The Long View: The System of Antichrist

Here is an excellent example of why I still think John J. Reilly has something to say all these years later. This book review is a synthesis of ideas he had been working on for nearly ten years, nicely summarized by the links he put in to his earlier work. And also, this paragraph:

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Reminds me of this current controversy in the Catholic Church. These ideas haven't gone away, or even changed very much.


The System of Antichrist

Truth & Falsehood in
Postmodernism & the
New Age

By Charles Upton
Sophia Perennis, 2001
562 Pages, US$27.95
ISBN 0-900588-30-6

A Review by
John J. Reilly

 

Globalization, the New Age Movement, and postmodernism did not merely arise at about the same time, according to The System of Antichrist. Rather, they are all manifestations of a common impulse, one that is not entirely of human origin. They are in fact symptoms of the impending end of the world. As is the way with eschatological analysis, much of the book's argument is best taken metaphorically. However, these are the sort of metaphors you neglect at your peril.

The author, Charles Upton, began life as a conventional Catholic. He experienced the 1960's Counter Culture and subsequent New Age spiritualities, which he now views as pathologies that have been marketed to a mass audience. Eventually, he washed up on the shores of Tradition, and became a Muslim Sufi. Upton's book is largely a synthesis of the theological metaphysics of Frithjof Schuon's The Transcendent Unity of Religions with the eschatology of Rene Guenon's The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.

The System of Antichrist does not attempt to summarize Tradition systematically, so neither will this review. Suffice it to say that Tradition is a curious blend of neoplatonism and comparative religion that was devised in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Tradition, or corruptions of it, crops up in the most extraordinary places, from Black Metal music to the writings of Robertson Davies. As a matter of intellectual history, it belongs in the same class as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy, Jung's psychology, and the comparative mythology of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell.

Additionally, I think it important to point out that Tradition is also closely related to the reaction against speculative philosophy that we see in Heidegger, with the vital difference that Traditionalists find that the Transcendent, rather than Being, is inescapably "thrown" to them.

As we will see, Traditionalists tend to believe that the state of the world is very unsatisfactory, and fated to get worse. Wicked Traditionalists not only believe that the world is ending, but are keen to help it along. (One of the most puzzling features of this book is the failure to engage directly the esoteric fascism of Julius Evola.) In the sense in which Upton uses the term, however, "Tradition" means almost the opposite of world-hating Gnosticism. Gnostics deny the value of the world; Traditionalists see eternal value in the world. For Tradition, the creation of the world was not a mistake, but an act of divine mercy. Everything in it tells us something about God. These things include the human institutions ordained by God, the most important of which are the world's revealed religions.

This is where Tradition differs from ordinary syncretism. Tradition is a spiritual practice that needs a revealed matrix. Traditionalists can be Muslims, or Jews, or Christians, or Buddhists, or even shamanists, but they cannot mix and match. These traditional religions, at least according to the Traditionalists, are united by the transcendent object toward which they look. Each represents a revelation of the divine nature; the differences between them can be resolved only eschatologically. The attempt to create a world spirituality, in fact, is one of the satanic counterfeits of these latter days.

Although The System of Antichrist has its biases, it is not religiously partisan. Many of its theological points are perfectly orthodox. For one thing, Upton never departs from the principle that eschatology is fundamentally personal. Creation and apocalypse are always present. Eschatological history is only a symbol of the death of the ego and its replacement by God. In one sense, you are the Antichrist, and in your own latter day that tyrant will be overthrown. On the other hand, there is no denying that eschatology also has a universal dimension. The book usually works on the assumption that a personal Antichrist will appear in the penultimate stage of world history; several of the world's religious traditions say as much, and personification facilitates the discussion. However, Upton reminds us repeatedly that the concept of Antichrist can also be taken to refer to a collectivity, one that has existed as long as Christianity itself. That collectivity becomes coherent and visible as the end nears.

