Q&A with The End of the World, Plan B author, Charles Shiro Inouye February 02 2016
About ten years ago, I was asked by Tufts University’s admissions office to give small mini-courses for accepted students and their parents who made campus visits in the spring. I chose the topic, “The End of the World,” because I knew it was something that a lot of people were thinking about, and also because I could showcase my department, which is the administrative home of the International Literary and Visual Studies Program, which I co-direct and helped found. It’s an interdepartmental, interdisciplinary, multicultural program that takes on wide-ranging multicultural topics, like the nature of modernity, the development of visual studies, and so on. Of course, I also had my own personal reasons to study the topic. As a latter-day Saint, I’ve grown up thinking about the end of the world, the last dispensation, the fullness of times, and so on.
I came to be a Mormon because my family ended up in Utah after World War II. Both my father’s and my mother’s families were “relocated” from the West Coast to the same concentration camp near Cody, Wyoming. From there, they moved south to Sigurd, Utah. That’s where I got my start, on a farm a few miles west of that small town of about 200 people. I eventually had to leave southern Utah. On the night I returned home from my mission, a man named Henry Timican, who had worked for my father for most of his life, tried to commit suicide. What I learned from that unforgettable night was that that I had missed the whole point of my mission: that I really did not love the world because I didn’t really want to understand it. I realized that I needed to know more about the things that growing up in Utah had made me fear. I began the very painful process of getting to know the world.
Toward the end of this journey of a few years, I found myself riding a city bus in Taipei. The spirit struck me with a tremendous force, and I heard God’s voice say to me that He had given me that learning about the world because he knew I had corrupted myself for the right reasons. In other words, He forgave me. I broke down and started crying. For the first time, I felt the love of God in full force, and it made me want to hug everybody in the bus. Of course, this was all to say that my years of living dangerously were short-sighted and stupid of me. There is no love without God, and no knowledge of the truth without obedience to His commandments. I learned that lesson the hard way—or should I say, I learned that lesson over and over again. I guess I still am learning it.
What brought me to this particular book, though, to finally answer your question, is Abraham. I could never understand why he bargained with God when he learned that Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed. I eventually learned that his story is all about thankfulness and how gratitude colors our feelings about the end of the world. Similar stories are everywhere—not only in the Bible, but in all the great spiritual traditions of the world. It’s the one story we cannot afford to ignore. If we do, then the world becomes, well, like the world is now.
It seems that virtually all interreligious dialog and work done by Mormons involves other Christian traditions. Your book instead engages Eastern thought. In your view, what can Mormons gain by exploring eastern religious traditions that they would normally not achieve through only engaging Christianity and Judaism.
One way to explain the discomfort many traditional Christians have with Mormonism would be to say that we practice a kind of Buddhist form of Christianity. That’s a facile thing to say, and not perfectly accurate. But it starts an interesting conversation. Many of the things that seem most outrageous about our faith are precisely what we have in common with Mahayana Buddhists. For example, the notion of Buddha nature is similar to our understanding of the godly nature of all human beings. Buddhists and Mormons similarly believe in the human capacity to progress eternally. Whether we become Boddhisattvas or true sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, the idea of discovering and realizing our divine potential is much the same.
What I tried to do in The End of the World was to compare the Boddhisatva’s path of enlightenment with teachings about the end of the world as they exist in the world’s spiritual traditions. (We tend to think of “the end” as an event, but long before it is an actual battle “out there,” it is a teaching and a spiritual battle “in here.”) The trope of leaving and eventually returning to the world, which the Buddhists call “the burning house,” helped me understand the atonement much better than I did before. It helped me grasp Paul’s understanding of why doing things lovingly is even more important than doing the right things. I came to understand why Abraham bargained with God and his angels upon learning that Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed. In particular, the Buddhist notion of sorrow was very helpful in illuminating Isaiah’s portrait of Jesus as a Man of Sorrows, and, by the way, it helped me understand why I felt so sad all the time.
