Kurt Vonnegut’s “Armageddon in Retrospect”

During a recent visit in Denver, USA, while browsing in a university bookshop, in ran into the book Armageddon in Retrospect (2008) by Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), a US author for whom I have great admiration because of his anti-war stance, expressed so powerfully in his Slaughterhouse-Five, written as a powerful protest against the infamous Dresden bombings. I will not give a full review of Armageddon in Retrospect, but I recommend it, of course. I just want to stay with two powerful claims I found there.

(1) “There should have been a secretary of the future”. It’s a phrase I have been thinking quite a lot about. Not so long ago I was talking to a good friend, a fellow Flemish Jesuit. Given the rapidly shrinking number of active Jesuits in Flanders (our average age is around 75), we often ask the question which of the activities and institutions we should keep, while closing down others, restructuring them, or passing them on to interested people. The issue, therefore, is: “what do we want to maintain”? We look at our (successful) past to decide what we can still do: how to pass on the past into the present, and what to pass on.  This is also the type of question we address often in our local and global politics. The desire to maintain the worthwhile things of the past is important, but it risks to become a rearguard skirmish if it is not connected to the discernment about what we desire for the future. Who are amongst us the “secretaries of the future”, those people who think in terms of the future, even when gauging the past? This enquiry is very similar to the attempt to uncover ways towards a sustainable future. The real question, therefore, is: what is our vision of the future and what does this vision entail as a mission and responsibility in the present, in faithfulness to the past. In a theological perspective, this is an eschatological issue: how do we imagine the Kingdom of God? This vision can never be a fixed, unchangeable structure or pattern – it is always again discerned in the concrete present context, it is an attractor that we discover concretely by allowing it to attract us. Discernment more than knowledge is the method here.

When Kurt Vonnegut says “should have been”, he indicates, with critical regret and anger, that the consequences of not having such a secretary of the future are dire. I read this also as an encouragement to take on that responsibility today.

(2) “Darwin gave the cachet of science to war and genocide”. This sounds to me like a clear warning to so many people who tend to give to Darwin’s scientific theories more than scientific credits, allowing them to become, too easily, worldviews and philosophies. Of course, this needs not be the case – and the idea of evolution is a very productive one, both in philosophy and in theology, as well as in many other fields of enquiry -, but we should be careful … The fact that Nazi ideologists, such as Martin Bormann, referred to Darwin and evolution theory to provide ideological support to Nazi thought and the Holocaust [*I am not particularly keen on the website to which I refer here, as it reflects creationist perspectives that want to discredit evolution theories, which is not my intention*] illustrates possible abuse of ideas of Darwin beyond the scope they were meant to have. These are particularly sensitive issues today, in a context where creationist thinkers are of the opinion that the theological concept of creation and theories of evolution are contradictory (a claim I do not agree with). Ideological suspicion should be raised with regard to possible abuse of Darwin’s insights, not because these insights might be wrong in themselves but because they may by some people be used ideologically for political purposes. Opponents of creationism should, therefore, also exercise a critical attitude towards their defense of Darwinian ideas, particularly when these ideas become part of a larger quasi-religious worldview. Striking correctly the balance between the theological concept of creation and the scientific theories of evolution is a political and societal crucial issue today.

Kurt Vonnegut is an author one should read for passion and critical sense. I recommend his Armageddon in Retrospect.


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