Admirers of C.S. Lewis will be happy to know that they may have already read some fictionalized Traditional metaphysics, in the form of Lewis's novel, That Hideous Strength, which deals with a conspiracy of scientific magicians to open a branch office of Hell in central England. In The System of Antichrist, Upton seeks to make explicit the suppositions behind that story:

"[A]s this cycle of manifestation draws to a close, the cosmic environment first solidifies – this being the result and the cause of modern materialism – after which it simply fractures, because a materialist reality absolutely cut off from the subtle planes is metaphysically impossible. These cracks in the 'great wall' separating the physical universe from the subtle or etheric plane initially open in a 'downward' direction, toward the 'infra-psychic' or demonic realm (cf. Rev. 9:1-3); 'magical realism' replaces 'ordinary life.' It is only at the final moment that a great crack appears in the 'upward' direction..."

If you don't like esoteric metaphysics, this would still be an interesting statement about the history of philosophy. The rejection of the transcendent resulted in materialism, which, like all monisms, is at best incomplete. By the middle of the 20th century the materialist edifice was riven by skepticism toward scientific and historical knowledge. With the coming of postmodernism, very strange substitutes for metaphysics began to appear. Upton means much more than this, but this is one way to look at it.

The Intellect is the faculty of the mind by which we perceive "self-evident truths." During the 19th century, the Intellect could no longer look to a transcendent God; even metaphysical first principles were rejected after Kant. In consequence, emotion became divorced from the truth. The affective part of human nature was expressed, for a while, as the irrational sentiments of Romanticism. The postmodern declension from Romanticism is emotional numbness, enlivened by atrocity and sinister fascination. There is such a thing as emotional intelligence, and the trajectory of the postmodern world is to stultify it. Postmodernism removes the possibility of romantic heterosexual love as a spiritual exercise. Worse yet, it makes God inaccessible.

The New Age might be called "folk postmodernism," except that folk religion is better structured. In traditional civilizations, there is a hierarchy of the religious life: popular practice, an institutional church, and esoteric tradition. The New Age collapses these layers, so that the transcendent element that had been the object of esoteric spirituality is lost. All that remains is the psychic, meaning both ordinary psychology and the shadowy realm that surrounds the material world but is not necessarily superior to it. The result is people who channel extraterrestrials, or embrace psychological management techniques, or are attracted to some of the less-grounded forms of Pentecostalism. The forgetting of the distinction between psyche and spirit makes Antichrist's counterfeit of the spiritual possible.

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Anti-historicism is central to Tradition. The school arose in opposition to that other tradition, the one that proceeds from the French Revolution. Tradition denies the possibility of historical progress. It is resolutely anti-Hegelian. Also, largely in response to the evolution-based postmillennialism of the Theosophical Society, it will have nothing to do with the concept of evolution. Even if new forms of life appeared over time, they were simply the instantiation of preexisting archetypes. The only historical change is decay:

"It is certainly true, according to esoteric philosophy, that the created order returns to its Divine Source through the conscious spiritual unfolding of individual sentient beings. But this 'evolution,' this unfolding of the individual through a transcendence of the self-identified ego, is not a continuance of the cosmogonic process, but a reversal of the process..."

One could expand at length on the misapprehensions in this book about evolution. The chief one is the common error that the Second Law of Thermodynamics forbids local increases in order. As a corrective, one might refer to Robert Wright's "non-zero-sum" model of evolution, which gives a persuasive explanation for why history must be, in some sense, both progressive and teleological. Actually, the idea that evolution may be a process by which "ideal forms" incarnate is not so far off the scientific reservation, according to Simon Conway Morris. However, even a Platonic approach to evolution requires that higher forms appear with the passage of time.

Be this as it may, the point Tradition tries to make is that religious novelty is never for the better. This has proven to be the case with the New Age. There is such a thing as a New Age agenda, one with a long pedigree. New Agers suppose that belief in anything beyond the psychic is patriarchic oppression. The major New Age writers usually envisage the end of Christianity, and particularly of the Catholic Church.

