Category: Dante

Apocalypse Soon

Botticelli’s map

It’s true. I really think that I must have been living under a rock for the last twenty years. Without giving too much away, I’ve just finished reading Dan Brown’s latest scamper into improbability, based around the symbology of Florentine Dante Aligheri and his graphic depictions of Hell. I’m not going to offer a book review, others will pull it apart more savagely than I, but in brief, a brilliant but sociopathic scientist unleashes a virus with an infection rate of 100% on an unsuspecting world with a view, in Scrooge’s words to ‘decreasing the surplus population’. We are given glimpses of genetic engineering and its possibilities, which is really what caught my attention. Why do I think I have been blissfully oblivious for two decades? Perhaps because I was unaware that there exists a worldwide movement, apparently gathering in momentum, comprising thinkers and intellectuals known collectively as Transhumanists – the ‘trans’ referring to transcendence – whose eventual goal is to use technology to fundamentally transform the human condition through accelerated genetic manipulation, effectively taking control of human evolution. They believe that there is a perfectionist ethical imperative to strive for progress and improvement in the human condition. It may, for example, be possible to eradicate disease, increase intelligence – not just by a little, but by several orders of magnitude, and overcome current human limitations such as ageing and finite lifespan, generally transforming the human condition so radically that ‘homo sapiens’ becomes little more than a Neanderthal rump. We who are left will have been superseded and overtaken by a longer-living, smarter and faster posthuman species. What nonsense, I thought, nervously peering into the abyss. But, apparently not. Many have begun wrestling with the ethics and feasibility of such radical leaps forward since the philosopher Max More began to articulate a futurist perspective back in 1990. Some believe that the emergence of a rapidly changing technological landscape will inevitably lead to the notion of a ‘singularity’ a phrase of John von Neumann, meaning ‘ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue’  – where computer-enhanced superintelligences redesign successive generations of themselves spectacularly quickly. People are assigning real timeframes based on current technological achievement and a little creative extrapolation; best median could be as short as a quarter century from now.
Attitudes to transcendence aren’t new. Some have proposed that the Epic of Gilgamesh – a reworking or perhaps an archetype of Noah’s Flood – is an early example of transcendent thinking. A remnant survive an apocalypse in order to rebuild and reshape a newer, braver world. Others, myself included, believe that most of these ideas are self-indulgent power trips, filled with illusion, dreams and thinly clad scientific flights of fancy. When God is reduced to nothing more than an ethically irritating abstraction such Promethean hubris is not only dangerous but also inevitable.

I’ve lived in some of the largest population centres on the planet, from Istanbul to Karachi and the experience left me with mild, manageable claustrophobic tendencies and a belief that mankind was almost certainly not constructed to exist sharing each square kilometer with ten thousand others. I recently visited Shanghai – the third largest city in Asia, whose population density was less than either but it was so vast that hours of travel in choking pollution was required to get from one side to the other of its gigantic urban sprawl. When I left it, I fleetingly wondered for how much longer the planet could tolerate exponential population growth without triggering an extinction scenario of Biblical proportions. Which is going to get us first, global warming or overpopulation?
I found myself wondering; if superintelligence ever became a reality, how long it would take these newly minted superbeings to figure out that the most pragmatic way to ensure their survival would be to extinguish a frighteningly large number of we lesser mortals – in other words, ordinary people, making the Holocaust look like a road accident and doubtless equipping their own with whatever their technology could devise by way of an ark. If current thinking is anywhere near the truth, I might even be around to see it.

Spiff it Up

Welcome, welcome. Sit anywhere you like.

