Edge of the Abyss: The Usefulness of Antichrist Terminology in the Era of Donald Trump
Robert Isaac Skidmore, PhD, MDiv (Archpriest Isaac Skidmore)
Asheville, NC: Chiron Publications, 2020
If you’re like me and find yourself baffled by the cult-like sway of the current president over his most fervent supporters, you may also find yourself just days out from the election harboring no small amount of apocalyptic dread. Of course, time will tell whether such a grand scale of angst is truly warranted at this historic juncture, or whether the rhetoric and divisiveness of the 2020 election, in retrospect, will prove to have been yet another instance of so much political hyperbole. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to disentangle ourselves from the visceral immediacy of the moment and attain that coveted degree of passionless objectivity that makes our vision of reality so much more reliable. And yet, there are times when such clinical passivity can be morally disorienting. For all the modest virtues of sober judgment, are we not at some point obligated, despite the risks of losing or being wrong, to take a side? Such is the existential problematic looming in the background of Edge of the Abyss: The Usefulness of Antichrist Terminology in the Era of Donald Trump by Father Isaac Skidmore.
To clarify right away: this is not a book about Donald Trump as the Antichrist. Indeed, early on in the book Skidmore is careful to distinguish his understanding of the concept from that of popular evangelical American mythology. Instead, this brief book [88 pages including bibliography] serves as a preliminary deconstruction of the antichrist idea, sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion that refer to Trump as little more than a heuristic for understanding the idea of antichrist in our own time. It would be fair, therefore, despite the title, to describe this book as far more concerned with the phenomenon of antichrist in its varied dimensions than with Donald Trump per se.
The first two chapters invite the reader to consider antichrist in two different ways: respectively, in terms of its biblical context, and then in terms of psychology. The first of these is a brief survey of antichrist as the word is used in the New Testament, including how the idea might also be read into certain Pauline texts and Revelation, which correlate apocalyptic events with the advent of some world-historical catastrophist who will preside our collective hurtling toward the end of the age. Skidmore may be seen by some as dodging the acute exegetical issues at stake in these texts, given the short treatment that they receive, but this would be beside the point. Rather, Skidmore takes antichrist in a thoroughly Johannine sense: a general label for the spirit that deceives and contradicts the truth. This is fitting, given the author’s Orthodox formation and background in parish ministry. Orthodox spirituality always prioritizes the interior virtue of discerning the spirits over the chiliastic ravings of sandwich-board sidewalk preachers.
The second chapter does not so much extend the analysis of the first as introduce a secondary approach whereby to consider the public face of an antichrist-like figure: that of psychology. If the first chapter considers antichrist primarily as a spiritual, internal force of deception, the second chapter considers the external components that might go into producing the more traditional image of antichrist as a charismatic leader who plunges his (or her) nation, and the world, into a cataclysm of chaos. Skidmore leads into his psychological approach by considering the diagnostic descriptions of sociopathic behavior, in particular the sociopath’s prodigious capacity for lying. The theme of untruth here links the theological notion of antichrist as an inner spirit of deception to the psychological manifestation of a pathological dependency on falsehood for self-preservation or self-promotion. As Skidmore points out, the apparent ability of the sociopath to lie with impunity correlates with social group dynamics that will tend to confuse confidence with competence, and in so doing, will almost inexorably choose the least capable individuals for the most significant leadership roles. Perhaps St. Paul’s “son of perdition and man of lawlessness” is not so wide of the mark here?
The third chapter, “Antichrist in Context of Psyche and Sacred,” is by far the most surprising and exciting, as this is Skidmore speaking directly to his area of clinical and doctoral expertise: depth psychology and the Jungian notion of “the shadow.” Here, Skidmore deals with archetypes, exploring the “Antichrist” type insofar as it is implied by the “Christ” type. While Skidmore treads lightly when it comes to fully integrating the ontology of Jungian archetypes with Christian metaphysics, one still comes away from this chapter with a sense that the religious and psychological methodologies need not be at odds. Skidmore highlights their differences: the religious aims to isolate and vanquish its negative (evil) whereas the depth-psychological aims for integration of the negative or dissociated unconscious into the conscious (a part of the Jungian process of individuation). But these differences might be overplayed, and Skidmore seems to acknowledge this. Clearly, a parish priest and clinical psychologist, in his own mind and practice, is going to have gone far beyond the tenuous overlap between faith and psychology that is allowed for in this chapter. This is not an accusation of bad faith, but it seems Skidmore might have more to say on Jungian archetypes and Orthodox dogmatics that could have direct bearing on, say, the reception of an Orthodox sophiology and its pastoral applications. Given the appalling lack of clinical and psychological training that our clergy receive in seminary, this potential symbiosis of psychology and theology needs to be explored much further. [Editor’s note: See Father Skidmore’s On Mental Health Referrals by Orthodox Clergy.]
The fourth and fifth chapters provide important clarifications, and highlight the difference between what a sect or subgroup of Christians might call “the Antichrist” versus what actual, operative forces might be in motion accomplishing the work associated with the antichrist idea. This is related to the Jungian “shadow:” one group might consciously dissociate from a certain individual by labeling them an Antichrist, while unconsciously projecting or even embodying those very antichrist-like principles they claim to abhor. For Skidmore, herein lies both the usefulness and the danger in the use of antichrist terminology: on the one hand it can help communities (not just religious) identify those connections to truth and wellbeing that need to be preserved and strengthened and can help to alert us when these are threatened (one thinks of the many biblical injunctions to understand “the times and seasons”). On the other hand, there are profound risks in applying the label of “Antichrist” to any particular historical or world figure. Not only is there the psychological tendency toward projection in such instances, but there is also a pronounced religious blindspot insofar as none of us is predisposed to regard the objects of our own faith commitments as anything but unequivocally true and good. This makes epistemic humility and self-criticism not impossible, but more difficult. Skidmore’s thought here bears comparison to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: if the real Christ were to return today in such an discreet manner, would our religious authorities and institutions even recognize him? This would depend on their ability to recognize sources of evil as not entirely alien from themselves, but rooted somehow in their very sense of autonomy and self. According to Skidmore, this is a premise with which psychology can be at peace; religion, less so.
So, in the end, does Skidmore believe that Donald Trump is an antichrist?
It should be clear by now that, while Skidmore does not entirely disregard the notion that a particular individual might evoke “antichrist-like themes,” he’s cautious in making any absolute pronouncement that identifies a real human being as an embodiment of a supposed “spirit” of antichrist. This might betray his general bias toward the psychological trope of antichrist, perhaps at the expense of the religious idea with its more stark dualism. Skidmore admits in his conclusion that by associating Donald Trump with the general phenomena of antichrist, not all readers will be able to follow him. Yet the sheer politeness of this allowance leaves me to wonder whether he quietly considers such readers to be fundamentally deceived. By deferring to a somewhat abstract “mature spiritual perspective,” Skidmore can adopt a stance of humility and clinical distance from the question of the macro-historical meaning of Donald Trump. But what is a “mature spiritual perspective,” anyway? When the moment calls for clarity, deferral is not always an option.
Edge of the Abyss offers an insightful, circumspect analysis that can by no means be accused of prophetic overstatement. Quite the contrary, for while Skidmore seems willing enough to suggest that the qualities of antichrist may be “localizing” or “constellating” in and around Donald Trump, he declines to name the demon. One can hope that as Skidmore continues to explore this topic, hopefully in future writing and publications, the wisdom and perspicacity of his mature pastoral voice will be counterbalanced by the influence of another archetype perhaps equally notorious as antichrist, albeit for different reasons: the holy fool.