Trigger warning: this post is going to be about religion (sort of). The fine details will be about history, politics, and popular culture, but I’ve been asked to reflect back on something I experienced in July of this year, and that’s what I’m going to do. If you want to save yourselves and click on by, I won’t blame you.
Those allergic to metaphor and academic mumbo-jumbo may also want to brace themselves. Here we go.
This week marks a few milestones. Today is the date that Marty McFly arrives in 2015 to hoverboards, endless sequels, and people wearing sports clothes out in public in the 1989 film Back to the Future II. An event that will obviously receive much less publicity is the 171st anniversary of the Great Disappointment, an apocalyptic prediction by a Christian man named William Miller, who claimed that the world would end on 22 October, 1844.
Needless to say, it did not.
In the aftermath of this failed apocalypse, however, came a very real disaster: in addition to having their hopes shattered, many nineteenth-century Millerites had given away all their possessions in anticipation of the second coming of Jesus (a shared belief in Christianity), and while the apocalypse may not literally have come for them on 22 October, it certainly must have seemed like the world had ended. Some were understandably angry, even violent. Some searched for possible explanations for the miscalculation, and some left their faith behind altogether.
Fast-forward 171 years, and the Millerites have not only survived, they have grown in number. Of the various Protestant, Adventist denominations to come out of the Great Disappointment, the largest by far is the Seventh-day Adventist Church. At over 18 million members, and with adherents in more than 200 countries, it is (according to Wikipedia) the twelfth-largest religious body in the world, and the sixth-largest highly international religious body. In a way that eerily mirrors trends across the globe, the Adventist church is overwhelmingly multicultural, and increasingly fundamentalist.
So. Now you have some context.
Back in July, delegates of the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted not to allow each of its 13 world divisions to make provisions for women to be ordained — 1,381 delegates against, 977 for. Practically speaking, this meant that nothing changed. The Adventist church is governed by a bottom-up system, meaning that if local unions and churches wish to ordain women, policy allows them to do so. There are already many female pastors working in the Adventist church — in China, in fact, the majority of Adventist pastors are female.
The tone behind this decision, however, and behind many other decisions at the 2015 General Conference of Adventists in San Antonio, has created a rift in the Adventist church. Some (mostly from the North American division) are calling it the new Great Disappointment. I was in the conference hall when the moment(s) of disappointment happened, and I can definitely confirm that the atmosphere was brutal. Some (again, mostly from the North American division) have rather melodramatically declared that the General Conference is dead to them, and that we should mourn it. In a more nuanced move, this second collective, known as RIP GC, has called for a reflection on the themes of disappointment, faith, and moral authority. This syncroblog event coincides with the week of the Great Disappointment 171 years ago, and for those involved it represents a similar struggle to move forward. They are trying to deal with a belief system (and an organisation) that is fundamental to their identities and very dear to their hearts, but from which they feel increasingly alienated.
I have a complicated relationship with this particular religious organisation. On the one hand, I recognise and respect the need for organised religion. Western society is increasingly post-Christian, but religion is very much alive and well in the world, and I firmly reject the notion that religion is something developed societies ‘grow out of’. Things are more complicated than that. On the other hand, I find the increasingly fundamentalist nature of many religions, Adventism in particular, to be extremely off-putting. I was raised by two Adventists who were both children of missionaries, and I can navigate the ins and outs of Adventist culture like a pro. Like many academics, however, I find religion difficult to reconcile with my worldview. I certainly wouldn’t want to exclude it from my collection of paradigms, but accessing it is as much an intellectual and imaginative exercise as it is an emotional or spiritual one.
So the ‘Great Disappointment’ of 2015 affected me a bit differently than it has others. My understanding of my relationship with religion is already very separate from my identity as a member (baptised at 13) of an 18-million-strong world church. I have also lived (and churched) in six different countries and three different continents — many more if you count single visits. I know that, while Adventist may be uniform in many ways, it is incredibly diverse in others. When confronted with the divisive spirit at the 2015 GC, I honestly wasn’t very surprised, and therefore not very disappointed.