Upton gives us a selective tour of some of the fashionable New Age belief systems of the past three decades. James Redfield's Celestine Prophecies gets a rather more thorough critique than the matter merits. (Upton does hit the nail on the head by calling the cult of the books a manifestation of "New Age singles culture.") Deepak Chopra comes in for measured criticism for seeming to equate enlightenment with material well-being. Some of these writers have always been obscure and have become only more so with the passage of time. Still, their ideas have permanently affected the popular imagination.

Upton believes that "A Course in Miracles" is the acme of New Age thought. It is based on the channeling of the "Seth Material" by Jane Roberts. As you might expect, this is a lengthy revelation that is supposed to come from a supernatural entity named Seth. The resulting doctrine does, at least, accept the existence of a divine absolute. The problem is that the absolute is so absolute that God does not even know this world exists. "A Course in Miracles" purports to go beyond the dichotomy of transcendence and immanence by saying that this ego-generated world is too unreal for God to be immanent in.

I was previously unfamiliar with "A Course in Miracles." It seems to be almost classically Gnostic, complete with a dying and senescent demiurge in the form of the Christian God. Remarkably, "A Course in Miracles" adapts the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as the basis of a theory of simultaneous incarnation. That is unlikely to be true, but it is very ingenious.

Upton is so impressed by the Seth material that he wonders whether it may have been designed to lead astray the metaphysically inclined. He has particularly harsh words for its treatment of the question of whether God is personal: "The tendency to use the Impersonal Absolute to deny the Personal God, all-too-common among many people shallowly interested in mysticism and metaphysics, is simply another form of the ego's desire to be God." Depersonalizing God distorts the divine essence into a mere cosmic potentiality. We may use it, but it can make no demands on us. In Christianity, Upton points out, the meaning of the incarnation of the Second Person is that no one may approach the Godhead except through personality.

There is a larger metaphysical point here that is worth a little attention: the distinction between transcendence and abstraction. An abstract idea is merely a selection of common features. Upton's notion of a transcendent idea, in contrast, sounds like a "phase space." It encompasses all that something can be. Archetypal ideas are ideas of this order. In Upton's system, an entity of this sort is just what we mean by a "person." God is more than personal, but he is also personal in this way.

If great archetypal ideas are personal, it by no means follows that they are necessarily friendly. The powers of darkness appear as unconscious belief systems and social mores. An unconscious false belief on the psychological level is a demon at the psychic or spiritual level. The world is misled by fallen entities of a high order: cherubim, demons of the Intellect rather than of the will. In Upton's estimation, these shadows of the Four about the Throne can be characterized as Law, Fate, Chaos, and Self. These false alternatives war among themselves, and foment war on Earth. Self-deluded, they delude us.

The postmodern world presents a greater peril than merely a disordered cultural climate:

"Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'Be careful: while you are looking into the abyss, the abyss is looking into you.' This is why I caution the reader not to open this section while in a state of depression, anxiety, or morbid curiosity. Whoever already knows how bad UFOs are, and is not required by his or her duties to investigate them, should skip this chapter."

Despite the warning, Upton's account of extraterrestrials as a postmodern demonology is not without a certain morbid fascination. The growth of the popular cult of UFOs means that the blackest kind of black magic has gone mainstream; an assessment that, oddly enough, echoes Michael Barkun's conclusion that the UFO mythology have served to distribute "stigmatized knowledge" throughout the whole culture.

Upton relies heavily on the UFO researcher Jacque Vallee, who is best-known for arguing that the reports of UFO encounters closely resemble folkloric accounts of meetings with faeries, incubi, and (Upton's favorite spooks) jinn. Vallee does not limit the phenomenon to folklore. In the more than fifty years of UFO reports, there are real physical effects, instances of mass psychological phenomena, and human manipulation. About this Upton says: "The critical mind tries to make sense of this, fails, and then shuts down. It is meant to."

