opening line of Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future (xix)
(Continued from part 4.)
It is likely that Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, unlike Nihilism, was never intended as a grand philosophical statement. It is addressed almost exclusively to Orthodox Christians, who, in Fr. Seraphim’s opinion, needed to be reinvigorated and reminded of the principles of their faith. The author may have envisioned reaching a few Protestants who had strayed very far from their congregations and happened to wander within earshot, but this book does not try to convert them. Its sole objective is contained in these appeals:
In fact, Orthodoxy is quite haphazardly structured. It is completely unsystematic as a presentation of Orthodox faith (because that was never the goal). The typical American Protestant would, at best, be puzzled by Fr. Seraphim’s references to Lives of Saints and “testimonials” from various members of the Orthodox clergy and laity; the typical Roman Catholic would understand this context better, but might feel a bit irritated by it. The book does not even contain that much writing by Fr. Seraphim himself. The most recent edition is only about 250 pages long, and the last 50 of these comprise a lengthy epilogue by the ever-redoubtable Fr. Damascene, who attempts here to find evidence in the contemporary world to support Fr. Seraphim’s views. In addition, the first 35 pages are essentially long quotations of other people’s writing: one Greek Orthodox priest and theologian; one Orthodox layperson recovering from a long and self-destructive obsession with Hinduism; and one literary account written by an Orthodox monk from early 20th-century Russia. Surely no part of this would ever, or was ever intended to, signify anything to a non-Orthodox reader. A conservative Protestant might like the first section for its anti-ecumenical statements, like “We do not have the same God as non-Christians have” (5), but would probably just skip over the theological references to “Three Persons in a Single Divinity” (3) and other dogmatic fine points.
Fr. Seraphim’s own writing in this book is even more eccentric, as will be made clear very shortly — I promised myself when I started writing this that I would not try to soft-pedal him or smooth over his many rough edges. Whatever one might say about it, however, the fact remains that Orthodoxy had, and still has, a significant influence on Orthodox life and thinking. Just as Fr. Damascene says, it was eventually fairly widely read by Orthodox believers in Russia; perhaps it did not “change the spiritual face of contemporary Russia,” as he claims, but it had a lasting impact on the Church community. Orthodoxy is an important work that is driven by an extremely strong sense of purpose; its deepest implications are those that are not directly stated or argued by its author, but rather perceived by him on a half-instinctive level and only partially articulated. For that reason, it is pointless to try to debate anything that he writes in this book — and equally pointless to try to come up with supporting arguments for it — but there is good reason to try and explain it.
To begin, we may return to the opening line: “Every heresy has its own ‘spirituality,’ its own characteristic approach to the practical religious life.” This statement has a deep and nuanced meaning. A heresy appears because of a certain spiritual need, which the heresy claims to fulfill. However, the need always appears first; the heresy is a bad answer to a question, but the question itself is valid, in the sense that it has genuine religious meaning, and requires an answer. The false teaching spreads and accumulates its own reverence, ritual expression, and piety — often, its own martyrs — all accompanied by rich and profound devotion, which sometimes is even more striking than what might have emerged under a better teaching, because here it is also augmented by the still-unfulfilled desire that gave rise to the heresy in the first place.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc.” A work of genius, whose hyper-sensuous
vision of martyrdom would be very questionable in Orthodoxy.
Thus, when Fr. Seraphim writes, “The present book is about the ‘spirituality’ of Ecumenism, the chief heresy of the 20th century” (xix), this means not only that ecumenism is evil (well, that much was never in doubt), but also that ecumenism is the expression of a certain powerful religious phenomenon, which has profound and compelling significance for humanity in the 20th (and 21st) century.
Understanding that such a phenomenon exists is already enough to bring about a change in one’s worldview. It seems quite evident to me that we live in a fanatically religious society; it is just that the religion of this society is not Christianity. The gods of this religion have names like “economic growth,” “freedom,” “the military,” “progress,” and “diversity.” When someone invokes these words, that indicates that you are speaking to a religious adept, and that you must tread very carefully. The intense ideological disagreements between the followers of these various divinities are exactly like the ones that might arise between a priest of Ra and a priest of Thoth. To confuse matters, a minor deity in this pantheon has the name “Jesus,” which by strange coincidence also happens to be the name of the central figure in Christianity; unlike Christianity, however, the cult of this peculiar god largely revolves around the ritual of voting for political figures that are believed to have obtained his favor.
