Thou are right, O Lord, very right.
Thou hast condemned us justly.
"Bear with me. My story requires a bit of preface. " Alex said. "I might try your patience. Even if what they used to call storytellers still existed, I wouldn't be one. The ability to tell a story with a coherent beginning, middle and, especially, end, is all but lost. No one knows how to end a story anymore. And I have no ending for this one."
"So...you've come to me for help." I smiled.
"No." He smiled back. "I mean...no offense, I wasn't thinking that. And now that you mention it, I'm open to suggestions."
"You won't mind?"
"I will thank you, if you can give this story its proper resolution."
"What do you mean resolution?" I asked. He laughed.
"Just what I was saying about nobody knows how to end a story anymore. The true art of storytelling was lost by the middle of the twenty first century. Anyway, I'm beginning to think there is no ending. None that isn't meaningless. And I warn you now you'll find the details and course if the story--what they called plot back in the day--absurd. But not, if I manage it correctly, meaningless. The point is to arrive at meaning by way of all the absurdity."
"That's absurd." I laughed. Alex grinned.
"No, not at all. Autonomous Virtuality is still churning through themes that precede its crude early stages as 'virtual reality', which it inherited from cinema, which was passed down from the written word: supernatural elements, time travel, conjuring of historical figures. I borrow some of these techniques. History and man provide the absurdity.
"After I spent the summer immersed in the old writings--so wonderful they're there, so unfortunate no one cares--I was compelled to write a story in the old fashion. It's meant to be read and that's it. It isn't a script, or accompanying text for something else. Reading was once something people did for its own sake. Not just storytelling; nonfiction writing was merited aside from content for artistry, and what was called the essay, for instance, was once common. There was of course poetry, now all but indecipherable to all but an aging few and soon to pass into oblivion with them."
With all the deliberation of a man who'd finished speaking for the time being, Alex paused to pour his glass and drink. Knowing him, I didn't interrupt. The light outside was dimming.
"I've set my story in the first half of the twenty first century, just as the Postmodern Panics were beginning. Of course this is not what they called them at the time, because it's inaccurate. The Panics were not at all panics--sudden mass psychological reactions--but the logical culmination of the parallel movements that dominated American politics into the middle of the twenty first century.
"Nor do I believe any of the prevailing, supposedly deeper analyses--not that anyone pays them much attention--that they were manias born of the economic shocks of the twenties, or the post sexual revolution, or to the combination of the two, or--a favorite of mine--a mass re-wiring of the human brain due to the sudden prevalence of AV; autonomous virtuality was actually in its infancy when the Panics began in earnest--and they certainly weren't due to that perpetual specter, global warming.
"The Panics weren't in opposition to the dominant cultural and political movements of the time, as we are taught, but emerged logically, ideologically, from them. They only differed in methods and--for the most part--fervor from half of the respectable political spectrum, this was when we still had what they now call an antipodal system, from what used the be called the Left. But more than that; their assumptions regarding the justice of their causes was conventional thought. One could get in more trouble--that is lose his livelihood or, towards the end, worse of course, by publicly questioning these assumptions than he could praising the actions of the various political terrorists of the time.
"The critique that had reformed society, liberalized its laws and economy, came to be a condemnation of it; the people of the West came to the conclusion their culture had been corrupt the whole time, and that it had sinned in coming to dominate the modern world it created.
Conventional thought was a radical, non-empirical analysis of a people condemning itself and its history. There is no precedent. Anyway, what we're taught now--that all good people stood in opposition to the Panics waged by a zealous and effective few--is not true. Let's just say by the time of my story, about 2020, the terrorists and ruling elite shared the same critique and, for the most part, goals.
"Both ruling elite and political terrorist professed nearly the same contempt for the old order, what was once called the West, and its people, loosely and broadly described, and vilified, as 'white'. This is the origin of the casual usage of the word white to mean something generally bad or suspect, while that original racial connotation is lost to obscurity.
The renunciation of Western history and culture had achieved such a revolution over such a short time--a couple of generations, and the die was cast--almost entirely through the cultural and political moral suasion of society's institutions acting in solidarity--which is not to say there wasn't a great deal of coercion, especially toward the end.