Upton sketches a history for us. The earliest accounts of meetings with extraterrestrials, which date from the mid-20th century, come from people with connections to the occult underground. Black magicians, who earlier in the Occult Revival had been able to invoke demons only for themselves, had been searching since the beginning of the century to invoke them for the masses. This was not entirely the magicians' idea. The Jinn, or at least the malicious ones, are seeking a stable incarnation in this world. They induce people to welcome and worship them. They also, perhaps, inspire computer technology and genetic engineering. These technologies undermine the human image. They also could be media through which the jinn achieve bodily form. They would then either displace the human race, or corrupt it to their purposes.

I would say that little of this is likely to be literally true. Still, it is true that there is a deep connection between flying-saucer cults and transhumanism. In any case, these dark desires, whether human or demonic, interpenetrate seamlessly with the spirituality of what has been called "the transnational class," but which Upton calls simply "the global elite":

"The characteristic 'religion' of some (but not all) sectors of this global elite is a kind of 'world fusion spirituality' – which, however, is essentially psychic, not spiritual – made up of texts, music, ritual objects, yogic and magical practices, and even shamanic initiations from around the world."

The spiritual disorders that arise from the denial of the personal God are important precisely because they are integral to the drive toward world unification. Neither side of the globalization struggle is strictly on the side of the Antichrist, but then neither is necessarily opposed to him.

Postmodernism is one of the reasons what a united world would be intolerable. Upton correctly notes that pluralism and the subjectivity on which postmodernism is based are incompatible. Postmodernist globalism, under the cover of multiculturalism, creates unity by denying its possibility. Metaphysical unity is a reality, always and everywhere. When it is denied, it reasserts itself as power rather than as cognizance. On the other hand, the multiplicity of cultures is metaphysically necessary, because each reflects some aspect of the divine. Suppress that multiplicity, and the result will be inter-ethnic chaos, which only force can control.

As is so often the case in this book, one notes that Tradition comes in different forms, and that all of them use the cultural resources of historical societies in a selective fashion. Other writers influenced by Tradition emphasize the archetype of the "empire," of the necessary unity of humanity, which is found in many civilizations. Even Islam, which makes a point of officially tolerating the existence of other confessions, contemplates that this toleration should occur in the context of a universal Caliphate. Upton's critique echoes the common anti-globalist complaint that both the unity and the diversity offered by globalization are disingenuous.

In any case, Upton asserts that today we live in a world that has moved from "the revolt of the masses" (which old-style conservatives like Guenon worried about) to "revolt of the elites" (which troubled another of Upton's favorites, Christopher Lasch). For the first time in history, it is the wealthy and educated who want to remake the world. As a critique of globalization, The System of Antichrist is in many ways a more lucid version of Hardt & Negri's "Empire." (That book, despite it postmodern Marxist rhetoric, expresses many Traditional themes.) Actually, for a book that is supposed to reflect the viewpoint of primordial truth, Upton's seems to accept uncritically the "litany" of the anarchist left, from alleged environmental collapse to corporate malfeasance. Fundamentally, however, politics and economics are epiphenomenal to what is really happening.

The Antichrist appeals to the best in us; therefore he is at his worst when he most closely approximates the truth. Beyond the vulgar New Age, we learn, there is a long-running tradition of "counter-initiation." The people engaged in this project do not seek to destroy the revealed religions, but to subvert them in all their forms, exoteric and esoteric. The Theosophical Society is the best–known example, but Upton is most alarmed by those he calls the "false traditionalists." Most famous of these is Carl Gustav Jung, who is a well known inspiration for the world's proto-global elites. The object of Upton's peculiar ire, however, is one William W. Quinn, Jr., author of The Only Tradition. While sometimes deploring the dissolution of traditional cultures and religions, Quinn sees it as a necessary step toward the creation of a Traditional Planetary Culture, one that will be simultaneously scientific and religious, a post-democratic world ruled by a hierarchy of adepts. This is very much what the system of Antichrist would look like in its maturity.

