“One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. “
I do this. It’s a good exercise to see whether something is or is not actually impossible. A square circle is impossible; I know this not only because of its inherent self-contradiction but because, in spite of having fairly flexible imagination, I can’t picture it. I can picture gnomes and elves and centaurs, minotaurs, giants, dryads, Nephilim, kobolds, flying carpets or saucers, genies in bottles, underground kingdoms ruled by talking cats, golden apples of the sun, mysterious one-eyed men on horses from distant climes, goofy aliens, water babies, etc etc etc. I have never seen any of these things but they may be Up to Something behind my back, and there’s nothing really inherently impossible about any of them.
An empiricist might argue that a flying carpet is impossible according to the rules of nature as we know it. This reminds me of Chesterton’s Father Brown:
“It’s not the supernatural part I doubt. It’s the natural part. I’m exactly in the position of the man who said, `I can believe the impossible, but not the improbable.’”
“That’s what you call a paradox, isn’t it?” asked the other.
“It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,” replied Father Brown. “It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand. So it is with that tale of the curse. It isn’t the legend that I disbelieve–it’s the history.”
As for the apocalypse, I was brought up on it. This was partially due to the anxiety over nuclear war that was a staple of the Eighties, but also partially due to a lot of fringe religious influences. Armageddon was supposed to be right around the corner (because, you know, these days are So Much Wickeder than any days that have ever gone before. Which you may continue to believe, if you never study history).
The Three Days of Darkness was a big deal for some people. I forget what was supposed to happen if you didn’t barricade yourself inside with wretched canned food and candles (no one ever suggested cigars, wine, cheese, and apples…because heaven forbid that one should actually enjoy the apocalypse)…demons would haul you off howling, or something, and there would be NOTHING God could do about it. We didn’t need to stockpile canned goods because we raised our own food and anyway, we had a whole room full of boxes of dried beans, which we could cook and eat or, alternatively, plant, after civilization had collapsed. This room accounted for the quantity of mice that made themselves at home with us. Rats, too. And snakes, to eat the mice. One of them got into our bathroom one morning, and my dad found it coiled around a lamp atop the toilet. It was a fine menagerie.
Then we had y2k which was a sort of remote possibility, but people were thrilled with the opportunity to drop everything and prepare for cataclysm once again. By this time I was old enough to see that the End of the World (as we know it) could be a useful excuse for evading responsibility. I regularly have wished civilization would collapse, so that I won’t have to pay off my student loans, and so my not terribly marketable skills will suddenly be eminently useful. I am shit with computer technology, but I can live off the land and shoot a gun and survive without running water and also teach a lot of useless but delightful lore about Philosophy and Literature, to keep civilization alive.
It is not incomprehensible to me that civilization should collapse eventually. History shows us numerous instances of societies that have risen and fallen. The fact that is could happen, and that it has happened before, should be a reminder to people not to put too much trust in the status quo.
There is a tendency among some to say “it hasn’t happened yet, so it’s never going to happen.” This is pretty bloody naive. I mean, I haven’t died yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t, eventually.
Then on the other hand there are the alarmists who confuse a “could happen” with a “must happen.” I suppose on one hand this could be the result of sloppy grammar and a mixing-up of modal verbs. But I think it’s really just that some people are primordially discontent. Some of these people are fond of saying things like “I was born into the wrong time. I was meant to be a Victorian Lady” (or a wild west outlaw, or a renaissance philosopher, etc etc etc). This offers a good excuse for not flourishing in the here and now.
Anyway, I don’t think that there’s anything inherently impossible about a collapse of civilization, especially considering our unnecessary wars, our boundless materialism, our exhaustion of our natural resources, and the fact that Katy Perry is at the top of the pop charts. But until civilization collapses, I unfortunately still have to clean my house, pay my bills, go to work, etc. From a religious perspective, this is where I am called to live each moment with love for God and family and neighbor. What a drag.
I do however think that the Rapture is inherently silly. I CAN imagine it – it’s not like a square circle – but when I do, it seems goofy. I know God has a sense of humor, but he is not (as far as I can tell) a bad movie director who replaces a good plotline with pointless special effects and gratuitous nudity.
Reasons why the Rapture is improbable:
1) People who believe in it take their “evidence” from the Bible, which explicitly states that we “know not the day nor the hour,” and yet they are often telling us the day or the hour.
2) People are, apparently, going to be sucked up out of their shoes and clothes, and go swooping through the sky. This means that a lot of unappealing physiques are going to be suddenly bare beneath the sun. Seems like poor taste. It also means that some appealing ones are going to be bare…does this mean that the Elect are going to be casting covert glances at beefy bottoms and opulent bosoms, while singing “alleluia” with a sudden, greater fervor? Or maybe you lose your sex drive while flying through the air. I don’t know.
3) Speaking of bodies…I hope, if it happens, that your digestive functions shut down, too. En route to the glorified body, some folks might get so excited by the experience of ascension, that they lose all control. This could be particularly troublesome if people are raptured out of bathrooms and outhouses, in the middle of a “project.” Not fun for those of us “left behind.” But then, I guess it’s not supposed to be. However, nowhere in the book of Revelation does it say that “the heavens rained down…” in this respect.
4) Since we know from modern science that you can go on and on and on through space and not bump your head against the underbelly of Heaven, and we know from theology that Heaven is not really a “place up there,” the whole ascension thing has got to be just a special effect thrown in for a couple of minutes. Otherwise the Elect are just going to go on and on and on and on for billions and billions of light years. So I guess once they get past the cloud cover, or out of sight, the ascension bit stops and they get blipped out of this space-time continuum into Paradise. In which case, why bother with Rapturing them at all? Why not just have them disappear? Or drop (apparently) dead? Is it just to make the ones jealous, who are Left Behind?
5) Do babies get raptured out of mothers’ wombs? Because, I am not a very holy person. But my unborn child is quite innocent, as far as I know. So how is it going to get out? The traditional way? Will it go flying through the air, four inches long, five ounces? How will it breathe, poor thing? Wouldn’t this be kind of like an abortion? Wouldn’t that be bad?
6) Interestingly, the people who think they are going to be raptured rarely strike me as particularly holy themselves. Well-meaning, I suppose. Followers of certain rules. Fond of passing judgment. A little lazy about REALLY studying their Bibles (they memorize verses, but it never seems to dawn on them that the Bible was not originally written in their language, so if they want to know it well, a few courses in Hebrew and Greek and Aramaic might not be amiss). But then, who am I to know what God really likes?
7) Speaking of the Bible, there is such a thing as apocalypse literature, and there is a tradition for interpreting it. It is not, traditionally, to be interpreted literally. Numbers, for instance, have a spiritual significance. So if I say that seven bears with three heads each, and claws ten inches long, sat down on twelve thrones and ate forty virgins, the thing to do is NOT to try to figure out which seven evil world leaders are referred to here, but to figure out what the number seven actually signifies, allegorically. (Okay, actually, if I were to say this, the thing to do would be to put me on some pretty powerful meds. Since I’m not divinely inspired, as far as I know).
8) Of course, if everything in the Bible is to be taken literally, then we Catholics are right about the Real Presence. In which case, we should be raptured, too. But here it is, May 21, and I am sitting in front of my computer, when I should be out weeding. See? You can shirk responsibility, even without the Apocalypse as an excuse.