"But this suasion was of two parts: a queer self-condemnation of the West, coupled with the promise of the superiority of the new post-Western utopia. The utopia was stubborn in arriving. The condemnation, always the greater part, became like a drug: ever greater dosages and strains were required. The violence of the early twenties looks predictable in hindsight.
"The component movements of the dominant order--feminism, the black and gay autonomy movements, ever more smaller movements modeled on these--found themselves unopposed in spirit and at the time presented themselves still as the rights movements of oppressed groups. Their actions might be condemned, but never their goals--and these could be quite radical. It wasn't long before these movements started shedding smaller, uncontrollable elements, domestic terrorists and criminal gangs. Many if not most would be folded up into and fighting for the Axis of Equality in the civil wars. The worst atrocities charged to the A of E almost invariably involve these. The name 'Axis of Equality', by the way, was initially a derogatory phrase, introduced by the opposition, while there still was one, co-opted by the A of E in its ascendance.
"The terrorist organizations that emerged from the time and would later be folded into the forces of the Axis--the Black Insurrection, the Amazon Army, the Western Intifada, the Indigenous People's Brigade--which, did you know, had few of these 'indigenous' people among its ranks, and virtually none among its leadership, and eventually collapsed over its inability to reach consensus on the meaning of 'indigenous'?"--Alex chuckled--"did not differ in their analyses from polite conventional opinion. They only differed in their fervor and violence. The elite agreed in principle and even sought the same negation of the historic West and its people, at least as a people. Well, they've got their way; no one defines himself as a 'Westerner' any more, by any name. But I suspect this isn't what they had in mind.
"I was going to say I think people don't go in there and read the old writings, and the few who do tend to get it all wrong, because the actions of these near predecessors of ours are so inexplicable, ultimately. It's like you're reading about an alien race.
"At any rate the past has been jettisoned like a rocket stage by post-literacy. We don't speak the same language as our own past. What's more, we can't know what is lost. But to think the powerful used to go to great lengths to suppress information. All they had to do was wait. Run out the clock on concern. But there's more to it, I suspect."
"You had a lot of time on your hands." I teased.
"And I spent it obsessing over the past--over time!" Alex delighted.
"This then is the time and setting of my story: the Panics hadn't arrive yet and the civil wars were just a rumbling on the horizon. The Pope then, he wasn't the guy you see on the advertisements for Global Sun or whatever they're calling it now. Vatican III hadn't happened yet, of course. The Church hadn't yet abandoned its claim of descent from Saint Peter. The Pope still went about in robes performing ceremonies, sometimes wearing a grand mitre on his head. Good, simple people still believed and wept at the sight of him, genuinely moved; they were some of the last human beings to experience religious faith, and our understanding of it died off with them. They didn't see at the time the very man they venerated as somehow nearer to God was working shoulder to shoulder with the enemies of God, of the idea of God, of the Church, above all by embracing the Great Migration that set up the European theater of the civil wars.
"The erosion of power that had begun with the Reformation half a millennium before wasn't quite complete, and the Church retained a great deal of wealth and political influence. But any real power it had was conditioned on it following the secular order of the day, which could be seen as Christianity stripped of its mystery--and any elements troublesome to commerce or politics. The last of the popes were enthusiastic proponents of this order. But at the time of my story it still had more than billion professed members--declining in the advanced West but growing outside of it in the poorer south of Africa and South America.
"The Church's dependence on those from the Third World aligned with the European ruling elite's own project of facilitating the migration of these people into Europe. Or so it would seem; that these people were overwhelmingly Muslim and thus compelled--by a religion their average believer seemed to take more seriously than the Pope took his--to oppose and displace Christianity wherever they found it, well, I don't have an explanation for why the Church was untroubled by that. But it had clearly abandoned the goal of bringing the world to Christ.
"Instead it opposed the slightest opposition to the great migration that would achieve in decades what Europe's secular impulse sought for centuries: the Church's final ruin. It's as if having been stripped of its moral authority over spiritual and family life it could do nothing but divert this thwarted energy into moral authority on the great secular sins of the time, racism, sexism and nationalism. This was no real authority at all, of course, because its converse was not allowed, or at least not considered a tenable position by Rome.