This post, despite  a tongue wedged in the gap where my wisdom tooth once was, is like a knitting needle  – it does have something of a point to it. On a stand-up show in Las Vegas, the so-called comedian Bill Maher referred to Sarah Palin’s Downs’ Syndrome son as a ‘retard’, prompting universal outrage. I haven’t seen the clip, and at face value even used in some satirical context, good taste trumps satire every time. Also, Public Figures can’t hit people below the belt, which isn’t levelling the playing field, really, is it? But – is satire sinful? If it is, then my new Facebook address will be somewhere in the Sixth Circle of Hell – nothing to do with the Sixth Ring – Kuwaiti friends please note (it is really but I didn’t want to frighten you). However, I want to talk to you today about the Use of Words and my point is that we churchy folk have a vocabulary all our own, don’t we? I say this in love. Nobody – not even the most primitive of Baptists – understands us, but we get to be quite cosy together in our linguistically challenged little corner. In deference to the pounding legions of progress, it’s time to refresh (what a delightfully modern word that is…) our cookie drawer and say what we mean – or is it ‘like?” So, let’s update the extraliturgical vocabulary a bit, shall we? Spiff it up, as it were?
I did get a little bit of help from the Beaker Folk when preparing this, and intend asking Archdruid Eileen for her hand, and possibly the rest of her, unless of course she has been secretly betrothed to that naughty young shepherd, Gabriel Oak. Surely, she is of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made. Since they hail from a little corner of rural England, far from the madding crowd, it’s possible that some of the more obscure references might lie beyond the scope of the seething, cosmopolitan audience which eagerly awaits my pronouncements. Nevertheless…For a start, Cedric, the octogenarian greeter is going to be replaced by a lifesized anime of Miss Piggy, with appropriately Pentecostal head covering and remotely controlled from the organ loft by a man called Alan. About time, really. Cedric died in 1978. And now for the main course, the pure meat of the word. First, a question. Can you pronounce the word “Taizé”? No. I thought not.”Unhappy” is now deeply cringeworthy and is to be replaced immediately with “challenged”, “differently inspired” or “fine”. “OK” isn’t sweeping enough, unfortunately. “Dreadful”. Much too direct – honest, even.  To be replaced by “Truly meaningful” (as in “that’s a truly meaningful worship song you’ve just written, Doris”.) “Moaning whingers, always looking for things to complain about” to be replaced with “loyal members of the fellowship”. But everyone knows what it means. Really. “Worship leaders” was initially replaced with “lead worshippers”. No. Neither will do. We’re gonna lose them both. We’re not replacing them with a new word. We’re just gonna pile them all into a minivan with all their instruments and lose them off one of the A7’s more remote junctions. Near the sign that says “Taizé”. “Leadership Group” to be replaced by “Enablement Group”. This won’t make any difference to how any of them think or behave, but it just feels a bit less patriarchal, don’t you think? “People who are praying for you” to be replaced by “friends”. “I prayed about it” replaced with “it occurred to me recently”. “Sharing”. Monosyllabic interchange with the TV on. “Deep and meaningful sharing”. As above but with the TV off. “We just really need to share” to be abolished, with no replacement. And now for those who teach. Let’s hope there’s not too many of you and you only have one wife. Mistresses count, remember. “Why can’t your preaching be more inspiring, like at New Wine?” To be replaced by “why can’t the congregation be more inspiring, like at New Wine?” “Liturgical Dance” to be replaced by “Prancing Around In Long Frocks”. “Modern Liturgical Styles” to be replaced by “Prancing around In Long Frocks with Flags and Ocarinas, with fairy lights in the background, and simultaneous prayers in eight languages”. Ask Alan for an ocarina, should you have forgotten to bring your own. “Sunday School” to be replaced by “Sunday Club” to be replaced by “Kids Church, no apostrophe” to be replaced by “The empty room next to the ladies’ toilet”. “And finally” to be replaced with “Just ten more minutes. Please don’t leave just yet. The match won’t be on for at least half an hour.”

I’m glad to have got all that out of my system.  If you can tear yourselves away from the last episode of “The Borgias”, at our next gathering – so much cosier than ‘meeting’ or ‘service’ – Revd Dr Margaret Witherspoon  – do check her link – is going to be, er, sharing, on the probability of apocalypse next Sunday. That is, she’s going to be speaking next Sunday; the spreadsheet algorithm isn’t quite refined enough yet to predict a particular day. Assuming we’re all here, of course, and the Arctic methane eruptions haven’t turned whichever part of Eden you inhabit into a treeless, smoking cinder. Have a nice day, now.