The ideals of contemporary society are of a religious character. First, they have no clear end — we must continually move towards more “progress” and “freedom,” but there is no well-defined notion of what their final result should look like. The process of serving “progress” is itself the endless result; at the end of every great struggle, there will be only the need for additional “progress.” Second, this process requires continuous sacrifice (not human, yet) in the form of societal wealth and human endeavor, but there is no way to assess whether it is having any effect: all we can ever know for certain, at any single point in time, is that we haven’t done enough. Third, the self-perpetuating nature of these sacred mysteries is increasingly divested from any outward meaning: their attributes become self-referential, so that “progress” is measured in terms of “freedom,” whereas the consequence of “freedom” is “progress.” At the same time, the more “economic growth” there is, the less tangible it becomes and the fewer people are able to participate in it; and the more “free” we are, the more overwhelming is the sense of intellectual freedom, and the depth of feeling, emanating from cultural works created just 100 years ago, in an age of mass totalitarian movements and world wars (to say nothing of previous centuries).
Fr. Seraphim did not write about any of this. He mainly confined his scope to Christian denominations, within which he found that non-Christian influences (mainly Eastern ones) were being aggressively and purposefully spread. An entire chapter of Orthodoxy is called “Eastern Meditation Invades Christianity,” a title that gives a clear sense of the content. Much of this discussion can be interpreted as an exposition of a standard traditionalist view, with which many conservative Christians might have agreed if the author had only toned down the overtly Orthodox elements of his writing. Putting aside these aspects, however, Orthodoxy has one great insight, which is not “proved” by Fr. Seraphim — which indeed is not expressed as an “argument” at all — but which is very difficult to forget after it has been stated; namely, that the mixture of Christian and non-Christian religious elements is not simply detrimental to Christianity (or to the non-Christian religions, for that matter), but itself represents the formation of a new religion.
This “religion of the future” will not be Christianity (even if “Jesus” might play some role in it), but it will not be Hinduism or Buddhism either. In fact, no one knows what it will be — least of all its adepts, who cannot even admit that it is a religion in the first place. We are in frantic motion toward something of which we do not have the least conception. How can we even know that it is a religion? Because, like every other heresy, it is answering a certain profound spiritual need of humanity. If it wasn’t a religion to begin with, we would have made it into one — we need one, we expect a religious answer.
Ultimately there is no issue of whether certain Christian denominations are “too tolerant” of other religious practices. Evangelical Protestants are generally not tolerant of them at all — if you ask them, they will surely profess faith in the Bible, emphatically reject the idea of experimenting with yoga and meditation, and so on — yet, according to one of Fr. Seraphim’s most detailed and convincing arguments in Orthodoxy, the spirituality of “charismatic” Pentecostalism basically consists of Hinduist religious techniques with a Christian-sounding interpretation.
In other words, your ideology does not matter. You may be as tolerant or intolerant of non-Christian religions as you want — you may be a liberal believer in the brotherhood of man and the social gospel, or an obstinate Christian particularist insisting on the literal truth of the Bible — but in either case, your religious vocabulary, the philosophical and philological apparatus that enables you to interpret religious experience, has already been rewritten, and you were not given a choice.
One might object to Fr. Seraphim’s choice of examples. Perhaps — one might say — in the distant time of our ancestors known as the 1970s, there were people who still cared about “Transcendental Meditation” and actually took it seriously, but now the fad is well and truly over, and this kind of stern lecture on its perils sounds even more ridiculous than TM itself. This can be said of almost every one of the sects and trendy spiritual movements discussed by Fr. Seraphim — any given one of them is now outdated and irrelevant, to the point where no one would have heard of it before reading this book, and it is surely quite silly to build your apocalyptic vision on this kind of ground. Furthermore, there are so many of these sects that none of them can be said to speak for the others. Even if Fr. Seraphim was right about those Pentecostal sources that he happened to have come across, those aren’t real Pentecostals, and our minister is nothing like that…
“Laugh? I nearly bought one!”
