With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Some Thoughts on Three Representations of the Antichrist

From time to time, one finds Solovyov’s description of the Antichrist, as found within his work, War, Progress, and the End of History, used in a homily or sermon by one preacher or another. When this is done by someone famous, their homily is usually given a sensationalistic interpretation. Recently, Cardinal Biffi’s lenten homily, as was delivered on March 4, 2007, presented aspects of Solovyov’s description of the Antichrist. What sparked the interest of many here was when Biffi’s said, “The Antichrist will be a ‘convinced spiritualist’ Soloviev says, an admirable philanthropist, a committed, active pacifist, a practicing vegetarian, a determined defender of animal rights.”

It did not take long before reflections were written, saying that if the Antichrist is to be a philanthropist, a pacifist and a vegetarian, then there must be something inherently bad about these qualities.

Few people have actually read any Solovyov, and they do not know how and why Solovyov described the Antichrist in this fashion: they were the beliefs and practices of one of Solovyov’s theological and philosophical opponents, Leo Tolstoy. Solovyov did to Tolstoy similar to what Dante did to his enemies: he represented Tolstoy in a vilified form. But there is more to the story, more to the point than this (one can say the central point of War, Progress, and the End of Human History was a refutation of Tolstoy’s unbending ways; but the story of the Antichrist was only the ending of the work, using the Antichrist as an allegory for what can go wrong with Tolstoy’s vision –and what this is we shall see later).

Solovyov did not want to suggest that these (or similar like-minded) characteristics were evil. Separated from a holistic good, they are, certainly, but the same can be true with many other goods. Instead, because there is good in these qualities, Solovyov was showing how and why the Antichrist will not appear on the scene as if he were evil incarnate. Indeed, he will do a considerable amount of good, and that good is what will attract followers. This does not mean we should do the opposite of what the Antichrist does, but rather understand how his actions only apparently follow good, moral behavior; they do so only in a manipulative fashion: one could rather say he abuses the moral laws rather than follows them. Not only will the Antichrist appear good, he might even intend to do what he believes is good, but what he ends up doing will only be a perversion of that good.

We live in a time when speculations about the end of the world are popular, and many people look for signs and wonders which prove to them they are living at the end of human history. This is not a new phenomenon; looking back, we see it is a common theme in Christian thought. While there is some sort of temporal hubris involved (we often want to think that we live at the end of history, meaning, that we live in one of the most significant human eras ever), there is much more going on. There are reasons why our desires seem to be met: because the forces of the Antichrist continually to exist side by side with Christendom. It is easy to see the work of the Antichrist around us. Many believe that these forces will only be seen at the end, and therefore, if we see them, we must be nearing that end. There is a truth in this – from the time of Christ on, we are living out that end, however, we must not expect that the final events of history are going to be seen in our time.

In his textbook on Eschatology, Pope Benedict XVI provides us some significant insights on the antichrist. There will be a series of antichrists, living in different ages, each representing an aspect of the dark forces at work in the world; however, there will also be one final Antichrist, the culmination of all that has gone before him. The first hints of the Antichrist come from Daniel 11:36 and Ezekiel 28:2, but they are first and foremost descriptions of individuals living in the times of Daniel and Ezekiel; but these people (Antiochus Epiphanes and the Prince of Tyre) are also types of the final Antichrist. “The fact that the future antichrist is thus described with features which originally belonged to two other figures from the distant past naturally deprives him of any very well defined uniqueness. It situates the antichrist of the End within a series where a long line of predecessors have already nursed the evil that comes to its supreme intensity in him.” Joseph Ratzinger, Dogmatic Theology 9: Eschatology. Trans. Aidan Nicholas (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1988), 196.

Literature and theological speculation on the final Antichrist is difficult to write because of the rather vague description we have of him. Yet, such reflection is important. An individual author may not be able to perceive the whole of the Antichrist, but they can represent aspect of him to us. Usually they do so, like Solovyov, by raising a philosophical or theological question, and having it played out in their writings.

Within some circles, this kind of story has become very popular, and anyone writing it with a semblance of literary merit and a sufficient amount of advertising and self-promotion becomes a best-selling author. There is a now considerable amount of such literature out there, most of them are quite bad, like the Left Behind series, and for some reason or another, the best of them are often neglected. Even an author like C. S. Lewis, who is otherwise popular, has had his insights ignored by the current generation (perhaps because they do not like how his story challenges their beliefs about what the Antichrist will be like).

