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Fire walking and the intensity of apocalyptic arousal

[ by Charles Cameron -- in response to Steve Engel ]
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Phpto credit: MDeeDubroff

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My friend Steve Engel wrote regarding the Boston bombers and my elucidation of a Mahdist video that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had seen and “liked”:

Thank you, Charles, for your close examination of nuances that may underlie the actions of people who envision themselves as warriors for the sake of ancient prophecy. Those among us who feel that they dwell in meaningless sorrow make likely customers for purveyors of self-hypnosis–whether of this brand or some other flag-waving, self-justifying cruelty.

I’ve been pondering how to express my reasons for paying particular attention to religious and a fortiori eschatological motives for terror for some time now. The varieties of end times thinking have been an interest of mine for decades, to be sure, and both religion and its specifically end times variants tend IMO to be easily ignored in our so rational post-Enlightenment and high-tech times — so I have both personal and analytic reasons to be keenly interested. But there’s more, and I believe StevE’s comment may be just the thing to pry loose a better explanation than I have given up till now.

I’ll use the well-worn phrase, “work expands to fill the time available” as my starting point.

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Turning to StevE’s point about potential recruits to terrorism or other crimes…

It’s easy, it seems to me, to think that just any old ideology would do, that the disgruntled simply pick one and use it as a cover or rationalization — but I suspect that emotions can “intensify to fill the ideology available” to paraphrase the other phrase, and that certain ideologies have structural features equivalent to high ceilings in an architectural space, so that “intensifying to fill the ideology available” can have a certain fierce purity when the ideology is a religious one and pious self-dedication a possibility — even more so when “martyrdom” can be aspired to — and yet more so again where one perceives oneself under divine sanction in the culminating battle of all time, immediately prior to judgment.

I’ve been to two “fire walkings” in my life — the first at Mt Takao, where crowds gather for a yearly ceremony in which one writes one’s sins on a sliver of wood and cast it into the fire, the coals of which which the Yamabushi mountain monks then walk across (see image above), followed by intrepid amateur ascetics…

The second — ah, the second was pitched as an occasion where you could “prove the power of mind over matter” for yourself, and come away from the experience “knowing you had achieved the impossible”. And when the instructor went around the room afterwards and asked people, “Now you know you can do the impossible, what’s next for you?” he got answers like, “I’ll have the courage to ask my boss for a $25 a month raise…”

Times are hard for many of us, and I don’t want to knock either the courage it takes to ask or the value of a $25 monthly raise — but if you’ve just “done the impossible”, is this the most you can ask?

Apocalyptic arousal hopes for more than $25 a month — in most cases it longs for the sudden and immediate reversal of all the good fortune that appears to befall “bad” people right now, and the no less sudden reapportionment of all those blessings on the heads of the “good” people — oneself prominent among them. It shakes the world to its foundations, and it cleanses it.

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I’ll let Richard Landes give you a sense of how believing oneself a participant in apocalypse can make the everyday moment deeply significant, and give the “end times we live in” importance beyond measure — with an excerpt from his great book, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience:

For people who have entered apocalyptic time, everything quickens, enlivens, coheres. They become semiotically aroused — everything has meaning, patterns. The smallest incident can have immense importance and open the way to an entirely new vision of the world, one in which forces unseen by other mortals operate. If the warrior lives with death at his shoulder, then apocalyptic warriors live with cosmic salvation before them, just beyond their grasp.

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Image source:

http://www.weirdasianews.com/2009/08/27/firewalking-festival-hot-japanese-ritual/

Thanks again to Steve Engel for prompting these reflections.

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One Response to “Fire walking and the intensity of apocalyptic arousal”

  1. Steve Engel Says:

    And thank you, Charles, for a persuasively clarifying response: “certain ideologies have structural features equivalent to high ceilings in an architectural space, so that ‘intensifying to fill the ideology available’ can have a certain fierce purity when the ideology is a religious one and pious self-dedication a possibility — even more so when ‘martyrdom’ can be aspired to — and yet more so again where one perceives oneself under divine sanction in the culminating battle of all time, immediately prior to judgment.”
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    The prospect of impending death seems to confer a kind of ecstasy in most people who contemplate it . . . at almost any distance. To die both meaningfully and spectacularly no doubt attracts a certain personality type–perhaps one that has been activated by specific cultural experiences . . . including a distinctively flavored despair. I’m not inclined to attribute these circumstances to Islamic teachings and cultures–which vary, and many of which transmit strong motivations and methods for fulfillment through living. But groups large and small throughout the world promote Death-Loving Teachings, and these diseased groups always seem to attract a few suitable students.

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