But these sects are not the religion of the future — they only indirectly tell us something about it. It is peculiar to begin with that all of these disparate spiritual trends should be so similar in content, and if you throw all of them out, there is no difficulty finding newer and more contemporary ones to take their place. Perhaps, if you are especially unlucky, you need not even look for any examples, as your own personal experience may include contact with a “spiritual seeker” like this one:
Let us set aside the question of whether I personally believe this account. But Fr. Seraphim did, and so, evidently, did the person who told it to him. To people like this, the perceived reality of their experience takes priority over any other considerations. Telling them that it was not real will only increase their certainty that they are special, and lead them to withdraw into this world more completely. These people are all really quite similar; just as Fr. Seraphim says, all of their experiences are characterized by extraordinary passivity (these things just happen with no effort required) as well as an equally extraordinary desire for “spiritual” experience.
This spiritual desire manifests itself in ways that outwardly appear to have nothing to do with religion. Fr. Seraphim also noticed this, which brings us to Chapter VI of Orthodoxy, which is about UFOs. I don’t suppose you expected that there would be a chapter about UFOs, but, unfortunately, there is — I said before that I was not going to make excuses for Fr. Seraphim or attempt to put a fig leaf over the eccentricities of Orthodoxy. As a matter of fact, let’s just put his conclusion up front, so that the record is set straight from the beginning:
I will not delve into Fr. Seraphim’s extensive exposition of the history of UFO sightings and investigations, although it is actually interesting reading when viewed as a kind of summary (written in a surprisingly calm sceptical tone) of a certain cultural phenomenon from the mid-20th century. The main reason why I view this as irrelevant is simply that the UFO craze, much like Transcendental Meditation, is now over; perhaps there are still individuals out there with this obsession, but it no longer matters enough that any actual scientist would be interested in studying it. (And that did happen — Fr. Seraphim extensively quotes J. Allen Hynek, a professor of astronomy at Northwestern University who devoted a great deal of time and effort to cataloguing and attempting to make sense of UFO sightings.)
The more relevant part of Fr. Seraphim’s writing on this subject occurs in the beginning: “In approaching the religious and psychological side of UFO phenomena, it is important for us, first of all, to understand the background in terms of which ‘flying saucers’ have generally been interpreted (by those who believe in their existence) from the time of their first appearance in the 1940s. What were men prepared to see in the sky? The answer to this question may be found in a brief look at the literature of popular ‘science fiction.’” (72) What follows is a critique of science fiction as a genre; the basic idea is that the “science” in science fiction generally has a magical quality, which suggests that the genre is actually a throwback to our irrational past rather than a coherent vision of the future. These aspects of science fiction have a strange similarity to religious concepts — and not just any religious concepts, but, of course, the same ones that we’ve already seen:
A true sportsman, Fr. Seraphim chose to avoid an obvious cheap shot.
In fact, Childhood’s End deliberately makes its “advanced aliens” look like demons.
This is what we call “being too clever for your own good.”
I am willing to defend science fiction from Fr. Seraphim a bit — it is not hard to find counter-arguments on one specific part of the discussion or another — but after having seen this stated once, I find it very difficult to “unsee” the idea that science fiction is a regression to an earlier state of human consciousness rather than an attempt to look ahead to a later one:
To be fair, science fiction is actually much more critical of “progress” than Fr. Seraphim makes it out to be. While there is a certain amount of utopian optimism in it, one can also find just as much existential dread, prophetic anxiety that the hoped-for “bright future” will turn out to be cruel and dehumanizing (Blade Runner or any other post-apocalyptic setting). Star Trek is probably the most optimistic of the lot, but while it features very large quantities of “highly evolved beings,” it also tends to view them quite negatively — in fact, very ironically, its portrayal of them is in total agreement with Fr. Damascene’s statement that “these so-called ‘visitors’ are in fact cruel, malicious beings who wreak psychic havoc on those who contact them.” (219) In many an episode, these “advanced” aliens are shown to inflict suffering on others for their own amusement, whereupon the bold Captain Kirk retorts, for example, “Love and compassion are dead in you. You’re nothing but intellect.” When less overtly demonic aliens are shown, they are usually just allegories for “foreigners” on 20th-century Earth, allowing the writers to play out real-life conflicts “in space” and, in so doing, to hark back to that venerable genre, the medieval morality play.