One of the most unusual, and most obscure, presentations of an Antichrist (the story does not decide if he is the final one or not) is in Charles Williams’ novel, Shadows of Ecstasy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1980). Here is a story about a man, Considine, who is a superman – he has found a way to extend life indefinitely – he does not age, but he can die if shot or harmed in some similar fashion. He learned how to extend his life through esoteric means while living in Africa, but he believes them to be entirely natural, entirely human. It requires us to transform the passions we have, to keep a hold of them, and use the energy of them to preserve our life. “When your manhood’s aflame with love you will burn down with it the barriers that separate us from immortality. You waste yourselves, all of you, looking outwards; you give yourselves to the world. But the business of man is to assume the world into himself. He shall draw strength from everything that he may govern everything”(72). Through some sort of tantric-like manipulation of love and desire, we can transform the energies associated with our passions; by this method, Considine suggests that we even have the power to conquer death. “Why does a man die but because he had not driven strength into the imagination of himself as living?” Considine asks one of the heroes, Sir Bernard (73). But of course in this reshuffling, desire becomes all and nothing, it kills the spirit within while life remains within its shell. It can never be transfigured, it can only live on.

One can only live so long in this state before wanting more. Thus Considine and his followers believe that just as there is a way to extend life, death must be overcome by man. “Because I live, men shall live also. But they shall do greater works than I, or perhaps I shall do them – I do not know. To live on – that is well. To live on by the power not of food and drink but of imagination itself recalling into itself all the powers of desire –that is well too. But to die and live again, that remains to be done, and will be done” (75). Until that point, man must preserve and conserve themselves, and life becomes a living death, where one should not “waste” one’s power on because one first needs to use that power to discover and control oneself. But in the conquest of death, everything changes. “It’s possible to make out of the mere superfluity of power greater things than men now spend all their powers on. The dropping flames of that fire are greater than all your pyres of splendour. And when death itself is but a passion of ecstasy, we will make music such as you couldn’t bear to hear, and we will be the fathers of the children who shall hear it” (80).

Until it is done, Considine is training his followers (and himself) in the art of living and dying, with the belief that one follower will find the right way to overcome death itself. Considine, ever the manipulative gentleman, controls key figures throughout the world, protecting him and his experiments – experiments which require people to commit suicide and to attempt the conquest of death in themselves. One such man, Simon Rosenberg, nearly succeeds – there is a scene, days after his suicide, where his body begins to stir, and signs of life are seen by Considine’s followers: then it is over, and death claims its victim. In the end, Considine is himself killed, but we are left wondering: will he be the one – and in this fashion become the ultimate representation of man against God, that is, will he be the final Antichrist? Or does he and his followers just represent one great step along the path which leads to the Antichrist, and someone greater is yet to come?

Charles Williams, like Vladimir Solovyov, wrote upon what he knew and understood best. This, the first of his novels, perhaps best represents one of the central themes of his supernatural thrillers: the dangers of esoteric knowledge and how it can be abused. Williams, one of the Inklings, was a scholar in the field of the occult, at once intrigued by it, even drawn to it, yet with a Christian sensibility to know the danger which lurks behind it. Thus Williams’ representation of the Antichrist best represents the charismatic, hypnotic powers of such a man, and the darkness which consumes one who tries to be a humanitarian superman. It’s every bit a condemnation of the nihilism of Nietzsche as it is a condemnation of the occult, and it shows how the two ultimately are one and the same.

C. S. Lewis in The Last Battle (New York: Collier Books, 1978) represents a different approach on the Antichrist. The theme of the work is more about the significance of the end of history and what happens after we reached that end than it is a discussion of the Antichrist. Yet, it presents to us a rather unique picture of the Antichrist, in part, because it represents many of Lewis’ eschatological speculations. Lewis, like George MacDonald before him and Balthasar after him, held a high hope for the salvation of all – although, unlike MacDonald, he did not believe one can know if this hope will be achieved. Is it realistic for one to possess this hope? Won’t the Antichrist, the personal culmination of evil in the world, be too far gone to be saved? Lewis answers this question in the negative.

