Stephen Bede Scharper: “Utopias and Other Myths: A Precautionary Tale,” 2018 C4eJ 9


Stephen Bede Scharper*

It is a privilege to be invited to comment upon Abraham Rotstein’s Myth, Mind, and Religion: The Apocalyptic Narrative, though, as a posthumous project, a bittersweet one.

I first encountered Prof. Rotstein in 1979, when he was a guest lecturer in Prof. Gregory Baum’s religion and society class at the University of Toronto. Prof. Baum, my eventual doctoral supervisor, and Prof. Rotstein were good friends, and politically sympathetic colleagues. Years later, when I became reacquainted with Prof. Rotstein as a fellow Senior Fellow at Massey College, he would often quip, referring to my mentor, “Ah, yes, there is a ‘Baum’ in Gilead,” a savory morsel of Prof. Rotstein’s celebrated, whimsical delight in word play.

Both Prof. Rotstein’s felicitous phrasing and interest in Hebrew Scripture are evident in Myth, Mind, and Religion.

Attempting to show the relevance of Claude Levi-Strauss’s mythologique for Hebrew and Christian scripture, and its perduring power via the legacy of Augustine, Luther, Hegel, Marx, and, in demonic form, Nazi Germany, Prof. Rotstein paints a lively and evocative canvas of what he terms “the apocalyptic narrative” in Western thought.

The subtitle of the work, “The Apocalyptic Narrative,” might engender some confusion. Readers may be somewhat perplexed by Prof. Rotstein’s use of the term “apocalyptic,” which spawns end-of-the-world, Mad-Max-like imagery, and, biblically speaking, evokes more resonance with the Book of Revelation than the Book of Exodus upon which Prof. Rotstein focuses, involving a binary oppression/liberation dichotomy, with the quest for the edenic “Promised Land.”

Interestingly, the ambiguity surrounding Prof. Rotstein’s use of the biblical apocalyptic narrative was raised a quarter of a century earlier. In a 1982 collection of essays on Canadian political theology, Prof. Rotstein presented an abbreviated version of his work, to which both social ethicist Roger Hutchinson and social work scholar Patrick Kerans responded.[1] Building on Kerans’s response, Hutchinson averred that the apocalyptic pattern as identified by Rotstein is less “expansive” than that which is customarily viewed as the apocalyptic tradition (248). Hutchinson further argued that it is important to recognize the distinction between the
apocalyptic tradition and “the more inclusive Judeo-Christian drama of salvation.”[2]

In addition to these theological responses, others may question Prof. Rotstein’s use of Levi-Strauss’s trans-cultural notion of narrative, critiquing it for its universalist claims, a critique which Prof. Rotstein himself anticipates. Rather than dwell upon these concerns, however, I wish to propose how Prof. Rotstein’s proposal might be constructive in dealing with certain religious discourses around issues of social justice and the environment.

Liberation theology, for example, first articulated by Gustavo Gutierrez in the late 1960s, offered a three-fold notion of liberation. The first entails liberation from all social, economic, cultural, and racial oppression. The second involves historical liberation, holding up events and persons who have been steamrolled in the historical record, such as Indigenous communities, labour movements, as well as groups advocating for social justice. The third notion speaks about spiritual liberation, which liberates the human person from “sin,” which Gutierrez defines as a rupture in friendship among ourselves and between ourselves and God. Pulsating throughout all three notions is a utopian vision building on the work of Karl Marx, which suggests that it is possible to create not only a new society but a new human person. Liberation theology builds on Marxist utopianism from a Christian theological vantage, including the notion of being “reborn” in a socially just world.[3]

Given this utopian thread woven into the liberationist tapestry, what might Prof. Rotstein’s critique of the Western apocalyptic narrative hold for contemporary liberationist thought?  Is the quest for “integral ecology” as expressed in Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, blending both social justice and ecological integrity, in danger of crashing upon the rocky shores of deleterious Messianism? How intrinsically tied is the quest for a better world and a new society with the baleful underside of oppression of certain groups of persons who do not subscribe to a vanguard’s vision of that “redeemed” world? Is there a way to build a better, more just and ecologically flourishing world in the West without resorting to the apocalyptic “story”? If not, can this narrative be recast for positive social change? These are but a few of the challenging questions Prof. Rotstein’s provocative work offers.

Prof. Rotstein’s critique also has relevance for religious narratives concerning the “new cosmology” of Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, and others.

The new cosmology strives to discern the role of the human in the context of expanding universe, and in the midst of the Anthropocene, in which humans are altering the evolution of the planet through massive species extinction and climate change, or, more appropriately, given the whipsawing of weather patterns, climate chaos. In trying to find the proper role of human in this new revelatory moment, these thinkers suggest that we can avoid a “Technozoic” future, and move towards an “Ecozoic” future, in which the human community befriends rather than besmirches the natural world. In their quest for a sustainable and ecologically fertile future, are these new cosmologists engaging in perilous thinking as outlined by Prof. Rotstein? Is their utopian vision lined again with hidden perils and pitfalls owing to their appeal to a “new society”?

While Thomas Berry does not talk about “new humanity” as does Gustavo Gutierrez, he does speak about the human as the self-consciousness of the universe; in other words, he contends, we are the only species we know of that reflects upon its proper place in the unfolding cosmos.

Prof. Rotstein’s analysis is an important caveat in reflecting upon such a self-understanding. To what extent does any transformative agenda, which speaks to a different human role and a brighter human future, slide into the dangerous groove of the apocalyptic narrative? While Prof. Rotstein does not draw out the implications of his analysis explicitly in all such cases, the historical patterns he discerns leave arresting caution signs along the pathway of such cultural dreams and visions.