Captain Kirk faces yet another bunch of sadistic “highly evolved” aliens.
However, the genius of Orthodoxy — there, I said it — is that, while Fr. Seraphim’s own arguments may be imperfect in many ways, one can easily find other, external arguments which are never mentioned in his book, but which illustrate its conclusions with frightening precision. All caveats and exceptions notwithstanding, science fiction is indeed intimately connected to religious experience, because we can see this connection play out dramatically in a human life.
Philip K. Dick, 1928-1982.
The greatest irony I have ever known is that Philip K. Dick and Fr. Seraphim lived in San Francisco around the same time, and yet neither was ever aware of the other’s existence. If Dick had stopped by 6210 Geary Boulevard, just one time, things might have turned out differently…
Let’s be clear on one thing — Dick was brilliant, and his importance in American literature is on par with that of Hemingway or Faulkner. That is not always easy to see, because he churned out novels and stories, often without really stopping to think through any one of his countless ideas, in order to meet deadlines and stay afloat financially. His early novels are incoherent kaleidoscopic outpourings of overabundant detail, full of sleazy salesmen, hallucinogenic drugs, advertisements, neologisms, and endless plot twists, which flow so freely as to render each other totally meaningless. However, his later novels, of which the best are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly (with some honorable mentions such as Dr. Bloodmoney or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said), scale back the amphetamine-fueled hyperactivity and reveal a deep, all-encompassing sorrow for the fate of human individuality in these collapsing worlds. In Dick, reality is always something transient and impossible to verify with any certainty, it is always at risk of being an elaborate hallucination or staged illusion or someone’s arbitrary whim. Individual consciousness is always desperately trying to keep itself from being extinguished by some destructive force (nuclear war, or drugs) beyond the individual’s control or even comprehension. We will have to discuss the literary qualities of Dick’s work some other time — and his cultural impact was quite substantial, several of his books have been adapted into famous films and TV series — but, in short, he was fascinated by the idea of breaking down reality, and when people spend a lot of time looking for something, they find it.
In 1974, Dick had a series of mystical experiences which changed him permanently. Maybe we should let him explain:
Philip K. Dick in 1978
Unfortunately, that was the least abnormal part of it. The rest was obsessively documented by Dick himself — for the remainder of his life, he filled up thousands of pages with endless versions and interpretations — and has been told and retold in numerous biographies and attempts at “analysis.” For example, one recent book on this topic (but not the only one) is called The Divine Madness [sic] of Philip K. Dick, written by one Kyle Arnold, a clinical psychologist, who delves into Dick’s biography and laboriously constructs what he calls a “broadly phenomenological” psychiatric diagnosis. This author provides the following summary:
(from The Divine Madness)
Arnold then writes, “The Exegesis [Dick’s title for his 8,000-page record, which still has never been published in full. -FL] is a remarkable achievement of the imagination. Its pages are crammed with intricate philosophical reasoning, Gnostic mysticism, Jungian psychology, and occultism…” I wonder where I’ve heard that before..?
I do not agree with Arnold’s assessment of Dick’s Exegesis. It has no literary value. It is exactly what it appears to be from its published fragments — a chaotic and meaningless amalgam of interminable, repetitive occultist mantras and “sci-fi” terminology. In another disquietingly well-fitting illustration of Fr. Seraphim’s arguments, Dick even sounds Pentecostal at times: “One constant has prevailed…throughout all theories. There must indeed be a mysterious Holy Spirit which has an exact and intimate relation to Christ, which can indwell in human minds, guide and inform them, and even express itself through those humans, even without their awareness.”
