a fair amount, that isn’t all this blog is going to be about. We’ll talk about cultural in general (popular or otherwise). Throw in some movies and geek media. Chat about current events and discuss how we got here in terms of the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we’d rather forget. It’s time to meet at Armageddon and hash out the details of our decay, redemption, and rebirth. It’s time to take Religion by the cultural and metaphorical horns and see what it can really accomplish. After all, the End of Times are only as good as you make them.