In recent times there have been huge changes to the social climate and attitudes in Britain, even over the course of a generation or two. We now live in a world of instant communication, sexual freedom, consumerism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, and the cult of celebrity. These developments certainly mean it is the end of the world that our parents and grandparents knew.
So the question arises should the phrase ‘the end of the world’ be understood in this symbolic sense rather than as some actual physical event?
End of the world and personal communication
It has been said that our economic and social relationships with others have been less visible and less interrelated in morally meaningful ways than was the case in the past. If so, perhaps it is because most of us in the industrialized West live in large urban areas not even knowing many of our neighbours and having little or no sense of local community. In addition, it may be because commercial companies have got too big to act in humane ways. Another factor put forward is our use of technology such as television and the internet that encourages our isolation and even anonymity.
End of the world of Christendom
With the demise of Christendom in England, along with its traditional social norms of how to behave, people are now beset with a confusing wide range of beliefs, ideals and values. You often hear someone say something along the lines of “That may be right for you but it is not right for me.” There seems to be a greater freedom these days to develop one’s own lifestyle and think what one wants.
End of the world and spiritual famine
I would suggest the common attitude seems to dismiss any notion that there are any transcendent universal principles. However this results in a danger of materialism and spiritual famine. One sign of this is seeing the acquisition of material possessions as the key to the good life: an attitude that, I believe, adds considerably to emotional distress. Another sign, I think is the vast gulf between the rich and the poor, even within the same country, and the attitude that this is not such a bad thing.
I would suggest another sign is the damage to committed loving relationships where sexual intimacy is commonly shown in television and film drama as a casual affair.
Another sign is a public that avidly reads and watches a mass media which superficially focuses so much on image and fame and the personal lives of the stars. We are quick to put them on pedestals and even more spellbound when they topple back down to earth.
End of the world of shared understanding
What hope is there for discerning what is false from what is true in a world lacking any deep sense of shared meaning and clear direction?
There are a myriad of different and sometimes incompatible worldviews on offer: examples that come to mind include humanism, atheism, mysticism, neo-paganism, spiritualism, and materialistic science, not to mention the world’s main religious traditions. They can’t all be right, but I suspect each has something valid to bring to the table even if I believe it is mixed up with mistaken notions. And so many people understandably tend to adopt a ‘pick and mix’ approach in relation to these systems of thought.
Leading contemporary writers have discarded or reinterpreted so many a traditional dogma, that used to be thought to be set in stone, but now is seen as a social construct, no longer relevant to today’s needs. As a consequence, personal experience and emotion are more important to people these days than rational discourse for guiding their lives. Yet at the same time at the back of some of our minds there might be a doubt that we are simply basing our eclectic choices on some strong sentiment that lacks a cohesive framework of rational thought.
End of the world of a distorted God
I believe what has been lost is a rationally coherent religious understanding of the Divine source of the universe and our place in it. I would suggest our error prone human nature is in danger of floundering without deep understanding of how such a higher power can be present in the bewildering flood of difficulties and emotions that can surround us. I would argue that when the going really gets tough no matter what our spiritual insights are, without such a beacon of light, darkness and confusion can easily arise.
In the eighteenth century Emanuel Swedenborg was impressed with the purity and genuineness of the earliest phase of the Christian church. And even today I would say there are many individuals who have found a deep spirituality and sense of communion with the Divine through their Christian faith. However, Swedenborg equated a decline of Christianity with the later formulation of its dogmatic creeds; these he said distorted the original faith.
One example of several false teachings he criticized was the idea of a God condemning non-believers to eternal damnation regardless of how they had lived their lives. Another was the idea of a God who wanted a scapegoat as the crucified Christ for the bad behaviour of the world.
Swedenborg’s explanation of the end of the world
Swedenborg thought one reason for distortions of the original Christian message had been a focus on the literal sense of the letter of the Bible without much deeper understanding of its inner truth. Another reason was the hypocrisy amongst its leaders who wanted to use religion for gaining power over people.
Not surprisingly, most of us in Britain have turned our backs on church-going, seeing Christians as having only simplistic and illogical religious explanations of the Bible. Scripture has come to be seen as outmoded and irrelevant to contemporary life.
Is this not the end of the world of religion as we knew it in the West?
I would say yes and as a result we have been experiencing a time of materialism and spiritual famine.
But wasn’t that ‘end of the world’ a necessary step? First the mind needs to cleared of distorted ideas about the Divine. Only then can there be a new freedom of thinking for those on a genuine spiritual quest.
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems