AFTER A YEAR OR TWO of particularly alarming and distressing events in the world and the Church, many of us have begun to think of the present day as something like the End of the World (at least, “the world as we know it”) and to wonder if things will ever get better instead of continuing to get steadily, and ever more rapidly, worse. Some even claim that we are in the End Times and look forward eagerly to the Second Coming of Christ, so that we can all be put out of our misery and admitted into the paradise of Eternity.
Plenty of other people pooh-pooh this apocalyptic fervor and point out that there have been many previous periods of Very Bad Things Happening, and yet the world did not end but continued to totter on—why should our own age be any different? In between these two views stands the great mass of humanity alive today, bewildered, distressed, but trying to get on with their lives as best they can, much as they have always done. I’m not going to try to tell anyone which of these three stances I think they should adopt—the truth is, I am sympathetic to all of them—but I do want to mention a book that I’m currently reading, which has reminded me of an important fact: Christians hold (or should hold) a particular view of history, and that view should shape the way we live in our own, present day.
The Divine Historian
Several years ago, in a post about the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, I referred to the Christian view of history and the way it differs from both the ancient pagan view that history, like all of nature, is caught up in an inexorable cycle of endless repetition, and the modern view that history tells a tale of continual human progress, which will culminate in a manmade Utopia.
The Christian view, in sharp contrast to either of those I just mentioned, is that we already know the overall outline of all human history, and it is bound and controlled not by human effort or ingenuity but by its Author, the Divine Logos. It is the story told in the Bible, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, all conceived and written by God Himself from the beginning of Time.
The point we need to grasp today is that the birth of the Christian Church at Pentecost marks the beginning of the end of the story. Christ’s Crucifixion and the salvation of souls effected by it was the climax of the Story, and everything after that is denouement or resolution. We are reluctant to recognize this, because it means that our lives play out in the last chapter. In other words, in a very real sense you and I and every Christian who ever lived or ever shall live are in the End Times. As minor characters in the final chapter of a Story that is already complete in the mind of God, our role as followers of Christ entrusted with the mission of spreading the Gospel is not to “sing a new Church into being” (as one particularly heretical modern hymn enjoins) but to tell the Story and prepare the world for the very End of the Age. We should be eager to do so, because those of us who play our parts well will appear in the sequel, the Neverending Story of the life of the world to come.
Are You a “Functional Pagan”?
And yet many of us, although we may truly believe that all times are in God’s hand and that the end of the story we are living out has already been written, tend not to behave or to think as if that is quite literally true. When we look to the past, we often do so with nostalgia, yearning for some lost time when it was easy to live a decent Christian life—whether that past time was the 1950s, the 1300s, or the first age of the Church; and when we think of the future, we look forward to a time when things will have “returned to normal.” We do not accept the idea that things will continue to get worse until the end and our duty is simply to carry on, here in this difficult present moment.
Unfortunately, this all-too-common way of thinking about the present day—as a bad patch in between two better times—more closely resembles the pagan way of viewing history than the Christian: that is, we act as if history is a never-ending cycle of good and bad times that come and go as Dame Fortuna spins her wheel and, if we just hang on, the turning wheel eventually will raise to the heights those who are now in the pits—until the wheel spins a little further and brings us back down again.
Our Times Are in God’s Hand
What if we face the (entirely Christian) idea that our present day, as well as the immediate future, truly are part of God’s Story, and that we are nearer the end than the beginning of that Story?
I recently began reading a book that has helped me face this possibility. It’s José María Zavala’s book, El Secreto Mejor Guardado de Fátima: Una Investigación 100 Años Después. (Not available in English; the translation of the title is “The Best-Kept Secret of Fatima: An Investigation 100 Years Later.”) I became aware of the book while reading an article on the 1Peter5 blog, which referred to this book in positive terms. The context of the reference was a discussion attempting to make sense of the insanity of our world at this present time. The article referred to a version of the “second part of the Third Secret” that supposedly has been hushed up by successive Pontiffs.
As I began to read Zavala’s book, I soon realized that it has a lot more in it than the mystery of the third Fatima secret, nor is it merely some sensationalistic exposé. What really caught and held my attention is the historical perspective from which Zavala views the events of Fatima (and those of our current day) in relation to earlier approved apparitions and secular historical events, stretching back as far as the seventeenth century.
In Zavala’s view (and I find it a persuasive one), these events have been pointing toward and leading up to the End that is coming. In fact, Zavala seems convinced that we are already in the End Times (however long they may take to play out) and have been for some time—at least since the miraculous events at Fatima, but probably since long before that. His references to the Marian apparition at La Salette in the mid-nineteenth century and the revelations to Margaret Mary Alacoque two centuries earlier indicate that God has been trying to get our attention for some time, to remind us to turn back to Him and be saved before it’s too late, while the modern world hurtles toward its destruction.
In Chapter 4 of his book, Zavala discusses various historic periods which have manifested just how monstrous man can be when he throws off religion, culture, tradition, and human respect in favor of Godless ideology. He points to events throughout the modern period when there have occurred frenzies of violence so terrible as to be clearly demonic. These include:
- the French Revolution
- the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia
- the Spanish Civil War
- the two World Wars
All of these show a world essentially at war with itself—wars not to gain or regain territory, as most wars in the past had been, but wars fought to impose a new ideology, a brutal and godless one. As the forces moving the modern world have become more openly atheistic, the unimaginable brutality inflicted by ideological atheism in all its forms has become more frequent and more prolonged, until today it seems that hardly a day goes by without some new and terrible development. The modern juggernaut is fast approaching the lip of the abyss, while only now, too late perhaps to slow its pace or divert its trajectory, more and more ordinary people are waking up to the hair-raising reality of the disastrous course of our world.