Arnold, like Dick, is completely uncritical of the influences of the Exegesis. He is impressed by the mere presence of “Gnostic mysticism,” as if this were automatically a signifier of “intricate philosophical reasoning.” In fact, that in itself is indicative of a serious problem with contemporary “spiritual” thinking — the unspoken, unexamined belief that apocrypha are inherently superior to, and somehow more interesting than, canonical texts is already a disturbing symptom of the obscurantism of our times. Dick was in a rush to absorb each and every “esoteric” source that he could find; he read them assiduously and spent years poring over them again and again in his head; but never once did it occur to him that his condition had already been diagnosed centuries ago, because wiser people than himself had seen many identical cases and knew exactly what the final outcome would be:
St. Gregory of Sinai
Mt. Athos, late 13th century
(Arnold writes, “Dick liked to entertain the belief that 2-3-74 was what some psychiatric theorists call a metanoia experience. Metanoia is a Greek word meaning [literally] to go beyond one’s mind.” He cites this definition from Carl Jung, who maliciously distorted the meaning of the word. In fact, metanoia means repentance and is traditionally used in Orthodox Christianity in the context of Confession. KJV also translates it in this way. The very words that might be used to analyze spiritual conditions — or to suggest remedies for them — have been redefined.)
Dick’s experiences killed his creativity for good. Arnold writes, “He spent hours each night presenting his latest theory of 2-3-74 to groups of his friends,” so there was no way that this was not going to overwhelm his writing. His final novel, The Divine Invasion, is literally unreadable; the dialogue consists of turgid autistic speeches, the descriptions are incomprehensible, and the prose is a fatal mixture of Dick’s neologistic future-jargon with obscure and fragmentary references to various religions.
As before, we will not debate the “reality” of Dick’s visions. Even if we decide that he was just crazy, that conclusion will be utterly helpless and unproductive. To Dick, these events were more real than anything else that ever happened to him, and there is no way that this conviction could have been shaken by any logical argument. The one consistent element in all of these cases is experience, which feels so real (even if it isn’t) that its victims will continue to believe it no matter what anyone says. And if none of these experiences is real, that still leaves us with evidence of a great desire for them.
If, however, we briefly allow that Dick was not delusional — that he did make contact with some sort of other consciousness existing in objective reality — then the only logical and convincing conclusion is the one that Fr. Seraphim reached. Dick wrote a book called VALIS, a kind of novelization of “2-3-74,” which has very little literary merit relative to his other books, but which is useful to our discussion because it contains numerous lengthy descriptions (somewhat more coherent than the Exegesis) of whatever it was that he thought he was talking to. From this novel, it is absolutely clear, despite Dick’s belief to the contrary, that this being was utterly, unambiguously malevolent; that it deliberately led him on with insinuations of some kind of great cosmic meaning and then cruelly abandoned him. This is also reflected in Dick’s life: after the “visions” stopped, Dick fell into despair, lamenting that “the divine spirit left,” and attempted suicide. If the being was real, it is now laughing at him.
The tragic life of this fantastically talented man is a warning to us. His chaotic visions had no meaningful content, but from their form we can identify several characteristics of the religion of the future. Consider a small experiment — over the next one year, any time you see or hear any statement made about any “spiritual” subject, in the popular press, in conversation or anywhere else, compare it against the following five points and see how many of them match:
1. Basis in “experience.” No one will be asked to accept the religion of the future on faith. On the contrary, you will be encouraged to be sceptical until you try it for yourself and “verify” that it “works.” And it will — once initiated into the religion of the future, anyone can be a “guru” with “exhilarating visions,” anyone can receive personal messages from the “Holy Spirit,” without any effort whatsoever. This easy access to experience will substitute for any clear dogma or ethical system, the lack of which will also be part of the appeal — unlike “organized religion,” which always tries to “control” its adherents, the religion of the future will leave you with the “freedom” to “choose” your ethics; the experience that it offers will allow you to “discover” the meaning of the universe on your own, instead of having to accept what some book says about it. No guarantees on how your “freedom” will be affected by what you “discover,” though.