"Adopting the secular mores of the time did not lessen condemnation of the Church; in fact it only seemed to get more intense and confident. The Church was historically guilty as the source of the great sins of the time--racism, sexism, sexual morality, which had become a vice somehow--so it could never reform to satisfaction. Condemnation proves inversely correlated to the power of its target. Imagine that."
"And there we should begin. Despite allying with them on a global level, at the time of my story the Church drew the attention of of some of these pre-Panic groups, militant but not yet violent. Among them a group of radical feminist women who interrupted worship or any gathering of the religious, staging stunts, usually of an obscene nature, in protest of the Church's continuing opposition to abortion and its suppression of women as they saw it."
I drew the blinds against the darkening night. Alex turned on the lamp after fiddling with it for a moment.
"And that's where we begin. The setting is St Peter's Square. The sky is cloudless. The air has the sharp transparency of late fall, but the day is unseasonably warm. It feels like summer.
Terrorism has been a concern for a while now, and the thick cord of people waiting in line to tour St Peter's is contained behind heavy fencing paralleling on one side the great curving colonnades that embrace the square, where groups of tourists mill about under the watchful eye of security, some in disguise.
"In the center of the square there used to be an Egyptian obelisk-"--Alex saw my confusion--"-a sort of spire-pyramid, some twenty meters or so tall. It's since been repatriated back to Egypt, as part of the global 'historical repatriation and reconciliation' movement, and was eventually destroyed by fanatic Muslims in the chaos of the mid-century. Around this striking point in the center of the vast square a commotion begins."
"Two young women have managed to elude security and are attempting to scale the obelisk. They are stripped mostly naked, one painted pink in symbolic resistance to the Church's repression of women, the other in the colors of the rainbow signifying its repression of homosexuality. They are struggling with a suction-cup and rope method of their own contrivance; the pink climber is managing better, about three meters off the ground and making slow progress before the police, scandalously late, are upon them. The other climber has managed to ascend just out of reach of police, but two have seized the slogan bearing banner she's trailing behind her. It's gotten wrapped about her midsection; she struggles to free herself of it as the police draw it just enough to hold her in place.
"As more police arrive, three more women have ditched their tourist disguises. They too were chosen for youth and suppleness to draw more attention to their stunts, the modus operandi of this particular group. Their torsos were painted with anti-Church slogans. One wore a bra attached at the nipples with dildos on springs; they bobbed obscenely. She set upon a policeman and twirled them, in stripper fashion. He took her by the forearms and they grappled. Another wearing a headpiece with dildos curved into the shape of devil's horns seized him by the leg. Two more demonstrators rushed forward with a pink banner they intended to wrap about the obelisk; they were intercepted at its base, one becoming entangled in the banner as they struggled with police. The pink climber held her precarious vantage partway up the obelisk bravely as she started shouting slogans. But she could not be heard, as the still air was suddenly broken by gusts of wind.
"A crowd began to form around the spectacle. Here and there a shout of disapproval emerged from it, but mostly the people watched in curious silence. Political stunts like this were common enough by that time; most observers knew the bizarre sight for what it was immediately. Such demonstrations such as this were increasingly indulged by the same political leaders who were ultimately responsible for maintaining order--unlike the unfortunate police and mid-level bureaucrats, who were immediately responsible for maintaining order. Because of mass media nearly everyone in the crowd on the square had the prior, virtual experience of the bizarre scene before them, and could confidently classify it for what it was and the nature of the protester's complaints without reading the slogans on the banners. On the faces of some in the crowd you might have even seen something like resignation.
"It was then, near the entrance to the square, a lone figure approached. It was the Son of Man, in human form, walking among us. He was recognized immediately. The irreligious, the falsely religious, the devout; all who saw Him knew immediately it was He. He glided through them, blessing their lowered heads with a look at once all-knowing and all-forgiving."
"Now hold on a damn minute. That's quite enough." I interrupted. Alex smiled mischievously. "This is getting ridiculous. And, by the way, you know I know something about Christian eschatology."
"I know very well. More importantly, I see you as a believer, unlike myself..."
"You know I'm definitely not." I protested.
"Only because no one is, anymore. But you are of the type--the good, noble type of believer. Me--who's to say?--but most likely not. I have a cursed nature. Whereas you, like I said, are a believer; a believer in a time, not of disbelief, for that would at least be an assertion...no, ours is an age of indifference."