The point that Zavala makes repeatedly in his book is that the Church (and, through it, the world) has been warned time and again, but because the evil of the World was already at work within the Church, these warnings have not been clearly and energetically proclaimed; therefore, the Church Herself (i.e., Her members, including those at the highest levels of responsibility) must share in the blame for the state of the world.
One of the things that Zavala emphasizes is the way these extraordinary warnings (apparitions, etc.) not only have become progressively more urgent and more dire but point with ever greater emphasis to the rottenness within the leadership of the Church, from ordinary priests and religious right up to those at the top of the Church’s hierarchy. In fact, according to the Spanish writer, this is precisely the reason that the second part of the “Third Secret of Fatima,” which the visionary Lucia was instructed by Our Lady not to reveal before 1960, has apparently never been truly disclosed to the public. Why? Because it warns of a Pope who serves not God but Satan.
A Paradigm Shift
I haven’t yet finished the book, so I don’t want to say any more about Zavala’s ideas regarding the Third Secret of Fatima or the state of the Church. My primary reason for mentioning it today is that it has helped me complete a paradigm shift in the way I view history, a change of perspective that has been transpiring in my mind slowly for decades: to see history as a Story already written, by the best Storyteller there could ever be.
There is real comfort in viewing history this way, because it alleviates the cognitive dissonance that arises from the conflict between the myth of progress that we all grew up with and the continuing and increasing horrors of the modern world. Those who insist on clinging to the lie that “every day in every way we are getting better and better” must blind themselves to much of what is going on in the world and dismiss warnings as “whack-a-doodle conspiracy theory.” For them, “Progress” is an abstract and inexorable force that must not be opposed, one that operates without their conscious participation, although they are often eager to signal their endorsement of this mythical progress with bumper stickers and Tweets that endorse “progressive” causes.
On the other hand, those of us who recognize that we are minor characters in a Story as old as time can content ourselves with fulfilling our assigned roles well. As minor characters, we can’t control the plot, but when we act out the parts assigned to us by the Divine Author, we contribute to the perfection of the story.
I was born into a generation that expected the apocalypse at any moment—a nuclear apocalypse of man’s own making, not one presided over by God and his angels. In my adolescence, as the world continued on the brink of self-destruction, I obsessively read books about a world destroyed by nuclear weapons, books such as Alas, Babylon and On the Beach. This fear of mankind’s self-annihilation jostled uneasily with the “George Jetson” view of the future, which imagines technology making all our lives a breeze.
When the threat of nuclear war finally receded in the 1980s and early ’90s, particularly after the Soviet Union dissolved back into its component parts, I began to realize that, although there had been many technological advances in my lifetime, none of them seemed to be making the world a better place. In fact, a lot of new technology seemed to open the way for new horrors. Books such as Brave New World and Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day underscored my sense that advanced technology and our growing reliance on it would prove to be more of a curse than a blessing. When I heard others proclaim that “life today is better than it has ever been,” I realized that they viewed the world from a very different perspective than my own, one grounded in materialistic assumptions that measure life in economic, not moral, terms. Such people seemed enthralled by the modern myth of progress, which I could not help but view as a hollow lie. From where I was standing, every day in every way, we were not getting “better and better.” In fact, from a moral perspective, things seemed to be getting much worse.
A Liberally-Educated Perspective
Not until I began graduate studies at the University of Dallas did I begin to discern an alternative way of thinking about where the world was headed. The graduate program I was in had us reading great works of literature, philosophy, and theology from the long tradition of Western culture, providing me with a coherent framework in which to view the past and (implicitly) the future. Amongst all the many “great books” I studied, I can point to two that particularly helped me make this shift in the way I view history and my own place in it.
The first is something I’ve mentioned before, Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Concept of History, Ancient and Modern,” which compares the pagan, Christian, and modern (secular) views of history. Until I read that, I don’t think I had ever thought of history as anything more than “one damned thing after another.” As a Catholic Christian, I understood that God had intervened in history time and again, but I still had the sense that He was pretty much leaving us to our own devices until He finally decided it was time to wrap things up and call it quits.
The second work that changed my way of thinking was John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, particularly Bks. XI and XII. At the end of the poem, after Adam and Eve have sinned and are about to be ejected from Paradise, God instructs the archangel Michael to give Adam some encouragement by letting him see that, although Adam and Eve have condemned themselves and all their progeny in perpetuity to an existence full of sorrow and toil, God would use their disobedience to bring an even greater good out of it all, by sending his Divine Son to redeem all mankind. That act would not put an instantaneous end to either the human story or human suffering, but it would assure that mankind’s suffering need not be meaningless. Christians would be able to serve God’s good plan by suffering for and with Christ. Adam, consoled and encouraged by this revelation, responds by vowing to spend the rest of his life obedient to God so that, in some small way, he too can bring some good out of the evil that he has done.
I can’t say how close our times are to the end of human history, although there are plenty of signs that support the view that “the End is nigh,” but I do know that we would all do well to adopt the view of Milton’s Adam. If we trust the Divine Author of the human story, we should focus on playing our part to the best of our ability, doing God’s will here and now so that, amongst the many inevitable evils of the world, we can do some good and set a good example for others, trusting that God will bring the story to a fitting close at the time and in the way that best accord with both His justice and His mercy.