2. Esotericism. It is difficult to imagine how the experience can be accessible to absolutely everyone, while also continuing to be a marker of an elite, “chosen” spiritual status. But this is exactly what will happen; everyone will receive their own customized set of “secret knowledge” that, in their own mind, elevates them above everyone else. Since, as we clearly see from Dick’s case, the “secret knowledge” is fundamentally meaningless, it can easily keep going on forever (had Dick not died of a stroke at the age of 53, he might have filled up another 8,000 pages). There will always be new “secrets” to replace the previous ones. Consequently, each follower of the religion of the future will be completely dependent on this flow of information (from the “Holy Spirit” or other “benevolent entities”), and at the same time completely unable to communicate with any other follower.
3. Impersonality of “God.” Technically the religion of the future will still profess a belief in “God.” When asked to explain what that means, however, it will respond with a great deal of obfuscation. On one hand, each individual follower is “God,” because they are “evolving” to a higher plane of existence and “discovering” the meaning of the universe. On the other hand, there are clearly other spiritual beings in the universe, such as the “Holy Spirit,” so evidently there is also some sort of other “God.” Despite their high activity, however, these beings will be “strangely characterless” (Orthodoxy, 161); they may tell their followers all kinds of things about “the universe,” while oddly forgetting to even introduce themselves. Even if they do give names or say something about who they are, there is, of course, no way to verify their identity (much less their “benevolence”) or even to consistently match different “voices” with different “names.” Thus, on one hand, “God” takes on a kind of mechanistic role, as a pliable tool for each individual follower’s all-important personal growth; on the other hand, each follower will be forced to rely on messages that are said to issue from other spiritual beings, about whose origins and motivations absolutely nothing can be said.
4. Claimed “unity” with Christianity. It is very strange that a belief system that either rejects or looks down on Christianity would so adamantly insist on incorporating Christianity into itself. One would think that it would be easier to just write off Christianity as something obsolete and irrelevant, and instead to build a new, superior set of rituals, theology, and symbolism. But no — it seems that, for some reason, it is very important to impose some sort of Christian context, whether it is the “Holy Spirit” or “early Christians” or something else. The religion of the future will position itself as the “true” Christianity — its teachings will have no resemblance to those of Christianity, but this very fact will be presented as proof that they are in fact the “true” teachings of “Jesus,” finally cleansed from “corruption” by “organized religion.”
5. Claimed scientific validity. It is also very strange that people who advocate the separation of church and state, or science and religion, will insist on a scientific dimension to their religious beliefs. But they will. The religion of the future will be just as comfortable with scientific jargon, spaceships, evolution and artificial intelligence as with mystical visions and fantastic mental powers. The line between them will be blurred; one of the claimed advantages of the “experience” will be that it is “scientifically verifiable,” unlike “organized religions” which just tell their followers to blindly accept a bunch of made-up myths.
The remaining question is why it is that our best insight into this phenomenon had to come from some marginal self-published (literally, it was published by hand) book written by a monk who lived in the woods. Or is accepting the one true faith enough to instantly turn you into a “guru” great enough to defeat all other “gurus”?
I would hope not. Well, in fact, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future did add considerably to Fr. Seraphim’s reputation, and no doubt at some point he was forced to grapple, there in his cell, with the age-old monastic temptation of seeing oneself as a “wise spiritual teacher.” Fr. Damascene straightforwardly views Orthodoxy as a missionary text written “to enlighten those wandering in darkness” (xviii). While Fr. Seraphim would have agreed that they were in need of enlightenment, he may have felt uncomfortable about being given credit for it…
It should be noted that the religious tendencies described in Orthodoxy threaten not only Christianity. Fr. Damascene is absolutely correct when he writes, in the epilogue: “[T]he worldview of the ‘new religious consciousness’…can be seen, first of all, in the common sentiment that all religions are one, all are equal, and all are saying the same thing, only in different ways. On the surface this idea appears attractive because it seems to give everyone a fair shake. On a deeper level, however, it can be seen how this concept, under the pretense of fostering ‘unity in diversity,’ actually destroys diversity. If an adherent to a religion believes that all other religions are equal to his own, he can no longer truly hold to that religion; he can no longer be who he is. Instead, while perhaps holding to some outward cultural artifacts, he becomes essentially a blank — a blank waiting to be filled by some new revelation.” (235-236) The prophets of the religion of the future distort the history and teaching of Christianity in order to fit it into their philosophy, so it is entirely plausible to suppose that their interpretation of, e.g., Buddhism is just as malicious, and that any normal practicing Buddhist would be quite appalled by their interpretation of “karma,” “reincarnation” and other such concepts. As the religion of the future advances, at some point Buddhists will also be told that their religion was “corrupted” and that they must revise it in order to conform to “the secret true teaching of Buddha.”