Despite its fantasy nature, Narnia is seeped in allegory, and it is very easy to spot whom Lewis made as the Antichrist and whom he made as the False Prophet. But there is a twist in the tale here: while one thinks of the Antichrist as being the one in charge, in Narnia, it is the False Prophet, the talking-Ape Shift who has the Antichrist, the talking-donkey Puzzle, as a figurehead under his control.

Puzzle was a rather decent, but easily manipulated, creature; he did whatever his friend Shift told him to do. But throughout the story, one can tell that Puzzle is always a bit perplexed, and his compassionate, good-natured self is often brought to the forefront. Shift uses it to his advantage, and always coerces Puzzle to do his will, saying how unkind or ungrateful Puzzle is if he doesn’t.

When Shift and Puzzle find a lion-skin, the difference between the two is obvious. Puzzle mourns the death of the lion and wants to bury the skin; Shift does not; rather he thinks of what use he could make of it: he wants to use it to turn Puzzle into a false-Aslan. Shift has no reverence for anyone, and no respect for his friend; he just looks for what he can get out of others. Puzzle reveres Aslan, and believes that respect should be shown to all lions because Aslan is himself a talking lion and all lions are in his image. Thus he suggests to Shift, “Even if the skin only belonged to a dumb, wild lion, oughtn’t we to give it a decent burial? I mean, aren’t all lions rather – well, rather solemn. Because of you know Who? Don’t you see?” (6) Shift only responds with contempt, saying that Puzzle is not too bright and he should just follow what Shift tells him to do. And so Puzzle does this, helping to bring about the end of Narnia itself.

Shift gathers followers around him who do his will, fighting for control over Narnia. He makes a deal with Calormenes, enemies of Narnia who worship the brutal false-god, Tash. Indeed, he tells everyone that Aslan and Tash are one and the same, and yet he does this, not to discourage false religious practices, but to encourage a false unity between the two faiths. This must be read in context with what has Aslan say in the end of The Last Battle There is some measure of truth in it – what Shift said is as true as it is false, and that truth is what gives his message some strength. For in the story we learn of one Emeth, a good Calormene, and his encounter with Aslan:

The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. (165).


The truth behind the fiction that Shift told is that one who believes they are following Tash could in truth be following Aslan; the name, though meaningful, is secondary to the heart; if one loves truth and seeks for goodness, they will find it. Even if they were led to believe the search is to be done through a falsehood such as Tash, in the end they will find what they thought to be Tash was really Aslan.

This paves the way for Lewis’ unconventional understanding of the Antichrist. Puzzle, ever beguiled by his simple but good nature, trusts his friend, and it in that trust, in the purity of his heart, that we find that goodness remains. Such goodness, Lewis suggests, can only end in triumph, and with the The Last Battle this means the salvation of Puzzle.

Like Williams, Lewis offers us a unique vision of the Antichrist, and he provides for us some things to ponder. We often believe that the Antichrist will be the one in control, and yet it is also believed that he will hold some power-mad scheme which makes him obviously evil. In Lewis, we find the exact opposite: Puzzle is kind and considerate, but he is also rather simple minded. He has no malice in his heart; yet it is because of his simple nature, that he can be used as a figurehead for evil. Evil, by its nature, can only exist in and through the good, it can only corrupt, it cannot create. The ultimate evil cannot exist without some good; it won’t be followed except for the fact it will look and appear that what it offers is not evil, but good.

This brings us back to Solovyov and his vision of the Antichrist. His representation combines elements of Williams and Lewis together. Here we have an Antichrist who begins his mission as a humanitarian; he truly wills to do good. “At that time, there was among the few believing spiritualists a remarkable person -- many called him a superman – who was equally far from both, intellect and childlike heart both. […] Conscious of the great power of spirit in himself he was always a confirmed spiritualist, and his clear intellect always showed him the truth of what one should believe in: the good, God, and the Messiah. In these he believed but he loved only himself.” Vladimir Solovyov, War, Progress, and the End of History. Trans. Alexander Bakshy, revised by Thomas Beyer (Hudson, New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1990), 165.