"You make it all sound so grim. For us believers, that is."
"Oh no, it's grim for all." Alex said enthusiastically, as if this was balm. "That's the thing. This absence of a tenable religion isn't just a problem for the faithful, but for the skeptical, for while the believer is denied something 'to believe in', the non-believer is just as significantly denied something in which to disbelieve. His resistance to faith is no less a moral way than faith; after all, if he's right it is he who is a soldier for truth against deception. I'm not even sure the distinction between them is all that meaningful. Coming at this dilemma from opposite sides, faithful and skeptic alike can be said merely to be coming up hard against an indifferent natural world, unmitigated by religion. If there's nothing greater than Nature, as there is now in the absence of religious mystery, and if Nature is indifferent as it certainly is--countless failed Nature cults can't be wrong--then in this indifferent world the indifferent man thrives.
"Those who were genuinely engaged in the question of religion and the soul didn't see they ultimately shared a cause: that existence deserved an explanation. The secularists offering a moral alternative to religion, the humanists and others, didn't see religion's death was their own; they grappled with and overcame their mortal enemy as both went over the falls of history. Of indifference. Sorry, I'm drifting."
"Not at all."
"So He has returned. But this is not the Second Coming. Whatever His intentions were we can't know--let's establish that as a bound for this story, that we can't presume to know the intentions of the Almighty. That would be too much. But we're obligated to establish this isn't the Advent. He's come to be among us, that is all, for His reasons.
"I want to say He chose the moment randomly, but that raises an interesting philosophical question. I mean, to select a moment randomly is to select a moment you don't know. He, being omniscient, cannot not know something. And if he can't not know something then he's not omnipotent, is He? It's an interesting paradox. Can He suspend, say, his omnipotence? If anything whatsoever is in his power we must assume He can. But if he can even temporarily lay it aside, how can He be truly omnipotent? And if He did, doesn't he step down from divinity, and couldn't, say, Satan overcome Him in his suspended state?"
"Sounds like another story. But He did suspend, so to speak, his omnipotence, as the Son of Man. The Son of Man, the Son of God, is not God. He is not omnipotent in this state. That is the point. Isn't it the basis of your story?"
"I won't pretend to understand the controversy regarding the essence of Christ but we can dispute that later. Let it remain a mystery, just as the Christ, just as all religion is necessarily shrouded in mystery. It is this loss of mystery in our time I lament. But to return to my story."
"Please, do." I said.
"Many there in the square bore the atavistic fashions of the time, the curious tattoos and piercings you see in images of that age. As He turned his eyes upon one such woman she covered a tattoo on her forearm with her hand, suddenly ashamed. With an exquisite tenderness he placed His hand on hers. He moved on. She raised her hand and the tattoo was gone."
"This is really too much." I said.
"Bear with me." Alex smiled.
"They fell silent in His presence and cried out spontaneously in His wake. Their shouts were joyful and grievous at the same time, and of an intensity none of them could have before witnessed, much less experienced, before. Indeed, what human beings could have known an experience of this nature, much less degree? None of us. But the sound was instantly recognizable for what it was: genuine, unguarded, human. Into that world of artifice upon artifice, it came like a bolt from the sky.
"And when this sound reached the obelisk as He neared, for He was moving directly toward it, it turned the attention of the crowd away from the chaotic burlesque there. Even the police and painted women froze in mid-struggle, like comic statuary, looking off in the direction of the sound. The pink-painted climber, having been thus distracted, lost her grip and began to slide down the obelisk. She managed her slide at first, but then her foot caught up fast in her tangled rope. Suddenly and completely anchored by the foot, her momentum whipsawed her headfirst into the obelisk. She fell and crumpled at its base, the rope wrapped about her leg.
"Police and civilians pressed in on each other coming to her aid. Right away someone called out to Him, and others joined in. He was already upon the scene. The murmuring crowd parted for him, revealing the girl laying inert, a policeman kneeling by her side. There was a drop of blood on the corner of her mouth; a trickle coming from her ear. Her face was colorless as chalk against the bright pink of her torso.
"He came close and stood over her, enveloping her in his warm gaze, and said, barely audible in the tense silence: 'talitha cumi'. With that the girl sat up with effortless, casual grace. The blood had vanished; the color had returned to her cheeks. She looked about with a confused, sweet expression. Small flowers which she had braided through her hair somehow survived all; she resembled a child. The people near exulted as one.