However, Orthodox Christianity does have one advantage in analyzing the religion of the future. You see, the belief that there will one day be such a religion, with more or less the attributes that we have described, has been a central part of Orthodox eschatology for as long as the latter has existed. Orthodoxy has always believed that the religion of the future will be the religion of antichrist. Furthermore, this new religion will be triumphant over Orthodoxy, and its accession will bring about the end of human history.
Fr. Andrei Kuraev, 1997
Perhaps we should close our discussion by recalling what exactly this legendary personage is. He is quite popular as a way of defaming one’s political opponents; an Internet image search for “antichrist” will yield pictures of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, various Roman Catholic popes and other world leaders, and many more such masterpieces of philosophical thinking.
With some effort, we can find something a bit closer to the biblical context. For example, according to evangelical Protestants, antichrist looks like this:
And then the next thing you know, we’ll be forced to recycle!
The Left Behind series, a franchise popular with American evangelicals that has generated much wealth for its creators, portrays antichrist as a vicious dictator from Eastern Europe — the writers evidently intended to make him Slavic, but in their ignorance actually gave him a Romanian name.
Renaissance-era Roman Catholics had a somewhat more nuanced view:
“Sermon and deeds of antichrist,” Luca Signorelli, 1504.
This antichrist is a bit better at maintaining his cover — he has actually made an effort to imitate Jesus, although he has also put on a few extra pounds and appears to have a drinking problem. The conspicuous demon whispering in his ear also kind of gives him away.
For good measure, we can also find an Orthodox take on the matter:
“Christ and antichrist,” Ilya Glazunov, 1999.
This one is the most theologically justifiable, but the artist’s intention is self-defeating. In trying to show the outward similarity between Christ and antichrist, he has been forced to introduce differences between them, so that the end result is more or less the same as Signorelli’s effort.
There is no reason, however, why antichrist could not look like this:
As a matter of fact, no one said that antichrist will have to persecute Christians at all. Christians themselves will invite him to power and make him a present of their nations. “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” There will be no need for public executions or “mental camps” or whatever else middle-class churchgoers like to tickle their nerves with — “no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark” is sufficient in a world that worships “economic growth.”
St. Ephraim of Syria
Antichrist is not interested in simply “opposing” Christ, he has a burning need to replace Him. He wants to be loved by Christians — well, by everyone, but Christians especially. It is important to him that Christians freely accept him as if he were Christ, without fear or coercion (except perhaps by other such apostate Christians). Every denomination will simultaneously see in him their own vision of Christ, which will be all the more convincing because it will be exactly what they wanted to see, reflecting the most minute details of their specific spirituality. (In the same way, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Hindus will also see in him a compelling image of the fulfillment of their respective prophecies.) In that aspect, Orthodoxy will not be an exception. Perhaps antichrist could appeal to Orthodox believers’ protective attitude toward their tradition; Fr. Seraphim once drily noted, “Perhaps the very images of antichrist himself will be in good Byzantine style — this should be a sobering thought for us.” To this one can only add that, to speed up the process, antichrist would probably fabricate his own “Orthodox” organization, no doubt with its own “patriarch.”
St. Theophanes the Recluse
Late 19th-century Russia
Although antichrist will make a tremendous show of respect for Christianity, and recreate the outward appearance of Christ to perfection, his teaching of “Christianity” will revise it beyond recognition. In the beginning he will not openly call himself Christ, though he will choose his words in such a way that Christians will be able to read this meaning into them. His extensive praise of the Bible will invite the conclusion that it is now obsolete and ready to be replaced by a more “relevant” teaching (this is easy to frame in blandly “benevolent” language, e.g., “the Bible was a great gift to humanity in the infant stage of its spiritual development,” a phrase that I just now made up). He will talk about “Jesus” with great humility, but his version of “Jesus” will be described as a “great teacher” and “spiritual guide,” whose great role in human history boils down to “‘hasten[ing] the realization of mankind’s peace and understanding’ according to the philosophy of ‘Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Gandhi, Schweitzer’ and the founders of various religions,” to quote some vaguely corporate-sounding ecumenist jargon referenced by Fr. Seraphim in the preface of Orthodoxy (xxvii). People will still self-identify as Christians when they gather to hear him, but they will leave the gathering as followers of the religion of the future.