Why should a governing body be fair or representative? In what world or environment is that the case, inside or outside of churches? We live in the age of broken systems: capitalism, democracy, police systems and school systems. Is this outlook cynical? Probably. But it points to an interesting problem.
For me the Great Disappointment is representative of a bigger issue, not just with Adventism, but with religion, politics, ideology, and life in general. I find the idea that we only have two options in a situation of great disappointment and disillusionment to be supremely frustrating. Most responses suggest that we must either cut our losses and run, or solider on and suffer. For most of us, though, neither option is really viable. OK, in theory certain privileged individuals may be able to cut all ties to civilisation, move to the middle of nowhere, and become entirely self-sufficient, but for most of us there is no way to escape the system. We are stuck here.
In a very real sense, then, we live in a post-apocalyptic world. Not in the sense that the world has literally ended but, as James Berger puts it in After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, modernity is ‘preoccupied by a sense of crisis, viewing as imminent, perhaps even longing for, some conclusive catastrophy’ (Berger, 1999, xiii). Only now, after two world wars and the seemingly continual collapse of our social and economic systems, that longing for apocalypse is accompanied by the very real sense that the catastrophe has already happened. While we stand around anticipating an ultimate end, we are in fact standing amidst the ruins of a thousand tiny apocalypses.
We now recognise that apocalypses happen to everyone, and to every organised system, at some point. The problem is not with specific religions or governing bodies, per se. The problem is that all governing bodies, all ideologies, and all systems (especially idealistic or utopian ones) contain the seeds of their own destruction. Does this mean we should give up on them altogether? I’m in favour of looking at the question from another perspective.
In an academic article on the Occupy movement, Steven D. Brown summarises a 1980 book called The Parasite, by French philosopher Michel Serres. Brown, paraphrasing Serres, explores the idea that systems need these tiny apocalypses, these moments of disruption, in order to go on existing (and trust me, the double summary is necessary here):
A closed system at equilibrium knows no time, or rather it knows only the endless, ceaseless time of the return to steady state. Living systems, by contrast, operate quite far from equilibrium states, oscillating between numerous existing and emergent norms. What we call history begins with differentiation, divergence. (Brown, 91)
The Occupy movement are deemed as ‘hypocrites’ because they refuse to offer a single political position on economy and society. Yet they are wise to do so. Stations and positions are not sources of power, they are what are parasitized to produce power. She or he who makes a blank space, an enclosure, is simply issuing an invitation to the parasite. Change and transformation comes from disequilibrium, redirecting flows, not stopping and defending them. (Brown, 97)
Basically, what Brown is saying here it that fighting stations and positions is counterproductive. The best-case scenario in this situation is that new stations and positions are created, which in turn will need to be fought against. The only thing that can’t be fought is the disruptive force of parasites: those who won’t play along with the system, but who also won’t leave the system.
Where I am I going with this rather abstract digression, and how does it relate to the Great Disappointment? Don’t worry, I’m getting there, slowly but surely. The way I see it, we shouldn’t have to make a decision about whether to abandon the Adventist church or to remain. That’s not the kind of decision that we, living in the twenty-first century, can even make any more. We’re in it, for better or for worse.
Maybe it’s time to stop living in anticipation of the apocalypse, and start living after the apocalypse. Maybe it’s time to take apocalypse in stride — popular culture certainly has. For many of us, apocalypse (and other disappointment) has become rather passé. Maybe instead of trying to avert the next disaster, we need to scavenge what we can from the ruins and use it, not to take down the system, but to camp out in the middle of it and wait. We need to eke out a blank space, not to argue or to offer solutions, but to say ‘We have survived the old world, we are still here, and we are waiting — just waiting together — for the new one to arrive’.