"Their celebration was interrupted immediately. A platoon of soldiers appeared, their heels striking the ground in unison as they moved in disciplined double-time. Barking orders and shoving the people back with their rifles they created a cordon around Him. These were not mere police, but the elite forces formed after the siege of Vatican City in 2019 by Muslim terrorists. Without a word they marched him off. They didn't lay a hand on Him and He didn't resist; He all but led them along. The people cowered. They wailed and wept violently, but shrank away and made no resistance."
"I doubt the people would allow that."
"But they did. You have to understand the power the soldiers represented. The troops' appearance alone was terrifying--helmeted, masked, armored, outfitted like combat soldiers but all in black without insignia; the extraordinary and ill-defined powers they held; even, or especially, because of the fearful specter that was terrorism--immediately evoked as it was by their appearance on any scene; all of this combined to make those troops the very embodiment of worldly power and threat. So now, just as they bowed before Him, they bowed before the muzzles of the troops' rifles.
"They took him to a subterranean complex beneath the Vatican. They left him in an interrogation room, sitting at a bare table before a two-way mirror. They did not shackle Him. He remained there the night through without making the slightest move or gesture. Light was dawning outside when a man came through the door. He was unexceptional in appearance--the sort of face you find hard to recall--and impeccably but just as blandly dressed. His ethnicity was uncertain, as was his accent; he could have been from anywhere. He paused halfway through closing the door, and examined Him curiously.
" 'You were expecting maybe the Pope?' He grinned. 'He wasn't expecting you, I can tell you that! His grin widened. 'None of us were. It is you, isn't it?' He said as he moved in and looked closer, his face momentarily grave. 'I'm Chief Investigator'--his name came out unintelligible--'here--' He cut himself off before finishing. He eyed the empty chair across the table from Him but remained where he was, thinking a moment. He held his hands out before him palms-up in an inquisitive posture and said:
" 'What can we do for you?' "
"He did not speak; His expression did not change. The Investigator held his pose for a moment, waiting.
" 'Very well. What, then, can you do for us? Have you come to help or enlighten?' " He paused.
'For they are not the same thing, as you very well know. Have you come to free us?' He said with a trace of contempt as his reserve seemed to give and something like emotion flashed across his face. 'That boat has sailed. We've been free a long time. We are wearied. You've had a look at our freedom. What do you think of it? Is man happy in his freedom? Does it feed him, keep him warm, console him...?' he laughed spontaneously at this last, '...quite the opposite, as you know. Was that your intention? Whatever the case, it's done now. You cannot pull the rug out from under mankind now. It is too late. For two thousand years we have labored under this false, yes, god.
" 'Do you not see this notion of freedom, of free will, is at odds with that other malicious gift you gave us, truth? For freedom is false, and can have no relation to truth; they are almost opposites. You paired these mortal enemies together and flung them into the heart of man, where they claw and tear at each other as they destroy their host. What god does this? Is it any wonder man continually returns to the worldly shackles of tyrants? Of mysticism, cant, degeneracy? Would you condemn the powerful and cruel for freeing man from "freedom"?'
" 'But you were so eager to grant man his freedom. This curse he does not want. Yet you granted it, and he feels compelled to praise it, to desire it, to celebrate--to die and kill for it! But he secretly despises it, he yearns for the guiding hand, your guiding hand, he yearns to be your slave. And he surrenders to this desire with this latest heresy--for it must be a heresy if you're here before me now--this Islam, in which he describes himself as your slave. These people, so backward, so proud of their ignorance and intellectual squalor, these people have that one thing right--that man wishes nothing so much as to be a slave, as long as he's a slave to a higher power; indeed, the highest good for man is to be a slave to the highest power. These people--stupid, dull as they are--have this one thing, the one thing, right. And all of your followers have it wrong. Because you granted them their 'freedom', when challenged by the spirit of Satan in the desert.
"The Investigator stopped himself, as if he had gone farther than intended.
"Forgive me. But this cycle must be broken. We are doing it, and we are doing it with the help of your church. Shall I tell you then? Yes, that's it.' He snapped his heels together and popped an exaggerated salute.
