Is this all there is? Historians of religion are perhaps among those most curious about the various ways that peoples of the past answered “No.” Scholars of ancient Mediterranean religions, for instance, look to how Jews, Christians, Manichees, Neoplatonists, and others reread mundane reality as a site of cosmic drama—whether by filling its invisible spaces with the blur of demons and the subtle bodies of angels, or by multiplying hierarchies of heavens above and hells below, or by framing everyday time as a glimmering moment between the eternity of pre-Creation and the eternity after the Eschaton. If historians peer back to the past for such answers, we perhaps do so because of an assumption that undergirded the very articulation of the discipline of religious studies as distinct from theology: now, in a secular age, we need not ask Is this all there is? because the presumed answer is a disenchanted “Yes.” All there is is what science proves, what money can buy, what the history of men and nations and wars deems fit to commemorate, and what modern positivism permits on the path to progress.
This assumption was easier to hold ten years ago than it is today. The last decade has further eroded older social-scientific notions of the inevitability of secularization and the irrelevance of religiosity to public life. The results have rippled even into the study of antiquity. Not so long ago, I did not think twice when introducing my talks about ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypses by stressing the contrast with a sanitized present in which the air around us feels empty. I habitually parroted Peter Berger’s observation in his Rumor of Angels that “those to whom the supernatural is still a meaningful reality now find themselves in the status of . . . a cognitive minority.” After all, even with the analogy to present-day notions of germs and molecules, it seemed a challenge of the imagination to try to grasp the lived worlds conveyed by ancient apocalypses, in which the supernatural was actually quite natural. Angels moved winds and stars and souls. Demons caused toothaches and thirsted after the blood of sacrifice. Personal decisions had cosmic consequences. Historical empires and events heralded the very end of history. In short, the ancient authors of apocalypses insisted that the visible world was quite decisively not what it seemed, but perhaps the opposite: the powerful ultimately powerless, the persecuted protected by armies of angels.
That people still see and experience the same world in quite strikingly different ways has been made brutally clear in the past few years—and in the United States, especially in relation to race. This past August saw the third anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s shooting by Officer Darren Wilson was a major catalyst for the growth and visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement but also a moment that made clear how differently America looks through the lens of black and white experiences. It was not just that many whites at the time of Ferguson were basking in the dawn of what they presumed to be a postracial society after the election of President Barack Obama, while many blacks called for attention to the prison industrial complex, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as more representative of the state of race in America. It was also how Officer Wilson justified the shooting to a grand jury—quite successfully—as a natural reaction to his fear of Brown, whom he described as “like a demon.” Premodern religious history is replete with examples of what dire violence can be both done and domesticated when demonized difference becomes naturalized (e.g., as against “heretics,” against Jews, against women qua “witches”). And in this case, too—even in an ostensibly postmodern age—rhetoric sometimes refuses to remain just rhetoric, and the supernatural is not quite as far from the natural as we might like to presume.
Modern readers often react to ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypses with distaste or disgust. Even scholars of these materials have traditionally limited their significance to their interest in the End of Time. Teleology, to be sure, is a trope with persuasive power that resonates from the books of Daniel and Revelation to Marxism, environmentalism, New Ageism, and the European Enlightenment’s myth of modernity as progress. But perhaps more urgently—in my view—apocalypses also exemplify the power of framing a narrative to reshape perceptions of lived experience.
To the question Is this all there is?, ancient apocalypses do not just answer “No”: they unsettle the notion of any single self-evident this. In what might be the very earliest example of the genre, the Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36; circa third century BCE), the main focus is not the End of Time: it is the power of knowledge to show the cosmos as more than it seems to be. What appears to be human history, for instance, is there revealed to be a story about how wayward angels seeded sin and suffering upon the earth, after their lust for human women lured them down from heaven, and they taught humankind about sorcery, metals, and the making of weapons and cosmetics. What appears to be the known world is revealed to be the center of a capacious realm governed by God and His angels, in which the spirits of the dead are housed at the ends of the earth awaiting Judgment and in which the landmarks of the Eschaton were already set prior to history and the Flood. True knowledge of the world is not limited to the information about kings, peoples, lands, and technologies. Rather, it pivots on knowledge from angels and about demons: their kinds, their origins, their names, their invisible influence on human acts and history. Writing in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great, the scribes responsible for the Book of the Watchers claimed, in effect, to know the natural world but also its secret workings, its invisible inhabitants, its unknown edges, and the spaces beyond. By virtue of their totalizing claim to knowledge, they figured seemingly powerless Jewish scribes as far more powerful than the rulers of the new Hellenistic empires then spreading across the known world, from Athens to India. Knowing the all beyond what there is was claimed as power in its own right.
Anathea Portier-Young has recently hailed the continued relevance of ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypses as rooted in their “imperial resistance.” If such writings feel more relevant today than one might like, however, it is perhaps also because of their demonologically-inflected articulation of a pattern of reversal that has proven to be dangerously flexible. In much medieval anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism, for instance, the association of Jews with demons underpins the claim that things are not what they seem. Those who appear powerless are actually powerful. One finds a similar move in the rhetoric of alt-right and other white nationalists today, who tacitly demonize when they claim that minorities (including but not limited to Jews) are actually the ones in control.
In much Christian self-fashioning, both past and present, one also finds the converse claim—namely, that those who appear to be powerful are actually the persecuted. Candida Moss has shown how ancient martyrologies, written when Christians were a minority in the Roman Empire, have been repurposed in the self-fashioning of some present-day Christians, in part to argue that the white Christian majority in the United States is under mortal threat from Muslim and other minorities. Recent polling seems to confirm the coexistence of contrasting perspectives on power in American society more broadly, falling precisely along the fault-lines of privilege and persecution. Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) polls, for instance, suggest a shift in the past four years whereby “Republicans are significantly more likely to say whites, rather than blacks, experience a lot of discrimination in the U.S. today (43 percent vs. 27 percent, respectively),” whereas “Democrats and independents are far more likely to say blacks experience a lot of discrimination than to say the same about whites (82 percent vs. 19 percent and 59 percent vs. 30 percent, respectively).” And some polls also show similar partisan divides for the perception of heterosexual men as the main victims of gender discrimination. The data, in other words, point to the coexistence of strikingly different viewpoints about whether or not the appearance of white male Christian hegemony in the United States corresponds to the reality of who is actually in power and who is actually persecuted.
Apocalyptic claims about demons, knowledge, and power were far from discrete: they aimed to be cosmologically constitutive, radically reorienting how their readers experience the lived world around them. In this sense, apocalypses offer some useful analogies for understanding contemporary examples of the inversion of appearance and reality as well. I do not mean to suggest any direct causal link, let alone to claim to expose the true “origins” of current claims. Here, as elsewhere, I remain suspicious of the temptation among scholars of antiquity to argue for the contemporary relevance of our research primarily by pointing to past moments as the purportedly singular “origin” or “invention” of this-or-that phenomenon now familiar to us today. What I do think, however, is that analysis of the religious past can help us understand what perspectival inversions of this sort can mean and do. To claim the inversion of the appearance of power and the appearance of persecution is not just to provide a single answer to a question like Is that all there is?; it is to offer a way of seeing that remakes the world by reframing it.
If historians of religion have something unique to contribute to understanding the societal fractures and political upheavals of the present moment, it is perhaps in part through attending to how acts of framing can make meaning, shape perception, and sometimes even influence the very socio-political circumstances that they seek to reframe. To ask Is this all there is?, in and after secular modernity, might seem to invite answers that reduce human choice to the calculus of self-interest and economics. Current events are poignantly demonstrating that this, in fact, is not all there is.