At the same time, I discovered a problem. Like other modern-minded people, Mormons similarly tend to over-emphasize justice and truth, and underestimate the role that sorrow and compassion play in our spiritual growth. Buddhism helps us recognize and deal with this distorting, modern emphasis on right and wrong by showing us that the end of the world is ancient and, these days, is consistently misunderstood. In other words, a knowledge of Buddhism, or Confucianism, or Taoism, or even animism for that matter, can help us not miss the point of Christ’s warning to the sons of Zebedee—“Ye know not what spirit ye are of.”—or of his sometimes puzzling injunction to “Judge not.” Why learn a sense of right and wrong if the point is not to apply this knowledge?
So, yes, the Eastern traditions can be very helpful. Of course, when you think about it, Judaism and Christianity, like Islam, are also Eastern religions. They’ve been appropriated by the West and largely corrupted by the epistemological emphasis of neo-Platonic thought, which led us to the nothingness that is nihil rather than mu. Anyone who really appreciates the contribution of Joseph Smith should grasp how the cause-and-effect thinking of people like Augustine distorted early Christian thought and started things down the wrong path.
Your book discusses “justice” quite a bit. What is justice?
Justice is a necessary and early focus of our spiritual development. My son Kan (age 5) is just now learning the need to “choose the right.” We must gain a sense of right and wrong, a sense of judgment if we are to grasp the end (or purpose) of the world. But justice comes early. It is a preparatory teaching that prepares us to learn the more complicated lesson of compassion. Justice does this by delivering us to the gate that has “welcome to sorrow” written all over it. There has to be blood on your doorway or you will not be passed over by the Destroyer. Lucifer wants us to “be right” for the same reason that it pleases him to see the world in flames. I’m trying to teach Kan that the important part of “choose the right” is not “right” but “choose.”
We are at each other’s throats because so many of us have a faulty, modern understanding of world events. We make justice our goal, our dream, our solution. But anyone who grasps the real consequences of “good things for people and bad things for bad people” realizes how horrible a just world actually is. Sure, getting what you deserve might be better than getting something you didn’t deserve—like being thrown into prison for being Japanese, or being dismissed because you are female, or hated because you are homosexual. But since we are all flawed, including the most righteous Mormon on earth, then we all deserve to be punished and cursed. Our world deserves to end in destruction, and so very often it actually does for many people these days.
What I propose in the book is that the solution to this problem is to get what you don’t deserve. This is what the end of the world teaches us. We sinners don’t deserve forgiveness. We don’t deserve blessings. We don’t deserve to be loved. But that is what Abraham and Noah and Enoch and Jesus and Muhammed and Amida and Kannon and Confucius want for us: love. And our quest is to understand why—and then to want the same thing for others.
There’s a certain shape to the narrative of the end of the world. You find it everywhere. Again, it’s ancient, not new. It’s vitally important. But, unfortunately, we tend to understand it only partially, in a way that makes us feel justified in hating and judging others. Modern people are addicted to justice and hatred. And that’s why, as Enoch learned, the earth weeps. We linger in a state of justice because we don’t know how to handle the sorrow that our “righteousness” causes. Instead of bravely pushing through sorrow, instead of having our Abrahamic moment of questioning God, instead of re-orienting ourselves to the world and giving up on our fixation with heaven, we become self-righteous, or cynical. In my mind, there’s not much difference between someone who is bitter about everything and someone who is right about everything. As I tell my students, fascists are good people. The people who murdered your grandparents and put mine in concentration camps were good people. Only good people do terrible things like that.
The idea of the end of the world is to push through justice and embrace compassion. Happiness is something none of us really deserves. That’s why it's a gift. It’s grace. Receiving that gift and giving it to others is what becoming a Boddhisattva is all about (It is also what being endowed in a Mormon temple is all about). Like the Madhi and the Three Nephites, the enlightened ones among us postpone heaven. They don’t cash in. They return to the burning house. They do their home and visiting teaching, they love their families like they really mean it. Your salvation makes no sense if others are not saved. How could you enjoy a meal knowing that your brother or sister is hungry? Is our food storage for ourselves, or for our neighbors?