Finally, Professor Rotstein’s reflection on myths raises the question of the place of love and compassion of social movements.

Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, based his civil rights movement upon the Christian foundation of love of neighbour. Moreover, he maintained that “the moral arch of universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” To what extent does such a vision hold promise in light of Prof. Rotstein’s analysis? Does such a sense of social compassion and universal orientation toward justice, foster or impede a socially just future? Is this sense of cosmic compassion part of the larger sense of the apocalyptic narrative that hold hopeful strains undetected by Prof. Rotstein?

In addition to providing fecund food for thought about any collective dreams of transforming society from oppression to liberation, Prof. Rotstein’s work raises a number of fertile unanswered theoretical questions. For example, after reading this work, one is left with the question: what is the difference between binary opposition and paradox in Prof. Rotstein’s depiction of the apocalyptic narrative?

Prof. Rotstein, in discussing Luther’s “theology of perpetual paradox,” claims the German reformer was building on “the tension (or antithesis?) between binary pairs” (80), e.g., sin and grace, freedom and oppression, spirit and body, slave and master, earthly kingdom and spiritual kingdom, etc. For Rotstein, these “recur in abundance in Luther’s writings and become the basis of his innovative theological doctrines” (80).

One wonders if there is any difference between Luther’s paradox and that of the Christian message itself, which involves a King born in a manger, and a savior who proclaims that “the last shall be first” and that only those who lose their lives will gain eternal life. In short, is the “paradox” of Christian narratives itself deleterious, regardless of how it is transmitted and transmuted from Augustine through Luther to Hegel, Marx, and Hitler?

In this, Prof. Rotstein’s assessment runs parallel to the critique offered by the Frankfurt School, which claims that the Nazi Holocaust has its roots in the European Enlightenment. Again, the question of the love and confession, and its potential mitigating influence upon the baleful aspects of utopian narratives, seem relatively unexplored in this work.

Early in Myth, Mind, and Religion, Prof. Rotstein wonders about the role of myth in contemporary culture. As he writes, “It is true that the ambience of modern life has long bypassed the animal totems, the reification of Mother Nature, the gods and demons that animate our storms and inhabit our fields and rivers. But have there been other genres of myth that have taken their place alongside our weakened religious affiliations?” (xi).

While Prof. Rotstein concentrates on the apocalyptic “myth,” there are many other contemporary myths he could have traced. For example, one can look at the myth that consumer goods will lead to happiness. There is the myth that we can continue endless growth of the global economy without destroying the Earth’s ecosystems. There is the myth, promulgated by President Donald Trump, that climate change is not occurring. There is the myth, buttressed by architects of a globalized, free-trade economy, that liberalized trade with former and contemporary totalitarian nations will lead, in “trickle down” fashion, to democracy and human rights. There is the myth that we, as a species, can somehow trash our planet and later migrate to a new planet, such as a “terraformed” Mars.

Rotstein helps us to look critically and deeply at the underlying apocalyptic narratives of Western culture, a gaze that can be ontologically unsettling. In this his work is reflective of Indigenous philosopher John Mohawk, who after studying Western culture over two decades found that three characteristics of Western culture are denial of problems, lying about those problems, and fantasy thinking that we will be rescued from our problems from a higher or external power.[4]

In his conclusion, Prof. Rotstein reflects upon one of the most pernicious contemporary myths, that somehow technology will serve as savior for society’s ills. He speaks about a “runaway technology,” a phrase he borrowed from Edmund Leach.

Rotstein continues, “From the robotization of life to the computer’s individual privacy, to the destructive potential of the nuclear weapons, and the hazards of pollution and climate change, the ominous shadow of an uncontrolled technology looms over us” (166). Echoing the insights of George Grant and Ursula Franklin, Rotstein supplies a cautionary tale about technology, and menacingly points a finger at its myth-making dimensions.

Like the myth that technology save us from our social and ecological ills, Rotstein suggests the apocalyptic narrative is “free-floating,” a “‘port’ for whatever storm may brew in the future” (166). This “prefabricated” ideology is “contingent, amoral with a ready-made appeal to those in crisis.” Since the work of Levi-Strauss, neuroscience has explored the possibility that we can create the neural pathways in our minds through such methods as meditation, twelve-steps practices, mindfulness, etc. If, as Professor Rotstein suggests, we have a collective Western neural pathway grooved towards apocalyptic doom, might it be possible to create collectively new societal and neural pathways toward different narratives? Might practices such as loving kindness, taking care of the impoverished and practicing land restoration, help us craft life-giving rather than death-dealing narratives?

Prof. Rotstein’s final work makes abundantly clear that any positive answers to this question will not be glib. Moreover, they will have to be examined critically and carefully in the bright light of historical scrutiny, one lined with the appalling damage resulting from unexamined utopian dreams.


* Associate Professor, School of the Environment and Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto.

[1] Abe Rotstein, “The Apocalyptic Tradition: Luther and Marx,” in Benjamin G. Smillie, ed. Political Theology in the Canadian Context (Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1982), 147-208. I am indebted to Roger Hutchinson for introducing me to this volume.

[2] Roger Hutchinson, “Summary Statement,” in Smillie, op. cit., 248.

[3] For a fuller discussion of the notion of liberation, see Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973).

[4] See John Mohawk’s interview in the documentary, “Iroquois Speak Out for Mother Earth,” directed by Danny Beaton (Toronto, 1990).