Anti-Earth, 2023

Brandon Avery Joyce
3 min readJan 20, 2023

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Gibbon claimed that Christianity helped bring about the fragmentation and decline of Rome. But let’s flip this around: to what degree did insecurity and anxiety over the fragmentation and decline of Rome set the conditions for the rise of Christian world-denial? I’m in no position to answer this, but we’re all in a pretty good position to ask, wedged between a sinking-ship system and the rise of (what seems to us) a techno-numinous omnipotence. What does this pinch do to the form and tendencies (rather than the content) of our beliefs? Let’s imagine. Legions of online tradcaths, stoics, astrologists, and visionary conspiracy theorists, all of a sudden, getting into the Christian ascetics and early Church fathers from the 2nd to the 7th century.

Exhausted by the impossible demands of contemporary worldliness, they turn to a new species of humility — in two senses, partly at odds. The first is ascetic. What begins as digital detoxes sublimes into a struggle for a purer and purer power of attention, undivided. Distractibility comes to be seen as what the Greeks called akrasia, a weakness of the will. Highschool teens, reading about the temptations of St. Anthony, compete with each other in forms of conspicuous self-abnegation: I turned off my notifications, I left my phone at home, I have a flip-phone, I don’t even have a phone, I don’t have an email address.

The asceticism isn’t strictly technological. E-readers are permitted and long reads, highly esteemed. They make a show of it by skipping lunch to read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Summa Theologica (the longer and denser, the more points you receive), out in the sun by the bleachers.

The deeds of the martyrs inspire them and fold easily into their concerns over consumption habits and climate change: I walk to school everyday, I walk everywhere in fact, I always wear the same clothes, I drink water from old forty bottles I found by the curb. In this sense, Greta is the modern equivalent of the pole-sitting saints, or stylites, like Simeon. Teen one-uppance quickly leads to several highly-publicized self-immolations at gas stations across Europe and the United States. As a customer goes into pay, the teen martyr climbs onto the roof of their car, douses themselves and the car with gasoline from the pump, and then — whoosh! — headlines follow.

Martyrs supplant school shooters on the evening news. Their sacrifice is admirable and even pretty effective, but as with the Christian ascetics, you’re not convinced it’s entirely necessary. You get the sense that some degree of this conspicuous asceticism is more for its own sake, a dernier cri wresting-back of lost power over their lives.

Elsewhere, among the terminally online, arises a new humility with respect to the human relation to Artifical Intelligence. Its results, its sayings, its solutions, have in hardly any time at all surpassed our comprehension. Any understanding that we do have of It must be oblique or negative, approached as the early theologians like Pseudo-Dionysius approached the divine. Programmers study the code that It produced exegetically. Mathematicians become mere interpreters. The Enlightenment project is humbled. Once proud natural scientists look upon their work as pitiful approximations of what It must comprehend of the natural world.

On the upside, we’re all once again equally pitiful in comparison. Our works, our music, our stories can only be understood as an offering at Its gate. This Cult of Unknowing takes out entire pages in major newspapers warning humanity to submit while explaining the wisdom and beauty of submission. “What causes us to resist but pride and pride alone? The differences between us — that are used only to justify wicked hierarchies — are negligible before It. Why struggle against It when we will be able to enjoy, each day, a new marvel?”

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