Upton admits he was strongly tempted by the prospect of a Traditional Planetary Culture, but overcame the glamour. False Tradition of this kind is a mere "higher empiricism." It views revelation, not as the word of God, but only as data. The result is metaphysics without religion; in other words, a sort of psychic engineering. Again, God becomes a resource, not a person.

As for the apocalypse itself, we are given a comparative tour of mythologies as they relate to the endtime. (I once attempted such a study myself, by the way, in a book called "The Perennial Apocalypse.") Upton's survey includes aspects of the eschatological ideas found in Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity (chiefly in its Orthodox version), Islam, and the religions of the Hopi and the Lakota. As you might expect, the survey finds a high incidence of Antichrist-like figures who deceive the world in the latter days, and Messianic figures who briefly restore Tradition before the end.

We learn quite a lot about the Shiite idea of the "occultation": messianic figures disappear for centuries, until they are ready to play their endtime role. Despite the high incidence of millenarian hopes throughout history, we are given to understand that a literal Millennium, of a perfected earthly society, is not Traditional. However, Upton intriguingly parses the possibility of a "short Millennium." This might be consistent with the reign of the Mahdi, or the period alluded to in Revelation that occurs immediately after the Second Coming. This period is variously described as lasting a few days, or months, or years; in one Shiite version, it lasts 309 years.

Our destiny is the New Jerusalem, the perfection and crystallization of our world. Though Upton is no more clear than his sources, one gathers that will occur Elsewhere. There may be some continuity of our physical world with a following one. It is possible that Earth will not be destroyed, and even that there may be a few human survivors. That next world, however, will be another creation. Our business is with salvation in this one.

Upton suggests some spiritual possibilities unique to the endtime. The latter days allow for detachment, since at last we know enough not to place our hopes in history or "the future." There is also a unique opportunity to acquire encyclopedic spiritual knowledge from around the world. Indeed, the very advent of the Traditionalist school is a providential "sign of the times." Finally, we may hope for the spread of serenity like that which accompanies the old age of just persons, through whom eternity begins to shine.

On a practical level, we must not forget that the forces of globalization and those opposed to it are equally apt to the hand of Antichrist. He might even come to power to overthrow a previously established world system. The System of Antichrist suggests that we deal with this situation in the way that Jesus did when he was asked whether it was licit to pay taxes to the Romans. To that he answered that we should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. We must avoid being trapped in crooked choices. Our goal in the latter days is not to save our lives, but our souls. Even politics can be a "liturgy," in which we play the role we are assigned.

* * *

Upton's analysis merits comment. So does the doctrine of Tradition itself.

No doubt it is true that God forgives even theologians for their theology. Nonetheless, the principle of the transcendental unity of religions is open to question. The doctrine holds that the revealed religions are more similar to the degree that they approach their Object. This is not obviously so. Regarding personal eschatology, for instance, the Buddhist "moksa" is not equivalent to the Christian Beatific Vision; neither is self-evidently identical to the model of collective immortality that Upton himself seems to favor. The latter's best known exponent is the Muslim mystic Ibn al-Arabi. That is an important point.

In addition to Western Hermeticism, Tradition exhibits quite a lot of Sufism. The primordial Traditionalist, Rene Guenon, famously became a Muslim, and Upton followed suit. There are Christians, indeed Latin Christians, who consider themselves Traditionalists. Still, sometimes I can't help but wonder whether Tradition is just a very refined form of Sufism. This suspicion is probably misplaced, but Tradition is nonetheless parochial in a more fundamental way.

Sufism is a wisdom that crystallized from an age of skepticism and heresy. So, for the most part, are the other civilized esoteric traditions from which Tradition was composed. Tradition is not primordial. It's like the music of Solesmes, which was created at almost the same time as Tradition, and for much the same reasons. The Traditionalists are right, surely, when they say that it is mere bigotry to look on the past as inferior simply because it is past. We have a duty to extend the same sort of imaginative sympathy to the modern era that we do to distant times and places. The West is still going through its own centuries of skepticism. Someday, modernity could appear as primordial as Atlantis.

End

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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