Christians will be weary of being Christians, weary of being human. All of humanity will be weary of its now-hateful “freedom,” which will express itself in increasing disorder and violence (the famous “four horsemen”). All around the world, the nations will be desperate for a leader who will give them what they want. Compared to their condition at that time, the kingdom of antichrist will, ironically, be an improvement:
St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)
Late 19th-century Russia
And yet, this garden of earthly delights will not bring about the universal happiness that was promised. At this point, St. Ephraim says that antichrist will begin to act “stern, cruel, wroth” and so on, but perhaps this just means that he will be adapting to the needs and expectations of his captive audience. “And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” Human beings will become incapable of meaningful communication with each other; there will be no language left with which to express or understand anything other than antichrist’s terror and anger. Maybe that will be the point at which public executions come back into vogue — not only to punish the last vestiges of dissent, but to provide amusement.
In this interpretation, the Last Judgment is an act of mercy by God, partially in response to the prayers of the few remaining Orthodox faithful (“And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened“), but really motivated by His compassion for human suffering, which will then have become both pointless and endless because it can no longer open any way to return to Him. Perhaps that is why St. John the Theologian, the Apostle of Love, sees the end as a liberation: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”
“The Last Judgment,” Andrei Rublev, 1408.
Cathedral of the Dormition, Vladimir, Russia.
In his conclusion, Fr. Seraphim writes:
It is difficult to argue. God never promised contentment and peace; instead, the consolation that He promised is “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated you.” These words are unbearable because they do not allow any room for prevarication. I can write all kinds of things, but to the extent that I am able to be honest with myself, if I were truly offered an unequivocal choice between Orthodoxy and the religion of the future, it seems clear that I would immediately capitulate to the latter, attempting in my mind to justify it as a “temporary compromise” or an “empty formality” or something that I can make up for “later,” or some other such thing. But that only means that my mind was already made up before the question was asked; the more I excoriate the religion of the future, the more likely it is that I have already inwardly accepted it, even before any great signs and wonders had been offered. If I am unwilling (I would have liked to say “unable”) to give up the comfort of earthly life, it would be insolent to expect or ask for forgiveness; it remains only to pray for mercy “through the intercessions of His most pure Mother; of the holy, glorious and all-praised apostles, of the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna, and of all the saints.”
St. Isaac of Syria
The thought of the end times always weighed heavily on Fr. Seraphim’s mind. In 1981, just one year before he died, he gave a lecture at UC Santa Cruz (one of the very few times he traveled away from Platina after tonsure) titled “Contemporary signs of the end of the world.” (One might laugh incredulously at the thought of college students in California attending such a lecture, but in fact, one of those students is now a retired Metropolitan of ROCOR.) Fr. Seraphim’s most “famous” aphorism, which is often quoted in discussions where he is brought up, is “It is later than you think. Hasten, therefore, to do the work of God.” Until the end of his life, he was convinced that, “The years just ahead promise to be more terrible than anyone can now easily conceive,” (Orthodoxy, 199) and if he were alive today, he would no doubt firmly reiterate this statement, even though the past 35 years did not see the fulfillment of his apocalyptic premonitions. But then, St. John the Theologian wrote, “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time” almost two thousand years ago, and many generations in the interim have felt that these words had really been written about them, even though no one really knows anymore who the “Nicolaitans” were. Orthodox philosophy in general feels like it exists outside linear time: saints who lived centuries apart converse comfortably through their books, and are just as free to comment on the distant future as on the equally distant past. On a smaller scale, but in a similar way, Fr. Seraphim’s slim book somehow still feels like it has not quite reached its time, when its examples will have completely faded into obscurity, but its presentiment will no longer require explanation.
(Continuation: part 6.)