Here we have a superman, one with powers and skills beyond everyone else, but he has one flaw – he loved only himself. But what a flaw it is! The same flaw we have with Considine, we see in Williams’ vision of the Antichrist. But, unlike Williams, Solovyov goes forward to show the consequence of this love – to show the true power of the Antichrist. He followed the good only so far as it helped him, but he would – and did – bow to the Evil One when offered the kingdoms of the Earth. He turns from a believer of Christ to his great denier – seeing Christ as only a type of himself. His book, The Open Way to Universal Peace and Prosperity, brings about what it claims: world peace and an end to famine, with him as its ruler. “The new lord of the world was above all else a kindhearted philanthropist and not only a philanthropist, but even a philozoist, a lover of life. He was a vegetarian himself, prohibited vivisection, and instituted strict supervision over the slaughter-houses; while societies for the protection of animals received from him every encouragement. But what was more important than these details, the most fundamental form of equality was firmly established among humankind, the equality of universal society” (171).

All this appears good and holy, and yet he held for himself alone love and respect, and he had grown to hate Christ, even to fear him. To lift himself up, he must make Christ as naught; he must create a universal Christian faith which believes in nothing but has himself, not Christ, as its defender. Most Christians are fooled, but a few, including the representative heads of the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions, are not. This brings down his wrath – showing the extreme bitterness and hate contained within his heart.

While Williams brings to us a superhuman, hypnotic Antichrist, filled with esoteric power, and Lewis brings us the beguiled, good-natured Antichrist, Solovyov provides for us not just an Antichrist who fools us with his apparent goodness, but with an Antichrist whose goodness is lost because of his own self-love. He who desires to be the greatest must be the least; we must die to our selves to be resurrected in Christ. In this reason we can understand Solovyov’s point. The qualities he gives to the Antichrist can be anything which we perceive to be good, but no matter what we believe them to be, they can be lost by those whose love is only themselves; and whatever good Tolstoy represents, Solovyov believed, was lost by his pride and grandiose personality. For what other reason could Tolstoy be led to claim Christ and yet reject the Church Christ established (in any objective manifestation of it)?

Labels: ,

5 Comments:

  • At 6/02/2007 7:40 AM, Blogger Athos said…

    Let me first say what a pleasure it is to find your blog. My first thought was, "Well, here is a group of fellows who have read all the right books!" I find Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings required annual reading. (I would have to add to the Inklings contemporary folk who are working in the field of René Girard's mimetic theory like Father Raymund Schwager, James Williams, and Gil Bailie.)

    May I invite you to visit my fellow bloggers, Porthos and Aramis, at The Three Massketeers?

    BTW, I am in the middle of reading for the first time both Morris' Well at the World's End and Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros. I know, I know; how did I live this long and not read them yet?!

    Best, Athos

     
  • At 6/02/2007 9:37 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Henry,

    A very nice post, very lucid. Especially the point about the self-love of the Anti-Christ. If the image of Christ consists in our self-giving response and imitation of the self-giving of the Son on the cross, then what else but self-love distinguishes the image of the Anti-Christ?

    Apologies for my inactivity. I am now back on US soil, and should have more time to post and what not. I'm reading your posts on Florensky now, and should have a comment or two shortly.

    Keep up the good work,

    Pax Christi,
    -Pat

     
  • At 6/03/2007 3:38 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Athos,

    Ever look into the works of Joseph de Maistre? Though I am not an expert on Girard, the little I've read about him (mostly through Schwager) reminds me of elements of de Maistre's observations in his St Petersberg Dialogues.

    It's sadly rare for people to stumble upon Morris; yet, the more I study him and his writings, the more I can say is that Tolkien represents the Christianized, perfected form of Morris' thought... so much they have in common, yet the Christian side of Tolkien overcomes the deficincies in Morris.

     
  • At 6/03/2007 3:40 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Pat,

    Welcome back-- I'm looking forward to what you can share with us next. I hope your time in Europe has been illuminating -- any specific stories or encounters which you could tell us?

    I think you hit it right on the head that an understanding of the Anti-Christ as being the representation of pure self-love, combined (as we see in the sources) with an illusion of some sort of philanthropy, best explains who and what he is -- and it's something so many others, in their speculations, fails to appreciate.

     
  • At 7/29/2007 10:55 PM, Blogger Iambic Admonit said…

    Thank you for that great post; I'm really glad you brought in Charles Williams. Have you read his other novels, or his poetry? Come on over to http://iambicadmonit.blogspot.com to read my series on him when you can; I'd love your comments.

     

Post a Comment

<< Home