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Apocalypse When?

July 16, 2007

I love Boing Boing!  It’s a great compendium of geek culture, technological rants and raves, copyfighting activism, and neat and wonderful randomness.  And every once in a while something sparks my imagination.

Cory Doctorow published an interesting column, linked it from boing boing, and you can read it in its entirety here.  Professional writers have a way of putting things succinctly, so I’ll reprint the bits that got me thinkin’.

Lapsarianism dominates the Abrahamic faiths. I have an Orthodox Jewish friend whose tradition holds that each generation of rabbis is necessarily less perfect than the rabbis that came before, since each generation is more removed from the perfection of the Garden. Therefore, no rabbi is allowed to overturn any of his forebears’ wisdom, since they are all, by definition, smarter than him.

The natural endpoint of Lapsarianism is apocalypse. If things get worse, and worse, and worse, eventually they’ll just run out of worseness. Eventually, they’ll bottom out, a kind of rotten death of the universe when Lapsarian entropy hits the nadir and takes us all with it.

Running counter to Lapsarianism is progressivism: the Enlightenment ideal of a world of great people standing on the shoulders of giants. Each of us contributes to improving the world’s storehouse of knowledge (and thus its capacity for bringing joy to all of us), and our descendants and proteges take our work and improve on it. The very idea of “progress” runs counter to the idea of Lapsarianism and the fall: it is the idea that we, as a species, are falling in reverse, combing back the wild tangle of entropy into a neat, tidy braid.

Of course, progress must also have a boundary condition — if only because we eventually run out of imaginary ways that the human condition can improve. And science fiction has a name for the upper bound of progress, a name for the progressive apocalypse:

We call it the Singularity.

The Singularity is what happens when we have so much progress that we run out of progress. It’s the apocalypse that ends the human race in rapture and joy. Indeed, Ken MacLeod calls the Singularity “the rapture of the nerds,” an apt description for the mirror-world progressive version of the Lapsarian apocalypse.

At the end of the day, both progress and the fall from grace are illusions.

Pretty interesting, huh?  This sparked my imagination primarily because we have been studying the book of Revelation at one of my churches.  The very idea of lapsarianism is built right into the Christian Bible – begin at page one with the creation story and the garden of Eden, then continue to the apocalypse at the end.

So, is Lapsarianism the lesson of the biblical narrative, or is it a worldview that we inherited unknowingly and now impose onto the text?

I appreciate Doctorow’s point that Lapsarianism and the Singularity are both illusions.  I can’t decide how I want to interpret that idea, though.  Are we as humans both making progress and plummeting toward apocalypse simultaneously in an interwoven fashion, or we are getting neither better nor worse while maintaining the illusions of progress and intensifying depravity?

Further, I love his hermeneutic of science fiction: it writes about the past, present and future at the same time.  It imagines a future in which significant changes have been made but at the end of the day the more things change the more they stay the same.  The human condition remains pretty constant despite the progress surrounding humanity.

That’s why Orwell’s 1984 works so well.  It describes both 1948 and an imagined 1984, and its political prophesies seem to have come true primarily because they reflected truths that Orwell already experienced.

That’s kind of how I read Revelation.  John of Patmos writes a stark reflection of the political and religious realities around him, and the truths of those prophesies are pretty well universal.  For fifteen hundred years people have been reading Revelation and saying “I believe that’s what’s happening right now!”   And they’re absolutely right.  Those things are happening right now, primarily because they have always been happening and probably always will happen.  The problem comes when we try to literalize the text and apply timetables to specific predictions which were quite possibly poetic and symbolic in the first place.

But that’s just my take on things.  I’m not really an apocalyptic thinker, nor am I naive enough to believe in the hopeless optimism of progress toward a Singularity.  I’m most likely just a frustrated existentialist who refuses to wallow in the despair of lapsarianism but trusts wholly in the goodness of God.  On my good days.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2007 5:02 pm

    I think that Revelation was written about future events, but you are correct that it was written in such a way that anyone with a particular personality bent could find its events in their own times.

    Good literature does that.

  2. July 18, 2007 5:54 pm

    You’re right – good literature does do that. And I think it’s probably most accurate to state that Revelation both is and isn’t written about future events – if that makes any sense- in the same way it is and isn’t written about John’s present. But that’s just my opinion and my current hermeneutic.

  3. July 24, 2007 10:55 am

    Just a quick thought on my way to lunch.

    Namely, where does the “Kingdom of God” fit as the “now and the not yet”? Jesus came preaching the Kingdom is here and yet the Kingdom is still to come. There is life beyond the “apocalypse.”

    Maybe it is just me, but I have hard time thinking about Revelation being about the end of the world. Whether it is Lapsarianism, Singularity or some other yet to be thought up idea, Revelation is the revealing of the Kingdom of God. It’s not the end of life but the continuation of the story we haven’t seen yet.

    Just some thoughts on the Outer Rim.

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