mercredi 14 juillet 2010

Prophecy in our time

Prophecy: why today? You can't miss them. The prophets with a direct link to the Source on tv, announcing the end of the world. Some are secular ecologists who speak in the name "Science" and "Reason". Then there are the bible-thumping evangalists who speak for the Creator Himself. Who to believe? WHAT to believe? Should we believe anyone..

"Prophecy", with its theological bagage, is a term I use with provocation. I subsume under the term any "art or science of predicting specific future events or describing the general course of future events". "Prognostication", "prophecy", "divination", "prediction", "extrapolation", discovering trends, creating scenarios,.. all valid game in this hunt: Cartesian rationalists beware..

I want, above all, to isolate, dissect out those social / cultural / historical / spiritual conditions favoring popular interst in prophets and prophecy. Why, at some periods of history, is the common man piqued by the collective fate? This phenomenon remains to explained.

Prophechy, we hold, gains in popular interest in periods of scial and cultural transition. People sense, to varying degrees, that they are teetering on some "Edge of History" (title by historian Robert Heilbroner). They fee they are in danger of falling head first into some Unamed Abyss..

There are, of course, numerous ways of describing and cataloging such a deranged collective psyche, depending upon one's interests, field of specialization or "agenda":

1- "Age of Anxiety": the existentialist philosophers

2- "Time of Troubles": an ancient Chinese curse reads "may you live in interesting times!". "Interesting", that is, from the view point of future historians looking back from a more settled, more civilized age and seeking to discovers its originality, its character and dominant themes in the mutations of the "Time of Troubles" that gave birth to their world.

3- "End of History": Karl Marx (with recent echoes in Francis Fukuyama but from a very different historical perspective and interpretation). This view posits a final, stable state of secular felicity after the Proletarian Revolution.One easily recognizes a secularized, "rationalized" vision of the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelations. For Marx the secularized Messiah who "returns" to usher in the Golden Age is the Working Class, a collective or corporate Messiah. (One even finds a perverse echo in Hitler's imminent "1000 year Reich" which takes up the "Millenium" theme of Revelations.)

At thousand year intervals, the Book of Revelations, with its dense, cryptic and endlessly re-interpretable imagery, makes a grand return:

- the time of Christ when the "imminent" New Age prophesized by Christ and Paul failed - in the eyes of followers - to materialize,
- the chaotic 11th century birth of Modernity portrayed in Norman Cohn's description of medieval "mystical revolutionaries", The Pursuit of the Millennium

- and now, of course, our own sorry troubled times..

Another variant of theme of the "End of History" was provided by Nietzsche who correctly saw that the days of modernity were numbered.The ultimate pathological drives of modernity, which Nietzsche attributed to Christianity and its - in his eyes - offshoot, Socialism, were "nihilism" and a "psychology of resentment".For Nietzsche modernity was doomed by it suicidal, antilife drives

4-Theory of Historical Cycles: A nearly universal conception in earlier societies. One finds descriptions in ancient Graeco-Roman, Chinese and "barbarian" (Nordic, Celtic) mythography and philosophy, Bhuddism, the Upanishads (Hinduism), Occidental and Oriental esoteric / gnostic teachings, Hopi and other New World traditions,.. Historical time is cyclical in nature. "World Ages" are often seen as beginning with a Golden Age (garden of Eden). Followed by a degeneration through successive stages: Silver Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age (Greek myth, Upanishads). The terminal age of degeneration culminates in a "return to Primordial Chaos" (Mircea Eliade: The Myth of the Eternal Return).

A new World Age would be born from the destructive / creative chaos, initiating a new Golden Age.  The ancients prized stability and adherence to the models provided by the heroes of the past. They did not seek "progress". For them, History turned like a great wheel either forever or for a very long time (some traditions taught that time moved in "cycles of World Cycles" - wheels turning within greater wheels..)

      The archaic beliefs in an End of History or in cyclic time die hard (to say the very least!). HG Hegel, Marx's "mentor" elaborated the concept of cyclic history using the language of the Enlightenment and 19th century science. Great historical forces emerge - the "thesis" - and, over time, encounter / generate destructive "internal contradictions" - the "antithesis". The war of thesis against antithesis is resolved in the "synthesis" which abolishes both thesis and antithesis and serves as the thesis of a new three-step thesis / antithesis / synthesis cycle. Thus an archaic - "archetypal" - conception of cyclic time found its way into the modern - supposedly "scientific" ideology of Marxism (Communism): Old Ideas do indeed die hard !! Perhaps they are like the dinosaurs who were reborn as modern birds..

      Nor should ancient archetypes be swept aside lightly. Modern Self-Organizing-System theory tends rather to support, while enriching, the intuitive archetype of cyclic history:

Complex, self-organizing systems: ecosystems, biological evolution, human societies, history, earthquake fault-line systems, electrical activity in the mammalian neocortex.. are not, we now know, not driven by inexorable astronomical / astrological "clocks": much of their cyclicity - where it exists - may be internally generated. Cycles may not even appear in a particular context: cyclic behavior may break down into chaotic behaviors or a periodicity may be replaced by a new regime with a new period and typical range of behaviors.. Nevertheless, the ancients saw the cyclicity of nature (tides, day / night, seasons, local weather pattern oscillations..) and grasped that a deep operational principle of the World System was at work. The best we can do today is eliminate their errors of interpretation and extend their insights with the tools or scientific rationality. 

     We have much work to do to produce a valid "Road Map of Reality" that will serve to re-establish the natural rythms we, in our collective arrogance and hubris, have disrupted..

Future development:

- The psychology of fear as driver of prophecy: Toynbe's mythological "time machine" to past "Golden Age" or future "New Jerusalem". Dangers: nihilism, escapism (including suicidal behaviors, individual and collective; manias..), scapegoating ("sacrificial victim")

- We need a New Road Map of Reality / Paradigm of Everything to deal with our changed situation - Post-Darwinian or Conscious Evolution (Lovelock: Awakening of Gaia). We are indeed at a psycho-bio-spiritual turning point in evolution of life on earth. Mind has now become an emergent actor on the World Stage: Nietzsche - as usual! - saw this in his recognition that the "Will to Power" was essence / driving force behind life. Today, that will is sick, nihilistic, anti-life, suicidal: witness what we do to our world, to each other. We have yet to learn to use power with wisdom! In cosmological terms, the crisis Gaia, the Earth Mother, Magna Mater, is transiting is - at least - as profound, as far reaching as the crisis of early photosynthetic bacteria who reached a threshold of oxygen auto-intoxication: they had to learn to recycle / re-utilize their waste (oxygen). They managed the transition: we - the animal kingdom - are here to prove it. Crises - period of "choosing" - are, at best, not just destructive but potentially creative and life-furthering..

- the case of Cayce (possible discussion)