Growing up Mormon, we are often warned to prepare for the second coming of Christ, with an emphasis on a violent destruction that will herald it. Why do you think we are drawn to such a depiction of the end of the world? How would you describe your Plan B vision of the end?
There are many reasons why violence is attractive and catastrophe is media-worthy. Fear is addictive. So is closure or narrative completion. Remember Aristotle? Beginning, middle, end. My point in The End of the World, Plan B is that we hurl ourselves toward mutually guaranteed destruction because we think that the punishment of bad people is justified. We miss the “mutual” part of “mutual destruction.”
Jesus said the end was near. That was over two thousand years ago. He was right. It was near. It is near now. For his saints, it is always too near. Isn’t that the point? The end of the world is always bearing down on us—horribly—for someone somewhere to world is ending. What are we doing about that?
Black people get shot by policemen in this country all the time because the people with the guns think they are justified.
Of course, there is a larger arch to consider. In fact, one of the reasons I came to study the end of the world is because I needed to know what comes after modernity. I think I finally figured out what modernity is. It’s the subject of my recently completed book, Archipelago—Figurality and the Development of Modern Consciousness, which I won’t bore you with here. Except to say that what we need to know now is what comes after the end of modernity. This is a disquieting question. It lies at the bottom of our culture wars and our political gridlock. The big question for the most advanced societies of the world is this: if diversity is our reality (as people are now starting to understand), then how does anything get done? What do we have in common anymore? Once we have emancipated ourselves from the slavery of ideology and religion, are we still family?
Plan A is modern. Believe me, it gets us all killed. I guess what I want my readers to understand is that a postmodern Plan B can get us to a good place—so long as we are, first, honest about our sorrow, second, honest in our questions, and third, honest in our need to make God’s compassion our own. Because I grew up in Sigurd, Utah eating Mormon sugar cookies, I’m essentially a happy, sunshine postmodernist. Mormonism is profoundly postmodern, even though most Utah Mormons are still suffering from the modernity that years of geographic isolation has imposed upon them. (Any civilization that has breast augmentation and gunshow billboards along the freeway has real problems, no?) Many Wasatch Front people, in particular, feel they are the last bastion of modern righteousness. But what they really should be pursuing is their own sorrowful vision of godliness and goodness for all. So, yeah, repent, Utah.
If there ever was a time to “put your shoulder to the wheel,” it is now. We are on the brink of the millennial moment, the one that Isaiah saw in his vision, the one that my Korean student Sawool Kim has captured in her rendition of Edward Hick’s peaceable kingdom, which is on the cover the book. The end has already begun. Go, Plan B!
My research on semiotics also confirms what my heart is telling me, and what the prophets are saying: we are on the brink of Zion, an era of neo-animistic revival that will change the look of everything we once thought we understood about religion. It will happen on a worldwide basis, and it will be messy and confusing and deeply contested. But these latter days can be—and already are—wonderful.
Is there a particular religious text outside of Mormonism and Christianity that you are particularly drawn to? Why?
There are a few. There is a recent translation of Kamo no Chōmei’s Buddhist-inspired depiction of Heiankyō (today called Kyoto) that I often ponder. Like Thoreau, Chōmei left society to live in a small hut in the woods. Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins, trans., Hōjōki, Visions of a Torn World. I also like Matsuo Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no hosomichi), though it’s still hard to find a good translation. From the Chinese realm, I would suggest the Analects of Confucius and the Dao de Jing. You need to read both of these together to get the right picture, though.
A few years ago, one of my colleagues in the Engineering School gifted me with a Qur’an. It’s a massive and complicated book, like the Bible. But, here again, you’ll find the same emphasis on compassion that you find in the Book of Mormon and other sacred texts. Above all, Allah is compassionate. Islam, which means “surrender,” is all about giving in to God’s invitation to climb the mountain, so that someday we’ll want to go back down to the valley. For those who are interested, there’s a very short list of recommended reading at the end of the book.