" 'Progress report, sir! We have been very busy, those I represent, in alliance with the good people of the Church. Just today we another two thousand needy souls into this land that used to be one and the same with your church; we pulled them right out of the ocean! Certainly you approve? I'm sorry a representative of the Church couldn't be present. They really wanted to meet you. But we didn't want there to be any misunderstandings.'
"Still there was no response from Him.
" 'As for the laity his misery is at its end. Hunger is soon to be a historical memory. The other sources of misery too will fall in due time. Strife itself, the eternal human struggle of family, nation, race--is nearing its end. We are at the beginning of a blessed global uniformity of peace, justice and plenty--without, pardon me, your help. Without so much as a sign from you. So if you've come to offer your help, it really isn't necessary. But if you insist, we have some ideas for how you might do that.'
"A group watched from the other side of the two-way mirror, silent.
" 'I hope you understand why we don't act in your name--and I hope you understand why we don't predicate our ministry, so to speak, on accepting you as their savior, and why the Church itself no longer does either. Sadly', the Investigator said remorsefully, 'things have gotten so bad, and you've been absent so long, that your name actually hinders the efforts to bring to reality your promise. Can you blame the people for losing faith? He will not bow before an absent god, but he will bow before worldly power.'
" 'We are their savior, we bring light to the darkness, we feed the hungry, we protect the weak in the here and now, and if we were to credit you we would be lying. We are instituting the universal brotherhood of man you sought. But we can't do it in your name.
"Sorry, I'm afraid your brand is obsolete. But whose fault is that? You handed your work and sanction to the Church, and it did wondrous things in your name. More to its credit, it did terrible things in your name. For that was the real sacrifice, wasn't it? And when the wrath incurred by history was turned on it--where were you? You left it to its enemies. To us, frankly. But we have been magnanimous in victory. In allowing it to exist still, to prosper even, to participate in this glorious final realization of your charge, to make all mankind one family, to make concern for the stranger equal to, nay, greater than concern for one's family, one's self. We took you at your word and then some. Or are we calling your bluff? No matter. You've had all this time to correct us; we must assume your absence to be assent. What else would you have us do? You've seen the latest manifestation of the Abrahamic tradition--'
"Here he is talking about Islam." Alex said. I nodded and gestured impatiently for him to go on.
" 'Twice great heresies arose demanding your appearance. First right here in Europe, from within the Church, and then in Arabia from the savage desert without. The Church countered the first--no help from you--and now we counter the second. Make no mistake about our intentions. We will deal with this last, final challenge to man's ultimate liberation. But in so doing we will have to destroy this pernicious lie, this stringing along of humanity, this faith.
" 'And 'salvation? What is that? A promise, backed by faith in an absent, silent God. To make real your wishes for humanity it has become necessary to disassociate them from your name. The Church did everything it could--no thanks to you--and can go no farther. So you can see why it's important that you not return, that you not show your face now. Why would you? What possible good could come from it? Is your intention to return and leave again, for another two thousand years? How long do you intend to string humanity along?' "
" 'Your appearance today has caused us little trouble. Already we're putting it to good use. We are spinning the story of the eccentric who appeared at the Vatican to our advantage. You're trending, my man! You have trended for so very long, but trends end.
"As if any who weren't present there yesterday to see for their own eyes would believe in your return anyway. You don't realize we've--you've, in your long absence--made faith impossible. Even those poor wretched souls you tormented--yes, tormented, for how can they be expected to return to daily life after this?--even they are beginning to doubt what they saw, what they felt. Those that don't will be seen as mad--already they are being mocked and ridiculed in the Press. And you will burn in tomorrow's bit of theater--do you know what we have planned?--and will be remembered, barely and briefly, as a conservative religious zealot attacking the church for its apostasy, its worldliness, its embrace of the foreigners of that great second heresy. You died once for our sins, now you will die for yours.' The Investigator stopped and swallowed, as if having gone farther than he intended. He looked away from Him and said again, quietly, 'tomorrow you will burn.'
"It was then He rose and approached his questioner. The Investigator not move but could not look Him directly in the eye. He kissed his lowered head. The Investigator turned and left the room, his hand over his mouth as if stifling his own words."
"And that, I'm afraid, is all I have."
"You can't just leave it there." I protested.
to be continued, perhaps